Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine is still worth reading

Jonah Lehrer, as is now well known, repeatedly misrepresented research and plagiarized other people’s writing in Imagine: How Creativity Works. But, as Roy Peter Clark points out, “Jonah Lehrer’s ‘Imagine’ is worth reading, despite the problems.” Clark goes on to say, “not all the sins [Lehrer commits . . .] are equally grievous,” but, despite that, “the reading of the book ‘Imagine’ helped me understand my world and my craft, and what else can you hope for from a non-fiction book.”

I’ve found the same thing after reading Imagine based on Clark’s endorsement. But reading it in light of Lehrer’s indiscretions reveals new potential layers of meaning, because a couple of passages have a very different resonance, like this one, about Shakespeare’s milieu:

His [Shakespeare's] peers repeatedly accused him of plagiarism, and he was often guilty, at least by contemporary standards. What these allegations failed to take into account, however, was that Shakespeare was pioneering a new creative method in which every conceivable source informed his art. For Shakespeare, the act of creation was inseparable from the act of connection. {Lehrer “Imagine”@221}

Lehrer seems to be using the same method. But the age of the Internet makes tracking sources much, much easier than it used to be. And he goes on:

The point isn’t that Shakespeare stole. It’s that, for the first time in a long time, there was stuff worth stealing—and nobody stopped him. Shakespeare seemed to know this—he was intensely aware that his genius depended on the culture around him. {Lehrer “Imagine”@221}

In retrospect, this reads as a preemptive defense of Lehrer’s own method. But I don’t get why Lehrer made stuff up: most of what he invented doesn’t seem to be very important, and it’s the kind of peripheral material that makes for good reading but isn’t essential. Given contemporary attitudes towards plagiarism—the passages above show that he knows and understands those attitudes—why risk so much for so little gain? It’s like a millionaire stealing a pair of $20 jeans. Why tarnish success? I can imagine some possible answers to these questions, but none of them are very satisfying, and I ultimately want to ascribe Lehrer’s lies to simple human vanity.

Imagine is still pretty interesting. I doubt it’s a perfect book, and I wouldn’t cite Lehrer in my neuroscience PhD dissertation. But I am now conscious of the tension between free-form creative thought and focused attention to a particular, grinding problem (“We need structure or everything falls apart. But we also need spaces that surprise us. Because it is the exchanges we don’t expect, with the people we just met, that will change the way we think about everything”); I am conscious of the need for both longtime collaborators and for new faces; and I am conscious of how people with deep domain expertise may benefit from applying that expertise elsewhere. Some of Lehrer’s points, like his description of the virtues of cities or the eccentric greatness of Paul Erdos, are already familiar. But he helps me see them in new ways. A moment like this, for example, shows me something important about my own writing and creative work:

Friedrich Nietzsche, in The Birth of Tragedy, distinguished between two archetypes of creativity, both borrowed from Greek mythology. There was the Dionysian drive—Dionysus was the god of wine and intoxication—which led people to embrace their unconscious and create radically new forms of art. [. . .] The Apollonian artist, by contrast, attempted to resolve the messiness and impose a sober order onto the disorder of reality. Like Auden, creators in the spirit of Apollo distrust the rumors of the right hemisphere. Instead, they insist on paying careful attention, scrutinizing their thoughts until they make sense. Auden put it best: ‘All genuine poetry is in a sense the formation of private spheres out of public chaos.’ {Lehrer “Imagine”@64}

I am far more in the Apollonian mode than the Dionysian mode, but, perhaps for that reason, I’m fascinated by and perhaps even envious of Dionysian thinking, acting, and living. A novel like The Secret History thus becomes all the more important to me, because it has an Apollonian narrator, Richard, dealing with the aftermath of an attempt to reach Dionysian ecstasy. In the novel, not surprisingly, the outcomes are pretty bad, but the idea of deliberately trying to reach an ecstatic experience resonates with my temperament.

There are some moments that appear, on the surface, self-contradictory. Lehrer says, “The most creative ideas, it turns out, don’t occur when we’re alone. Rather, they emerge from our social circles, from collections of acquaintances who inspire novel thoughts. Sometimes the most important people in life are the people we barely know” {Lehrer “Imagine”@204}.

Earlier in Imagine, however, Lehrer discusses how many creative ideas when people are taking morning showers—where most are presumably alone. So do creative ideas emerge from chatting with others, or when our mind is a relaxed state that lets it make disparate connections among ideas? The answer appears to be “both,” but Lehrer doesn’t explicitly discuss the implied contradictions. I’m not saying he couldn’t reconcile them, but I am saying that someone should’ve pointed these kinds of contradictions out.

Even if all of Imagine’s research and stories are somehow wrong—and I don’t think they are—the book still offers novel ways to think about creativity and how to structure one’s life or work more effectively and in ways that I hadn’t foreseen. I wish the publisher hadn’t withdrawn it altogether. Used copies on Amazon now start at $25. It may be that the existing copies thus continue to rise in value because of their scarcity; alternately, readers might turn to pirate editions on the Internet, which I can only assume are easy enough to find (my book came from the University of Arizona’s library).

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