Tunes for a Monday Morning
On a misty morning in the Devon hills

The genius of the community

Bluebell gate

Bluebells in a Devon wood

In his fine book of conversations with writer & naturalist Barry Lopez, who has long been one of my guiding lights, William E. Tydeman quotes these words from a talk Lopez gave at Rice University in Houston, Texas in 2004:

"I have been puzzled and troubled all my life by the idea of individual genius. In my experience those who are most comfortable with this characterization are often the people who are least aware of how their work has benefited from the support of others. In my view they are always ready to accept full credit for the quality of an individual vision but are vaguely contemptuous of the idea  that something they've made is not fully their own, that it is partly due to the way people support them and also to something unknown moving through them.

Tilly in the bluebell wood

Devonian faerieland

"We say Bach is a genius," Lopez continues. "But when Yo-Yo Ma finds two different interpretations of the Sixth Cello Suite, what is Ma? I don't mean to be academic here or to play games with concepts of originality or interpretation. I'm saying something much simpler, or, you might say, more naive. It is my view that individual genius is a gift, that the gifted personality is a manifestation of a kind of genius that belongs, finally, to the community. The genius is in us.

Woodland path

"In ensemble art, the theater, dance, the music of the quartet, the trio, the orchestra, it is easy to see that one person is not responsible. It's harder with painting, photography, or writing. Why pursue this distinction? Because in a celebrity-driven culture like ours, claims to originality and genius seem curiously misplaced. Historically, humanity has more often benefited from the genius of the community than from the genius of the individual. And people with no faith in their own wisdom in hard times have perished waiting for a genuis to appear and lead them.

Opening to the Otherworld

"I believe in the singular vision of the individual artist," Lopez makes clear. "If I am honest, I would have to say I accept the artist's occasional disregard for community, the neglect of spouse, of children and parents, that this obsession sometimes entails. But there is a line here. What does the community gain by your work and what does it lose?

Woodland edge

Conversations with Barry Lopez

"The line I draw for myself is, I know, subjective and probably inconsistent. What is more on my mind these days about this this. If humanity is [ecologically] imperiled, shouldn't our investment in the work of artists include more than it does? Shouldn't we be underwriting collaboration and cooperation? If, as the poet Robert Duncan has said, 'The drama of our time is the coming of all men into one fate,' shouldn't we be thinking more about a wisdom revealed in the mounting of one communal voice...?

Window to the Otherworld

Window to the Otherworld

Conversations with Barry Lopez by William E Tydeman

"In some strange way," Lopez concludes, "I think we are at a cultural crossroads today where the primacy of the individual is concerned. If we are endangered as a culture, do we need to ask ourselves what price society pays for our vigorous support of individual visions? I don't know. I do not really worry about what other people are doing. In my own life, however, I am suspicious of this idea, the primacy of the individual, despite my Enlightenment upbringing. So, I am trying to explore the disquieting dimensions of my own ego."

Writing notebookThe passage quoted above is from the introduction to Conversations with Barry Lopez: Walking the Path of Imagination by William E. Tydeman (University of Oklahoma Press, 2013), which I highly recommend. The poem in the picture captions is from David Whyte's What to Remember When Waking (Sounds True, 2010). All rights reserved by the authors. Related posts: On the Care & Feeding of Daemons & Muses, Gift Exchange, and Knowing the World as a Gift.