Crisis into creativity

ASU scholars explore how trying times influence creative minds

woman writing in notebook


For advice during the present COVID-19 crisis, we need look no further than Shakespeare: “Have patience and endure.”

The line comes from “Much Ado About Nothing” and is spoken by Friar Francis to the bewildered Hero after she is suddenly left alone at the altar on her wedding day. But the sentiment is likely something the Bard of Avon learned from experience — his life was marked by several plague outbreaks, during which he often passed the time in isolation by writing.

In fact, a recent article on the subject quoted ASU Foundation Professor Jonathan Bate’s biography of Shakespeare, “Soul of the Age,” which reads, “Plague was the single most powerful force shaping his life and those of his contemporaries.”

And they’re not the only ones. Across time and space, some of the most reflective and enduring narratives were inspired by such widespread crises. Now, thanks to the magic of the internet, students and scholars across Arizona State University will be able to maintain social distancing measures while exploring the relationship between crisis and creativity.

This Thursday, Ed Finn, director of the Center for Science and the Imagination, and Torie Bosch, editor of Future Tense, will host a webinar titled “When Crises Unleash Your Imagination” as part of a new, biweekly series of interactive conversations via Zoom, called Social Distancing Socials.

And beginning Monday, April 6, ASU’s School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership will be hosting “Pandemic Dialogues: Conversations on Civic Crisis,” a series of live webinars, each discussing a great work of philosophy or literature on pandemics and civic crisis, as well as a podcast series discussing Camus’s novel “The Plague.”

“From one perspective, life is always a crisis and art is always a response to that crisis,” Finn said. “We’re always trying to make meaning and beauty out of all the things we’re struggling through.”

One example of that is Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein.” Finn is the co-director of the Frankenstein Bicentennial Project, an initiative that engaged scholars at ASU with the public around issues of science, technology and creative responsibility.

“Frankenstein is absolutely an example of art coming out of suffering,” Finn said.

Shelley wrote the novel while shut up for the entire summer of 1816 in a house at Lake Geneva in Switzerland with a group of fellow writers. Their isolation was due to the volcanic eruption of Mount Tambora, which was so massive it caused a change in global weather patterns, resulting in crop failure and famine. Combined with the personal traumas Shelley had withstood throughout her life — her own mother died giving birth to her and Shelley herself lost a baby in infancy — she had plenty of fodder for a novel that contemplates life, death and suffering.

“The art that people create out of isolation or out of extreme events is sometimes a way of processing those events,” Finn said. “Sometimes it’s about sharing an experience with other people, whether to normalize it or even just to name it, that process is really important.”

Storytelling can also be a way of coping via distraction, said Ian Moulton, professor of English and cultural history in ASU's College of Integrative Sciences and Arts. For example, in Italian scholar Giovanni Boccaccio’s “The Decameron” (which will be the focus of SCETL’s second “Pandemic Dialogues” webinar), a group of 10 wealthy young people tell each other stories to pass the time while quarantined in a Tuscan villa during the Bubonic plague.

“It’s kind of like how we’re binge-watching nowadays,” Moulton said. “We need some space from dealing with the unpleasant realities that we can do little about, and that seem random and meaningless.”

And it’s not just consumption of creative works that serves as a healthy distraction, but the creation of them.

“In some cases, great crises have led people to the most extraordinary creativity,” said Bate, noting that Shakespeare was primarily an actor before an outbreak of plague in 1592 shut down theaters across London, causing him to stay home and develop his skills writing poetry.

One of the first plays he wrote after the theaters reopened was “Romeo and Juliet,” a key plot point of which has to do with plague: The reason Romeo does not know that Juliet is only sleeping and not dead is because the messenger charged with delivering that information to him was quarantined before he had the chance. Later in Shakespeare’s career, when plague once again sent him into isolation, he began writing long, profound tragedies like “King Lear.”

Though challenging times can indeed engender more somber narratives, Finn for one takes heart in the belief that any creative endeavor is a testament to humankind’s willingness to continue imagining new outcomes.

“The biggest silver lining I’ve seen in the pandemic we’re living through right now is that we’re using our imaginations to think of other people more,” he said. “A lot of people are making choices, sometimes drastic choices, in an effort to protect strangers, people they might never meet. That kind of imagination is fundamental if we’re going to survive not just this pandemic but all the other challenges coming our way. Things like climate change require us to imagine a responsibility for others that goes beyond just close family and friends.

“We’re starting to do that, and we’re seeing what’s possible; we’ve already massively reduced our carbon footprint, the California government is talking about housing the homeless, we’re having conversations about sick leave and medical care that would never have happened before. … I just hope we can come out of this hanging onto that shared sense of responsibility.”

Top photo courtesy of Pixabay

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