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Frederic Myers

Kanye West and the five elements of creative genius

I went to see a publisher the other day, who said they had a project for me. The project turned out to be a series called ‘Great Philosophers’. Could I suggest any great living philosophers to write about, other than myself obviously? ‘How about a book about Kanye West?’ They laughed. Pause. ‘No, really. Make a series of little books about great cultural influencers. I’ll do one on Kanye West.’

They didn’t go for it, naturally. Apparently he’s writing his own philosophy book in any case. But it was a genuine impulse. This may sound weird coming from a white, middle-class philosophy-blogger, but West has been a creative inspiration for me over the last decade or so, more than anyone else our generation. I often listened to his music while writing books, because it got me going, made me believe I could complete the creative task I’d set myself, in an era where artists don’t get paid and we’re all over-saturated with media.

I’ve been into West since I first heard the explosive optimism of Touch The Sky in 2005. But I only really got into him in 2010, when I was writing my first book.

Back then, West was in a bad place – his mother had died, he’d split up with his girlfriend, he’d made an electronic break-up album which didn’t sell very well (it’s now considered a classic). Then he’d interrupted Taylor Swift during her acceptance speech at the MTV Awards, and been labelled a jack-ass by president Obama. He was a global laughing-stock.

For a while he apparently thought about quitting music. But instead he relocated to Hawaii, block-booked a suite of recording studios,  then invited his favourite artists to come, stay, and make music – everyone from RZA and Q-Tip to Nicki Minaj and Justin Vernon of Bon Iver. Every day, they gathered for breakfast meetings, then played basketball, then in the afternoon hit the studio and stayed until the early hours. It was an extraordinary burst of creativity for West – he’d be at the studio all night, switching between different studios and songs, sleeping for a couple of hours in a chair, then starting again.

That led to My Beautiful Twisted Dark Fantasy in November 2010, for many critics the greatest album of that decade.  He was so on fire, he and his collaborators were turning out classic tracks that West just gave away on the internet for free, every Friday – tracks like Chains Heavy, or Joy, or his remix of Justin Bieber’s Runaway Love – one of my favourite tracks of that year (yeah, that’s right, a Bieber remix was my favourite track of the year).

That was when I thought, shit, maybe Kanye’s right…maybe he is a genius!

Genius is an unfashionable term these days, in an era when scientific breakthroughs occur via big data analysis and teams of hundreds. But I think psychologists like Frederic Myers and William James were right when they argued certain individuals can rightly be called geniuses, because they possess certain capacities.

As I wrote about David Bowie, a creative genius needs five attributes. First, they need to be able to open up to their subconscious, which means being able to switch off their critical fire-wall and dive in to uncensored imagination (often this goes hand in hand with mental instability, with a tendency to bipolar or schizoid personality disorder, as it did with Bowie and West).

Second, just as important, they need a conscious power of discrimination, to sort the gold from the dross that pours out of the subconscious. Third, they need to be able to collaborate with other artists, get their ego out of the way, and bring out the best in others. Fourth, they need incredible self-belief to follow their vision and do something new, when the market wants them to repeat the last trick over and over (think Dylan leaving his folk social criticism to go electric).

Finally, and most importantly, they need to have that particular daemonic power in their subconscious, that livewire connection to the Main Source, and to maintain a relationship to that daemon without being fried by it. That’s very rare – a lot of creative geniuses, like Amy Winehouse, get fried by the Main Source before they’re able to create much.

Kanye and the angel / daemon of creative inspiration, from the movie for Runaway

West, like Bowie, has this proximity to the Main Source, the fiery creative daemon within him. The creativity just pours out of him – he’ll create a killer hook, and then change direction mid-song, just because. On the first song of Yeezus, the abrasively electronic On Sight, he declares ‘How much do I not give a fuck? Let me show you right now ‘fore you give it up.’ And the song turns on a dime into this soaring gospel choir-song. The choir sings ‘He’ll give you what you need, it may not be what you want’… and then it’s back to the in-your-face electronics. It’s like Prince – just a ridiculous bounty of creative talent, an excess of it, a table groaning with dishes. Other artists will take a five-second clip of one of his songs and turn it into a hit – like Sigma taking the break from Bound and turning it into their hit, Nobody to Love.

Quite often, West’s songs seem like they’re winding up, and then suddenly they swell back even harder, like a thunderstorm. It’s nature’s bounty, the excess of it. It’s Shakespeare putting in a scene with a gravedigger because why the fuck not.

At the end of Devil In A New Dress from MBTDF – my favourite song of his – the song starts to wind down after three minutes, and you think that’s the natural end, then a guitar starts to wail, the storm starts to build, then Rick Ross comes in with an amazing last verse. It’s a revelling in natural power, a dancing in the storm.

This is the last three minutes of Devil in a New Dress (the video is dumb):

 

With that creative power, that ‘dragon energy’, comes arrogance, ego-inflation and mania. The artist as prophet, the artist as superman, the artist as god. Both West and David Bowie flirted with the ideas of Aleister Crowley, the black magician of the early 20th century, who declared there would be a new era of superhumans who would do what they wanted while the pathetic masses worshipped them. This is the theme of Power, the big hit on MBTDF, the video for which shows West wearing a massive Crowley necklace at the centre of a pagan mass. Both West and Bowie have also flirted with fascism (or, at least, with Donald Trump in West’s case). And both have often fallen for their own myth and pretty much gone crazy.

‘I am a God’ – Crowley, Bowie and West

 

But he somehow hasn’t destroyed himself, yet, partly through a capacity to face his shadow and make art from it. He rapped in Touch the Sky: ‘I try to right my wrongs but it’s funny the same wrongs helped me write this song’. That’s what makes MBTDF so amazing – the ability to hold steady and transmute all the darkness into one of the great albums, as Bowie did on Station-to-Station.

West wasn’t just confronting his own shadow, he was confronting the shadow of being a black male superstar. You get to the top by being a well-behaved performer, like Obama. You do not interrupt Taylor Swift at the MTV awards. You do not expose all your sexual peccadillos, your porn addiction, your kink for white girls. You do not support Donald Trump. You hide that darkness, create a polite persona and a monster in the shadows, as Michael Jackson did, or OJ Simpson, or Tiger Woods, or Bill Cosby. West confronted that monster and made art out of it. He put a painting of him fucking a white girl on the cover (or a white…angel?). ‘Let’s have a toast to the douchebags’, he sings on Runaway. That self-exposure takes guts. Who else doesn’t just admit he’s bipolar, but celebrates it?

Celebrating the shadow – the covers for MBTDF (left) and Ye (right)

And he has an ability to get on his knees before God, as Bowie did in the dark heart of Station-to-Station. He gets really close to the edge of mania and darkness and self-destruction, and he surrenders to God. There’s a powerful bipolarity in African-American music, between God and the ego / flesh / Devil. The church and the juke joint. White music sometimes lacks that energy because white middle-class hipsters don’t believe in God or the Devil anymore, so the stakes are lower. West taps into that bipolarity, consciously. Take ‘Father Stretch My Hands’ from Life of Pablo – it’s a beautiful gospel track which begins with a preacher singing ‘You’re the only power’ and Kanye wailing ‘I just wanna be liberated’ and then goes into a rap about a girl bleaching her asshole. The last line of his excellent new album with Kid Cudi has him singing ‘Lord shine your light on me, save me please’, like Bowie singing ‘Lord, I kneel and offer you my word on a wing’ on Station-to-Station.

Then there are the other superpowers of the creative genius. The ability to discriminate, sort the gold from the shit, to be a perfectionist and not stop until it’s right – it reminds me of the story Jimmy Iovine tells of producing Born to Run for Springsteen, when Springsteen made him work on one snare drum sound for days.

And there’s the ability to collaborate. Like Bowie, Kanye West is amazing at finding collaborators and getting ego out of the way to bring the best out of them and him. That’s how he made MBTDF – gather the people he most admires, and crowd-source it. When he was stumped for the lyrics for Power, he went round the room asking everyone what power meant to them. So when he raps ‘no one man should have all this power’ – that song was, ironically, a group effort. This is what Brian Eno calls ‘scenius’ – not the solitary genius, but the ability to network and collaborate. He lifts artists to another level with his intensity – just like Bowie and Eno could.

Many of the greatest moments in his music feature other artists leading – Nicki Minaj’s rap on Monster, Chance the Rapper at the end of Ultralight Beam, Lupe Fiasco’s rap on Touch the Sky, 070’s amazing last verse on new song Ghost Town, or Kid Cudi’s amazing performance on new song Reborn. That’s generous and ego-effacing, to let others take centre stage. Check out how much he enjoys the other artists’ performance in this killer live performance of UltraLight Beam on SNL:

 

 

And, of course, he’s also a douchebag, a loud-mouth, a narcissist, a fool, a personification of the vain male ego. But for a decade or so, now, he’s been chanelling the Main Source of creative energy, and that is exhausting and destructive – it almost killed Bob Dylan, it almost killed Bowie, it has almost killed West. The masses look to them as prophets but as Plato said of poets, they don’t really know what’s coming through them – it’s not wisdom, it’s sheer creative power. Don’t expect ethical or political wisdom from them.

Then the electricity shifts and finds someone else in the network to fry, and they’re out there in the cold for a while, everyone saying they’ve lost it, Dylan’s gone evangelical, Bowie’s making Tin Machine, Paul McCartney’s gone vegan, West’s gone alt-right. He’s a douchebag. You feel let down by his latest doucherie? He’s always been a douchebag. But listen to the new album Kids See Ghosts. Or listen to this Spotify playlist I made of some of his finest moments. Here comes the rain again.

Science can be a powerful ally on the spiritual journey

Last month I attended a conference at Oxford University’s Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion called Religion, Society and the Science of Life. The premise was that there is something called the ‘new biology’ which is perhaps more sympathetic to religious or spiritual views of existence than the ‘old biology’.

What is this ‘new biology’? No one really laid it out at the conference, but from what I gathered, it refers firstly to the rise of systems biology. Computational analysis has given us a picture of nature as ‘a system that operates at a very wide range of scales’, as Cambridge plant biologist Ottoline Leyser put it, ‘and the whole system is soaked in feedback’.

If Darwinian biology studied life at the level of competing species, or competing genes, the new biology studies how systems interact from the very small scale (cells, DNA) to the very big (planetary eco-systems). The emphasis is now perhaps more on interdependence and feedback loops within holistic systems rather than Darwin’s war of all against all. Perhaps that view is more sympathetic to holistic spiritual visions than the more reductionist and mechanistic ‘old biology’. 

However, the ‘new biology’ can also refer to the rise of synthetic biology – the ability to create new forms of life, to de-code and edit genes. This seems to me more of a super-Darwinian vision, in which we can upgrade our genetic fitness not slowly, over generations, but instantly through CRISPR (a new genetic editing system, recently used to eradicate illness-carrying genes in human embryos). It is an exhilarating vision but also one that raises the prospect that humans will be surpassed by a superior species – homo deus of some sort – or we’ll mess up and wipe ourselves out by creating a super-virus. You can now order CRISPR gene-editing starter-packs on the internet…Yes, for $100 you too can make your own species! 

Universities as universes

The conference was a good attempt to get different disciplines to talk to each other. That’s what universities should be: ‘communities where you always recognize that someone else’s questions are as interesting as yours’, as Rowan Williams puts it in this interesting new book. I’m reading the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s book, God, Philosophy, Universities, in which he talks about the medieval university as a place offering a universal vision of existence –  of the cosmos, human biology, and man’s purpose in the cosmos.

That universal vision broke down in the 17th century, when Aristotelian science was supplanted by the mechanical materialism of Descartes, Hobbes and the rest. Disciplines became increasingly specialized and compartmentalized, with completely different and sometimes clashing visions of the universe, man, and man’s purpose. There’s rarely any effort to combine those visions into a universal vision – the faculties simply don’t talk to each other enough, and when they do, it’s with suspicion or incomprehension. 

If there is any over-riding vision for modern universities today, it is probably materialist utilitarianism: there’s no God, no afterlife, let’s try and make money, expand the economy, and maybe improve society. In the UK, 97% of the £3 billion the government gives to university research goes to sciences, with only 3% going to the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Only one in ten undergrads study the humanities – by far the most popular degree is business studies and other vocational degrees. If there is any sense of purpose in this vision, it’s the blind drive for economic growth: get up the career ladder, get tenure, win funding, attract publicity, expand your department, attract more students, build more buildings.

What’s lacking in this vision of academia is any real understanding of consciousness, how it arises, what it’s for,  how it relates to the consciousness of other humans, animals, the natural world and the cosmos. Nor is there much understanding of how to transform consciousness, how to help it flourish and even reach enlightenment – a mission that was central to the first universities in ancient India and ancient Greece. 

Let’s imagine, for a second, a future model of the university in which the study of consciousness and the transformation of consciousness is central, rather than marginalized and excluded. For one thing, it would have a much greater sense of the importance of the arts and humanities. 

On science and spirituality

Personally, I have faith that science and spirituality are not at war with each other, that they both lead to one truth. I don’t believe that God – a word that denotes a higher dimension somewhat beyond our comprehension at present – requires us to believe in absurdities. I think both science and spirituality are driven by the hope that it all makes sense in the end, that our minds are moving towards greater understanding of ourselves and the cosmos.

One reason I think people mistakenly believe science and spirituality are enemies is because they confuse the empirical method with the worldview of naturalism and mechanical materialism. One of the key-note speakers at the conference was Massimo Pigliucci, prominent Skeptic blogger and recent convert to Stoicism (he’s just written a book called How To Be A Stoic). Massimo took issue with an Aeon piece I wrote on ecstatic experiences recently, and he wrote

Despite his skepticism of disenchanted materialism, Jules does bring in science when it seems to favor his take on things,

Massimo equates the scientific method with the worldview of disenchanted materialism. If I don’t believe the latter, I must be against the former. This is a standard mistake, highlighted by Rupert Sheldrake in his banned TEDx talk: ‘There’s a conflict at the heart of science between science as a method of enquiry based on reason, evidence, hypothesis and collective investigation, and science as a belief system or worldview. And unfortunately the worldview aspect of science has come to inhibit and restrict the free inquiry which is the very lifeblood of scientific endeavour’.

I think William James was right that we need a more ‘radical empiricism’ which is open to human experiences as a valid source of data – experiences of happiness, meaning, despair, transcendence and so on. If we accept subjective experiences as valid data, then we’d accept that most humans have occasional experiences of a higher dimension of mind, spirit or power which they describe with God words or spirit words. This is a common aspect of human nature which we need to include in any biological description of homo sapiens. We could then try to work out what this dimension is (not easy) and how we can access it in ways that help people flourish (somewhat easier). 

My intellectual heroes – James, Frederic Myers, Aldous Huxley and others – saw no contradiction between science and spirituality. They developed a sort of evolutionary spirituality, in which homo sapiens unfolds her spiritual potential from culture to culture and religion to religion. Wisdom –  sapiens – is a golden strand in our evolutionary code. We’re not quite sure where the sapiens came from – the biologist Alfred Russell Wallace thought it comes from a spiritual dimension which occasionally intervenes in evolution, while a few conspiracy-theorists have suggested wisdom-teachers like Pythagoras or Dionysus are really visiting extra-terrestrials, intervening benevolently in our cultural evolution. Pythagoras did have a golden thigh, after all, which sounds like a cyborg to me.

Anyway….we do at least have some idea how to develop the golden strand of sapiens in our minds and culture, so we can rise up the ladder of the helix.  I hope humans are just at the beginning of our evolutionary journey, and that we will develop more advanced forms of spirituality in which we don’t kill people with different definitions of the divine. Universities may have a role to play in that spiritual evolution, as far-fetched as that sounds today!

Crossing the Is / Ought divide

One of the challenges of combining science, ethics and spirituality is the Is / Ought divide. Can one go from an ‘Is’ – a scientific description – to an ‘Ought’, a moral prescription? Many Skeptic philosophers like David Hume and Friedrich Nietzsche have insisted you can’t, which has led to the sense of ethical confusion today. Must we try and pin our ethical or religious theories to the latest scientific evidence? Not easy when the evidence changes so quickly. 

And yet many contemporary thinkers, including me, have arrived at a sort of empirically-supported virtue ethics, in which the good life for individuals and cultures is the life in which we fulfil our natures as rational, social, political and spiritual animals.  The virtue ethics of Aristotle, the Buddha, the Stoics, and Christian philosophers like Thomas Aquinas are all based on models of human nature and theories of how to train the mind and body to find flourishing and liberation. They’re both ethical and biological systems – and also, at a deeper level, systems of physics and metaphysics, theories of consciousness, what it is, what happens to it after death. They’re universal theories. 

Findings from empirical psychology, psychiatry, sociology and neuroscience can help support classical virtue ethics. For example, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and Positive Psychology have tested out some of the techniques for self-transformation from Stoicism, Buddhism and Aristotelianism, and found that they ‘work’ – they help some people change chronic habits of depression and anxiety.

The empirical science of ecstasy and transcendence, which goes all the way back to William James, has also found that homo sapiens often has ecstatic experiences – moments where humans go beyond their ordinary self and feel powerfully connected to something greater than them. Psychologists have even developed scales to measure the depth of a person’s mystical experience. Psychology and neuroscience is increasingly finding that such experiences are good for us. So we can incorporate our yearning for ego-transcendence into an expanded virtue ethics (as, say, Iris Murdoch does in The Sovereignty of the Good). 

In both Philosophy for Life, and The Art of Losing Control, I described how recent findings from the psychology and the social sciences support this sort of expanded virtue ethics, how scientific evidence gives us hope that we can free ourselves from suffering and find flourishing in this life. I tried to build an agnostic model of virtue ethics, where people can accept the usefulness of both Greek philosophy and ecstatic practices as a means to flourishing, even if they don’t believe in God or a higher power (although I, broadly, do). 

But we also need to be honest about the limits of empirical science. CBT and mindfulness may help some people overcome emotional problems, but that doesn’t mean it makes them more virtuous people (as Stoicism and Buddhism claim). It’s difficult for science to measure how a person behaves all the time, whether they behave virtuously, without following them around their entire life or keeping them in a confined space (like a monastery).

This point was well made by the philosopher Owen Flanagan in his 2011 book, The Boddhisattva’s Brainwhich explores how contemplative science can tell us some useful things about Buddhist virtue ethics, but not whether the dharma actually makes people good, let alone whether it helps them reach Nirvana. 

Likewise, we can try to assess if ecstatic experiences help people flourish, but we can’t know for sure, because we don’t know what happens to consciousness after death. Socrates drinking hemlock, or Jesus dying on the cross at 33, appear to be a non-optimal outcomes from the point of view of their personal flourishing in this life. But they would argue it led to a greater flourishing in the next life.

Empirical psychology, then, can provide some support for virtue ethics theories, but they can never be entirely ‘proven’, because not everything can be precisely and objectively defined and measured.

A systems theory understanding of religions and revelations

Let me end with two things that I didn’t see discussed at the conference, which I think usefully connect the ‘new biology’ with spirituality. The first is to consider how systems theory help us understand individual and communal flourishing.

When I was mentally ill, I was stuck in a toxic feedback loop of rumination. I had a toxic idea of my self as damaged, broken and unloveable, which made me relate to other people in an avoidant and defensive way. This made other people react to me with suspicion and hostility, and it became a feedback loop – reinforcing my toxic idea of self and my alienation from the world. I was caught in a whirlpool of ego. 

I then had a near-death experience, which broke the loop of fear and rumination. It felt like some external force hit me and re-set me, a sort of external shock, like a spiritual meteor, although it may have been something within my own mind manifesting. Anyway, the experience helped me realize I was causing my own suffering through my thoughts. I couldn’t control what others thought of me, but I could learn to accept myself, and this gradually changed the feedback dynamic between me and other people (wisdom epigrams like ‘you get back what you put in’ refer to this sort of feedback loop between people’s intentions and other minds).

So that’s one point: mental illness can be understood in terms of getting stuck in feedback loops of rumination and alienation, and people are sometimes liberated from these loops by mystical-type experiences. That seems to be what happens in psychedelic therapy, for example. In Alister Hardy’s database of spiritual experiences, one often finds people saying they felt more and more cocooned in a loop of negative rumination, and then suddenly a spiritual experience breaks them out of the cocoon and they feel re-connected to their soul, their body, to other beings, and to the sparkling wonder of existence.

I subsequently became fascinated with the idea of nature as a self-regulating organism, and the idea – which one finds in many different cultures – that when a civilization becomes alienated, out-of-balance with nature and with the gods, when it worships itself and forgets its dependence on nature and the spirit-world, the eco-system seizes on individuals to act as regulators, to bring the system back into equilibrium. The shaman, prophet, artist and visionary are all figures who are seized by the eco-system (or the spirit world if you prefer), and used – possessed – as regulatory mechanisms to bring the alienated civilization into a new equilibrium with the spirit-world. 

Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog, introducing tools to shift human consciousness and culture

This systems theory of religion and revelatory experiences isn’t entirely original. The work of Stewart Brand, Brian Eno and David Byrne incorporates systems theory into their exploration of communities, religion and the arts. Stewart Brand helped to organize the first Trips Festival in 1969, developing the idea of the rave as a self-regulating system in which he acted as the Regulator, tweaking the system to produce communal ecstasies (this is described in Fred Turner’s excellent book, From Counterculture to Cyberculture). He saw his mission as introducing new ideas and tools into the system – like the idea of the Whole Earth – which would then help the system to find a better equilibrium.  It’s interesting to think of religions as systems of information-sharing and consciousness-connection which form new holistic systems through collective ecstatic experiences.

DNA and the forgiveness of sins

The second idea which I think usefully connects spirituality with the ‘new biology’ is the idea, in classical Greek culture, that we carry around the sins of our tribe within us, and we somehow have to pay the karmic debt for these sins. I think this is an interesting way of understanding DNA – the double helix is our long ancestral history, and it contains both unfulfilled potential and inherited curses. The spiritual journey involves developing the potential while healing or breaking the curses.

I’ve inherited a genetic or epigenetic disposition to anxiety and other emotional problems, possibly from my mother, who possibly inherited it from her mother, who possibly inherited it from my great-grandfather, who either developed it during World War I, when he was gassed in the trenches, or perhaps inherited it from his ancestors. It’s hard to know where it began, but it’s there, in our genes, and a lot of my spiritual journey in this particular life is trying to work with these tendencies in my mind, in order to change the story, change the tune, while also helping other people going through similar stuff.

How do you change the story? Through things like wisdom, philosophy, spiritual practices, and also through therapeutic psychedelics. One way to understand the healing use of psychedelics – particularly ayahuasca – is that they give you the capacity to see your personal and family history, and to change bits of the story so that they don’t just repeat themselves over and over. It’s the spiritual version of CRISPR, the gene-editing technology. You see the emotional loop, and you can go snip, I want to change that loop so it doesn’t keep replicating.

Perhaps psychedelics can help break ancestral patterns of violence and suffering. But that doesn’t mean they’re essential to spiritual growth – Jesus suggested we just need to take the Eucharist, believe in Him, and we will be liberated from all ancestral sins going back to Adam. The Buddha and the Stoics, meanwhile, suggested we just need the wisdom to realize the emptiness of our thoughts and we can be liberated. Anyway, God knows what gene-editing is going to do to our understanding of the meaning of sin and suffering. Who needs karma or original sin when you have CRISPR!