By David Trend
“The central question upon which all creative living hinges is: Do you have the courage to bring forth the treasures hidden within you?” With this entreaty, author Elizabeth Gilbert introduced her recent bestseller Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, which offered an artistic cure for an anxious American culture.[i] Speaking directly to widespread feelings of disaffection and powerlessness, Big Magic romanticized artistry in Gilbert’s signature blend of sentiment and cliché––packaging familiar views (human creativity, divine creativity, etc.) with a self-help twist about creating one’s “self” in new and better ways. While one easily can write off Big Magic as yet another feel-good advice book (which it surely is), I think it’s time to take Gilbert’s approach to creativity seriously and ponder why such ideas now get so much traction.
Publicity doesn’t hurt. Reviewers effused over Big Magic as a “book-length meditation on inspiration” (Newsday) to “unlock your inner artist” (Woman’s Day) and “dream a life without limits” (Publishers’ Weekly).[ii] This message resonated well with the rising chorus promoting creativity as an innovation engine and economic tonic. While no one would dispute the positive benefits of a little artistic dabbling, at what point does such wishful thinking begin to border on delusion? Or put another way, when does fantasy paper over reality? Might it be that America’s fondness for make-believe is party behind the nation’s political confusion and disaffection? Do fairy-tale versions of life infantilize a citizenry that should know that answers don’t always come easily? Certainly the fantasy-version of reality offered by certain politicians would fail any thoughtful analysis. But instead, many leaders continue treating their constituents like children, with entire governments encouraging populations to set worries aside and simply “Be Creative.”
In Magical Thinking and the Decline of America, historian Richard L. Rapson took a long look at the nation’s romantic idealism. “Probably in no other society of the world can one write the script for one’s life as completely as United States. This fact has made the nation the ‘promised land’ for much of the world over the past two centuries,” Rapson wrote. “The flight into endless self-improvement and innocent optimism has a long lineage in our past.”[iii] Perhaps anticipating Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” sloganeering, Rapson pointed to the disconnection between America’s self-image as an “exceptional” driver of human history, and the growing evidence of the nation’s falling fortunes. This has led to what Rapson described as a growing “flight from knowledge and reality into faith and fantasy,” resulting in large part from “an American public increasingly in thrall to the fairytales told by the mass media.”[iv] It also promotes a “cultural fixation on the individual, the personal, the biographical, the confessional, and, all too often, the narcissistic,” and hence the rise of new “magic words” like “self-awareness,” “personal growth” and other aphorisms promoting everyone to “be all that you can be.”[v]
Individualism lies at the heart of American idealism, dating to the country’s Enlightenment Era origins, when the autonomous subject was invented as a counterpoint to deific and royal authority. Necessary as individualism was (and remains), no one could have predicted how its value could be magnified and distorted in neoliberal times. The initial affirmation of personal identity, which encouraged people to vote and participate in society, soon morphed into “striving to get ahead” and “winning at any cost.” Eventually the “self” would become an American obsession of theological proportions. “The purpose of nearly all the current gospels is to put believers ‘in touch’ with themselves,” Rapson further explained.[vi] This new brand of secular “faith” also comports well with the religiosity many Americans still profess, especially evangelical strains that promise economic gain to dutiful worshippers. Continue reading “Creative Magic”