Rain umbrella, machine (sewing),
On dissecting table, showing
Chance encounters: juxtaposing
This is the second of a set of July essays beginning from literary quotes and building to some ideas about chemistry. In this case, I encountered the lines in question as part of a museum exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution several years ago. As with last week’s post, it’s clearly taken a while for the ideas to crystallize into a more coherent poem and essay!
Rain umbrella, machine (sewing), /
On dissecting table, showing /
I had the chance to attend the Hirschhorn’s outstanding exhibition “Marvelous Objects: Surrealist Sculpture from Paris to New York” in November 2015. Part of what was most impressive to me was how the exhibition portrayed and celebrated the creative process. In addition to interactive displays and the fascinating Surrealist artwork itself, the museum referenced multiple famous quotes regarding creativity. The two highlighted in this poem are from the work of Comte de Lautreamont (“As beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table”) and Max Ernst (“Creativity is that marvelous capacity to grasp mutually distinct realities and draw a spark from their juxtaposition”). Both note the creative power arising from unexpected combinations and comparisons.
I’ve been fortunate in past academic years to team-teach a seminar course about creativity in the sciences and humanities, and a main theme has been the importance of combinatorial creativity: how seemingly unrelated images or concepts or academic disciplines can create new ideas when considered in conjunction with one another (in other words, how “juxtaposing combinations [are] spark-disclosing,” to again paraphrase the literary lines above).
One of our early discussions often focuses on the commonplace book, a type of book in which writers across the centuries collected images and ideas from other sources that they had found to be uniquely interesting. Students often quickly link these to modern social media websites, with these sites’ comparable abilities to create records of seemingly randomized ideas and interests. It is interesting to contemplate how documenting these collections– whether in hard-copy or digital form– can help illustrate and preserve the creative process itself.
Likewise, this summer, I’ve encountered multiple references to the collage art form, in which various disjointed visual images are assembled together to yield a new artwork. I have read several references about and examples of the “collage essay,” in which disparate pieces are combined to form a cohesive composition of creative non-fiction, in an approach that has appealed to me long before I learned its name.
Moreover, what ultimately catalyzed this piece– via the process of moving from random notes to poem, and from poem to prose– was a association with chemistry. As with anything involving combination, the parallels between the formation of compounds from their component elements are always interesting to consider (and worth several more essays on their own!). For the purposes of this specific blog entry, though, I was struck earlier this summer by a thought-provoking quote from renowned chemist Roald Hoffmann, writing about the scientific communication process.
Hoffman’s essay “Art in Science?” is anthologized in Roald Hoffmann on the Philosophy, Art, and Science of Chemistry. It includes some pages from one of his many published journal articles, along with the handwritten manuscript pages that preceded them, describing in each case their content and what they represent. He explains the ways in which experimental narratives and molecular sketches, along with multiple authors’ notes and explanations, combine throughout the scientific writing process, long before a set of experiments is formally typed up and recounted in a chemistry journal article:
“Articles are the stock-in-trade of the professional scientist… On the basis of these articles my work is evaluated and I make a living. That explains circumstantially… the final printed pages. What about the manuscripts…? Clearly these are collages.”Roald Hoffmann, “Art in Science?“
The processes by which these chemistry-centric collages spark their own new ideas follow more predictable paths, since the literature review of a journal article has many conventional rules and routines. Further, the distinction between an artist’s individual effort and a research group’s scientific collaboration is evident, as well. However, it is intriguing to note how the combinatorial record preserving these “chance encounters” is again integral to observing and perpetuating the creative process, this time in a scientific field. That was the connection that ultimately led to this particular post… and a welcome chance to remember the 2015 visit, as museums are particularly auspicious places to encounter interesting juxtapositions, across all disciplines.