Looking down on creation
The 2020s are shaping up to be the devil’s decade. It started with a pandemic, and now we have a war in Europe, floods across Pakistan, and an energy crisis that will hit the wallets of everyone, in some cases fatally.
However, it is easy to lose sight of what glorious times these also are. As far as anyone knows, to be born in the second half of the twentieth century is to have won the lottery of history.
It seems quaint now, but in the century or so after the Industrial Revolution, cotton underwear, coal in an iron range, glass windows, and a choice of food were a sign of immeasurable improvements in the lives of ordinary people.
The miracles of the modern world owe their existence to creativity, a quality which (despite what a lot of self-proclaimed ‘creatives’ in the marketing and advertising sectors will tell you) is still rare and under-appreciated.
Creating young minds
The creative minds that made the modern world possible were practical men with little education. According to ‘The Ascent of Man’ by Jacob Bronowski, the reason why canal workers were called ‘navvies’ was because pioneer James Brindley could not spell ‘navigators’.
Education, as it was at the time, would only serve to dull an inventive mind, Bronowski claims. Since mass education in its current form has only existed for a couple of centuries, the world is still at the dawn of figuring out how to nurture truly brilliant minds.
When we start school, as small children, even the most mediocre adult seems impossibly impressive, with their ability to drive a car, do chores, and control their emotions. Before we can become adults, we have to put on a dull-coloured uniform and study syllabi designed by someone who neither knows nor cares what interests us, and we are told that there is something wrong with us if we don’t complete assigned tasks with the utmost dedication and obedience.
Good students are defined as ‘brainy’, even though brains are a democratic phenomenon, and everyone has one of roughly equal size. The average modern person’s brain is no smaller than that of Shakespeare, Mozart, or Davinci, moreover, we have access to more books, art, and knowledge than those men could have dreamed of. What sets them apart is that they had the courage and confidence to stray from the herd.
Schools beat those qualities out of people. As Ivan Illich observed in ‘Deschooling Society’, repressiveness is a feature of the school system, not a bug. Schools stigmatise mistakes, and as educator Sir Ken Robinson pointed out in one of the most popular TED Talks ever given: “if you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.”
Young, well-read, and unemployable
Ken Robinson’s TED Talk argues that creativity should be as prioritised by the education system as literacy and numeracy. Homer Simpson, one of the most loved and relatable characters ever created, explains “I’m in (detention) for being me. Every day I show up, act like me, and they slap me in here for it.” Countless others have similar things to say about their time in school.
As soon as I was old enough to choose my own courses, creativity was the discipline I was most interested in pursuing. By age 22, I had finished a book, which was obviously quixotic, but it also happened to be the thesis for a master’s degree. Formal education was a ticket to wealth and status, or so I had been told, until I started applying for postgraduate jobs.
During a visit to Northern Ireland while completing my master’s, I was sat watching TV with some extended family. A football match was on, and someone said (out loud): “Those guys are fit, aren’t they?”
In a world that valued creativity, the appropriate response to this would have been “why would you waste the perfectly good breath your Catholic god gave you by making such an utterly pointless remark, you motherfucking son-of-a-bitch bastard?”
But apparently the only socially acceptable response was “aye”, people had to just accept everything, despite probably being dead inside, like a neutered cat.
A watershed moment came a few days after finishing my master’s, when I had dinner with a priest, who I’ll refer to as Father Fairyhouse, someone who I had been told all my life was a great intellectual. Was there compatibility between my creative ambitions and the real world, that is the world of actual jobs that actually pay?
Although life had taught me not to get my hopes up, I was still shocked by the utter vapidity of everything Father Fairyhouse said. He talked in clichés, thought in clichés, I wouldn’t go so far as to say he prayed in clichés, because he clearly didn’t read the Bible, or any other long book.
It was the year 2006, and he didn’t know who Al Gore was. Early in the evening, he declared that “Ireland’s bbbooming now!”, citing economic liberalism and a construction boom.
After listening to him all night, I felt as unenthused as I was unqualified to be part of this brave new world.
Father Fairyhouse enjoyed a high status in society, not in spite of the fact that everything he said was ignorant nonsense, but directly because of it. Nothing more terrible, nothing more true. People were so tickled by having a priest tell them what they wanted to hear, that they chose to ignore the blindingly obvious.
Career-wise, since doing what I loved was a failed strategy, and positive thinking was definitely a failed strategy, I had to grab on to the first opportunity that presented itself, China. The job of teaching English was a dog and pony show, to which I was borderline comically unsuited to, but it paid the bills while I obsessively taught myself the language, and in the second year I began writing songs in it.
I was conversant, and fairly literate in Chinese within a year, but it took another two-and-a-half years to land a more suitable job. It was as a copyeditor for a local newspaper, a propaganda rag really.
Lots of people will say that to accept a salary from a Chinese government mouthpiece is the definition of shilling for a murderous dictatorship, but it ain’t what you do, it’s what it does to you.
The year I started at the newspaper, 2011, happened to be bookended by The Arab Spring near the beginning and Occupy Wall Street near the end. Both movements were spear-headed by people in a similar position to me, in their twenties, highly educated, but in careers that were some combination of dead-end, poorly paid, and low-status. Theodore Dalrymple wrote that there is no-one more dangerous than the disgruntled literate.
An Occupy Wall Street protester
Many people would have hated the job, but I thoroughly enjoyed the creative challenge of getting my point across in a choking, censorious environment, and being paid.
By this time, returning home was not really an option. The economic model that Father Fairyhouse enthused about, had led to a major recession. Almost 500 suicides were linked to Ireland’s economic slump, an increase of 15 percent.
The London riots also happened in 2011. In Ray Bradbury’s ‘Fahrenheit 451’, an ageing character says that those who have nothing to build will always burn something. I was largely content but wasn’t creating anything.
Every Friday, the paper published a feature about an extraordinary local person, which did make me feel inferior about my own unpublished novel and abandoned songwriting. After writing dozens of Chinese songs from 2008 to 2010, I had realised that my grasp of melody, meter, and rhyme were nowhere near good enough to write anything that connected with people.
In 2012, my second year at the paper, I discovered music-based comedy. This enabled me to turn my weaknesses into strengths. If I were going to get laughed at, I might as well do it deliberately.
A peculiar fetish
Writing and recording songs in Chinese does not make someone a hot property on the job market. It makes them an oddball. The more original something is, the harder it is to categorise, the harder it is to categorise, the more impossible it is to market.
Being creative is less a glorious asset and more like having a peculiar (but harmless) fetish. It is hardwired into you from an early age, it is impossible to get rid of, so you just have to find an outlet, and hope not to be publicly ridiculed.
It is highly likely to condemn you to the fringes of society, which is a reward, masquerading as a punishment. As Steve Aylett says in ‘The Heart of the Original’, the weird fringes are the only place where honesty can find asylum.
One tidbit of knowledge I acquired during my ill-fated master’s degree was that 1977 Nobel Prize-winning chemist Ilya Prigogine discovered that ‘instability was the key to transformation’.
The instability of the creative life means encountering things that you would probably rather avoid. If I had chosen a more practical course of study when I was younger, I would not have had to learn so much about Chinese politics, Irish economics, Mandopop, religion, Sino-American relations, and more.
As academic Alastair Mcintosh said, the global problematique is a tangled ball of string. Only by unravelling all the loops and not just by pulling on any single loop can we hope to address the complex problems of our times.
A creative approach to life and learning can arm you with a good understanding of our brave new world, but also the good sense to not be a fully paid-up member of it.