The Genius Delusion: Reflections on Elizabeth Gilbert’s 2009 TED Talk


When I was younger, so much younger than today,
I never needed anybody’s help in any way.
But now these days are gone, I’m not so self-assured,
Now I find I’ve changed my mind and opened up the doors.
The Beatles, “Help”

Being a creative artist involves a unique set of perils different from other vocations. A real estate agent may commit suicide after his company goes bankrupt; a depressed novelist may kill himself over an unsatisfying paragraph (a slight exaggeration, but not by much). Exaggeration or not, creative artists are a notoriously anguished lot; while some of us might be well-adjusted and perfectly content with our lives, a great many of us suffer from constant self-doubt, chronic depression, violent mood swings, drug and alcohol addiction; some succumb to madness, others to paralysis, others to suicide. Most people assume that this is just part of the bargain of being a creative artist—that this is the way it’s always been and always will be. (Which is why up until 2008 your mother probably preferred you become a real estate agent than a novelist.) But is it inevitable that creative artists must live tortured lives, or is there another path available to us—one that might spare us from a life of anguish, addiction, and madness?

This was the question posed in a TED talk by author Elizabeth Gilbert (of Eat, Pray, Love fame) a little over a year ago. For nearly twenty minutes, Gilbert argues that (1) artists since the Renaissance have been under the belief—or more accurately, the delusion—that they are the source of their own genius; and (2) that this delusion may in fact be the root cause of much of the suffering, madness, and self-destruction that characterize the lives of creative artists in the modern, post-Renaissance era. Gilbert goes on to explain that that this modern view of genius is starkly different from the Greco-Roman view; for the Greeks and Romans, creativity didn’t come from human beings, it came to human beings. This view served as a “protective psychological construct” that kept the artist both humble and sane. Humble, because the artist could never entirely take credit for his or her work. Sane, because if the work wasn’t good, it wasn’t entirely the artist’s fault—he or she could blame it partially on having a “lame” Genius.

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Whether you view the creative process as a battlefield or a playground is a matter of personal choice.
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In light of the grim personal history of creative artists in the post-Renaissance era, and in light of the anxieties Gilbert began to experience after her own literary success, she advocates a return to this Greco-Roman view of creativity. True, appealing to muses, fairies, daemons, and gnomes for our creative inspiration may run counter to our firmly entrenched rational beliefs; but it may also save the lives of our creative artists. As Gilbert says, “[I think it’s] better if we encourage our great creative minds to live.”

Soon after it was posted, the video of Gilbert’s talk quickly went viral, and has been seen nearly half a million times on YouTube alone (I myself account for three of those times). Clearly Gilbert’s “Big Idea” resonated with a lot of people—especially with other creative artists, since all of us have struggled with the anxieties that come from believing that we are the source of our own genius (or mediocrity). Such a creative belief system, to borrow Gilbert’s phrase, is like “asking somebody to swallow the sun.” It’s not only an impossible task; it’s also a potentially self-destructive one.

Indeed, Gilbert’s phrase about “swallowing the sun” is remarkably apt, since several ancient stories deal with characters whose major offense against God/the gods was hubris—and often their hubris involved reaching for or flying too close to the sun.

Exhibit A: The god Prometheus, who was sentenced to an eternity of endless torture for stealing fire from the gods and giving it to human beings.

Exhibit B: Icarus, who flew too close to the sun, and as a consequence burned his wings and plunged to his death.

Exhibit C: The biblical story of the Tower of Babel (which is personally my favorite story about the dangers of creative hubris). According to the story, the ruler Nimrod commissioned his people to build a tower that would rise to the top of heaven itself. They began to build the tower and succeeded in making significant progress. However, from up on high, God saw this and wasn’t pleased: “Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do; and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech” (Genesis 11:6-7). True to his word, God “confounded” their speech, so that Nimrod’s people, who formerly spoke one language, could no longer understand each other. As a result, they stopped working on the tower and scattered to various parts of the earth.

Consider these stories for a moment, especially in light of Gilbert’s “Big Idea.” Isn’t Prometheus the prototype of the modern creative artist—Percy Bysshe Shelley and his Romantic contemporaries certainly thought so—a hero-martyr willing to endure a lifetime of suffering in order to bestow something of value to mankind? Isn’t Icarus the reckless artist who ignores his limitations, and whose recklessness becomes his undoing?And hasn’t every creative artist, at some point in their lives, felt like the people working on the Tower of Babel? One moment you’re totally unified in purpose, actively making progress on your art, when suddenly your mind splinters into dozens of conflicting inner voices, each speaking a different “language” (doubt, megalomania, anxiety, despair) all of them threatening to undermine your creative endeavor—and perhaps your sanity.

While not all of these stories are ostensibly about the creative process, they nevertheless contain an important insight, anticipated by the ancients and borne out by the private lives of creative artists since the Renaissance: reaching for the sun is dangerous business. And ultimately, that’s what every creative endeavor is (or at least should aspire to be): a reaching for the sun, a bold attempt to attain the heights of heaven and live to tell about it. Of course, embarking on any bold creative endeavor is a sure way to trigger the forces of self-sabotage, inner confusion, and torment. In the above-mentioned stories, punishment was meted out by God/the gods; but in our own era, creative artists have become quite adept at inflicting punishment on ourselves, as the lives of artists from Edgar Allan Poe to Kurt Cobain tragically illustrate.

The question becomes: is there a way to spare our present-day Prometheuses from a lifetime of suffering? Is it possible to keep the future Icaruses of the world from plunging to their deaths? Is there a way to save our creative minds from succumbing to the inner voices of Babel and descending into self-sabotage? And keep in mind, I am not posing this question as a detached observer, but as a creative artist myself, one who has personally experienced the anguish and self-doubt and “babeling” voices that attend the creative process—and who has also asked himself: “Is there a better way?”

In her TED talk, Gilbert says yes, there is—even if it may seem suspiciously New Age-y to many creative artists and our post-Renaissance, rationalist sensibilities:

Give up on ever becoming a genius. Instead, ask for help from your Genius.

This doesn’t mean that creative artists need to find religion (although if we do, that certainly is our right). What it does mean is that if we want to avoid the dangers of “swallowing the sun,” it would behoove us to create one of those “protective psychological constructs” that separates us from our Genius (lame or otherwise), and by doing so safe-guards our psychological, emotional, and physical well-being.

Admittedly, the idea of separating yourself from your Genius doesn’t fit well with our Romantic notions of individual artistic achievement; nevertheless, many artists since the Renaissance have relied upon such constructs to help them with their creative process.

Walt Whitman, for example, split his personality into three parts: there was “Walt Whitman, one of the roughs,” his mortal, physical self; there was the “Me Myself,” Whitman’s essential self, undisturbed by circumstance, who was, as he put it in “Song of Myself,” “Both in and out of the game and watching wondering at it”; and finally, there was “The Soul,” the ultimate cosmic source of Whitman’s creative genius that occasionally allowed him to merge with it to write works of incredible poetic power.

A contemporary artist who relies upon such a construct is the novelist Stephen Pressfield. Pressfield, author of The Legend of Bagger Vance and The War of Art, unabashedly admits to invoking the Muse to help him combat “Resistance,” his term for the impersonal forces that seek to undermine and sabotage our creative endeavors. As a former Marine, Pressfield sees the creative process as a battlefield, one that the artist must return to everyday. But in order for the artist-as-soldier not to get beaten down by Resistance, he must invoke the aid of the Muse. He can’t win the battle alone.

Finally, acclaimed writer Ray Bradbury, who turned ninety this year, has gone so far as to say that taking credit for his books is in some ways an act of plagiarism. He may have been the vehicle, but his works were actually composed by “the other me”:

Did R.B. write that poem, that line, that speech?
No, inner-ape, invisible, did teach.
His reach, clothed in my flesh, stays mystery;
Say not my name.
Praise other me.
(“The Other Me,” from Zen in the Art of Writing)

These are just a few examples. There are countless others, and no two constructs need be alike. Whether you view the creative process as a battlefield or a playground is a matter of personal choice. Likewise, who or what you invoke for help is up to you (while other artists may invoke the Muses of antiquity, perhaps your muse bears a strong resemblance to Jerry Garcia). The bottom line is, it doesn’t matter what you call your Genius; it only matters that you call your Genius. But keep in mind, the purpose of these constructs isn’t to make you a great artist. Their purpose, to put it bluntly, is to keep you sane and keep you alive, to function as a buffer between you and the mysteries of creation, between your fragile mortal mind and the awesomeness of the sun. And it’s in invoking our Genius that we realize that our talents, and our occasional bursts of “genius,” are really just gifts sent to us on loan from the Universe. So that our proper attitude to anything we create shouldn’t be “I am a genius” or “I am a failure,” but rather, “I can’t take all the credit.” Or, even better: “Say not my name. Praise other me.”

…reaching for the sun is dangerous business…

Granted, an element of madness will always attend the creative process; this can’t, nor I think shouldn’t, be escaped. (As Plato noted, it’s impossible to write great poetry without “the madness of the Muses,” and I think this insight extends to all the arts.) Of course, there’s madness, and then there’s madness—and if creative artists wish to continue doing our work and avoid the risks of “swallowing the sun”—and perhaps even lead happy, well-adjusted lives—we would do well to organize our madness into a workable system. And if that requires us to invoke the aid of God, the gods, fairies, muses, daemons, gnomes, elves, or smiling Jerry Garcias, I for one am perfectly in favor of it.

Entirely rational? Maybe not. But as Gilbert suggests, being rational hasn’t necessarily been good for the happiness and emotional stability of creative artists over the last five hundred years. And although we shouldn’t turn our backs on reason completely, perhaps creative artists need to abandon our “rational” efforts at becoming geniuses, “open up the door,” and in the words of The Beatles, ask our Genius for help.

Who knows—with a little faith and hard work, we just might get it.

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