William Blake, Nick Cave, and the Origins of Creativity

Nick Cave on William Blake: Where does Creativity come from? 

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The Australian musician and songwriter Nick Cave, responding on his website ‘The Red Hand Files‘ to the question ‘How do you know when you have written something worthwhile? What is your process?’, remarks that Blake’s insights into the nature of Imagination and the imaginative process were key to him in this:

In Issue #87 I wrote about my favourite line from the New Testament: ‘Mary Magdalene and the other Mary remained standing there in front of the tomb.’ To me, this line seems to sum up, among other things, the process of songwriting. William Blake said ‘Jesus is the imagination’ and these words have always resonated with me. They have bound together the notion of Jesus and the creative act, and lifted it into the supernatural sphere.

The moment of the cave.

This is a surely a fascinating observation, and connection. Why particularly that line from the Bible, that stood out for him so much, amid so many other striking lines? What was it about the image of the tomb, or the sense of both the possibility of emptiness and of emergence, the moment of waiting or expectation, that so resonated with him?  Was it some sort of analogy between the resurrected tomb and the cave of creativity, of ‘Imagination’? Thankfully, Cave himself provided some further illumination:

A large part of the process of songwriting is spent waiting in a state of attention before the unknown. We stand in vigil, waiting for Jesus to emerge from the tomb — the divine idea, the beautiful idea — and reveal Himself.

Cave’s sense that there is something ‘transcendent’ about our creative moments and experiences is very striking, and very unexpected in our commercialised, cynical, post-modern age. And also unexpected in an artist not writing from any orthodox religious perspective (“I’m not religious, and I’m not a Christian,” he once remarked, “but I do reserve the right to believe in the possibility of a god.”) Cave is aware that there is something profoundly strange about creativity, something mysterious (or “supernatural” as he puts it) about the process by which songs, and images, and poetry, emerge out of, apparently, thin air. Cave suggests that Blake is right to connect them not to material or mundane processes in this world but to something altogether deeper and more mysterious.

What will emerge? it could be anything. It could be you.

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A Different sort of Listening

It’s interesting that Cave registers that creativity depends on a curious state of receptivity: that “a large part of the process of songwriting is spent waiting in a state of attention before the unknown”. “Poetry is not like reasoning,” agrees Shelley, “a power to be exerted according to the determination of the will”:

A man cannot say, “I will compose poetry.” The greatest poet even cannot say it; for the mind in creation is as a fading coal which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness: this power arises from within, like the colour of a flower which fades and changes as it is developed, and the conscious portions of our natures are unprophetic either of its approach or its departure. (A Defence of Poetry, 1821)

He eloquently refers to these “evanescent visitations of thought and feeling” that constitute the creative process as being “as it were the interpenetration of a diviner nature through our own; but its footsteps are like those of a wind over the sea, which the coming calm erases, and whose traces remain only as on the wrinkled sand which paves it.”

Shelley awaiting the unknown: ‘Shelley Composing Prometheus Unbound in the Baths of Caracalla’ by Joseph Severn (1845)

It is this subtle “interpenetration”, this “through-ness”, which great art seems to both access and draw on, a stance requiring a profound form of humility in allowing for something far greater to momentarily come through and manifest. “A large part of the process of songwriting is spent waiting in a state of attention before the unknown”: Cave likens this creative attitude or “state of attention” to patiently and even reverently waiting outside a cave for something unexpected – perhaps something overwhelming and miraculous – to appear. And as Shelley notes, we cannot “command” these “beautiful ideas” to come – we have to attend to them, to patiently wait for whatever it is – and it could be anything – to emerge.

“this power arises from within, like the colour of a flower”

As Cave suggests, this sort of practice requires a completely different sort of listening, a completely different sort of being-in-the-world, than the one we’re used to, than the one we’re told to switch on and believe in. It sometimes feels as if there is an attack on the idea of non-egoic submission, on humility, in our contemporary culture, as if being humble is some sort of personal failing, rather than, say, an access to God. But it is part of the paradox of modesty that “greatness” seems inextricably linked to humility, which in turn is rooted in the temporary effacement of self and ego: a state of grounded humility (humus, “from the earth”). “But while we wait we must remain prepared and alert, and one way to do so is to write things down, in order to advance the idea, as this indicates a readiness to receive” (Nick Cave)

“It sometimes feels as if there is an attack on the idea of non-egoic submission, on humility, in our contemporary culture, as if being humble is some sort of personal failing, rather than, say, an access to God.”

This “readiness to receive”, this state of remaining “prepared and alert” – a state that Keats famously termed “Negative Capability” (and which he thought lay at the source of all creative genius) – seems also to lie at the heart not only of great poetry but of great psychoanalysis, as Freud intuited. Indeed, Freud made the recognition of this state (which he called “evenly suspended attention”) central to his therapeutic practice, even describing the cultivation of it as the “fundamental rule of psychoanalysis”. This technique, he remarked, “consists simply in not directing one’s notice to anything in particular and in maintaining the same ‘evenly suspended attention’ (as I have called it) in the face of all one hears … The rule for the doctor may be expressed: ‘He should withhold all conscious influences from his capacity to attend, and give himself over completely to his ‘unconscious memory’.”

“this power arises from within, like the colour of a flower”

Freud’s comments here on the withholding of “conscious influences” strikingly echo those of Shelley on the non-conscious “influences” and visitations that the poet also apprehends and delivers (“and the conscious portions of our natures are unprophetic either of its approach or its departure”). The analyst Wilfred Bion similarly referred to the essential therapeutic mode as a state of “reverie”, which he compared to Keats’s concept of negative capability, a form of “right-hemispheric listening” as the American psychiatrist and psychoanalyst James Grotstein has more recently formulated it, which is directed towards the “Other” (here, the “unconscious”). 

Indeed, one of the defining characteristics of the right-hemisphere, McGilchrist remarks, is precisely its openness to the “Other”, and it is in relation to the Other, he observes, that the hemispheres essentially differ:

I believe the essential difference between the right hemisphere and the left hemisphere is that the right hemisphere pays attention to the Other, whatever it is that exists apart from ourselves, with which it sees itself in profound relation. (McGilchrist)

Grotstein’s and McGilchrist’s observations point to the crucial role of the right hemisphere in all this, the side of our consciousness that is genuinely open, receptive, and attentive to the “other”, and that aspect of our brains most deeply connected to our imaginative, creative, and empathic centres.

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The Jesus Caves and the Right Hemisphere

“Virtually all of the qualities listed by Walter Cannon as the hallmarks of the creative mind”, notes McGilchrist, “are features of right hemisphere function”. These include the ability to make associations between widely different ideas or concepts, a broadening of attention and expansion of the attentional field, pattern recognition and holistic awareness, intuitive processing, and an ability to think flexibly and freely (“lateral thinking”, as it’s often known – aptly, it seems).

This hemispheric openness and receptivity to new ideas also seems to be linked to its fundamentally “other-regarding” stance, which involves a sort of standing aside to let something greater come through: in other words, humility. It’s a striking fact in this respect that so many of the most talented and creative people in history – the ones who, one might think, have better justification for immodesty than most of us – were in fact some of the most modest in their comments about their achievements. The nineteenth-century art critic and philosopher John Ruskin remarked on this curious aspect of the nature of creativity and the paradoxical relationship that lies at the heart of it: “I believe that the first test of a great man is his humility. I don’t mean by humility, doubt of his power. But really great men have a curious feeling that the greatness is not of them, but through them. And they see something divine in every other man and are endlessly, foolishly, incredibly merciful.”

Title-page to Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion, one of the illuminated prophetic works dictated to William Blake

The history of human creativity seems to confirm and corroborate Ruskin’s contention. Many of these great artists have observed that their extraordinary talents and achievements did not come from them “but through them”, and that they were merely messengers or “secretaries”. William Blake, for example – who has influenced everyone from Yeats and Aldous Huxley to Jim Morrison, Bob Dylan, Alan Moore, and Philip Pullman – referred to himself as being merely a “secretary” or “messenger”. Of his longest and greatest work, Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion, widely considered to be his masterpiece, he confided to a friend: “I have written this Poem from immediate Dictation twelve or sometimes twenty or thirty lines at a time without Premeditation & even against my Will … I may praise it since I dare not pretend to be any other than the Secretary  the Authors are in Eternity.” Blake perfectly embodies Ruskin’s observation that while great people may not doubt their power they also know “the greatness is not of them, but through them”.

Many other creative writers and artists have similarly remarked that the source of their talent and achievement is somehow located in this ‘Other’, this field of otherness, which in moments of inspiration they experience as involuntarily passing over or through them, and in relation to which they feel merely the passive recipients or hierophants. “It’s hard to take credit for the songs I write”, observed Michael Jackson in 1992, “because I just always feel that it’s done from above. I feel fortunate to be an instrument through which music flows. I’m just the source through which it comes. I can’t take credit for it”.

Humility seems to be the key that unlocks and grants access to this secret and secretive creative domain, and allows it to enter in, as the testimony of artists as varied as Shelley, Blake, Cave, and Jackson suggest. Cave’s comments on the need to be receptive, to patiently wait, like Mary, “standing there in front of the tomb”, also echo a similar observation made by another great but very different creative genius of this generation, Benny Andersson, who once said that discovering a new song is a bit like waiting outside the cave for the dragon to appear. The minute you go away, it’ll come out and you’ll miss it: 

I have to sit here and wait for the good notes to sort of come from somewhere. And if I’m not here, they’re not gonna come. It’s like there’s a dragon in a cave. You know it’s in there, but it’s never coming out. So you have to sit outside and wait for it. And you know if you sit there long enough, it’ll come out. If you go home and take a nap, you’ll never see it, because that’s when it’s coming out.

He added: “Maybe it’s the same for everyone who creates, every painter, every writer, you need to sit there, you need to keep going, you need to wait for ‘it’ to happen. Every day, I at least sit down and try. Most of the time it won’t happen, but if I’m not there it definitely won’t happen. I just wish I could come to terms with what it is.”

“Waiting for the good notes to come from somewhere”: Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus on the source of their success 

It’s surely fascinating that in the twenty-first century, this is how some of the greatest creative and imaginative minds of our culture still see, and understand, this transcendent – not ‘rationalistic’ or naturalistic – aspect to creative work. It’s not about programs, or computers, or formulas, or exams, or apps. It’s about dragons, and resurrected tombs of Jesus. That’s what it’s actually about.

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“Often,” Cave notes, “the beautiful idea that has formed is at first unrecognisable to us”:

We don’t see it for what it is, because it is new and implausible.

Just as Mary Magdalene does not recognise Jesus when He first appears to her outside the tomb, the beautiful idea may emerge dimly and appear peculiar to us, not announcing itself but standing, half hidden and improbable, in the shadows.

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So, we continue to wait. But while we wait we must remain prepared and alert, and one way to do so is to write things down, in order to advance the idea, as this indicates a readiness to receive. Beware, however, of the idea that comes too easily, as this is often a residual idea and only compelling because it reminds us of something we have already done. We don’t want an idea that is like something we have done before. We don’t want a second-hand idea. We want the new idea. We want the beautiful idea.

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One day, you will write a line that feels wrong, but at the same time provides you with a jolt of dissonance, a quickening of the nervous system. You will shake your head and write on, only to find that you come back to it, shake your head again, and carry on writing — yet back you come, again and again. This is the idea to pay attention to, the difficult idea, the disturbing idea, shimmering softly among all the deficient, dead ideas, gently but persistently tugging at your sleeve — the Jesus idea.

This, to me, points to the ‘right hemisphere’ mode of attending, the side of our consciousness that is genuinely open and attentive to the ‘other’, whatever that other may be (McGilchrist, 2009), and the side of our brains that is most deeply connected to our imaginative, creative, and empathic centres – to the Jesus caves.

Nick Cave is an Australian singer, songwriter, author, screenwriter, composer and occasional actor, best known for fronting the rock band Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. Cave’s music is characterised by his emotional intensity, a wide variety of influences, and lyrical obsessions with death, religion, love and violence. Find out more here.

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