Monday, July 20, 2015

Can We Be Creative and Not Change Things?

This is the reflection I offered at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist in Charlottesville, Virginia on July 19, 2015.

The first time Igor Stravinsky played the beginning of the Rite of Spring, with its dissonant chords and pulsating rhythm, to Serge Diaghilev, the founder of the Ballets Russes, Diaghilev asked him, "Will it last a very long time this way?" To which Stravinsky replied, "To the end, my dear."  (Seemingly not a very good beginning to a collaboration.)  When the work premiered in Paris on May 29, 1913, it sparked a riot.  The conductor of the premiere, Pierre Monteux, was told by one of his double-bass players that “many a gentleman’s shiny top hat or soft fedora was ignominiously pulled down by an opponent over his eyes and ears, and canes were brandished like menacing implements of combat all over the theatre.”

No one is sure whether it was the music (about which one critic wrote that it, “always goes to the note next to the one you expect.”) or whether it was the dance (which was described as “ugly earthbound lurching and stomping.”).  What is clear, is that chaos and mayhem ensued.  A member of the orchestra remembered, “Everything available was tossed in our direction, but we continued to play on."  Today, the Rite of Spring is one of the most recorded works in the classical repertoire.

Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Symphony was described as “[threading] all the foul ditches and sewers of human despair; it is unclean as music well can be.”  Of Richard Wagner it was asked, “Is Wagner a human being at all? Is he not rather a disease? He contaminates everything he touches - he has made music sick.”  I've heard that when Beethoven was asked what he thought about Rossini he said, "I like some of Rossini's operas.  Perhaps one day I'll set them to music."

Claude Monet’s painting style was called, “formless, unfinished, and ugly.”  Van Gogh created more than 900 works of art, yet was only able to sell one in his lifetime.  (In 1990 one of his paintings sold at auction for $82.5 million after only three minutes.)   The expressionist painter El Greco was called "mad "in his day, and his artistic style was said to be a sign of his insanity.

In literature:  Louisa May Alcott was told to give up writing and “stick to teaching.”  Rudyard Kippling was told that he didn’t know how to use the English language.  Marcel Proust had to pay for the publishing of Remembrance of Things Past, as did Beatrix Potter with The Tale of Peter Rabbit.  When he tried to publish The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, John le Carré was told that he didn’t have a future as a writer.   Madelein L’Engle’s A Wrinke in Time was rejected 26 times before it was published.  Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was rejected 121 times.  And Gertrude Stein submitted poems for publication for 22 years before having one published
Do you see a pattern emerging here?  Last week I mentioned that we may resist our own creativity because of fear – fear of failure, fear of not being good enough, whatever.  This week I want to lift  up the question of why society at large seems to have such an ambivalent relationship with creativity.  On the one hand, the United States and, maybe, the Western world in general, has always praised The Artist, the Creative Genius.  On the other, the examples I just gave – and the hundreds more I could – seem to pretty clearly demonstrate that if your artistic genius is too creative … well … let’s just say that The Creator can be dismissed as The Kook.

But why is this?  Maybe because real creativity challenges the status quo.  In fact, that might be a good definition of creativity – the replacement of the old and familiar with the new and unknown.  British historian and philosopher Arnold Toynbee once wrote:
“Creation is a disturbing force in society because it is a constructive one. It upsets the old order in the acts of building a new one. This activity is salutary for society. It is, indeed, essential for the maintenance of society's health; for the one thing that is certain about human affairs is that they are perpetually on the move, and the work of creative spirits is what gives society a chance of directing its inevitable movement along constructive instead of destructive lines.” 
Sounds good, but let’s return to that first phrase: “Creation is a disturbing force in society.”  The Spanish poet Frederico García Lorca went further when he wrote, “The artist, and particularly the poet, is always an anarchist in the best sense of the word. He must heed only the call that arises within him …”  The artist is an anarchist, and creation is a disturbing force that upsets the old order.

There is a cartoon making the rounds on FaceBook (mostly, it seems, among colleagues).  It has a church search committee saying something like, “So we’re agreed.  We’re looking for a visionary leader who will help us to stay exactly the same.”  Creativity sounds good, unless it’s our “old order” that’s being upset.  And while so many of those artists – painters, composers, writers – who were rejected in their day are revered today, I can’t help but somewhat cynically note that they are revered today only after they are dead and their work can no longer quite so thoroughly challenge and disturb.

We usually think of creativity in what I'd call its most simple form – the arts – but I want us to look for creativity in a place we might not normally think to look:  religion.  I have always said that religious community serves two purposes.  On the one hand it is conservative in its most fundamental sense – religion exists to conserve, to preserve, the religious community.  On the other hand, the reason the religious community is worth preserving is because its mission is a subversive one.  Religions exist to perpetuate themselves so that religions can help us realize that there is more to life than simply surviving and following the dictates of the prevailing culture.

In every religious tradition I know anything about there is the same teaching.  Different words are used, but the same truth is lifted up.  “Most of us live lives of quiet desperation,” one of our Transcendentalist ancestors said.  Yet he also affirmed that there is a way of living “deep [and sucking] all the marrow out of life.”  Buddhism teaches that we live in the state of samsara, delusion, yet also that it is possible to wake up.  (The word “buddha,” in fact, simply means, “the Awakened One,” and we’re told that “all things have Buddha-nature.”  Even you and me.)  Christianity says that we are dead in sin, yet can become alive again.  Lots of metaphors are used but the point remains the same – the way life is led by most of us most of the time really is not the way life is supposed to be led.  Putting it in the practical, the mundane – our acquisitive, capitalist, consumer society; the patriarchal and racist systems in which we live; the hyper-hectic lifestyle that is expected of us is not the way to live.  The purpose of religion is to remind us of that, and to help us find a different path.

The contemporary author Elizabeth Ann Bucchianeri has said that, “It’s an artist’s right to rebel against the world’s stupidity.” I’d add that it’s not only a right, but a responsibility, and it’s a right and responsibility that’s shared by religiously creative and creatively religious folk.  Just as the spirit of creativity is anarchistic, so too is the spirit of real religion.  And it is no less dangerous, and no less threatening.

Prophets, mystics, saints … they always challenged the status quo, always lived their lives so as to be an indictment of the way things are.  Prophets, mystics, saints may today have been co-opted to the service of maintaining things the way they are, but in their day?  It really shouldn’t be a surprise that so many of today’s revered saints were so often branded heretics while they were alive.  The religious person is an anarchist, and religion is a disturbing force that upsets the old order.

Universalist preacher and teacher Clinton Lee Scott once wrote, “Always it is easier to pay homage to prophets than to heed the directions of their vision.”  It seems to be human nature to look back at creative genius and see its power, yet only from that distance to give it respect and admiration.  “Always it is easier to pay homage to prophets than to heed the directions of their vision.”

Perhaps even more directly, in the words of Henry David Thoreau we heard earlier, "The fathers and the mothers of the town would rather hear the young man or young woman at their tables express reverence for some old statement of the truth than utter a direct revelation themselves. They don’t want to have any prophets born into their families – damn them!”

I think it was just this that was in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s mind when he spoke to the graduating class of Harvard College in 1838.  Retaining his gendered word choices, this is what he said to those promising new preachers:
Let me admonish you, first of all, to go alone; to refuse the good models, even those which are sacred in the imagination of men, and dare to love God without mediator or veil. Friends enough you shall find who will hold up to your emulation Wesleys and Oberlins, Saints and Prophets. Thank God for these good men, but say, `I also am a man.' Imitation cannot go above its model. The imitator dooms himself to hopeless mediocrity. The inventor did it, because it was natural to him, and so in him it has a charm. In the imitator, something else is natural, and he bereaves himself of his own beauty, to come short of another man's.”
This is not new advice.  William Shakespeare – who in his day was considered just one of a number of promising playwrights –  put this advice into the mouth of the character Polonius when bidding farewell to his son Laertes: “This above all: to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any [one].”  Buddha, on his deathbed, advised his friends to be their own lamps. 

The Japanese have a saying – it’s in your Order of Service: the nail that sticks up is hammered down.  We know that this is true here, as well.  There is a danger to following the beat of our own drums.  Throughout history those who dared to step off the well-trod path are told in innumerable ways that they are making a mistake, and society has myriad methods to encourage them to return to the norm (and to punish them if they don’t).  We know that this is so.

So how do we – we who so often find it so difficult to claim our creativity in its most simple form, one of the arts – how do we discover within ourselves the power to be creative in and with our lives?  That may be the key – we discover it.  We discover it over and over again rather than simply settling for having “found it.”

The great jazz bass player and composer Charles Mingus remembered, “As a youth I read a book by Debussy and he said that as soon as he finished a composition he had to forget it because it got in the way of his doing anything else new and different. And I believed him.”  The sculptor and painter Marcel Duchamp said, “I force myself to contradict myself in order to avoid conforming to my own taste.” The Afro-Caribbean psychiatrist, philosopher, revolutionary, and writer Frantz Omar Fanon said of himself, “In the world through which I travel, I am endlessly creating myself.”  And it has been said of Yeshua ben Miriam (who we know best as Jesus) that, “he was always discovering his identity; he was never possessed of one.”  Or, I think we could say, he was never possessed by one.  He was always free to discover himself anew.

So ask yourself:  Who are you?  Or, perhaps more accurately and importantly, who do you think you are?  You don’t need to do it right now.  You can wait ‘till you get home.  But ask yourself, and then ask: who do you think you’re not?  Who do you think you can’t be?

The spiritual teacher Marianne Williamson wrote a thing that has been so widely disseminated that it’s often attributed to other people.  (My favorite is that Nelson Mandela said it in his 1994 Inaugural Address!)  You probably have heard it at some point.  I think it’s good to hear more than once.  She uses theistic language, which reflects her beliefs, yet it’s not really necessary to hear her meaning.  Don’t let that trip you up.

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, 'Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?' Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
The person who is truly alive – truly, richly, fully alive – is an anarchist, and her or his life is a disturbing force that upsets the old order.  Upsets the old order in the act of building a new one. May it be true for you.  May it be true for me.  May it be true for us all.

Pax tecum,


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