A lot seems to have changed since I first read Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art in February of this year. I found out that my adenoids are inflamed, I might be going to college, and my aversion to strong cheeses has diminished. More relevant, however, is my experience watching a TED Talk by author Elizabeth Gilbert titled “Your Elusive Creative Genius,” as her insights have altered my understanding of Pressfield’s book significantly.
In the TED Talk and book, both authors refer to the notion of a “genius” and provide a description of their interpretation of the meaning of this term. In The War of Art, Pressfield asserts that God “endowed each of us with our own unique genius.” He proceeds to explain that this internal energy is “holy and inviolable” and exists at our “soul’s seat” or “sacramental center.” When I first read The War of Art, this description was invigorating. It made me feel as though there is an unassailable component of my being whose existence is interminable and can not be denied. As someone who sometimes feels as though my sense of passion is lacking, initially, this proposition was refreshing and almost liberating. The thought of possessing anything divine and, thereby, indomitable is empowering.
After listening to Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED Talk and doing some research on Encyclopedia Britannica, I learned that Steven Pressfield’s explanation of what the ancient Romans referred to as the “genius” is not entirely accurate. Rather than viewing the “genius” as an “inner spirit” as Pressfield suggests, the Romans believed that the “genius” was an attendant spirit, the term derived from Pagan animism.
This changed drastically with the rise of humanism and individualism that emerged during the Renaissance. No longer was the “genius” a divine, supernatural spirit that existed externally. Rather, people began to view other individuals as geniuses themselves. Instead of having a genius that accompanied the artist, artists were said to be geniuses. When Pressfield asserts that the artist creates from his “sacramental center,” he is presenting a more modern depiction of our understanding of the “genius,” a depiction that Gilbert believes is damaging and restricting.
In her TED Talk, Gilbert proposes that we, as artists, should adopt a protective psychological construct that involves viewing the genius as external as the Romans had prior to the Renaissance. While I totally understood that allowing oneself to think that the corpse is a vessel for the creative spirit can distort egos and put a lot of responsibility on artistic individuals, I admit that I was, at first, not on board with this suggestion. I have recently learned that I am a proponent of the idea of free will and am hesitant to accept the fact that much of my future can not be meticulously arranged. To view the genius as external, unpredictable, and elusive, is to relinquish quite a bit of that control that I desire.
However, after rereading some of The War of Art, I am no longer entirely opposed to Elizabeth Gilbert’s proposal. In the chapter titled “Defining the Enemy,” Pressfield declares that Resistance is internal. He asserts that Resistance “is not a peripheral opponent” and that it “arises from within.” Upon reading this, I was reminded, yet again, of Gilbert’s TED Talk. If the artist can relieve some pressure by distancing him or herself from his or her genius, might dissociation from Resistance have the same effect? If we internalize Resistance, we perpetuate the idea that Resistance is inescapable because it becomes part of us.
Choosing to view Resistance as an external spirit, as the Romans did the Genius, may enable us to combat Resistance and confront it with all of our being–a being that is distinct from our Resistance and therefore unaffected by it. How effective can a battle against our Resistance be if we, ourselves, are manifestations of our adversary?