A friend of mine once put forward the theory that art and religion developed to pay homage to, or to pray for, good hunting. He’d been talking about the prehistoric cave paintings at Lascaux—the idea being that hunting was so central to these folks’ survival that they didn’t just choose, but were compelled, to create the art that today evokes in us so deep a sense of wonder. Of course, if this art sprang from such an elemental well, so too would have the engineering of weapons for the hunt: the triangles of pointed rock, the straight charcoal lines of spears arcing toward their prey. Art and design; geometry and engineering. Sounds something like what we do at Cornell.
And then there is John Cleese, Cornell’s longtime professor-at-large. Since 1999, he’s been visiting, lecturing, listening, and making us laugh. He has been our most surprising tutor, our unexpected long-term guest. Yet as well-known as he is, many Cleese fans (and even Cornellians) have no idea what he’s about outside of his day job. Professor at Large, a new collection of Cleese’s public talks at Cornell, presents a portrait of a mind at work. His topics are wide-ranging, from psychology to religion to screenwriting. But over and over, what reappears in different contexts is a fascination with the creative process, and (usefully) his interest in how to get there, as well as pitfalls to avoid, on the path to the “relaxed, attentive, open, and inquiring states of mind,” that allow creativity to flourish.
As it turns out, Professor at Large is, on one hand, a kind of how-to book for students of creativity. One could unearth a decent cache of listicle points from its pages, if need be. (My favorite, which happens to be from the screenwriter William Goldman: “Read it five or six times, each time with a different color pen.”) It’s also an argument shouted against prevailing winds. Cleese pays due respect to “the practical workaday thinking” that “relies on the application of reason and logic to known data.” However, he warns against a common bias toward “fast, purposeful, logical thinking,” not only in how we pursue success in business and academics, but also in our search for personal happiness.
(Listicle point: Get a cat. “The nice thing about cats is when they grow up, they don’t blame you for everything.”)
The quiet, open space, both physical and metaphorical, that Cleese defines as necessary for creative production will be familiar to practitioners of meditation, to solitary wanderers, and to those seeking to understand with humility the sacred writings of their chosen religion. It (surprisingly) comes as no surprise that much of Professor at Large has to do with religion and mysticism. Cleese makes it clear that they are not necessarily synonyms and are frequently at odds. He is against the certitude of doctrine because of what it stifles: the same openness of mind that summons up creative insight. One might call his writing the Gospel According to Brian, which in fact is the subject of an essay that’s both amusing and profound.
My friend told me that the Neanderthals buried their dead with amulets of sharpened stone. The better to hunt in the afterlife, he said. I’m no scholar, and I don’t know if it’s true, but it makes a good story.
About the author of this blog post: Elizabeth Kim is marketing designer for Cornell University Press, where she continues to look on the bright side of life.
*Original source of featured image: Empire