It has always been my impression that people who talk and write most about the creative process are not usually very creative. It’s sort of like a corollary to that old maxim, “Those who can’t do, teach”; those who can’t create, analyze creativity. Conversely, I must confess that as a book critic who also publishes creative material, I find no apparent contradiction in attempting to write strictly from my imagination and then—often on the same day—grinding out a book review. Sometimes I criticize a work for being unimaginative, or, in the context of this essay, “uncreative.”

When I conduct workshops for aspiring writers, I often tell them that the creative process is something that cannot be measured, developed, or enhanced. “You either got it, or you ain’t,” I say, which often gets wry smiles from my audience. “You can’t coach speed.” Most of them think I’m lying, of course. They have been taught somewhere that writing (or painting or composing) is all a matter of learning the closely guarded, secret tricks of the trade and then diligently applying them. A failure to succeed in a creative endeavor is merely a failure of effort, not a lack of talent, imagination, or originality. To admit that creativity was required would be to admit that they might not have it.

The ambition of many of my students is reflected in any hundred or so titles currently available to aspiring writers. How to Successfully Publish for Money could well be the title of all of them, replete with the split infinitive; but, as any book publisher will tell you, the only sure way to publish successfully for money is to write a book on how to publish successfully for money. P.T. Barnum was right about suckers, or at least about “wannabe” writers.

A recently published book on a related subject is Creative Being: The Crafting of Person and World by Eliot Deutsch, late of Columbia and Harvard, currently of Waikiki. Now, this book is hardly a “how to” treatise filled with helpful hints for a wannabe’s inquiring mind. Rather, it is a scientific-philosophical analysis of personality and the relationship of experience to the expression of original (i.e., creative) thought, bringing together, as it were. Western and Eastern philosophy in an attempt to figure out why we are, as individuals, in possession of unique personalities that prompt us to “create,” or perhaps “recreate,” our own world. In short, it’s philosophy. Even so, while I normally eschew such manuals and self-help guides, I was eager to read this new study when the editor of a literary journal asked me to review it.

With a Ph.D. from a fairly good school, and having long taught at the university level and published something in the neighborhood of 500 pieces, from one-paragraph reviews to full scholarly books, with a novel or two thrown in for good measure, I figured I could read, enjoy, and learn from a philosophical treatise dealing with the creative mind.

I was wrong. I was no more than ten pages into Professor Deutsch’s book when I realized that I had no idea what he was talking about. I stopped, regretted the hour or so it had taken me to get that far, and started over, this time with a dictionary in hand. It didn’t help. Only a few of the unfamiliar terms and expressions Professor Deutsch uses appear in Webster’s Ninth Collegiate Dictionary, and none of them is defined in any way that aids the understanding of his thesis. He doesn’t bother to define most of them either.

I’m speaking here of such words as “atemporal,” “relatedness,” “ontic,” “physicalist,” “mentalistic,” and so forth, along with other expressions I have come to associate with current literary criticism, which I call “new-wave lit crit,” or “punk philosophy,” but which is more properly identified as “postmodernism.”

I had to stop again and ask myself why any writer, particularly a distinguished scholar such as Dr. Deutsch, would choose to express himself this way. His prose is not “lucid,” as the book’s dust jacket claims; it’s obtuse. It is truly a lesson in the use of jargon, something I should have suspected from the selfsame dust jacket, which offered the term “contextualizes” as a bonus for any reader brave enough to essay forth into Professor Deutsch’s treatise.

The book is, I suppose, creative, in the sense that it stems directly from Dr. Deutsch’s imagination, or at least from what he imagines to be scholarly language. However, it has no apparent direction, no discernible purpose other than to celebrate itself. I’ve always felt that such displays of creative writing, especially in scholarship, were sort of like art without purpose, linguistic equivalents of graffiti or, perhaps, statues of pink flamingos on front lawns: interesting to look at for about a minute, but of no particular consequence except to distract from what might otherwise be seen clearly.

Nevertheless, I plowed on through the book, making notes on senseless words and phrases that defied reference-book denotations, and I came to the following conclusions.

One, a physical description of a thing makes a thing what it is and separates it from all other things; it puts a thing into a class of things and distinguishes it from all other things in that class; it establishes a thing as unique. People are not things because they possess reason and, hence, defy essential definition based completely on physical accidents and properties.

Two, Professor Deutsch believes that each person is a unique individual because each person is aware that he or she is unique.

Three, individuality is a product of personality, which is, in turn, a product of recalled experience, both imagined and real, both vicarious and actual; no two individuals perceive even an identical experience the same way; rather, they modify it according to previous or anticipated experience, environment, education; it is further modified by heredity.

Four, creativity is the product of applied personality, modified by experience, which also is modified (see number three); it is, therefore, unique to each individual, as each individual is unique to himself.

Such conclusions, of course, reveal no new ideas; none of them has sufficient impact to rock even a junior high class to its foundations or to get a clockwatcher’s mind off lunch and sex. Most of this was discovered by Locke, Hume, Descartes, Spinoza, and, of course, the great-granddaddy of all philosophy, Aristotle. To a certain extent, one can reach the same conclusions by reading the Old Testament—or Dr. Seuss.

Could it be that this is all Professor Deutsch is saying? I think so. And that decision led me to two more conclusions: One, Professor Deutsch has a pretty good little sinecure; I mean, if he can get his own university press to publish not one but two volumes of this stuff and still pay him to teach, then he’s a much smarter man than 1 am or ever will be. On top of everything else, he gets to go surfing anytime he feels like it. Two, more than likely, anyone who has read this book and understands it—including the editors at the University of Hawaii Press—is either lying or is so far removed from the average educated individual’s level of intelligence that the CIA will probably want him as a cryptographer. (I might add that when a scholar has trouble with spatial perception and can’t tell an adverb from an adjective, I have trouble trusting his ability to probe the depths of human philosophical development.)

None of this should imply that Dr. Deutsch is a confidence artist. Actually, he falls well into the mainstream of absolutely legitimate, completely acceptable, highly motivated, and much celebrated contemporary scholarly pursuits as they are being practiced by the “best minds” in America’s universities today. Those professors on the “cutting edge” of intellectual inquiry spend a lot of their time doing a lot of talking—mostly to each other—about a lot of really important stuff. It’s so important, indeed, that only a few of them have any notion of what it is, and even fewer of them have any understanding of what’s being said about it. But that’s how merit pay and release time come about.

Aristotle observes in The Poetics that the first consideration of rhetoric is audience; whom one is writing for (or, in the old Greek’s case, speaking to), then, is the first and most important decision a writer must make when generating ideas through an expressive medium. My question is, “Who is Professor Deutsch writing this book for?” The answer must be “great thinkers,” fellow philosophers, and profound intellectuals, most of whom are probably so far removed from the creative process that, without a full morning’s contemplation of the problem, they have difficulty matching a pair of black socks.

I suspect I’ve inadvertently revealed my own personal prejudice. The sort of scholarship represented by Creative Being is self-serving to the point of egomania. It is indicative of the worst of contemporary intellectual fads in the academy: if it can be understood, it must not be important; if it fails to confuse, it fails to elevate.

The function of scholarly inquiry has always been and should remain the clarification of the obscure, the explanation of the difficult, the opening of that which is closed. In the past two decades or so, that has changed. Part of the reason, I think, is the tremendous pressure on young and not-so-young scholars to find something new to say and to publish it in order to advance in the profession; rather than thinking creatively, however, they are busily pouring old wine into new bottles and labeling them in a language no one can read. Indeed, the present function of scholarship seems to be to conceal the obvious, to make hard the easy, and to close the accessible—in other words, to achieve tenure, no matter what the cost to the greater body of knowledge in the world.

Thus, I refused the offer to review this book. The editor also refused to accept this essay in lieu of a review. (I suspect she may know Professor Deutsch.) I explained that had I not agreed to review it before I saw it, I would probably have perused the first five or ten pages and placed it on a special bookshelf I keep for books fitting the category “Life’s Too Short.” There it would join a dozen or so other much celebrated and discussed but seldom truly read volumes, which I firmly believe would never have been published if the editors were willing to confess that they couldn’t understand whatever it was their authors thought they were trying to say.