The Bed, the Bath, the Bus—and the Motorcycle: Where Craig Venter Gets His Ideas

Thinkers tend to refer to the “bed, the bath, and the bus” as places where they get their ideas, and Virginia Woolfe famously wrote of the need for a room of one’s own. Likewise, Daniel Dennett recently praised his morning shower. When his wife asks him what he’s doing in there for so long, he says thinking.

These are all great places for solitude. But in the following quote from a New York Times profile on Craig Venter, the mapper of the human genome, we’re told that his place of solitude is the motorcycle :

Right now, Venter is thinking of a bug. He is thinking of a bug that could swim in a pond and soak up sunlight and urinate automotive fuel. He is thinking of a bug that could live in a factory and gobble exhaust and fart fresh air. He may not appear to be thinking about these things. He may not appear to be thinking at all. He may appear to be riding his German motorcycle through the California mountains, cutting the inside corners so close that his kneepads skim the pavement. This is how Venter thinks. He also enjoys thinking on the deck of his 95-foot sailboat, halfway across the Pacific Ocean in a gale, and while snorkeling naked in the Sargasso Sea surrounded by Portuguese men-of-war. When Venter was growing up in San Francisco, he would ride his bicycle to the airport and race passenger jets down the runway. As a Navy corpsman in Vietnam, he spent leisurely afternoons tootling up the coast in a dinghy, under a hail of enemy fire.

What’s strange about Venter is that this works — that the clarity he finds when he is hurtling through the sea and the sky, the dreams he summons, the fantasies he concocts in his most unhinged moments of excess actually have a way of coming true. He dreamed of mapping the human genome, and he did it. He dreamed of creating a synthetic organism, and he made it. In 2003, he scrawled a line across a map of the world, hopped on his boat with a small team and sailed around the planet in search of new forms of life. By the time they returned, two years later, they had discovered more species than anyone in history.

And last fall, Venter was back in motion at the end of another journey. He was crouched atop his touring bike in the final stretch of a weeklong sprint through the American Southwest, with a handful of friends trailing behind as he whipped through the mountain foothills in a blur. In the days to come, he would return to his office to piece together a design for the first of his custom bugs.

Isn’t that wild? Venter is, in a sense, a manic creative artist. I can’t help but think of Nietzsche’s definition of aesthetics as nervous sensations redescribed by imagination. (This is also Nietzsche’s definition of language, by the way.) On the other hand, Venter is not heightening his nervous sensations to redescribe and represent his present experience of them, but to somehow stimulate his rediscriptions of whatever it is he’s thinking about elsewhere. It’s an interesting link: solitude and manic behavior in one realm as a stimulus to manic thought in another realm.

Likewise, Nietzsche got his manic Zarathustra in solitude, though not while being overtly manic. According to Alistair Kee’s book on Nietzsche—Nietzsche Against the Crucified  (SCM Press 1999):

He tells us [in Ecce Homo ] that during a stay in Italy, near Genoa, while out walking he conceived of Zarathustra. Or rather, he tells us no such thing. ‘It was on these two walks that the whole of the first Zarathustra came to me, above all Zarathustra himself, as a type: more accurately, he stole up on me . . . .’

In other words, Nietzsche, in the midst of his sauntering and day dreaming, encountered an inner stranger from his own personal Twilight Zone episode. Zarathustra “stole up on”—surprised—Nietzsche. Kee then quotes Nietzsche at length from Ecce Homo:

If one had the slightest residue of superstition left in one, one would hardly be able to set aside the idea that one is merely incarnation, merely mouthpiece, merely medium of overwhelming forces. The concept of revelation, in the sense that something suddenly, with unspeakable certainty, and subtlety, becomes visible, audible, simply describes the fact. One hears, one does not seek; one takes, one does not ask who gives; a thought flashes up like lightning, with necessity, unfalteringly formed—I have never had any choice. An ecstasy whose tremendous tension sometimes discharges itself in a flood of tears, while one’s steps now involuntarily rush along, now involuntarily lag; a complete being outside oneself with the distinct consciousness of a multitude of subtle shudders and trickling down to one’s toes. . . . Everything is in the highest degree involuntary but takes place as in a tempest of a feeling of freedom, of absoluteness, of power, of divinity.

Nietzsche’s vivid encounter with inspiration via solitude also recalls for me Percy Shelley’s ”Hymn to Intellectual Beauty,” the first stanza of which is very “Twilight Zoney”:

The awful shadow of some unseen Power

Floats though unseen among us,—visiting

This various world with an inconstant wing

As summer winds that creep from flower to flower,—

Like moonbeams that behind some piny mountain shower,

It visits with inconstant glance

Each human heart and countenance;

Like hues and harmonies of evening,—

Like clouds in starlight widely spread,—

Like memory of music fled,—

Like aught that for its grace may be

Dear, and yet dearer for its mystery.

And later in the poem, Shelley speaks of solitude as the place, since boyhood, that he had sought out concourse with ghosts, only to find them silent. But intellectual beauty—that opaque and uncertain divinity of inspiration—sometimes visits Shelley for real and out of the blue:

While yet a boy I sought for ghosts, and sped

Through many a listening chamber, cave and ruin,

And starlight wood, with fearful steps pursuing

Hopes of high talk with the departed dead.

I called on poisonous names with which our youth is fed;

I was not heard—I saw them not—

When musing deeply on the lot

Of life, at that sweet time when winds are wooing

All vital things that wake to bring

News of birds and blossoming,—

Sudden, thy shadow fell on me;

I shrieked, and clasped my hands in ecstasy!

Craig Venter, not using his solitude as a creative artist, but as a scientist thinking about how to manipulate the very machinery of life, is a nervy thing to contemplate. What delirious god might visit him next, changing the lives of all of us?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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