But, ancient Greece and ancient Rome — people did not happen to believe that creativity came from human beings back then, O.K.? People believed that creativity was this divine attendant spirit that came to human beings from some distant and unknowable source, for distant and unknowable reasons. The Greeks famously called these divine attendant spirits of creativity “daemons.” Socrates, famously, believed that he had a daemon who spoke wisdom to him from afar. The Romans had the same idea, but they called that sort of disembodied creative spirit a genius. Which is great, because the Romans did not actually think that a genius was a particularly clever individual. They believed that a genius was this, sort of magical divine entity, who was believed to literally live in the walls of an artist’s studio, kind of like Dobby the house elf, and who would come out and sort of invisibly assist the artist with their work and would shape the outcome of that work.
So brilliant — there it is, right there, that distance that I’m talking about — that psychological construct to protect you from the results of your work. And everyone knew that this is how it functioned, right? So the ancient artist was protected from certain things, like, for example, too much narcissism, right? If your work was brilliant you couldn’t take all the credit for it, everybody knew that you had this disembodied genius who had helped you. If your work bombed, not entirely your fault, you know? Everyone knew your genius was kind of lame.And this is how people thought about creativity in the West for a really long time.
And then the Renaissance came and everything changed, and we had this big idea, and the big idea was let’s put the individual human being at the center of the universe above all gods and mysteries, and there’s no more room for mystical creatures who take dictation from the divine.
And it’s the beginning of rational humanism, and people started to believe that creativity came completely from the self of the individual. And for the first time in history, you start to hear people referring to this or that artist as being a genius rather than having a genius. And I got to tell you, I think that was a huge error.
You know, I think that allowing somebody, like one mere person, to believe that he or she is like the vessel, the font and the essence and the source of all divine, creative, unknowable, eternal mystery; is just a smidge too much responsibility to put on one fragile human psychie. It’s like asking somebody to swallow the sun. It just completely warps and distorts egos and just creates all these unmanagable expectations about performance. And I think the pressure of that has been killing off our artists for the last five hundred years.
(Our whole culture is built on the idea of the self and the individual that was created 500 years ago. But sometimes I think that we don’t deserve and cannot handle the kind of responsibilities that come with assuming complete choice and control of the unknown.)
This is Japan in a nutshell. Forget all the crazy stuff with the weird tv programs and the cosplaying—that’s just the outer shell that gets attention because it’s unusual. This, this is the beauty of the country. I’ve had little grandmothers chase me down because I dropped my shinkansen tickets. In amusement parks, the attendants do their upmost to get lost items (usually cardigans or kids’ shoes) back to the owners—before the owners even realize they’d lost said item(s). I’ve had complete strangers not only give my thorough directions but have offered to drive me to the place I needed to go.
It is so, so, so hard to go back to the States after you get the J-treatment. I mean, Japan has its downside (“What is this madness you call pizza???”), but the general attitudes of everyone—even the so-called hardcore yankees (two of whom who, on a blazing summer day, helped me find one of my schools when I was heinously lost in the labyrinth that is the neighborhood in which said school is located)—is the epitome of the mindset that I wish everyone would adopt. Because yelling at people gets you nowhere. And being able to empathize with people kinda helps make this country a really nice place to live in.