Monday, April 5, 2010

The Myth of the Lone Genius

Think about this as it relates to what you believe is true about writing:

If interpersonal skills and sensitivity to others is valued in some cultures, in America, the individual’s ability to overcome adversity on one’s own and emerge successful against competitors is considered a virtue. Combine this idealized image with the “modern view of creativity [which] has venerated the artist or genius as a cultural hero,” and it is understandable “why the popular image of the lone genius or solitary artist is romanticized” (1). The creative individual is worshiped when she has “forged something new and original by struggling against and rising above the limiting, stultifying forces of the conforming masses” (2). Most importantly, the achievement of this struggle represents a mythic role for the individual, a role that is ‘larger than life,’ which further separates the Self from the Other, especially when the Self is exalted and the Other is made up of ‘the conforming masses.’ Creativity becomes “hyper-individualistic” in this model, which, as researchers Montuori and Purser discuss, must be understood within a sociohistorical context of creativity studies that delineate the development, over time, of the exaltation of the supreme agency of the individual, and the rise of the notion of Authorship. The Author might be dead in theory, but in practice he is very much alive, as I will discuss.

Montuori and Purser trace the historical development of concepts of creativity and who is therefore sanctioned to be considered an Author. Central to constructions of creativity are definitions of self and world; the concept of an autonomous self, for example, does not become part of the definition of creativity until quite recently. Stating that “[c]reativity is, among other things, the function of a judgment made by people, and these judgments are influenced by trends, traditions, and the social, political, economic, and aesthetic perspectives of their time and place,” (3) the researchers contextualize individual creative expression in the West. During the ‘mimetic’ or theocentric phase when early medieval artists did not often sign their work, the self was subsumed and sacrificed to the “greater whole or God”; the mimetic period is associated today with collectivist societies “where art serves as propaganda and the state takes the role of deity” (4). In contrast, creativity as poiesis—to make anew—is a recent Western cultural invention. It is during this Modern period that the self emerges as an autonomous, creative individual. The notion of originality also emerges during this period, when “artistic creation is idealized as the paradigm for the achievement of self-discovery, self-expression, and self-definition” (5). A perceived need for originality and innovation requires the creative person to “disengage him- or herself from the environment. The resulting psychic isolation, along with what are perceived to be the “deviant” “schizoid” behaviors of the creative person, is romanticized or even seen as being synonymous with genius” (6).

In America, the ‘cult of the individual’ is threatened by collaboration, and is even more threatened, ironically, by the dissension found in the postmodern notion of the group ‘mind,’ whose agency seems amorphous and chaotic. Collaboration subsumes the supremacy of the individual, which threatens the individual’s idealized subject position of authority and autonomy. In America, a society in which the “self is socially constructed to believe it is not socially constructed,” (7) the individual is always at risk of being demythologized. Even when the romantic myth of the lone genius is resisted by those who believe that writing is an act of social construction, the society referred to has been enculturated to believe that ‘real’ writers do not rely on one another for inspiration, and that ‘real’ writing takes place in isolation. A correlative of this belief is that writers can be studied in a laboratory setting, a belief that further reifies the isolation from society the writer inherits. Further, to say a piece of writing is created as a process of dynamic verbal, intellectual and emotional exchange amongst one’s peers or classmates does not remove the writer from the influence of myth. The power of myth lies in human willingness to acknowledge its illogic and to believe it anyway, because the myth reinforces a value system so deeply embedded as to be unmoved by mere logic or persuasive research.

The myth of the isolated writer is seductive, even in the face of experience. Professor of English Linda Brodkey, for example, who acknowledges that her life as a writer functions because she is overtly connected to others, still finds it necessary to “exorcise the image of the writer-writes alone” which she identifies as a modernist construct “where the metaphor of solitude is reiterated as the themes of alienation in modern art and atomism in modern science” (8). The modernist ‘scene of writing’ is a narrative of inescapable isolation and alienation, “the “fact” of life that modern novels set out to articulate” (9). In this scene of writing, the writer functions solely as an amaneuensis: “in such a freeze frame, the writer is a writing machine, as effectively cut off from writing as from society” (10). Brodkey questions the “unexamined assumption that this and only this moment counts as writing” (11). And yet, the romantic contradiction at war with the logical outcome of extreme alienation, nihilism, reinscribes the individualism of the writer. At the same time that the writer is alone, he is fully an individual, observing, not participating. Romanticism will not permit the writer’s nihilism to erase the writer’s identity, which is fundamentally exploratory, revolutionary, masculine in expression, especially when it reifies the agonism of ancient Athens.

Quotes 1-7: Montuori, Alfonso, and Purser, Ronald E. “Deconstructing the Lone Genius Myth: Toward a Contextual View of Creativity,” Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 35:3, Summer 1995. 69-112.
Quotes 8-11: Brodkey, Linda. “Modernism and the Scene(s) of Writing,” College English, 49:4, 396-418.

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