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Ideas as Darkness and Light

by John H. Lienhard

I said at the outset that, behind the light of ideas lurks darkness and danger. It is for good reason that our business world likes the word innovation and shuns the word invention. Innovation literally means, just a little bit of tinkering with invention — not enough to upset the apple cart. Innovation reflects our craving to avoid the great dangers inherent in that hard and dangerous word invention.

Invention means breaking with the way things have been. It means change and disruption. All invention incurs revenge effects and unintended consequences. It sends us off down roads we might not really be ready to travel. Think about the disruption brought on by the Armory Art Show. Think of the way cameras have changed our notions of reality.

The fearful side of invention came home to me with odd force when I gave a talk in Philadelphia, decades ago. I remember sitting on the plane back to Houston, trying to sort it out.

Here’s what happened: I'd talked about inventiveness. I'd talked about the way strange stories follow creative people around, because invention itself parts company with normality.

I'd mentioned the way Einstein used the same soap for washing and shaving — how he figured anything more would've complicated his life unbearably ... How Nikola Tesla, terrified of germs, would not shake hands.

I'd told the group that invention is revolution. I'd said that, since invention is a trip into an uncharted land, it has to be eccentricity. It can be no other.

Afterward, during questions and answers, a young man asked, "Do you mean I can't be inventive and still live a normal life?"

Wham! A completely ingenuous question that blindsided me. It was the sort of thing people ask when they aren't looking for information. This fellow saw the issues with perfect clarity. What he really wanted was a palatable way out. He was like the person who goes back again and again to the opera hoping that, just once, Don Jose will have the sense to walk away from Carmen.

This young man so clearly wanted to be let off the hook. He wanted the brass ring without having to reach out into space to get it. He didn't want to risk humiliation. He didn't want to step off into the void.

I took a deep breath and answered. I said, You cannot be inventive and live a normal life.

Oh, of course we can live normal lives in the outward markers of normalcy. But at some point we must go where others have not gone. Perhaps the Romantic poet Coleridge best answers the young man's question. Coleridge ended his poem Kubla Kahn abruptly. He suddenly broke off, and, in one last verse, told his vision of the Creative Hero emerging out of his own tormented dreams. Coleridge wrote,

I would build a dome in air,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair.
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honeydew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of paradise.

That man in the audience saw what others didn't. He knew why he should "close his eyes with holy dread" at the idea of drinking the creative milk of paradise. He knew what the inventive genie could do for him once it got out of the bottle. But he'd also caught a glimpse of the size and power of the beast. He asked the question again on the way out of the building. He knew what was at stake. It bothered him.

And for good reason: When we step off onto those unexpected side roads that intersect the main arteries of our thinking, we are not welcome. Change threatens the world around us.

If we function creatively, people certainly will try to "weave a circle round [us] thrice." The creative daemon within us poses a threat that most people want to see sealed off.  We all want the fruits of invention, but who in his right mind wants to put up with invention itself?

Too bad. Because invention defines us as a species. It is the terrible price we pay, and the greatest glory of being human — both at the same time.


Wikipedia provides a very helpful discussion of Coleridge’s poem Kubla Kahn