Thursday, October 30, 2008

A Problem of Inspiration

This passage in Talal Amin’s essay “What Might an Anthropology of Secularism Look Like?” triggered a visceral emotional response in me:

Johann Sulzer, a theorist of the fine arts, wrote in more general terms: “All artists of any genius claim that from time to time they experience a state of extraordinary psychic intensity which makes work unusually easy, images arising without great effort and the best ideas flowing in such profusion as if they were the gift of some higher power. This is without doubt what is called inspiration. If an artist experiences this condition, his object appears to him in an unusual light; his genius, as if guided by a divine power, invents without effort, shaping his invention in the most suitable form without strain; the finest ideas and images occur unbidden in floods to the inspired poet; the orator judges with the greatest acumen, feels with the greatest intensity, and the strongest and most vividly expressive words rise to his tongue.” Such statements, Flaherty argues, are strongly reminiscent of accounts of shamanism—in this case of a shaman described not skeptically but in wonderment. They employ the idea of inspiration metaphorically—as control of an “instrument” from outside the person, or as a “gift” from a “higher power.” But these remain metaphors, covering an inability to explain a this-worldly phenomenon in natural terms.

My problem after multiple sclerosis is that I cannot have this experience as a writer. The experience of exaltation when one is flooded by imagination and converts that imagination into a structured, final product was my primary motivation to work. Charisma is the experience of exercising transformative, creative power. You have to see transformation and creativity in real time for it to be charisma.

The difficulty is not that I cannot be flooded with imagination anymore. That will still happen all the time if I don’t work to control it. The problem is that my organizational skills have been so badly compromised by the brain damage that I can’t keep up with an intense flow of imagination. I can’t organize the flood of images quickly enough to experience imagination as a high, because the high is the product not only of pseudo-religious awe at the flow of images flooding one’s consciousness, but also of mental power in processing it all. Instead, the result is distress. I’m still flooded with sight, but I can’t shape it effectively. Trying to do it in real time, I write disasters like the damned Lebanon paper.

The obvious solution is to let in less at a time and developing means of putting the pieces together slowly. The problem isn’t that the processor is bad (low intelligence) or the hard drive is bad (compromised long term memory problems, like Alzheimers), but that I’m running on too little memory (short-term recall problems) and simply can’t keep and manage all the images flooding into my conscious mind all at once.

The problem is that working on turning imagination into theory bit by bit just isn’t a high. Remember, I have to see the creative transformation in real time, i.e. “right before my eyes,” to experience that exalted high. If creative transformation happens incrementally, there’s no euphoria at all.

Is it any wonder I’m not getting anywhere?



Financial incentives

Regular if scanty pay at regular intervals when I teach.

The vague possibility of gainful employment without regular pay interruptions that seems to recede into an impossible to attain future.

Time constraints

Structured allotments (the course meets at regular times) with immediate selective incentives that force efficient use of off-schedule time (if I walk in unprepared I die of embarrassment). Top prioritization because I must teach to receive an income.

Chronic fatigue greatly reduces my “off schedule” time outside teaching and real life (funerals, doctor’s appointments, family crises, etc.) eats away at this time. Writing is consistently interrupted.

Pleasure in the work

Immediate high of watching the students experience new ideas they’ve never experienced before.

Slow boring of hard boards. Perspective erodes passion. Lack of self-confidence, as I can’t see the results happen in “real time.”

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