Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The genius and the journeymen

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The Sanders portrait of William Shakespeare

Yesterday, while reflecting on Built by Hand and the beauties of vernacular architecture, I wrote:

What vernacular architecture expresses, more than anything else, is the pragmatism of collective activity over time. Each house is rooted in generations of trial and error, as builders experimented with new techniques and gradually established what worked and what didn’t, and it stands as a reminder of how limited individual effort, even by architectural “visionaries,” can seem by comparison.

Yet this isn’t entirely accurate. There’s a place for vision and genius along with collective progress, and vernacular architecture was shaped, like all art forms, by an alternation between the two: a long period of experimentation crystallized by the work of one highly gifted individual, then subjected to an equally lengthy process of consolidation and refinement. Humanity as a whole can modify and improve traditional techniques, but the really epochal innovations in architecture—the post and lintel, the arch, the dome—are more likely to have emerged in a disconnected flash of insight and intuition. Continuity only takes us so far; it’s the sudden discontinuities, the ideas that abruptly reinvent what we thought we knew, that lead to real innovations. And it’s only through individual moments of genius, rooted all the while in tradition, that such leaps forward take place.

If I speak with such confidence about the history of architecture, despite not being an architect myself, it’s because we can see the same process at work in all areas of human endeavor. Literature offers us the same pattern again and again: stories and narrative strategies are developed over time, formed into a cohesive whole by the efforts of one extraordinary artist, and then refined into a genre by the journeymen who follow. The Homeric epics, for instance, are obviously the product of an oral tradition, and scholars have long since discarded the myth of a single blind poet in favor of the work of generations of professional storytellers. Yet the Iliad and the Odyssey as we know them now are the product of several particular moments—notably the Peisistratean recension and the editions made by the scholars Zenodotus of Ephesus and Aristarchus—that standardized the text into its current form. These editors engaged in selection, emphasis, and editorial shaping, and much of the beauty and coherence of the resulting text can be credited to their efforts. And it’s almost certain that the material on which they worked had been advanced and elevated at earlier stages by the work of one or two exceptional rhapsodes.

Achilles and Ajax

Even in more recent times, literary genres are the product of the same pattern of alternation. If The Woman in White is widely considered to be the first detective novel, it reflects a gathering up of material that had already been worked on by the likes of Poe and Dickens, and the genre as we know it now is less the product of any one author than the sum of the innovations of many lesser works. Every generation or so, these hints, buried here and there in the existing literature, are compiled, reimagined, and carried higher by an author who points the way forward. It’s impossible to understand either half of the process without the other, and neither is as powerful on its own. Geniuses who work in complete isolation—if such a thing is possible—are deprived of the collective discoveries made by the larger culture, while the culture as a whole depends on discontinuous insights to advance to the next level. This is even more evident in the sciences, which rather uneasily depend on an alternation of incremental progress and epochal disruption. Darwin, as Daniel Dennett notes, may have had the greatest idea of all time, but it came into the world at a point when evolution was in the air, waiting for a major figure who could unify the clues.

And it’s fascinating to watch the same principles at work today. I’ve railed more than once at the problem of misquotation—or, more accurately, of misattribution—but it’s possible to see the garbled versions of famous quotes as a kind of collective revision, an editorial process that occurs as scraps of text and information are passed from one listener to another. “To gild the lily” may be a misremembering of “To gild refined gold, to paint the lily,” but I’m not entirely sure that Shakespeare would have minded; he may have thought that the misquoted version was tighter and more memorable. The original line from King John may have been the work of a moment, while the rest of us have had centuries to mull it over and find a version that we prefer. This doesn’t excuse more egregious distortions of meaning, and I don’t want to reduce our cultural heritage to one long game of telephone. But time can do mysterious things when combined with the erratic workings of many human minds, especially when it meets an individual personality that can shake it into a new form. We’re smarter in the aggregate, but mostly in predictable ways, and we need both occasional genius and collective wisdom to survive.

Written by nevalalee

June 25, 2014 at 9:41 am

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