The New Year, Time Travel, and the Essence of Creativity

What can Morlocks and Time Machines teach us about the creative process?

Posted Jan 02, 2011

For many years I have practiced a New Year's tradition. Very late on New Year's Eve, after the festivities of the night are over and the rest of the merry-makers have retired to their champagne-inspired dreams, I settle into a comfy couch in the den and watch one of my favorite movies dating back to childhood. I do this to usher in the New Year with a creativity-stimulating exercise. The movie is H.G. Well's The Time Machine (the 1960 version starring Rod Taylor and Yvette Mimieux). I'm a fan of everything about the movie, from Russell Garcia's haunting musical score to the sets and even the hokey Morlock costumes. Besides the fact that the story has a New Year's theme (it is set on New Year's Eve in turn-of-the-Century England), both the movie and the original Wells book are thought-provoking commentaries on the course of human development across time. I believe they are also metaphors for the creative process.
In the story George (the Rod Taylor part in the movie...but in the book he is simply referred to as The Time Traveler) invents a time machine that will carry him forward into the future or backward into the past. Like many creative achievers, George (who may represent H.G. himself - his friends called him George) is future- rather than past-oriented. And he chooses to explore the advancements that humankind will initiate in the future so that he can bring them back to his own time.
Instead of interpersonal harmony and the expected utopian society, however, he finds only war and destruction as he travels forward in time. He eventually arrives at a future in which the human species has separated into two branches, one with terrible repercussions for the branch that most resembles us. Another disturbing finding is that the humans of the future cannot read and have allowed their books to disintegrate to dust.
George feels there is still a spark of hope, however, as some of the members of the apparently doomed future race of humans unite with him to defeat the evil Morlocks. He returns in his time machine to Victorian England long enough to relate the story of his adventure to his skeptical friends.
Later George's housekeeper and his loyal friend Philby find that the time machine - and three books from George's library - are missing. George has presumably taken them with him to help re-establish past knowledge for the human race of the book-deprived future. The movie ends with Philby asking the housekeeper which three books she would have taken.
Here's my "creative metaphor" interpretation: George the Time Traveler is a metaphor for the creative hero (one of my beliefs is that all people who use their creative abilities are heroes; creativity takes courage). He bravely ventures into the uncertain future (a metaphor or chaos or the mythical "unknown"), but he brings with him three books (which are a metaphor for tradition and established knowledge). It is this application of already-known knowledge in a new environment or situation that comprises creativity. Creativity is, in its essence, the ability to take known bits of information and combine them in novel ways to meet new challenges - the ability to adapt old knowledge to new purposes.
And here is the creativity exercise that the Time Machine suggests to all of us: Which three books would you have taken?
What knowledge and traditions from the past shall we, as citizens of the rapid-change, information- and technology-driven 21st century, bring with us to incorporate into our brave new world of the future?...