Mario Petrucci


Royal Literary Fund Fellow




Only a physicist, perhaps, would decide to put a cat in a box with no more company than a radioactive atom, a Geiger counter, a hammer and a vial of Prussic Acid.  Not in real life, of course.  The idea was a "thought experiment" designed to illustrate a Quantum Mechanical paradox.  The set-up is that if the atom decays, it activates the Geiger counter which then causes the hammer to strike the vial and release the cyanide, killing the cat.  The question then is, quite simply, can you say whether the cat is alive or dead before the lid of the box is opened to observe it?


For the physicist, this "experiment" neatly links the fate of the cat to the statistical existence of the radioactive atom.  For the layperson, it serves to illustrate the fundamental Quantum-Mechanical idea that no system can be known as a verifiable fact without having observed it, and - by extension - that the system is always altered at a fundamental level through the mere enactment of that observation.  So, as far as the observer outside the box is concerned, the cat exists in a state of limbo which is neither dead nor alive, but a mathematical blending, or admixture, of both "states".  Now, before I get carried away with the analogy, I should return myself rapidly to the question which I, as a lapsed physicist, am asking.  Is creativity like the cat?  Can it be observed or analysed?  In many ways, Literary Theory has pussy-footed around this question for decades.  Or longer.


Perhaps my analogy has already broken down.  Observation (which implies a reporting back of facts or characteristics) is a different matter to understanding.  The cat can be observed without having to understand it.  This distinction is crucial.  It is equivalent to what we mean by "understanding" a person, a relationship, or a piece of literature, as opposed to having analysed any of these into the sum of its parts.  If understanding is akin to daylight, analysis is (all too often) dissection under a spotlight.  The intense and constant light-source required for the close and rigorous analysis of a snowflake, for instance, ends up melting it.


I know this is beginning to sound like a manifesto for creative mysticism or the abolition of critical-creative analysis.  Far from it!  My own experience of creative writing, particularly of poetry, is that understanding the process can allow me to recreate the conditions under which the Muse might (or then again, might not) be persuaded to visit.  "Analysis" on the other hand - at least in its lowest form of categorisation-after-the-event - is more like issuing a court order demanding that She attend your favourite restaurant, only to spend the entire evening in microscopic attention to the menu.  Although "understanding" may well involve various elements of analysis at certain points, it does not rely exclusively upon them.


Looking further afield than one's individual creativity, our culture's current infatuation with analysis (and its assumed high value) may have more to do with its (apparent) soul-lessness than with any attempt to eliminate spurious data from its categorising enquiry.  Yes, I have uttered that dirty word.  "Soul".  Which means, to me, whatever it is in humanity which resists the hegemony of mechanization and materialism; it is, at least in part, that set of human qualities probably forever beyond the reach of genetics, genetic modification and neuroscience - and English Studies.  I am not advocating here a voyage into pseudo-religious terrain; equally, however, I do not wish to exclude any artist's sense of some sacred element in what they do, which underpins their creativity or makes it meaningful to them.  Having said this, if "Soul" confuses the issue for you, call it something else.


What I am reaching for, in this limited context, was demonstrated to me by my family in Italy.  They subsisted on hard work, folk stories, and a clear social structure within which most individuals understood their role and, to various degrees, were satisfied with and by it.  I cannot say with any certitude how happy or unhappy they were by comparison with us, how free, or creative.  Not everything in their society was egalitarian, enlightened or just; but then, neither is it in ours.  What I would take issue with is the type of self-fulfilling post-rationalisations of "socio-historical archaeologists" who impose modern criteria upon a past culture and then judge it deficient or inferior by virtue of, say, its low per capita income or absence of health care and educational opportunities.


This also applies to creativity.  Indeed, my grandparents seemed, to me, adjusted and motivated individuals capable, in the most part, of self-sufficiency and enormous devotion, love and creative expressivity.  Of what value was, say, GNP to them? - particularly our type of GNP which includes crime as a form of economic transaction, and hence as a contribution to "growth"?  I often wonder how they would have viewed the types of creativity our society deploys, or those I have adapted for my teaching and other work, against their own desire and ability to generate jokes, stories and beliefs?  I suspect that, confronted with Schrödinger's Cat, they would have been more concerned with the fate of its spirit, or Soul.  Or with Schrödinger's.


Some considerable care is needed, then, to ensure that the historical or psychological processes we observe as part of creativity (or anything else for that matter) are not overly distorted by any prejudicial means of observation, or are not reduced - through some process of scientific analogy - to a mere function of our observation.  Who is to say that my grandparents' (and to a lesser extent, parents') understanding of life through myth, folklore and religious symbols was any less valid for them than that held by a contemporary of ours based, say, on the scientific method or cognitive psychology?  Naturally, just because knowledge, rationality and logic might best be avoided as, in themselves, objects of worship does not mean they should be scrapped; I am saying that they can be recognised, if we choose, as possible tools among many towards harmony, liberation and creativity.


But am I guilty here of analysing analysis, rather than trying to understand it?  Are my observations relevant to creativity - or is my mixing of analogies (family trees, the archaeology of values, and other metaphors) a kind of red herring?  Either way, and as far as I know, there is hardly a surfeit of concerted and applied research concerning the ways in which creativity functions at its root, or looking (for example) at the processes and types of creativity which occur across disciplines, cultures and histories.  Some warm-blooded attention in this area (rather than icy analysis) would be fascinating as well as fruitful.


An experiential, participative, empirical approach would do well as one possible starting point in this enterprise.  We need to develop modes of analysis (or rather, engagement) which take into account the heuristic nature of creativity, and which themselves embrace its experimentation and play.  Pinning down the final "product" is only half the story and often less than half its history.  Relevant biography and allusional/intertextual analysis of such texts, where it is known, can be helpful; but perhaps the mediaevals were closer to the mark in their desire to "digest" the text.  T.S. Eliot understood the need for surrendering oneself to a text in ways which, at least initially, have far more to do with limbic excitement than cerebral cognisance.


There is also a key issue here regarding the assessment of creativity, something that is beginning to accelerate in creative writing courses across the universities.  I am made to think, in this context, of the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) of public works, where measurable quantities (profit/loss) are made to compete with "Intangibles" (such as biodiversity and scenic beauty) which cannot be measured in the same way, if at all.  On too many occasions, particularly in the early years of EIAs, the Intangibles have lost out, at least in part because they do not (and some say, cannot) "score" on a measurable scale that is directly relevant to the economics of the project.  More recently, this very immeasurability of Intangibles has become a site of ethical debate and conflict concerning the validity of EIAs and the values which govern and bias them.


It is hardly a quantum leap of imagination to see potential kinship here between what has happened in EIAs and what may emerge as universities attempt to "observe" and "measure" the creativity cat.  Society is repeating the same mistake, discipline by discipline.  I suspect that creativity will never be prised from its Intangible regime, and that - like EIAs - assessments of creativity may eventually be led to ethical questions concerning what drives assessment and how and why we are doing it.  Certainly, such assessments will be doing extremely well if they can avoid merely over-emphasising creativity's more "measurable" features, and one suspects the focus will tend to remain on the opened box of the product or on superficial rather than deep process, the latter being largely (if not wholly) inscrutable.


Having said this, I wonder if such problems might be eased a little - or even lead to important insights - if there were greater research involvement in universities from practitioners.  I know that my own writing raises all kinds of issues around lifestyle and workstyle.  I find, for instance, that tutorial preparation, writing poems, and the researching of technical articles can equally exhaust one of the core sources in me from which poems spring.  At other times, pieces of text feed one another: a newspaper headline, or family photograph, can prompt a poem; a poem unexpectedly interrupts itself during composition, pointing to a new article on some apparently unrelated theme.  It would be heart-warming to discover that having professional writers on campus (alongside the professional writer-teachers) would achieve more than simply legitimising the cat-counting.


Most of literary theory, though, has not been concerned with the cat-in-the-box.  It prefers to deal with the intertextual-cat-on-TV, or with detailed descriptions of the type of matting the cat sits upon, or the known traumatisations of the kitten, or the cat's use as a sentimental sound-effect on The Archers, or with deconstructions of the stock image of the cat purring in its basket by the fireplace - which is, not without justification, the rightful place for cats, at least of the domesticated kind.  A thought should be spared, however, for that box.  A novel or poem does not come spontaneously or randomly into being, in the manner of a dice-throw - it has some proto- or pre-existence in the mind, or is at least propelled by a directional tension of some kind.  It is its own purposeful organism composed of thoughts, texts, memories, ideas, impulses, emotions.  The written/published work is simply not the same animal.  Being a practitioner of poetry has revealed to me, time and again, that creativity is not something which is alive or dead on some particular day, but a creature having at least nine lives.  I suspect too structured or mechanical an analysis of it might only serve to insert that vial of poison into our brainboxes.  These types of untempered approach are more than likely - when we prise the lid - to yield up little more than a dead cat.


1800 words.





(a)        I am currently compiling some empirical studies of my poems' creative progenesis (an extension of some informal work I did for Aberystwyth).  As far as I know, the approach I have adopted is unique.  It reveals an unnerving, and comforting, stability in the origins of my poems.


(b)        Some parting questions I can perhaps venture:


*          What is meant by “creativity” and “assessment”?  Are these terms used too glibly?

*          Are creativity and its "observation" part of the same activity?

*          Do different "typologies" of creativity apply across/ within creative disciplines?

*          Are there ways in which creativity IS repeatable, measurable, cognitive?

*          How can the creative generation and re-generation of texts be distinguished from mechanistic reproduction?

*          How can these questions be applied across texts such as essays, song lyrics, speech, poems, jokes, etc?



©  Mario Petrucci  2001