Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2488
CREATOR VS. REVISOR

by Roger Kaza

Today, creator vs. revisor. The University of Houston’s Music School presents this program about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them. 

There’s a scene towards the end of the 1984 movie Amadeus where an impresario demands that Mozart finish the opera he promised. “Oh, it is finished,” Mozart replies. “Up here,” he says, pointing to his forehead. “The rest is just scribbling.”

And that’s our “genius” fantasy, isn’t it? Einstein, poring over dreary patent applications while working out the theory of relativity in his head. Mozart, taking musical dictation from God, as a pathologically envious Salieri imagines it in Amadeus. The perfect product is somehow out there in the ether, perfectly finished at the cosmic factory. We just have to find it — the rest is just scribbling.

But it rarely works that way. Maybe it never works that way. A creator may work at a white heat, but there’s a cold shadow by his side. Let’s call the shadow “Revisor.” Revisor has no first thoughts, only second thoughts. Revisor also has a terrible case of OCD. He’s always asking the same question: could it be better?

The point came home to me the other day at a library in Austin, Texas, while looking over the papers of the screenwriter Ernest Lehman. Lehman wrote the script to Alfred Hitchcock’s classic spy thriller, North by Northwest, a movie with so many plot twists that even the star Cary Grant complained he couldn’t follow them. There, in black pencil on faded yellow legal paper, were Lehman’s initial scrawls for his brilliantly convoluted screenplay. I recognized some scenes from the movie, and some dialogue. But I didn’t find a single bit that was better than the final version. Revisor, whether in the person of Hitchcock, or Lehman, or perhaps even the actors themselves, had indeed improved things.

photograph of Cary Grant in North by Northwest's biplane scene
A malevolent biplane is perhaps the best-known villain
in Hitchcock/Lehman’s
North by Northwest.

Sometimes Revisor can be ruthlessly uncompromising. The novelist E. L. Doctorow talks about the time he finished 150 pages of a novel, then sat down to read it. It was boring. The author was bored by his own work! Not a good sign. He inserted a blank sheet of paper into the typewriter and started over, changing the narration from third person to first. In a second he knew he had found the right voice.

But where do you draw the line? Do you keep revising, like Anton Bruckner did with his symphonies, on the advice of well-meaning friends, so that future editors now have to sort out which version you really preferred? To trot out the old clichéd question, when is the work of art finished? Maybe it’s finished — for better or worse — when Creator and Revisor have nothing more to say to each other.

So then, what about Mozart, with his perfect, uncorrected first drafts, ready for the printer? What about Picasso in front of a blank canvas, getting up an hour or two later, another masterpiece down? Maybe in a handful of lucky souls, Creator and Revisor are like those identical twins so close that they complete each other’s sentences. They never fight. They’re both there, at all times, but you can’t tell where one starts and the other finishes. Their first choices always seem to be the right ones.

And, as for the rest of us? Well, thank heavens for the “delete” key.

photograph of Cary Grant in shooting scene North by Northwest
Revision rarely assures perfection. In this well-known movie gaffe from North by Northwest, a child extra in the background can be seen plugging his ears in anticipation of the shooting.

I’m Roger Kaza, at the University of Houston, where we’re interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


In the Peter Shaffer/Milos Forman Oscar-winning movie Amadeus, Antonio Salieri is portrayed as an obsessively jealous rival who hastens Mozart’s demise. The movie took dramatic license, however. An interesting historical discussion of the complex relationship between Mozart and Salieri, including the controversial poisoning theory, can be found here.

Ernest Lehman’s papers are archived at the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas, Austin. Lehman, whose writing credits include The King and I, West Side Story, and The Sound of Music, died in 2005.

There are many Hitchcock fan sites. This one has 1000 images from North by Northwest, and 1000 from each of Hitchcock’s 52 films.

My comments on North by Northwest at IMDB.com. (Warning: contains spoilers; read only if you have already seen the movie.)

Images courtesy of hitchcockfans.com.

Doctorow’s revised novel was The Book of Daniel. The remarks above are from a talk he gave at the Chautauqua Institution, 2008, which can be downloaded or streamed from thegreatlecturelibrary.com.



The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2009 by John H. Lienhard.