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Elizabeth Gilbert on the Transience of the Creative Genius

In her 2009 TED talk titled Your Elusive Creative Genius, Elizabeth Gilbert shared an idea about creativity, geniuses and ideas.

She argued that according to some ancient philosophies, in alignment with her own belief, but against contemporary definitions, no human is ‘genius,’ but there are ‘genies’ (in Roman culture) or ‘daemons’ (in Greek culture) out there and they are the ones really manifesting creativity and intelligence and all in that person. And by implication, no one can do anything of significance by herself, without the help of the genies/daemons.

…the Romans did not actually think that a genius was a particularly clever individual.They believed that a genius was this, sort of magical divine entity, who was believed to literally live in the walls of an artist’s studio, kind of like Dobby the house elf, and who would come out and sort of invisibly assist the artist with their work and would shape the outcome of that work… this is how people thought about creativity in the West for a really long time.

Talk of inspirations (which comes from the genies) and vessels (the humans, into which the inspirations come for manifestation). The result of such mechanism includes such creative works as poetry, fiction, paintings, folklore and even (you know) computer software. Pester me to give one more example and I’ll include any of the many religious holy books.

Liz strongly stood for this perspective, against the contemporary perspective on the source of creativity which posited that artist can be referred to as genius rather than having a genius. “I think that was a huge error”, she said, I think the pressure of that has been killing off our artists for the last 500 years.”:

…the Renaissance came and everything changed, and we had this big idea, and the big idea was, let’s put the individual human being at the center of the universe above all gods and mysteries, and there’s no more room for mystical creatures who take dictation from the divine. And it’s the beginning of rational humanism, and people started to believe that creativity came completely from the self of the individual.And for the first time in history, you start to hear people referring to this or that artist as being a genius,rather than having a genius.

And I got to tell you, I think that was a huge error. You know, I think that allowing somebody, one mere person to believe that he or she is like, the vessel, you know, like the font and the essence and the source of all divine, creative, unknowable, eternal mystery is just a smidge too much responsibility to put on one fragile, human psyche. It’s like asking somebody to swallow the sun. It just completely warps and distorts egos, and it creates all these unmanageable expectations about performance. And I think the pressure of that has been killing off our artists for the last 500 years.

As a result of this, Liz assumes a correction of diction for individuals freely willing to take to it. She says rather than say, “I came up with an idea,” you could rather say, “an idea came to me,” because ideas are actually given to us or imparted into us by those elusive external forces. Nothing in us generates ideas or skills by itself, but the ideas are generated into us. So that even if we seem to have this idea from within, it’s only because it had been given to us from without.

One good reason to think this way is that it helps creative people to sort of manage the inherent emotional risk of creativity. It will result that if you did a job which later turn out great, it’s not entirely to your credit but also to the credit of the genius that inspired you; and if on the other hand, you did an awful job, it’s not entirely your fault, part of the blame goes to the ‘lame genius’ that inspired you.

A repercussion of this is that creative people can now be justified in applying the “do your best and leave the rest” mentality. When you are faced with a task just tell yourself: I’m gonna put my all into this and I’m gonna expect the genius to do its part too and if anything go wrong I’ll know it’s not just about me but about the genie too.

You know, I think that allowing somebody, one mere person to believe that he or she is like, the vessel, you know, like the fount and the essence and the source of all divine, creative, unknowable, eternal mystery is just a smidge too much responsibility to put on one fragile, psyche. It’s like asking somebody to swallow the sun. It just completely warps and distorts egos, and it creates all these unmanageable expectations about performance.

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