“I’ll be your mirror / reflect what you are / in case you don’t know”
I taped this photo of Kanye West and Donald Trump on my copy of Ryan Holiday’s Ego is the Enemy, because the two fall neatly into the Bill Hicks’ category of Fevered Egos That Are Tainting Our Collective Unconscious and Making Us Pay A Higher Psychic Price Than We Can Imagine.
I take these two very personally, for an absurd reason: they are, like me, both Geminis, and I look at them in disgust and I think, “This is why I read books and listen to Prince (the best Gemini) all day.”
I realized a long time ago that the qualities I truly despise in other people are the qualities that I myself possess and have tried my best to suppress. (“If you hate a person, you hate something in him that is part yourself,” says the character Pistorius in Herman Hesse’s novel, Demian. “What isn’t part ourselves doesn’t disturb us.”)
The president, of course, is completely irredeemable, and not worth thinking about too much. His election was like watching one of those X-Files episodes where a mutant monster emerges from the toxic runoff of our civilization.
He’s old and evil and ugly and like Vigo in Ghostbusters 2, it took a river of poisonous mood slime to put him in the position to potentially end the world.
Kanye, on the other hand, has actually contributed something decent to his country. He is, no matter what you think of him, an artist. And he’s made some amazing music that I love listening to. (I have fond, vivid memories of cruising Maui to Watch The Throne and painting my garage while blasting Yeezus.) That he’s given us such good music and said such stupid things makes him even more maddening.
But, as Carl Jung wrote in his memoir, Memories, Dreams, and Reflections, “Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.”
What can we learn from these two?
1. Don’t believe in genius.
Kanye and The President both believe deeply in the idea of individual genius.
“Name one genius who ain’t crazy,” Kanye raps on The Life of Pablo. Jayson Greene wrote a good piece over at Pitchfork called “Kanye West and Why the Myth of ‘Genius’ Must Die”:
Kanye has placed himself in a lineage of unconquerable men: Walt Disney, Steve Jobs, Howard Hughes, Michael Jordan, Pablo Picasso, Albert Einstein. This idea has fueled him and absolved him in the past, but it is killing him now.
As for the President, in the words of Dana Goldstein, he is “obsessed with two of the most dangerous concepts in education history”: genius and I.Q. He thinks of himself as a “Very Stable Genius,” and is always talking about his I.Q., which is “sorry losers and haters…one of the highest.” So, in his mind, there are very talented and special individuals, the smart winners, and everybody else, the dummies, the losers.
It also seems very important to him to keep up this fantasy of his own genius, and in doing so he seems to have discovered the exact recipe for remaining a horrible person forever, which he shared with the people of Wisconsin in 2016: “Always be around unsuccessful people, because everybody will respect you.”
It’s true: if you want to never grow or change or gather any sort of wisdom or perspective on life, you should surround yourself with people who are not only not as good as you, but who worship and defer to you.
The “Yes Men,” of course, are the kiss-of-death for many a would-be genius. Creative people need somebody around telling them how dumb they’re being.
Take, for example, George Lucas, who made his best movies while married to film editor Marcia Lucas. Several people have pointed to their divorce as the point at which his work took a dive. Here’s Mark Hamill (a.k.a. Luke Skywalker) on her crucial role:
[George is] in his own world. He’s like William Randolph Hearst or Howard Hughes, he’s created his own world and he can live in it all the time. You really see that in his films, he’s completely cut off from the rest of world. You can see a huge difference in the films that he does now and the films that he did when he was married. I know for a fact that Marcia Lucas was responsible for convincing him to keep that little “kiss for luck” before Carrie [Fisher] and I swing across the chasm in the first film: “Oh, I don’t like it, people laugh in the previews,” and she said, “George, they’re laughing because it’s so sweet and unexpected”–and her influence was such that if she wanted to keep it, it was in. When the little mouse robot comes up when Harrison and I are delivering Chewbacca to the prison and he roars at it and it screams, sort of, and runs away, George wanted to cut that and Marcia insisted that he keep it. She was really the warmth and the heart of those films, a good person he could talk to, bounce ideas off of, who would tell him when he was wrong. Now he’s so exalted that no one tells him anything.
(Kanye has Kim, which seems to help a little bit. He also collaborates a lot, which, again, is all a matter of who you surround yourself with.)
The antidote to the Bad Idea of Genius is, in my opinion, Brian Eno’s concept of “scenius,” or the collective form of genius. Genius is an ego-system, and scenius is an eco-system.
Here’s Questlove, a student of Prince, laying it out (quoted in Steal Like An Artist):
the only mofos in my circle are people that I CAN LEARN FROM. i believe THAT is the first and foremost rule to a successful life.
you are going to be as educated and successful as the 10 most
frequented people you call/text on your phone
2. Read a freaking book.
“I am not a fan of books,” Kanye said in 2009. “I am not a fan of books. I would never want a book’s autograph. I am a proud non-reader of books. I like to get information from doing stuff like actually talking to people and living real life.”
Shocker! The President doesn’t read books, either.
(Unfortunately, this proud non-reading doesn’t stop them from writing their own books.)
My friend Matt Thomas, who is a scholar of both egos, says: “Kanye would have been that kid in college who didn’t always do the reading but had a really high participation grade because he always debated people in class and did alternate assignments.”
It strikes me over and over, reading old books, how the past is just one gigantic subtweet of these fevered egos.
Here’s Emily Dickinson:
“There are those who are shallow intentionally / and only profound by accident”
Here’s Lao Tzu, a few thousand years ago:
I’m already tired of writing about these two, so I’ll leave it there.