The Evidence of Waves of Creation
Evidence for the life and character of spirit is furnished by the historical rise and fall of waves of human creativity. Examples of such waves are classical music, the Italian Renaissance, the German Renaissance, Greek philosophy, Christianity, modern science.
The concept of spirit is meaningful. Our experience of value requires it. What are the sources of value? What gives them their authority? Reason, social conditioning, biological drives based on natural selection have all been proposed as sources. There is a great deal of truth in these proposals. However, reflection convinces us that none of these sources is alone sufficient, and even the three working together are not enough to account for all the values that motivate us. We shall support this conviction by argument in due course. Spirit is a hypothesis, as yet in early stages of definition, which provides a ground for otherwise unaccountable value phenomena.
What is spirit? Negatively defined, spirit is a susceptibility to values that motivate us through our minds but need no rational foundation, outstrip and overpower socialization, and have no findable relation to species survival. Positively defined, spirit is a creative mental force for realizing values, a force which lives in us as individuals and which shows signs of a super-individual growth and decline, a life of its own.
In this paper I search for the nature of spirit and its values in a wide-optic synthesis of waves of creation. As this synoptic view must range over many specialties, it is bound to raise doubts and objections in the minds of specialists. One cannot be a specialist in all the fields I shall discuss; as the same time, someone must take an overall view. Nothing is more obvious than that unrelieved specialization leads to loss of coordination and direction; the community of scholars is replaced by a collection of quarrelsome property owners. I ask specialists to take my communication as something to focus and correct, and I hope it will serve them as a stimulus to panoptic thinking.
Let us begin to examine the waves. Why did classical music appear, grow, climax, and decline? First, I must justify using the term "classical music" against some specialists who are inclined to confine it to the fifty years or so between the Baroque and the Romantic, taking in Haydn, Mozart, and a bit of Beethoven. True, the term "classical" is not value-neutral, and some have applied it to Louis Armstrong, Elvis Presley, and Led Zeppelin. However, "classical" means "of the first rank or authority, constituting a standard or model" (Oxford English Dictionary). Bach, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, and perhaps a dozen other composers have proved to have this authority. They belonged to a musical tradition that began during the sixteenth century and has been swarmed under by traditions of very different sorts in the twentieth. The tradition of music that climaxed in these four composers is the one I refer to as "classical."
What distinguishes classical music is its harmony, counterpoint, and development. Classical musicians developed a lore, a theory, a teachable art of composition. Its elements are the twelve-tone scale, the two (or three) modes, the twenty-four keys; its skills became harmony, harmonic progression, thematic development, polyphony. As it went on it discovered how to express emotions by these means, and also how to build splendid structures, using the building means just mentioned as well as contrasts of soft-loud, high-low, fast-slow, as well as vocal and instrumental timbre.
In this unfolding of possibilities, classical music resembles other creative waves: Renaissance art, philosophy, science, and technology. In each case, a new approach of thought opens up real possibilities, and discoverers explore these possibilities. Renaissance art explored perspective, proportion, modelling, light. And with these means, great masters like Michelangelo and Mozart discovered how to arouse emotions which had hardly been expressed in visible form and music before.
Now, one pregnant question for our self-understanding is, how do real, unused possibilities come to be in the mind for music and art to discover? Logic discovers relations of concepts, and these are more or less objective once the concepts have been invented. But music and art discover emotional responses: beauty and pathos. Perhaps art often co-opts reactions long since developed by life: sympathy, lust, pity, terror, joy in nature. But for the most part, classical music discovered a complete nova of reactions. This is a problem for natural-selection theory, according to which complex forms evolve through trial in the crucible of reality. The composers struggled competitively to create the music, but what created the power to react to the music? What makes the difference between great music, primitive rock and stomp, or pedantic tweedledum? What relation did this susceptibility have to species survival, especially since such a complex music hardly existed before the last few hundred years?
Once evolving, why did classical music decline? Up to Beethoven, one can trace a steady advance of sonority and expressive power. Beethoven also discovers new possibilities of beauty in structure, though his structures are not superior on the whole to Mozart's or Bach's; sometimes he runs away in splendid and masterful novelty, sometimes his elaborate structures won't fit together or turn out shoddier than those of his great predecessors. After Beethoven, the problem for composers of great talent is to catch up with the Master. Mendelssohn and Schumann seem to break in the effort, Brahms works hard to keep the tradition alive but can't match Beethoven's invention and beauty. Chaikovsky and Verdi often have the inventiveness and skill, but their inspiration flags by comparison. Verdi balked at trying to express in music Violetta's crossing the bar between life and death, at the end of La Traviata; Beethoven leaped that barrier in the last movement of Op. 110. Chopin and Wagner strike out new possibilities of great originality, but their followers are not memorable. By the time we get to Strauss and Mahler the invention and beauty are playing out, and Milhaud, Schoenberg, and Bartok are now being decently forgotten.
How are we to explain this decline? A common guess is that everything had been done in the classical scheme, so nothing remained that had not been done before. We may doubt, however, that classical music is like a body of ore that has all been mined out and sent to market. Many modern composers still use classical theory, for popular as well as "serious" music; Prokofiev, Gustav Holst, and Ernest Bloch were able to write in the language of the past. In any case, even if this hypothesis could explain the eventual end of classical music, it can hardly explain the decline of the tradition. Schumann and Bruckner, Mahler and Rimsky-Korsakov obviously did not lack material; what was declining in them was inspiration.
Another guess rests on the hypothesis of egotism. According to it, no gifted male creator in the last four centuries has possessed the Christian humility which would permit him to go on writing in the style of his great predecessors; only an Emily Dickinson or a Christina Rossetti would be content just to create without making a name for herself as an innovator, a pioneer, a conqueror of new worlds. Like most plausible guesses, this one is somewhat more than half true. However, it ignores that in many creative waves, men of genius were content to go on creating in the same tradition as their great predecessors. We saw the long series of great composers who sought to be successors of Beethoven, continuing to use his forms, his framework, and his emotional language.
Another likely guess points to social support. Handel, Mozart, and Beethoven had royal patrons, notably the musically gifted Habsburg family. Liszt, Offenbach, and Johann Strauss played to a prosperous bourgeoisie. The audience for new music today is mostly under twenty. According to this, each generation pays the piper it deserves. However, contemporary lovers of classical music have received an endless parade of composers with enthusiasm before deciding that these were not the sounds they wanted to hear. Meanwhile, writers such as David Lodge, Iris Murdoch, Robertson Davies, and Margaret Laurence have been able to write in the tradition of Dickens, Thackeray, and Trollope and still find a wide readership. Why does the large and long-suffering audience for classical music remain unfulfilled?
A fourth possibility invokes not egotism but exploratory individuality. There are pioneers by nature, such as Bach, Emily Brontë, Giotto; there are also the acolytes, the following herd, the peddlers of old textbooks. When the pioneers have explored a territory of possibilities, they leave it to be toured by the imitators, and take themselves off to unexplored regions. The pioneering talents perhaps left music after 1830, choosing instead fields such as biology or novel writing. However, talent is not simply a general cleverness which can be applied to anything. It is not so easy to trade in musical gifts for scientific or novelistic gifts. It seems more likely that different gifts, apt for artistic, logical, political, or technical development, are always to be found in the population; a creative wave gives a special opportunity to some of them. But the wave is not raised by talents alone, by social opportunity alone, by personality alone, by the availability of material alone, nor by all of these together.
There remains the possibility that a super-individual creative impulse rises and falls in fields which history affords for enterprise at various times. It shows its independence of the wills of individuals by having a will of its own, by possessing and abandoning us in spite of ourselves. To evaluate this hypothesis, we shall examine a number of creative waves to see whether this explanation fits them, or whether a combination of other causes makes such a super-individual spirit unnecessary.
Modern painting is an apt movement for this purpose, as its moving forces, its motives or appeals, are proclaimed on its canvases. We recognize the Italian Renaissance as the first and greatest statement of the modern spirit in painting. We can see in the paintings the directions which the painters are exploring, finding beauty and character in the human body, pleasure and satisfaction in the form, light, and color of the natural world, gradually moving away from the mythology of Christianity to classical mythology or the appreciation of things as we experience them. We see how one generation learns from another and builds on this heritage, climaxing in the great period of Leonardo, Giorgione, Raphael, Michelangelo, Andrea del Sarto, Correggio, Titian, and other eminent contemporaries. After them, the Renaissance in Italian painting ebbs away more swiftly than classical music after Beethoven: a few impressive figures such as Tintoretto and Caravaggio, and a large number of mannerists, specialists, and whatnot. It is as if no one wanted to go on, or could go on, doing the same things. But if the tradition was exhausted, why were El Greco, Rubens, Ribera, Velazquez, Rembrandt and Vermeer able to pick it up and flourish for another century? In fact, French, British, German, American, and Russian painters were able to sing the Renaissance song in a new land for two further centuries. Then it was time to find a new world of subjectivity, and where this was not found, the creative force of painting wilted.
Why did the Renaissance die down in Italy while it flamed up elsewhere? We have no reason to say that Italian painters after the great generations lacked talent, or that social conditions were unfavorable for artistic production. A great many painters were well paid in Italy after 1570, and many of them were highly talented: Reni and Magnasco, Guardi and Canaletto, Tiepolo and Salvatore Rosa. It is true that painters of Spain and the Low Countries had a new land, culture, and people to represent. However, many of them did not live on this new material. El Greco's subjects are very traditional. Rubens' taste in nudes is different from Titian's, but his portraits of royalty and wealthy burghers are no revolutionary departure from Titian's material. Rembrandt's new material is personal to him: a spiritual depth not visible to other artists. It allowed him to depict Roman and Biblical subjects as well as his own people; he is painting humanity, not local color. So far, all we can see to explain the bloom of painting in Spain and the Low Countries around the seventeenth century is a certain amount of patronal encouragement and a certain amount of new material, unless we resort to this mysterious phenomenon of super-individual spirit. But if social encouragement and new material count for so much, why did native painting in France and Britain wait to bloom until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries? Why did Henry VIII, Henri IV, and Charles I have to import Holbein, Rubens, and Van Dyck? The age of Louis XIV is a poor period for painters; not until the eighteenth century did French painting march to the forefront of the art. In the Grand Siècle of France, why was painting absent from the feast?
How can we explain the brief burst of glory in Germany, the generation from Holbein the Elder to Holbein the Younger, including Grünewald, Dürer, Albrecht Altdorfer, the elder Cranach, Hans Baldung Grien, and Urs Graf, among others? They were exactly contemporary with the generation that produced Michelangelo, Titian, Giorgione, and Raphael, and they followed by one generation Memling, Goes, and Bosch in the Low Countries. The German painters of the great generation of 1500-1540 had also been prepared by a long tradition of German church painting and manuscript illumination, serene, colorful, usually idealized and beautifully composed, out of which appear names like Konrad Witz, Stephan Lochner, Michael Pacher, and Martin Schongauer in the fifteenth century. The great generation learned their craft from the past and were doubtless inspired by their Italian contemporaries; Dürer made long voyages in Italy to look at art. But after about 1550, dust settles on German painting for more than 200 years. There are brilliant spirits, but few and widely separated: Adam Elsheimer, Michael Willmann, Anton Mengs, Anna Dorothea Therbusch. The world had been discovered and ultimately found uninspiring, while the spirit was going out of the religion that had still animated Dürer and Grünewald. This is what looking at the paintings tells us. Talk about talent, social opportunity, exploratory temperament, and egoism is pure metaphysical speculation.
What happened in Germany cannot be duplicated elsewhere. French painting, for instance, only began to flourish in a thoroughly worldly atmosphere. The high ideals of Poussin proved boring. Painting bloomed with the frolics of Watteau, Boucher, and Fragonard. Ingres found his ideal beauty in odalisques and society ladies, not in Mary, angels, and saints. France first found its Titian in Jacques-Louis David, whose Napoleons radiate the majesty of Titian's Charles Vs. Creativity thrives on collective spirit. Attempts to cultivate it by applying patronage to individual talent are disappointing at best.
These examples show that there is a super-individual spirit at work in waves of creation. I have no evidence that it is superhuman, but it is collective, unattainable by the individual alone. As a result of studying their predecessors, applying themselves to practice, talking and vying with each other, musicians and painters discover new ideas and new possibilities. These new ideas seem to take hold all at once, striking each of many practitioners as if it were his/her own discovery. Just in the same way, ideas lose their hold all at once and possibilities become passées. Or they become ideals which a later generation cannot achieve, as when Rococo painters have an unctuous fling at rendering the Holy Family.
This is not quite true in classical music. Mendelssohn, Schumann, Chaikovsky, Brahms, even Wagner kept Beethoven's aesthetics and musical language even while they explored new possibilities. Still, one may say that this is the same process slowed down by unusual respect for the past or by an unusually powerful set of ideas. It resembles the potency of Italian Renaissance painting. Yet the eventual outcome of these great movements is the same as with the smaller ones: even if artists can create in the old style and the public continues to patronize it, the will to keep it alive has died away.
What is the nature of this collective spirit? How does it fit into the order of nature as we know it? Does it work through simple persuasion of one individual by others to whom he or she is bound by various motives, combined with the individual's own thinking? Or are more mysterious modes of motivation at work here? Are waves of creativity akin to other human movements, such as religions, political revolutions, the fluctuations of sexual morality? Within the scope of this paper, it is enough to conclude that a super-individual spirit seems to be at work in some creative waves at least. We may hope to discover more of its nature by a synoptic view of the history and values of such common waves of human spirit.