Creativity in the Time of Influenza

With (abject) apologies to Gabriel García Márquez

Some of you may well have noticed that last week’s post was just a graphic saying that my post had been cancelled due to illness. I know I joked about man-flu, but this flu, doing the rounds here in South Africa right now, is pretty bad. It’s one of those that just won’t go away, and has sometimes required hospitalisation (not me, fortunately), and even caused some deaths. My wife, daughter, and I, are still battling with it, in spite of many days in bed, and generally looking after ourselves.

Anyhow, that is just by way of introduction. It is not … I repeat … not, an invitation to a pity-party.

Something I’ve noticed while I’ve been coughing up lungs and sweating out fevers, is that my desire to create has disappeared almost entirely. Even when I’ve wanted to create, the thought of having to move, engage my brain, and actually do something, has usually been enough to still that weak, creative flutter.

This got me thinking about all the great artists, of all kinds, who, over the centuries, created some of their best work while suffering from various dire diseases. So many of the greatest novelists, musical composers, poets, and painters did their best work while suffering from consumption (tuberculosis), or other incurable, even unidentifiable illnesses. How did they do it?

The list of famous artists (of all kinds) who died of consumption is a really long one, and includes names such as Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Ann & Emily Bronté (possibly also Charlotte), Robert Burns, Paul Gauguin, Charles Bukowski, Albert Camus, Honoré de Balzac, Frédéric Chopin, Amedeo Modigliani, Igor Stravinsky, … The list goes on and on. I won’t even get into mental illness, or unidentified illnesses.

Maslow theorised, in his hierarchy of needs, that creativity, as part of self-actualisation, is, and fulfils our highest need. However, he also said that self-actualisation, in nearly all cases, requires that basic needs be met first. Maslow said that an absence of basic needs, such as food, shelter, safety, belonging, health, etc., has a negative, or even destructive effect on creativity. In other words, if we’re worrying about staying alive, or being outcast, we’re unlikely to focus on creativity — artistic or otherwise.

So, once again, I ask the question, “How did/do these artistic, uber-creatives (then and/or now) continue to produce high-level creative work while seriously debilitated by illness?”

One theory that I’ve read, but disagree with, suggests that these historical figures had a generally lower standard and experience of life, and so, experienced less of a difference between health and illness. I disagree with that for multiple reasons. Firstly, many of these people were reported as being strong, energetic, robust, etc., prior to their illness. Also, such life-experience is by nature subjective, and so the difference would still be felt on a subjective level.

The biggest problem with this theory, however, is that even today, many artists continue to produce great — arguably their best — work when ill, in pain, or even near death.

As a lifelong Leonard Cohen fan (I fell in love with his music when I was only nine years old), I consider his last album, You Want it Darker, to be his best, deepest work ever. You Want it Darker was recorded and produced, literally as he was dying, and was released after his death. The same is true for many other artists. (e.g. David Bowie’s Blackstar)

So, there are all of these gravely ill, often poverty-stricken, high-level, artistic, creatives who, in spite of their circumstances, produce what (very often) becomes known as their best work. Again, I ask, in light of my own fleeting, momentary troubles, “How did/do they do it?”

My theory, which is all mine … (thank you Monty Python)

(I apologise in advance for the rambling nature of my thoughts, but I’m working this out as I go.)

While I agree with Maslow’s opinion regarding “higher” needs requiring the fulfilment of more basic needs, I think this might also throw some light on my thrice-asked question.

  1. Maslow says that “basic” needs must be met before focus is turned to “higher” needs.
  2. Scores of high-level, artistic, creatives do some of their best work in situations where their “basic” needs — such as health, sustenance, shelter, etc. — are apparently not being met.
  3. My Theory: Many high-level creatives somehow manage to “flip” the needs hierarchy so that creativity/artistic expression becomes a basic need, more, or at least as important as health, food, shelter, etc.

Actually, this is the basis of many religious, spiritual, psychological, developmental quests — to see the “higher” things as they truly are — the foundational basics of life.

I seem to remember reading, some time ago, that even Maslow, spoke of a cyclical nature within his needs hierarchy. (I haven’t confirmed that, and it could be someone else’s opinion, not Maslow’s.) This actually makes a lot of sense.

While it is highly unlikely that someone will focus on creativity, when basic needs have never been met, self-actualisation/creativity is part of a natural, developmental progression once the “basics” are in place. This means, that once self-actualisation/creativity has been experienced (on any level), it remains an arrow in one’s quiver — so to speak — even if one’s circumstances take a turn for the worst.

This is the difference between those who have previously experienced provision of “basic” needs, and those who have not. This is why some people can look at a beggar, and not understand why s/he does not use creativity to get out of poverty. This is why artists look at the rest of the world and cannot understand how they live without creating.

John Cleese — yes, he of Monty Python fame — makes this point, regarding stupidity and excellence, very well in this video. In brief, he says that one needs a certain level of intelligence to be aware of how stupid one is, and a certain level of skill to know how bad one is at something. I think, that is what I’m trying to say here about creativity.

If you’ve never experienced creativity, you have no way to know that you’re missing it.

Those of us who have had our “basic” needs met (to one degree or another), and who have begun the process of self-actualisation (to one degree or another), have something that is simply not available to someone whose “basic” needs have not been met — either objectively or subjectively.

It has become quite widely recognised that possibly the biggest problem in our consumer-centric society, is the fact that so many of us, feel that we never have enough. The more we have, the more we feel the lack of that which do not have. Ironically, this means, that although our basic, foundational needs are being objectively met, we are subjectively in need.

This subjective non-fulfilment of basic needs, means that many in our society never reach the point of focusing on self-actualisation, because they are too busy focusing on fulfilling foundational needs that have objectively, already been met.

My Wrap-up

Quite frankly, I had not expected this post to get this long, but the pulled thread unravelled more than I expected.

  • Many of us expend our time and energy in anxiety over needs that have already been met. This is largely due to our consumer culture, which would crumble without our false sense of need.
  • High-level, artistic creatives have often managed to realise — in some way — that creativity/artistic expression is more vital than basic needs. They can therefore forget to eat and drink because they are creating. It also means that the act of creativity can fulfil, or to a certain extent, replace the more “basic” needs such as food, shelter, health, etc.
  • Maslow, along with pretty much every story-teller, religion, psychologist, and life-coach puts self-actualisation at the pinnacle of human life, development, and endeavour. Self-actualisation — in whatever way, or by whatever means — is a primary goal of life.

I challenge you all, as I challenge myself, to:

  1. Stop focusing on basic needs that have already been fulfilled. Few people would look at me, and consider me rich, but my basic needs are, at least in the present, met. I’ll put money (that I don’t have) on the fact that the same is true for the vast majority of you reading this post.
  2. Stop allowing society, advertising, and retail-consumer culture to fuel your anxiety about what you don’t have, or what might (or might not) happen tomorrow.
  3. Focus on self-actualisation — i.e. creativity, morality, spontaneity, problem-solving, love, lack of prejudice, accepting facts. This is the natural human, developmental life progression when basic needs have been objectively met.

That’s all folks. Once again, I apologise for the rather rambling nature of this post. As I said earlier, this is something that I worked through as I was writing, and I’ll admit that my flu-addled brain is not quite back up to speed yet, either. In spite of that, I hope you find it thought provoking, challenging, and ultimately helpful.

Please share, comment, recommend, etc. I’d love to hear from you.