Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Simply in Genius?

Genius at Work
Like the Language of Delirium
Image by Jacob Magraw and Rachell Sumpter

Joshua Wolf Shenk, writing "The End of 'Genius'" (NYT, July 19, 2014), argues that genius is not individual, despite the shared view of the Enlightenment and Romanticism, whose combined effect is still felt today:
The big change began with Enlightenment thinkers, who sought to give man a dignified, central place in the world. They made man's thinking the center of their universe and created a profoundly asocial self . . . . But it was during the Romantic era that "the true cult of the natural genius emerged" . . . . Today, the Romantic genius can be seen everywhere.
But, argues Shenk, it ain't true:
[T]he real heart of creativity . . . [is] the intimate exchange of the creative pair, such as John Lennon and Paul McCartney and myriad other examples with which we've yet to fully reckon . . . . The elemental collective . . . is the pair. Two people are the root of social experience -- and of creative work . . . . -- most strikingly with Paul McCartney and John Lennon . . . . Why is this? For one thing, given that our psyches take shape through one-on-one exchanges, we're likely set up to interact with a single person more openly and deeply than with any group. The pair is also inherently fluid and flexible. Two people can make their own society. When even one more person is added, roles and power positions harden. This may be good for stability but problematic for creativity. Three legs make a table stand in place. Two legs are made for moving.
Two's company, three's a crowd. Okay, I got it. But I like to see where ideas are stretched to the breaking point, and here's the place:
The pair is the primary creative unit -- not just because pairs produce such a staggering amount of work but also because they help us to grasp the concept of dialectical exchange. At its heart, the creative process itself is about a push and pull between two entities, two cultures or traditions, or two people, or even a single person and the voice inside her head. Indeed, thinking itself is a kind of download of dialogue between ourselves and others. And when we listen to creative people describe breakthrough moments that occur when they are alone, they often mention the sensation of having a conversation in their own minds.
I have italicized and thereby emphasized the phrase "or even a single person and the voice inside her head" because we are here back to the individual genius, even if 'she' is carrying on a conversation in 'her' head. Don't get me wrong. Creativity often does emerge in collaborative pairs. That's how my wife and I work on our translations.

But that's not how I wrote my novella, The Bottomless Bottle of Beer. I worked mostly alone on that, albeit in dialogue with other writers, most dead, but some living.

I'm no genius, of course, but Shenk is basically talking about creativity.

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