Manufacturing Genius: The Burden of Originality
“True originality consists not in a new manner, but in a new vision” – Edith Wharton
Free Piggyback Rides!
An exceptionally famous literary critic (at least by literary critics' standards), and even more exceptionally pompous narcissist (according to mine) named Harold Bloom wrote a book forty years ago detailing what he called, “the anxiety of influence.” His general theory was that all poets drew heavily from their predecessors as a matter of necessity. In other words, for most, creativity isn’t creative at all; it’s merely derivative of someone else’s genius. This is extremely difficult for the poet to overcome, he wrote, so true originality is largely a thing of the past - a theory that he claims caused a large degree of anxiety for poets ranging as far back as Shakespeare and Ben Johnson. As if to prove his own theory, Harold Bloom has only published a single work of fiction in his entire lifetime – a novel that was written as a sequel to David Lindsay’s fantasy novel, A Voyage to Arcturus. Bloom is living proof of the (slightly adjusted) maxim: Those who can’t write, critique, and those who can’t critique, piggyback.
Although the man is detestable, there’s a lot of truth in what Bloom says, and I sympathize with him on this point. I don’t claim to be a great writer or a great critic, but I gladly rejoice in my shameless piggybacking. Whether it’s through poetry, prose, or essay, I love the struggle of placing letters, words, and concepts in just such an order that they may evoke some sort of emotive or intuitive reaction from whoever may be gracious enough to read any of my work, regardless of its lack of ingenuity.
For instance, I recently wrote a piece, “The Inferno,” that not only blatantly stole from Graham Greene’s “The Destructors” and Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” but the title itself is a direct rip off of Dante’s magnum opus. I am in awe of each of these writers and would never compare my rudimentary compositions to their transcendent talent, but what I attempted to do in my little story was to borrow a few literary building blocks in order to construct my own small bridge of understanding. The act of creating is usually just as much a form of self-fulfillment as it is a desire to entertain others. To that end, I recognize and celebrate the notion that influence is the mechanism that creates the continuum of imaginative dexterity, and there’s no reason to feel anxious.
Inspiration: A Precursor to Perceived Genius
There’s nothing at all wrong with finding inspiration in the work of those we admire and then reshaping it to express our own separate vision. Indeed, it’s the way things have always been done; anyone who says otherwise is lying to hide their insecurity and enhance their own pretension. There’s no car without the wheel, no Dylan without Woody Guthrie, and no Tolkien without Homer. Genius is merely informed scribbling over the divine palimpsest of our shared human experience.
The impetus for this blog topic stemmed from a conversation I had with my friend, E.M. Wollof, at work yesterday. Another friend had selflessly loaned a few of her art books to me so that I might dress up my drab cubicle, and, in one of these, I found an amazing illustration of Jack Nicholson lying in bed smoking a cigarette. His hair was long, white, disheveled, and flowing, and, beside his pillow, there was a small hand-held chalkboard with Einstein’s famous mass-energy equivalence equation. Given that Einstein has become nearly synonymous with genius, the drawing seems to imply that Nicholson is a brilliant, once-in-a-lifetime talent. This sparked a conversation about the nature of genius, especially as the term applies to actors.
Mr. Wollof dismissed the idea of labeling an actor as a genius based on the fact that they are simply reciting lines written for them by another human being. I felt that he strengthened this argument by declaring that genius was (at least somewhat) related to originality. Therefore, he found it difficult to pronounce Nicholson, or any other actor, for that matter, a genius. It seems strange to brand a grown man who acts like other people for a living a genius, but since I tend to agree with Bloom (begrudgingly - the man is a narcissistic and pedantic ass) and his thoughts on the anxiety of influence, my views diverge from E.M.’s.
That is, I believe that someone can be considered a genius even if their work isn't entirely of their own creation. I further believe that no such thing can exist in the first place.
A Shining Example
Ironically, acting may be the closest thing we have to true originality. The words are supplied by the playwright or screen writer, but the actor has to make them come alive through no other means than his own viscerality; his task is to evoke physically the humanity of the words on the page. This is how creativity and originality work - they're the consequence of the brilliance of our instincts working through us. Therefore, true genius seems to correspond to the degree with which we are in touch with our primal nature more than the forced manifestation of intelligence within the strict parameters of society.
Take The Shining, for instance. This masterpiece of 20th century horror relied on the original subject material of the novel written by Stephen King, but Kubrick made it his own with the help of Jack Nicholson as the lead character, Jack Torrance. Perhaps the most memorable scene is the one in which Torrance takes an axe to the bathroom door, inserts his maniacal head, and pronounces to his frantic wife, “Heeeeere’s Johnny!” (a phrase itself borrowed from The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson). The line is a classic, but it’s the look of sheer lunatic joy on Nicholson’s contorted face that inspires true terror. At the time of the film’s release, he’d already won an Oscar and been nominated for several more, but that one expression, that one instant of mesmerizing believability, catapulted Jack Nicholson from just another actor to a master of his craft. He took King's words and personified them in a way that no other actor probably could have. To me, that wasn't mere acting, that was genius.
We are shaped by the past and molded by experience. Our imaginations are as malleable as clay and contingent upon a strange elixir of emotion and logic. We beg; we borrow; we steal, and we call the end result art. We construct our own contemporary visions of humanity for the sake of posterity based on the rich lineage of our predecessors. We put pen to paper, and we call it an original work, but the amount of truth in that phrase lies in the extent to which we allow for the flexibility of the term "original."
Original thought isn't a thing of the past; it's a phenomenon that never existed in the first place. The happy accidents of our history (e.g. fire, the wheel, penicillin) have led to the development of a shared culture in which we celebrate our achievements as if we willed them into existence from some nebulous void. If there's one decisive factor for the rise of our civilization, it's our ability to reproduce thought exponentially. We build upon the achievements of the past, and, in doing so, create an unscripted future. Whether this future will be marked by true original thought is debatable, but there's no doubt that it will be creative.