Against the Cult of Originality: Emerson on the True Nature of Genius
By Maria Popova
The best things in life we don’t choose — they choose us. A great love, a great calling, a great illumination — they happen unto us, like light falling upon that which is lit. We have given a name to these unbidden greatnesses — genius, from the Latin for “spirit,” denoting the spirit of a universe we can only submit to but cannot govern.
A generation after Wordsworth defined the proof of genius as “the act of doing well what is worthy to be done, and what was never done before,” Ralph Waldo Emerson (May 25, 1803–April 27, 1882) took up the mystery of genius — where it comes from, how it shapes the lives it befalls, and what it demands of them — in a wonderful essay on another great poet — Shakespeare — found in his indispensable Essays (public library).
In a resounding answer to the abiding question of whether genius is born or made, Emerson writes:
There is no choice to genius. A great man does not wake up on some fine morning, and say, “I am full of life, I will go to sea, and find an Antarctic continent: to-day I will square the circle: I will ransack botany, and find a new food for man: I have a new architecture in my mind: I foresee a new mechanic power:” no, but he finds himself in the river of the thoughts and events, forced onward by the ideas and necessities of his contemporaries.
In a sentiment James Baldwin would echo in his own superb meditation on Shakespeare, in which he observed that “the greatest poet in the English language found his poetry where poetry is found: in the lives of the people,” Emerson adds:
Every master has found his materials collected, and his power lay in his sympathy with his people, and in his love of the materials he wrought in.
This recognition that art works with the raw materials of life undermines the cult of originality, which is itself the great hubris of the creative spirit — as Mark Twain wrote to Helen Keller, “all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources.” Stripping true creativity of this fetish for originality, Emerson anticipates Oscar Wilde’s insistence that creativity is the product of “the temperament of receptivity” and observes:
Great genial power, one would almost say, consists in not being original at all; in being altogether receptive; in letting the world do all, and suffering the spirit of the hour to pass unobstructed through the mind.
Published January 21, 2023