Seattle, Washington, United States
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Thursday, January 19, 2012

the daemon & the genius

I watched an interesting video tonight. It was from the TED organization, and it was a video of Elizabeth Gilbert - the broken saint herself - speaking about the stress of creativity and the alternate views we can and should take on art and artistic genius.

I was dumbfounded.

She speaks about the ancient Greek and Roman belief that inspiration did not come from within the individual, but from a knavish, sprite-like spirit called a daemon (in Greece) and a genius (in Rome). Yes, you read that correctly. Genius was not, originally, the name for an intellectually talented individual. It was a term for that creature which imparted all the mighty talent onto the individual him or herself. So, Elizabeth Gilbert stood up in front of one of the most educated audiences in the world and told them that she believes, completely and utterly, that we would heal the psyches of our artists if we reverted back to this way of thinking. I drank in every word.

We are lost. In our grayscale metropolises, our forests of mathematically certain industry, our eerily efficient psychological escalators - in this place we have found ourselves utterly without foundation. We put mirrors in every room to remind ourselves that, while we have too little time to sit and eat, we still exist.

We are a post-Enlightenment society, and that is a marvelous thing. It means that we live in a world open to thought and the free exploration of facts. However, in our mess of facts and well-informed paradigms, we have lost sight of truth. There is an important distinction. It is a fact that I am a member of the species homo sapiens, a biped, carbon-based creature with a high level of sentience which occupies the dominant space on Earth's food chain. It is truth that I am a human being. If you believe that is an issue of semantics you have already given up on truth.

Gilbert, though unaware possibly, was speaking to this. The creative process is too large, too explosive, too painful, prodigal, and beautiful to be the product of facts. Art, in its varied and too-often divorced forms, is the only human endeavor - excepting maybe religion - which makes the pursuit of truth its sole aim. Gilbert's belief in daemons and geniuses may seem far-fetched to the factual society, but is it such a tall order? She asks only one simple, audacious question:

What force keeps you from believing?

We live without belief. We reserve all of life for our text books and Wikipedia. What a painful legacy we will pass on to our children! When I was a child, I used to believe that my true parents were tree spirits that ruled the forest behind our house. To be perfectly honest, a part of me still half-believes that when I hear wind whistling through branches or I marvel at the crimson quality that sunlight takes on when it filters through autumn leaves. What force keeps me from believing? It is true, even if it is not fact.

Today I sat down in a coffee shop with my mother for a very long time. We drank lattes and ate lunch, spoke and laughed, joked and told stories for more hours than we expected, trapped by snow and freezing rain. It was slow and still, not rushed. But as I sat in my own gentle caffeinated afternoon, I watched others rush, checking phones and conducting business deals. They greeted each other with nary a wave. It reminded me of a song I like very much. It is called To Be a Dancer (I Am Alive) by Lovers. It reads:

It's all dead energies in this town.
It's all pedantry and pedigree in this town.
I needed an answer.
I needed a song.
I want to be a dancer when the music comes on.
It's all stagnancy in this town.
It's all pageantry and monopoly in this town.
It's all hierarchy in this town.
It's all self-defeat, there's no poetry in this town.
I am alive.
I can call your fake (I needed an anthem)
and I can give your take (I needed a song)
and I am here and brave (I want to go dancing)
and you're going to want me someday (when the music comes on).
I am alive.
Raise your flag, it's do or die now.

So, I don't know about you, but my daemon and I are going to raise our flags and our coffee cups to say - with slowness and truth - that we would like to believe in more than facts, that we would like to dance to every bit of music we hear.

May your coffee be strong, your passions electric, and your laughter easy.


  1. I don't know how you manage to write more and more amazingly every time but the world certainly thanks you for it! much love -shrey

  2. When I sit, yes, in slowness and truth, and devour the wise words of your youthful mind, I am reminded that I too am young, that I still have that dervish spirit of Rumi when he was introduced to me by college creative writing professor Coleman Barks. I am reminded of that musky rectangle of a room with the towering 18 paned window, the smell of boys and coffee and chalk dust all in one sniff. Promise and creativity leaked from the dark walls and seeped into my soul and have never left. I didn't really like Elizabeth Gilbert when she vaulted to stardom with East, Pray, Love. I seethed with jealously, wanting my own success to look like hers, wanting that chance to escape and turn it into a book and movie. But on a recent road trip, I listened to the audio from the driver's seat while the movie ran through the car's DVD. Call it religion, desire, the Cosmos, Kerouac incarnate, I came around to believe that Gilbert had her stuff together. My creativity had almost been swallowed by a bank account and the need for good gas mileage, by dinner menus and the struggle to become, by a divorce, a disappearance and a disease. I was gripping a thread of a rope unravelling and then I started writing again. Even if it's just here in a reply to a blog post. But my mind is dancing and leaping hurdles again and my hand can not keep up with my mind. I believe again. And Michael and his family have fueled that belief, the belief that my words matter, that my desire to help others know that their words matter, and that creativity is not a curse. It's a gift. And you help me each and every post, Michael, rip off the shiny wrapping of society and see into and through the mirrors of my life...and into something eerie and unknown and scary and magical. Thank you.

  3. Michael,
    This is absolutely amazing. I just want you to know that I still read your blog, and even though we don't talk much anymore, I miss your wisdom, your grace, and your smile. I hold you in my heart and can't wait to see what else you do with your life.