Out of Silence
David Boyle explores the very mysterious ‘other-worldly’ source of ideas and creativity
There was the poet and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge, napping in his cottage in Nether Stowey Somerset in the autumn of 1797. He had given up his dreams of a utopian community on the banks of a wild river in Pennsylvania, and decided. to devote himself instead to poetry, family life, and "little opium on the side.
Perhaps the opium had induced the dream in which be now found himself Perhaps not. Either way, as he slept he dreamed – not just the idea for a poem, but the complete text of the verses we know as Kubla Khan. Struggling up to get pen and paper, Coleridge began to write it down:
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea
He had managed just over 50 lines of it when there was a knock on the door. The ‘person from Porlock’ Coleridge encountered there has become a byword for the interruption that puts off any artist. He had come on business and Coleridge didn’t manage to get rid of him for an hour. But when he sat back down again at his table – horror! “With the exception of some eight or ten scattered lines and images,” he wrote, “all the rest had passed away like the images on the surface of a stream into which a stone has been cast, but, alas! without the after restoration of the latter!”
Commentators since have suggested that Coleridge made the Porlock person up to explain why he had run out of ideas. They assume that his story about dreaming the poem whole and writing it down as if by dictation was a lazy affectation and nonsense. It seemed to bypass the sheer drudgery of creativity, as if Coleridge alone had somehow been chosen by the gods to download one of the greatest poems in the English language out of nothing.
But Coleridge is not alone with this strange notion. The story of somehow hearing the answer to riddles inside. or having things fully formed somewhere else before writing them down or painting them, is actually much more common than you might imagine. And nor is it the sole preserve of great artists. The respected economist John Maynard Keynes, for example, rejected the idea that he had somehow calculated his way to his world-changing theories. They began, he said, with "a grey, woolly monster in my head".
Despite what governments, business schools and military planners teach us – that winning strategies, world-beating business ideas and breakthrough policies emerge from a process of measurement and analysis – the evidence from the most creative people is different and more shocking. They report that their best ideas seem to emerge fully formed in their complexity from somewhere else. Perhaps dreams, and most definitely when they make the time and space for silence.
The novelist Stephen King famously dreams some of his plots. Paul McCartney dreamed the melody for Yesterday In an attic in Wimpole Street while he was working on the film Help! Wagner dreamed. the orchestral introduction to Dos Rheingold. Robert Louis Stevenson dreamed the plot of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and – having accidentally destroyed the first manuscript – was able to hear enough of it in his head to write it down a second time. • And scientists, too, report the same kind of phenomenon. Tile German physiologist Otto Loewi won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1936 for his work on the chemical transmission of nerve Impulses. which he realised after seeing the solution in a dream. The organic chemist August Kekule famously grasped the structure of benzene after day-dreaming of a snake swallowing its own tail. The Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan asserted that the theorems he discovered were given him whole by a Hindu goddess, who handed them over to him in a series of dreams.
But this is not just about dreams. Michelangelo claimed that he could ‘feel’ a statue fully formed in the stone, and simply had to release it. Coleridge was among many poets who described struggling to capture the poems they could hear fully formed in their heads, and this same idea seems to work even in the field of management consultancy. The former McKinsey consultant Ethan Rasiel wrote an unauthorised account of how the famous consultancy goes about its analysis and reported that consultants use their experience to quietly ‘feel’ their way to a hypothesis, and then search for data by which they can test it.
So whilst we may not know where these revelations come from – inside or outside – what is clear is that they are not conscious creations. They may emerge out of sleep or inattention. They may emerge out of quiet contemplation and, of course, out of silence.
To me, both Coleridge’s poem and Keynes’ grey woolly monster seem to be about something else – about searching in that silence for the details of creative endeavour or for information about the outside world. And I began to wonder if this business of looking inside ourselves to find answers about the outside world was actually far more common than we understand. As a fulltime writer, I realised that aspects of this mysterious process are familiar to me: I can sometimes hear the rhythm of what I am about to write in my head, and find myself struggling to get down the precise words before I lose them. This is subconscious, but it is not just my subconscious at work.
The question of how we make decisions on an individual and a collective level is very timely, and at the very least this idea of creative solutions hovering fully formed in some other-worldly space suggests that all the current rhetoric about evidence-based policy is a smokescreen to hide the fact that, in reality, most of us – even technocrat kings like McKinsey – carry out our analysis and have our ideas rather differently
It also suggests that creativity is far more important to success of any kind than our educational system might suggest. “Creative writers are valuable allies and their evidence is to be prized highly, for they are apt to know a whole host of things between heaven and earth of which our philosophy has not yet let us dream,” wrote Sigmund Freud. “In their knowledge of the mind, they are far in advance of us everyday people, for they draw on sources which we have not yet opened up to science.”
My experience suggests that we all have access to this nether world "between heaven and earth" and do so every day. We may not really understand and may not even be very practised at the silence and the space that would enable us to listen to it. But what is loud and clear is that our own silence, when we do get to hear it, is not quite so silent after all.