Radical Considerations on Creativity and Originality

In 1974, Alejandro Jodorowsky began work on his film “adaption” of Frank Herbert’s Dune. It was to be the story of the illumination of a hero, a people, and a planet, the planet being the Messiah of the Universe, spreading its light. It was to feature Salvador Dali as an insane emperor, and Pink Floyd was to write and record the music. Each, along with many other artists, were specifically selected by Jodorowsky to create his ambitious vision. The spice was a drug containing “the highest level of consciousness,” and the film was to end with the illumination of the Universe, as the planet Dune spreads consciousness across the galaxy.

It was to be, in every way, Jodorowsky‘s Dune (unfortunately it was never made, although a documentary about the adaption is being released). The project was approached in this way from the very beginning, due to the way Jodorowsky viewed the work of artists (originally written in French):

I did not want to respect the novel, I wanted to recreate it. For me Dune did not belong to Herbert as Don Quixote did not belong to Cervantes, nor Edipo with Esquilo.

There is an artist, only one in the medium of a million other artists, which only once in his life, by a species of divine grace, receives an immortal topic, a MYTH… I say “receives” and not “creates” because the works of art its received in a state of mediumnity directly of the unconscious collective. Work exceeds the artist and to some extent, it kills it because humanity, by receiving the impact of the Myth, has a major need to erase the individual who received it and transmitted: its individual personality obstructs, stains the purity of the message which, of its base, requires to be anonymous… We know whom created the cathedral of Notre-Dame, neither the Aztec solar calendar, neither the tarot of Marseilles, nor the myth of Don Juan, etc.

One feels that Cervantes gave HIS version of Quixote – of course incomplete – and that we carry in the heart the total character… Christ belongs not to Mark, neither to Luke, neither to Matthew, nor to John… There are many other Gospels known as apocryphal books and there is as many lifes of Christ as there are believers. Each one of us has their own version of Dune, its Jessica, their Paul… I felt in enthusiastic admiration towards Herbert and at the same time in conflict (I think that the same thing occurred to him)… He obstructed me… I did not want him as a technical adviser … I did everything to move him away from the project… I had received a version of Dune and I wanted to transmit it: the Myth was to give up the literary form and to become Image…

Regardless of its truth, the idea that certain incredible stories do not “belong” to the person who first presented them is interesting. It means that once an idea has been released, it’s the property of the world, of humanity, not of a single person. There can be many versions, and none are inherently canon. To believe this has some serious implications, like invalidating the concept of copyright (in certain situations, when taken to the extreme), and I don’t think that it’s fair or beneficial to remove the understanding of ownership from the original creator. It is, however, an interesting philosophy to consider as it relates to originality and creativity. Interpretation, extrapolation, and re-creation strengthen any creative ecosystem.

Such a philosophy as Jodorowsky’s makes it easier for someone who’s created a world or a set of characters to lease them to someone else for adaption or expansion. Orson Scott Card, for example, isn’t worried about absolute faithfulness to the book for the film adaption of Ender’s Game, it seems, from what he wrote after visiting the set:

…it was amusing when others asked me how it felt to have my book brought to life. My book was already alive in the mind of every reader. This is writer-director Gavin Hood’s movie, so they were his words, and it was his scene.

He’s not relinquishing his right to the story or its characters, but he’s accepting that his version is not the only version.

This whole idea reminds me of something Elizabeth Gilbert talks about in her TED talk. In ancient Greek and Roman societies, creativity was not something believed to come from a person. It was more like a divine companion, outside of the individual, “that came to human beings from some distant and unknowable source, for distant and unknowable reasons.” The Greeks called these “divine attendant spirits” daemons. The Romans called them geniuses. A genius was not something a person could be; it was more like a “magical divine entity, who was believed to literally live in the walls of an artist’s studio, kind of like Dobby the house elf, and who would come out and sort of invisibly assist the artist with their work and would shape the outcome of that work.” Which absolves a lot of responsibility and pressure from people who we would consider to be naturally talented and creative:

So brilliant — there it is, right there that distance that I’m talking about — that psychological construct to protect you from the results of your work. And everyone knew that this is how it functioned, right? So the ancient artist was protected from certain things, like, for example, too much narcissism, right? If your work was brilliant you couldn’t take all the credit for it, everybody knew that you had this disembodied genius who had helped you. If your work bombed, not entirely your fault, you know? Everyone knew your genius was kind of lame. And this is how people thought about creativity in the West for a really long time.

And then the Renaissance came and everything changed, and we had this big idea, and the big idea was let’s put the individual human being at the center of the universe above all gods and mysteries, and there’s no more room for mystical creatures who take dictation from the divine. And it’s the beginning of rational humanism, and people started to believe that creativity came completely from the self of the individual. And for the first time in history, you start to hear people referring to this or that artist as being a genius rather than having a genius.

And I got to tell you, I think that was a huge error. You know, I think that allowing somebody, one mere person to believe that he or she is like, the vessel you know, like the font and the essence and the source of all divine, creative, unknowable, eternal mystery is just a smidge too much responsibility to put on one fragile, human psyche. It’s like asking somebody to swallow the sun. It just completely warps and distorts egos, and it creates all these unmanageable expectations about performance. And I think the pressure of that has been killing off our artists for the last 500 years.

It’s undeniable that sometimes creativity just seems to flow. When there’s no friction, no hesitance, no struggle; the words just keep coming, fitting together as if choreographed by some invisible guide, each a step towards a perfect dance of language and meaning. Inspiration arrives unexpectedly, dormant imagination and brilliance spring to life, and creativity seems not to be something that must be called, but something that must simply be let free.

What if we don’t entirely own our own creativity? What if we’re accessing something greater, or something is being transmitted through us? I’m not putting this forth as the truth — I’m putting it forth as something worth considering, independent from its relation to “reality” as we know it. I don’t think creativity is some daemon crouching in the corner, but I do think considering creativity and inspiration as more than meets the eye has value 1. The work that comes from an artist can be greater than the artist himself. And I don’t think the originator of an idea or a story or a realm should have his claim to them renounced, no matter their greatness, but I do think all are more powerful when others are allowed to change them, to remake them, and to expand them. An idea, after all, is only as powerful as its execution, and why should stories be constrained by what one single imagination is capable of?

  1. But don’t take this as an excuse to avoid working, when the inspiration isn’t there, on those days when creating something worth keeping seems impossible, when every attempt at writing seems empty and repulsive. Some elements of creativity may be out of your control, but showing up — creating anyway, despite plenty of easy reasons not to — is the part you do control, where you have power whether there’s a daemon whispering in your ear or not. 

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