The Roots of Creativity

Semir Zeki at the house in which Michelangelo was born

Though a topic of enormous importance, science has little to say about creativity. The evidence that we have about the topic is derived more from the world of art and from world literature than from direct scientific experimentation. Many might be tempted to dismiss such evidence as fanciful because of its source; let them reflect that such works are the products of the human brain and, where there is pancultural unanimity on some aspect or other of human behaviour, the evidence should be taken seriously.

As I have argued at length in Splendors and Miseries of the Brain (2009), perhaps two of the best documents on creativity that we possess come from French literature. The shorter one is Le Chef-d’œuvre inconnu (“The Unknown Masterpiece”) by Honoré de Balzac which, interestingly, forms part of his Études philosophiques. The second is L’Œuvre by Émile Zola, inappropriately translated into English as The Masterpiece. Both novels speak of the richness of concepts in the brain that make any translation of a given brain concept into a work of art deeply unsatisfying to its creator. This leads to a creative output on the one hand, and to despair on the other. In both novels, the artist finally destroys his creation and himself with it. Paul Cézanne said of Frenhofer, the hero of Le Chef-d’œuvre inconnu, “Frenhofer, c’est moi!” Pablo Picasso so admired the novel that he reputedly purchased the apartment in Paris in which the story is set.

This view, of the difficulty of translating or realizing brain concepts in works of art is, I think, very much what Giorgio Vasari had in mind when he wrote in his Lives of the Artists, about Michelangelo finding, time and again, that “the sublimity of his ideas lay beyond the reach of his hands.” Indeed, Michelangelo left three fifths of his sculptures unfinished. Many, perhaps most, attribute this to their belief that Michelangelo had far too many commissions, often needed money and therefore could not complete the works. These are unconvincing arguments. Perhaps more convincing is Michelangelo’s own statement, in one of his Rime (sonnets), that he will leave a work non-finito until he gets guidance from the divine workshop in Heaven. He writes in another one of his sonnets of the difficulty of sculpting “what is divine in us” (which I understand as the concept in the artist’s brain) “from a mere model frail and slight,” a difficulty which led him to refuse to execute any portraits except those of Andrea Quaratesi and Tommaso dei Cavalieri. His apparently common inability to realise his concept of beauty in his art resulted in a burst of energy; he was indeed working on the unfinished Rondanini Pietà for ten years until his death. But it also led him, finally, to turn against art. In one of his final Rime he wrote that, “No brush, no chisel can quieten the soul/Once it turns to contemplate the Divine Love/ Of Him, who from the Cross/outstretched His arms to take us unto Himself.”

This same difficulty surfaces in The Divine Comedy of Dante. A common view is that Dante’ s Beatrice was inspired by Beatrice Portinari, whom he met only briefly early in life and who was to be his muse for the rest of his days. But in reality Dante is quite clear, in his earlier book La Vita Nuova (“The New Life”) (1295), that he would write about “la gloriosa donna de la mia mente” (the glorious lady of my mind). Like Michelangelo, he too fails and writes in Canto XXXIII of his Paradiso, “how feeble speech is and how inadequate to the concept,” which leads him to desist from describing her beauty in words.

And it is there again in Thomas Mann’ s Death in Venice (1912), where upon seeing the beautiful youth Tadzio, von Aschenbach believed that he had set eyes on “form as divine thought, the single and pure perfection which resides in the mind” (my italics). Such perfection is impossible to achieve in a work of art, hence von Aschenbach’ s yearning for nothingness, just like the heroes of Balzac and Zola. For “He whose preoccupation is with excellence longs fervently to find rest in perfection, and is not nothingness a form of perfection?”

Such examples may be multiplied and leave us with the unavoidable conclusion that one of the fundamental driving forces, and principal root of, creativity lies in the incapacity to achieve in one or even many works of art the ever-changing concept that the brain of a creative person formulates. This almost certainly applies to all creative minds, and the best evidence for it comes from the artistic and literary worlds.


Semir Zeki

SEMIR ZEKI, Professor of Neuroaesthetics at University College, London is an eminent neuroscientist and Fellow of the Royal Society. His latest book is Splendors and Miseries of the Brain.