(Part one here)
This word is a good example of a concept which is taken in the strictest most literal sense possible in order to impugn pretty much whoever you like; because if you take the word hyperliterally, doing something that is inconsistent with the values you express — less noble or honest — then anyone on earth can be shown to be a hypocrite. This is because, firstly, expressed ideals are abstract, and so they can’t apply to every concrete situation. You may be an honest person and abhor lies, but when your new girlfriend shows you an expensive but hideous dress she’s just bought and asks you, ‘do I look nice in this?’ what are you going to do? Be honest? The real world is immensely complex and demands all kinds of responses, attempting to fit them in any expressed moral system is impossible; and yet we do express values, we do say what we think is right and wrong, and so we all end up being, strictly speaking, hypocrites, which makes the word meaningless. As with ‘nature’, ordinary people understand that it still has a meaning, that ‘hypocrite’ and ‘liar’ and so on describe an essential and necessarily vague attitude, not a strict policy of consistency and accuracy. Only points-scorers take the word ‘hypocrisy’ literally.
A classic case of this is the idea that critics of society are ‘hypocrites’ for participating in society. There are many variants of this, ‘if you don’t like the way our government behaves you should go and live in Russia’ or ‘if you don’t like the BBC you can always turn it off’ or ‘if you don’t like your job you’re free to take another’ or ‘if you don’t like civilisation you’re free to go and live in the trees’ or ‘if you don’t like the direction the Titanic is travelling in you‘re free to swim to shore’. If you continue living in a state, watching the news, working in the market and participating in technocratic civilisation then you must be a hypocrite. The idea that all these things are embedded in an all encompassing structure that nobody can leave is impossible for most people to consider. It blows their minds, and so they trammel their attentive ire towards the isolated, context-free idea that if a critic says technology imprisons us he must be a hypocrite for using it, or if he says that schooling makes you stupid, he must be a hypocrite for going to school, or if he says that work is a coercive process of forced cretinization, then he must be a hypocrite for working. Counter with the reality that you cannot live without technology, schooled credentials and earnt money, or that nobody would accuse a prisoner eating prison food of hypocrisy (or using prison rope to escape with) and…
…hello? Hello? Oh, they’ve gone.
Plagiarism is another idea that is incorrectly restricted to a fixed and literal definition in order to score points, which is easy to do as everyone plagiarises, even the very greatest artists. Weak-minded resentful types gain a lot of pleasure in pointing out that ‘Shakespeare wasn’t really original’, for much the same reason that they are keen to show that ‘Bach was really a beery brawler’, John Lennon was ‘really a wife beater’, Ghandi was ‘really a kind of Nazi’, and Van Gogh was ‘really bipolar’. Ordinary people, as we have seen, love to bring great people down to their level, and in matters of art and literature plagiarism is one of their favourite weapons.
It is, quite clearly, absurd to call Shakespeare, Wittgenstein and the Beatles plagiarisers or unoriginal. That Shakespeare ‘stole’ most of his plots, large portions of his ‘philosophy’ and God knows what else1, that Wittgenstein took some of his insights from Schopenhauer and that many of the greatest Beatles songs can be traced back to antecedents is neither here nor there. Each of these artists, all those who are rightly celebrated as original, add decisively, miraculously, to what they base their borrowings upon. The body of their work is unique, which is why they are adored, even if they steal bits and pieces. That the existence of these bits and pieces means that ‘no art is original’ or that ‘there is nothing new under the sun’ is at best an illusion, more often a lie.
The path to greatness always begins by imitation. It’s almost impossible to learn to write or paint without first imitating those who went before you, as the juvenalia of all masters demonstrate. Substandard creators stop there, filling their work with the lightly modified ideas, styles, melodies and insights of their greater forebears; sometimes not even greater, very often from substandard antecedants and contemporaries. This is plagiarism; an essential lack of meaningful content, artistic truth, genuine insight; an absence of life. In its place second-rate creators present the life of others; television shows, books, films, tweets, newspaper articles and the minds of those around them, also second-hand, filtered through their own thin experience2, then mashed up into the bland pabulum we call culture.
Charlatans who have never actually lived, who have no real experience, who have nothing to say, who are half-dead, really, are vaguely aware that their work is essentially fake, derivative pointless, empty, doomed to be swiftly forgotten and only celebrated by other empty frauds; but they drown out their sense of fakery from their minds with the applause of like-minds and cover their tedious pap with the usual excuses (‘there’s no such thing as quality anyway’) and pornographic tricks; exciting the audience with fear or desire, for example, or appealing to fashion. These are sometimes enough to grant them fame, but only temporarily, and so never very profoundly; always with a shallow shaky sense that it will soon fly off elsewhere, which it does, leaving them — because they have no actual life or genius to console them — genuinely bitter has-beens.
Great artists on the other hand, as they mature, mix the derivative work of their apprenticeship with their own lived experience — the source of all originality and meaning — refining both into something which, as a whole (and, of course, in most of its parts) is genuinely new. They continue to work at their craft as they continue to widen and deepen their capacity to experience, eventually producing works that are, first of all, enjoyed as ‘talented’ and ‘entertaining’ and then, finally, loved as ‘genius’. These still feel knowable, in the sense that they are connected with a recognisable artistic or philosophic tradition (we can smell out ‘influences’ or, with close study, discover ‘borrowings’) but there is something actually new here, enigmatic yet familiar, shining with a mix of the unique personality of the creator and the unique personality of the life around him. We are stilled, amazed — and often a little jealous, because we feel that we too are unique in this way, but our development has been stifled, we gave up, and only sense or express our original nature very rarely.
I could be accused of plagiarism. I draw on an artistic and philosophic tradition, I have taken many ideas from books and reworked them, giving them my own character or twist, I have taken a few ideas and simply inserted them into what I am saying, without changing them at all — outright theft (both conscious and unconscious), I have plundered forums and message boards, not to mention overheard conversations for ideas and turns of phrase from ‘ordinary people’ and I have even stolen from myself — taking ideas from one work and reusing it elsewhere. All this makes up, I’m going to guess, about ten percent of what I do (more in the case of my political / sociological writing, which references and recognises other authors). Does this make me unoriginal or make my criticisms of the profound unoriginality of others hypocritical? I’ll let you decide.
While the meaning of plagiarism is so constrained as to be meaningless, that of genius goes the other way and encompasses everything that anyone ever does that pleases anyone else. Won a running race? Genius! Delivered a witty comment? Genius! Competent hairdresser? Unusual pornographer? Dressed slightly differently to yesterday? Oh, the genius!
Genius is the cultural equivalent of ‘love’. Because it describes a state which goes beyond the limits of experience, those confined by experience assume that it must mean within the limits of experience. They have no ‘super-experience’, no ‘transcendent standard’, by which to judge the difference. ‘Beyond’ doesn’t exist in their experience, so words which refer to love and genius must really mean ‘within’ the confines of the known. Those who know what love and genius actually mean regard its common use in much the same way that a death-camp survivor regards common uses of words like ‘painful,’ ‘boring’, ‘horrible’ and so on.
It’s instructive to compare love and genius. If you tell someone they are not a genius, they’re likely to agree with you, because although the word is used more than masking tape, very few people want to make the slightest effort in their lives to approach even the minute achievements they regularly laud. As for doing something half-way approaching what Shakespeare, or Bach, or Van Gogh achieved; forget it. That’s only for special people, born with the gift, innately brilliant — in a word people who are and have somehow always been geniuses. An inordinate number of great artists have ridiculed this and either directly stated or clearly expressed the truth that although they may have been born unique, like all of us are, they spent their lives working to achieve a state in which they could receive genius.
Now art dealers have certain prejudices, which I think possible you have not shaken off yet, particularly the idea that painting is inborn – all right, inborn, but not so as is supposed; one must put out one’s hands and grasp it – that grasping is a difficult thing – one must not wait till it reveals itself. There is something, but not at all what people pretend. Practice makes perfect: by painting, one becomes a painter. (The Letters of Vincent van Gogh.)
But all this is brushed aside, for obvious and entirely self-serving reasons. Nobody really wants to look at who they really are — how mediocre and afraid they really are — nobody really wants to suffer, as geniuses do, to discover their own true nature3 — nobody wants to make the sacrifices required of brilliance; to perceive the world as it is around them, to humble themselves before prior masters, to work and work and work and work. Nobody really wants to do any of this, and so they put geniuses on pedestals. Literally.
Going back to love. While ‘you are not a genius’ is generally welcomed, ‘you cannot love’ is not generally well received. Imagine someone telling you ‘I know what love is, and you do not.’ Why would someone say this? Well, they wouldn’t would they? And yet, let’s turn to Mr. Mozart…
‘Neither a lofty degree of intelligence, nor imagination, nor both together go the making of genius. Love, love, love; that is the soul of genius.’
The soul of genius, the source of it, perhaps, or the quality of it, is love. This is what Bach, Mozart and Beethoven — not to mention Michael Jackson and Lou Reed4 — were saying in their music, and this is what we love to hear. So why can we not create such beautiful things? It is, Mozart is telling us, because we do not love enough. Not just each other, but nature, the good things around us, the ineffable, the unconsidered (bricks, hot water, the way people say the word ‘wow’) and, the all-containing yet borderless frame, the present-moment, or situation. You do not love enough.
For sure that’s not quite it. As we’ve seen, the mind-bending technique of masters, acquired from decades of dedication, is also a crucial component in producing enduring works of timeless beauty. But the source, the soul, the fuel and the fire of genius is love, love, love, love, love, love. Pour yourself into the moment, let your attention soften into the extraordinary simplicity of the body, adore the hot water you have today, roll around the floor in ecstasies of relief that you don’t have a fucking earache… It’s not hard to find something to love, a lot. Reading Van Gogh’s letters we see how hard he worked, but we also see how much he loved. From that love (and from its concomitant, acceptance of pain) inspiration grows naturally, interesting ideas, unique melodies, brilliant perceptions or, for those quite happy to live without setting the artist world a-flame, just a calm-yet-energetic sense that you’re not, for once, anxious and bored.
Talking of which, love, of course — of course — is something that women are more familiar with than men. In an important sense woman is love, and you can tell pretty well the status of love, how rarely it is experienced and how poorly it is understood, by the fact that feminists are largely disgusted by this idea, that their innate genius resides in love. They prefer to see ‘love’ as caring, as being motherly, as being meek, inoffensive, nice; in order to reject this ‘love’ in favour of ‘strength,’ ‘power’, ‘pride’ or whatever idiotic ambition is flavour of the month. They claim that genius means cultural achievement, artistic truth, transcendent expression — all of which men excel at, the genius of man. The genius of woman, far more profound — the source of everything that man seeks to achieve — is completely ignored in Standard Discussion. It does nothing for your special identity or personality, it does nothing for your career or your grades, it does nothing for modern woman or modern man.
Genius in its essential form has never done anything for the loveless world, and never will. Its ultimate uselessness is its stamp of authenticity, its perfection. Those who love and seek to express their love, simply or superexcellently, have been ignored, persecuted, ridiculed and repressed since the beginning of the world, because they do nothing for the world. But don’t expect to see any campaigns soon against ‘geniusism’ or ‘gignaphobia’. If you want to see why seek to realise your own genius and then see how much support you get from your fellow man.
Schopenhauer pointed out that while the man of talent can hit a target that nobody else can hit, the man of genius can hit one that nobody can even see. This explains why geniuses are so very rarely appreciated by the people around them — in fact very often actively hated — because ‘what can be seen’ is what is given by culture, the coordinates of the time which the genius sees beyond and which ordinary people cling to. In former times our grip was much weaker, which was why, going back some way, geniuses were more often recognised and, going further back still, we were all geniuses.
I’ve already said a mouthful on this word. I just want to add one brief comment here. Capitalism is not the system, and attacking it as ‘the enemy,’ or ‘the problem’ is idiotic leftism. Capitalism is the latest stage of the system — which includes imperialism, feudalism, socialism, totalitarianism, democracy, autocracy, theocracy and various forms of socialist or superstitious anarchism — and, beyond that, of the source of the system, the ego. Attacking capitalism is as absurd as marching against fascism or attempting to deal with obesity by widespread or accusing a knife of stabbing you. Capitalism is one form of the system, itself the expression of ego and, as everyone knows, eradicating a form without dealing with its cause just means another form will arise to take its place.
Now of course lots of people, when they say ‘capitalism’ do vaguely mean ‘the system’, which is fair enough, but it invites confusion and futility, like using the word ‘excitement’ to mean ‘joy’. What’s more ‘the system’ is far more concrete than ‘capitalism’ and more readily, intuitively, understood by genuine revolutionaries across the political spectrum. Naturally that’s not a very pleasant prospect to most dissidents and critics, who only really want to appeal to their own little group and are happy to stay within its various limits. The idea that there is something which may connect the most radical, truthful, sensitive and courageous people on the so-called right and so-called left, that there is something to be said for their criticisms of each other, is nearly impossible for the groupmind to swallow.
Returning to capitalism though. Consider communism (i.e. state capitalism), the localised form of the system which governed the USSR and its satellites for most of the twentieth century. For people living in Prague, Hungary and Kiev the enemy, or so they thought, was communism, at least the ridiculous version of it practiced by the Soviet state. Then what happened when this communism was defeated? During the chaotic nineties there was something like a feudal state of affairs, very chaotic in some areas, which soon coalesced into one of the most virulent forms of capitalism on the planet. Nice one! Precisely the same thing would happen if we (not sure who this ‘we’ is, but anyway) if we succeeded in overthrowing capitalism. Something just as shit, or worse, would appear almost instantly.
Forget this silly anti-capitalism business, or, just as preposterously, fighting fascism or attempting to bring down ‘the patriarchy’, or overcoming ‘anthropocentrism’ and ‘hierarchies’. Forget all that, and return to the genius of nature, via the originality of love. From there a truly revolutionary power can emerge, is emerging.
- No doubt a lot of his dialogue was lifted from people around him or the improvisations of his actors.
- Which they can never escape. The hallmark of mediocre drama, for example, is that all the characters sound like the writer.
- To be truly human. Animals don’t do this.
- I mean the Michael Jackson who made Off the Wall and the Lou Reed who wrote The Velvet Underground’s songs, not the shuffed out shells they became.