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Thinking Out Loud

Creativity and the Wheel of Fortune

by Michael Jinkins | Oct 22, 2013

John Calvin was famously opposed to Christians attributing good or bad phenomena to luck, chance or fortune. Calvin was entering into a stream of thought that was in full flow by the time he came along; many of the leading lights of the Renaissance had written on the subject of “fortune.” For Dante, Fortune (and the word probably should be capitalized for Dante) was a kind of divinely created power, the “general minister and guide” who, as Ross King writes, “doles out good and bad luck more or less unpredictably and inexplicably.” Other Renaissance writers, from Boccaccio to Machiavelli to Sir Thomas More, wrestled with the meaning of “fortune” and whether humanity’s efforts or virtues had any effect upon it (Ross King, Machiavelli: Philosopher of Power, New York: HarperCollins, 2007, 152-156; and Sebastian de Grazia, Machiavelli in Hell, New York: Vintage/Random House, 1994, 204-215).

While the philosophical and theological questions about “fortune” have raged since classical times, and I find them fascinating, I have been even more interested recently in the ways in which fortune interacts with creativity. Or, rather, how fortune favors certain products of creativity and casts others on the rubbish piles of obscurity.

In his fascinating book, Magic Hours: Essays on Creators and Creation (San Francisco: Believer Books, 2012), Tom Bissell asks the question: “Is greatness, in the end, no purer guarantee of survival than awfulness is for swift dispatch?” (23). Quoting Ecclesiastes, Bissell reminds us that “the race is not to the swift… nor the battle to the strong… but time and chance happen to them all” (20). To illustrate, he considers the fate of three writers almost universally acknowledged today as supremely accomplished: Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, and Emily Dickinson. While the three “form American literature’s most influential troika,” Bissell writes, “[b]ut for post-mortem developments that had, at best, oblique connections to their work, it is possible that Melville would be familiar only to a small group of antebellum scholars, Whitman remembered only as the author of the Lincoln eulogy ‘Oh Captain! My Captain!’, and Emily Dickinson enduring only in the whispers of Dickinson descendants as the unmarried shut-in who wrote abstruse verse” (25).

Whitman’s fate should have been sealed by no less than the New York Times which said, in its review of Leaves of Grass, “that Whitman could not be called ‘a great poet unless we deny poetry to be an art’” (28). Melville’s masterpiece, Moby-Dick, was dismissed by the most important reviewers of his day. Thirty-six years after its publication, “it went out of print… with a total of 3,180 copies sold.” Joseph Conrad wrote that the book was a “rather strained rhapsody with whaling for a subject… [with] not a single sincere line in the 3 volumes of it” (30). Had it not been for a chance discovery by Carl Van Doren of Moby-Dick in a used bookstore, and the subsequent essay he wrote about it, and the “chance” that this essay caught the eye of D. H. Lawrence, who was “then in the midst of writing Studies in Classic American Literature,” Melville’s book would be still likely be collecting dust in the sections of libraries dedicated to “fishing and fisheries.”

Bissell has other examples. William Faulkner at mid-career, with every one of his greatest novels except Sanctuary out of print, was making his living writing screenplays in Hollywood (and drinking a great deal). His career appeared pretty-much over when Malcolm Cowley wrote an essay on Faulkner that was published in the New York Times Book Review. This essay was followed by a collection of Faulkner’s fiction which Cowley also edited, and which was published by the Viking Portable Library series. As Bissell observes, five years after Cowley’s reappraisal of Faulkner, he won the Nobel Prize, and today is regarded as a member of the Pantheon of twentieth-century American writers (36-37).

Fortune’s fickle wheel turns for music as well as literature. As Alan Light chronicles in his story of the fate of Leonard Cohen’s anthem, “Hallelujah,” and as Sylvie Simmons also observes in her biography of Cohen, this song which has become in just a few short years a kind of secular hymn, which has been recorded by singers as varied as Jeff Buckley and k.d. lang, and has appeared in settings as different as the television series, The West Wing, and the children’s film, Shrek, languished forgotten for years. The album for which it was originally recorded was rejected by Cohen’s American recording label. When, eventually, the album did appear, hardly anyone noticed “Hallelujah.” As Alan Light says, in the album’s “review in Rolling Stone” the song didn’t even merit a mention. (Alan Light, The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of “Hallelujah”, New York: Atria Books, 2012, 34-35).

A song that took Leonard Cohen five years to write, and which many consider the greatest pop song of all time, missed utter obscurity by a whisker (Sylvie Simmons, I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen, New York: HarperCollins, 2012, 338).

Bissell reflects philosophically on the vagaries of fortune and the fate of “great” works of literature. And we might extend his reflections to music and to other creative arts as well. “One might assume that behind the flimsy accordion door sit pilots of skill and accomplishment [that determine the success of great works and the obscurity of lesser ones]. But the cockpit is empty. It has always been empty. The controls are abandoned. They have always been abandoned. One needs only to touch them to know how mutable our course” (Magic Hours, 38).

These stories of fortune left me wondering what great works of creativity and imagination may have been lost along the way. Or, to put a positive spin on it, I wonder what great works are lying around just waiting to be discovered. Who knows who will be the next person to step into the cockpit, touch the pilot’s controls and raise from obscurity some neglected act of genius?

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