Saturday, December 24, 2022

Revisiting Robert Grudin for 'The Art of Insight'

In preparation to write a few chapters of The Art of Insight this coming week, I've been re-reading a couple of books by Robert Grudin, The Grace of Great Things and Design and Truth. Grudin's takes are a bit too Platonist for my taste, but his writings are consistently brilliant. Here are some passages from The Grace of Great Things that I underlined the first time I read it:

On insight:

Of all the kinds of joy, none perhaps is so pure as that occasioned by sudden insight. To come to terms independently with a new idea is to celebrate, in the broadest sense of the word, the reality of nature and to appreciate fully one's own human presence. But creativity does not confine itself to happy subjects, or always bring happy results. Too many examples of tragic vision, or of genius in the service of malice, argue the contrary. Moreover, though creative insight may be delightful in itself, it normally is predicated on training, prolonged concentration, and exhausting practice that are not pleasant in the same sense.

On our sense of beauty:

Our sense of beauty is generally restricted to those categories (art, music, love, nature) to which aesthetic language is applied by our culture. But independent insight in all fields involves in some way the experience of beauty. In fact, the thrill conveyed by inspiration in any field is perhaps best described as coming from a sense of participation in beauty, a momentary unity between a perceived beauty of experience and a perceiving beauty of mind.

Much later in the book:

Beauty oddly resembles gravity: like gravity, beauty is a force whose existence is inferred from its apparent effects.

A page later:

Joyce sees beauty not as simple quality but as a function of the relation between subject and object. When a given object is properly understood (exquisite, adjusted), its beauty leaps out to the person who understands it. Beauty, therefore, is not a wholly independent force; neither, however, is it an illusion or social convention or mere “effect” of object upon subject. It is rather the natural and necessary consequence of the proper interaction between subject and object or, if you will, between mind and reality. 

About innovation and inspiration:

It is striking how many noted revolutionaries and innovators insist that they are maintaining continuity with the past or restoring old ideas that have been corrupted or forgotten [...] Inspiration may be the revelation of something completely new, but it is also the rediscovery of something always true.

About the burden of the past:

Preconceptions can militate against valid insight; investigators who insist on building exclusively upon past findings equip themselves for defeat.

One of my favorites, about the relationship between humor and insight:

Humorless people are unlikely to discover much. They are usually more concerned with their own dignity and rectitude than with anything going on around them. Unavailable to the sudden analogies and anomalies that cause laughter, they are apt to be dull toward other analogies and anomalies as well. Blind to their own humanity, they respond sluggishly to all other experience.