Where does inspiration come from?
I always say that I don't have time to write this blog anymore, then I get an idea for some little thing I'd like to jot down or share and 45 minutes later, I realize I've written a Facebook post as long as my arm. What can I say? Brevity has never been my strong suit. Recently and rather suddenly, I've found myself in the unique position of working from home and governing my own schedule. So, here I am, once again Saraswati with the thoughts in her head. My new endeavor is forcing me to face head-on everything that challenges me. It requires focus, discipline and frugality (also not strong suits,) but it also commands an enormous amount of ingenuity. Sometimes, that terrifies me and sometimes the ideas pour through me like a river of melted glass. Here are some thoughts as to why.
There is a woman I only met in person once before she moved across the country, but whom I am certain is a golden soul. Say what you will about social media, but when it works, it works magic. Yesterday, she shared a video of a TED Talk, by writer Elizabeth Gilbert, who is the author of the book, "Eat, Pray, Love" and watching that video made me want to write up this.
Before Hollywood bastardized her work into an easy-to-digest rom-com starring Julia Roberts and even before the world of publishing marketed her efforts as a "beach read," Ms. Gilbert's book was a story about a woman who loses herself completely and seeks resurrection by way of a soul-searching trip through Italy, India and Bali. During the trip, this woman learns to set aside all the pre-conceived notions both she, and the world created for her and in this "letting go," she finds her way home. Unexpectedly, the book became an international best-seller and of course, a rather silly movie starring Julia Roberts.
Ms. Gilbert's TED Talk focuses on the unique and often morbid belief that "artists" will live their lives in a perpetual state of torture, crushed by the pressure to continuously produce great works. As a society, we almost expect that truly creative people, in any field, will go mad trying to find their magnum opus and once they've achieved this, they will inevitably burn out and fade away. Writers, scientists, musicians, mathematicians, painters, WHATEVER, we imagine them as reclusive, alcoholic, manic-depressives, don't we? But must it be so? In her talk, she challenges that paradigm, by explaining how the concept of creativity, inspiration and "genius" has evolved over many centuries. You can watch Ms. Gilbert's full TED Talk here:
I'd like to take what Gilbert shared in a slightly different direction and delve a little bit deeper. You can likely infer from my choosing an Ancient Indian goddess as the name for my alias that I enjoy history and mythology a bit. I'm a hack and an armchair historian, but I like what I pickup, if for no other reason than to lord over people at parties (I don't really do that. I don't go to nice enough parties.) Still, HOW we got where we are fascinates me, because if you don't know where you've come from, how can you possibly know where you are going?
Included in this category is the topic of Etymology, or the study of the development and origins of words. All the words we use CAME FROM somewhere and the origin stories are often surprising. This one, about the word "genius," is particularly thought-provoking.
Ms. Gilbert explains that Ancient Greeks and Romans did not view artistry or inspiration the way we do. In fact, Ancient Greeks believed that brilliance and all brilliant inspiration came from your daimon or daemon. A daemon is a guiding spirit who intervenes between you and the divine. Socrates often explained that he had a daemon who never told him what to do, but who warned him against mistakes. To the Greeks, the "man" was not the genius, the man was the vessel and the genius came to him. Makes you think a little more about the concept of genies in bottles when we are the ones who might be the bottles, huh? Well, hold on to your turbans darlings, because we're just getting started. So, what about that word, genius?
The Latin word "genius" was USED by the Ancient Romans and is their equivalent of the Greek concept of a daemon. Funny thing, Greeks and Romans; they share common philosophies and concepts for just about everything, but for whatever reason, maybe pure vanity, the Romans stole all the ideas from the Greeks, down to a carbon copy of their religion then insisted on renaming everything. Well, as Virgil wrote in the Aeneid, "I fear the Greeks, even those bearing gifts." The Etymological definition of the word "genius" is:
late 14c., "tutelary or moral spirit" who guides and governs an individual through life, from Latin genius "guardian deity or spirit which watches over each person from birth; spirit, incarnation; wit, talent;" also "prophetic skill," originally "generative power" (or "inborn nature"), from PIE *gen(e)-yo-, from root *gene- "to produce, give birth, beget" (see genus). Sense of "characteristic disposition" of a person is from 1580s. Meaning "person of natural intelligence or talent" and that of "exalted natural mental ability" are first recorded 1640s.
As you can see, it wasn't until the Renaissance period that Europeans altered the meaning to refer to oneself. Jazzy, eh? Wait, there's more! The reason I emphasize that the Romans merely used this word, is because although "genius" is a Latin word, its origins are not Latin. It's originally an Arabic word and just what do think the original word describes? If you guessed a "genie" then today is a big day for you, because you are correct. But just exactly what, eat, pray, tell, is a genie? Is it a friendly blue man, voiced by Robin Williams? Is it Christina Aguilera, back from the '90s, in bad cargo pants?
I assure you, it is neither.
A genie (singular) is a member of an ancient race of creatures known as "Jinn" (the plural) or "Djinn." They aren't human, but they live among us, unseen and they can be both good or malevolent, although most are a bit of both. According to many legends spanning across Islam, Christianity, Hinduism and Kabbalahist Judaism, God (or the gods) created the Jinn out of fire before he made humans out of dirt. Ever heard of Lillith? No? Well, you can thank everyone's favorite Catholic Church for that. Lillith is not a convenient character for patriarchy, so her story was edited out of the traditional biblical codex during the Council of Nicea. According to many ancient legends, including some from Judaism, Lillith was Adam's first wife and depending on who's telling the story, she may have been a Jinn. Unlike Eve, Lillith wasn't made from Adam, she was made at the same time as him. Consequently, she refused to be subservient to him and insisted on being his equal, (see now why this was no-likey among the priestly class?) When Adam refused to accept this, Lillith flew from the garden in a fiery blaze, swearing revenge on the children of Adam and Eve. Maybe it was their general distaste for authority, but at some point all the Jinn did something to piss off someone important and they were essentially banished to the corners of the earth. While the Jinn still live among us, we do not typically see them. That's not to say they CAN'T appear, but from what I understand you prefer it that they don't. They only appear to mess with us, which is a big reason why you should always be careful with wishes. Remember that old adage, "Be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it?" Yeah, because Jinn. Anyone ever read the great old story, "The Curse of the Monkey's Paw?" No? Well, read it later and don't buy disembodied animal hands from strangers in markets.
The stories about humans and their interactions with genies or the Jinn are even more fascinating. You can read many of them in what is now known as "Arabian Nights," which is a collection of stories possibly originating in India, even before the birth of Christ. In any event, they weren't formally recorded until the 8th century A.D. when they first appeared as "One Thousand and One Nights."
If you're interested in more information about the origin of the genie and other links to information about Jinn, here's another fun blog with very accessible, non-terrifying or wacky information about how we got the modern story of the genie.
THE ORIGIN OF THE GENIE
So, what's the point? Am I trying to say that we should all be worried that there are invisible genies looking over our shoulders all the time? No. Not at all. But what about this thought -
Ever since we became so arrogant as to want all the credit for our own genius; ever since we decided that we no longer needed inspiration from the universe and that there was no room for the mystical in our lives, our creative process has grown decidedly more tortuous. If you believe that to create genius, you must be the genius, because you're all you've got, it stands to reason that would lead to self destruction. Believe you are alone and you're certain to create isolation. And what of the idea that you've had a daemon, a genius, a genie, a spirit guide, a guardian angel, a WHATEVER with you all your life? Would that really be so bad? Maybe if you could just open yourself up a little more, let go; what do you think it would tell you? Even more interesting of a question is, could you let go of your own narcissism long enough to allow room for a genius to work? If it did start working, if you started to somehow hear the voice with no voice, would you let yourself listen?
One Thousand and One Nights is part mythology and part parable. It's sometimes fun and sometimes a little scary. One could dismiss the stories as fables, sure. Silly nonsense about shape-changing spirits who help or harm humans and care about how they're treated? Ridiculous. Fairy tales written by a primitive people to explain a complex world, right? Except these were the same primitive people who developed Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, geometry, algebra, philosophy, the concept of the number "zero," gunpowder, Kabbalah, numerology and astronomy. Is it less crazy to pray to God and appeal to angels than it is to prefer not to disturb a sleeping spirit? Why cherry pick instead of remaining cautiously open to our collective history as provided by all of humanity, which is still evident in our language today?
Were you surprised by the Etymology of the word "genius?" Were you surprised that there was anything interesting about something called Etymology? Did you think that Etymology was the study of bugs until now? If you answered, "Yes," then that's pretty normal and I don't blame you. Not all Etymology is this interesting, but when it's good it tends to be really, really good. I mean, chew on this -
The most stoic scientist in the world right now, who insists on everything being empirically proven might be regularly called a "genius." However, that same person, because of his or her insistence on everything having an absolute proof would almost certainly NEVER believe in something like inspiration coming from an invisible race of genies. Crazy, right? Yet, that same person might also easily admit to respecting the work of Socrates, who himself believed that all of his brilliance came from what was essentially a genie. Now that's some quality Etymology.
After all, if you don't know where you've come from, how can you possibly know where you are going?
Safe travels. -S