Best selling New-Age author Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love) recently delivered a TED talk in which she called into question the role of the human mind in the creative process.In a disturbing broadside against “five hundred years of scientific humanism,” she called on her audience to accept the “psychological construct” of a kind of supernatural inspiration. Her thesis is that we have unduly burdened artists (and killed their creativity) by giving them both the credit and responsibility for it. She advocates a new relationship to creativity, one in which we accept that it comes from a ‘higher’ source.
What Gilbert is promoting is a New-Age variant of the old religious meme Giving God the Glory: This phrase permeates both the Old and New Testament. Aside from its sheer meaninglessness, what is really wrong with this idea? To discover a partial answer, we’ll examine Gilbert’s message.
But first, let’s look at the trend she’s riding. David Hume said, “reason is…the slave of the passions.” The boundless human passion to wallow in narcissism and subjective imprecision limits some people’s capacity for reason. It has also spawned a lucrative industry of pied-pipers promising “en-lite-enment.” The runaway success of authors such as Deepak Chopra and Eckhart Tolle paved the way for Gilbert’s memoir, (her year of ‘seeking’ paid for with a generous publishing advance), and Rhonda Byrne followed up with The Secret. In general, these ‘gurus’ substitute wishing (Law of Attraction) for hard work, ego-denial for shadow integration, suppression of pain and a vague undefined ‘spirituality’ for deep self-awareness. Who can argue with their flowery Utopias of love, spirit, and community? Like sex and food, those are things we all need and want. But the road to fulfilling our desires is paved with setbacks and disappointments. From that reality there’s no escape, and the only defense is perseverance.
Let me be clear that this article is not a review of Eat, Pray, Love. I have not read that book and don’t plan to. This is a direct rebuttal to Gilbert’s TED talk only. But judging from her philosophical imprecision there, I’m certain Eat, Pray, Love contains an equal helping of vapid New-Age slop.
New-Age authors in general sell the masses on self-acceptance and living in the moment (code words for complacency) and become fabulously wealthy in the process. There’s something smarmy about making millions by telling the commoners to be happy with their pittance–or providing them with false hopes of magic material success. These books may make some people feel better about their circumstances, but they don’t make them better. True enlightenment only comes through great effort and study (Laws of Power, evolutionary psychology, history, and the like). Learning comes largely from mistakes, and wealth from providing valuable services. But the New-Age gurus paint a different picture, providing glib soporifics which lack depth and substance. Regardless, swept up in a torrent of Oprah-fueled social reinforcement, these books fly off the shelves and into the pop lexicon. They become unstoppable. If there was such a thing as a Ponzi scheme of philosophy, the New-Age would be its fount.
Many paths lead to this same sewer of confusion: Giving God the Glory.
Every such religious platitude which has been rejected by thinking people since the Enlightenment has a New-Age afterimage. These memes are so seductive to untrained minds that they mutate and multiply like pathogens, returning again and again to infect the zeitgeist. So it is with Gilbert. She knows she’s on shaky ground, so first she has to lower her audience’s defenses, especially a crowd as tough as TED. The best way to defeat logic is to evoke compelling feelings of sympathy. So Gilbert begins by discussing the angst faced by writers, and laments that they all seem to have suffered gravely for their art. She quotes Norman Mailer, who said in his last interview before his death that each of his books “killed him a little more.” Couldn’t we–she ponders–come up with a better “psychological construct” with which to view the creative process? And then she goes in for the sentimental coup de grace:
In ancient Greece and ancient Rome, people did not happen to believe that creativity came from human beings, back then. People believed that creativity was this divine attendant spirit that came to human beings from some distant and unknowable source for distant unknowable reasons. The Greeks famously called these…Daimons. Socrates famously believed that he had a Daimon who spoke wisdom to him from afar. The Romans had the same idea, but they called that sort of disembodied creative spirit a “genius.” The Romans did not actually think that a genius was a particularly clever individual. They believed that a genius was a sort of magical divine entity who was believed to live in the walls of an artists’ studio…who would come out and invisibly assist the artist with their work and shape the outcome of that work. So, brilliant, there’s that distance right there, that psychological construct that I’m talking about to protect you from the results of your work…So the ancient artist was protected from too much narcissism, if your work was brilliant, you couldn’t take all the credit for it…if your work bombed–not entirely your fault…
This is clearly argument from consequence. Gilbert laments the artist’s pain, and then attempts to revert to a dualist pre-scientific understanding of the mind in a vain effort to lower the stakes. But to do so, she mounts a wholesale attack on the Enlightenment.
…and then 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 its 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 start referring to this or that artist as “being” a genius rather than “having” a genius. And I gotta tell you I think that was a huge error. I think that allowing somebody, like one mere person to believe that he or she is the vessel, 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 human psyche. It’s like asking somebody to swallow the Sun. It completely warps and distorts egos, and it creates all these unmanageable expectations about performance. And I think that the pressure of that has been killing off our artists for the last five hundred years.
Gilbert wants it both ways. Rational humanism says there are no gods or divine unknowable mysteries. Humanism sets aside the spirit world and says that the human brain is the source of inspiration, not some kind of conduit. It’s not that we are attributing creativity to the brain, it’s that science has discovered that the brain is the source of all thought. It’s not a construct, it’s reality. Even an artist who feels the “presence” of a daimon or a genius is actually experiencing and describing in metaphor the powerful pattern-matching and sorting mechanisms of their own brain. This understanding actually adds to the creative process. Gilbert has no standing whatsoever to smear five hundred years of scientific awareness, nor to devalue artists’ struggles. The sheer hubris of her stance demonstrates the very narcissism she disparages.
Can we go back to some more ancient understanding about the relationship between humans and the creative mystery? Maybe not, maybe we can’t just erase five hundred years of rational humanistic thought in one eighteen minute speech. There’s probably people in this audience who would raise legitimate scientific suspicions about the notions of basically fairies who follow people around rubbing fairy juice on their projects. I’m not probably going to bring you all along with me on this. But the question I want to pose is “Why not?” Why not think about it this way? Because it makes as much sense as anything else I’ve ever heard in terms of explaining the utter maddening capriciousness of the creative process–a process which as everyone who’s ever tried to make something knows does not behave rationally and can sometimes feel paranormal.
What an anti-intellectual rant that was! Gilbert acknowledges the scientific objections as legitimate, then dismisses them in the same breath. Then on to her special pleading, probably the most egregious example of it I’ve ever seen: “It makes as much sense as anything else I’ve ever heard.” Could you get a more textbook example of an anti-science mentality than that little gem? And she’s just getting started. I recommend you watch the whole speech to see someone rather masterfully lead an audience down the primrose path of subjectivity and sentimentality. It’s nothing short of a sermon, an exhortation against reason and knowledge, an impassioned paean to subjectivity, fantasy, and “God” as the source for all human artistic brilliance.
And she got a standing ovation. OK, what’s going on here? The audience was mesmerized by an incredibly charismatic and successful author spinning a yarn about “transcendence.” A group of whip-smart people who pay $6,000 a year to be eligible to attend the most exclusive TED conferences were transfixed by a modern-day preacher. They got caught up in the moment because they did not realize they were attending a 20 minute New-Age revival meeting. And they obediently chanted “Allah, Ole” at the end.
In the interest of fairness, let me just say that I am a huge fan of TED. The vast, overwhelming majority of the speakers are great thinkers and world-changers. But every once in a while, the shadow of TED rears its ugly profile. What would that shadow look like? Elitism, self-congratulation, pseudo-science, narcissism, and yes, gullibility. No one I’ve yet seen typefies this ugly side of TED more than Elizabeth Gilbert.
I’m frankly disgusted by her saccharine nonsense, and I’m not the only one.
But enough about what’s wrong. What can we rationally say about the creative process in human terms? Two things: free-association, drawing on experience to recombine familiar scraps of universal themes in new and different ways, and editing. Every human brain has an unconscious mind which is an endless fount of creativity. Every person from the time they are a young child generates a vast stream of thoughts and images and patterns and (for the musically inclined) sounds. The most prolific examples are dreams, but daydreams can sometimes be just as vivid. Ideas just float to the surface. The truly creative person knows how to separate the gems they come up with, from the dreck.
Why do some people seem to burst with ideas and others experience a crippling writer’s block? Books have been written on this phenomenon. But the most important characteristic of any creative person is a sense of freedom to express any creative idea without reservation, in the first stage of the process. In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron describes this as “getting past the censor.” Marvin Minsky discusses inner “censors and critics” as functional blocks within the human brain. They are both friend and foe, but an inseparable part of who we are.
Artists must get into dialog with their critics and censors, and thereby develop the ability to definitively choose which ideas to pursue further and which to leave behind. It becomes first a question of individual aesthetic, then a weighing out of how the given idea fits the style in which the artist is working, and how it will be received by its intended audience. This is a constant process of elimination. The most creative people are the ones who can effectively tame the wild imagery boiling over from their unconsicous by quick selection and decisive expression. Artists’ pain is virtually defined by the degree to which they vacillate. A great song about this process is Geddy Lee’s Working at Perfekt.
The torment of vacillation is compounded exponentially by the impact wrong choices can have on an artists’ career. Artistic success can be as terrifying as obscurity. A taste of fame can permanently warp a person’s aesthetic by encouraging conformity with accepted modes of expression. Trying to top one’s own success can be paralyzing. Putting out ones work before critics, not to mention a fickle and distracted public, can be an act of utter humiliation. The thin-skinned need not apply.
The ability to create art both great and trivial seems to be a feature of generalized intelligence and an integral part of what it means to be human. To externalize this process onto supernatural personalities is to devalue ourselves. To attempt to divorce art from struggle would be to strip it of its incredible power. Personally, I want artists to bleed over their creations. There’s a certain nobility in this suffering. Gilbert can try to insulate herself from the pain by pretending she’s not in control of the process. But this line of thinking is dangerous and seductive and cheapens the whole enterprise.
As Buddha said, life is suffering, and this applies to the artist even more than most. We have flashes of brilliance in our youth, then eventually our brains become calcified and we die. This is the subject of the song Losing It, and the backdrop against which all artistry is measured.
It is a testament to profound grace that we humans are willing to stand up and create at all–for better or worse. The very process and experience of creativity could be as close to a higher purpose as we humans will ever know. We aren’t inspired by gods to create, we rather become gods to the extent we direct our own creative fire. And the risk, potential for fame, and the possibility of failure are all contained within every brush stroke or keystroke. We cannot reduce risk without destroying the result. Art is not just careful aesthetic choices made by artists, but careful selection by the audience of artists. To find one great, a hundred lesser artists might not make the cut. Consumers get the benefits of all this competition and brutality, which bears striking parallels to natural selection.
Art is by its very definition fraught with pain and struggle. Far from being frivolous–as we artists “birth” our ideas into the world–it is a serious, nerve-racking, and terrifying business and always will be. For we hold in our hands nothing less than the creative tension between life and death.