Creativity Metaphysics Nikolai Berdyaev Søren Kierkegaard

Are the Products of Creativity Necessarily Tragic?

In The Destiny of Man, Berdyaev writes:

The aim of creative inspiration is to bring forth new forms of life, but the results are the cold products of civilization, cultural values, books, pictures, institutions, good works. Good works mean the cooling down of the creative fire of love in the human heart just as a philosophical book means the cooling down of the creative fire of knowledge in the human spirit. This is the tragedy of human creativeness and its limitation. Its results are a terrible condemnation of it. The inner creative act in its fiery impetus ought to leave the heaviness of the world behind and ‘overcome the world.’ But in its external realization the creative act is subject to the power of ‘the world’ and is fettered by it. Creativeness which is a fiery stream flowing out of fathomless freedom has not only to ascend but also to descend. It has to interpret to the world its creative vision and, in doing so, submit to the laws of art and technique. (129)

There are things about this passage (and Berdyaev in general) that really strike a chord with me. I love the idea that creative freedom must necessarily descend, necessarily engage with the world. Berdyaev better than anyone, as far as I’ve read, articulates the transformation of freedom into limitation in the creative act.

The thing that seems to hit the wrong chord with me is the suggestion that this is necessarily a tragic thing. Must we pass a kind of moral judgment on the process? In the same way that the eruption of a volcano produces a beautiful island, can we not affirm that the eruption of creative energies likewise produces beautiful effects? It is important, I admit, to hold the two in distinction–it must be understood that a product itself is not creative but the manifestation of creativity, which is freedom. Thus far, however, I remain unconvinced that the “cooling down” of freedom must be pronounced as something dangerous. It certainly can be dangerous, and it’s true that freedom does indeed have to continually overcome the world. But perhaps there is a way to conceive of this relationship as non-oppositional, or at least not antagonistically. This is especially true of good works, which I think are a necessary corollary of true love–faith without works is dead, as James observes.

There is a necessary comparison with Kierkegaard here, though I’m not sure I’m quite equipped to do it at present. At the very least, Kierkegaard (perhaps surprisingly to some) actually offers an outward expression of inward intensities. Further, in Either/Or we find Judge William suggesting that the task is not to create oneself but to choose oneself, that is, to be reconciled to one’s past and to move forward from that point. I wonder if this may be the beginnings of a few holes in Berdyaev’s dualism, which I often respect so highly. With such a high commitment to the noumenal, Berdyaev seems to commit an age-old problem in Christianity, that is, the deprecation of matter. It’s true that Berdyaev’s view is more nuanced; he recognizes the givenness of the material world and it seems he’s open to saying it’s not inherently evil, as the Gnostics presupposed. But with regard to his lofty emphasis on creativity and the virtual, I do find myself wondering if this is not his blindspot, that is, an affirmation of creativity wherein one cannot simply enjoy the fruits of one’s labor but is instead thrust into a never-ending anxiety over the need to create.

All that said, these observations come without having performed the necessary heavy-lifting on this topic. They’re simply germinal concerns and ought to be taken as such.

2 replies on “Are the Products of Creativity Necessarily Tragic?”

I agree with your worries here. I wonder why a creative act has to be identified just with the initial ascent? As if the creative uprising of the volcano were the focal point, rather than the beginning of an ‘act’ that includes creativity in the cooling down, in the shaping of a cone, even in the beginning of flora clinging to the solidifying lava. It’s as if he identifies the creative act with the wild dreams and explosive breakthrough energy of youth alone. The maturing and marinating of a creative impulse doesn’t need to be its loss of authenticity and vigor. It’s a different mode of creativity, or a different phase. Erik Erikson speaks of the creative ‘generativity’ of post-career-striving age — the capacity of someone who has ‘lived it all’ moves creatively to take new steps in the consolidation of a life, creative steps. Or we might think of the creative bursts at the start of a late Schubert Piano Sonata winding down to an equally creative quiet, a serene death-accepting descent to finish.

The Berdyaev’s “tragedy of human creativeness” probably doesn’t have anything to do about “dangerous” or “negative”, but only indicates the dualism of creation, where a part of the initial power is doomed to be lost during the process of transforming it into a product. This “tragic” ought to be understood in ancient sense, where fate was the main character of a play.

Nevertheless, the main point in Berdyaev’s passage is – as you say – to show priority of the creative energy over its product. The only thing one can argue with – is the great effort with which Berdyaev describes “overcoming the world”. In his interpretation creation always turn out to be a struggle, which makes the whole concept a bit too desperate, pathetic and, using the philosopher’s own word, “Ariman’s” (that is “demonic”).

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