Insights In The Middle Of Night

Every so often, in the middle of night, when it seems no one else in all the world is awake, a rare insight presents itself. An aspect of life previously obscure comes into focus. A blueprint for some artistic endeavor appears out of the dark silence. Notes and chords and melodies turn up all at once for the musician, and plots and characters and meanings pour into the novelist's head. Something is seen or realized or understood.

Hours later, the nocturnal mood vanishes, and with it the artistic afflatus. The mind is then lost in the traffic of daily cares, and no scribbled note, no matter how thorough or accurate, can recapture the ethereal circumstances from before. The note always seems to miss the bull's eye of the original revelation, and successive revisions are apt to stray even further.

What is it that happens? How does one explain the sudden ascent to ideational grandeur, and then the quick descent back to workaday consciousness?

Perhaps the mix of mood and quiet are conducive to revelation. A materialist would remind us that the chemistry of the brain is different at 3 in the morning than at 2 in the afternoon, and that a host of other factors, from sleep deprivation to metabolic changes to dreamy sorts of states, could be involved. This account says nothing about the vividness of the experience, the worth of the insights themselves, and the totality of feelings and sensations involved. Nor does it explain why legions of creative geniuses, from Shelley and Joyce to Proust and Churchill, found the wee hours of the morning to be most propitious for work. Nor, too, does it readily account for all other odd moments in which some illuminating thought reaches the mind -- moments that can be triggered by gazing at a mountain range or at an ocean, by ambling outside during the first minutes of sunrise, by staring out at the sky as the sun has already set.

There is another side to this problem, too. Why does it seem that the idea or insight is perfect upon receipt, but considerably less so by the time it is transcribed? The mind can conceive of a perfect geometric shape but the hand will always produce an imperfect copy on paper or in the sand; likewise, a story or song or painting or sculpture is flawless as an idea in the mind, but loses its luster the second a material representation is attempted. In the middle of day, in the midst of routine, the artist is stuck with his materials and struggles with the conversion. The statue, Michelangelo said famously, is already in the stone, has been in the stone since the beginning of time, and the sculptor's job is to chisel away the superfluous material. He might just as well have said that the statue already exists as an idea, and that the sculptor's job is merely to produce a good facsimile of it.

I wonder, too, if the artist has any responsibility to share his insights with the world, or whether he isn't justified in keeping the wisdom to himself. "I've taken in the air of the misty heavens," the poet could say, "why should I bother to adulterate it and exhale it out as so many imperfect stanzas?" The human tendency, of course, is not to be content with seeing or experiencing something rare or beautiful, but to turn any insight at all into a movie or play or book. It is telling that the philosopher who first argued that the good life consists in contemplation happened never to write anything at all.