Tom Hart emailed me the other day, asking if I remembered a Kurt Vonnegut passage where he talks about how “we all are all dispirited because we feel like have to compete with the world’s best, not just fulfill a role (say artist, writer, storyteller) in our tribe or extended family.”
I did, believe it or not. It’s from his (underrated, IMO) novel, Bluebeard:
I was obviously born to draw better than most people, just as the widow Berman and Paul Slazinger were obviously born to tell stories better than most people can. Other people are obviously born to sing and dance or explain the stars in the sky or do magic tricks or be great leaders or athletes, and so on.
I think that could go back to the time when people had to live in small groups of relatives – maybe fifty or a hundred people at the most. And evolution or God or whatever arranged things genetically to keep the little families going, to cheer them up, so that they could all have somebody to tell stories around the campfire at night, and somebody else to paint pictures on the walls of the caves, and somebody else who wasn’t afraid of anything and so on.
That’s what I think. And of course a scheme like that doesn’t make sense anymore, because simply moderate giftedness has been made worthless by the printing press and radio and television and satellites and all that. A moderately gifted person who would have been a community treasure a thousand years ago has to give up, has to go into some other line of work, since modern communications put him or her into daily competition with nothing but the world’s champions.
The entire planet can get along nicely now with maybe a dozen champion performers in each area of human giftedness. A moderately gifted person has to keep his or her gifts all bottled up until, in a manner of speaking, he or she gets drunk at a wedding and tapdances on the coffee table like Fred Astair or Ginger Rogers. We have a name for him or her. We call him or her an ‘exhibitionist.’
How do we reward such an exhibitionist? We say to him or her the next morning, ‘Wow! Were you ever drunk last night!”
Of course, Bluebeard was written in 1987. I think the internet, for better or worse, has meant that quite a few moderately gifted people — people like me! — have managed to eke out livings based on our weird work and building an extended family out of the fellow weirdos who find us.
I shall enjoy it while it lasts!