Suffering, Creativity, and Genius

What would Nietzsche make of us? What would Nietzsche make of the T-shirt you can find on Facebook that is a spoof of a beer label. It reads, “Nietzsche’s Übermensch/Superior Quality/It’s Beyond Good/Zarathustra & CO. Distillery/Consume Responsibly.” If there were a God who gave him a soul, would Nietzsche turn in his grave? What would he think about the fact that over the years I have viewed his writings as a kind of self-help? That is, and perhaps ironically, if I have not sought comfort in Buddhism, I have sought comfort in Nietzsche’s writings. I have often been inspired by his call to greatness, his call to take on profound suffering in the name of creation, in the name of genius. And I realized long ago that it was inspirational because it appealed to my ego, as I’m sure it does to the egos of other, predominantly white boys/men. The inspiration works like this: “Don’t you want to think of yourself as a creative genius, then quit your bitching about your suffering and embrace it!” The implication supposedly: if I’m reading Nietzsche, and I’m embracing my suffering, then I, too, am a higher type. On top of Nietzsche’s writings in some sense inviting this sort of poor reasoning, there is the danger that goes along with dedicating your life to reading the works of geniuses: One, of course, would very much like to be a peer of the authors one is reading. It is difficult, particularly if you’re introverted and spend much time in isolation with the work of geniuses, not to long for some measure of equality.

However, neither suffering nor our embracing of it are sufficient for creative genius. So much is obvious. Nevertheless, it is rather interesting to think about the connection between genius and suffering and/or madness. In today’s essay, I want to explore in a loose way a number of issues concerning creativity, genius, suffering, and psychopathy.

Consider Wendell Berry’s essay, “The Specialization of Poetry,” which provides an interesting way into these issues. As his title indicates, Berry is concerned to challenge what he sees in 1974 as the specialization of poetry. Briefly, Berry contrasts the poet specialist with the “ordinary person” who happens write poetry in addition to doing other work. He considers, for example, William Carlos Williams who is both a poet and a community engaged doctor. For Berry, the poet specialist runs the risk of making their poetry divorced from more communal, public concerns, choosing to focus instead on interiority, in particular on their suffering. Among other things this is marked by the reader’s interest in the poet’s life itself, her views on all manner of things, instead of simply the poetry itself. In addition to the poet’s turning inward and away from shared experience and public concerns, Berry notes a concomitant turn to the art of words. The words themselves, not what they say, takes precedence over engagement with experience and tradition. But Berry’s main problem seems to be that with a focus on suffering there is a focus on people as sufferers (victims) and not actors responsible for their fate. Hence, there is a contrast between the passive poet responding to her suffering and the activist poet who takes responsibility for themselves and what is happening in society. Further, Berry thinks that the poet’s focus on interiority goes along with an absence of narrative in contemporary poetry and the lack of narrative goes with the lack of communal engagement. While we won’t be engaging all or many of these issues, I want to give the reader the context of Berry’s discussion. Continue reading

Dōgen on Hearing Things As They Are…a Response to Okumura Roshi

One of my most beloved contemporary Zen practitioners and scholars is Shōhaku Okumura Roshi. One reason is simply the fact that he is in the lineage of Zen that I attempt to practice, namely Dōgen’s. But I also find his approach very human; that is, his approach to Zen is a Zen that a human could practice. This is not always the case, it seems to me, with other Zen practitioners and commentators. But this, of course, does not mean I don’t resist some of the things he says, though I suspect oftentimes that resistance is more a matter of my misunderstanding, or perhaps better, my seeking to understand and falling short. But I am convinced that there is much value in lingering in confusion and talking about it with others. So what follows is that sort of lingering.

In a recent blog post for the Dōgen Institute, Okumura translates and comments on the following poem from Dōgen:

声づから Koe zukara At the very time
耳の聞ゆる Mimi no kikoyuru when my ears hear
時されば Toki sareba the voice as it is,
吾が友ならん Waga tomo naran everyone I talk with
かたらひぞなき Katarai zo naki is my friend.

What Okumura focuses on in his commentary, and what I want to focus on, is what it means to “hear something as it is.” What I want to suggest by the end is that things are much less clear than Okumura (and othes) make them appear to be. To get there, let’s consider the sound of a barred owl. What could it mean to hear the sound as it is?

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Dirty Ontology: The Muddy Waters of “the” Self

“When the water is deep, the boat rides high. When there is much mud, the Buddha is large.”
—Dōgen, “The Indestructible Nature in Deep Muddy Water” in the Eihei Kōroku


“Know thyself” is the fairly famous injunction inscribed overhead at Apollo’s temple at Delphi. The meaning of this may be less obvious than it seems, but regardless of how it was intended, we can read it in different ways depending on what we understand by “knowing” and what we understand by “self.”

I originally became interested in thinking about different conceptions of self in the context of death. Consider the original reasoning that got me interested in philosophy: “If there is no God, then there is no soul. If there is no soul, then there is no afterlife. If there is no afterlife, then the self ceases to exist upon death. Ceasing to exist is not good. Thus, death is not good. Thus… fuck.” But that conclusion depends on a very particular conception of self. To use a turn of phrase from Walt Whitman, it presupposes a conception of self where the self is contained “between one’s hat and boots.”

It seems to me that this idea strikes us as obvious (where the “us” in question is quite Western). That is, if I am not a self-contained, independently existing soul, then I must be this flesh and blood that “I” haul around everywhere. Mustn’t this be true? How could I be anything else? Even if I, or even an entire culture, were to say that what myself is is something other than this flesh and blood, this lump of flesh, how can that make it so? It’s obvious, isn’t it? It couldn’t. After all, consider the most extreme case: if the entire earth were to be destroyed, I would certainly still survive entirely intact if I managed to get away on, say, a spaceship. If not a soul, then I am necessarily this lump of flesh. An analogy: Calling my cat a “dog,” giving it dog food, a dog bone, and making it sleep in the doghouse, does not make him into a dog. I cannot make my cat something he is not by my treatment of him.

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Trump’s Words, Trumps Deeds

Perhaps you or someone you know has said some version of, “I’m interested in what Clinton did, not in what Trump said,” in regard to Trump’s 2005 hot mic recording in which he brags to Billy Bush about groping and kissing women without consent because he can get away with it as famous and rich as he is. For the sake of argument, let’s pretend that his denial of ever having done such things is true. We can still see a horrible problem with what Trump said if we consider that words are in fact deeds.

When someone says, “I’m interested in what Clinton did, not in what Trump said,” they seem to be thinking of this kind of case: “Bob always talks about climbing Mount Sumeru, but Sara actually did it!” In such a case we can easily see the point of emphasizing Sara’s actually having done it. But consider how the Trump example differs:

1) In the context of loving relationship, if one person says to another, “I love you,” they are not merely speaking in contrast to doing. That is, by saying, “I love you,” the one person expresses and affirms their love, models the kind of behavior they want to see in the relationship, and thereby partially constitutes the existing context of the loving relationship.

2) In the context of a culture that regularly devalues women, treats them as mere sex objects, denies their needs and wants, etc., if a person says to another, “I grope pussy when I want because I’m famous, ha ha, isn’t that great,” they are not merely speaking in contrast to doing. That is, by saying those things Trump expresses and affirms the culture of misogyny, models the kind of behavior he wants to see, and thereby partially constitutes the existing context of the misogynistic, rape culture.

The point here is not to compare whether 2) is worse than anything either of the Clintons has ever done; the point is that Trump is not merely speaking, he is doing something in the hot mic recording, just as he is doing something every time he opens his mouth.