FEELING AND BEING CREATIVE AT ALL COSTS
Elizabeth Gilbert’s latest easy read bestseller is a strange offering and not quite what it seems. It starts out in true American positive thought style as an encouragement to creative self-expression or actualization, specifically it’s an invitation in the style of fame-avoiding poet Jack Gilbert (no relation) to find our inner treasures and cultivate “curiosity over fear”. Fear doesn’t like the uncertain boundaries and outcomes of inspiration, so to oppose it is key.
With this the reader is launched upon a sort of everyone’s how-to guide to living creatively and achieving fulfilment citing especially the example of the self-isolating Jack and a middle aged woman who returns to her youthful love of just skating. But soon the book is morphing into more by way of a guide to inspiration and creativity as exemplified by work and inspiration as it affects writers and artists and Gilbert herself. This is something one feels the book shouldn’t quite do insofar as the ever democratic author would deny that the artist and art is anybody or anything special unless for the sort of committed work involved. So little is what’s special or any big C creativity involved that Gilbert, who says she “cannot even be bothered to think about the difference between high art and low art” (p.120), advises that if you feel like painting a penis on a wall, go ahead and do it (p 88).
Art’s essential normality will even become Gilbert’s pretext to berate writers less successful than herself as complainers or masochists with attitudes that poison the very wells of inspiration they seek to draw upon. Gilbert herself believes true inspiration has a lot to do with just pleasure or fun. While this will always be partly true (the artist needs both to take and convey some pleasure in their work to communicate well) such wild generalizations ignore even the science of recent years. This indicates that beyond any simple self-gratification, artists are differently wired from scientists and have more grey matter (literally not metaphorically) than the average person. It might be wise to allow that artists could have their own purpose and role in nature and life.
In harmony with its title, Gilbert’s pep talk book is also almost a theory of magic and so it is soon maintaining we are visited by ideas with independent consciousness like so many spirits. At one point Gilbert even admits, “I have invisible spirit benefactors who believe in me” (p. 96). You need to entertain these sources of inspiration or one day they will just wander away from you and, as though offended, won’t return. Practically, the book revives and popularizes something like ancient theories of the daemon and Platonic ideas and archetypes.
In the course of Big Magic there is plenty of sensible advice for creative people like an insistence the artist usually doesn’t need much that passes for higher education today and pursuing which can leave a student with half a lifetime’s debt. The artist needs to live and learn from life except that modern life too often prevents this. Since there are a variety of helpful tips for artists plus Gilbert’s work ethic and history of stubborn persistence are exemplary in their way, I wouldn’t dissuade anyone from reading the book. But they do need to do so critically and with caution. Amid interesting anecdotes and advice there’s much that is misleading, even seriously so as regards what art is or needs to be and I’ll address especially that…..
GILBERT’S “BIG MAGIC” SURPRISE THAT’S NEITHER SURPRISE NOR SECRET
…. However, let’s get what the author regards as her crucial magical notion of inspiration out of the way first. What Gilbert has learned is that, as in science which talks of a “multiple discovery” phenomenon, it is possible to find oneself pursuing the same project and even writing virtually the same novel as another writer and at the same time. Gilbert and Ann Pratchett did so on events in the Amazon region. This it seems is part of something larger and terribly occult that we ought to embrace though we can never hope to understand it.
As it happens, what Gilbert describes will not be any surprise to anyone aware of the principle of cycles in astrology. These oversee entire cultural trends and will produce the same styles and motifs that another generation may consider of no interest at all. Thought (and art) is indeed archetypally determined to a great extent. Revivals of interest in certain periods and trends are the marks of a return of a cycle from perhaps hundreds of years ago. This phenomenon is and isn’t “magical” (you can read about it in detail in culture historian Richard Tarnas’ ground breaking study Cosmos and Psyche, 2006)) and the sub cycles of planetary transits then relate the larger cycles to the development of individuals giving artists their creative and fallow periods; so if Gilbert embraced some principles of astrology she would have clearer understanding in relation to the art and self-expression that concern her. And then she wouldn’t think of what occurs across time as like “jokes” and tricks of a trickster universe but instead a more ordered programme or fate.
But even subject to the effects of cycles, people pursuing creativity are not necessarily influenced by active spirits or angels as Gilbert so radically has it. In extreme cases this may happen, or at least be thought to happen – we find it in William Blake who claimed to see angels on a regular basis and film director Ingmar Bergman who supposedly had contact with spirits and demons. At the extreme end of the influence scale it can even be that a generation is inspired or misled by prophets possessed by whatever forces for good or evil. To that extent it is just possible that having opened herself up to everything from yogas to gurus and a fortune telling Bali medicine man, Gilbert herself has finished susceptible to the influence of actual spirits keen to impose on the collective at this time. At least some readers would regard Eat, Pray, Love less as a true guide to self-fulfiment than a siren call to promiscuous spiritual dabbling and unhelpful forms of romanticism. Since I don’t want to get into gossip it’s perhaps as well I forget what feature article I read a year or more ago (and as I recall from an Australian Buddhist woman rather than an irate American Christian) who considered herself seriously hurt by and disillusioned with Gilbert as person and spiritual guide. Regardless, I think readers should just ignore Gilbert’s theory of inspiration.
ART IS MORE THAN FICTION WRITING
Beyond the whispering spirits one can’t help feeling that Elizabeth Gilbert’s notion of creative activity is considerably shaped by her undoubted talent for fiction and personal memoir. These are nonetheless in some respects the easiest forms of art – sometimes it’s like sitting down and tossing off a vivid, newsy letter or keeping a diary. It’s not identical to the struggles including with special techniques the dramatist or poet may have to wrestle with. Recently I was reading the biography of poet Ted Hughes, husband of poet Sylvia Plath. It soon becomes evident that for both of them capturing and retaining poetic inspiration (an aspect of the ecstatic function) requires rather specific conditions (often in isolation) that are marred or denied by everyday life. It is the rarest of rare poets like Shakespeare who could write poetry almost anywhere and quickly (without blotting a line according to Ben Jonson); but then Gilbert isn’t into special cases, still less genius.
Gilbert is however an almost addictive writer or note taker in a way many writers aren’t necessarily. It seems that like De Beauvoir her day is dust and ashes when she has not written anything. Fair enough that’s just how she is, but it also the case such writing is effectively therapeutic, for self-expression and pleasure rather than work or larger purpose, the reason she has no truck with complaining artists. She assumes artists do what they do because they have chosen that path – but if they are differently wired is that quite the case? – so the activity should give them pleasure just as it is without expectation of acceptance, reward or whatever. If this sounds almost ascetical (and Gilbert even portrays herself as dedicating herself to writing during adolescence like a nun), in fact Gilbert’s outlook can also be almost breathtakingly selfish or self-regarding. “Whenever anybody tells me they want to write a book in order to help other people , I always think please don’t….I would so much rather you wrote a book in order to entertain yourself than to help me” (pp 98,99). For Gilbert there is no such thing as a vocation to write or do art; you don’t write for society, for individuals or a cause; and according to her ultra-American credo, providing you are willing and able financially to support yourself and will be bothering nobody unduly, you are at complete liberty to do whatever you please (including it seems those penis graffiti).
Again this is misleading. A great slice of significant art has been produced in service of some great idea and one can’t begin to imagine the likes of Dante, Milton, Victor Hugo, Dickens unless propelled by a sense of dedicated purpose to inspire, instruct or reform –Milton described the poet’s work as his life blood and did concede that the fame, which Gilbert doesn’t think should count, was some spur to the labour.
It is because there can be this element of vocation or at least sense of inborn necessity among artists, that something like their complaints which Gilbert so radically dismisses, is legitimate. She regards the emphasis on suffering and/or complaints arising from it, to be a legacy of especially Christian and German Romantic values that have allowed artists to carry on as though sentenced to harsh conditions under a cruel dictator (p.117). We can agree with her that there is a kind of artist who imagines if they are not in (or just acting the part of being in) pain, poverty or some dire bohemian situation half starved or their minds half addled by drink or drugs, they are not the real thing – we might call this the Kurt Cobain syndrome – but that’s not the whole situation by far.
MUCH ARTISTIC COMPLAINT IS JUSTIFIED.
It is quite possible, and especially so if you belong to the more vocational type of artist for whom ideas count more than immersion in life’s endless details, that you may suffer the pain of non-connection and non-communication, feel truly blocked and half destroyed by publishers, critics, society and conditions in general. Shelley protested, “I have suffered the tyranny of neglect” and in the light of history and his biography that seems a fair enough, valid claim. The celebrated Ode to the West Wind was both a protest against and an imaginative effort to oppose what prevents the necessary role of bardic vision going out into the world.
Many artists anyway have plenty of reason for complaint because their conditions and permitted expectations are today often demonstrably worse than the average worker in ways that should not be tolerated in a civilized society. In the very age of grievance culture and stress upon victimhood, Gilbert wants none of it from the artists who might have more than usual reason to voice it. A century ago. Bernard Shaw helped found the Society of Authors to do at least something to improve the artist’s lot. The history of rejected and cheated authors is a long one (even the super-successful JK Rowling was rejected for Harry Potter twelve times). To this day the author will usually receive only a fraction of a book’s takings (somewhere between two and a half and twelve and a half per cent while the often necessary agent of which there are not enough to go round, may take up to 25 per cent). A huge slice of English literature would not exist if it had had to wait upon social acceptance and financial remuneration in the modern way. The likes of Milton, Thomas Gray, Shelley and Wordsworth in poetry had private means. Jane Austen’s prose wasn’t held up on financial problems. The Latin poets from Catullus to Martial were either comfortably off or had helpful wealthy patrons – the perfectionist, slow working Virgil had both advantages.
With or without means, by contrast the modern writer will often have to suffer unacceptably cavalier, dismissive behaviour from those who stand to affect their career and status. Promises are easily broken, lies are often told, needless delays can be endless, payments not delivered, editors never available to discuss anything, rules of contract not observed. Any old thing goes. (It’s true nowadays indie publishing is some help and a real alternative but a lot is involved and if only for publicity it is definitely still preferable to be published in the standard way). Much publishing and promotion can be a shark’s pool in which many are destroyed and devoured, feelings, health, the artist’s organization and planning of their life are simply not considered. Therapy itself might be required to cope. I have seen the problem for others, I have known it for myself – the life-destroying, soul-destroying, almost degrading experience of dealing with publishing and agency, is partially recorded in my Reflections of an Only Child. goo.gl/37dUUK
What the conditions of the artist argues for is less the mostly absent virtues of some American, egalitarian, competitive, over worked free-for-all that Gilbert seems to favour, but almost its opposite, a degree of almost elite privilege which would allow more scope to the observation of and experiment with life which art is about. The role of artist beyond the (self) entertainment level has some affinity with that of priesthood. Traditionally and certainly biblically, the priest, supported by the tithes which placed him above mundane concerns, was an individual expected not to compete but rather transcend, to live above ordinary conditions the better to study, observe and pronounce upon life. It was the same Bernard Shaw who helped found the Society of Authors who criticized the American Declaration of Independence declaring its doctrine of equality untrue and misleading. People are born with different and unequal levels of talent and ability and one should organize society with that in mind.
PRACTICAL ADVICE: AVOID THE ARTS
Knowing what I know, I would never today lend encouragement to anyone keen to pursue a life in writing or the arts – or not unless I had perhaps first read their horoscopes to indicate their chance of fulfilment and success. And what would that entail? Gilbert denies there are any guarantees for success in the arts, but on especially a temporary basis there very definitely are – with or without major talent and obvious relevance because sometimes, on a temporary basis, even the worst persons and ideas can get away with a few things given helpful celestial indications.
For success in many areas including authorship, one needs to have a strong Jupiter (it bespeaks fortune in general but not least in the realm of publishing and ideas) and something strong to Pluto to empower and relate to the masses. (Who’s Who has been found to be full of Jupiter/Pluto people). Thus in the chart of Alain de Botton who has made hay in the unlikely field of popularized, applied philosophy, we find fortunate Jupiter fortunately trine Mars and the moon fortunately trine Pluto for outreach to the masses. To make it big in fiction, it helps that George RR Martin of Game of Thrones has writer’s Mercury opportunity sextile publishing Jupiter and surprising, original Uranus on a world point (O Cancer). JK Rowling has publishing Jupiter in communicating Gemini, with Mercury spectacularly conjunct fixed star Regulus in Leo (potential mega fame) and Moon conjunct Uranus and Pluto for massive popular outreach. Elizabeth Gilbert herself could hardly go wrong with publishing Jupiter conjunct surprising Uranus on another of the 6 world points at 0 Libra (itself the marriages and relationships sign which is why she has done herself best on that subject).
I will not discuss here my own horoscope and chequered experiences – as said, anyone can refer to my memoir for at least some of the stories,but I will say against some of Gilbert’s claims that fate plays a considerable role in the life of the artist who is perhaps more on the wheel of fortune than most so that the idea one chooses to be an artist or chances to get successful is controversial. In my own case unusual circumstances of overseas residence where I was forbidden to take employment, kept me at writing when I would not otherwise have got so involved. While that is perhaps exceptional and this isn’t the place for my story, it is the right place to sound warning signals against anything to do with a career in the arts in today’s circumstances. My advice is simply don’t touch it, don’t go near it, but if for whatever reason you must, then feel free to protest your lot and complain loudly. It’s not to be “boring” as Gilbert maintains. If sufficiently organized (but authors and artists fear the black balling which does go on and the effect on media connections too) it might produce some needed reform.
I seriously mean it that the “creative” life usually isn’t worth it in any form today. It can finish like imprisonment or a stay in the mad house, frustrating, exasperating, unprofitable, time wasting and degrading. After years of effort I finally seriously admitted as much to myself when despite high recommendations I was meanly refused for Penguin New Poets by one of Australia’s leading poets because I had unpublishably included “such hopelessly archaic words as ‘conduct’ and ‘bestow’ “. That was the last straw and for more than twenty years I had not the slightest desire to write any more poetry. If that was wasted talent and in my case there is real reason to think so, so be it. Health and sanity are more important.
Paradoxically and ironically, my distinctly negative feelings do in their way, I suppose, lend support to Elizabeth Gilbert’s notion of creative work today as best thought of as personal entertainment and in effect the therapy she doesn’t call it. However, against Big Magic theories I will always believe creativity involves a higher, more “sacred” function than the play-around materialism of modern life allows it to be. Almost certainly real art and its acceptance now awaits the inspirations of the coming era. For now the arts could be considered in their death rattle.