Today, your host learns a lesson. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
I sit in an airplane on the
way back from a speaking engagement. I'm trying to
sort out an odd transaction. I talked about
inventiveness. I told stories about eccentric
creative people -- like the one about Einstein
using the same soap for washing and shaving because
using two soaps made life too complicated. I said
that strange stories follow inventive people
around, because invention itself parts company with
normality. Invention is revolution. Invention is a
trip into an uncharted land. Invention is
eccentricity. It can be no other.
Afterward, a bright young man asked, "Do you mean I
can't be inventive and still live a normal life?"
It was an ingenuous question, but one I couldn't
take lightly. It was one of those questions that
someone asks when he isn't looking for information.
This fellow saw the issues with perfect clarity. I
felt in my bones that he'd voiced the question
because he hoped he could get a new answer. He was
like the person who goes back again and again to
the opera hoping that, just once, Don José
will have the sense to walk away from Carmen.
All that made the man's question difficult and
dangerous. He so clearly wanted to be let off the
hook. He wanted the brass ring without reaching
into space to get it. He didn't want to risk
humiliation. He didn't want to step off into the
I took a deep breath and answered. I said, "You
cannot be inventive and live a normal life." Oh, I
knew that you can live a normal life, at least in
the outward markers of normalcy. But at some point
you have to go where others haven't gone.
For some time Coleridge's Kubla Khan poem
has been bouncing around in my mind. For several
verses Coleridge tells
of Xanadu, the "stately pleasure dome." But then he
suddenly breaks off -- stops short as though he'd
suddenly been invaded. He wheels full face upon us
and, in one last disjunct verse, cries out a
warning to us. He tells his vision of the creative
daemon rising out of his own creative, troubled
dreams. He says,
That man in the audience saw what other
people in the audience didn't see. He understood why
he should "close his eyes with holy dread" at the
idea of drinking the creative milk of paradise. He
knew what the inventive genie could do for him once
it got out of the bottle. But he'd also caught a
glimpse of the size and power of the beast.
I would build a dome in air,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair.
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honeydew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of paradise.
He asked the question again on the way out of the
building. He knew what was at stake. It bothered
him. Now as the airplane circles into Houston, it
is I who am bothered. He reminded me that
creativity is too large a thing to be taken
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds