A work that “does not fade like a flower, that does not die like man, but survives our era and all eras to come. It has the strength to last forever, like the sky and the sea.”
These words come from late October 1940. Stefan Zweigwas in Buenos Aires.He was one of the best-known writers of the time. Fifteen hundred people were listening to him and another fifteen hundred had been left queueing. Mere walls weren’t going to stop them from listening to the Austrian discuss ‘The Mystery of Artistic Creation’.The police had to intervene and, in the end, the problem was resolved with a double session.Zweig would return another day to pronounce the same words to those who had been left outside.
“Of all the mysteries of the universe, none is deeper than that of creation. Our human spirit is capable of understanding any transformation of matter, but whenever we encounter something that had not existed before we are overcome by the feeling that something supernatural has happened, that a superhuman force has been at work. And our respect reaches its peak, becomes almost religious, we could say, when what suddenly appears is not perishable.” So began Zweig.
The miracle occurs when a work becomes something unique among hundreds of thousands
And from there arose a powerful mystery: “Here is a man or a woman. They look like anyone else, sleep in beds like ours, eat sitting down at a table, they are dressed like us. (…) Outwardly, this man is not at all different from us. But suddenly this man fulfils something that is denied to the rest of us. He does not live only in the time of his own existence, because what he created and manifested goes beyond the existence of all of us and the lives of our children and grandchildren. He has defeated the mortality of man and broken through the limits within which our lives are usually inexorably locked.”
Creation transcends time and space. But the moment in which it occurs is unknown. “We are facing a strange phenomenon,” he said that night in 1940. “All these creative men, whether painters, poets or musicians, almost never reveal the secret of their creation to us.”
A century ago,Edgar Allan Poemade the same observation.Poe lamented that history only kept “autobiographical reports of artists.” In his essay “The Philosophy of Composition”, he wrote: “I have often thought how interesting a magazine paper might be written by any author who would — that is to say, who could — detail, step by step, the processes by which any one of his compositions attained its ultimate point of completion.Why such a paper has never been given to the world, I am much at a loss to say.”
Criminology and Art
Stefan Zweig saw the study of artistic creation as resembling criminological research.“We are capable of constructing an action the manifestation of which we have not witnessed,” he said that evening. “Poets and writers describe for us in their books, with wonderful force and with masterful detail, every trip they have taken, all the adventures that they have had, every feeling that stirs them. Why not tell us about the most important experience of their lives? Why not describe their method of creating?”
The Austrian writer offered one answer to these questions. While creating, the artist “is not in his own senses, does not control his own reasoning, for all true creation occurs only while the artist is to some extent outside himself, when he forgets himself, when he is in a state of ecstasy.And allow me to remind you that the Greek wordekstasismeans ‘to be outside oneself’.
But if he escapes from his being, where does he go? The artist is in his work “and therefore is unable to observe himself (…) He can only create his imaginary world by forgetting the real world.”
Such concentration has been discussed often throughout history. It is what happened toArchimedeswhile an army invaded and plundered the Sicilian city of Syracuse.The mathematician was in his garden drawing some geometric figures in the sand. A soldier lunged at him and Archimedes, without turning his head, muttered: “Do not disturb my circles.” Archimedes was not in that war.He wasn’t even really in Syracuse.He was inside his mathematical problem.
Stefan Zweig was asked that night in Buenos Aireshow we can find tracks in the place where artistic creation is done.“Isn’t that invisible process (which takes place on an inaccessible stage) the brain of the artist? (…) We have the sketches made by Michelangelo, Rembrandt, El Greco and Velázquez for their masterpieces. We have the manuscripts of Beethoven, Mozart and Bach.We can see to some extent how the works we know and admire as perfect gradually formed.”
But if we look for drafts byMozartwe find nothing.“All the manuscripts of his that we possess are written with the same easy, light and graceful hand, in a single stroke and a style that seems to have been dictated,” said Zweig. “Contemporaries inform us that Mozart never worked in the sense of expending effort and dedication. He did not need to go looking for the melody. The melody came to him. He did not need to think and build, the passages joined each other almost automatically, as in a game. Musical creation for that genius was something so devoid of effort, requiring so little absorption, that while playing billiards with friends he was able to keep on working inside his head.And when he left the café, he merely had to go to his room to quickly jot down the movement of a completely finished sonata.”
He did not need to go looking for the melody. The melody came to him
Something similar happened withSchubert.“He could be sitting with friends in a room, flipping through a book and find a poem, then suddenly get up and go into an adjacent room, returning after ten or fifteen minutes, that is, the time needed to fill four or five sheets with notes.He then sat at the piano and played the song he had just composed for his friends, one of those lieder that, even today, a hundred years later, is sung in all countries.”
These examples may give the idea that “the great artist seems to assume a purely passive attitude during creation.” It is as if “the genius of inspiration was dictating and the artist was no more than the scribe, the instrument. He did not need to work, to fight, to strive for his work, but simply to copy down obediently that which came to him, as if in a divine dream.”
Mozart and Beethoven
But Zweig warned:“Let us not rush into committing ourselves to such a seductive formula as that of the artist simply being the performer acting for a higher power.” Beethoven’s work shows just the opposite. “In his messy, nearly illegible manuscripts we cannot find even a smidgeon of the divine facility to produce that Mozart had.We see that Beethoven was not a man who obeyed his genius, but rather struggled fiercely for it.”
Mozart did no preparatory work. Beethoven, however, accumulated thick tomes of preliminary work that sometimes covered whole years. “His composition process was much more tortuous. Less divine and much more human. Contemporaries have given us accounts of his way of working. He ran through the fields for hours on end ignoring everyone, singing, murmuring, shouting wildly, sometimes beating time with his hands, other times throwing his arms in the air in a kind of ecstasy. The peasants who saw him from afar took him for a madman and carefully avoided him. Occasionally he stopped and wrote down with a pencil a few of those barely legible notes in his notebook. Then he went home, sat down at his table to work and slowly composed these isolated musical ideas.”
“In this state another type of manuscript arose, with larger pages, generally written in ink, where the melody with its first variations is presented. But he is still far from having found the precise form,” Zweig continued. “He deletes entire lines, sometimes even full pages, with wild strokes, splashing the ink and messing up the entire sheet, and he starts over again. But he is still not satisfied. He again changes and amends things. Sometimes he tears out half a page in the middle of writing, and it is as if we were seeing the crazed composer fully enthralled by his task, huffing, cursing, stamping his feet, because his idea keeps refusing to take on the ideal form he imagined.”
There are two methods. And both work. “Mozart plays with his art like the wind with the leaves. Beethoven struggles with music like Hercules fighting the hydra with a hundred heads. And the work of both produces the same perfection. The work of both gives us the same ineffable bliss.”
Creativity has no formulas
Poe and the Marseillaise
Zweig attempted to demonstrate that creativity has no formulas.Or maybe they are infinite. The distance between the way two different works of art came about may be unfathomable.Such is the gap that existed between a piece like the Marseillaise and one of the most acclaimed poems by Edgar Allan Poe: The Raven.
“The creator of the Marseillaise was not, strictly speaking, a poet or a composer. He was a technical officer in the French army and he was serving in Strasbourg,” the Austrian novelist explained. “One day the news came that France had declared war on the European kings in the name of freedom. Instantly, the entire city was drunk with enthusiasm. In the afternoon, the mayor offered the military officers a banquet.And he happened to know thatRouget de Lislewas quite talented at composing simple and easy to understand verses.The mayor proposed that he quickly compose a marching song for the troops heading to the front.”
“Rouget de Lisle, the insignificant officer, promised to do the best he could. The banquet lasted until well after midnight, and only then did he return to his chamber. He had done much honour to the wine and had diligently participated in the conversations,” Zweig continued. “Many words from the warlike speeches were still flitting about inside his head in the form of isolated phrases, such as ‘le jour de gloire est arrivé’ or ‘allons, marchons!’.Scarcely had he arrived at home when he sat down and scribbled a few verses, even though he had never really been an outstanding poet. Then he took a violin from his cabinet and tried out a melody to accompany those words, even though he had never been a real composer.Two hours later, everything was finished.De Lisle lay down to sleep.The next morning he brought his friend, the mayor, the song that, without any modifications whatsoever, remains a century and a half later the national anthem of France.Unknowingly and unintentionally, a perfectly mediocre man had created, by virtue of a single inspiration, one of the immortal poems and melodies in the world.”
Zweig then spoke of the opposite case. He brought upEdgar Allan Poe and his poemThe Raven.Writing this piece was, for the American, an almost scientific work. “He wrote it word by word, with the precision and logic of a mathematical problem and with no inspiration at all,” said Zweig. “He says that every effect was carefully meditated and that nothing was left to chance.(…) Everything is assembled and composed, piece by piece, like a complicated machine, word by word, vowel by vowel, consonant by consonant, all through tiring, cold and logical effort.And miraculously the result is the same as the Marseillaise, despite the difference between the two methods: a perfect poem.”
Zweig thus arrived at his final conclusion. “Now I must make a confession,” he announced to Argentinian audience. “These two states are often mysteriously combined within the artist. It is not enough to be inspired for the artist to produce. One must work and work to bring that inspiration to the perfect shape. The true formula of artistic creation is not inspiration or work, but rather inspiration plus work, exaltation plus patience, creative delight plus creative torment.”
It is not enough to be inspired to produce
“Everyone has their own method, their own speed, their own difficulties, their own ease. And there is no law of time for the artist: he himself creates his own time,” he said. “The method is nothing. Perfection is everything, and it is foolish to argue about what would be best. All roads that lead to perfection are successful ones, and each artist can only go down one of those roads: his own.”