THE GENIUS OUT OF THE BOTTLE

Although I’m going to mention Dylan Thomas, who enjoyed a pint for breakfast from what I understand, the ‘bottle’ mentioned in the title of this blog refers to the ‘body’ of the writer and of course is also a mild pun on ‘genie’ and ‘bottle’.
When I was younger I was much more interested in living the life of a brilliant, tortured poet- someone like Dylan Thomas who was only 39 when he died- or Blake, Plath, or for that matter James Dean. Live fast, write down a lot of words, and then expire in some awful way which does not however destroy the waxen perfection of your features. I.e.- leave a good-looking corpse. And then hover above from beyond and feel pretty good that so many are praising your work and lamenting your early passing and that high school students are forced to study your more difficult stuff. Sounds pretty good, right? Awfully romantic. I wasn’t the only one who felt like this. Many of the writers and poets in the 19th and 20th centuries embraced this painful existence. They were wracked with poetry, consumed, possessed–like Norman Mailer each book caused them to die a little more. As a teenager I had the energy to spare for this kind of thing but as I inch towards middle-age and respectability, it’s a lot harder to burn the candle at both ends. I’d rather do my nice solid day of work and then relax in front of the fire with my cozy slippers on and a cup of hot tea, and that satisfaction of having achieved a little of what I know I am meant to do, every single day. Why incidentally take Thomas or Byron or Poe for your model? How about Shakespeare? He seemed pretty together. He wrote oodles but I think he had fun doing it for the most part.
Elizabeth Gilbert (author of the best-selling memoir “Eat, Pray, Love”) gave a very interesting talk on this same subject which of course gave me the idea to blog about it too. I believe her next book is on Genius and the creative process. In the course of her research she found that it was not until the Renaissance (the rebirth in french) when Man/Humanity was put at the center of the Universe. You just know that’s never a good idea. We are a selfish, self-centered, egotistical species with delusions of grandeur and godhood already, but anyway that’s what the great minds of the time decided, and one of the concepts they reversed was that genius stopped being something outside the creator and became a part of him (her). Up until then the ancient Greeks and the Romans had believed that every artist got a little help from this sort of Demi-god spirit thing which floated around and handed out inspiration. The Romans called it a ‘genius’, and it meant that when someone achieved something wonderful and beautiful (like the statue of David for instance) some of the credit went to the genius. The genius- this incorporeal entity- shared in the adulation. And conversely if the painting or the poem was a stinker, then it wasn’t all the artist’s fault, approximately half the blame could be placed on the genius’s head- and this was GREAT! Because it took a certain amount of pressure off of the artist.
Listen, speaking for myself, I am quite merciless when it comes to what I put down on paper. I fret and I worry and it is never good enough. I am appalled at how badly I write sometimes. And if I was more fragile I could fall into a deep depression and take unhealthy steps in order to blur the sting of failure. A pint before breakfast, perhaps.
And then some idiot with a big ego decided that rather than include some amorphous muse in the whole process, the genius would be housed inside the body and all successes and failures, crippling doubts and insecurity, writer’s block for instance and that awful fog when you can’t for the life of you remember where you were heading with the story, all the stuff that drives writers and poets and sculptors to an early grave, was now swirling around inside the abdomen and making lots of bad feelings. There was no blame to attach to anyone else at all. No one to rant against when things are going badly or when the School Library Journal has a problem with your transitions. No buffer of any sort between you, or rather your work (but our work is ourselves isn’t it?) and the cold, hard world.
But how about if we bring back the genius? I have already. He’s not with me always because there are a lot of people out there who need some genius, but he usually comes if I ask nicely and then he perches in the corner above my computer and chirps away and drops little pearls into my brain. We have a good working relationship and the relief of knowing that I’m not alone in all this is immeasurable.
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