Adonis Diaries

Posts Tagged ‘literature

Are there any Geniuses of Language and Literature? Part 2

Posted on April 16, 2013

In a previous post I asked this question:

Is it possible to meaningfully categorize and classify masterpieces in literature?

It is possible to collect data on the many ways people retrieve, read, or extract sections of masterpieces, and run a statistical package to “cluster” groups of masterpieces under fictitious categories.

Like  considering geographic origin, time period, and field of each “genius,” correlated with visits to the respective Wikipedia page and connection to related historical figures

The question will remain: “How meaningful this process is, and does it make any sense for the avid readers?”

It is our nature to classify, even organize human species. We are all basically pseudo-scientists: Scientists main hobby and work is to classify everything.

Classifying masterpieces in literature is a futile exercise, though “academics” cannot help it: It is their livelihood, particularity teachers of literature.

In the next post, I’ll demonstrate the futility of classifying masterpieces in literature.

For the time being, here is an alternative for classifying literature in values., though Not including modern literature that actually represent world transformation and changes in human rights perspective.

For the time being, here is a striking example of an alternative way to a taxonomy in literature:

Maria Popova published “History’s 100 Geniuses of Language and Literature, Visualized

“Genius, in its writings, is our best path for reaching wisdom … the true use of literature for life.”

“Genius is nothing more nor less than doing well what anyone can do badly,” Victorian novelist Amelia E. Barr reflected in her 9 rules for success.

What is genius?

In their latest project, Italian visualization wizard Giorgia Lupi and her team at Accurat — who have previously given us a timeline of the future based on famous fiction, a visual history of the Nobel Prize, and a visualization of global brain drain inspired by Mondrian — explore the anatomy of genius, based on Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds (public library) by literary Harold Bloom.

Bloom use of the Sefirot image — the 10 emanations of the Kabbalah or (quality/appreciation) — to organize the taxonomy of the 100 geniuses of language.

Bloom identifies, from Shakespeare to Stendhal to Lewis Carroll to Ralph Ellison, the visualization that depicts the geographic origin, time period, and field of each “genius,” correlated with visits to the respective Wikipedia page and connection to related historical figures.

Bloom writes:

All genius, in my judgment, is idiosyncratic and grandly arbitrary, and ultimately stands alone … My placement of the hundred geniuses is hardly one that fixes them in place, since all the Sefirot are images constantly in motion, and any creative spirit must move through all of them, in many labyrinths and transformations. …

Since the 10 Sefirot form a system in constant motion, all of my hundred persons could be illuminated almost equally well by the other nine Sefirot, beyond the one where I group them, and I intend this book to be a kind of mosaic-in-perpetual-movement.

Appearing here is an exclusive English-language version of a forthcoming spread in Italian literary supplement La Lettura.

{Click image to enlarge)

At the heart of Bloom’s ambitious taxonomy is a concern with the very nature of genius:

What is the relationship of fresh genius to a founding authority?

At this time, starting the twenty-first century, I would say:

‘Why, none, none at all.’ Our confusions about canonical standards for genius are now institutionalized confusions, so that all judgments as to the distinction between talent and genius are at the mercy of the media, and obey cultural politics and its vagaries.

Echoing Virginia Woolf’s counsel on the art of reading, Bloom argues for cultivating an individual sensibility of genius-appreciation:

Literary genius, difficult to define, depends upon deep reading for its verification. The reader learns to identify with what she or he feels is a greatness that can be joined to the self, without violating the self’s integrity….

Genius, in its writings, is our best path for reaching wisdom, which I believe to be the true use of literature for life.

Note: Part 1 on

Masterpieces In Literature? Part 1

Do you think that it make sense to categorize masterpieces? Like collecting data from viewers and readers and analyzing the data statistically?

What counts is that “You liked the book”, that it touched a nerve, a hidden passion, a desire, an uplifting sensation, that demonstrated to you that you are not all alone, and the author happened to know you and is a friend of yours…

Posted on April 10, 2013

“We judge a great man by his masterpieces: His faults are irrelevant” Voltaire.

Apparently, in the western civilization, it is the same French Voltaire who first coined the terms “Homme de letter” and “Chefs-d’oeuvre” in the 18th century.

The world knew plenty of masterpieces in literature before the advent of the western civilization. The ancient Greek specifically build a library so that the works of Homers be transcribed and made public. The Arabs used the term Tehfa for the grand works in literature.

Petrarque  wrote on April 13, 1350: “This is what I affirm: We show elegance and skill when we express in our proper terms“, meaning that a masterpiece should be written in the popular language of the country in order for the common people who can read to comprehend the manuscript.

Since then, Boccaccio and Dante followed suit and kept Latin at bay. And that’s how the Europe Renaissance took a giant step forward in achieving all kinds of masterpieces in literature, art, sculpture, painting…

A Masterpieces in literature creates its proper criterion, and it is the most audacious and unique expression of a personality.

The subject has a single utility: It is the yeast to rise the dough of its characteristic form. And the form is what defines a masterpiece and the author.

A masterpiece burst open taboo topics that normative cultures love to control. For example, same sex relationship, drag queen, taboo sickness of terminally ills…

A masterpiece in literature doesn’t serve the grand ideological trend or guideline of the period, such as the “Greatness of a nation”, “Progress”, “Technological breakthrough”, “globalization”, Capitalism, Communism, description of the Middle-Classes…

A masterpiece is meant to emancipate people from the common values, and thus, are fresh through the ages…

A masterpiece doesn’t talk about the future or the past: It is written by an author living his period and in his lifetime…

A masterpiece is not meant to describe any petty reality, or see meanness in life…

The avid reader has already read all kinds of minor literature and he is set to discover and mine the gold in the masses of dirt…

The present is shown in its eternity: the present extends the sensation of immortality.

Nothing ever originated from pure abstraction that does not exist. (Not yet?)

All origins are generated from the sensation, and the idea of immortality is born from the simple fact of existing.

What counts is not reason but the seriousness of the author, camouflaged under comical and easy going style. We all can differentiate between a genuine and a copycat manuscript.

What counts is that “You liked the book”, that it touched a nerve, a hidden passion, a desire, an uplifting sensation, that demonstrated to you that you are not all alone, and the author happened to know you and is a friend of yours…

What counts is that the words feel like they are playing in a trance, dancing, cavorting, making sense to you.

Since humor is a scares ingredient, who manages to make you laugh is an angel: Like in “Too much ado about nothing“, Decameron, Life is a dream (Calderon)…

There are sentences that don’t sound funny to you, but they generate hilarious moments to others. It takes some training to discover the funny and this flap peeking in the cloudy sky, an opening to let sunshine seep in.

It is possible and beautiful to live a masterpiece, like a love story: We become better people when we read a masterpiece.

Publilius Syrus wrote in the first century: “The beautiful thoughts may be forgotten but never vanish

There are people who are masterpieces in the way they live, at least in moments of their lives, and they are very discreet and fragile creatures.

Do you think that it make sense to categorize masterpieces? Like collecting data from viewers and readers and analyzing the data statistically?

Note: Inspired from the French book “A propos des Chefs-d’Oeuvre” by Charles Dantzig

“Escaping Beirut”, the Elizabeth Taylor of cities, and An Unnecessary Woman

In a passage of the Lebanese writer Rabih Alameddine’s first novel Koolaids (1998), one character says:

I fucking hate the Lebanese. I hate them. They are so fucked up. They think they are so great, and for what reason?

Has there been a single artist of note? A scientist, an athlete? They are so proud of [Lebanese novelist Khalil] Gibran. Probably the most overrated writer in history. I don’t think any Lebanese has ever read him. If they had, they would keep their mouth fucking shut.…

The happiest day in my life was when I got my American citizenship and was able to tear up my Lebanese passport. That was great. Then I got to hate Americans.…

I tried so hard to rid myself of anything Lebanese. I hate everything Lebanese. But I never could. It seeps through my entire being. The harder I tried, the more it showed up in the unlikeliest of places. But I never gave up.

Robyn Creswell published in the NY Review of Books on March 25, 2014
Ferdinando Scianna/Magnum Photos
Beirut, 1972

Many of the funniest moments in Alameddine’s work—and he is essentially a comic writer—revolve around the difficulties of trying to escape the past.

The heroes of his fiction are all misfits of one sort or another. They rebel against what they take to be the tyrannical conventions of Lebanese society—its patriarchy, its sexual norms, its sectarianism.

In most of Alameddine’s novels this revolt takes the form of flight to America, what one character calls an escape “from the land of conformism to the land of individualism.” (Alameddine is from a prominent Lebanese Druze family and has lived much of his life in San Francisco.)

Looming behind these singular stories is the larger history of dislocation caused by the civil war, when many Lebanese—the ones who could—left. In America, Alameddine’s characters discover that the pleasures of individualism often turn out to be empty, and their host country’s foreign policy, particularly its support for Israel, is a constant irritant. So their emigration is only ever partial; the old world haunts all their attempts at reinvention.

In Alameddine’s new novel,  An Unnecessary Woman, the narrator, Aaliya Saleh, is a septuagenarian literary translator who has stayed in Beirut—“the Elizabeth Taylor of cities,” as she calls it, “insane, beautiful, tacky, falling apart.”

But Aaliya does not feel at home in her native city. For most of the novel, she walks through her neighborhood in West Beirut, remembering how it used to be, before “the virulent cancer we call concrete spread throughout the capital, devouring every living surface.” She recalls past lovers and favorite books, as well as the bitterness of her family life.

In Aaliya’s case, estrangement from her relatives and from the city she lives in has led to an internal emigration. “I slipped into art to escape life,” she tells us. “I sneaked off into literature.”

When not wandering Beirut’s streets, she remains in her apartment, communing with tutelary spirits—every New Year, she lights two candles for Walter Benjamin. In her old age she has become more and more devoted to her art and the pleasures of her own mind, a latter-day version of modernist mandarins from Valéry’s Monsieur Teste to Canetti’s Professor Kien. Aaliya’s name, as she likes to remind us, means “above,” or “the one on high.”

Aaliya is a childless divorcee in a country where social life revolves around the family. But the deeper source of alienation is her “blind lust for the written word.” Her day job is at an independent bookstore with no clientele.

And as a translator, Aaliya is not just a reader, but a reader in extremis. Her tastes run to what we now call “world literature”: W.G. Sebald, José Saramago, Javier Marías, and Danilo Kiš (she works from the French or English versions). This is a lonely passion. “Literature in the Arab world, in and of itself, isn’t sought after,” she informs us. “Literature in translation? Translation of a translation? Why bother.” Aaliya has translated 37 books into Arabic; none have been published. She’s never bothered to try.

Aaliya is not a very convincing translator. With no hope of publishing her work, she claims to be driven only by her esteem for the great writers and the joy she takes in the activity itself. This is already a little sentimental, but her description of her work is simply implausible:

My translating is a Wagner opera. The narrative sets up, the tension builds, the music ebbs and flows, the strings, the horns, more tension, and suddenly a moment of pure pleasure. Gabriel blows his golden trumpet, ambrosial fragrance fills the air sublime, and gods descend from Olympus to dance—most heavenly this peak of ecstasy.

Whatever she’s doing, it isn’t translating. Not because the job is joyless, but because its satisfactions come from the experience of obstacles faced and overcome, or skillfully finessed.

In Aaliya’s account, it is one moment of bliss after another. This is typical of her relation to literature in general. An Unnecessary Woman is a kind of commonplace book, stuffed with citations from Aaliya’s favorite novels and poems. Everything that happens to her provokes a literary reminiscence: an unwelcome neighbor makes her think of Sartre (“Hell is other people”), which makes her think of Vallejo (“the torment of Hell is noise”); feeling lonely makes her think of Camus (“the weight of days is dreadful”); Beiruti garbage collectors are so many Sisyphuses.

We get it: this lady has read a lot of books. But in fact Aaliya is less a devotee of literature than a gourmand. She “salivates” over the “beautiful sentences” of Claudio Magris; Marguerite Yourcenar’s versions of Cavafy are “like champagne.” (Constance Garnett’s translations of Dostoyevsky, on the other hand, are “milky tea.”)

Reading a good book for the first time is “as sumptuous as the first sip of orange juice that breaks the fast in Ramadan.” And it isn’t just literature: “When I first heard Wagner, Messiaen, or Ligeti, the noise was unbearable, but like a child with her first sip of wine, I recognized something that I could love with practice.”

Most of the time, however, Aaliya’s devotion to literature is taken seriously. Her passion for translation is the prime source of the novel’s claim on its readers’ sympathies. The loneliness of this passion—and therefore the strength of our sympathies—is heightened by the idea, which Alameddine insists on, that Aaliya is pursuing her vocation in a cultural desert.

“I understood from the beginning that what I do isn’t publishable. There’s never been a market for it, and I doubt there ever will be.” In the same spirit, when Aaliya steals some titles from the bookstore where she works, she is doing a public service:

Had I not ordered some of these books, they would never have landed on Lebanese soil. For crying out loud, do you think anyone else in Lebanon has a copy of Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood? And I am picking just one book off the top of my head. Lampedusa’s The Leopard? I don’t think anyone else in this country has a book by Novalis.

In passages like this, Aaliya becomes a more problematic narrator than Alameddine seems to intend. She is soliciting our sympathies—the sympathies of non-Lebanese readers, who are clearly the novel’s intended audience—by flattering our prejudices. For in reality, Beirut is no literary desert.

Beirut is the publishing hub of the Middle East and has been for a long time. Bookishness is central to Lebanon’s self-conception, as the response to the recent burning of a bookstore in Tripoli attests. Nor is it hostile to literary translation. To the contrary. In the late Fifties and Sixties, when Aaliya would have been in her mid-twenties, Beirut was home to the best literary magazines in Arabic, which were full of translated fiction and verse.

Perhaps the most influential of these journals was Shi‘r ((She3er, Poetry), a modernist quarterly modeled on Harriet Monroe’s little magazine of the same name. Between 1957 and 1964, Shi‘r published translations of Walt Whitman, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Paul Valéry, Saint-John Perse, Antonin Artaud, Henri Michaux, Yves Bonnefoy, Federico García Lorca, Octavio Paz, Salvatore Quasimodo, Rainer Maria Rilke, and many others. The magazine’s chief critic was Khalida Said, wife of the Syrio-Lebanese poet Adonis.

Other journals during the same period translated leftist intellectuals such as Sartre, Nâzım Hikmet, Paul Éluard, Pablo Neruda, and Louis Aragon. Somebody may even have had a copy of Lampedusa.

Is it conceivable Aaliya would have no knowledge of this history? She tells us she started translating at the age of twenty-two, in 1959, just as the Beiruti rage for translation was in full swing. Most literary magazines were published in Hamra, Aaliya’s own West Beirut neighborhood.

And they were published by her kind of people—cosmopolitan misfits, some of whom, like the poets and critics of Shi‘r, argued for a version of artistic autonomy that mirrors Aaliya’s own. Maybe it is conceivable she would know nothing of all this; maybe Aaliya is simply a recluse whose greatest pleasure happens to come from translating literary fiction. Maybe, but then her rhetorical question about Nightwood sounds less like a cry of anguish than ignorant snobbery. And the thirty-seven moldering manuscripts, whose fate turns out to be central to the plot, seem less like a rare and precious archive than a monumental quirk.

Alameddine’s own relation to the Lebanese literary history is similarly fraught. He belongs, and yet he does not want to. Alameddine’s recurring focus on the experience of emigration, the opportunities of self-creation offered by leaving home, his interest in questions of language and identity, and his mixing of Arab and European forms—all this places him squarely within the Levantine tradition of mahjar literature (mahjar is Arabic for “the place of emigration”).

This is a tradition that begins in the late 19th century and includes contemporary writers such as the novelist Rawi Hage and the playwright Wajdi Mouawad. The best-known and by far the best-selling member of this group is Gibran, though in the United States he tends to be viewed as a New Age parabolist of indeterminate origin rather than as a specifically Arab writer.

Alameddine, of course, wants nothing to do with this inheritance—for him, Gibran is “the most overrated writer in history”—and his way of telling stories stages its own kind of revolt.

Each of Alameddine’s first three novels upsets realist conventions in its own way.

Koolaids flits back and forth between wartime Beirut and San Francisco during the AIDS epidemic in the early 1980s; it is a montage of voices and stories, a form Alameddine credits to Jean Said Makdisi’s memoir, Beirut Fragments (1990), though Elias Khoury’s pioneering novel of the civil war, The Little Mountain (1977), is probably the ultimate source for this technique.

Alameddine’s second novel, I, the Devine (2001), is narrated by a Beiruti Druze woman who struggles to maintain stable relationships after emigrating to the US; it is told in the form of first chapters—the narrator keeps trying and failing and trying again to write her memoir.

In The Hakawati, (2008), Alameddine borrows from the fabulist Arabic oral tradition to construct an interlocking series of tales framed by the story of a Lebanese man who returns from Los Angeles to keep vigil at his father’s deathbed.

One motive for this style of storytelling may be the fractured state of Lebanon, whose social landscape often seems to lack any common ground. “What if I told you that life has no unity?” says a character in Koolaids. “It is a series of nonlinear vignettes leading nowhere.” But it is also a way to resist, without entirely foregoing, the realist commonplaces of class, religion, and locality. Alameddine doesn’t want his characters to be defined by their sectarian identities any more than they do. It is this tussle between the claims of home and the attractions of flight that run through his fiction.

This is nicely suggested in a vignette from Koolaids. One of the book’s protagonists is a Lebanese abstract painter living in San Francisco (Alameddine was a successful painter before he turned to writing). A countryman is shown one of the canvases, which consists of irregular yellow rectangles, and becomes puzzled when a salesmen calls it abstract art. “But they are the sides of our houses,” the Lebanese man says. “That’s how the stones look back home. Exactly that yellow color.” The painter wants to escape into the purity of form but his content remains stubbornly local. Likewise, in I, the Divine the expatriate narrator speaks for many characters when she complains to a friend,

Here I am, the black sheep of the family, yet I’m still part of it. I tried separating from the family all my life, only to find out it’s not possible, not in my family. So I become the black sheep without any of the advantages of being one.

You can never go home, but you can’t entirely leave it, either.

An Unnecessary Woman marks a departure from the style and themes of this earlier work.

The story is told from a single point of view and, aside from a few flashbacks, it proceeds in straightforward fashion. And yet Aaliya is no more at ease in in Beirut than the characters who actually leave. This may reflect a common feeling among Beirutis that the city rebuilt after the civil war is a bewilderingly different place from the pre-war version. But it also comes from Aaliya’s sense that Lebanon is a deeply parochial country, which she can only escape by reading Sebald and Saramago. “Literature is my sandbox,” Aaliya explains early in the novel. “In it I play, build my forts and castles, spend glorious time. It is the world outside that box that gives me trouble.”

The most convincing passages in Alameddine’s novels, however, are not his paeans to literature but those moments when he represents his characters at their worst.

Koolaids includes a playlet featuring two upper-class Lebanese women meeting in a café in Paris to gossip about their friends: “The Ballan girl is incredibly ugly. I can’t imagine what [her husband] saw in her.” “As ugly as the Bandoura girl?” “No, my dear, that one is really ugly. This one is close, though.” “That one was so ugly. I couldn’t believe she found a husband.” “Money, dear, money. Daddy has money.” This goes on for ten pages; the whole thing is wicked and pitch-perfect.

Another memorable episode occurs forty pages into An Unnecessary Woman. Aaliya tells the story of Ahmad, a bookish young Palestinian who once helped her at the store and sought her reading recommendations. As soon as the war starts, he joins a militia and quickly rises through the ranks. Rumors suggest he has become an expert torturer. Now Aaliya wants him to get her a gun. Her apartment was burgled—the city is slipping into anarchy—and she needs it for self-defense. She meets Ahmad at his well-appointed apartment and finds a very different man from the one who helped her stock the shelves:

“Slacks pressed and tailored, the white shirt fitted and expensive, the face smiling and clean-shaven.” Aaliya, on the other hand, hasn’t showered in many days—running water has become a luxury—and wears a pink tracksuit with sequined swirls. Ahmad says he will give her a gun (and a hot shower) in return for sex. She agrees.

During intercourse, on her hands and knees, Aaliya feels Ahmad’s fingers squeezing spots on her lower back and suddenly realizes that he is removing her blackheads. He apologizes, “It had been unconscious. He couldn’t see a blackhead on his own skin without removing it and didn’t realize he was doing the same with me. I asked him not to stop.” Here is moral capitulation, erotic pleasure, vanity, and surprising tenderness—fiction that matches the complexity of history. All the rest is literature.

Rabih Alameddine’s An Unnecessary Woman is published by Grove Press.

Are TED talks lying to you?  And why did I hear all these predictable stories before?

The writer had a problem. Books he read and people he knew had been warning him that the nation and maybe mankind itself had wandered into a sort of creativity doldrums.

Economic growth was slackening. The Internet revolution was less awesome than we had anticipated, and the forward march of innovation, once a cultural constant, had slowed to a crawl.

Thomas Frank posted on Salon this OCT 13, 2013:

TED talks are lying to you

One of the few fields in which we generated lots of novelties — financial engineering — had come back to bite us.

And in other departments, we actually seemed to be going backward. You could no longer take a supersonic airliner across the Atlantic, for example, and sending astronauts to the moon had become either fiscally insupportable or just passé.

TED talks are lying to youEnlarge

Jessica Pare and Jon Hamm in “Mad Men” (Credit: AMC/Michael Yarish/amc)

And yet the troubled writer also knew that there had been, over these same years, fantastic growth in our creativity promoting sector. There were TED talks on how to be a creative person.

There were “Innovation Jams” at which IBM employees brainstormed collectively over a global hookup, and “Thinking Out of the Box” desktop sculptures for sale at Sam’s Club.

There were creativity consultants you could hire, and cities that had spent billions reworking neighborhoods into arts-friendly districts where rule-bending whimsicality was a thing to be celebrated. If you listened to certain people, creativity was the story of our time, from the halls of MIT to the incubators of Silicon Valley.

The literature on the subject was vast. Authors included management gurus, forever exhorting us to slay the conventional; urban theorists, with their celebrations of zesty togetherness; pop psychologists, giving the world step-by-step instructions on how to unleash the inner Miles Davis.

Most prominent, perhaps, were the science writers, with their endless tales of creative success and their dissection of the brains that made it all possible.

It was to one of these last that our puzzled correspondent now decided to turn.

He procured a copy of “Imagine: How Creativity Works,” the 2012 bestseller by the ex-wunderkind Jonah Lehrer, whose résumé includes a Rhodes scholarship, a tour of duty at The New Yorker and two previous books about neuroscience and decision-making. (There was also a scandal concerning some made-up quotes in “Imagine,” but our correspondent was determined to tiptoe around that.)

Settling into a hot bath — well known for its power to trigger outside-the-box thoughts — he opened his mind to the young master

Anecdote after heroic anecdote unfolded, many of them beginning with some variation on Lehrer’s very first phrase: “Procter and Gamble had a problem.” What followed, as creative minds did their nonlinear thing, were epiphanies and solutions.

Our correspondent read about the invention of the Swiffer. He learned how Bob Dylan achieved his great breakthrough and wrote that one song of his that they still play on the radio from time to time. He found out that there was a company called 3M that invented masking tape, the Post-it note and other useful items. He read about the cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and about the glories of Pixar.

And that’s when it hit the correspondent: He had heard these things before.

Each story seemed to develop in an entirely predictable fashion. He suspected that in the Dylan section, Lehrer would talk about “Like a Rolling Stone,” and that’s exactly what happened. When it came to the 3M section, he waited for Lehrer to dwell on the invention of the Post-it note — and there it was.

Had our correspondent developed the gift of foresight? No.

He really had heard these stories before. Spend a few moments on Google and you will find that the tale of how Procter & Gamble developed the Swiffer is a staple of marketing literature. Bob Dylan is endlessly cited in discussions of innovation, and you can read about the struggles surrounding the release of “Like a Rolling Stone” in textbooks like “The Fundamentals of Marketing” (2007).

As for 3M, the decades-long standing ovation for the company’s creativity can be traced all the way back to “In Search of Excellence” (1982), one of the most influential business books of all time. In fact, 3M’s accidental invention of the Post-it note is such a business-school chestnut that the ignorance of those who don’t know the tale is a joke in the 1997 movie “Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion.”

These realizations took only a millisecond.

What our correspondent also understood, sitting there in his basement bathtub, was that the literature of creativity was a genre of surpassing banality. Every book he read seemed to boast the same shopworn anecdotes and the same canonical heroes.

If the authors are presenting themselves as experts on innovation, they will tell us about Einstein, Gandhi, Picasso, Dylan, Warhol, the Beatles.

If they are celebrating their own innovations, they will compare them to the oft-rejected masterpieces of Impressionism — that ultimate combination of rebellion and placid pastel bullshit that decorates the walls of hotel lobbies from Pittsburgh to Pyongyang.

Those who urge us to “think different,” in other words, almost never do so themselves.

Year after year, new installments in this unchanging genre are produced and consumed. Creativity, they all tell us, is too important to be left to the creative. Our prosperity depends on it. And by dint of careful study and the hardest science — by, say, sliding a jazz pianist’s head into an MRI machine — we can crack the code of creativity and unleash its moneymaking power.

That was the ultimate lesson. That’s where the music, the theology, the physics and the ethereal water lilies were meant to direct us.

Our correspondent could think of no books that tried to work the equation the other way around — holding up the invention of air conditioning or Velcro as a model for a jazz trumpeter trying to work out his solo.

And why was this worth noticing?

Well, for one thing, because we’re talking about the literature of creativity, for Pete’s sake. If there is a non-fiction genre from which you have a right to expect clever prose and uncanny insight, it should be this one. So why is it so utterly consumed by formula and repetition?

What our correspondent realized, in that flash of bathtub-generated insight, was that this literature isn’t about creativity in the first place. While it reiterates a handful of well-known tales — the favorite pop stars, the favorite artists, the favorite branding successes — it routinely ignores other creative milestones that loom large in the history of human civilization.

After all, some of the most consistent innovators of the modern era have also been among its biggest monsters. He thought back, in particular, to the diabolical creativity of Nazi Germany, which was the first country to use ballistic missiles, jet fighter planes, assault rifles and countless other weapons.

And yet nobody wanted to add Peenemünde, where the Germans developed the V-2 rocket during the 1940s, to the glorious list of creative hothouses that includes Periclean Athens, Renaissance Florence, Belle Époque Paris and latter-day Austin, Texas.

How much easier to tell us, one more time, how jazz bands work, how someone came up with the idea for the Slinky, or what shade of paint, when applied to the walls of your office, is most conducive to originality.

But as any creativity expert can tell you “no insight is an island entire of itself“.

New epiphanies build on previous epiphanies, and to understand the vision that washed over our writer in the present day, we must revisit an earlier flash of insight, one that takes us back about a decade, to the year 2002. This time our future correspondent was relaxing in a different bathtub, on Chicago’s South Side, where the trains passed by in an all-day din of clanks and squeaks. While he soaked, he was reading the latest book about creativity: Richard Florida’s “The Rise of the Creative Class.”

Creativity was now the most valuable quality of all, ran Florida’s argument, “the decisive source of competitive advantage.” This made creative people into society’s “dominant class” — and companies that wished to harness their power would need to follow them wherever they went.

Therefore cities and states were obliged to reconfigure themselves as havens for people of nonconformist tastes, who would then generate civic coolness via art zones, music scenes, and truckloads of authenticity. The author even invented a “Bohemian Index,” which, he claimed, revealed a strong correlation between the presence of artists and economic growth.

Every element of Florida’s argument infuriated our future correspondent. Was he suggesting planned bohemias? Built by governments? To attract businesses?

It all seemed like a comic exercise in human gullibility. As it happened, our correspondent in those days spent nearly all his time with the kinds of people who fit Richard Florida’s definition of the creative class: writers, musicians, and intellectuals. And Florida seemed to be suggesting that such people were valuable mainly for their contribution to a countercultural pantomime that lured or inspired business executives.

What was really sick-making, though, was Florida’s easy assumption that creativity was a thing our society valued. Our correspondent had been hearing this all his life, since his childhood in the creativity-worshipping 1970s. He had even believed it once, in the way other generations had believed in the beneficence of government or the blessings of Providence.

And yet Richard’s creative friends, when considered as a group, were obviously on their way down, not up. The institutions that made their lives possible — chiefly newspapers, magazines, universities and record labels — were then entering a period of disastrous decline. The creative world as he knew it was not flowering, but dying.

When he considered his creative friends as individuals, the literature of creativity began to seem even worse — more like a straight-up insult. Our writer-to-be was old enough to know that, for all its reverential talk about the rebel and the box breaker, society had no interest in new ideas at all unless they reinforced favorite theories or could be monetized in some obvious way.

The method of every triumphant intellectual movement had been to quash dissent and cordon off truly inventive voices. This was simply how debate was conducted. Authors rejoiced at the discrediting of their rivals (as poor Jonah Lehrer would find in 2012).

Academic professions excluded those who didn’t toe the party line. Leftist cliques excommunicated one another. Liberals ignored any suggestion that didn’t encourage or vindicate their move to the center. Conservatives seemed to be at war with the very idea of human intelligence. And business thinkers were the worst of all, with their perennial conviction that criticism of any kind would lead straight to slumps and stock market crashes.

Or so our literal-minded correspondent thought back in 2002.

Later on, after much trial and error, he would understand that there really had been something deeply insightful about Richard Florida’s book. This was the idea that creativity was the attribute of a class — which class Florida identified not only with intellectuals and artists but also with a broad swath of the professional-managerial stratum.

It would take years for our stumbling innovator to realize this. And then, he finally got it all at once. The reason these many optimistic books seemed to have so little to do with the downward-spiraling lives of actual creative workers is that they weren’t really about those people in the first place.

No. The literature of creativity was something completely different. Everything he had noticed so far was a clue: the banality, the familiar examples, the failure to appreciate what was actually happening to creative people in the present time.

This was not science, despite the technological gloss applied by writers like Jonah Lehrer. It was a literature of superstition, in which everything always worked out and the good guys always triumphed and the right inventions always came along in the nick of time.

In Steven Johnson’s “Where Good Ideas Come From” (2010), the creative epiphany itself becomes a kind of heroic character, helping out clueless humanity wherever necessary:

Good ideas may not want to be free, but they do want to connect, fuse, recombine. They want to reinvent themselves by crossing conceptual borders. They want to complete each other as much as they want to compete.

And what was the true object of this superstitious stuff?

A final clue came from “Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention” (1996), in which Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi acknowledges that, far from being an act of individual inspiration, what we call creativity is simply an expression of professional consensus. Using Vincent van Gogh as an example, the author declares that the artist’s “creativity came into being when a sufficient number of art experts felt that his paintings had something important to contribute to the domain of art.”

Innovation exists only when the correctly credentialed hive-mind agrees that it does. And “without such a response,” the author continues, “van Gogh would have remained what he was, a disturbed man who painted strange canvases.” What determines “creativity is the very faction it’s supposedly rebelling against: established expertise”.

Consider the narrative daisy chain that makes up the literature of creativity. It is the story of brilliant people, often in the arts or humanities, who are studied by other brilliant people, often in the sciences, finance, or marketing. The readership is made up of us — members of the professional-managerial class — each of whom harbors a powerful suspicion that he or she is pretty brilliant as well.

What your correspondent realized, relaxing there in his tub one day, was that the real subject of this literature was the professional-managerial audience itself, whose members hear clear, sweet reason when they listen to NPR and think they’re in the presence of something profound when they watch some billionaire give a TED talk.

And what this complacent literature purrs into their ears is that creativity is their property, their competitive advantage, their class virtue.

Creativity is what they bring to the national economic effort, these books reassure them — and it’s also the benevolent doctrine under which they rightly rule the world.

An edited version of this essay originally appeared in Harper’s magazine

Thomas Frank’s most recent book is “Pity the Billionaire.” He is also the author of “One Market Under God” and the founding editor of “The Baffler” magazine.

Do Tag names of fiction characters: They are far more interesting characters than biographical names…

Tell me: Do you think children and adolescent people know any one of current personalities, or historical figures, except may be a few in the music or sport fields?

Who is more famous to children: Alice in the wonderland characters, Scrooge, Charles Dickens characters… or Madona…or any current personality over 50 of age?

Tell me: What characters and names do you think that children and adolescent people search on google or Wikipedia?

Who is more famous: Lolita, Madame Bovary, Gatsby... or current names that are over 50 of age?

I have discovered, after reading biographies and autobiographies that fiction characters in great novels are far more interesting than the way characters are described in biographies.

I decided that:

I should  go over my category of “Book Review” and tag the names of the fiction characters, particularly names that I might have developed to some extent.

It is clear to me that describing the plot of a novel is of no importance: It is up to the reader to discover the main story and the many more interesting side stories.

In any case, all stories are virtually repeat stories of what we read everyday in dailies and magazines.

It is clear to me that developed characters in novels can be found in thousands of people around us, if we had cared to observe and listen to.

It is clear to me that characters in novels are accompanied with detailed description of the surrounding environment, the ethical and moral standards expected in a community, sufficient background knowledge to make sense to the novel…

Reviewing a book or a novel means to develop in details a few characters that “shocked” the reader as highly controversial, and how the complex attributes and behaviors of a character relate to current idiosyncracies in particular communities.

Fiction characters are, one way or another, characters from the author’s environment, how he comprehended them and observed them, and the characters evolve and extend deeper meaning of our own behaviors…

We feel that we can generalize to the community from the few characters who lived and breathed within specific periods and societies.

There are billion of people who have read translated novels and can associate with these fictional characters, and they have no idea who are the historical or current figures around the world.

It is the novels that give sense to the meaning that “the world can be reduced to a small village, anywhere on earth...”

You read any fiction novel of the great authors and your horizon will widen, your heart will pound faster, your dreams are made real…

Take better care in reviewing novels, and take time to develop on the characters that meant something to you, and never forget to tag their names!

“Reading Lolita in Tehran” by Azar Nafisi

Azar Nafisi resigned from her last academic post at the Tabatabai University in Tehran.  The administration refused for two years to accept the resignation. It is not polite to resign: It is the system that takes the initiative to fire people…

It is the fall of 1995. Azar decided to invite 8 of her best female students to visit her at her home every Thursday morning to discuss literature.  (Thursday and Friday are week-end in Moslem countries).

The theme of the meetings is “Relation between fiction and reality“. Nafisi repeated her warning:

“Do not, at any circumstances, belittle a work of fiction. Refrain from trying to turn a fiction story into a carbon copy of real life….We search in fiction the epiphany of truth…”

One male student insisted on his rights to be included, and he was allowed to read the assigned books and talk on special days.

The girls would shed their veils, scarves, loose black robes…as they entered this sanctuary of mind “open space”: Splashes of color separated the girls, their styles, clothes, length of hair, smiles, laughters…Even the two girls who insisted on keeping their head scarves didn’t look the same.

The girls gained individual outline, shape, inimitable self.

The window faced the Elburz Mountain Chains, covered with snow even in summer.

This reading sanctuary mocked the reality of the black scarves, timid faces in this sprawled city, confiscated and driven underground…

To Azar, the work of fiction that would most resonate with lives in this Islamic Republic of Iran are:

1. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

2. 1984 (George orwell)

3. Invitation to a beheading (Vladimir Nabokov)

4. Lolita (Vladimir Nabokov)…

For two years, rain or shine, the students arrived to discuss their reading assignments. Only one student defaulted early on.

This circle of girls read Persian classical literature, A thousand and One Night, Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austin), Madam Bovary (Flaubert), Daisy Miller, The Dean’s December, and Lolita

You have got to use your imagination, picturing girls defying the tyranny of time, politics, ideologies, constraints, the absurd and arbitrary decisions…Girls who didn’t dare imagine themselves other than how they were defined in the family and community…

Girls who transcended to other “open spaces“, of most private and secret moments, most extraordinary instances of life, listening to music, falling in love, walking down shady streets, reading Lolita in Tehran…

Girls giving a different color to Tehran, redefining Nabokov’s novel, and extending variations on Lolita…




June 2021

Blog Stats

  • 1,472,973 hits

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by

Join 806 other followers

%d bloggers like this: