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Creativity and the laughable

[ by Charles Cameron — creativity, Taliban, Leonardo, pareidolia, Virgin Mary, Kwan-yin ]

Sharing, as I do with Zen, a keen interest in the creative process, I am used to the idea that an idea that seems trivial at first, the very expression of which risks making oneself a laughing-stock, may well carry the seed of success.

Whitehead is quoted as saying, “Every really new idea looks crazy at first.” Einstein, “If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it.” Nils Bohr, “Your theory is crazy, but it’s not crazy enough to be true.” The idea is not even confined to physicists and mathematicians. Mark Twain observed, “The man with a new idea is a crank – until the idea succeeds.” And Winston Churchill, “No idea is so outlandish that it should not be considered with a searching but at the same time steady eye.”

I was therefore intrigued to read this account of the origins of the Taliban’s recent Kandahar prison break:

One of the surprising mujahideen squad in the city of Kandahar, who by his connections gained full knowledge of the inside and outside of the prison, pondered one day whether it could be possible to dig a tunnel from the inside of a house on the other side of the street to the prison as a means to releasing the prisoners. This fantasy and imagination seemed laughable at first even to its owner; he dared not share his opinion with others. But, after more time and continued thinking, he reached a conclusion. On one of these days, while he was riding a motorcycle with two of his comrades, he shared that view with them. They thought it impossible initially and deemed it a fruitless, dangerous attempt. Finally, they placed their trust on God and shared their opinion with the mujahideen high command in Kandahar. With guidelines from the command, the aforementioned four revealed [to] their trusted comrades their decision to implement this plan regardless of its risks and even if it looked impossible.

The sentence that really got my attention was this one:

This fantasy and imagination seemed laughable at first even to its owner; he dared not share his opinion with others.


Leonardo da Vinci once wrote of having “a new and speculative idea, which although it may seem trivial and almost laughable, is none the less of great value in quickening the spirit of the invention.”

His “trivial and almost laughable” idea?

It is this: that you should look at certain walls stained with damp or at stones of uneven colour. If you have to invent some setting you will be able to see in these the likeness of divine landscapes, adorned with mountains, ruins, rocks, woods, great plains, hills and valleys in great variety; and then again you will see there battles and strange figures in violent action, expressions of faces and clothes and an infinity of things which you will be able to reduce to their complete and proper forms. In such walls the same thing happens as in the sound of bells, in whose strokes you may find every word which you can imagine.

Essentially, Leonardo is suggesting that we use what’s effectively the Rorschach technique to induce pareidolia (I think that’s the state) and elicit mental contents – images triggered by the mind’s eagerness to sense meaning – thus imitating the universe itself in bringing something out of nothing, out of the potent void.


This is, however, the same psychological mechanism that brought us the sale of a grilled cheese sandwich for $28,000 on eBay – because it “looked like” the Virgin Mary

That’s not a note I’d like to end on, however — so I’ll just remind myself that we don’t “know” what the Virgin Mary looks like, and pass on to the rather charming story of a similar pareidolic image, this one possessing the almost miraculous property of looking simultaneously like the Blessed Virgin and the bodhisattva of compassion, Kuan-Yin:

Situated in the East Bay area, near the lovely city of San Francisco, the Purple Lotus School is witnessing yet another miracle. … In April 1996, when the great “Merit Wall” on campus had just been constructed, a mysterious face appeared on the wall immediately after the cement dried. … Buddhists who have witnessed this phenomenon believe this to be the face of the compassionate Bodhisattva Kuan-Yin. … Others have believed this image to be that of the Virgin Mary. Magia and Junia Chou, the daughters of the Purple Lotus Society’s Master Samantha Chou, attend a Catholic elementary school. Upon seeing the image, both called out earnestly and delightedly, “Look! It’s the Virgin Mary!” … With the essence of Enlightenment and universal wisdom in mind, perhaps one can argue that a distinction between the two is not important after all.


It’s laughable, I know — but I must confess I like the “meaning” I can draw from that…

2 Responses to “Creativity and the laughable”

  1. zen Says:

    You have hit on a very important point here Charles.
    The "craziness" perception is driven, I think, by two things. First, the idea is transgressing our inituitive understanding of how the world works in the sense of rules, laws, principles – our internalized sense of both metaphysics as well as our experience of physics. We recoil reflexively rather than consciously. Secondly, it trespasses on Kuhn’s concept of a paradigm as a cultural template as well as explanatory model. here are our conscious worries and calculations, our careerism and our social anxieties reign.
    How many good ideas and insights die here, I wonder?

  2. J.ScottShipman Says:

    Charles, Great post! Not sure how I missed it the first time, but a welcomed reference. Zen, Too many good ideas and insights die in our worries.

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