Sometimes I worry that I’ve given a blog entry a title that someone else has used before. This time I think I’m safe.
I saw Black Swan over the weekend and loved it. For me this movie was about losing yourself in your art, and in that way finding that experience of being alive, what Joseph Campbell called “following your bliss.” I think this movie is metaphor. I could argue that all the horrible things Nina the ballerina does or experiences in this film are in her imagination, and I actually think a strong case can be made for it. But I don’t have to, because real or not the events are all just metaphor. The film is about art, and Nina’s discovery of the artist within her. The rest is incidental (yes, even THAT scene!)
Most reviews I’ve read describe the movie as a descent into madness, but they miss the point. Creating art is like madness, but that doesn’t make it madness itself. Art is by its nature the creation of something that wasn’t there before, and is therefore unreal. What you see in your mind, what you imagine, what you are driven to create doesn’t exist until you create it. So of course that act of creation feels crazy. It’s believing in something that doesn’t exist – yet.
Emily Dickinson wrote a poem about what it feels like to give birth to a poem – how painful, tortuous, maddening, and finally liberating it can be. The creative power! The power to give life to something that never existed until it somehow grew within your own mind, sprang from your own soul. Here’s the poem:
I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading – treading – till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through –
And when they all were seated,
A Service, like a Drum –
Kept beating – beating – till I thought
My Mind was going numb –
And then I heard them lift a Box
And creak across my Soul
With those same Boots of Lead, again,
Then Space – began to toll,
As all the Heavens were a Bell,
And Being, but an Ear,
And I, and Silence, some strange Race
Wrecked, solitary, here –
And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down –
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing – then –
OK, now you’re convinced. I’m out of my mind. This isn’t a poem about writing poetry, it’s a poem about going crazy. That’s what all the critics and all the web sites say. And THEY’RE ALL WRONG! Notice the hints Emily Dickinson leaves us.
Sense was breaking through – not through the floor, that comes later in the poem. This sense is the sense of what this newest, latest poem is going to be about. Dickinson, who wrote in the metaphor of death, had a muse. That muse was a funeral.
Those same boots of lead, again. Several times in the poem, Dickinson indicates that this experience was not once in a lifetime. It has happened to her, in her, again and again.
All the heavens were a bell and being but an ear. She couldn’t help but listen to her muse, the sound in her head was so loud that it consumed her existence, turning her into a receiver only, just an ear.
Her race is with silence, in other words, with death. It isn’t clear in this poem if Dickinson fears death, but it is quite clear that she fears losing to silence, not creating this new poem before she dies. She sees herself wrecked, solitary, unable to complete this thing that is her child, her creation, before silence finally wins.
So far, maybe you’re not convinced. All these things could just as easily apply to madness. Fair enough. But in the final stanza, Dickinson reveals the true nature of this act of creation.
A plank in reason breaks. The final wall, the final block between her and this future place where the poem lives, complete and perfect. With this plank broken, Dickinson falls freely. Again we see that she’s made this journey before, hitting a “world” (a poem) each time she’s taken the plunge. What an amazing metaphor! Writing poetry, creating anything really, is taking a plunge, believing that you’ll hit a world, not knowing, yet taking the leap. The leap . . .
And then the last line, where Dickinson reveals that now, finished, she has a knowledge she lacked before. As painful as it was, she has followed her bliss, she has hit a world, she has finished knowing.
But she’s not done, and maybe never will be. The word –then– followed by Dickinson’s favorite punctuation, the pregnant, anticipatory dash, sends us back to the top of the poem, where the entire process begins again. Lather, rinse, repeat.
This act of creation, this birthing and breathing of life into art, is never pretty. It upsets people. It makes one late for dinner. It soils what we think is proper in ballet, or poetry. Or science. Yes, you knew I had to get there eventually.
Niels Bohr was an artist, as much as he was a scientist. Just like Nina in Black Swan, just like Emily Dickinson with her world plunging, Niels Bohr fought and struggled and convulsed in agonized spasms of pure beauty – and out popped the Bohr model of the atom.
It’s 1911. One of my all-time heroes, Ernest Rutherford, that living bowling ball of enthusiasm and intuition, has just discovered something that cannot be. Rutherford has found that the atom consists of an incredibly dense central nucleus surrounded by bits of orbiting electronic fluff, a little like a miniature solar system. But that is, according to all the science Rutherford or anyone else knows, impossible. Electrons have an electric charge, and whenever objects with an electric charge accelerate, they must radiate away energy. If electrons in an atom did that, all atoms in the universe would collapse to nothing in a tiny fraction of a second.
A tall, shy, and brilliant student of Rutherford’s named Niels Bohr determines to find out why the universe still exists. He plays with an impossible idea. Maybe the electrons don’t fall. No reason, they just don’t. Or rather, they fall, all right, but only an exact, specific amount, and never beyond their lowest energy level. There they stay, never to cease. Why? Mystery . . .
But Bohr’s model, illogical, ugly (and yet so, so beautiful), without any reason behind it, worked. A plank in reason broke (not Max Planck, though I’m sure he wasn’t pleased) and Bohr plunged into a new world. And it worked. When Bohr compared his model to the spectral lines produced by hydrogen, the model worked.
What does that mean, worked? Here’s the picture. A Bohr hydrogen atom has a single electron in orbit. Let’s suppose this atom is energized, perhaps heated, jostled, it doesn’t matter. That means the single electron is orbiting higher than its lowest possible orbit, and that makes the electron unstable. Then, suddenly, the electron falls (a plank in reason breaks?) and out flies a photon. The electron reaches its ground state orbit and stops falling.
Here’s the amazing thing, the thing that Rutherford himself pointed out.
“How,” Rutherford wrote to Bohr, “does an electron decide what frequency it is going to vibrate at when it passes from one stationary state to another? It seems to me that you have to assume that the electron knows beforehand where it is going to stop.”
Indeed. Bohr’s answer, that the transition itself is fundamental, not capable of simpler explanation, was so disturbing that many physicists detested it. Paul Ehrenfest, another physicist and one of Bohr’s closest companions, said, “Bohr’s work . . . has driven me to despair. If this is the way to reach the goal, I must give up doing physics.”
But Bohr had shown the way to the goal. Yes, it is true that the Bohr model was soon eclipsed by better models. But this doesn’t change one bit the amazing accomplishment of this artist doing science. Bohr created something that wasn’t there before, an atom in which electrons behaved like nothing else ever conceived. Bohr hit a world, and finished knowing – then –
Just like Black Swan, just like Dickinson’s funeral in her brain, Bohr’s atom was metaphor. It was creation itself, that act that makes us uniquely human. We are pattern-makers, story tellers. We are the creators. Whether a poem that lasts as long as there are readers, a dance that lasts only moments on the stage, or a model of the atom that holds sway until a better model replaces it, all these creations are metaphor.*
*What’s a metaphor? It’s for cows to eat in!