Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Moreau: Creativity as Daimonic Force

Gustave Moreau, Oedipus and the Sphinx, 1864

The sensual monster stares bewitchingly into the hero's eyes, pressing her bare breasts against his torso, pinning him to the stone. Oedipus stares back, his frown, and calm, unflinching gaze presaging his ability to solve the riddle of the nature of man.

Nineteenth-century French Symbolist Gustave Moreau (1826-1898) created surreal, dreamlike paintings that draw us into their worlds through their dynamic compositions, elaborate detail, and believable textures. Moreau designed Oedipus and the Sphinx on a tilted, diagonal axis defined by the bodies and Oedipus's staff, from which the sphinx's intricate wings stab toward the sky on the left side balanced by an intricately detailed jar in the lower right corner. The design suggests an "x" that crosses in the painting's center, emphasizing the interlocking of the characters - mankind and the Mystery - in an existential embrace.

Moreau gave us more than fantasies - he gave us worlds in which to become lost, worlds that suggest the hallucinatory, half-substantial outposts of our own.

In his depiction of the poet and the muse (above), Moreau presents Plato's concept of the creative Muse as a genius or "daimon," that is, agent of the gods, responsible for artistic creation. The poet's eyes are closed and the Muse moves her fingers across the instrumental strings. The Renaissance replaced this notion of the "genius" as a spirit that visits the artist from Beyond with the idea that the artist him or herself is the genius, which some are now seeing as a damaging ego-based concept that kills creativity with too much pressure.

A recent talk by Eat Pray Love author Elizabeth Gilbert has surprised everybody by making a compelling case for revisiting this antiquated notion of how creativity happens. In a talk she gave at the TED conferences, she suggested that creative power is related to the lack of self-consciousness in the work, that is, to our ability to evade the left-brain censor and create freely, without narcissism or expectation of ability.

For working writers, artists, and musicians, this means being able to tap into the "beginner-mind" one has in the earliest encounters with a medium, the unself-consciousness that children have (why kids love art), the freedom one has when "just playing." You can watch her TED talk here.
Gustave Moreau, Apollo and the Muses, 1856

Who hasn't been "taunted and haunted by the glimmer of something extraordinary" and suddenly stepped into a portal where time doesn't exist and the brain chatter stops and the possibilities are infinite, whether in conversation, poetry, athletics, painting, singing, playing music, or dancing?

She talks of Sufi dancers who often (though not always) reach a moment of ecstasy. "And when this happened, people knew it for what it was," she said. "They called it by its name. They’d put their hands together and would start to chant Allah, Allah. ‘God, God.’"

"If you never happen to believe in the first place that the most extraordinary aspects of your being [were created by you]," she said, you’d be better off. "Maybe if you just believe that they were on loan to you from some unimaginable source for some exquisite portion of your life, which you pass along when you’re finished to somebody else," it would change everything.