Person playing instrument

Community and the Creative Spirit

Nietzsche With the Voice of an Angel  

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s seminal essay, “Self Reliance,” remains the great paean to American individualism. As with all the man’s writings, it’s equal parts quotable and intoxicating, making the task of choosing a representative statement a formidable one. But choose we must and the following will serve our purposes well:

“O father, O mother, O wife, O brother, O friend, I have lived with you after appearances hitherto. Henceforward I am the truth’s. Be it known unto you that henceforward I obey no law less than the eternal law. I will have no covenants but proximities. I shall endeavor to nourish my parents, to support my family, to be the chaste husband of one wife—but these relations I must fill after a new and unprecedented way. I appeal from your customs. I must be myself.” 

It matters little whether we’ve actually read the essay or not: Emerson’s thought is now so deeply entrenched that I’d venture to say it’s part of our national psyche. One way to test this assertion is to survey the radical new approaches to human identity, be they spiritual, sexual, biological, or some combination of all three, and see how easily they fit under the profession, “I must be myself.” Indeed, “I must be myself” can now stand as the reigning Shibboleth of our day—the last remaining sacred cow in a field of shattered glass. How many of us recognize its origins in one of the nation’s central poets?

Notice also that Emerson’s pronouncement is a not-so-subtle inversion of Luke 14:26. Christ enjoins His followers to forsake all in pursuit of His name; Emerson counsels us to kick everyone to the curb in the name of self-actualization. While our Lord’s words shake us to the core, Emerson’s barely rise to the dignity of a challenge. After all, what’s easier, sacrificing everyone in the name of devotion, or cutting ties with the folks threatening personal ambition? Little wonder we find Emerson so bewitching. With his verbal alchemy, he almost succeeds in converting self-indulgence into self-sacrifice. He’s Nietzsche with the voice of an angel. 

Parsing the “Dividual” Self

But shrewd critics rarely have angelic voices and when it comes to his assessment of the creative spirit, Emerson is just plain wrong. Genius, like nature, abhors a vacuum. Who taught Emerson to read and write? Who shaped his poetic sensibilities—that linguistic finesse we so cherish? Behind all of us, there’s a motley parade of family, friends, teachers, enemies, and annoying co-workers, each of whom has shaped us in indelible ways. We cannot be known apart from our relationships. To think otherwise is to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of a human being. In his wonderful book, Common as Air, Lewis Hyde points to the irony of Emerson’s singling out of Benjamin Franklin as the quintessential self-made man:

“Any human being can be made to look like a self-reliant unique if you adjust the lighting properly and drop a gray canvas behind the figure; but let history enter, and sufficient sunlight, and of a sudden will appear the horizonless, thousand-knotted net of human interdependence. The genius of a man like Franklin is as much dividual as it is individual.”

No current figure explodes the myth of Emerson’s self-made man quite like Bob Dylan. Notoriously evasive in interviews, part of what makes Dylan so inscrutable is his total immersion in whatever music captures his interest. In his memoir, he describes poring over the early recordings of pioneering bluesman, Robert Johnson (he of the Satanic crossroads fame), transcribing the words, internalizing them, and letting them do their invisible work of reshaping his vision of the world. Far from spinning some yawn-inducing yarn about total originality, Dylan says he felt more like himself singing Woody Guthrie’s music. Early on, he was captivated by Arthur Rimbaud’s statement “Je est un autre.” Translation: “I is someone else.” Lewis Hyde points out that this effectively constitutes a reversal of Descartes’ infamous dictum, “I think therefore I am.” Conversely, “I is someone else” becomes “I am thought therefore I am.” Dylan’s response is telling: “When I read those words the bells went off. It made perfect sense. I wished someone would have mentioned that to me earlier.” We need more folks to mention it today. 

You Are Thought Therefore You Are

If Emerson’s picture of human self-realization involves us forsaking society and heading into the woods to shape our identity against the backdrop of Nature’s majestic blank slate, Dylan’s approach more closely resembles what jazz musicians refer to as the “woodshed” or “woodshedding.” Here, the humble woodshed, with its oily aroma and dense array of gleaming tools, is pictured as a collaborative space where musicians converge to sharpen their skills and from which they emerged weary and somehow enlarged. No less a figure than Louis Armstrong mentions being worked to the bone in his woodshedding sessions with his wife (one of four), a formidable musician in her own right. 

While creativity is often viewed as an emblem of individual self-expression, even a cursory glance into its inner workings soon dispels any notion of the lonely artist laboring away in total isolation. Instead, what unfolds is a dynamic picture of the inherently relational nature of human beings. Precisely because we are not atomistic, monadic, self-sufficient beings, all of our makings bear innumerable signatures, most of which we don’t even recognize. There’s a very real sense in which everything we do is haunted by strangers. It’s one of the many reasons that the nature of influence remains deeply elusive. Our cultural moment may seethe with Emerson’s naive view of individual creativity, but listen to “Maggie’s Farm” or watch a good jazz performance, and you’ll have a hard time avoiding the conclusion, “We are thought therefore we are.” We remain incomprehensible apart from others, and in this fact lies a powerful clue about the nature of reality.

There is a magnificent fittingness to all of this if we were made for God and neighbor. In this sense, the relational dynamism on display in creative acts showcases why we truly come into our own when we’re in a vibrant community. A trip into the woods can certainly bring with it a powerful feeling of seclusion, but no amount of isolation and solitude is sufficient to erase the “thousand-knotted net of human interdependence” of which Hyde spoke. Apart from God and neighbor, we are nothing. 

Consider Paul’s anatomical description that precedes his elegant summary of the church: “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it (I Corinthians 12:27).” Benjamin Franklin drew on the rich resources of the “dividual self” in the service of radical innovation; Dylan felt more like himself stepping into a vibrant tradition that had preceded him, and in so doing succeeded in carrying that tradition forward; Armstrong grew as a songwriter in the collaborative space of the woodshed. Though the celebrity status of each of these figures makes them seem larger than life, each offers a faint intimation of the creative power that’s unleashed in our collaborative efforts. What if we allowed such intimations to reshape our vision of church? What if we saw our weekly gatherings as a kind of spiritual “woodshed,” a place to honor our Lord through the creative efforts of our collaborative praise? Honest artists don’t just explode the myth of the self-made man; they offer a glimpse into the dynamics of the New Heavens and the New Earth. Honest Christians, whether raising their voices to Jesus, shuffling forward to take communion, or laying prayerful hands on a hurting soul, are doing much the same thing. In all of our best actions we confess: We are thought, therefore we are.  

Community and the Creative Spirit