Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Do Only Fading Lights Burn Bright?

“To write well I must first be bored to distraction; to be bored to distraction I must enter into life.” Orhan Pamuk’s admission (in Other Colors, 2007) is a bold one. He tells us it is not the so-called real life that enthralls one. Instead, it is only in a dreamland that births fiction that “everyone and everything is interesting, captivating, and real.” It is unclear whether this is an inversion or a corollary to a more entrenched wisdom that it is a lack of access to a full life, rather than its inherent tediousness, that makes sickly children perfect literary apprentices. Left stranded to their imaginative worlds, they have no choice but exercise their creative power by building fictional ones.

It is not just sickness, either, that might help groom the writing candidates. Being orphaned (and other parental absences), having alcoholic parents, various stigmatizing disabilities – all these have a potential to bring a young person into contact with out-of-ordinary experiences that can bring eminence in adulthood (Simonton, 1987). A recent analysis of 282 ‘geniuses’ in 10 different domains (which included imaginative writers, composers, and visual artists, in addition to politicians, revolutionaries, commanders, religious leaders, scientists, and informative writers) surprisingly confirmed this correlation between poor physical health and achieved eminence in adulthood (Simonton & Song, 2009). (The only extraordinarily sturdy children were, fittingly, future commanders). So here we have it – from a cloud of death emerges eminence. Keats would have nodded approvingly.

Knowing all this, there are many questions one can reach for – about nature of reality or the kinds of magical worlds produced in the diminution of exposure to real ones. But here is my question. What would have happened if Marcel Proust was able to amble about without the terrifying prospect of a fatal asthma attack, if Tennessee Williams, age 5, could walk about, instead of lying bedridden for two years from the diphtheria-induced paralysis of the legs, if Sinclair Lewis, not lonely in his ungainliness, had been able to get every girl he so pined for? Would they have still written themselves into history? Would they have enjoyed their lives better? And knowing full well that muses gift only those whose bodies teach them a lesson in transience - do we dare defy them, by trying for both?

Orhan Pamuk (2007). Other Colours: Essays and a story. Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf Canada.

Dean Simonton (1987). Developmental antecedents of achieved eminence. Annals of Child Development, 5, 131-169.

Dean Simonton & Anna Song (2009). Eminence, IQ, Physical and Mental Health, and Achievement Domain: Cox’s 282 Geniuses Revisited. Psychological Science, 20, 429-434.

1 comment:

blog nerd said...

great piece. I reacted to it over on my own blog--and propose an alternative way at looking at the same phenomenon.


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