San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

The problem with Voltaire

Jack O’Brien

Jack O’Brien

We were over to the deWitts last Sunday and John, as usual, was expounding about Voltaire being the greatest mind ever. Well, I happen to disagree, and dragged up Voltaire’s stupid remark about, “when the arts are perfected, we may be able to cure the crackpot,” or words to that effect. Of course “arts” covers a pretty wide field, and might be stretched to cover wallpapering and plumbing, in which case I have no comment.

But my own definition of art includes only what is creative or inspired by the three Muses, which was the Greeks’ way of explaining the inexplicable mystery of creation. These days we can do better than that by appealing to neuroscience. But first, let’s talk about Chance. Take, for instance, three balls colored red, green and blue. Mix them up in a bag and pick them out one by one and you get a sequence green-blue-red. Mix and retrieve them again and you get, say, a different sequence: green-red-blue. Each sequence is something novel, arrived at purely by chance, although composed of a rearrangement of preexisting elements; red, green and blue balls.

In my view, memory is the recapitulation of previous experience, and experience is nothing but a particular sequence of Action Potentials passing through the cytoplasm of sensory neurons in the Central Nervous System (CNS). In the course of recovery from storage within the nuclei of said neurons, the original sequence of APs is rarely preserved exactly, accounting for the notorious unreliability of memory. But this chance mixing of APs has a plus side; like mixing colored balls, it creates something new out of something old. Artists, indeed creators of any kind, tend to be daydreamers, unconventional and inept at anything that isn’t their specialty.

“When dreaming, they are actually reviewing the elements of the existing order. Thus the transistor was an unusual rearrangement of materials already known to differentially attract negative or positive charges; surrealism was nothing but an unusual rearrangement of the normal elements composing a recognizable scene; and Symphony No.2 is no more than a completely new arrangement of the notes found in Symphony No.1.

So the daydreaming is essential for memorizing all the known elements to be mixed together in the brain. There is nothing new under the sun, only different mixtures of the known. But one mixture is novel only because of the inefficiency of the memorization process, and the reputation of the artist rests on his ability to pick out the good from a large pile of the bad. Looked at this way, art cannot be perfectible, because it depends on a chance process that is uncontrollable. Artists frequently rely on a drug: coffee, cannabis, sex or something stronger to sharpen their ability to pick out the new, but that’s another story.

I am sorry to report that John deWitt’s response to my devastating attack on Voltaire was “Bullshit!” But then, like so many uncreative people, he has a closed mind, impervious to anything new.

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