Over the last few blogs I’ve been considering the threefold values of inspiration, intuition and invocation. In all of these values there is a balance of the the contractive and the expansive. We go within, we get out of our own way and we allow the unconscious to make those links that no amount of ego and striving can discover. My family tell me I have a gift for oblivion. When I’m writing or making something—even a herbal tea mix—I get completely lost within the process. There’s an inward, contractive pull to this, but it also moves in the other direction. It requires the kind of listening that we rarely do in our busy lives. And it requires receptivity—to the herbs being blended, to the words suggesting themselves, to the influences on our creativity…
The genius of sympathy
We live in such an individualistic age, brimming with notions of celebrity and influencers, bursting with apparent examples of ‘self-made’ men and women who seem to claim that they did it all alone and ‘their way’. But who can truly make themselves? We are all magpies, gathering ideas from a million places, constructing our stories from the stories that went before. This is not to say we have no agency or that there is no change—stories also evolve, sometimes by increment sometimes in paradigm shifts—but they don’t appear ex nihilo. And nor do those who create them. Some writers have had more privilege and encouragement or sheer luck, some very little, but our personal agency is always a negotiation with a huge range of factors and influences.
And if we are fortunate or have been helped along the way, we learn to know which of these to resist and which to be receptive to and we combine them in ways that delight or entertain, challenge or provoke, educate or console those who encounter our work.
Is this genius? It can sometimes feel as though an idea that comes to us for a novel or a poem, a sculpture or recipe has appeared from nowhere like a flash of lightning. But the fact that an idea comes to a particular person at a particular moment of history is a combination of an uncountable number of influences and their personal craft and receptivity uniting in that moment. Ralph Waldo Emerson says genius happens when someone
…finds himself in the river of the thoughts and events, forced onward by the ideas and necessities of his contemporaries. […] Every master has found his materials collected, and his power lay in his sympathy with his people, and in his love of the materials he wrought in. […] Great genial power, one would almost say, consists in not being original at all; in being altogether receptive; in letting the world do all, and suffering the spirit of the hour to pass unobstructed through the mind.
How wonderful to think of genius not as the cult status of being born different and better, but as something that coalesces in person because they are open to others… full of sympathy, even empathy. And greater still if this ‘suffering the spirit of the hour’ is not only receptive to other people but to all of life.
The genius of witness
This acute ability to be receptive and make connections enables writers to witness not only to their own lives, but to something more far-reaching. Describing his struggle of moving from being someone who hated Shakespeare and saw him as chauvinistic and a bastion of the oppressiveness of the English language, to someone who learnt through Shakespeare that we have to inhabit a language before it can reflect our experience, James Baldwin notes how all great writing, perhaps all great art, proceeds from a type of knowledge that is attuned to our connectedness. Echoing Emerson he writes:
The greatest poet in the English language found his poetry where poetry is found: in the lives of the people. He could have done this only through love — by knowing, which is not the same thing as understanding, that whatever was happening to anyone was happening to him. […] he walked his streets and saw them, and tried not to lie about what he saw: […] he saw, as I think we must, that the people who produce the poet are not responsible to him: he is responsible to them.
That is why he is called a poet. And his responsibility, which is also his joy and his strength and his life, is to defeat all labels and complicate all battles by insisting on the human riddle, to bear witness, as long as breath is in him, to that mighty, unnameable, transfiguring force which lives in the soul of man, and to aspire to do his work so well that when the breath has left him, the people — all people! — who search in the rubble for a sign or a witness will be able to find him there.
We know so little about Shakespeare as a person. There are contesting theories, some of which don’t even believe that ‘they’ were a single person. We are not left with a pop idol whose life we can rake over for gossip, but a body of work that witnesses to the human condition and to the certainty that a human being or beings was here and left so much of value for others to use in a myriad ways.
The genius of recombination
And this brings us full circle. The towering genius of Shakespeare is not that he or they were self-made and utterly original but they were receptive to their times and receptive to stories handed down.
He borrowed lines from other poets and playwrights like Christopher Marlowe or Edmund Spenser. He built worlds from references in the essays of writers like Montaigne stories from Italian writers, and incorporated histories contemporary and ancient, including from writers like the 4th century Heliodorus or 1st century Ovid. He used story lines from then-recent Italian writers like Boccaccio or historical sources like Plutarch. And to these he brought the perspective of his own times and the uniqueness that all of us have in how we happen to combine all of our influences on this particular Sunday…
We recombine ideas most fruitfully when we are not mere imitators, but when are so porous to our times and our ancestors, to the people and animals and plants around us, to all we’ve read, seen and breathed in, that our unconscious can make something new of it. With his signature irony Mark Twain puts it like this:
When a great orator makes a great speech you are listening to ten centuries and ten thousand men — but we call it his speech, and really some exceedingly small portion of it is his. […] He added his little mite — that is all he did. These object lessons should teach us that ninety-nine parts of all things that proceed from the intellect are plagiarisms, pure and simple; and the lesson ought to make us modest. But nothing can do that.
That tiny mite can, of course, be something profound, insightful and epiphanic—a great poem, a stand-out novel, a work of art that will be admired for centuries… And we can be in awe of the Brontë or O’Keeffe or Bach who created it while knowing that their genius was in their ability to be extraordinarilly receptive. And all of us, whatever our art, do well to make such receptivity a value to be cultivated and prized. To go about the world in a spirit of empathy, to be open as witnesses to the world, to recombine not as plagiarists but as creators who have humility—this is how we make profound connections. This is how we become another story.