The Act of Creation

         This was the title of a book by Arthur Koestler (1964 - I am using a Laurel paperback edition of 1967). Koestler was an immensely popular philosophical writer in the 60s and 70s, but has been rather neglected since his death in 1983.

         The Act of Creation was an attempt at a theory to explain how human mental creativity works - where new ideas come from, in other words. The theory begins with an analysis of humour. What makes us laugh at jokes, and laugh in general? The following examples of jokes are mostly taken from The Act of Creation, but also from a later work of Koestler's, Janus, a summing up (Hutchinson, 1978). Others are ones I happen to remember. The following joke makes a good starting point to explain Koestler's theory.

         A doctor comforts her patient: "You have a very serious disease. Of ten people who catch it, only one survives. It is lucky you came to me, for I have just had nine patients with the disease, and they all died."

         We all have a certain concept of probability, a group of ideas which we associate with that word. We know that if the probability of survival of some disease is one tenth, then of any group of sufferers, roughly one in ten will survive, though it would be impossible to predict precisely which ones. But there is another meaning of "one in ten": you might line up a crowd of people and pick out every tenth one. In that case, it would be possible to predict which ones will be chosen. Koestler explains the joke by saying that at first you are led to think of a probabilistic notion of one in ten, but are then forced to change that to a line up notion. It is being forced to jump from one set of associations to another quite different one that makes us laugh, according to Koestler's theory.

         Another example:

         An English lady, on being asked by a friend what she thought about her deceased husband's whereabouts: "Well, I suppose the poor soul is enjoying eternal bliss, but I wish you wouldn't talk about such unpleasant subjects."

         In that one, we jump from associating something with "eternal bliss" to associating it with an "unpleasant subject". No doubt true believers should be happy when someone dies - they are enjoying an infinitely better life, after all.

         Many jokes will depend on the ambiguity of words or phrases. We are forced to jump from one meaning to another, as in the following examples.

         Dialogue in a film of Claude Berri:
"Sir, I would like to ask for your daughter's hand."
"Why not? You've already had the rest."

         A man walked into a pub and ordered a pint of beer. The landlord tried to start a conversation: "It looks like rain!" The customer replied, "Yes, it tastes like it too!"

         In the days of the Austro-Hungarian empire, a dashing young army officer was trying to obtain the favours of a fashionable lady. To shake off the unwanted suitor, the lady explained to him that her heart was, alas, no longer free. He replied politely, "Mademoiselle, I never aimed so high as that."

         No doubt the Austro-Hungarian setting makes the associations of that joke easier to follow. The Louis XV setting of the following is essential:

         A marquis at the court of Louis XV returned home unexpectedly from a journey to find his wife in the arms of a bishop. After a moment's hesitation, the marquis walked calmly to the window, leaned out and began going through the motions of blessing the people in the street. "What are you doing?" asked the anguished wife.
"Monseigneur is performing my functions, so I am performing his."

         The setting leads one to suppose that the marquis would draw his sword and kill them both, or challenge the bishop to a duel, or something like that. But we are forced to jump to considering a simple, childish tit-for-tat response. The social setting needed for the following joke is also important:

         One day when the prince was travelling round his domains, he spotted a man in the cheering crowd who looked remarkably like himself. He ordered his carriage to stop, and called the man over. "Hey, you fellow! Was your mother ever employed at the palace?"
"No, sire, but my father was."

         Does the theory work properly with the following short jokes? The first two were popular in the old Soviet Union:

         We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us.

         Capitalism is the exploitation of people by people: communism is precisely the reverse.

         When my time comes, I would like to die peacefully in my sleep like my father did, not screaming in terror like his passengers.

         A masochist is a person who likes a cold shower in the morning, so he takes a hot one.

         That last one is probably the most difficult to explain, if the theory can explain it at all. Something maybe even more difficult is the following comic verse by the late 18th century satirical novelist Thomas Love Peacock. Peacock had a job in a rather easy going office, where the hours of work were just ten to four. Even better, if Peacock arrived even just before ten, he was entitled to a free breakfast in the canteen. Does Koestler's theory work on this?

From ten to eleven
Ate breakfast for seven;
From eleven to noon,
To begin were too soon;
From twelve to one,
Thought, what's to be done?
From one to two
Found nothing to do;
From two to three
Began to foresee
That from three to four
Would be a damn bore.

Scientific discovery

         Koestler hoped to apply the same theory to scientific discovery. He began with the classic tale of Archimedes, who was born around 287 BCE in the city state of Syracuse, in Sicily. The ruler of Syracuse had been given what was purported to be a golden crown as a gift, but he was suspicious that the crown was actually made of some cheaper alloy. He asked Archimedes to test it. Archimedes knew that a sure way to do this was to determine the density of the crown, as pure gold has a characteristic density different from any other metal or mixture of metals. Density is just weight divided by volume. The weight of the crown was easy to measure accurately, but what about the volume?

         As a mathematician, Archimedes knew how to measure the volumes of all kinds of regular solids, spheres, cones, cylinders, pyramids and so on. But the crown, of course, had no such simple regularity. Measuring the volume of a liquid is another easy matter. It just needs to be poured into a simply shaped measure. But if the crown was melted into liquid form, its original shape could not be recovered. None of Archimedes' knowledge of volumes was of any help.

         On the left is Figure 7 from The Act of Creation (p106). The plane is meant to represent ideas associated with volume , a "matrix" of ideas. S represents a "starting point", the problem of measuring the volume of the crown. Archimedes' thoughts about the volume could only move around the plane, and thus could never reach a solution. The solution, T, or "target", is represented by a point outside the plane.

         To the right is Koestler's Figure 8 (The Act of Creation p107). As we all remember, Archimedes climbed into his bath, and noticed the water level rise as usual. While ideas about volumes were in Matrix 1, M1, ideas associated with bathing were in M2, a different matrix. But Archimedes realised that if he submerged himself completely in the bath, the amount of water he displaced could only be equal to his own volume. There was the simple way of determining the volume of the crown! The solution point T was in the bath matrix. The solution was reached by combining the two matrices, an event called "bisociation" by Koestler. In discovery cases like this one, the bisociation involves the permanent coming together of the two matrices, while in the case of humour, the bisociation is generally temporary.

         Koestler wanted to include all kinds of artistic creativity in his scheme. Humour involves the unexpected clash of two incompatible matrices, while scientific creation means the fusion of two previously unrelated ones. The various forms of art are concerned with the realisation of unexpected similarities between two matrices. They do not fuse, but their juxtaposition satisfies us emotionally.

         Koestler called the humorous clash the HAHA reaction, the scientific fusion the AHA reaction, and the artistic juxtaposition the AH reaction.

         Perhaps poetry is the easiest artistic endeavour in which to test this extension of Koestler's theory. Let's see if we can get it to work on this poem:

Matthew Arnold, "Dover Beach"

The sea is calm to-night.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; - on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.

Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanch'd sand,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Ægæan, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The sea of faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl'd.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-winds, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confus'd alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.