Science, history, art and humanity. Perhaps the clearest book ever written on anything.
I found this most extraordinary book in the bowels of a university library. The library was being cleaned up, and dusty books were distributed to scientists, whoever felt interested. I picked up this dusty book, decades ago gifted by a disappeared professor to another disappeared professor, and I opened a few pages at random. Astonishingly, every line I read seemed strange and fascinating:
- “the logic of laughter,”
- “the scientist’s trouble with language,”
- “a positive aspect of the changes of fashion,”
- “the value of illusions”
Eh? What is this book about???
I’ll try to explain. The Act of Creation is about something that no-one really wants to talk about. It is about how comedy, scientific discovery and art are all sort of the same, in a way. In all three cases, something strange happens. And it either makes us laugh because it is funny or ridiculous (comedy), or it makes us wonder and call out eureka (science), or it makes us feel and admire something (art). Arthur Koestler sets out to pinpoint what this something strange is, and he ends up with a pretty good description of what genius is, or what makes something genius.
It is a super interesting message that no-one wants to hear. Science often doesn’t want to be associated with comedy or art (only very serious art), because it is so serious by itself. It claims to “rise above” emotion. Art in turn doesn’t want to be associated with the deconstructions of the scientific look on things because it takes away the emotion and self-explanatory nature of art. It aims to seek understanding through feeling. Art is serious in its own way and both art and science look down on comedy, which subverts and debunks their authority and hubris. So strange and interesting then, that they are all variations on something similar.
What’s more, most arresting phenomena can be seen as all three at the same time. For example, picture a fat man slipping on ice and falling on his butt. You could see this as something to laugh about (comedy), or as something that needs a scientific inquiry (science), or as something tragic with deeper meaning (art). But it all depends on the emotional context you yourself provide. The key thing is that something arresting occurs. Koestler then explains how you can go about it in creating something arresting, and he talks all about comedy and science and art to explain how this occurs in these three activities. And how this process is basically the same thing every time.
Koestler must surely be some kind of polymath genius, a renaissance man with great insight into all matters of science, art and society. Only such a person can see the connecting strings between wildly different human activities. Not only that, but he has a very easygoing, approachable writing style. Lots of his ideas sound a bit farfetched at first, or you wonder why he goes down a particular tangent, but it all comes together. For example, in the first part about comedy, in one chapter he discusses the evolutionary functions of laughter and in another chapter he categorizes jokes into a handful of groups, to dissect how they work. It is all part of a single story, but every chapter is like an interesting view on something that you’ve never given much thought before.
Who was this Arthur Koestler anyway? Koestler himself was an interesting figure with an interesting history. In the 60s, his books were required reading in humanities classes. And not just at the university was he an adversary of other literary/philosophical giants of the time, but there is a known episode where he drunkenly fought Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre in a café. He was a rough-looking fellow with a dog that looked like him. Before that time, he learned writing as a political activist. He was Jewish, living in Vienna, became a communist when the Nazis showed up and later on abandoned political subjects and took up science. At first, his ideas were dismissed as mere journalism and perhaps his background made him obscure during the Cold War, but nowadays he is quietly acknowledged as the grandfather of many brilliant insights.
He has a respectful, gentlemanly style, and somehow manages to speak personally to the reader, instead of sounding like a lecturer stuck in his own story. He is respectful because he mentions every scientist and artist of the last few centuries by their names, explain what they thought, and then respectfully disagrees with them. Using countless examples and metaphors, he gently takes the reader by the hand and leads them through his arguments, effortlessly switching between astronomy, psychology, artwork, and back to biology within single chapters.
The Act of Creation is a long book, but it is divided into two parts to make it digestible. Part one, The Art of Discovery and the Discoveries of Art, really lays down the whole global theory in a journalistic sort of way and is very accessible. Part two, Habit and Originality, tries to tie all these ideas to the science of the day. Part two is dryer and dated, and it would just be enough to read the first half only, and keep the second half in case you are still interested to pursue the matter further.
Once in a while you come across a book that really changes your point of view on the world. In my early twenties that book was Joseph Campbells’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces (1949), which changed my view on myth, religion and human storytelling in general. The Act of Creation has changed my view on art, comedy and science in a thousand ways, on discovery, invention and human imagination, and how we as humans perceive the world and react to it. I hope that one day, I’ll be only half as knowledgeable and eloquent as this man. High praise.