Fabius, a co-ed who seems to have made blowing people away his hobby, made a good case that repetition is incompatible with creativity, which he is right to value. There might be an important difference to be made between specialization and repetition in that specialization can pertain to a field that might include many diverse activities. For example, a good stage actor – or better, a great Shakespearean actor – will have to master different genres, like comedy or tragedy, and all kinds of different characters to win the title. But Fabius’s point is more that if an actor only ever plays McDuff, he’ll be able to recite the part beautifully even after a frat-sized beer bong, but he’ll basically be just a McDuff salary man, contributing little and learning nothing.
Fabius is generally right, but I want to point out the edge of logic where the banal turns sublime.
Exhibit A: Tom Robbins writes some really self-congratulatory books with some really great one liners and appropriately odd characters. Among a transvestite douche mogul; a nymphomaniac, monastic, elderly former internee; and a militantly lesbian ranch hand, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues features as a protagonist a young woman, Sissy, who models to pay the bills but whose true vocation is hitchhiking. Hitchhiking is kind of a natural calling for her because she has freakishly oversized thumbs. She starts out hitchhiking to get away from her abusive, alcoholic father and dimwit mother, but as soon as she tries it, it becomes an end in itself. Even more, she becomes merely a means to that end. She becomes pretty much just a medium with which the ideal form of hitchhiking instantiates itself. She becomes an instrument in the hands of hitchhiking, which/who is the real artisan. When she doesn’t hitchhike, her thumbs itch. [spoiler coming] When she gets one of her thumbs surgically removed and plastically replaced, it’s a partial suicide. It’s tragic, like when the little mermaid trades the voice and her fins, the constituents of herself, for a couple of ordinary feet.
The thing about Sissy that gives her compulsive hitchhiking worth is how she identifies with it. Identity requires difference, and by taking something beyond the edges of good sense and logic, beyond what anyone else has even considered or tried, this space of identification opens. You know that nutjob French Guy who keeps getting arrested for climbing up skyscrapers? Or that nutjob French Guy who eats bicycles and light bulbs? You know why you know them? Exactly. They’ve pushed something beyond the ordinary such that they can identify with it, and you identify them with it. They’ve all taken some activity to the point where it’s not something they do, but the thing they do, and they are its doers.
“It is bad when one thing becomes two. One should not look for anything else in the way of the samurai. It is the same with anything else that can be called a way. If one understands things in this manner, he should be able to hear about all ways and be more and more in accord with his own.”
Exhibit B: In Camus’s The Plague, there is one character who does almost nothing but keeps reappearing. There’s this old Spaniard whom the protagonist, a doctor, checks on regularly. A couple of odd points: a) the Spaniard spends all day long moving dried peas, one by one, from one bowl to another, and when the first is empty, he moves them back one at a time; b) he does this while a plague is ravaging the town,* killing scores of people, and the doctor-protagonist keeps checking in on him in the middle of this plague. The Spaniard doesn’t talk, doesn’t leave his apartment, doesn’t reminisce; he grasps a pea and moves it to the bowl to be filled before grasping another and repeating the activity. This transcends even Sissy. Instead of identifying with the activity, the Spaniard has an other thing, an object, and he has dissolved his self in it, letting his subjectivity dissipate in pure action. This activity might not have a definite beginning, and it has no evident end. It just is because he is, or is that backwards?
But we can go further than either Sissy or the Spaniard. Sissy exalted in her activity, and the Spaniard lost himself in his. It’s not clear that either sacrificed, though. Neither of them showed a real commitment to the future. If either Sissy or the Spaniard decided to quit one day, it would be out of character, but they always had the option to jump ship. That’s not always the case.
Exhibit C: Robert Johnson was by many accounts the greatest blues guitarist in the history of the universe, and he probably will be well after our poor little sun suffers its heat death and our descendants are all dust. Like Cobain & Hendrix, he only made it to 27. There’s also an awesome legend about how he got so good, and even though it’s probably not factual, it’s definitely true.
The story is that the devil loves the blues (and of course he would), and he would tune the guitar of any blues man who waited at a crossroads in the dark of a moonless night. So Robert Johnson went to the Crossroads of highway 61 and highway 49 in Clarksdale, Mississippi and waited on the devil. The devil came, and Johnson traded his soul for blues guitar mastery.
The first interesting thing in this case is the exchange. Johnson traded his eternal soul for what turned out to be a few years of greatness. The quid was a momentous sacrifice. There was no going back, no hope of redefinition, nothing but commitment. But what about the quo? That’s the other interesting thing. Playing guitar is different from hitchhiking or moving peas in that there’s something there for others. It’s a performance, an aesthetic experience. And since Johnson sacrificed to be able to share that, his performance has the form of a gift. But many gifts have a quid pro quo element as well – just think of wedding rings. If you wanted to have a gift in its purest, most unadulterated form, you’d need to maximize the sacrifice and obscure the recipient, so that it’s just a generalized, diffuse gift to anyone and everyone. Check and, to a large extent, check.
So Fabius is right. There is a danger in being a one trick pony if all you have to offer yourself and others is repetition for the sake of safety and consistency. But if you push the specialization, the particularity beyond the boundaries of safety and stasis, you can approach the sublime.
Also tu was du nicht lassen kannst.
*This activity seems somehow far more meaningful than, say, playing Fruit Ninja, but it’s hard to figure out why without getting all Aristotelian, path-of/to-virtue-y. The best I can figure is that all meaning is relational, so even though Candy Crush and moving peas from one bowl to another are about equally meaningless in the abstract, context makes all the difference. For example, if you’re playing Bejeweled while you’re supposed to be doing data entry for PWC, it’s just a boring outlet for your boredom. Ce n’est que l’ennui. But, if you’re on the Titanic, it’s going down and all the other passengers are losing their minds, and you sit down and start playing solitaire or opt to finish your chocolate mousse, then you might be approximating the sublime, i.e. sublimating. There seems much more to say about this. I’d love to hear your thoughts.