Thursday, 25 July 2013

Does it matter if a genius is an asshole?

I sort of knew Ernest Hemingway was a blowhard. I didn't know anything about Frank Lloyd Wright except for his famous works and style. Apparently also an asshole.

I just finished reading The Paris Wife. At the end the author says she tried to keep it as accurate as possible. The book focusses on Papa and his first wife during the 5 years of their marriage when they lived in Paris. Hence the title. Hemingway is one of my favourite writers. Old Man and the Sea is on my top ten book list. Now that I know he was a terrible husband, a violent drunk, and a hurtful friend, does that change anything?

Frank Lloyd Wright was mentioned in another book I am reading called Give and Take. He was a "taker" who did not acknowledge or support his team (when he was working with one), insisted on getting credit for every project to which he contributed (even if it was small) and even his son publically criticized him for his approach to family and work. The FallingWater house was a last minute, off-deadline design that the client never wanted in the first place, and he charged way more than was in the original contract. Nonetheless, the design is more than stunning. I pondered further - do you have to be an asshole to be a genius? Does being an asshole create the conflict and pain that drives creation?

According to the author of Give and Take, Adam Grant, the answer to the second to last question, appears to be "no". In the chapter I just finished reading he gives examples and talks a lot about a man named George Meyer - one of the comedic geniuses behind many of the award winning Simpsons episodes, among other things. According to Grant and his research, Meyer is a genius, a genius maker and a successful "giver". The opposite of Frank Lloyd Wright.

So we can answer the third question also - if George Meyer can be a genius without being an asshole, then creation is possible without having to force pain and conflict (albeit that might be there already). Ernest Hemingway was just as much an observer of the gory details of "real life", but was certainly driven by his own feelings about, participation in and wounding that occurred during World War I. He took from himself and he took from others. Then he gave it back - sometimes in an unflattering way. We have to remember however that no matter what - it's still fiction.

The answer to the first question is harder and I think answerable only on a personal level. Knowing that these men, these artists, did not practice the virtues I cherish, still does not diminish my appreciation of their work. It also doesn't change my approach to life. I think that's because I can separate the work from the person. It becomes it's own thing. The Old Man and the Sea is The Old Man and the Sea, regardless of who wrote it and what drove them to genius. The FallingWater house is what it is.

I also did not know them personally. I am going by what other people say and write. Their lives and therefore "they" are interesting stories alone. Even if I did know them, I still don't think that would have changed my opinion of their art. Would I have been a lover or a wife? If I knew the history and I was smart- probably not. Again - that's hard to say. I am naturally attracted to creative genius.

So, I am obviously not above judging. But with respect to the arts, I prefer to look at the outcome, not the process, and not the person. In fact from what I know I feel sympathy for them both. It is not how I would have wanted to live my life. Ernest Hemingway had four wives, and eventually committed suicide. Frank Lloyd Wright alienated his family and colleagues. Could they have helped themselves not to be that way? I don't know - I am still reading the book. And I don't know how they produced such organic beauty, being ugly in their own way. But, I do know I will look to the George Meyers for inspiration in how to lead my own life, create, and try to be a genius maker of others, without isolating myself in an asshole dome.
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