On the nature of genius
Earlier this year, I read Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. I’d read a review in some magazine and, although I’m not usually into this type of book (which I’d describe as a New Age journey with God and lots of self-absorption thrown into the mix), I found it quite a good read. I did find the bit about talking to God whilst on her knees in the bathroom floor irritating (and a tad unbelievable) but there were portions of her book filled with lyrical prose, lovely turns of phrase and good movement throughout.
I told a great friend of mine about the book and, the other day, she told me about a TED video of Elizabeth Gilbert talking about the nature of genius and the nurturing of creativity. I did think it might be some New Age fluffy bunny stuff but no, it’s really a great video. So I want you to watch it and then come back to me.
A lot of what she says reminds me of Rupert Sheldrake’s notion of morphic resonance, which I can best describe as the influence of previous activity and thought patterns on social groups and animals. Sheldrake proposed telepathic connections between organisms based on collective memories within species. So for example, a particular species can “tune in” to a morphic field that will have been established by the actions and memories of previous members of the species. Shared patterns of information and archetypes could be transmitted and a member of a species can tap into the collective unconscious (I’ve always found Sheldrake’s theories to have Jungian undertones). His books are great – if you’re interested, go here. For me, his work explains why you often find different people have come up with inventions or theories at the same time.
Anyway, back to Gilbert. In the video, she talks about how the creativity of artists was perceived in the world of classical antiquity and how the Ancient Greeks, for example, collaborated with a daemon (or helper spirit). She mentioned speaking with a poet who, when toiling in a field, would literally hear a fully formed-poem rushing towards her on the wind. She would have to run to the house and pick up pen and paper in time to catch the poem as it whooshed past her.
So in the ancient world, there was no issue with believing that creativity emanated not from individuals, but from divine helper spirits. If your novel was crap; the helper spirit carried some of the blame. But the Renaissance placed Man at the centre of the universe and creative types started to be called geniuses because the notion of “genius” became a human phenomenon and not one associated with divine helper spirits. And so this is why many “geniuses” are tortured, suicidal, angst-ridden – because they carry the weight of genius alone.
I think this is a really interesting notion and one I want to contemplate further. I have no reason to doubt that there is a collective unconscious or morphic resonance field hovering somewhere up there. It’s just that my helper spirits keep deserting me every time I put pen to paper to begin my novel or when I tap into the collective unconscious it’s suffering amnesia!
What do you think of Gilbert’s ideas?