BOOK BLOG | The Creative Mind (Sayers - Letter 4)
Now the fifth essay in the collection Letters to a Diminished Church by the late Dorothy Sayers, where she explores, with much greater depth and clarity, the relationship between creative activity and language. We begin with a basic metaphysical claim, namely that some ideas which we take for granted, really have no absolute existence. Take the idea of "numbers":
“We say we see six eggs. Certainly we see egg, egg, egg, egg, egg, egg in a variety of arrangements; but can we see ‘six’ apart from the eggs? No man hath seen an integer at any time. There has never been a greater act of the creative imagination than the creation of the concept of number as a thing-in-itself.”
That is to say that man, in his use of language, gives form to ideas by attaching language to them. Once attached, a new “thing” now exists which can be spoken of and interacted with as if it is real because it has become real. It has been spoken into existence, as it were, out of nothing; from non-reality to reality. And I think Sayers would have us ask, rhetorically, whether there be any moment wherein we are more like God? We create this new reality through analogy, simile, and metaphor – by identifying some unity which connects, through experience, otherwise unrelated ideas.
“The poet’s imagination…perceives a likeness between a number of things that at first sight appear to have no measurable relation, and it builds them into a new kind of unity, a new universe, that can be handled with power as if it possessed independent existence, and whose power is operative in the world of things that can be observed and measured.”
These previously separate ideas “are far more powerful in combination than they are separately. Yet each word brings with it a little accumulation of power of its own – for each word is itself a separate unity and separate creative act.” When combined analogically, these separate ideas find unity in our shared human and/or cultural experience. It brings into existence a truth which did not previously exist, or at least, not previously known. The truth is made manifest, made visible, made accessible, made real by being rooted in experience. "If the imagination is consistent, the work will produce effects as if they were actually true.”
Of course, “[t]his is not the scientist’s truth; it is the poet’s truth.” Sayers, in fact, criticizes the Age of the Enlightenment and its unbalanced insistence that empirical, rational, analytical language is the only language:
“But if the theologians had not lost touch with the nature of language; if they had not insensibly fallen into the eighteenth century conception of the universe as a mechanism and God as the Great Engineer; if instead, they had chosen to think of God as a great imaginative artist—then they might have offered a quite different kind of interpretation of the facts [say, for instance, regarding the theory of evolution], with rather entertaining consequences.”
Indeed, if we apply the notion of Creation as a perfect story originating in the “mind of the maker”, then all Creation is, in fact, first thought, then spoken, and perhaps eventually written into existence from non-existence. In which case, it might be spoken into being just however it was imagined – which may or may not conform to our logical, linear, and uniformitarian views of history, biology, and paleontology. An author, when he thinks up some new character, does not conceive of him in the womb. That is how a biologist would conceive of him. The author, rather, thinks him up fully formed, ready to take his part in the story as the author directs. While we may stop short of claiming that this is how man was created, we are forced to admit that it would not be logically incoherent for God to have done it in this way. It would not be God's deception; it would be God's perfectly consistent imagination at work.
Sayers larger point is this: “The function of imaginative speech is not to prove, but to create – to discover new similarities and to arrange them to form new unities, to build new self-consistent worlds out of the universe of undifferentiated mind-stuff.” Indeed, Sayers, a first-caliber medieval scholar, cites a failure to maintain this distinction between the various functions of different types of language as a notable error of the age. She writes:
“The error of the Middle Ages, on the whole, was to use analogical, metaphorical, poetical techniques for the investigation of scientific questions. But increasingly, since the seventeenth century, we have tended to the opposite error – that of using the quantitative methods of science for the investigation of poetic truth. […] …the associative value of words, which make them such bad tools for the scientist, make them the right tools for the poet…”
A failure of language is, of course, a failure of education. Especially a humane or liberal arts education. Indeed, one could argue convincingly that should education fail in its linguistic task, it has failed entirely.
Sayers, in her day, charged “that the scientist should come to terms with the humanities; for in daily life scientist [sic] also are common men, and the flight from language will never avail to carry them out of its field of power." If we look to contemporary science (if indeed it can any longer be called science), it is clear that they have done so. Today’s scientific claims are nothing if not imaginative and poetic, and often delivered in such terms. I am not certain, however, that this is quite what Sayers had in mind.