You are the music

October 30, 2007

Robert Genn

Neurologist Oliver Sacks's latest book, "Tales of Music and the
Brain," tells of various cranial disorders that have led to
musical sensitivity and ability. For example, hit by lightning,
a man suddenly begins to compose and conduct music. This
reminded me of the vacationing Augustus John, a mediocre art
student at age 19, diving into the sea at Tenby, Wales, hitting
his head on an underwater rock and emerging a celebrated
genius. The blow did considerable damage, forced him to take
the year 1897 for recovery, and created a before-and-after
scenario that everyone noticed. Naturally, I've always wondered
if this sort of effect might be artificially produced--some
simple clunk to the head or laying on of hands that hot-wires
candidates to creative success.

Many of us thrive on combinations of strong desire and
relentless application. While relatively slow-going, this has
been the traditional and sensible route toward creative
evolution. Natural genius may speed things up. But you may have
noticed that natural geniuses sometimes don't go far. They too
may need a lightning strike to fully manifest. An epiphany, a
door suddenly closed, or perhaps some form of
hysteria--self-generated or inflicted from without--might just
be the catalyst.

In "Four Quartets," T.S. Elliot writes, "You are the music;
while the music lasts." One has insights, makes progress and
gets results only while the music is being made. And this goes
for easel time too. Elliot's poem suggests the special state
required for the creative act. Concepts like "flow" involve
being one with the activity--a kind of psychic space unlike
ordinary life.  

The idea of bold, frenetic, compulsive or obsessive action as
the great begetter of art is at the core of this sort of
thinking. "Boldness has genius, power and magic," said Johann
Wolfgang von Goethe. "Engage, and the mind grows heated. Begin,
and the work will be completed." Goethe was no stranger to
unkindly blows, either. Funnily, or perhaps not funnily, the
hindrances to bold action line up like the deadly
sins--laziness, sloth, indifference, boredom, etc. Getting hit
on the head may be the blessed event that invites creative
being and acting. We are tasered--and our work continues to
taser us. Stunned, we stay on the job. Sensitized and
electrified, we make gains by simply doing it. There are worse
things that can happen to people.

Best regards,


PS:  "I have often seen quite demented patients recognize and
respond vividly to paintings and delight in the act of painting
at a time when they are scarcely responsive, disoriented, and
out of it." (Oliver Sacks)

Esoterica: Strict instructions to wannabe artists don't always
work. Directions like "go to your room and work five hours a
day and produce 30 finished works a month" can trigger the old
self-sabotage response. There's something else. Somehow the
neural tissue needs to be realigned so the artist sets a new
course of his own volition. In my observation, it's a
self-anointed, narcissistic ego-force that awakens the mad
mentor within. Artist, zap thyself.