“A person needs a little madness, or else they never dare cut the rope and be free” (Nikos Kazantzakis)
“There is no genius free from some tincture of madness” (Seneca)
Three things this week made me think extensively about creativity. Its importance, or its absence, today feels more relevant than ever among the deluge of numbing sequels, remakes and imitations that congest our screens and airwaves. They may seem a tangential trio but to me they have a common thread running through them.
Otis Redding’s 1967 Live in Europe is a masterful exercise in soul performance. Driving, raw and entirely without pretension it comes from the same stable of performance as James Brown’s seminal 1963 and 1970 albums Live at the Apollo and Sex Machine, and to a some degree Sam Cooke’s Live at the Harlem Square Club. Redding gives a lashing, febrile recitation of his own compositions (Respect, I Can’t Turn You Loose) and others (Day Tripper, Shake) and performs with such an extraordinary emotional intensity that at times he seems to bend the parameters of self-control. He glides in and around the concert’s framework and while such soul sets, and particularly Brown’s, were watertight and well-rehearsed from years on the road, the real beauty for me is in their fluidity, their ability to stretch familiar renditions in new, spontaneous directions; to shape an existing formula in original and exhilarating ways in response to little more than than a venue’s atmosphere. His coda to Satisfaction, in particular, drags that night’s audience into a muddy, frenzied whirlpool of primal energy as he playfully, but unrelentingly, feeds off their hysterical adoration. Redding’s performance is just 37 minutes long but fizzes with a freedom and vitality that makes it one of the most hypnotic live recordings of all time.
Manny Pacquiao’s scintillating, exquisite humbling of Puerto Rico’s darling, Miguel Cotto, for the welterweight championship in Las Vegas late last Saturday night was, too, a glorious concoction of innate brilliance and improvisational genius. Like Redding, Pacquiao’s tactics would have been fastidiously rehearsed, and with a monastic devotion, but boxing exposes its disciples to the often crushing, sadistic vagaries of chance unlike any other sport. A lucky punch, a tactical switch, a cut, a clash of heads, each can lay waste to best intentions, making fools of players and prophets alike. But Pacquiao is hyperbole made real. His talent is rare and in beating Cotto he not only showed himself to be a teak-tough warrior but also an ethereal magician, a fighter capable of mutating his artistry with such freedom as to make even the most gifted adversary appear unwieldy. His attacking raids on his bigger, stronger opponent were waspish, his speed mesmeric. Cotto was bamboozled and cut down. It was, truly, sport as chorography.
Finally, in a short interview in The Observer, Sir Viv Richards, a cricketer of supernatural assurance, lamented the proliferation of body armour in modern cricket and, perversely, a concurrent decline in genuinely hostile bowling. An over-reliance on protection and safety has brought about a decline in instinctive stroke play, a psychological rigor mortis that denies the fluidity of improvisation. Modern cricketers have no concern for the kind of physical danger that forces sportsmen to react intuitively. As such they are suffocated by “textbook” technique and thus, ironically, more fearful of failure and unwilling to play with risk. For Richards, a game of physical and psychological combat has become one of creative inertia, cowering behind the safety of sclerotic orthodoxy.
So, Redding, Pacquiao and Richards exhibit a shared creative freedom but why are they, and it, so enthralling? I believe it is because they are everything that we long to be yet everything that we are not. They are the unencumbered child that we all once were and all hope we can be again. Fearless, inspired and resistant to rationality, they seem impervious to the learned prudence, the cumbersome baggage of consequence and, crucially, fear, and instead appear to exist entirely on the outward breath. In a world saddled with obedience and orthodoxy this, and they, are wonderfully and utterly liberating.
“If the word ‘inspiration’ is to have any meaning,” T.S Eliot wrote, “it must mean just this, that the speaker or writer is uttering something that he does not wholly understand – or which he may even misinterpret when the inspiration has departed from him.”
If this sounds mystical, or quasi-religious, then maybe Eliot intended it to be so because true inspiration and creativity must come, surely, from beyond the realms of calculated intention. It is “playing” without fear of criticism, without a focus on the possible rewards or failures. It is being instinctual and deferential to feeling. It is a paradox where psychological intensity is both hypnotic and deeply uncomfortable. It can be flawed, true, and at odds with the self-knowledge we are trained to acquire as we grow, but it is profoundly exciting. It is those subconscious moments that transcend and explode learned modes of behavior, those moments of jarring dissonance that assault habit and spawn surprise, energy and vitality.
Saxophonist John Coltrane, the master improviser and a musician entirely devoted to creative freedom, said, “I never even thought about whether or not they understand what I’m doing . . . the emotional reaction is all that matters as long as there’s some feeling of communication, it isn’t necessary that it be understood.” The notion that an audience subverts pragmatism and logic in favour of emotion is an anomaly in today’s cosseted society, but Coltrane understood that to do so is to experience a rare, transcendental beauty.
Instinct, chaos, inspiration, innovation, even, for some, madness. Call it what you will, but these mercurial, exquisite moments and works are what make art, and sport, so exciting. It’s Ali’s bombastic right-hand lead in Kinshasa or the “collectif” philosophy of French rugby, the ability to create moments of beauty from nothing. It’s the subconscious, labyrinthine linguistics of Anthony Burgess and James Joyce. Amid a prevalent calcification of creativity these are the flashes of difference that demand to be cherished.