Creating an Original Self
I recall in high school English class reading an essay by Emerson and being asked by my teacher, what I thought. I said that I thought, “What am I doing in high school, I should drop out and get on with my life.” She replied, “That is not what he meant at all.” She did not tell me what Emerson did mean, and of course that was exactly what he meant.
We often think of our culture as being defined by its technological advances, and that characterization is in part correct. But why do we have those technological advances and why were they initially unique to the West? It is due to the release of individual creativity. And our first creative task? To create an original Self.
In his Letters to a Young Poet, Ranier Maria Rilke writes:
There is only one way: Go within. Search for the cause, find the impetus that bids you write. Put it to this test: Does it stretch out its roots in the deepest place of your heart? Can you avow that you would die if you were forbidden to write? Dig deep into yourself for a true answer. And if it should ring its assent, if you can confidently meet this serious question with a simple, “I must,” then build your life upon it. It has become your necessity. Your life, in even the most mundane and least significant hour, must become a sign, a testimony to this urge.
And James Joyce, in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, has Stephen Dedalus, his alter ego, say:
I will tell you what I will do and what I will not do. I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it call itself my home, my fatherland, or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defense the only arms I allow myself to use—silence, exile and cunning.
Ultimately this is a question of how we exist in our world. The pioneer of modern dance, Martha Graham, writes:
There is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost.
And more recently Steve Jobs, the cofounder of Apple, states in his Stanford commencement address:
You’ve got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relation- ship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle.
None of these passages could have been written outside of the West. We have much to learn about our relationship to nature from Taoism, and about the mind from Buddhism, but we will not find remarks like these from any culture outside of the West. In other cultures you followed in your parents’ occupation and you put yourself in accord with your culture. If you did not feel the resonance of your culture, you faked it. But in the West you are called to identify your own way and follow it. In our value system, failure to fulfill one’s potential is a tragedy. Of course, to find one’s unique way and successfully follow it is difficult, and many get lost. Today we are building a culture to protect those who might get lost from hurt feelings, but in doing so we are abandoning one of the great human achievements.
While the failure to achieve Self-manifestation is a tragedy, the failure to even try leads to hollowness. We see the theme of hollowness in the literature of the 1920s and 30s as the collapse of the old order after the First Word War cut peo- ple adrift. Those not able to find their way are represented in this literature, including in T. S. Eliot’s poem, The Hollow Men, Robert Musil’s novel, The Man Without Qualities, and Bernardo Bertolucci’s later film, The Conformist, set in that period. Larry Darrell in Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge is traumatized by the War, but by being true to himself he is able to find his way, much to the consternation of those around him.
So, the first kind of creativity to which we should be dedicated is the creation of our Selves.
For more on this and related matters, see my book, Visionary Creativity. You can buy the book on Amazon and Barnes and Noble, and see excerpts on this site. Like me on Facebook, join my Facebook group, Visionary Creativity, and follow me on Twitter.
Beautifully written. I just sent it to a high school student I coach, one who is crawling to the finish line of public education, a deeply sensitive artist who is in the prison of conformity required by our schools. We are losing a generation of great and beautiful minds to the conglomerate of private interests and bloated governmental oversight that has created the monstrous Factory we call”education.” Thank you for this.