Genius

The history of literature . . . is a sum of very few ideas and of very few original tales; all the rest being variation of these.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Experience”

The muses have come out to play this evening.  They teased me this morning when I opened the Journal of Eugène Delacroix and read his remarks about genius:

At Leblond’s.  Interesting discussion about genius and unusual men.  Dimier thought that great passions were the source of genius.  I think that it is imagination alone, or better still, what amounts to the same thing, that delicacy of the organs that makes one see what others do not see, and which makes one see in a different way.

I had to close the book and go teach my summer school class.  But when I got home later in the day, finished lunch and relaxed into reading further from the Delacroix Journal, I saw him taking the subject up yet again more than two weeks later:

What makes men of genius, or rather, what they make, is not new ideas, it is that idea—possessing them—that what has been said has still not been said enough. . . . Novelty is in the mind that creates, and not in nature, the thing painted. . . . That fever, you take it for the power to create, but it is, rather, a mere need to imitate. . . . Ah, no.  The fact is that they have not said the hundredth part of what there is to say; the fact is that with a single one of the things that they skim over, there is more material for original geniuses than there is . . . and that nature has put in safe keeping in the great imaginations to come more new things to say about her creations than she has created things.

The topic of genius is one that has intrigued me for a number of years.  I confess that in graduate school I dreamt of publishing an original idea (probably the dream of over 90% of dissertation authors).  Once I landed in the teaching arena, I continued to look for that original idea to publish, to put myself on the map so to speak.  As time went on, I began to think more along the tracks of Emerson in my opening quote, and came to this notion that creative genius is manifest in the act of configuring ideas in a way not done before.  As history continues to unroll, it becomes increasingly impossible to be “original.”  Once I began to think down this track, I tossed the vision of originality and instead found my joy in the act of creating, no longer fretting over whether or not my work would stand the test of time.  History owes me nothing.

Back in 1993, I was enraptured by an article published in Newsweek, titled “The Puzzle of Genius,” written by Sharon Begley.  I saved the issue, and twenty-one years later, I still read it, and now quote from it:

The creative geniuses of art and science work obsessively. They do not lounge under apple trees waiting for fruit to fall or lightning to strike. “When inspiration does not come to me,” Freud once said, “I go halfway to meet it.” Bach wrote a cantata every week, even when he was sick or exhausted. Though most composers would kill to have written even one of his best pieces, some were little more than wallpaper music. Eliot’s numerous drafts of “The Waste Land” constitute what one scholar called “a jumble of good and bad passages [that he turned] into a poem.” In a study of 2,036 scientists throughout history, Simonton found that the most respected produced not only more great works, but also more “bad” ones. They produced. Period.

A few years back, I stopped using my full-time job as an excuse, and leapt from averaging fifteen-to-twenty watercolors per year to well over a hundred.  Sure, some of them are 5 x 7”, but some are 22 x 28”.  Some are quite bad, but others are quite alright.  I’m pleased that I’m cranking out creations, no longer fretting over every one of them being worthy of framing and hanging.  Funny—around the time I began feeling somewhat smug over cranking out great quantities of art work, I read about the day in 1975 when Andrew Wyeth was approached by Thomas Hoving to assemble a major exhibition for the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Wyeth unlocked his cabinets and drew out more than fifteen hundred pre-studies for his tempera, dry-brush and watercolor masterpieces.  Fifteen hundred!  

In my life today, I frequently encounter colleagues who describe themselves as “frustrated artists.”  Oftentimes, I discover that they haven’t created anything in years, using as an excuse their job, family, health—any number of obstacles that all humans encounter during this all-too-brief sojourn on earth.  David Bayles and Ted Orland collaborated on a book that has impacted me probably more than any other book from this recent decade: Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking.  I was stung by this observation: “The world is filled with people who were given great natural gifts, sometimes conspicuously flashy gifts, yet never produce anything.  And when that happens, the world soon ceases to care whether they are talented.”  I loved the musings of Howell Raines, long prior to his becoming the Executive Editor of The New York Times.  He movingly testified that “we are not on this earth for long.  Part of what a midlife crisis is about is figuring out what gives you pleasure and doing more of that in the time you have left without asking for permission or a financial or emotional subsidy from anyone else.” 

On this day, I have had more than my share of distractions following my job teaching summer school.  But I consider myself fortunate that I still found some cracks in my schedule to read, to think, to write, to compose some thoughts on this notion of genius.  As I write this, I am aware of file cabinets jammed with my old sermon manuscripts, my graduate school term papers, my lectures from college and high school classrooms, public speeches given, and over 130 volumes of my journals dating back to 1987.  And I look across my library shelves jammed with volumes filled with highlighted, underscored and marginally-noted texts spanning over three decades.  The shelves are also crowded with VHS tapes and DVDs of documentary and Teaching Company lectures.  And they continue to whisper their invitations for me to explore new pastures, but I simply cannot get at them all, not just now, and probably never will.  Yet still I find time sufficient to think on these treasures, and tonight am delighted to have a little space to write what’s on my heart.  On this day I have had the pleasure of looking over the words and images of some of our world’s greatest creators, and I’ve even had a little time to make my own contribution.  It’s been a good day.

Thanks for reading.

I paint in order to remember.

I journal when I feel alone.

I blog to remind myself that I am not quite alone.

P. S.–Wordpress has seen fit to “surprise” us with yet another new format, so I simply created my blog on a Word document, then cut and pasted it to this.  I do not yet know how to connect this blog to facebook, Twitter, Linked-In and the other avenues as I did before.  I also haven’t figured out how to tag and categorize this article.  I get to start this stuff all over again, it appears. Thanks, WordPress.

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6 Responses to “Genius”

  1. Xraypics Says:

    Hey David, Isn’t it interesting and not a little irritating to find WordPress has “updated” once again, just as I was getting used to it too. I’ve been writing in Word ever since starting blogging then cut&pasted which is easiest since work is sometimes lost once it has been typed into this format. I wrote to say that I too was a little stung by your quote. I retired from the hospital today. Maybe, just maybe I shall spend more time on the more important things in life, like my art. I do enjoy reading your musings. Tony

    Liked by 1 person

    • davidtripp Says:

      Wow, Tony, I’ve been out of the loop too long. Congratulations on your retirement! I am so thrilled for you, thinking now that you can follow your bliss and answer to no one else. Imagine what is about to happen in your life! Please keep me posted.

      Like

  2. BJR Says:

    Yesterday was one of those days where I had to “force” myself to draw…but I felt all the better for it. Today I did it again…but found it a bit easier. I shall continue, and thus I continue to find JOY in creating. Pain makes drawing look hard ofttimes, and if I give into that….it starts me down a road I don’t like. So I force myself sometimes. All the diaries and books with underlining in them (which I have many!!) will be worthwhile in the future to someone. 😉

    Like

    • davidtripp Says:

      Today I’m feeling kind of flat, and your response has inspired me to pick up and try again. Thank you so much for the right words at the right time. You are truly an inspiration.

      Like

      • BJR Says:

        Thank you! I’m so glad I was able to inspire! Saturday and Sunday I completed four pages in one of my art journals. (Medium size.) By the third one I was enjoying it to the fullest…and the fourth took me away from the pain. 😉 The JOY of creating something on paper with a bit of ink and inspiration from “inside” is awesome. So fulfilling. Some day I hope to share one of them with you.

        Like

      • davidtripp Says:

        I would love to see your work, thank you. Yesterday I had a good day of “production” even if only for my own satisfaction. Already today I am working on some new ideas. It feels good to be doing this again.

        Like

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