The Janusian Process in Creativity

Creativity, according to the most precise and meaningful scientific definition, consists of the production of entities that are both new and valuable. The newness is unprecedented and the value may involve usefulness, conceptual or aesthetic precision, or advance.

My research on creativity as director of the project, “Studies in the Creative Process” has consisted of intensive exploratory interviews and controlled psychological experiments involving prizewinning creative people in literature, art, architecture, mathematics, science, and business. One of the creative processes I have discovered is named after the Roman God, Janus, who possessed several opposite-directed faces. Designated the “Janusian process,” it consists of actively conceiving two or more opposite or contradictory ideas, concepts, or images simultaneously, a conception leading to the production of new identities.

Examples of the use of the Janusian process

The following excerpts illustrate instances of the use of the Janusian process by some of my outstanding creative interview subjects:

  • Arthur Miller, emblematic American playwright-author of Death of a Salesman, essayist, and screenwriter, indicated that he had come up with the specific idea for his also famous play, Incident at Vichy, while traveling through Germany: “Driving on the autobahn,” he said to me, “I suddenly felt amazed and overwhelmed at how beautiful Germany had become.” He had then conceived of writing a play that would simultaneously express the opposites of the beauty of modern Germany and Hitler’s destructiveness. “And then,” he said, “I remembered a story I’d been told about a sacrifice made by an Austrian nobleman for a Jew in a Nazi official’s waiting room.” He developed the story of the simultaneously antithetical or opposite sacrifice in his play.
  • Richard Wilbur, the twice-American winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, related that he had been walking on a beach and became interested in the quality of some rocks along the sand. As he touched the surface of the rocks, he noted that they seemed to feel like smooth human skin. They were, however, also hard, heavy objects—violent weapons. The idea that the rocks were at once sensual objects and weapons led to a conception of the simultaneous operation of sex and violence in the world, and Wilbur elaborated those aspects separately and together in the final version of the poem.
  • Poet James Merrill, awarded two National Book Awards, the Bollinger Prize for Poetry and the 1977 Poetry Pulitzer Prize, had been home thinking about a past travel incident in which a horse had appeared at a lonely desert site when it occurred to him that horses are animals who “renounce their own kind in order to live our lives.” The idea that horses live human lives, that they are antithetically both beast and not-beast and human and not-human simultaneously, generated his famous poem, “In Monument Valley,” with the central image and theme of a happy and intense relationship between a young person and a horse, together with a sad, resigned separation.
  • Robert Penn Warren, the only American writer to receive a Pulitzer Prize in both fiction (once) and poetry (twice) recounted to me that he was doing his morning exercises when he thought of a series of poetic lines that, as he described them, would employ the last word of each line as the first word of the next—a juxtaposition that sets one word to simultaneously opposite functions, both ending and beginning a poetic thought. In the end, his important poem implicitly retained that structure.

In addition to literary creation, simultaneous oppositions are generating factors and bases of outstanding musical and artistic works, building designs and operations, mathematical breakthroughs, scientific discoveries, and successfully enterprising and far-reaching business practices.

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