Friday, 30 August 2013

The unfortunate (but necessary) negativity of young genius


Because creativity is bound-up with character (specifically, the personality trait of high Psychoticism), it comes in a package. And some aspects of the creativity package are annoying for other people - understandably so.

William Wordsworth is generally ranked as one of the three greatest English poets writing in modern English (along with Shakespeare and Milton) - he also has a reputation as being a rather dull and quiet kind of person.

On the whole, this reputation is broadly correct; but Wordsworth showed unmistable traits of high Psychoticism, including selfishness/ autonomy - but especially in his early life.


In the biographies of highly creative people, including geniuses, there is often a prolonged period when they do very little - they display pronounced negativity: that is to say they know what they do not want to do, but they have not discovered what they do want to do.

This happened in Wordsworth's life. From his second year at Cambridge University he more or less 'gave up' on studying, on preparing himself for making a living, on indeed on pursuing any kind of long term strategy: but he didn't do anything else much.

He wasted quite a lot of money given by his relatives (for example the fees and living expenses of three years at Cambridge, from his Uncle), he mooched around London, he did some travelling in search of something to stimulate him (including fathering an illegitimate child in France when absorbing the revolutionary fervour) and so on.

Even as a grown up, living quietly in Dove Cottage with his sister, Wordsworth took the brightest and warmest room for his poetry writing, and the whole household was organized around his poetic requirements.


(Tut tut, poor Dorothy, consigned to the gloomy parlour. Yet if William had not been selfish, and had not nurtured his genius, then we would not be talking about Dove Cottage and Dorothy at all!)   


Only after many years of this did Wordsworth find his vocation as A Poet, and worked very productively at this.

Now, Wordsworth was one of the most sober and industrious of The Romantics, and there are far more extreme examples of negativity including his great friend Coleridge - who exaggerated these traits by deliberate, then addicted, alchohol and opium abuse.

But the point I wish to make is that even Wordsworth showed clear signs of the cluster of high Psychoticism traits, which meant that he could (and did) work hard and long at what he wanted to work hard at; but could not work at anything else.


As a young man, when creativity is at its highest, Wordsworth would not and could not and did not work at what other people wanted him to work at, and this is the negativity. 

It is easy to imagine Wordsworth dying before he wrote any great poetry, or failing to find and develop his vocation, and being considered nothing but a selfish waster.

Of course, being a high negativity selfish  waster does not, not, NOT make anybody a creative genius; but being a creative genius almost always did entail going through a period of being a selfish waster and looking for The Thing that would stimulate you to hard and prolonged work - and during this period of looking perhaps being derailed by other stimuli such as women and drugs - and with no guarantee of ever coming out of the other side and achieving work of genius which is highly valued. 


A creative genius almost always comes with a price tag, the cost of which is mostly paid by those around him.

If nobody pays the price, the genius does not eventuate.

Harsh - but that's life, I'm afraid.



James Purcell said...

Is high Psychoticism associated with a higher suicide rate?

Bruce Charlton said...

@JP - Yes, I think so, at least under most modern social conditions, via higher impulsivity - although suicide rates are so low (usually), and so sensitive to things like alcohol and drug usage (which tends to be higher in people with high Psychoticism), that it is hard to give a general answer to that question. A very LOW average Psychoticism society like Japan may therefore have relatively high suicide rates under certain conditions.

Luqman said...

I was under the impression, correct me if I am wrong, that the Japanese overall exhibited higher Psychoticism than other Eastern Asian populations? For the life of me I cannot recall how I arrived at that, nevertheless it compels when one looks at the history of Japan. There are indeed identifiable individuals who fit profiles of creative genius in their history. Rare in modern times, but I would class Yukio Mishima as a creative genius, naturally also demonstrating in abundance the negative tendencies associated with the P trait, as well as demonstrating a case of the suicide of a creative.

Bruce Charlton said...

@L - I really don't know how different East Asian's compare on Personality - because so far as I know there are no good quantitative studies and these differences are probably relatively small. But the difference between EAs and Europeans is so large as to be obvious without any need for exact measurement - especially when migration data is taken into account.

Thursday said...

I'm not sure if Wordworth would have been doing nothing at this time. Most likely he was putting an awful lot of his time and energy into reading poetry if not writing it. Because he enjoyed that more than working or studying.

Bruce Charlton said...

@T - My point is that 'nothing much' how it struck other people, probably himself.

Also, W. didn't seem to show much talent at this early stage - he was not precocious or brilliant like Coleridge.

He must have seemed like a dreamy waster - too lazy to do anything useful, too dull to accomplish anything special. And yet...

Cathy McGuire said...

I've been following your site for a while, and have been very interested in your thoughts. Today's point - that until/unless a "product" of genius is produced, the person is seen as "useless", is one I have pondered a lot! I've worked more than a decade in mental health, and have seen many who were outcasts and could be seen as "selfish wasters", and I've often read biographies with that same perspective - "if success hadn't hit, this person would have been considered a write-off". Intriguing thought, that creative genius and social graces have somewhat mutually exclusive trajectories.