. Creativity, Originality, and Eccentricity by Joseph S. Salemi I don’t know why it should be so, but I have a propensity to attract the attention of eccentric persons. Three times, at three separate academic conferences, I have been cornered by earnest little nerds who insisted on telling me their crackpot theory of who really wrote Shakespeare’s plays. I happen to think that all anti-Stratfordians are obtuse cranks with a deficient sense of Elizabethan literature, and I made that view very clear to each of these three tormentors. But it didn’t help. In every case, they wouldn’t let me go until I had heard all the mind-numbing twists of their scenarios of forgery and conspiracy. Then there was the nut at MLA who, having found out that I am a poet, insisted on outlining his scheme for reconciling free verse and metrical verse by using snippets of each as random glosses on the other. He planned to start with Milton, interlarding every ten lines of Paradise Lost with passages from Ginsberg’s Howl. He wanted to know if I would be interested in collaborating with him on the project. I tried to be polite and not laugh in his face. Luckily the MLA conference is a big operation, so I managed to get lost in the crowds. In fact, rampant eccentricity is one of the main reasons I stopped attending poetry readings. It was nice to meet one’s friends and fellow poets, but there was no way to avoid the garrulous old lady who wanted you to assess her one hundred haiku on her pet cat; or the ex-mental patient wearing a rope for a belt; or the grim environmentalist with an interminable epic on pollution, badgering you to locate a publisher for it. Then there were the dry drunks, the enragés, the fag-hags, and the feminists. The last straw for me was the reading at which a performance-poet tossed confetti in the air as he half-sung and half-chanted his opaque work. “Basta,” I told myself, “I don’t need this swiving idiocy.” Later on my mentor, Alfred Dorn, tried to convince me to give poetry readings another shot. His basic argument was this: “We have to tolerate the weak sisters.” I replied “Alfred, you’re a much more patient man than I am.” One of the attitudinal problems of the present day is the confusion of eccentricity, creativity, and originality. They are not the same thing at all, despite what kindergarten teachers may tell you. They are separate and often completely independent of each other. Let’s consider each in turn. Creativity is an interior wellspring of dynamism that impels one to rearrange pre-existent reality (like matter or language) into something beautiful. It’s an itch to make, to produce, to harmonize disparate elements into a formal whole. I may feel an urge to build a piece of furniture according to some design in my thoughts, or to bind an old book in an attractive cover, or to put together a sonnet by employing a new conceit or image. To use a rare and antique word, creativity is daedal. The term is from the Greek daidaleos, which means “cunningly or curiously wrought.” (The name of the mythical Greek artisan Daedalus is based on this word.) Creativity is daedal because it involves two things: an urge to work, and a concomitant desire to make the product of that work as perfect and as embellished as possible. Truly creative people don’t just “let it all hang out,” as the stupid 60s cliché has it. They are meticulous and picky and fussy. They work hard to produce something harmonious and aesthetically satisfying, and which shows off their virtù. That’s what it means to be daedal. Originality is another thing altogether. Originality is what might be called one’s “voice” or “signature” or “fingerprint.” As the act of creation goes on, aspects of one’s idiosyncratic personal identity, habits, and attitudes become inextricably embedded in the emerging product. For example, it is said that metallurgists can analyze an unmixed sample of gold and tell you, by its profile of trace elements, in exactly what part of the world the gold was mined. The same is true for works of art. They manifest in their very structure and texture the personal source from which they took life. That is what is correctly meant by “originality.” The work of art shows signs of its origin. Originality does not mean, as many persons think, the process of coming up with something totally new and unheard-of. Originality is the penumbra of unique personal style that surrounds creativity’s products. Now let’s look at the cuckoo in the nest: eccentricity. Eccentricity is neither creative nor original. As its etymology suggests, it refers to being “off-center,” like the misplaced axle of a wheel. An eccentric is one who acts in an outré manner, behaving in ways that simply do not comport with ordinary conventional expectations. Let me emphasize that this does not allude to issues of taste or opinion. Eating tripe and onions every night or being a member of the Flat Earth Society doesn’t necessarily make you an eccentric. Eccentricity means being erratic and unpredictable in a way that is somewhat disturbing or unsettling to others. Someone whose house is filled with stray cats is an eccentric. Or who refuses to remove his hat at the dinner table. Or who wears a red-and-white checkered suit in public. Or who insists on playing a trombone at 4 AM. There’s a kind of pathetic haplessness about eccentrics, as if they were mental defectives, or silly drama-queens, or just ornery misfits. The normal response of most people to eccentricity is not so much anger as exasperation. In the arts, eccentricity is always disastrous. It leads persons to do things that are utterly without aesthetic justification or rationale. A lot of the silly, off-the-wall craziness that goes on in the mainstream arts today is solely the result of eccentricity, and nothing else. There is no “creativity” involved therein. Eccentricity in the arts is just a puerile need to be obstreperous or shocking, out of allegiance to some esprit contrariant. Much of what is called “performance” art, or “conceptual” art, or “aleatory” art is not a manifestation of creative energy or originality. It is just bizarre eccentricity, not far removed from the mental state of the Collyer brothers, or Hetty Green, or the elderly Howard Hughes. The only major difference is that the artists posture in public, and sometimes manage to snag grant money. I can already hear the chorus: Blake was an eccentric! Whitman was an eccentric! Well, that’s simply untrue. Examine the life and work habits of either man. Blake had a volcanic creativity that he channeled into the most complex and rigorous forms. Not only did he elaborate an intricate private mythology, he also invented his own unique method of engraving and printing books. That is profoundly daedal, as all true creativity must be. Just because Blake could be a bit strange and unconventional has no bearing whatsoever on the rigorous way in which he exercised his immense talent. As for Whitman, the man who spent decades in painstaking revision of edition after edition of Leaves of Grass is an example of pure daedal creativity. As I have argued frequently in the past, a great many contemporary problems are due to the misconceptions and distortions of Deweyite ideology in our schools. That is certainly the case in regard to the confusion of creativity, originality, and eccentricity. Because of their reflexive tendency to favor impulse and feeling over restraint and structure, Deweyites will always reward spontaneity and immediacy in students. It’s a matter of principle with them. Don’t give me an argument over this—I’m a teacher and I have seen it up close! A child who hands in a slovenly, fingerpainted mess will get a big gold star for “energy” and “vitality,” while another child who hands in a carefully delineated picture will be told that it is “insufficiently exciting,” or “too controlled.” Teachers with attitudes like that are criminals, and murderers of true creativity. They deserve to rot in hell. As a result of these distortions, there is a major difference between the way we look at art and the way our ancestors did. Whereas in the past artistic creativity was assumed to be governed by order, restraint, and patterned symmetry, today most people unconsciously assume that the reverse is true—namely, that artistic creativity is by its nature chaotic, wild, unrestrained, and freaky. What was once the purview of Apollo is now considered the realm of Dionysos. If you don’t think this is an important and far-reaching change, think harder. An aesthetic history of the last century could be written taking the collapse of Apollonian criteria as the ultimate source of all changes and style shifts. Dionysos is a great god, as Pentheus learned in the most savage manner. All honor to him. But he is not the god of poetry and the other arts. We poets are beholden to the rational order and chaste harmony of the Delian deity, whose cold restraint and measured rhythms are a signature of our labors. When Apollo is the guardian of the arts, you get Mozart and Bach. Make Dionysos the ruler of the arts, and you get Elvis Presley and Mick Jagger. Don’t be drunk and disorderly. Be daedal. . .