couple of weeks ago, Liz and I went to the movies. The movie we saw
was, in our opinion, just so-so; but we enjoyed the popcorn, and
the company, as always, was good. The film was Anonymous, which is
basically about how Shakespeare didn’t really write all those plays
attributed to him, and how they were “really” by Edward DeVere, the
Earl of Oxford, a big shot at court from one of England’s leading
family’s. (Who was also, according to the film, not only Elizabeth’s
illegitimate son, but also her lover, and the father of her
illegitimate child. Talk about a plot thickening—or in this case,
perhaps, sickening.) So it was all, shall we say, quite sensational and
convoluted. (It is, after all, by the same director who also gave us
Independence Day and Godzilla, so perhaps we shouldn’t have been
expecting nuance.). But Anonymous is, however, visually stunning,
and the acting, overall, is excellent. Especially Vanessa Redgrave as
Queen Elizabeth, and Rafe Spall as an absolutely lecherous and devious
William Shakespeare, a man who cannot even write his own name, let
alone the greatest masterworks in all of English literature.
the controversy over the “true” authorship of Shakespeare’s works is
nothing new, of course (though it has seldom been presented as grandly,
and expensively, as it has in Anonymous). Scholars have been puzzling
for years over how someone as plebian and under-educated as Shakespeare
(if educated at all)—someone of whom historians know very little—who
seemed to have made very little impact upon the world in which he
lived, aside from the plays he (supposedly) wrote—how he could have
written works like Hamlet, or Romeo and Juliet or King Lear—how he
could have written anything at all of note.
So, for years some
people have been saying that it just doesn’t make sense. Someone
else—someone “better educated”-- someone “of better social
standing”-- a more obvious choice must have done it—like DeVere,
the Earl of Oxford, some say; or maybe Sir Francis Bacon; or another
leading writer of the day, like Christopher Marlowe.
It all sort
of reminds me of Shirley Maclaine, surveying the great ruins at Machu
Picchu when they were adopting her book. Out on a Limb into a TV movie,
saying that surely, surely everyday indigenous people, even those as
advanced as the Incas, couldn’t have come up with something as
amazingly advanced as Machu Picchu! It just wasn’t possible that native
earthlings could have created anything as magnificent as that. So men
from space must have done it instead! That made much more sense…
It all sounds more than a little elitist to me. We assume that
everyday, ordinary people like us—or even (perish the thought) people
less educated, of a “lower” socio-economic level than we
are—could ever accomplish something truly extraordinary. No, we
sometimes scoff, someone else must have done it.
I will admit that
the question of “genius”, of creativity on steroids as it were, is an
intriguing one. Where does genius come from? From whence does our human
creativity arise? Why does it seem to flourish in certain places,
certain people and circumstances, and not in others?
Those are questions I’ve asked myself often.
asked myself that as I had my photo snapped in front of a rather
non-descript two-story tenement house at the corner of South and
Institute streets in Freehold, New Jersey: the house where Bruce
Springsteen grew up.
Certainly, while he was growing up there at
37½ Institute Street, Springsteen didn’t seem like he was going to
become something to write home about. Most of the people he grew up
among, his fellow students at the St. Rose of Lima parochial school
across the street, barely remember Bruce Springsteen, if they remember
him at all. He was, to most of them, a kind a gray blur, sort of on the
fringes of things. He certainly didn't seem to excel in any aspect of
school life; he barely got by; he sort of blended into the woodwork.
all this time he was blending into the woodwork, he was sitting
upstairs in that back bedroom at of this totally unremarkable tenement
house, strumming his guitar and writing music and dreaming about rock
and roll. And nurturing a dream and a vision of who this scrawny,
unkempt adolescent with bad complexion could be someday; and fostering,
as best he was able, and in an environment that wasn't always
conducive, the wellsprings of his own creativity-- which would, as the
years passed, explode into genius, and transform the face of his chosen
field, and turn that house into a kind of semi-shrine, at least for a
particular little group of us.
It's a feeling I'd had before, and
have had since-- standing in front of Oscar Wilde's birthplace in
Georgian Dublin or that of the great Irish tenor John McCormick in
County Laoise at almost the geographic center of Ireland, quite
literally in the middle of nowhere. I’ve felt it strolling in front of
the house where the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay was born, just down
the street from where we lived in Rockland, Maine; in front of the
little house in Prague where Kafka was born; at the Adams birthplaces
in nearby Quincy; even as we drove by the small southern cottage in
Plains, Georgia where Jimmy Carter spent his boyhood (a house that
reminded me so much of my grandmother's little cottage in South
Why, in these simple places—in these markedly
unremarkable sorts of houses-- places no more architecturally
significant or aesthetically pleasing-- no more intrinsically
interesting, if the truth be told-- than the houses in which any of us
grew up—why in these, of all places— did something amazing and
brilliant take root? Where does genius come from? From whence does
human creativity arise?
To find the source of human genius, let’s go
back to the beginning: In the deepest and most fundamental sense, I
think, our creativity arose at the Big Bang itself-- about 20 or
22 billion years ago. We are, each one of us, a Little Bang
ushering forth from the Big Bang.
Creativity is something that is
natural to all of us as human beings. It is part of our wiring. You
can't be alive-- you can't be human-- and not be creative. Now, that
certainly flies in the face of an elitist and consumerist culture which
would tell us that creativity-- and genius-- and artistry--are all
forces "outside of " ourselves-- beyond us-- bigger (or deeper) than we
are; things that have to be produced by "superstars" and "celebrities"
that the rest of us can only buy and consume.
In simpler cultures
than ours, there is no great wall between everyday life and creativity,
between everyday work and artistic expression. In simpler cultures
(that of rural India for example), the ability to play a basic musical
instrument; to sew; to tell stories; these are all but universal.
Everyone just does these things, and no one judges who does it “better”
than anyone else. In modern society, art and culture are too often seen
as passive activities which bring us their images for us to
internalize, rather than ushering forth the visions which are within
us. We who live in industrial, urban societies have to make a conscious
effort to develop the unconscious, mystical, right-brain aspects of who
The great Indian philosopher Coomeraswamy once spoke of his
mother, who was a gifted craftswoman, who created truly remarkable
embroidery. But he said that she always insisted that her art be used
as some part of everyday life, and not as something to be set aside,
looked at, and merely admired. "I'm giving you this as a gift," she'd
say. "But don't put it on the wall-- it's for you. I made it for you to
wear. The day you start to put beautiful things on the wall, you will
start to put ugly things on your body."
If we always see creativity as "outside ourselves", we'll neglect the wonderful creative aspects of our day in/day out living.
a beautiful book called Painted Prayers, an art scholar named Stephen
Hyler presents examples of the glorious artwork done by "ordinary"
women in "ordinary" villages throughout southern India. Every day,
Hyler writes, millions of women in India begin the day by sprinkling
rice flour in a design in front of their homes, a visual prayer to the
goddess Lakshimi, inviting her to bring prosperity to the people who
dwell there. Of course, this painting is quickly scuffed away as people
walk by and life passes over it. But the daily ritual honors the
creative force within all of us; it reminds us that creativity is
mostly about process, and not product; that it points us toward the
great bridge that creativity creates between body and soul, between
humanity and the divine.
We are each called to be artists of that sort, to engage the creative gift that lies within.
of us here may be a Shakespeare or a Beethoven -- or even a Bruce
Springsteen. But we all have precious gifts. We all have talents; we
can all be creative in some way. Creativity is not linked only to
certain spheres of living-- to the fine arts (say), or to writing
literature or scientific or technological discovery. The psychologist
Howard Gardner says that there is more than just one single kind of
human intelligence; there are seven, Gardner says: linguistic,
musical, logical, visual, bodily, intropersonal (that is, within a
person), or interpersonal (or, between people).
Gardner says that we
tend to think of creativity as existing in only certain kinds of
intelligence, but there is the potential for creativity in all these
kinds of activities—and that all of us are intelligent—above the norm,
even gifted-- in at least one of these seven ways.
discoveries—great flowerings of genius -- are possible in all areas of
human intelligence. We are all creative and can be ever more
creative—maybe even especially in the so-called “routine” parts of our
lives (that's where we spend most of our time, after all): We can shine
the human-divine radiance of our creativity on how we cook meals for
our families; how we encourage our children; how we negotiate
disagreements at work; how we'll spend our leisure time. There
are numberless ways for us to be creative, even geniuses.
value being alive, we will nurture those possibilities of genius within
ourselves. But that means making some really important spiritual
choices about how we're going to live our lives. It means not allowing
ourselves to be so busy in just getting through the day that we won’t
have any time or energy or spirit left to be open to those deeper
things which are within us.
The Indian scholar Satish Kumar once
wrote that "the artist's role is... to somehow be the bridge, or the
instigator, for developing a sense of reverence and beauty [in the
world]." As Kerry Mueller has written: "It doesn't matter if
you're storytelling or dancing or painting or making music or planting
a garden or preparing a meal for special friends or knitting a
sweater.” We are constantly called upon to create those bridges of
beauty and creativity in this world.
The psychologist Rollo May
says that "Creativity is our yearning for immortality,’ and arises from
our knowledge that we’re all going to die some day, It is our
rage against death-- our insistence that our lives, as bordered and
limited as they are, will have some deeper meaning, will reverberate
further in the life of creation.
We can make our everyday lives
works of art that touch others, that serve life, that bless the world
in ways too numerous to count:
Lives of great [ones] all remind us
We can make our lives sublime
and departing leave behind us
footprints in the sands of time...
means being aware of the world we live in-- open to the currents of
life that are flowing within us and through us and among us.
It means being focused, disciplined, and passionate about those aspects of life we truly value.
means letting go of our fear of making a mistake-- and daring to do
something different-- daring to listen to one's own inner voice, even
if that means the rest of the world be damned.
means questioning our own assumptions, and looking at life from a new
perspective from time to time, or looking from the same perspective,
but more deeply, more discerningly, and more daringly.
Look deeper. Take risks. Do something different. Look at things a whole new way.
And enjoy— en-joy-- let joy in—while you’re doing it.
then we call all become geniuses in our own way: builders of bridges
between the human and the divine; instigators of reverence and beauty
in the world; creative beasts; bards of our own inspired epics; singers
of the blessed song of this remarkable human spirit.