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The Special Relationship Between Doom and Creativity

October 22nd, 2011 - 12:14 pm

My new book, Virgil’s Golden Egg and Other Neapolitan Miracles, investigates why Neapolitans are so creative, and have been for centuries.  It’s a world’s record, I think.  The Florentine Renaissance was amazing, too, but it was largely over after two and a half centuries.  The Golden Age of Periclean Athens was less than one hundred years, as was the American “Truly Greatest Generation” of the War, the Constitution, and the consolidation of the state.  What accounts for explosions of creativity?  And what keeps it going?

I offer three suggestions for the Neapolitans’ extraordinary energy and creativity, and note that the personality type for which Naples is famous, is very much like ours.  We call them Triple-A types, and the psychologists have fancier names for them (hypomanics, for example), and we all know several.  You know, people just this side of manic-depression, people who aren’t likely to end up in a padded room, but you can’t tell for sure.  Think Steve Jobs, or Walt Disney or…well, put in your own favorites.  Naples is full of those people, and we can identify them scientifically;  they have a unique DNA.  It’s interesting that the countries with the greatest number of such people are all immigrant societies:  America, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and Israel.

Naples has an added ingredient, as did New Orleans, as does Venice, as does Israel:  the people “know” that they are doomed, either because a terrible natural catastrophe is looming and can’t be avoided, or because there are so many murderous enemies that, sooner or later, death will be visited upon the place.  Doomed cities and doomed countries have a unique relationship with death, and (therefore, but you’ll have to read the book to get the particulars) are extraordinarily artistic, and imaginative.  There’s fabulous Neapolitan literature, art and music about Mount Vesuvius, the great volcano whose next explosion is, according to the vulcanologists, overdue.  When it comes, they say, it will totally destroy the city and a big area around it.

These remarks, which are considerably expanded in Virgil’s Golden Egg, came to mind today when a dear friend sent me this wonderful video from Tel Aviv, in which Italian opera is played and sung in a public market in Tel Aviv.  I cannot watch it without thinking of the enormous creative energy unleashed by the Israeli people, despite, or indeed because of, their surrounding doom.  No wonder they have such an amazing track record of scientific, literary, technological and scientific achievement.

History unfolds through paradox.  War is sure hell, but the looming presence of doom has creative consequences.

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