Ktismatics

3 April 2007

A Rabid Mania for Originality

Filed under: Ktismata, Reflections — ktismatics @ 8:43 pm

If the philosophers were in a position to declare the truth, which of them would care to do so? Every one of them knows that his own system rests on no surer foundations than the rest, but he maintains it because it is his own. There is not one of them who, if he chanced to discover the difference between truth and falsehood, would not prefer his own lie to the truth which another had discovered. Where is the philosopher who would not deceive the whole world for his own glory? If he can rise above the crowd, if he can excel his rivals, what more does he want? Among believers he is an atheist; among atheists he would be a believer.

– Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile, 1762

Creators recognize this desire in themselves not just to be unique but to be recognized as unique. But creators are also aware that their vanity makes them vulnerable. When we were selling our house in Boulder I decided to write some unconventional “sales brochures” (here’s one that I previously posted, in case you missed the chance to admire it the first time around). I did it as a distraction from my anxieties about getting the house sold, from feeling like I could make someone buy the house if I worked hard enough at selling. It was a kind of ironic sales gesture. But I also really liked the brochures: clever, well-written, unique. One day I saw a guy who used to work for me driving through the neighborhood. “Check out my house brochure,” I told him, grabbing one out of the box in the front yard and handing it to him. He surveyed it briefly, then with a smirk he handed it back. “This is so Boulder,” he said. Asshole.

We are more grateful to him who congratulates us on the skill with which we defend a cause than we are to him who recognizes the truth or the goodness of the cause itself. A rabid mania for originality is rife in the modern intellectual world and characterizes all individual effort. We would rather err with genius than hit the mark with the crowd.

– Miguel de Unamuno, Tragic Sense of Life, 1954

I was having beers with an old friend. Rarely is it a good idea to tell your old friends about your creative endeavors. What the heck, I thought. So I told him about a book I had just finished, and I was worried about getting it published. He asked me about self-publishing; I said I thought it would be hard to get the books on the shelves so people could buy them. I told him how good I thought the book was, how important it could be. “I think everybody in the world would benefit from reading my book,” I confessed in all sincerity. He smirked. “Geez, that’s really arrogant.” Asshole.

If the man who tells you that he writes, paints, sculptures, or sings for his own amusement, gives his work to the public, he lies; he lies if he puts his name to his writing, painting, statue, or song. He wishes, at the least, to leave behind a shadow of his spirit, something that may survive him. If the “Imitation of Christ” is anonymous, it is because its author sought the eternity of the soul and did not trouble himself about that of the name. (Unamuno)

Nothing is better than “Lars the Emo Kid.” So I’ve just been told by my daughter, who’s watching some YouTube video while I’m writing this post. She wants me to watch it with her. No. Why? Because I’m doing this. But this is funny. But this is better. When? Ever? Sure, after I finish my post. Now. No.

To work for the work’s sake is not work but play. (Unamuno)

If I have to worry about whether I’m doing it to stoke my own ego or for the benefit of mankind or for the glory of God or purely for the sake of the doing, I’m being trapped in a self-consciousness that keeps me from the thing itself. Is it my fault if what I make really is excellent and unique? Is it such a terrible aspiration? Is it indulging the creator’s vanity to tell him yes, this is an excellent and a unique thing that you have made? Would you rather live in a world without excellent and unique creations?

And they keep on wearying our ears with this chorus of Pride! stinking Pride! Pride to wish to leave an ineffaceable name? Pride? It is like calling the thirst for riches a thirst for pleasure. No, it is not so much the longing for pleasure that drives us poor folk to seek money as the terror of poverty, just as it was not the desire for glory but the terror of hell that drove men in the Middle Ages to consider the cloister with its acedia. Neither is this wish to leave a name pride, but terror of extinction. We aim at being all because in that we see the only means of escaping from being nothing. (Unamuno)

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8 Comments »

  1. If the philosophers were in a position to declare the truth, which of them would care to do so? Every one of them knows that his own system rests on no surer foundations than the rest, but he maintains it because it is his own.

    Actually, I have secret gnosis….so, mine really is better than the rest….

    Like

    Comment by Jonathan Erdman — 3 April 2007 @ 9:45 pm

  2. By the way, your daughter is very lucky to have you!

    Like

    Comment by Jonathan Erdman — 3 April 2007 @ 9:48 pm

  3. Is it my fault if what I make really is excellent and unique? Is it such a terrible aspiration? Is it indulging the creator’s vanity to tell him yes, this is an excellent and a unique thing that you have made? Would you rather live in a world without excellent and unique creations?

    Nice. And very interesting. I’m not quite sure how I feel about it, though. I posted today on whether we can ever have pure motivations. And is it really so bad to embrace the fact that our motives are always some kind of combination of pure and impure? Or am I merely giving up on the struggle and giving myself a license to be selfish?

    Like

    Comment by Jonathan Erdman — 3 April 2007 @ 9:50 pm

  4. I’ve got a better secret gnosis — it’s telling me that you’re gnosis ain’t crap.

    If you can put something into the world that wouldn’t have been there otherwise, I’ll give you the credit. For me to question your motives is to reveal my envy. For me to disdain your creation is to reveal my disdain for myself. Accomplishment brings pride, is almost surely motivated at least in part by pride. Maybe the price we have to pay for creating is the sacrifice of our pure motives. If I have to wait for pure motives I’ll never get started.

    Like

    Comment by ktismatics — 3 April 2007 @ 10:09 pm

  5. Maybe we could do some translating. “My saints, there are no saints.” Of course, however, this language of sainthood hinges on the Cross.

    Like

    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 3 April 2007 @ 11:22 pm

  6. Jonathan –

    I think it’s a good project to try and figure out what something like self-interest means from inside a Christian interpretive framework. “Not myself but God in me” is a distinctively Christian ethos, and because the idea is so important it often dominates the possibility of doing something that might draw attention to yourself as accomplished, creative, etc. Can you stand out, or create something that stands out, without having to apologize?

    Unamuno, a Spaniard, says this: What is specific in the Catholic religion is immortalization and not justification, in the Protestant sense. Rather is the latter ethical… The preoccupation of sin has never been such a matter of anguish, or at any rate has never displayed itself with such an appearance of anguish, among Catholics. The sacrament of Confession contributes to this. And there persists, perhaps, among Catholics more than among Protestants the substance of the primitive Judaic and pagan conception of sin as something material and infectious and hereditary, which is cured by baptism and absolution.

    Jason –

    Unamuno cites Portuguese social theorist Oliveira Martens: Catholicism produced heroes and Protestantism produced societies that are sensible, happy, wealthy, free, as far as their outer institutions go, but incapable of any great action, because their religion has begun by destroying in the heart of man all that made him capable of daring and noble self-sacrifice. Heroes and saints breathe the same rarified mountain air.

    Like

    Comment by ktismatics — 4 April 2007 @ 10:47 am

  7. Is Unamuno removing the line between hero and saint, or educating those in the dark on death? What about you?

    Like

    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 4 April 2007 @ 5:40 pm

  8. Both. Me too.

    Like

    Comment by ktismatics — 4 April 2007 @ 8:07 pm


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