Originality Blues: Tales of the ‘70s
by Ralph Dumain
"All my life, I always wanted to be somebody. Now I see that I should
have been more specific."
Jane Wagner, The Search For Intelligent Life In The Universe, performed by Lily Tomlin
“Improvement makes strait roads, but the crooked roads
without Improvement, are roads of Genius.”
William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
In Buffalo NY, during a couple stretches in the 1970s, I lived in a neighborhood called Allentownan area which I suppose would now be called a transitional neighborhood, though it was not yet in transition, just rather a highly demographically mixed area also host to a bohemian/artistic community. There I experienced a number of encounters stimulating thoughts on originality.
I have a rather nebulous memory of a brief encounter on someone’s front steps, with a dorky countercultural fellow I had never seen before or since, who confided in me that he was a frustrated artist. There must be a million starving artists and misunderstood geniuses in this world, and I had my doubts as to his originality, but I could feel his frustration regardless of his likely merits. One can only hope that people will somehow latch on to some pursuit through which they can competently express who they are and gain satisfaction.
P- was a good friend of mine who took dance classes in her spare time. Her instructor was one of my best friends at the time, Stevea choreographer and theater director. P- once told me of her need to accomplish something original. When I relayed this to Steve, his response was to dismiss this yearning as pretentious. However, I thought his response was conceptually underdeveloped, as was P-’s take on her urge to be creative somehow.
My discomfiture led me to think about the desire to be original, mine as well as other people’s. I had plenty of opportunity to think about artistic creativity, as I was immersed in an artistic milieu, populated in my circles mostly by dancers and actors. I myself had barely mastered walking up the stairs without stumbling and breaking my neck, but there I was. If I had any gift at all, it was linguistic and conceptual.
I realized that the desire to be original was a naked abstract intention, not anchored to any substantive form, content, or direction. By itself it could produce nothing but a drive that keeps one searching for something to latch on to. Thus, while being an understandable vital impulse, this need to be original in itself was an unproductive force.
Without reading anyone else’s ideas on the subject, and just thinking things through, I concluded that originality can only be the by-product of what one does. One’s engagement with some concrete endeavor is a form of objectivity, and it is out of this objectivity that novelty may emerge. Recently, I read some statement to this effect, that originality can only be a by-product, but I can’t recall where.
The dance world with which my life intersected was mostly black. By this I refer not only to demonstrably ethnic subject matter, but to the personnel whatever the genre, meaning also ballet and modern dance companies. The most prominent ethnically oriented dance company in the area was the Black Dance Workshop (later renamed Kariamu and Company), led by Carol Kariamu Welsh, who also became the wife of Molefi Asante, the obscurantist intellectual who founded Afrocentricity, whom I never met.
You may know that there are various techniques taught in the dance world. Steve also taught ethnic dance in addition to his modern dance classes, but his main influence was Martha Graham. I was aware of the existence of a number of other techniques, but given my tenuous mastery of the art of walking upright, I never learned much about anything other than some basics of ballet and Martha Graham.
I learned at some point that “Kariamu” had invented her own techniquedubbed, I think, “Mfundalai.” Presumably this was some Afrocentric innovation. I know nothing of what it consisted, or of its merits or lack thereof, but it came up in a couple of discussions among people I knew. At some point there was a general discussion of techniques and potential slavish attitudes to techniques or the prerogative to invent one’s own. The nature of the discussion seemed to me to be misguided.
I thought a lot about the arts in those days, of which my favorite has always been music, and from the early ‘70s on, jazz above all else. Jazz is both an essentially modern, historically evolving and historically conscious art form, one that has undergone several paradigmatic stylistic revolutions. At the same time I developed an intensive interest in the history of science. And so this question of innovation and originality always lurked as a subject for contemplation.
I used to think a lot about the nature of genius as focal point of innovation, without either mystifying genius or reducing it to sociology. Something fundamentally new involves a confluence of both subjective and objective factors. The subjective factor involves exceptional abilities; the objective, the state of affairs and the range of potentialities in any given situation. Artistic creation involves an object substantively different from the object of scientific discovery, and while I eschew Platonism, I find it convenient to think of artistic styles and forms as occupying sectors of a space of possibilities. It is well enough known that a Newton or Einstein could not have made their discoveries at any old time or place. What men or women of similar genius would have done at less auspicious historical moments is anybody’s guess, especially as both the propagandists and debunkers of genius never think these things through. Not just any artistic innovation you please can be arbitrarily effected regardless of place and time, though this may not be so obvious since artistic style is more likely to be naively thought of as an act of free creation. Again, perhaps someone of exceptional talent would accomplish something outstanding in any circumstances, though even here this is a dodgy assertion, because it neglects the intimate interrelationship between subject and object.
But as for major artistic revolution or creative innovation, there exists in some historically specific situation some unfilled space to be filled, and it can only be filled once. There is an objectivity to the nature of the creation, which lives on apart from the originator, and developed by successors. The innovator of genius characteristically possesses both an overarching (aesthetic) idea or methodology combined with a virtuosity of technique and execution down to the minutest details (Blake’s “minute particulars”). The outcome is an objective artistic methodology rich in potentials for exploitation by others. But the “disciples” do not occupy their position solely by dint of being second-raters themselves, lacking the genius of the great masters. Irrespective of the rating of their own talents with respect to innovators of genius, disciples have to find some space in which to objectify their abilities. Not all spaces (Platonically conceived here for purposes of exposition) are open at any time, and creation does not proceed ex nihilo. Once Martha Graham invents her technique, that space is taken. It is an objective formal universe, which can be developed and exploited by others. The arbitrary desire to invent something different is inherently no more creative or original than the creative and original internalization of an existing methodology of seemingly inexhaustible potential. And one could say the same of Bach or Beethoven or Parker or Coltrane, or Monet or Picasso, not to mention Newton or Einstein.
1979 was one of the most intense years of my young life, mostly in a good way, though with some painful turns as autumn came round. The theme of creation was there in many incarnations in the course of the year. I can no longer remember the first half of the year, but I do remember some of my intellectual preoccupations of that summer, which was eventful in other ways as well.
I was on one of my periodic Blake kicks of intensive reflection and study. Upon reading an article on Byron’s Cain, in Blake in His Time, edited by Robert N. Essick and Donald Pearce (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978), I became fascinated with the radical ideological reversals of myths that transpired in the Romantic era, and I proceeded to examine the phenomenon further, beginning with this interest in Byron’s Cain, which not only reversed the official meaning of the Biblical myth, but which underwent a further transmutation in William Blake’s The Ghost of Abel. I moved on to Lord Byron's Cain: Twelve Essays and a Text with Variants and Annotations edited by T.G. Steffan (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1968). I posed myself some interesting questions for broadening my background, but I also posed the question: what would it be like to design a myth with self-consciousness built into it?
Unfortunately, the microcomputer revolution had not quite hit the general public, so there was neither word processing to expedite research and writing, nor online computer access via the Internet or even the local BBS which preceded it. What was there was the neighborhood. I would customarily park myself in the Greek restaurant located at the crossroads of the neighborhood, also a significant, strategically located intersection for anyone traveling through the city. The restaurant was open 24 hours, and one could sit there for hours and hours unmolested, especially in the off-peak hours. It was a place to meet one’s friends and acquaintances, or sit alone and hang out. So I would bring my books and papers and sprawl them out on a table and work on my strange projects. I would also occasionally experience unexpected encounters with strangers.
Once while I was ensconced in this particular project, a couple of truck drivers who just stopped in for coffee and a quick bite at some odd hour sat down at nearby stools and evinced a bemused curiosity about what I was up to. So I attempted an explanation of my interest in myth reversal and a new myth of creation. By their reactions they must have thought I was nuts, but the joke was on them: by drawing them into my project and soliciting their input, I induced them to think in spite of themselves. Funny how I remember this incident a quarter century on.
Sometime between summer and fall of 1979 I developed an interest in Leibniz’s monadology, or I should say, I was fascinated by the concept of the monad, which had a curious resonance with my everyday experience of life. I had taken up residence on Allen Street, Allentown’s main street. This was, as I mentioned, a highly variegated neighborhood, including not only an arts community, but also, not surprisingly, a gay community, and also a mixture of ethnic groups and income levels, from very rich to very poor, blending into black and Puerto Rican neighborhoods on east and west, and into downtown to the North. On one of the better streets I couldand didvisit the home of John Fisher of Fisher-Price toy fame, who used to volunteer at the Allentown Community Center. (I also knew one or more of the workers in his factory in East Aurora.) I lived close to the poorer border of the neighborhood, a block from Main Street (somewhere on the other side of which a black ghetto would begin to be defined), where I occasionally wielded my lead pipe chasing drunks down the street who would pee on my living room window in the middle of the night.
My residence was the oddest of domiciles. It had once been a hotel for transients, perhaps visiting sailors. It had since degenerated to the most interesting flophouse. It was quite an impressive building. While basically the building was a rooming house, there was an elegant full-fledged apartment on the first floor. The woodwork was beautiful, with bay windows and wooden shutters, built-in adjustable wooden bookshelves in the bedroom, a beautiful fireplace in the living room and another in the huge bedroom (both non-functional), glass doors that opened out from the dining alcove to the living room (which I saw as great for making a grand entrance to deliver lectures to audiences gathered in the living room), very high ceilings. The other tenants were the dregs of humanity, undoubtedly on public assistance, which was an accepted fact of life in those days, but this apartment was beautiful. The building’s owner was an art teacher, with his own idiosyncracies including a laziness about bothering to collect the rent, which for that apartment was $100 or $125 per month. Moreover, I was told that this was once the abode of the incompetent gynecologist who operated on President McKinley after he was shot at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo in 1901. For me there could not have been a more ideal place to live.
My living room window faced south. The variety of social groupings congregating in this neighborhood could be discerned just from the eating and drinking establishments that people frequented. Across the street from me, slightly to the west, was a fancy gay-owned restaurant. On the opposite corner to the east was a bar frequented by white suburbanites. (Just around the corner of Main Street was Chin’s Restaurant, which had a sizable black clientele and where I would get plastered in the summer on their Tonga Rum Punch, the recipe of which I finally wheedled out of a bartender. Up at the next corner was a laundromat and a base for hostile black prostitutes, whereas the white prostitutes, including lost souls from the ‘burbs, walked Allen Street. And in the reverse direction down Main Street, a block north of Allen, was the famed Frank & Teresa’s Anchor Bar, the reputed originator of chicken wings as a food item, which no one then thought to call Buffalo wings.) Right across the street from me was a raunchy little bar frequented by white trash, the source of the public urinators with whom I had to contend. The same (American) Indian who was supposed to take care of my building also worked at this bar.
This gives a little flavor, just a taste of the environment in which Leibniz’s monadology caught my attention. I was highly conscious of the fact that people sharing the same physical space carried wholly different worlds inside themselves. At what points in common space do these internal worlds intersect, and how do they otherwise remain invisible to one another? The concept of the monad intrigued me with this problem in mind. I found Leibniz’s idealist monadology unsatisfactory, however, so I needed to reconfigure the scheme. (The real unity of the world consists in its materiality, and this is proved not by a few juggled phrases, but by a long and wearisome development of philosophy and natural science. Friedrich Engels)
So I worked out some ideas, which I have no chance of remembering now. But I eventually learned, as I’ve experienced many times, and you probably have too, that once you come up with something you think is a new idea, immediately afterwards, you discover that somebody already wrote about the same thing decades ago. In this case, it was Herbert Wildon Carr’s 1922 A Theory of Monads .
This was also one experience of a close relationship between philosophical reflection and everyday life. For while thinking big thoughts, I was also immersed in a social environment in which sleaze as well as inspiration played a big part. The defining moment of this project came for me one night while working in my living room. I looked out my living room window to the sleazy bar across the street. And there the drama of a different mental universe played itself out. Some people must have gotten into a fight, for the window of the bar had just been smashed, shattered glass now lay on the street, and someone began sweeping it up. This was the monadology of the street. What united us was our shared physical presence, but the invisible worlds we carried within ourselves were windowless, and light years apart.
Certain events of October 1979 forced me to turn inward as winter approached. Every few years I would undergo periods of social withdrawal, and by December, I was in another one. There were two inspirations carrying me through the Buffalo desolation. One was William Blake, as ever. The other was a cheap reproduction of a Van Gogh painting on my wall I would wake to every morning. Solitude, man! Solitude, also a major theme, to be explored elsewhere.
Two further projects as the ‘70s drew to a close bear mentioning. One was my continuing concern with a new mythical or schematic construct of the concept of creation. I had a sudden inspiration in December and sketched out a diagram. I didn’t work from any other models, but curiously, I think it bears a passing resemblance to some of these Kabalistic diagrams you may have seen. I remember too little to comment further.
The other project was an investigation of the dynamics underlying the entire world view of Isaac Newton, which included his theology as well as his physics. I began with a book by Frank E. Manuel, which must have been A Portrait of Isaac Newton (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1968). From a rather different framework from today, my project was, essentially, to analyze the role of science in the total cultural system, a project I’ve revived in recent years. In addition to my scribblings, I made an audiotape of my thoughts on the subject. While my overall philosophical perspective would embarrass me today, at least I can say I was alert and perspicacious concerning a key intellectual/ideological problem, however poorly schooled in the intellectual history that would have helped me to approach it in a more conceptually acceptable fashion. I did not have a coherent materialist perspective, but even with my vagaries of ontology and method, I would say that many of my instincts were good, and would serve me well into and beyond the conceptual combinatorial transformation that was about to take place.
I don’t believe in “decades,” but as I’ve written on many occasions, the events of 1980 forced a dramatic reevaluation of my position. I had no idea that Ronald Reagan would be elected president later that year, a possibility inconceivable in Democratic Buffalo. But the nation’s swing to the right was already manifest in the irrationality that seemed to have overtaken the intellectual world in the less than three years during which I was too busy partying to pay attention, but which hit me like a ton of bricks in January 1980. I could tolerate the rampant irrationalism in the various countercultures in which I participated, but the irrationality that took over the mainstream was too much for me to take. Was this Jimmy Carter’s stagflation in the realm of ideas?
I think it was too early to learn the lessons of the ‘70s, but at some point I did formulate the thought that philosophy’s role is to provide an interpretive framework that spontaneous cognition cannot. My drastic reorientation in the face of political reaction notwithstanding, I don’t think the public expressions of my new schematic agenda did justice to the fund of intuition and experience accumulated in the previous decade, and my sketchy knowledge of intellectual history did not help. Schematism and intuition did not always optimally match up, but I made a decisive step toward greater intellectual discipline, which co-existed with my idiosyncratic education and methodology outside the flow of academic scholarship. Still, note that I delved into the scholarly literature (if not current theoretical trends) in certain areas under investigation, such as Blake studies.
The 1990s were to witness yet another leap on my part. Whatever germs of originality floated in the inchoate mix, new intellectual developments began to be shaped in productive concrete forms. The coming together of idiosyncratic experience and formal scholarly traditions remains an ongoing process, but there is a unique sensibility at work, possessing its virtues as well as drawbacks.
Another thread to follow here is the problem of becoming a writer. Reputedly, everyone and his uncle once wanted to write the great American novel. But literary abilities aside, what can one write without experience? Should one then follow precedent and go on an adventure spree hoping to soak up the life experience requisite for the ultimate composition of the great masterpiece? Here again is that problem of originality: originality cannot be willed; it can only be the unpredictable outcome of what you do. Stubborn and opinionated as I was, for some years I kept my mouth shut for long periods of time to watch, listen, and learn. There is a special role for a man with no qualities, with no abiding abode. There is always an absence to fill, and a conversation that no one thought to initiate. Since my earliest conscious memory of being a stranger in society, I sought moments in which some stimulus would ignite my inner impulses. Yeah. I was watching, found you wanting.
Written 18 April 2005: 50-year anniversary of Albert Einstein’s
& 19 April 2005
©2005 Ralph Dumain. All rights reserved.
The Philosophy of Originality: Vignettes
Originality, Cultural Capital, and Class Distinction
The Jazz Avant-Garde, Mysticism & Society: Meaning, Method & the Young Hegelians
William Blake in the Universe of Knowledge: Philosophy, Genres, & Critical Method
Hegel, Marx, Goldner, C.L.R. James, Enlightenment & the Philosophical Dichotomies
A Personal Tribute to Albert Einstein (14 March 1879 - 18 April 1955)
Wisdom, Philosophy & Everyday Life Theoretical Perspectives: An Unconventional Guide
Two Artists Discuss Their Craft
Invisible Midwifery / Akuŝo Nevidebla
On Seeing the First Few Minutes of 'The Doors'
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