Annus Mirabilis

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“I have never seen a greater monster or miracle than myself.”

—Michel de Montaigne


Symbols of the miraculous transgress historical eras and cultural boundaries, as manifestations of a given society’s anxieties and delights.   But what about the actual work generated from periods of “monstrous” creativity—if we even continue to believe in (i.e. value), culturally, such a non-quantifiable (non-commodifiable) thing as creativity, let alone the prolific or monstrous sort.  Is it superior to work done at an ordinary pace?  Is there something “trance-like” about it?  Does our distrust of monstrous creativity in the arts and sciences conceal a fear that creativity and its byproducts are also subject to economic laws of scarcity?

More to the point, what is this antiquated phenomenon known in English as the “Year of Miracles” and how do we go about orchestrating one?  Notable Annus Mirabilis’ include Einstein’s Annus Mirabilis of 1905, when he published his four articles on physics (the photoelectric effect, Brownian motion, special relativity, and matter and energy equivalence).  Other famous incidents of “Annus Mirabilis” (often attributed to years of political upheaval rather than individual production) have been attributed to persons as various as Sir Isaac Newton, Copernicus, and, among Romantic poets, William Blake, William Wordsworth, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.  In Walt Whitman’s Annus Mirabilis of 1855, he finished Leaves of Grass (and was later to tinker with what many considered a perfected volume over the next 37 years).

John Dryden and Philip Larkin are among the poets who have written eponymous “Annus Mirabilis” poems—Dryden’s 1667 poem announces the year 1666 in London as having been a harbinger of not good, but ill, including the Great Fire of London.  In Dryden’s mind, however, the “miracle” of the Fire was that London was saved, that the fire was stopped, and that the King Charles II would rebuild (he already announced his plans to improve the streets of London and to begin great projects).  Dryden’s view is that these disasters were all averted by divine providence (a completely different idiom than Larkin’s poem, which cites 1963 not as the Year of Our Lord but as the year of sexual revolution.  A vital connection indeed.)   More recently, we have Sally Ball’s 2005 poetry collection Annus Mirabilis (a book whose nods to science are many and whose title poem quotes German mathematician and philosopher Gottfried Leibniz:  “Insight must be joined to fervor.”)

Whether insight and fervor are enough to stimulate let alone sustain the creative process depends on whom you ask—as does the question of whether the “creative process” is even something that should be researched or cultivated.  Kenneth Goldsmith’s course in “Uncreative Writing” at UPenn, for example, responds to Goldsmith’s censure of clichéd notions of creativity as “hackneyed, scripted, sentimental, debased, and romanticized”—in other words, as prototypically uncreative, as distinct from Goldsmith’s own pedagogy and poetics of uncreativity:  purposively courted by means of “responsible” reappropriation.

Generative research shows that everyone has creative abilities; the more training you have and the more diverse the training, the greater potential for creative output.  (The average adult, for example, thinks of three to six alternatives for any given situation, whereas the average child thinks of 60.)  Quantity is not greater than or less than quality, creativity studies research shows, but equivalent—the longer the list of ideas, the higher the quality the final solution.  According to Robert Epstein:  “Behavior is generative; like the surface of a fast flowing river, it is inherently and continuously novel . . . behavior flows and it never stops changing . . . generativity is the basic process that drives all the behavior we come to label creative.”  Brain imaging, a product of years of scientific research, may further illuminate how the creative mind actually works—and research on this subject actually frames the “Annus Mirabilis” for what it is—a paradox.

According to psychologist R. Keith Sawyer, author of Explaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation (after years of historical research into the lives of such artists and inventors as the Wright brothers, Charles Darwin, T.S. Eliot, Jackson Pollock, and even business innovators like Citigroup’s John Reed), creativity happens not with one brilliant flash, but in a chain reaction of many tiny sparks while executing an idea.  Sustaining these sparks over a finite period of time (e.g. a year), is a number’s game, according to Sawyer and others who reject the notion of the lone genius by arguing that creativity (and new ideas) are best fostered in an atmosphere of open discussion and collaboration.   As if Romantic Genius Theory needed any more disproving!  This shopworn theory has its roots in the writings of Longinus, who held that instinctive qualities were of greater importance than acquired skills, and that, if a choice had to be made, works produced by “natural genius” were preferable to “impeccable mediocrity which can be achieved by art alone.”



While researchers claim to be  able to isolate certain “dimensions” of “genius” (prolific production, metaphoric thinking, and the ability to think from multiple perspectives) there remains no proven link between IQ and the ability to create or invent meaningful or novel cultural products.   Marilyn vos Savant, for example, whose IQ of 228 is the highest ever recorded, is a question-and-answer columnist for Parade magazine, and Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman, who many acknowledge to be the last great American genius, had an “average” IQ of 122.  Creativity, then, can be seen as both a science and an art unto itself, whether one calls upon one of the nine Athenian muses or scientific strategies alluded to here for expanding the field of imaginative possibility (or denigrates it all-together, in pursuit of “uncreativity” and its strange fruits).

Emily Dickinson, autodidact par excellence, wrote a whopping 360 poems (bringing her total output to just over 1,800) in 1862, in a small bedroom in Amherst, MA, in a home owned and inhabited by her father:  it’s good to remember, in other words, that both organisms and people can thrive under inhospitable conditions.

When we wait for (or think that we can simulate) the “perfect conditions” in which to create—whether it be an MFA from Iowa or a cabin in the woods advertised in the classifieds section of Poets and Writers—we might find ourselves, thusly educated, and happily situated, paralyzed.   The time for poetry is always now—literally.  The least mimetic of all art forms, in the words of Sharon Cameron, the lyric compresses rather than imitates life; it will withstand the outrage of any complexity for the sake of being able to present sequence as if it were a unity.  And, from Joshua Clover:  “No textual form has poetry’s capacity to think synchronically:  to take the measure of the arrangement of things within a moment, how each relates to the others, the experience of that set of relations (you can feel Proust reaching after this and that’s what makes him Proust: his heroic, immiserated attempt to think the synchronic and diachronic at once).”

The question of whether art retains a certain kind of immunity from the forces of its production—the old modernist debacle of art’s autonomy, which leads us quickly down a Platonic rabbit-hole—is a question not just for aesthetics, but politics, as well.  To not just sustain a defense against the totalizing forces of global capitalism but to sustain them for 12 months—well, the nostalgia for such feats has me hankering for my own “miraculous year.”

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