Writing as Engineering

Primo Levi wrote this, in The Periodic Table, after describing the molecular structure of alloxan --

“It is a pretty structure, isn't it? It makes you think of something solid, stable, well linked. In fact it happens also in chemistry as in architecture that 'beautiful' edifices, that is, symmetrical and simple, are also the most sturdy: in short, the same thing happens with molecules as with the cupolas of cathedrals or the arches of bridges. And it is also possible that the explanation is neither remote nor metaphysical: to say 'beautiful' is to say 'desirable,' and ever since man has built he has wanted to build at the smallest expense and in the most durable fashion, and the aesthetic enjoyment he experiences when contemplating his work comes afterward.”

We're naturally driven to make things that are well-made – to make something well-made brings us satisfaction. Levi suggests here that all creative actions can be explained in terms of our innate preference for efficiency.

Levi told Philip Roth, in an interview recorded in Roth's book Shop Talk, “I am persuaded that normal human beings are biologically built for an activity that is aimed toward a goal...” Levi added that, for him, “work is identical with 'problem solving.'”

From John Updike's Bech: A Book -- “... Bech talked of fiction as an equivalent of reality, and described how the point of it, the justification, seemed to lie in those moments when a set of successive images locked and then one more image arrived and, as it were, superlocked, creating a tightness perhaps equivalent to the terribly tight knit of reality, e.g. the lightning ladder of chemical changes in the body cell that translates fear into action or, say, the implosion of mathematics consuming the heart of a star.”

2 thoughts on “Writing as Engineering”

  1. But aren't some of the most interesting architectural landmarks are the ones that have fallen down? The Tower of Babel? The Pisa tower? Stonehenge? The chinese wall?
    can't one as easily make the opposite argument: we are also drawn to the elaborate and the overpriced and the completely failed.

  2. You're young… maybe this is a young person's aesthetic you're describing! Maybe we evolved to want to knock things out of whack when we're young, then prefer more order in midlife.

    Engineer Scott Adams on beauty as utility —
    “… a parking lot is arguably more useful than a forest, depending on the context, but the forest registers as being more beautiful. Perhaps that is because we're not that far evolved from hunters and gatherers, for whom a forest means survival and a parking lot means no food… When you coordinate colors, for your outfit or your living space, you try to avoid introducing a color that doesn't match at least one other color that is already there. To do otherwise makes the outcome less beautiful. Here again, I think the survival instinct is informing our sense of beauty. As an early humanoid, I would think that any time a color appeared in your view that was inconsistent with the surroundings, that meant something was wrong, and perhaps dangerous… Beauty is nothing more than our recognition of functions that are related to current or past survival.”

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