Monday, December 27, 2010

Mises on the Creative Genius

From Human Action, 139-140:

The Creative Genius

Far above the millions that come and pass away tower the pioneers, the men whose deeds and ideas cut out new paths for mankind. For the pioneering genius(12) to create is the essence of life. To live means for him to create.

The activities of these prodigious men cannot be fully subsumed under the praxeological concept of labor. They are not labor because they are for the genius not means, but ends in themselves. He lives in creating and inventing. For him there is not leisure, only intermissions of temporary sterility and frustration. His incentive is not the desire to bring about a result, but the act of producing it. The accomplishment gratifies him neither mediately nor immediately. It does not gratify him mediately because his fellow men at best are unconcerned about it, more often even greet it with taunts, sneers, and persecution. Many a genius could have used his gifts to render his life agreeable and joyful; he did not even consider such a possibility and chose the thorny path without hesitation. The genius wants to accomplish what he considers his mission, even if he knows that he moves toward his own disaster.

Neither does the genius derive immediate gratification from his creative activities. Creating is for him agony and torment, a ceaseless excruciating struggle against internal and external obstacles; it consumes and crushes him. The Austrian poet Grillparzer has depicted this in a touching poem “Farewell to Gastein.”(13) We may assume that in writing it he thought not only of his own sorrows and tribulations but also of the greater sufferings of a much greater man, of Beethoven, whose fate resembled his own and whom he understood, through devoted affection and sympathetic appreciation, better than any other of his contemporaries. Nietzsche compared himself to the flame that insatiably consumes and destroys itself.(14) Such agonies are phenomena which have nothing in common with the connotations generally attached to the notions of work and labor, production and success, breadwinning and enjoyment of life.

The achievements of the creative innovator, his thoughts and theories, his poems, paintings, and compositions, cannot be classified praxeologically as products of labor. They are not the outcome of the employment of labor which could have been devoted to the production of other amenities for the “production” of a masterpiece of philosophy, art, or literature. Thinkers, poets, and artists are sometimes unfit to accomplish any other work. At any rate, the time and toil which they devote to creative activities are not withheld from employment for other purposes. Conditions may sometimes doom to sterility a man who would have had the power to bring forth things unheard of; they may leave him no alternative other than to die from starvation or to use all his forces in the struggle for mere physical survival. But if the genius succeeds in achieving his goals, nobody but himself pays the “costs” incurred. Goethe was perhaps in some respects hampered by his functions at the court of Weimar. But certainly he would not have accomplished more in his official duties as minister of state, theater manager, and administrator of mines if he had not written his plays, poems, and novels.

It is, furthermore, impossible to substitute other people’s work for that of the creators. If Dante and Beethoven had not existed, one would not have been in a position to produce the Divina Commedia or the Ninth Symphony by assigning other men to these tasks. Neither society nor single individuals can substantially further the genius and his work. The highest intensity of the “demand” and the most peremptory order of the government are ineffectual. The genius does not deliver to order. Men cannot improve the natural and social conditions which bring about the creator and his creation. It is impossible to rear geniuses by eugenics, to train them by schooling, or to organize their activities. But, of course, one can organize society in such a way that no room is left for pioneers and their path-breaking.

The creative accomplishment of the genius is an ultimate fact for praxeology. It comes to pass in history as a free gift of destiny. It is by no means the result of production in the sense in which economics uses
this term.

12. Leaders [Fürhrers] are not pioneers. They guide people along the tracks
pioneers have laid. The pioneer clears a road through land hitherto inaccessible
and may not care whether or not anybody wants to go the new way. The leader
directs people toward the goal they want to reach.
13. It seems that there is no English translation of this poem. The book of
Douglas Yates (Franz Grillparzer, a Critical Biography, Oxford, 1946), I, 57,
gives a short English resume of its content.
14. For a translation of Nietzsche’s poem see M.A. Mügge, Friedrich
Nietzsche (New York, 1911), p. 275.

Where does one even begin in discussing this? Being a creative genius himself, he certainly knows of what he speaks. As a poet/playwright/fiction writer myself, I can certainly attest to the truth of what he says in regards to the creative person. Of course, this creates the following problem, as explained by Mises:

As far as a special kind of labor gives a limited amount of pleasure and not pain, immediate gratification and not disutility, no wages are allowed for its performance. No the contrary, the performer, the "worker," must buy the pleasure and pay for it. (138)

Mises is here talking about people who do things like hunt, which is work for some people, yet pleasure for others (there are many such activities -- indeed, many activities of the past which were necessary for survival have become pastimes: fishing, gardening, rowing, sailing, etc.), but it is applicable to a certain degree to what he says about the creative person (he in fact says what creative people do is not in fact labor at all -- making remuneration even more problematic). Yet this leaves one with the question of what one is then to do to eat and clothe and house oneself? Naturally, there are ways to nevertheless get paid: playwrights are paid for performances of their plays, novelists are paid to publish their novels, musicians are paid for performances, etc. But the poet doesn't get paid. Neither does the scholar, directly (excepting books, but that might as well be unpaid, considering the amount of money one in fact tends to get for scholarly books). Much of what the creative person gets is prestige. That can pay off, of course -- even in monetary gain -- but it's not paid labor in the same sense. One does not pay a novelist for the work put into the novel, but for the finished product. The novelist who creates a book in a month and one who creates a book in 10 years will each get the same amount of money for sales (all other things being equal, of course).

It seems, then, that one pays for works of art in the same way as one "pays for" religious experiences, through a gift or sacrifice, as David Mamet argues. The creative person too makes a sacrifice in creating the work -- one which may or may not "pay off" in financial gain. Of course, the creative person creates regardless of financial payoff, so long as the means and time is available. Of course, many creative people will find the means and time, sacrificing in other places in life. If suffering and sacrifice were financially rewarded, the creative people of the world would have been the wealthiest. Instead, the have to hope that the zeitgeist at some point involves their work, so that others will be willing to pay for their finished works.

(For those interested, here is a poem I wrote with an economic theme.)

No comments:

Post a Comment