Thursday, April 03, 2008

Giving birth to a truer sense of Self?

Thomas Beatie brought his furry pregnancy belly to Oprah this afternoon. I didn't get a chance to see it, but I'd be eager to hear from anyone who did.

You may know the basic story, so I won't, er, belabor it too much. (Yuk, yuk. Get it? Belabor...?) The short version: Thomas was born a gal, later decided he was really a guy, and so began the hormonal and surgical process of bringing that to fruition. His uterus and vagina, however, remained intact. Somewhere along the way he got married to a nice woman named Nancy. They wanted kids, but Nancy couldn't conceive, so Thomas decided to get pregnant. An understanding Oregon doctor inseminated Thomas with sperm-bank sperm, and here we are, talking to Oprah.

I have two levels of reaction to this. My knee-jerk reaction probably parallels your own: that it's a freak show. For all we know, this is the publicity stunt to end all publicity stunts. Maybe Beatie planned the whole thing out years and years ago in order to get the inevitable book/movie deals. It was his career path and retirement plan.


My second level of reaction is that Beatie, if legit, symbolizes something important: the willingness to be a Self...a real one...however confused and inconsistent that Self may be...and even if that Self challenges conventional thinking and obliterates conventional boundaries. The vision of "self" sold by the (mainstream) self-help industry is, after all, the polar opposite of Self. SHAMland sells a one-size-fits-all program for living on society's terms. SHAMland teaches you how to be successful on society's terms.

Ask yourself: When you distill a program for better living down to seven easily digestible bullet could it be otherwise?

I've spent a fair amount of time on this blog throwing darts at the likes of Britney and Paris and Lindsay, and you may find those positions incongruous with what I'm saying in this post. But really, Britney and Paris aren't being "selves" at all; they've just fully bought-in to a different type of mass personality; a different cliche. They're living cartoons about celebrity excess, right down to the stylized and infuriating way in which Hilton tosses her hair when she deigns to address a member of the media or an (unaccountably) adoring fan.

The truth is, I have a soft spot for genuine iconoclasts, probably because I've always been one. And believe me, it's not that I endorse being weird for its own sake. But I do think that the brand of self-help that sells a conformist vision of life—wherein everyone's "self" ends up being pretty much like everyone else's—is not self-help. That's a misnomer. Real self-help, if such a thing even exists, would show people how to maximize their unique attributes and take their personal idiosyncrasies to the limits, for better or worse. Real self-help, for example, would teach a guy like Ted Bundy how to kill even more women and get away with it.

Put those eyebrows back down where they belong. I'm being purposely provocative here to underscore my point. I am not condoning what Bundy did, nor implying that we should accept his Self as-is, simply because it's his Self. I agree that people who get in their own way (as I often have) and/or hurt everyone around them could benefit from some solid advice that shows them how they're making life more difficult than it needs to be.

But...(again)...and leaving aside serial killing...

It's important to remember that we can't know the outcome of a given "unproductive trait" if we're trying to make that assessment too early in its life-cycle.* To use a very simple and relatively innocuous example, when John Coltrane first began playing the kind of improvised music that he heard in his head, many jazz critics were merciless; even some of his peers in jazz, a medium wherein exploration is encouraged, screamed at him to "stop playing that garbage!" More than one recording exec informed John Coltrane that his solos were "unlistenable" and he had no future in music. Coltrane, of course, went on to revolutionize jazz. Within a decade the jazz landscape had changed to accommodate him, rather than the other way around. Today his influence is felt ubiquitously throughout all music.

The thing is, we have almost no way of knowing, early on, whether nonconformity that seems bizarre or even threatening will ultimately advance the human experience in some way. Therefore, the style of self-help that teaches you how to "better fit in" is a recipe for stagnation.

One final point that, on the surface, may fall into the realm of "duh." But it's important to realize that people who are different, are different. What I mean is that often, in dealing with nonconformists, one must take the good with the bad, because both the good and the bad proceed from a common antecedent. That also means that in the process of "fixing" the bad, you may lose the good as well. I don't think it's coincidence, for example, that our most creative people tend to have personal lives for which the phrase "train wreck" may be far too kind. Writers in particular have extraordinarily high rates of alcoholism, other addictions, marital instability, and suicide. The good and the bad are symptoms of an estrangement from normalcy that, in all likelihood, cannot be addressed selectively. In the same way, very technologically oriented people often tend to be socially awkward. I'm not sure that you can take such a person and make him more comfortable among people without also, to some degree, ruining his "rapport" with machines.

Anyway, rock on, Thomas Beatie! And if your daughter** someday seems kind of troubled about the whole thing, remind her how truly special she is: Not every student has a parent who can serve equally as Class Mother or Class Father.

* Yes, we can know the odds, which explains my distaste for so-called self-esteem-building programs that tell all kids they "can be president." But can we know what will happen? No. Not till it happens.
** It has already been determined that Beatie is having a girl.


Anonymous said...

I have heard a lot about this "man" and wondered. I did not see the Big O show, but I think he did something pretty selfless. Since he is transgendered, it must have been very difficult to go through a pregnancy. He obviously did this out of love. I think he is more of a man than most of the born men I know.

Akhetnu said...

I'm in agreement with you on this, and I think you said it all.

But I will anticipate an objection, namely that the Thomas Beatie is trying to "bring down civilization" by "deviating from what Nature/God intended" and/or "tradition".

To all this, I say: bunk. His (her?) case is clearly an exceptional once-in-a-decade one, and likely not about to start a trend. While tradition itself can form a good foundation, I think that it has the same ability to stifle real beneficial progress as the very SHAM movements you are discussing here. Merely because something goes against something else that has been done for a long time does not mean it must automatically be dismissed.

So much for the human scheme of things; now for the grand scheme. I don't assume any built in 'final cause' which somehow cringes at the existence of someone like Beatie; ultimately, his/her case simply "is".

Anonymous said...

I liked your blog up until you got into the myth of the “troubled artist.” There are many examples of artists/writers/creative types who have good personal lives. The same can be said for scientists and great thinkers. A crummy personal life is still the responsibility of the person and has little to do with the talent. Please don’t perpetuate that overused misconception.

Steve Salerno said...

Anon (the last one), I see your point--but come on now, see mine as well. Don't you think that if someone "thinks outside the box" in one area, he's more likely to think outside the box in other areas? Don't you think that if someone is unorthodox in his thoughts and artistic tastes, he's more likely to be unorthodox in his personal habits? Isn't that at least a fair assessment? And don't we have at least a fair body of empirical evidence to bear that out?

Elizabeth said...

Thank you, Steve. Thank you, Steve. :)

Extremely briefly (because if you get me started on this topic, I just may give you 30 years of my professional and personal reflections on the subject -- and you don't want that:) -- you ask, "And don't we have at least a fair body of empirical evidence to bear that out?"

Yes, we do. We are not talking about "the myth" of a troubled artist, but the solid, empirical evidence -- which I'll be happy to forward to anyone interested. The most creative of creatives, the truly revolutionary, do not belong to the "normal" category (at least as it is defined now). And what's more, we see evidence of this early on in their childhood (which does not mean we know how to interpret it, necessarily, mind you).

P.S. We can also see evidence of psychopathy in childhood -- this apropos a Ted Bundy and a possibility(?) of malle-ing his impulses toward less murderous ends.

Akhetnu said...

I can vouch for many artists being unconventional and eccentric; I have seen in in my own life, and the other artists I have encountered. There are also artists and scientists who also lead more conventional lives. Ultimately, I don't see either genuine 'conventionality' or 'unconventionality' as benefits or detriments.

Anonymous said...

Steve, making unconventional choices does not always lead to troubled personal lives. Here is a list of great talents who had decent ones: William Shakespeare, John Milton, Einstein, Socrates, Seneca, Raphael, Georgia O’Keefe, and the list goes on. Being unconventional does not always mean troubled. F. Scott Fitzgerald would have been an alcoholic whether or not he ever wrote a word. Picasso would have been a jerk whether or not he ever picked up a paint brush.

Elizabeth, yes “unique” children are far from “normal’, but that does not mean they cannot have fulfilling personal lives, or make sound choices. I remember a time when psychologists stated children from broken homes were highly unlikely to have good marriages without extensive treatment. Researchers have since found out that is not always the case. Judith S. Wallerstein did a twelve year project and found good marriages amongst couples who had no therapy and were thriving. This discovery threw out a lot of what psychologists thought they “knew” about marriage.

My quibble with the post still stands; talent/genius/uniqueness does not always coincide with poor choices and bad social ties. One can make “unconventional” and sound choices too.

Steve Salerno said...

Anon, I didn't imply a straight-line relationship; I just think it's far more likely.

Anonymous said...

It's not more likely, it's just more press.

Elizabeth said...

To add to, or rather expand on, Akhetnu's last comment:

Conventionality (or lack of it) may be in the eye of the beholder, first of all. Second, we cannot always be good judges of it (conventionality or its lack) unless we know a person really, really well (and I'm not saying you don't here, just making a point). We are talking more about the workings of the mind that manifest in creative products, rather than a lifestyle itself, which could present as conventional to an outside observer. I know many creative individuals who look and act "conventionally," but whose creative pursuits as well as their intimate behaviors and inner lives are nothing but. And it cannot be otherwise. "Conventional" individuals, the average Janes and Joes, do not create. Or if they do venture into creative lands, their creativity reflects their conventional minds -- one-dimensional, "pleasant," unobtrusive (one could call it non-creative creativity:).

Upon close inspection, we can see that the truly creative artists and scientists are, by definition, unconventional human beings. Because the same force that drives them to create takes them outside of the realm of the well-rounded mediocrity. We are talking about their talents; high intelligence; acute, multidimensional sensitivity; and passion -- all of which make them outstanding in more than one way. Those very same traits make their adjustment to the reality of average people, well, problematic, to put it mildly, not in the least because of the stigmatizing perceptions of what is and isn't "normal" in our society.

And then there is also a substantial and growing body of evidence linking exceptional abilities to developmental unevenness (asynchrony), which in extreme cases manifests as pathological conditions. The link between artistic abilities and bipolar disorder, for example, is well recognized now. Similarly, the notion that exceptional intellectual abilities, especially in males, are associated with such conditions as Asperger Syndrome, is also gaining recognition. The studies of savants also shed light on the correlation between exceptional skills and associated dysfunction in areas unrelated to the exceptional strength. It appears that the greater the ability or talent, the more – and often the more serious trade-offs -- neurological, physical, emotional and social – are involved.

It is difficult to recall any eminent creator, whether in arts or science, who would fit the "well-rounded" or "conventional" description. It seems that to accomplish great things in any area of human endeavor, one has to exhibit, apart from talent, an unusual dedication to his or her passions that often precludes involvement in other areas of human activity. The time and energy the many gifted scientists and artists devote to their pursuits makes it very difficult, if at all possible, to focus on much else. And perhaps it cannot be otherwise.

Elizabeth said...

Last Anon, you are right that being unconventional does not necessarily mean "troubled" (although it depends on how you define "troubled").

But, oy, I disagree with your choices of exemplars here -- Einstein's personal life was a mess; Socrates went around screwing underage boys while harping, in public, on his wife; and don't even get me started on Scott Fitzgerald! I am not that familiar with biographies of the others, so I'll leave those alone (for now ;).

Please note that I made no inferences about "unique" children's lack of prospects for leading fulfilled lives -- far from it. It is more complicated than that, in my experience (I've worked with gifted kids and adults for most of my adult life; the creatives are the reason I chose my profession close to 30 years ago -- for better or for worse, but that's a different story:).

Akhetnu said...


I don't think we are implying that being "unconventional" in our lifestyles (whether for art, science or whatever) always leads to an "unsound" life. In fact, the greater dysfunction might come from buying into the SHAM life that passes for 'selfhood'.

Being an iconoclast or unconventional can certainly have its own challenges, and maybe the percentage of troubled artists is no greater than the percentage of troubled non-artists. But Steve seemed to imply that those who do buck the trend are often looked down upon by others; this is not the same as saying that the end results will be in line with their disdain.

Anonymous said...

I didn't see Oprah so please fill me in. Does this "guy" have a penis and if so how did they inseminate?


Anonymous said...

All, you're getting distracted from the main point here: Dammit, why didn't they adopt?!!! This selfish desire to perpetuate one's own oh-so-precious self in a time of terrifying overpopulation and global hardship is inexcusable. And in this case, it's taken to about as far an extreme as it can get. This is cause for shame, not celebrity, and that shame has nothing to do with who or what Beatie is.

mikecane2008 said...

Just wanted to get this in before I read the Comments:

Apparently there are links there for most of the show itself.

Anonymous said...

Socrates did not go around "screwing underage boys." He was a happily married man with with three children. Please look that up with the Classical Society, especially Michael Grant head of it. Please check with Hellenistic Society. What you are stating is typical misinformed information on ancient Greece and Rome. Socrates was asking his students to "question" everything and become critical thinkers. He was sentenced to death by Athens due to this. The ancient Athenians knew he was a great thinker and gave him chances to escape, but he did not. He chose to take hemlock, because he would live by the judgement of the city he lived in, Athens. That's why we study Socrates today. He lived by his principles.
Albert Einstein has always been portrayed as a decent man, especially by his students.
I stated F. Scott Fitzerald was an alcoholic.

mikecane2008 said...

I wish these frikkin anons would at least get a Yahoo or Google account so they'd have an OpenID and could then post here under at least a *handle*. It gets difficult to parse. Geez, at least sign the post with *initals* at the bottom to distinguish one another!

>>>I liked your blog up until you got into the myth of the “troubled artist.”

It's no myth. Perhaps you are afraid not to be seen as "weird" yourself?

Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament

The Price of Greatness: Resolving the Creativity and Madness Controversy

That second book has a l-o-n-g list of people who "qualify."

This is a subject that is close to my heart.

The weird would do best chucking the Christian Bible away and adopting this as their text:


For anyone who's wondered why he/she doesn't "fit in," *that's* the book to save your very soul.

I didn't watch the Oprah other than get a quick glimpse of the person. The person otherwise had no interest to me.

mikecane2008 said...

Oh, and i can't resist throwing in a book excerpt, either:

"Christ," Dickie muttered, scratching his greasy hair with the end of a ballpoint pen. "Another eccentric. What is this, are there more eccentrics these days or just fewer normal people?"

"There never have been normal people. It's a myth," I said as I reached under the sofa cushions looking for an antidepressant I might have dropped while I was opening the bottle. "Listen, Dickie, there are just crazy people and statisticians. Of course, there is some overlap." I pulled up a greasy, lint-covered quarter. "But I haven't seen Jane Marie for years. I don't know where she fits in." I put the quarter in my pocket. [The Music of What Happens - John Straley; pg. 25-26]


*&^% the "normal." The Great Wad would say Dubya is normal. Look at the wreckage he's wrought. Keep your "normal." I don't want it.

Anonymous said...

Elizabeth, would you say you are sensitive to this subject due to your extensive work in it? Sometimes being so close to something can give lack of ojectivity. That was the case with the marriage study.

I have a theory that Leonardo da Vinci had a form of autism. There are studies that link syphallis with great talent too. I give you Van Gogh and Beethovan.

I was (am) a gifted kid and how many times was I put into a box by a psychologist or "expert". I was in "gifted" classes until high school and demanded I go to a regular "school." Everyone had a theory about what made us tick. I took a test a week and had fun playing with them. Some weeks I was a genius and some weeks I was a ditz. It took me forever to learn discipline and get through college. I had to do that on my own.

The examples Steve gave were of people who made self-destructive choices. I was pointing out that is a biased view. Don't get your boxers bunched Steve, but if I said all black people can dance, would that be acceptable, even if I think that? Yet it is alright to associate talent with destructive behavior. I think it is unfair and I just wanted to point that out.

Anonymous said...

Mike Cane
I never said I was not "weird." Weird is a subjective word though. You might be perfectly “normal” to someone somewhere.

I am married to another "gifted" person and have not done drugs or been promiscuous. I know other “gifted” people who have content lives, but we don’t get any press. We have to have some psychological disorder, emotional trauma, drug/alcohol problem, or illness to be who we are. Maybe we are just “different.”

I agree that people should find their own “path” in live, whether or not they are “gifted.” I know “experts” who make their careers on trying to make great artists, scientists, and thinkers to have whatever the disorder of the day is. Shakespeare gets a lot of ink for that.
I think these “studies” are not done for the “gifted” people, but for people to label them and categorize them in their own minds.

Steve Salerno said...

Anon (assuming you're the same Anon who's been prosecuting this line of reasoning all along), number one, I don't see your parallel between black dancers and creative wackos. In fact, they're almost the opposite argument: I'm making a correlation based on "the content of character," as Dr. King put it, whereas you're making a correlation purely on skin color.

However, having said that, if we're going to admit race into the discussion at all, then--in my view--we can't selectively dismiss the idea of certain traits that may be race-identified. So maybe black people can dance better than whites. (It would surely seem that blacks play basketball better than whites, no? Although there may be other variables there.) Of course, the great danger in such thinking is that if you're going to attach characteristics to race, then you can't rule out the idea of attaching negative characteristics to race. Or gender. Or...? That, to me, is the crippling fallacy in all of the modern "rights movements." You can't take the credit for the good things "your people" do without also taking the blame for the bad things.

But getting back to the subject at hand, I do think there's something to the idea that creative people--especially the rule-breakers and revolutionaries--are just naturally weirder than other people. I think it goes with the territory.

Anonymous said...

Steve, I am not talking about race. I am using race as an example. Of course not all black people can dance and not all Asians are math geeks. I am pointing out how people make generalizations for their own benefit. Weird to you may be normal for someone else, how do you figure out what "unconventional” is? Is that not a judgment call? If it is, who gets to make that call? Is it society or the individual?

mikecane2008 said...


I don't know what the hell that word means. Especially in these Newspeak Times.

Do you mean you have a high IQ or low IQ?

IQ has absolutely nothing to do with my point.

Steve Salerno said...

Look...Anon...I'm not trying to be annoying or obnoxious. OK? But I gotta admit, it somewhat amazes me that there's even a debate on this point. Are you seriously telling me that you think poets, novelists, and jazz musicians--on average--have as well-adjusted, "successful" personal lives as, say, grade-school teachers or people who own drycleaning stores? (Success = stable marriage, fixed sexuality, no drug habits, no arrests, two or fewer homicides or suicide attempts.) I mean, just look at the list of the most critically acclaimed writers of all-time! Or even the best-selling ones.

Elizabeth said...

Anon, many thoughts in response, too many to put down here.

But let's do a few: give me an example of a truly creative individual, one of the mold-breaking kind, not merely "pleasantly gifted," who would fit the description of "conventional" in his/her creative pursuits, everyday behaviors, intimate relationships and daily habits. And let's not go back to antiquity, because we do not have reliable biographical information to back it up and we could go back and forth arguing our favorite sources. Show me a *well-documented* biography (more than one is better) of such an exemplar -- and I'll agree with you. Until then, I'd say that the empirical data we have on genius supports Steve's (and Mike's and mine) contention.

Second, as I already said, unconventional does not mean self-destructive. We (people who work with the gifted population and who study and write about creativity) see in these folks the presence of a trait called overexcitability, which is increased sensitivity of the nervous system manifesting in their responses to internal and external stimuli. There are five kinds of OE: emotional, intellectual, imaginational, sensual, and psychomotor. We have heaps of solid research and clinical data now supporting the positive correlation between OE and high intelligence and special talents. And the higher the intelligence and the stronger the talents, the more prominent (as a rule, but not always -- it's a bit more complex, as you can imagine) and stronger are the OEs.

The funny thing about OE is that while it makes you more sensitive and opens your mind (and soul) to the world as we know it, it also often wreaks havoc on your life, in various ways. So, for example, many highly gifted/OE individuals have trouble at school and are unable to get through college, in large part due to their raging OEs and associated issues. Others may seek solace and comfort (i.e. looking for ways to soothe the effects of this acute sensitivity) in obsessive creative activities, or sometimes in just obsessive activities. Others reach for alcohol or drugs in order to self-medicate. The varieties of behavior associated with OE and their management are almost endless, ranging from constructive and developmentally positive to destructive and decidedly negative for the person and those around him. But the OE, with its blessings and woes, is behind those behaviors in the creative iconoclasts Steve describes here. And the OE, among other things, sets them apart from the average folk, who are not OE-endowed (again, I'm not taking this out of thin air -- we have solid data to support that).

I think I'll stop here. Please look up overexcitability (OE) -- I think you may find the reading interesting. And while at it, investigate the theory of positive disintegration (especially you Mike :) -- talk about life-saving...).

P.S. Anon, look into information on Einstein's marriages and family life for a bit different perspective on his "decency."

Steve Salerno said...

P.S. And of course we're going to use "society's" standards of normalcy and "weirdness." Whose standards do you propose we use instead? Fitzgerald's? Hemingway's? Plath's? Cobain's? Charlie Parker's?...

ourfriendben said...

I think what can be held as true is that "outsiders" are often great achievers, and that great achievers are often viewed by the larger society as outsiders. So many great comedians became great comedic talents to defend themselves from the cruelty of a mocking society that perceived them as inferior because of their race, religion, appearance, class, or sexual preference.

To follow a different thread, I think that any great talent, any great passion, is isolating. If, like Mozart, you were constantly hearing great music performed in your head, how much room would be left for anything else? Be they great composers or musicians, great artists, great writers, great saints, great scientists, or great philosophers, they are, much of the time, in a realm apart. Creation--and that great ecstasy, pure thought--occur in their own quiet place.

This may cause suffering to those around high creatives, but the ecstasy of their genius probably compensates them for their own isolation and "otherness." I once knew a man, a genius in math and physics, who exclaimed after a particularly frustrating day, "I'm trying so hard to be human!" Indeed.

Anonymous said...

Here are some modern day examples: Marilyn vos Savant who is married to Robert Jarvik. I give you playwright Sarah Ruhl who just finished her play run of Eurydice. She actually discusses her “boring” upbringing in the New Yorker.

I give you Sherman Anderson. He was a contemporary of Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner. He was a businessman with the soul of an artist. He wondered away from as head of a paint company and came back two weeks later to quit his job. He kept his business ability and artistic passions. Was his life “conventional” maybe not, but he lived it on his terms. I had a problem with the example you made and I still do. I think people are responsible for their actions, whether or not they have talent. You can see that in John Lennon versus Paul McCartney. Lennon abandoned his son Julian to make a life with Yoko Ono. Paul McCartney was/is a devoted father, yes he made a bad choice with Heather Mills, but who hasn’t? Who do you have more in common with? John or Paul?

Mike Cane,
Gifted means high IQ. I thought that was what you were referring to in your post.

I am not disagreeing with the fact these people are not like others. I am saying people ultimately are responsible for their actions, whether or not they are talented/gifted/or whatever.

Elizabeth said...

Steve: "two or fewer homicides" ??

LMAO, though I know it's no laughing matter.

Elizabeth said...

Steve: "two or fewer homicides" ??

LMAO, though I know it's no laughing matter (especially in light of your picture with the bat...) Are there some innermost thoughts you'd like to confess? ;)

Anonymous said...

I forgot to put this link of this great debate of "troubled" lives of artists:

Anonymous said...

I forgot Amy Tan and Matt Groening as examples. Another writer disagreed with me about Georgia O'Keefe, because she had a nervous breakdown and no children. From her journals she seemed to have led a content, if solitary life though.

Elizabeth said...

BTW, the "gifted" label is, in general, reserved for folks with IQ of 130 and above (the top 2% of the population), and/or any outstanding talent/special ability.

Steve Salerno said...

Wow, this post really took on a life of its own while I was away this afternoon.

OFB, you make some very good points, without resorting to the polarizing assessments that have characterized much of the comment here (including, I admit, my own).

But getting back to Anon, look, the last thing I wanted to happen here was that we end up playing a game of "can you top this?" wherein I throw in the name of a psychopath and you rebut me with someone who's lived a good, stable life. Arguing this anecdotally isn't going to decide a thing. The only reason I brought up Hemingway et al is that I do think there's some validity in looking at our artistic demigods, and seeing how they fared in life, in general. I mean, if I (hypothetically) came up with a list of the Top 10 most admired jazz artists in history--and it turned out that all 10 had died of a heroin overdose--wouldn't you at least begin to suspect that maybe something was going on there?

Elizabeth said...

Anon, the thing about exemplars is that we cannot quite count living individuals here, as their lives are still unfinished and open to interpretation (and subject to obvious privacy cloaks). We can imagine -- easily, I think -- that after their deaths, we'd get a better, more honest account of who they were and how they lived their lives, from their relatives and associates -- and those accounts will likely include information to which we are not privy now.

So my challenge to you stands: Give me a well-researched biography (preferably more than one) of an outstanding creative -- and dead -- talent in arts, sciences or philosophy, whose life we could could consider "conventional" (and remember, that includes intimate behaviors, as much as we should be able to access those from the available information).

Till then.

P.S. Please do read up on OE if you have some time.

Anonymous said...

No Steve I don't agree with you. I think you see what you want to see, but that's o.k. There are scholars who have made careers of it.

Elizabeth said...

P.S. to Anon: My challenge (a reliable bio of a "conventional" genius) is not just a throw-away blog post for the heck of it. I do research in creativity and personality development and I will sincerely welcome any and all reliable biographical data that would support the contention that genius can* live a conventional life.

*Not in a "say-so" manner -- as in we personally think it's possible -- but solid, well-documented data.

Anonymous said...

Elizabeth, that is not what you asked me for. You asked me for examples and I gave them to you. If you do not like my examples, I am sorry. They are there for you to look up. You stated that "historical" ones did not count so you don't like those. That is why I gave you Socrates to research. I even told you where to go and who the leader in the field is, Michael Grant. I think you would really enjoy reading him, because he has spent his life researching great thinkers of Rome and Greece. I'm sorry you do not like my views, but they still stand.

Elizabeth said...

Anon, I have nothing against your views. By all means, please keep 'em.

However, we started here on the path of trying to prove/disprove Steve's contention that eminent artists and the most creative individuals are not conventional, by commonly accepted standards. Right so far?

I asked you for exemplars. You came up with Socrates, among others -- and you insist on bringing him up. Fine. Only that I'm telling you we do not have *reliable* biographical information about him -- not of the kind that would allow us to make an informed judgment, one way or the other, about what kind of a person he was (including his possible neuroses or lack of those, etc.) This does not go for *all* historical figures, as you say in your last post, only for the ancient ones, whose bio data, for obvious reasons, are scant and highly debatable.

Then you bring up living artists -- and am telling you what legitimate problems we have objectively investigating lives of living subjects. Do you disagree with those? (BTW, Vos Savant cannot be counted as an artist, or eminent creative individual to begin with.)

I am open to changing my views -- consider it Elizabeth's challenge, a la Randi's challenge -- if you provide information that meets standards of objective inquiry into the subject. And I've even extended my invitation to include eminent creative scientists and philosophers, in addition to artists here. Given the wealth of information supporting Steve's contention (and mine, and Mike's), I'd say the burden of proof is on your shoulders, should you be inclined to take this discussion seriously, rather than just an exchange of ideas on a Friday afternoon. Believe me when I say I am *open* to your arguments and acknowledging that creative genius may lead a conventional life. Just show it to me, OK? (The conditions: 1. Historical = dead but not from antiquity; 2. eminent and creative = somebody who changed his/her creative domain; and 3. well-documented biographical data, including personal/intimate life, as much as possible. That's all. I think it should be doable.)

Elizabeth said...

Bear with me a bit longer, Anon et al. Should you be willing to entertain the challenge, this is how we could go about it (and I think it's a reasonable proposition): Let's choose 10 most important writers, 10 most important visual artists, 10 most important scientists and 10 most important philosophers from the past 100-200 years (all dead now). We would make the choice according to some more or less objective source, this way avoiding choosing our favorite examples. Out of the 10 in each category, we'd choose 5 (or however many you'd like) with the best biographical information and see how many of those were free of any psychological difficulties (classified as mental illness, depressions, obsessions, anxieties, neuroses, addictions, perversions, and emotional/behavioral problems in dealing with other people and responsibilities of their daily lives). I think it should be a fair test of your (and mine) hypotheses, no?

P.S. It occurs to me that we differ in our view of psychological problems in the lives of artists (and other eminent individuals). You seem to consider them negative (self-destructive), while I see them as mostly positive and often necessary for their creativity and personality development.

Jim Thompson said...

What…. Is my motivation?

Consider the three schools of psychoanalysis. The Adlerian school as propounded by Abraham Maslow uses the 12 step hierarchy of needs to help a person reach self-actualization. The bottom level includes needs such as food, water, and air. Ascending the pyramid you travel through safety, then love, then esteem. Next is the level of self-actualization including morality, creativity, and problem solving. Next is the need to gain and then understand knowledge. At the top is the aesthetic need to express oneself in beauty and truth. When a person’s needs in one area are not met they are compensated for; often by a neurotic syndrome that can never be satisfied.

Freudian psychoanalysis is concerned with the interaction of the id, ego, and superego (or unconscious, conscious, and preconscious mind). The person is the result of the balance or imbalance of drives. Here pleasure seeking is often the source of neurosis. It is also the result.

The logotherapeutic approach was discovered by the holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl. Here humanness is the unique quality of being more concerned with what is out there in the world (e.g. meaning of life and relationships) than with oneself. They call this self-transcendence. The antipole to this is what they term an existential vacuum. Since parting ways with the rest of animalia humanity has sloughed off their reliance on instinct to guide behavior. Sometime between then and now, the individual human has learned how to slough off the necessity of customs and traditions in guiding their behavior. This leaves man in the precarious position where they must do what they wish. Curiously, sometimes people don’t even know what they wish – resulting in an existential vacuum. The person ends up doing what others wish (conformism) or demand (totalitarianism), or developing a neurosis. Here a compulsive neurosis is the result of a person’s crippled relationship to self-transcendence; there is a lack of meaning and meaningful relationships in their lives. The approach a logotherapist would take in working with someone with a neurosis is not so much to worry about the person’s inner conditions (i.e. power and pleasure), but by helping them to find the relationships, meaning, and search for meaning that is lacking in their life.

So… what are the possible explanations for stars of various fields often displaying neurotic behavior? It probably doesn’t have anything to do with success requiring or being more available to people with mental illness or weirdness. It may be that mental diseases produce extreme behaviors that may occasionally result in something extraordinarily good or interesting. It definitely appears to almost always result in something extraordinarily bad. High achievers who are otherwise normal usually get very little public attention (unless they pretend to be neurotic) except within their own meritocratic social system. This is in spite of the fact that they probably make up over 99% of success stories. However, the neurotic high achiever often receives media attention. Certainly their secret to success is not that they were born with or found some sort of mysterious hidden ‘advantage’ that allows them to excel above everyone else with minimal extra effort like some sort of superman. And yet it is appealing that this should be so. It means that all you would have to do to be ‘super’ is to be weird, and that is something everyone can do. And our image obsessed society impresses us at a young age that you have to be super to be valuable or meaningful. Thus, the false relationship of weirdness to success gives people the false sense that they have access to success by being weird. This idea is ruining lives. Those who never had a chance to figure out what they really want in life are vulnerable. Yet people will fight to maintain this illusion to maintain hope. Hope that despite everything else going on in this world there is still a chance that someone will realize that they are important and love them.

The Crack Emcee said...

I just want to say I find it fascinating that this topic (what artists do and how we live) gets you guys all fired up. Whoda thunk it?

I'ma stay out of it, so the peace can be held, but I'm reading it all,...from the perch of my deeply troubled life.

Elizabeth said...

Several thoughts, Jim T., and I leave aside the theoretical discussion (for now, if you wish, though my sincere desire would be to do so for good -- as it's another ball of yarn to unravel). I also want to state that I agree with some of what you are saying here, but will leave it alone for lack of time -- I will only note where I disagree (please do not take my post as a wholesale rejection of yours -- because it isn't).

You say, "It may be that mental diseases produce extreme behaviors that may occasionally result in something extraordinarily good or interesting. It definitely appears to almost always result in something extraordinarily bad."

I disagree with both of your statements here. Mental disease and extreme behaviors by themselves do not "produce" anything. Creative minds do. And more often than not, these minds function differently. The openness and sensitivity to stimuli characteristic for the creatives also make them more vulnerable to stress, pain and disintegration (which, btw, are not necessarily negative, from the POV of creativity and personality development; though yes, they feel like hell -- which, well, they are).

What's more, mental "dis-ease" does not always result in something extraordinarily bad. Again, it's not the "disease" itself, but the person to whom it happens (or who is so afflicted) that matters most. I'll assume by "disease" you mean both mental illness (as in psychosis) and neurotic disturbances and their kin. But yes, there are well-documented cases of mental "disease" resulting in both increased creative output and positive personality transformation. And to see how "dis-ease" fueled one's creative endeavors check out Kafka, Dostoyevsky, Rilke and Van Gogh, to name just four (of many).

Speaking in defense of dis-ease: The state of being "out of ease" -- as in perturbed and non-complacent -- is the one most conducive to creativity, esp. of the revolutionary kind. Happy people who are pleased with themselves and the world simply have no incentive and desire to change either, even though they may be given to expression of this pleasant happiness in what sometimes passes for (bland) art.

I know this is not the kind of disease you are talking about in your post (though maybe I'm wrong), but the lines between dis-ease and "mental disease" are very blurry, if exist at all.

You say, "High achievers who are otherwise normal usually get very little public attention (unless they pretend to be neurotic) except within their own meritocratic social system. This is in spite of the fact that they probably make up over 99% of success stories."

We are not talking here about high achievers, getting public recognition or outward success, but about creativity, which often has nothing to do with either. And I must say that, having lived a life surrounded by neurotics (wonderful as much as exasperating), I can honestly say I have never met anyone who'd "pretend" to be one. It is just not something one can (or would want to) pretend, especially given the meager payoffs involved. Not any more than one can "pretend" to be introverted or have bad breath.

You say, "However, the neurotic high achiever often receives media attention. Certainly their secret to success is not that they were born with or found some sort of mysterious hidden ‘advantage’ that allows them to excel above everyone else with minimal extra effort like some sort of superman. And yet it is appealing that this should be so. It means that all you would have to do to be ‘super’ is to be weird, and that is something everyone can do. (...) Thus, the false relationship of weirdness to success gives people the false sense that they have access to success by being weird."

Again, Jim, you confuse both outward success and fame, related and not, with creativity. I know (many) creative individuals who toil in close to complete anonymity, struggling to just do what they think they need to do: express their vision of the world/life, while living it, often just barely, as they know best (which is sometimes not saying all that much). Some would give up their misery in a jiffy if they could (and knew how), but others would never trade it for peaceful normalcy if that also meant giving up their creativity.

OK, two cents too many already, I'm afraid (on my part, that is).

CMC, join and do tell. Peace is relative.

Anonymous said...

This whole 'man having baby'story is ridiculous. How on earth did the O expect to increase ratings by having this on her show? Anyway, this 'man' is NOT a man. She is first a matter what parts she had altered and changed or re-shaped, she is first a female..every other biological aspect of her being would confirm that. How does a man generate the hormones and estrogen a woman does..especially during pregnancy? I find it absolutely nonsensical that the media would even consider making a story out of this pregnancy. Women have been doing this for millenia..if she were not a woman, she would be NOT be pregnant..period. How suggestable is the general public anyway? If a person decides to have elephant or kangaroo parts added to their body, will that make them an elephant or a kangaroo? If I declare myself a man when I am a woman, does this declaration magically change me into a woman? NO! Let's get real here. This is about an individual's intrapsychic process which many undergo, not a substantiated physiological phenomena where a male human is having a baby! Where the heck is science on this topic anyway? Too political..too much of a social landmine? Well, who made it that way anyway? How long and how far do we allow it to continue?

The Crack Emcee said...

"Jim, you confuse both outward success and fame, related and not, with creativity. I know (many) creative individuals who toil in close to complete anonymity, struggling to just do what they think they need to do: express their vision of the world/life, while living it, often just barely, as they know best (which is sometimes not saying all that much). Some would give up their misery in a jiffy if they could (and knew how), but others would never trade it for peaceful normalcy if that also meant giving up their creativity."

I'm (really) staying out of this, except to say, when my marriage went bust, the next thing to desert me was my other passion - music: the desire to hear or play it - and that terrified me (almost) more than the prospect of divorce itself.

The idea that I'd be "normal" - one of those people who, either, wasn't particularly moved by music, or, by choice, just went about their life in relative silence (which I had to do in the immediate aftermath) - made me so depressed I slid towards suicide.

I can still picture myself on my bed, with my knees pulled up to my chin, rocking and crying, and repeatedly saying, "No, no, no, no,, no,...", because I couldn't see any "rational" way for me to come to terms with that idea: that I would never be "me" again.

I've suffered for art - been beat-up for merely consuming the wrong kind amongst the wrong people - so the concept, now, of living my life without it (no matter what the price) is inconceivable.

I'd just rather die first.

Bill Dueease said...


You outdid yourself with this blog about the man/woman giving birth. You really uncovered a very deep and important perspective. People are different, and it is true self-actualization to discover, recognize, understand, and accept your own uniqueness, as opposed to trying to fit in. Beatie really stands out as different. Too many people try to drag the different people back in, by attacking their difference.

But if you want to get a sense of how people truly value difference, just ask a group of 100 or more people to raise their hands if they feel they are average. Very few, if any, hands go up.

I also agree with the poster who was not happy with your characterization of writers and artists. Not that many artists, or writers are drunks, or druggies. These traits are equal opportunity issues, and very personal.

Elizabeth said...

This is somewhat exasperating, I have to admit. I'm not sure now how we've veered back into "not many artists or writers are drunks or druggies" here.

Let's repeat it one more time, for the sake of the holy redundancy and the heck of it:
Being "drunks" or "druggies" are not the only choices when it comes to an "unconventional" lifestyle, or mental health, of artists (and genius in other domains). Really. (People appear not to read what was actually written -- in the original post and the subsequent discussion. But so be it, I suppose. This is my one ornery frustration vent per quarter -- I'm allowed, right?)

Thanks, CMC, for speaking up. Don't stay out of the discussion for the sake of "peace," however. You have interesting things to say, especially on this subject. And what kind of peace do we have here anyway? (LOL.)

I hate posting quotes -- however, will allow myself one per quarter, as well (so help me Steve). This one is from Pearl Buck, a woman who knew a thing or two about creativity (and won the Pulitzer and Nobel for it, too):

"The truly creative mind in any field is no more than this: A human creature born abnormally, inhumanly sensitive. To him, a touch is a blow, a sound is a noise, a misfortune is a tragedy, a joy is an ecstasy, a friend is a lover, a lover is a god, and failure is death. Add to this cruelly delicate organism the overpowering necessity to create, create, create - so that without the creating of music or poetry or books or buildings or something of meaning, his very breath is cut off from him. He must create, must pour out creation. By some strange, unknown, inward urgency he is not really alive unless he is creating."

Really; and the rest (i.e. the unconventional and its vicinity) grows from that. (With a shout out to CMC:).

Steve Salerno said...

Amen, Elizabeth. I couldn't have said it better myself (and I probably would've said it much worse).

Anonymous said...

(WC) I read an interview of Frank Zappa where he was asked what his biggest frustration/failing in life was, and he said that it was that he just could not think in normal ways. He said that there were times where it really would have been helpful to him and his family to be capable of starting from some 'normal' premises when facing some of life's challenges.


Elizabeth said...

WC, do you have a reference for that interview?

The Crack Emcee said...


I'm shocked: you "get" it.

What most people call "life" is what surrounds my life - which is the work - and there's nothing more important than that. That's why my "life" (as seen from another person's perspective) can get so messy: it's like I have to make room for eating, other people, making the bed, whatever, because I'm consumed with the work - either doing it, or thinking about it - always making notes to myself; picking up on everything, like I have this finely-tuned antennae.

Other people are amazed that I don't particularly need a social life, restaurants, vacations, etc., as long as I'm creating: it gives me all that. And I only feel "right" when I'm in that element. (I can stay in the studio, for weeks at a time, without ever missing the sun.) And when I can reveal it - with the waves of sound almost visible (which they are, to me, when I first "receive" them) it's power can be otherworldly: people - especially those that "know" me - just stare, stunned, because, I think, they see they didn't know me (or, referencing your quote, what it means, to me, to be "human") at all. Like they've been looking at the same thing I have but, somehow, they missed the most important part. Even the musicians I've played with don't see it until a song is rehearsed and eventually comes together - which makes me think they're stupid. (They almost always declare a new song isn't as good as the last one.) Then, once they know it, and we can play around with it, they're like, "you're a genius, man", which, paradoxically, makes me feel stupid after all the work I've put in to convey it to them.

One guy famously said I'm "playing all of our records all at once" (which I particularly liked) because it's kinda true: I'm working on every song I've ever heard - within in each song. I constantly tell the band to think about - as in the two examples here - Ska on an (unintentionally) Pretenders and (intentionally) Beatles-type song. Or (intentionally) adding Devo to a Punk tune with (unintentional) Hip-Hop lyrics. And each one featuring something that somebody said that made me laugh, or made/didn't make any sense, as the opening line or, probably, the hook in a chorus. It's like I've got this light bulb, that's always going on, signaling what will have some kind of instant recognition.

And (here's the strange part:) I can't turn it off. Not by myself. I can't touch it. It's its own thing, that, pretty much, wakes me up in the morning.

But it can be turned off. I know that now. And that's what I find cruel in other people.

I never want to feel that again.

Elizabeth said...

CMC, now I'm shocked that you are shocked that I "get" it. LOL -- or perhaps not.

Yes, I do get it, the whole of it -- and with no quotes around it.

Write more. (Hope you can get over your shock...:)

Jim Thompson said...

True creativity and false creativity reminds me a lot of true charisma and false charisma.

Joy is a wonderful thing! If art requires trouble in life, then I will be a janitor.

Celebrities are so strange in public. Privately they work like everyone else!

The creativity in individuals throughout history is their love of life, their ability to listen, their hope, their love, their faith, and their work ethic.

The creativity in individuals throughout history is their relationship to God!

Bill Dueease said...

Elizabeth Now we are getting somewhere with the being different thing. I have ADD and I am different. I know where I am different and I accept and I truly enjoy being so. I quit trying to be normal so many years ago I lost track. Having ADD is a blessing, because it provides me talents and capabilities in creativity and understanding not available to the others. When you look at the great inventors, artists, creators and leaders in the past, you will discover their common thread of having ADD. (I can provide a list that will astound you. It is too long to show here) The struggle Frank Zappa supposedly had to believe he had to think in normal ways is sad. Because the reason Zappa was able to contribute his great creative gifts to the world is because he is different, and most likely has ADD. Once he understands and enjoys his special differences, he will be able to truly enjoy and thrive in this world.

The struggle we have by being so different is that the normals try so hard to make us normal. And when we try to follow their becoming normal thing, we will not succeed. But, What Is Normal? And Who Wants To Be Normal? A number of times I have asked a room full of over 100 people to raise their hands if they thought they were normal or if they wanted to be normal. Very few people raised their hands. Interesting that the normals do not want to be considered normal.

Elizabeth said...

Bill, and I thought we were already there with the being different thing... But I'm glad you've made it: Welcome to the AD/HD Land. LOL.

You are preaching to the choir, y'know. The topic of ADD and giftedness is particularly dear to me (LOL some more, it's just that kind of a Ritalin-riddled Friday).

OK, cross-reference my name (Elizabeth Mika) with giftedness, ADD, normalcy, psychopathology (should be enough) and see what pops up. You may be surprised. Or not. (On the second thought, skip normalcy -- not my cuppa tea, so you probably won't find much there.)

And beyond there, there be dragons.;) (Thank you RevRon very much.)

Now, because it is Friday after all -- and sometimes we can be silly here, right Steve? -- check out one of my favorite explanations of AD/HD from Uncyclopedia:

Please keep in mind that as a professional I do not endorse the views presented there. (But as a mischievous SHAMblogger on this particular Friday, I definitely do.)

P.S. I promise to be more serious next time.

Elizabeth said...

Jim, you said: "If art requires trouble in life, then I will be a janitor."

And not a bad choice that would be, mind you. You could stand beside Faulkner, for one, or Kafka (who, though not a janitor, had a similarly "dull" day job), Bruno Schulz, Knut Hamsun, Albert Camus, Anton Chekhov, and many others, to mention just writers.

OK, I know this is not what you mean. But, seriously now, first of all, art, though a demanding mistress, does not "require trouble" as such. Second, living the life of art and "trouble," as you say (though I thought we redefined the "trouble" in this thread many times over -- please see the Buck quote) is not exactly a choice one can (or would want to) make. Please also see CMC's posts in this thread.

R.M. Rilke, a poetic genius tormented by his inner demons had this to say when contemplating the prospect of psychoanalysis, which could "cure" his neuroses:
"I know now that psychoanalysis would make sense for me only if I were really serious about the strange possibility of no longer writing, which (...) I often dangled in front of my nose as a kind of relief. Then one might let one’s devils be exorcised, since in daily life they are truly just disturbing and painful. And if it happened that the angels left too, one would have to understand this as a further simplification and tell oneself that in the new profession (which?), there would certainly be no use for them." (To L.A.S, January 24, 1912)*

He did not go for the analysis -- decided that if the demons were to leave and take the angels with them, it would make his life unlivable, as both were necessary for him to create. His choice, and his "unconventional" life, is far from unusual among artists. And that "trouble" you bring up is nothing more (or less) than the acute sensitivity and intensity, described by Buck, without which creativity simply does not happen. It is as joyful as it can be painful, but you simply cannot have one without the other. Wislawa Szymborska, another great poet and Nobel laureate, said about herself once that her main states of being are rapture and despair (I love this woman:). Bertrand Russell, another Nobel in Lit laureate, said this, "The centre of me is always and eternally a terrible pain." And since we are already at the Nobel party, Czeslaw Milosz stated, "From early on writing for me has been a way to overcome my real or imagined worthlessness." We can go down the Nobel in Lit list and I promise you, you won't find *one* writer there who could be considered "average," or conventional in terms of mental health (as we already discussed above in this thread -- i.e. free of neuroses, anxieties, depressions, etc.). Not one.

*As you see, I'm reneging on my promise of one quote per quarter, but only to further illustrate the point that the choice you bring up is not within the realm of possibility for many (most) artists.

Elizabeth said...

Beating on the dead artists a bit more.

You say, Jim: "True creativity and false creativity reminds me a lot of true charisma and false charisma."

I'm assuming this is an ironic remark on your part, Jim, and that you really do not believe in distinctions between false and true charisma (and art). But now that you've introduced this thought, I think you may have a good point here, certainly one to explore.

Please note that this distinction -- false/true art -- is one you've made, not I. However, you are referring here to my remark on the "revolutionary" vs. "bland" art -- and I'd like to expand on this a bit (bear with me).

There are thousands of prolific writers around engaged in their craft, but only one, say, Tolstoy, among them. There are artists who create paintings by the dozen and exhibit them in my local Ramada hotel later, and then there is, say, Van Gogh. See the difference there?

Researchers in creativity (those Ph.D. folks who write hundreds of books on the topic, not many of them creative, I regret to say) have made a (somewhat silly, imo, but useful here) distinction between creativity (spelled with a lower case "c") and Creativity. The latter is of the kind that changes the creative domain (art, literature, etc.) rather than simply contribute more of the same. That big "C" art, though one could argue here as to what specifically qualifies in the category, is produced by folks who are commonly (and not so commonly) recognized as genius. (BTW, same goes for science and other domains of human creativity.)

So that's what my "revolutionary" vs. "bland" distinction described, clumsily perhaps.

As to celebrities -- can't comment, don't know 'em, don't care about 'em.

On the role of joy and God in creating -- why not; let's just remember that creativity does not only flow from the "positive" (I put quotation marks around it, because we could -- and we have -- dispute what we consider "positive.")

Steve Salerno said...

Just to play the advocate's devil, I'm not sure I do see the difference between what's in the lobby of my local Ramada Inn, and Van Gogh. Do you? Really? I even took art appreciation, at advanced levels, and went to all the obligatory museums--and I still don't see the diff. I certainly don't "get" Jackson Pollock. But then many of my students didn't get e.e. cummings or John Berryman, either. So who knows?

This goes back to my internal debate about what constitutes "art" or even "genius" in the first place. Maybe "revolutionary art" is just a cover word for "insanity." I mean, who performed a greater service to more people: Tolstoy? Or Rhonda Byrne? (See? I can play devil's advocate even with myself!)

Elizabeth said...

Points well taken, Steve (thought the very same writing my last post, LOL. Your devil advocate and mine have to talk.).

Personally, I could walk through all the rows of Ramada Inn exhibit and not feel compelled to stop even once to spend more time with any of the paintings. I would definitely stop when faced with many of Van Gogh's. He has been on my mind a lot lately, for reasons unrelated. It may be better, however, to step away from visual arts for the purpose of this discussion (imo).

There is, btw, a genre of (visual) art that focuses on products of the "insane" -- i.e. the diagnosed mentally ill. And it's quite interesting, as a matter of fact.

You are right about a (large?) degree of subjectivity in art appreciation. But it is definitely not the matter of "insanity" or lack of it (and, as you well know, Tolstoy was not insane, neither were Milosz, Russell, Rilke, or Szymborska (still living, btw). But they are not "normal" by conventional standards, OK?)

The "C" art expresses the highest human values (to put it succinctly, though flatly). It is distinguished by its authenticity, truth, humanity -- and while we can each quibble with definitions of these particular terms, we all (at least most of us; OK, many of us; OK, OK, some of us -- c'mon, don't devil advocates take lunch breaks?) know it when we see it. It speaks about and to human condition in a way that grabs and enriches us all (should we be willing to listen, of course).

Do you see Rhonda Byrne (or her writerly equivalent) being considered for the Nobel? I didn't think so. And for good reasons, I'd say.

Elizabeth said...

P.S. Steve, what I wanted to say (in my previous post) is this:

You are right about a (large?) degree of subjectivity in art appreciation. But it (= the distinction between revolutionary and bland, or, more to the point, big C and small c creativity) is not the matter of insanity or lack of it *only* -- though a certain degree of "insanity" (as in acute sensitivity and intensity, with their less pleasant sides as well) is necessary to transcend the bonds of convention in our perceptions, thoughts, feelings and, ultimately, in our creativity.

(Sheesh. Thems devils.)

Elizabeth said...

Steve, you advocate's devil, you. You cannot pose provocative questions first thing Sat morning, because certain SHAMbloggers will spend the rest of their day obsessing about them. I'm speaking about the numerous anonymouses out there, of course. ;)

But since I'm here already, I admit that your question on what makes good art -- because ultimately that what your question was, wasn't it? -- has preoccupied me as well. And I think you know the answer to it, your advocate's devils notwithstanding. On the "there be dragons" thread you yourself talk about your favorite (artistic) pieces of writing, regretting that they did not get the recognition they deserved. You know what makes those pieces different from your other ones, the less favorite of your written productions. And if you wanted to (which I doubt:), you'd be able to describe the difference here.

But I too have thought today (yeah, imagine;) about what makes certain writers better than others and what accounts for their products' success (and I do not mean commercial -- but the wide recognition as superb works of art -- literature in this case). The great ones talk about personal and particular, and yet they are able to express universal truths about the human condition in a way that transcends the particular and makes it possible for all of us to identify with it.

I put down as two "favorite" writers in my profile Par Lagerkvist and Anton Chekhov. I don't read fiction anymore, for reasons I don't care to discuss, but those two represent the best of literary fiction in my eyes, and I'd gladly come back to their work, any time. They are very different, btw.

Nobody reads Lagerkvist these days, I suspect, though he is much worth reading (and, yes, got the well-deserved Nobel in 1951). He talks about things eternal in an intellectually tight and emotionally rich, but stark prose, bringing the most urgent human concerns to the fore from the very first sentence, it seems. The issues of faith and lack of it, the search for meaning and truth, good and evil, and the value of suffering and redemptive role of love loom large in his writings -- large on a scale that verges on mythological.

Chekhov, on the other hand, starts -- and ends -- with things small, personal, particular and often peculiar. And yet he too is able to go beyond the particular, without ever setting out to do so, seemingly. He touches upon our greatest needs and concerns in a way that remains defined by the daily fates of his individual characters and yet describes each one of us at the same time. While Lagerkvist is stark and severe, but magnanimous toward his characters, Chekhov is warm, forgiving and deeply empathetic. Yet writings of both are timeless and transcend the particulars of the era in which they created and in which they situated their characters. We can read them with interest and deep understanding 100 years and more from the time they were written and they will not lose their urgency and appeal. I'd say that those are characteristics of great lit. (The Rhonda Byrnes's and their ilk do not qualify.)

Alright, so that's more than my customary (ha) 2 cents already. And as much fun as SHAMblogging is, I have to, reluctantly, face reality now, away from the computer and blogs (arrgh). So this is most likely my last post on the subject (OK, at least for today:). Besides, there are other well-qualified commenters here who, I hope, would pitch in and share their perspectives on the subject.

Jim Thompson said...

Well, I have to say that I see the error in my ways. I had no idea that unconventional life-styles were so ubiquitous among the greats and creatives. I must now throw myself a much deserved going away party from this topic.

Jim Matthew Thompson