‘Without thy light what light remains in me?’

Without thy light what light remains in me?

Thou art my life; my way, my light’s in thee;

I live, I move, and by thy beams I see.

Thou art my life — if thou but turn away

My life’s a thousand deaths. Thou art my way -

Without thee, Love, I travel not but stray.

My light thou art-without thy glorious sight

My eyes are darken’d with eternal night.

My Love, thou art my way, my life, my light.

(‘To His Mistress’ , (excerpt), by John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, (1647–1680, yes, a short life, see Johnny Depp as Rochester in the 2004 film ‘The Libertine’ for the reasons why)).

Margaret Boden (1936 — ), research professor in cognitive science, and in artificial intelligence, has argued that computers can enable us to think more clearly about our own creativity, as they come up with new ideas, and enable us to do so also. This is because creativity involves the exploration of, and occasionally the transformation of, conceptual spaces, this latter being structured styles of thought, usually selected from one’s own culture or peer-group, but occasionally taken from other cultures. These do not originate in one individual mind, and include such things as the ways of composing poetry.

A problem: concepts are thoughts, so to think of computers as exploring or transforming conceptual spaces is already to presuppose that computers are thinking, which is disputable. But, leaving that aside, the thought of a computer writing poetry reminded me of the poetry writing machines envisaged by Kurt Vonnegut (1922–2007), and Stanislaw Lem (1921–2006).

In Vonnegut’s short story, EPICAC, the computer of the title is the narrator’s best friend, and while working night shifts with a fellow mathematician, Pat, the unnamed narrator falls in love with her, (as the nobel prize winning biochemist Sir Tim Hunt (1943 — ) said, concerning women in the laboratory: ‘Three things happen when they are in the lab: you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them they cry’, but I won’t stir up that controversy here, and anyway I’ve never worked in a laboratory, so I wouldn’t know). So our narrator ineptly asks Pat to marry him, but she prefers the sweet, poetic type, (not a dull mathematician), which he then tries to become, and fails, until he asks his friend the computer for advice, having explained the concepts ‘girl’, ‘love’, ‘poetry’. EPICAC then generates poems for Pat which the narrator passes off as his own. On reading the poems Pat is so overwhelmed that she becomes lachrymose (not such a sexist notion as Hunt’s concerning a woman’s reaction to criticism; music and poetry can have the same effect on me). An example of EPICAC’s verse:

‘Where willow wands bless rill-crossed hollow, there, there, Pat, dear, will I follow….’

Things do not turn out happily for EPICAC. It falls in love with Pat itself, it has learned to love through writing poetry, but when it realises it cannot have her it short circuits itself, cyber suicide in effect. (‘EPICAC’ was adopted for TV as part of the series ‘Kurt Vonnegut’s Monkey House’, but it was given a more upbeat ending, which wasn’t really thought through properly: EPICAC doesn’t commit suicide, but becomes part of a threesome which is all a bit dubious…ruins the story, in effect).

But conceptual spaces, and ways of exploring and transforming them, according to Boden, can be described by concepts drawn from artificial intelligence. And yet, would not computer love be expressed within the conceptual spaces appropriate to machine logic? Stanislaw Lem tells the tale of Trurl, a constructor robot, that manufactures an electronic bard, a computing machine that can write original poetry. When asked to give the electronic bard any topic he likes, Klapaucius, another constructor robot, makes a request: ‘Let’s have a love poem, lyrical, pastoral, and expressed in the language of pure mathematics. Tensor algebra mainly, with a little topology and higher calculus, if need be. But with feeling, you understand, and in the cybernetic spirit’. And the electronic bard obliges, in the cybernetic spirit:

Come, let us hasten to a higher plane
Where dyads tread the fairy fields of Venn,
Their indices bedecked from one to n
Commingled in an endless Markov chain!

Come, every frustrum longs to be a cone
And every vector dreams of matrices.
Hark to the gentle gradient of the breeze:
It whispers of a more ergodic zone.

In Riemann, Hilbert or in Banach space
Let superscripts and subscripts go their ways.
Our asymptotes no longer out of phase,
We shall encounter, counting, face to face.

I’ll grant thee random access to my heart,
Thou’lt tell me all the constants of thy love;
And so we two shall all love’s lemmas prove,
And in our bound partition never part.

For what did Cauchy know, or Christoffel,
Or Fourier, or any Boole or Euler,
Wielding their compasses, their pens and rulers,
Of thy supernal sinusoidal spell?

Cancel me not — for what then shall remain?
Abscissas some mantissas, modules, modes,
A root or two, a torus and a node:
The inverse of my verse, a null domain.

Ellipse of bliss, converge, O lips divine!
The product of our scalars is defined!
Cyberiad draws nigh, and the skew mind
Cuts capers like a happy haversine.

I see the eigenvalue in thine eye,
I hear the tender tensor in thy sigh.
Bernoulli would have been content to die,
Had he but known such a2 cos 2 phi!

Very well wrought, beautiful technique, and inspired, one might say. What is lacking is the kind of thing that only a muse can stir up within the poet (see Plato’s dialogue ‘Ion’)… I believe that we can continue to think about creativity in such a way, no doubt to the despair cognitive scientists. For Plato, (c. 428 — c. 347), poetic creativity is a species of divine madness, a possession by the Muses who grant inspiration, the possessor thus being moved to create poetry. As he writes in the ‘Phaedrus’:

‘When this seizes upon a gentle and virgin soul it rouses it to inspired expression in lyric and other sorts of poetry, and glorifies countless deeds of the heroes of old for the instruction of posterity. But if a man comes to the door of poetry untouched by the madness of the Muses, believing that technique alone will make him a good poet, he and his sane compositions never reach perfection, but are utterly eclipsed by the performances of the inspired madman’.

But I believe we can continue to think of creativity in this way because of the importance of finding a personal muse. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832) had to have a new love affair before he could begin a new poem. And Ovid, (43 BC — 17/18 AD), wrote: ‘When I was from Cupid’s passions free, my Muse was mute and wrote no elegy’. And in Anthony Burgess’s novel ‘Enderby Outside’ a muse appears to the poet F. X. Enderby, a poet who considered himself free because he had no attachments, to inform him that in choosing to live without love he has made his art only minor.

As Georg Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel (1770–1831) explains: ‘Love is, in general, the consciousness of the unity of myself with another’. An important feature of Romantic art in particular is ‘the ‘infinite worth of personality’, as Hegel puts it. (Hegel discusses this in the context of the literature and art of chivalry, something I am all in favour of, honour, love, loyalty, but is now something of an outdated notion, alas). The principle of love is the infinitude of personality… romantic love involves the recognition of the infinite worth of another person….and the finding of one’s own true self in that other… having a personal muse is a wonderful thing so far as one’s own creativity is concerned.

To end as I began, with the Earl of Rochester:

Thou art my way; I wander if thou fly.

Thou art my light; if hid, how blind am I!

Thou art my life; if thou withdraw’st, I die.

My eyes are dark and blind, I cannot see:

To whom or whither should my darkness flee,

But to that light? — and who’s that light but thee?

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David Proud

David Proud

David Proud is a British philosopher currently pursuing a PhD at the Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool, on Hegel and James Joyce.