Reflection 9: Creativity

October 20, 2008

(Copyright © 2008) 

Consciousness is essentially creative. That’s why we have it, to solve problems we didn’t anticipate. If reflexes won’t get us out of our fix, nor habits, nor training, then we’ve got to come up with something else. Something we haven’t tried before. Something new. Consciousness to the rescue!


Imagine the difficulty early peoples faced in becoming conversant with the thousand points of light (Saint Exupéry’s phrase) in the night sky (which from his standpoint in the Sahara Desert, might be almost 2,000). Planets could be distinguished by their shifting positions among the fixed stars, and individual stars could be named (Altair, from Arabic, “the bird”; Rigel, from Arabic phrase, “left foot of the central one”; Betelgeuse, from Arabic, “hand of the central one”). The challenge lay in identifying regions of the celestial hemisphere that could be mapped into consciousness.


Constellations were invented to solve the problem of making the heavens meaningful to shepherds, travelers, sailors, and other early star gazers, not to mention the early astronomers and geometers who developed techniques for mapping the heavens onto the mind.


How did these pioneers tame the wild heavens? Easily, by mapping their minds onto the stars. They made the strange familiar by taking possession of it in terms of widely known and familiar images fit for the task. Nothing too ornate or complex, just basic outlines, like connecting the dots, in this case the dots being points of light. Here is the paradigm of conscious endeavor. We cast our minds upon the stars, and the stars give us back. . . our own minds! By casting old shapes and meanings onto new phenomena, consciousness brings us full circle. We domesticate nature and call it ours (when exactly the reverse is true—we are as wild as the stars because we are made of the same stuff).


The modern constellations (or asterisms, from Greek Aster, “star”) divide the celestial sphere into 88 conventionalized regions, each containing thousands of stars when viewed through a telescope. Many appear to us much as they did to the ancients who named them. Cygnus actually looks like a great swan flying overhead, Serpens flows like a snake, Delphinus leaps like a dolphin, Draco twists like a dragon. These creatures in the sky are all seen from the northern hemisphere. Southern constellations were named millennia later, when navigators were more mindful of the looks of their tools than of animals. They gave us Antlia, the air pump; Fornax, the furnace; Norma, the level; Sextans, the sextant; Pyxis, the compass; along with Microscopium and Telescopium.


To track the apparent positions of sun, moon, and planets, early astronomers designated their respective locations along the path they traveled against the stars (the zodiac) by calibrating it into twelve more-or-less equal constellations. Many early cultures made their own versions of the zodiac. The western tradition has given us Aries, The Ram; Taurus, The Bull; Gemini, The Twins; Cancer, The Crab; Leo, The Lion; Virgo, The Virgin; Libra, The Scales; Scorpio, The Scorpion; Sagittarius, The Archer; Capricorn, The Horned Goat; Aquarius, The Water-bearer; and Pisces, The Fish.


Clearly, these figures are not in the stars themselves but in our heads. Our ancestors put them out there to solve the very real problem of keeping track of the seasons, not only of the year, but of human life. Consciously deifying sun, moon, and planets, early astronomer-priests gave order to the trials of yearly survival in terms representing the will of the gods. Planets were designated angels (Greek angelos, messenger), messengers of the gods, whose decrees could be interpreted from their heavenly positions.


Thus casting their conscious minds onto the stars, priests put on robes of great magnificence, as if their words were backed by celestial authority. We still depict many of them with halos of heavenly light. This is one of the most profound examples of conscious minds turning the natural world to their own purposes. Which is exactly how the presidential election of 2008 will be decided on November 4th. Voters will cast their judgment on competing slates of mortal candidates as if one or another were truly qualified to lead the nation from its sea of troubles. Voting is an act of magical thinking, just like seeing lions and dragons in the stars.


That’s consciousness for you. Pure magic. Discovering our preferences and pretenses in the world as if they were external to us and we did not author them ourselves. We make it all up as we go along, and call it truth. What could be more creative than that! 



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