Commentary Magazine

The Act of Creation, by Arthur Koestler

The Bloom and The Buzz

The Act of Creation.
by Arthur Koestler.
Macmillan. 728 pp. $8.95.

Arthur Koestler's immense and splendid work may itself be regarded as a creative act—in terms of his own comprehensive formula. For it is an attempt—in general a highly successful one—to make a novel and original unity out of two incompatible “matrices” or contexts: science and art. It would be more correct to say, however, that they have usually been assumed to be incompatible by those who have thought about the subject at best vaguely, while of late they have been further wrenched apart by those who have looked at it more closely, but wrongly. The discussion arose in education where both “Science” and the “Humanities,” through their spokesmen, often self-appointed and thinking in terms of the achievements of their specialty rather than of its values, have been inclined to prescribe a course in one or the other as a way of fitting you into whatever collective future is anticipated.

Mr. Koestler is not the only thinker or writer who has realized in the past few years that neither science nor art can be wholly understood in terms of collective usefulness or social and psychological engineering, or indeed in terms of actual results and achievements—works, products, and books. But if others besides Mr. Koestler have seen that the scientist like the artist is a mind and a uniquely personal combination of attitudes, no one else, so far as I know, has shown signs of anything like Mr. Koestler's degree of insight into widely various fields of knowledge. This insight provides him with copious and imaginative illustration, not to mention a detailed and embittered acquaintance with his psychological enemy: the insidious philosophy of Behaviorism and computerism to which all of us could so easily surrender in our sleep.

What Mr. Koestler's book is about is creativity and uniqueness—the way that we are, in fact or potentially, free beings, not automata—or more justly, the way that some beings have been able to emerge, at least from time to time, from their conditioned habituality. But the book is not in itself a philosophy or counter-philosophy: it is not even exactly a psychology of aesthetics. Rather it is an attempt to discern a pattern of behavior that runs through the whole living universe and is most representatively human in art and science. So you might call it a new myth—in no derogatory sense, but as a premonition of what might become a science.

The theme which has engendered this literally magnum opus (of a remarkably aerated texture in spite of its size) occupied Mr. Koestler for years. He produced what was in effect a first volume, Insight and Outlook—mainly the aesthetic thesis—promising to follow it up in a year or so with another, containing the physiological and psychological backing: actually this has taken about fifteen years. During the interval, Mr. Koestler has absorbed and digested a vast and solid body of biological knowledge and understanding which he has injected under the skin of his original thesis.


The common pattern which Mr. Koestler discerns in original scientific discovery, in painting and in music, in poetry and fiction, in both comedy and tragedy, can be seen at its most primitive in the anatomical structure of a joke. Here are the two incompatible “matrices” or contexts, in uncomplicated visibility. I quote an example, not because it is by any means the best joke (a venerable chestnut, as Mr. Koestler says, worn out by analysis), but because of its compactness:

A convict was playing cards with his jailers. On discovering that he cheated, they kicked him out of jail.

“It can be analyzed,” says Mr. Koestler, “in a single sentence—two conventional rules (‘offenders are punished by being locked up’ and ‘cheats are punished by being kicked out’) each of them self-consistent, collide in a given situation.” This is the bisociational pattern which Mr. Koestler now proceeds to track down and illustrate, not only in the mind and works of man, but throughout the living universe:

When two independent matrices of perception or reasoning interact with each other the result . . . is either a collision ending in laughter, or their fusion in a new intellectual synthesis, or their confrontation in an aesthetic experience . . . the same pair of matrices can produce comic, tragic or intellectually challenging effects. [This conversion is performed by] a simple change of emotional climate—the fat man slipping . . . on the icy pavement will be either a comic or a tragic figure according to whether the spectator's attitude is dominated by malice or pity . . . in between these two is the emotionally balanced attitude of the physician . . . whose primary concern is to find out the nature of the injury.

In earlier pages, Mr. Koestler gives a generalized version of his bisociational concept, so as to provide a structural formula for the whole book and bring all its sections together:

The word “matrix” means any habit or skill, any pattern of ordered behavior governed by a “code” of fixed rules. . . . The exercise of a skill is always under the dual control (a) of a fixed code of rules (which may be innate or acquired) and (b) of a flexible strategy, guided by environmental pointers—the “lie of the land.”

The chief significance of this structural concept of matrix and code emerges when Mr. Koestler pursues his bisociational creative pattern into the non-human cosmos. Here the quality of matrix and code is developed into the concept of the hierarchical organization of all living organisms, individual and social—a concept which Mr. Koestler carries, with copious illustration, right down into the myriad varieties of motility among the minor organisms (“The lowliest creature and the highest, the moment it is hatched or born, lashes out at the environment”). The central nervous system, in other words, is not a repetitive machine—it allows local autonomy, free play on the periphery.

This holistic and purposive idea of living behavior is aimed again at the Behavioristic foe—nowhere, however, in this book, it must be emphasized, treated as an Aunt Sally, nor as an excuse for dead-horse-flogging. Mr. Koestler places himself, that is to say, on flexible terms with his opponents, in whom he is widely versed, and some of whom indeed, in the later developments of experimental psychology and learning theory, can be shown to be just about on his side. That rats running mazes can acquire a kind of “insight,” a map in the head, is conceded by a number of experimentalists. (This is often much clearer when the Behaviorist language is translated: Mr. Koestler is good on the Michelin-tire disguises of technical jargon which, when deflated, may emit a breath of common sense. For instance, Hull on rat-motivation—“That stimulus associated with reinforcement could become at once both a drive and a reinforcing agent. . . .”—which Mr. Koestler boils down to “A rewarding experience can be at the same time an incentive and a reward.”)

In attacking Behaviorism as—much more than a scientific method—an insidious evolutionary philosophy with enormous moral implications about our real potentialities, Mr. Koestler reaches to the lowest biological levels to trace the roots of choice and freedom, and claims that all organisms are in fact over-conditioned for flexibility and sensibility in reacting to environmental stimuli.

He comments that 20th-century psychology of all kinds has mostly taken the “detensional” view of motivation, according to which the reduction of painful stimuli either from inside or from outside is what powers the machine. But while he himself regards this picture as “depressingly correct up to a point”—meaning, I take it, that most of us most of the time are habitual automata and copiers—he claims that here he starts from the point where the doctrine is no longer true. He is writing, in short, about geniuses, the actual examples of the original's break with habit, either his own habits of thought, or the unobserved and unreflected assumptions which he has picked up from collective existence.


This is illustrated with great precision and insight from the scientists—notably Kepler and Darwin. The descriptions of the fumblings and the errors which went on in their mental top-storeys during the prolonged incubation period before the “Eureka!” moment, the dramatic and apparently spontaneous breakthrough into realization, make exciting reading; convincing too. And Mr. Koestler is excellent and very illuminating on the real history of ideas, for instance on the “linear” illusion that science, at least, makes a straight progression. He has a melancholy list of mistakes, cases of “snow-blindness,” when the best qualified missed the most obvious conclusions—and of the collective resistance to innovation of scientific “establishments” of all sorts. Though, unlike other “churches,” the scientific establishments have not usually garbled the founding Word, they have often conveniently mislaid it—or even buried it with dark rites.

To show us the scientist as a real human being reacting to a real and very haphazard world of buzzing experiences is the main intention of the book. But although Mr. Koestler is so much better—as well as more heartening—on the subject of a pleasurable motivation than the psychological schools he attacks, his own view has limitations. He allows, and rightly, a large place for curiosity—from rats in mazes to scientists (including no doubt experimental psychologists). But the reward which is also the incentive for both scientists and artists is our old acquaintance, the Freudian “oceanic feeling” (a mystical sense of oneness with something-or-the-other). I just don't believe that this is a true description. In my view, there is a real and quite special disinterestedness in any true act of creation; it is also an act of vision which is extremely convincing and reassuring to the seer about the nature of reality, about what is there, and hence it is peculiarly satisfying.

While Mr. Koestler has produced an extremely vivid and comprehensive account of the origins of originality, then, he seems to be somewhat weaker on its evaluation, on what validates discoveries and performances and puts them in a scale of values and gives them their rightful place in the worlds of knowledge and appreciation. This is too big a book in every way, however, not to have discoverable weaknesses. And we should be endlessly grateful to a writer who can manage to be stimulating on nearly every one of 700-odd pages. Mr. Koestler's “myth” is a splendid pair of spectacles for looking at a vastly enriched psychological landscape.

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