I am out of the office until further notice and will have limited access to email and voice mail during my absence. For assistance with creative inspiration or questions of technical artistic execution, please contact my assistants Calliope or Thalia at (212) 555-1212 during office hours of 500 to 323 B.C.
Direct: (212) 555-1212
Elizabeth Gilbert wants you to fool yourself.
Of course this is a psychological dodge. A trick an artist can use on him- or herself to externalize the mysterious, elusive creative spark which offers and even more rarely delivers true transcendence. You don’t really think there is an invisible daemon who lives in the walls of your studio and sneaks out after you’ve gone to bed to breathe genius into your work, do you? An independent personality dispensing musical melodies who levitates over Los Angeles freeways while Tom Waits drives to the grocery store?
Well, no matter. Even if you do, this strategy is a clever ruse you can play on yourself. Identify an independent, capricious external entity with beauty and genius in her gift whom you can persuade, flatter, trick, and cajole into giving you what you want. A person whom you can negotiate with. This is something almost all of us know how to do, and it neatly avoids the desperate and fruitless struggle which modern artists feel they must make to wrest genius and inspiration from the tortured depths of their own soul. It also opens up a psychological space for failure, which is the daily accompaniment of every working artist. It’s not that you, personally—through sheer laziness, incompetence, or lack of talent—have been unable to deliver the inspiration which should be bubbling up merrily from your own unconscious. Instead, the problem is your flakey muse has split town again with that hipster loser from the gas station, just when you needed her most. Damn minx.
Strangely enough, this psychological model from ancient times may be closer to the truth than we realize. More and more research in neuroscience and the science of consciousness is implying that the unitary model of intentional consciousness—best visualized as a little homunculus sitting at the control panel of our brain, pulling levers and flipping switches in full awareness and with fully articulated intent—is a naïve and misleading fiction. More and more of what we have traditionally considered to be in the purview of our fully conscious, intentional mind, including conscious physical activity, judgment, and even decision-making, is being discovered to happen at pre- or subconscious levels in our brains. Even our personalities, which we like to pretend are stable and fully articulated identities, are likely to be more evanescent, contingent, and multifaceted things than we imagined, and certainly more so than most of us would like to imagine. It may be more accurate and useful to think of our mental life as a collection of impulses, reactions, thought, and intentions which cooperate with varying levels of input and intensity as we make our way in the world. A loose alliance of conscious, semi-conscious, and unconscious actors. A bundle of “me”s, as it were.
So who is to say that one or more of these fractious homunculi isn’t the very muse we are looking for? Who is to say the very genius of inspiration we chase after doesn’t already live in our heads, just as we have imagined him to do for the last 500 years? The only difference is he doesn’t really work for us, we have no way to communicate with him, and he only shows up if and when he damn well pleases.
I just hope my daemon genius isn’t that damn hipster loser at the gas station. Now that would be depressing.
© 2012 The Epicurean Dealmaker. All rights reserved.