Monday, December 5, 2011

Eat, Pray, Bullshit

It's nice to know that I never have to read the book "Eat, Pray, Love." I know that I never really had to, it's just one of those books that seemed to be everywhere and seemingly everyone has read it. I didn't want to read the book, it just could have been something that happened, like if I ran out of reading material at an airport or relative's house.

Recently, I had to sit through a video of a Ted Talk given by the author of this "big, mega-sensation, international bestseller" memoir that was a "freakish success" (her words). Entitled "Elizabeth Gilbert on nurturing creativity," it starts out fine, I suppose. She talks about how creative professionals such as writers are often asked if they are afraid that they will never have another successful work or never be able to top their one huge hit. Like success has somehow doomed them and their creativity. She talks about the fear-based reaction kids receive when they express a desire to be an artist or writer. She mentions that no one asked her dad, who was a chemical engineer, if he was afraid to be a chemical engineer. She then references the reputation of creative types as being unstable, depressed, drug-addled, and suicidal.

She says that we have collectively accepted and internalized that "creativity and suffering are inherently linked and that artistry, in the end, will always, ultimately, lead to anguish." She wants to ask the audience a question: "Are you cool with this?" She calls the assumption "odious and dangerous, and [she] doesn't want to see it perpetuated into the next century."

Excellent. All of this led me to believe that she was setting us up for a good, solid debunking of that reputation, but oh, no. Nothing could be further from the truth. How does she avoid becoming the assumption? Accept the myth as true, and use it to provide a basis for her belief in supernatural source for creativity. Divorce herself from the responsibility of her creativity. Go to ancient Greece and ancient Rome, when they believed that daemons and genii were responsible for creativity. This "psychological construct" will "protect you from the results of your work" because you don't have to take responsibility for it.

There is no attempt to look at the myth itself and apply any critical thinking skills. There is no attempt to look at empirical evidence that pertains to the myth, though there is some cherry-picking of history offered in support of her belief. She does not say that her dad, the chemical engineer, may not have been asked fear-based questions, but, as a scientist, his profession is number 11 of 13 on at least one list of professionals who commit suicide. (Laborers, carpenters, and doctors are all there, too, and dentists are number one.) She does not mention that it seems to be difficult, if not impossible, to even correlate profession with suicide with any meaningful accuracy.

Spot the things that are wrong with this statement about the rise of rational humanism, the idea of creativity coming from the self and not the divine, and of people being a genius instead of having a genius:

"I gotta tell you, I think that was a huge error. I think that allowing somebody, like one mere person, to believe that he or she is like the vessel, you know like the font, and the essence and the source of all divine, creative, unknowable, eternal mystery is just like a smidge too much responsibility to put on one fragile human psyche. It's like asking somebody to swallow the sun. You know, it just completely warps and distorts egos and creates all these unmanageable expectations about performance, and I think the pressure of that, has been killing off our artists for the last 500 years."

We have suicidal fruit to pick off the tree of creativity because creative people are usually living somewhat public lives, and their deaths make the news. Sometimes, while they are alive, they are talking or writing about their psychic pain. While I have always figured that my petty neurosis and relatively painless middle class upbringing make me unworthy of creative success because of the perpetual myth that creativity equals suffering, I don't think that the myth or my assumption are true, and I certainly don't think that creative people suffer because their creativity has become their responsibility instead of a gift given to them by the poetry faeries.

The kind of thinking that Ms. Gilbert is promoting here isn't doing us any favors. It is upholding a myth instead of debunking it, and it is using a myth to perpetuate yet another myth. Was ever a time in documented human history without plenty of people, probably even a majority, who believe that creativity comes from some sort of divine inspiration, the Enlightenment notwithstanding? What evidence is there that uncovering a mystery has made us worse off as a society? How can divorcing ourselves from responsibility for our powers make the world a better place? Does that mean that any extraordinary power is somehow divine? Why would it just be creativity? What about nefarious powers such as the ability to pull off the perfect crime? That's creative. Is it divine? What about all the other people who commit suicide, some at higher rates than artists? Did they just need to believe in a science faerie or welding faerie, and once they placed their skills into a supernatural being, all their psychic pain would go away?

The Enlightenment did not kill off our artists. Our artists are not dead. Artists are everywhere, many of them not dying by their own hand or even suffering under the hideous responsibility of their brilliance. Furthermore, The Enlightenment gave us the First Amendment, among other things, allowing for not only a flourishing of the creative arts but also of religion in a secular nation.

Anyway,  if you made a decision to believe that you are not responsible, are you not still responsible for the fact that you made that decision?

The idea that there are creativity faeries rubbing faerie juice on our projects, makes as much sense to her as anything else she has ever heard to describe the creative process. Yeah, you're right, it does. It's the faeries and their emissions that write poetry. Just because we don't know the answer to a question does not mean that the answer is "Magic." Isn't it a threat to creativity to ask us to just trust some sort of mystical process and not instead ask questions and search for answers?

It's not just creative people who experience maddening blocks in their work. There are times that all of us just can't make connections. Scientists, policy makers, engineers, carpenters, and administrators have moments when something can't be resolved, even though the resolution seems so close. When we do finally figure it out, was it the faeries?

The Greeks thought it was daemons and the Romans thought it was genii because they didn't know any better.

Humans don't behave rationally much of the time. It's work for us to do so, as the brain seems wired to react on emotion. So why would we encourage irrational thinking? And why would we give it a stage?

p.s. I put as much research into this as she probably did:
The 13 careers where you are most likely to commit suicide 
The occupation with the highest suicide rate 
Physicians Are Not Invincible: Rates of Psychosocial Problems Among Physicians 
Veterinarians more likely to commit suicide 
Do Dentists have the highest suicide rate?  
Suicide by profession: lots of confusion, inconclusive data