Ayi Kwei Armah, Lauryn Hill and "The Dance of Inspiration"

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When I think about the ways that some have excoriated Lauryn Hill for her apparent crimes against humanity (real or imagined), I have surmised that "the debate," to quote someone I'm reluctant to quote, "has been miscast from the start." What is seemingly at play is a difference in both the modes and understanding of inspiration, made apparent by the pleas (sometimes dressed as gestures of "concern") for Lauryn Hill to find, or conjure, her inspiration from somewhere.


It occurred to me that you can discern plenty about someone's modes of inspiration (and predict future resonance with your own) by the expectations they levy on others to spontaneously “create” and “be inspired” (timelines and codes of conduct included). Simply put: Knowing one's/someone's “inspirational lineage” can increase the clarity quotient. And, so, when I ponder adding –- “how do you cultivate inspiration?” (not to be confused with “what inspires you?”) –- to my conversation queues in the present and future – I'm so sincere.

Ghanaian writer Ayi Kwei Armah waxes eloquent about inspiration throughout his novel Eloquence of the Scribes; but in one of the final chapters, [“The Dance of Inspiration” 263-274] he traces the way inspiration has been conceptualized and theorized throughout time, history and different cultures: “European conceptions are the latest to have found systematic articulation, and to this day, they tend to be laborious in their expression. Asian conceptions are older. More serene than the European. African conceptions are the oldest known; they also tend to be the most steadily centered on the human intellect, away from the lure of divine intervention.”

The European Model

Armah discusses Carl G. Jung and Sigmund Freud and their concept of artistic creativity as being embedded in a form of compensatory neurosis: “a disease, or an attempt to deal with a disease” the artist him/herself being an “aberrant individual, still crazy, still subject to hazy influences and impulses ... and archetypes ... vague, primordial forces, fundamentally important but hard to explain rationally.” Armah includes a quote from Jung who concedes to an earlier claim of the Freudian School that “artists, without exception are narcissistic,” further adding, “Art is a kind of innate drive that seizes a human being as its instrument. The artist is not a person endowed with free will who seeks his own ends, but one who allows art to realize its purposes through him. [267-268]

Armah concludes: “It is possible that had Freud and Jung taken a serious look at organizational ideas from a cultural tradition other than the European, they might have seen that the problem lay in a truncated conception of the human psyche.” [269]

The Asian Model

He theorizes Asian inspiration, particularly the Chinese conception, through a discussion of the Tao. The Chinese conception of inspiration, he posits, shifts the issue away from human dependence on divine intervention. “The universe looks superficially like a huge number of unconnected realities (the thousand); but underneath the appearance of multiplicity there is one underlying reality, conventionally called the Tao. Creativity in art and science demands an understanding of reality profound enough to perceive the many and yet to comprehend the one, the Tao. This requires the systematic study both of the world and of the writings and traditions of the ancient sages. Persistent study equips the artist and the thinker to develop their ch'i, or individual talent to the point where it is able to achieve identification with the Tao. ...Contemplation of the Tao is an artistic intellectual practice.” [270]

He continues: "Such study moves artists to the same wave length as the Tao, so that expressions emanating from them match the pulsations of the universe. The harmony of individual talent and cosmic reality becomes so "natural" that spectators observing the artists' work may think it artless, as if in its production no effort were involved." [271]

The African Model

Here, Armah makes an important distinction between African and Asian traditions: “The central role of human initiative in the process of inspiration becomes even clearer when we examine the African conception. While in the Chinese view the ancestors, in the form of mentoring sages, play an important role in bringing the thinking artist into contact with the Tao, in the African conception the aim of the process is not to bring the artist to vibrate on the same wavelength as the universe. It is to train the artist to understand reality through a direct contemplation combined with a study of the work of all ancestral predecessors who left a record of their knowledge. The process of inspiration, in effect, here stands stripped of even the minimal mystical covering of the Chinese Tao. Inspiration comes from the intelligent study of the universe heightened to a systematic way of life … The principal way is study and practice ... The more intense the need for inspiration, the wider the search, the deeper the concentration ... Having nourished itself with insights from the ages, courage from beloved ancestors, and clear-eyed observations of present reality, the creative soul can go to work.” [271,274]

Back to Lauryn.

In the forums, Achali poses two crucial questions to guide the dialogue reignited by Lauryn's latest performance: “Before you dismiss her, ask yourself, what might Lauryn know that I don't, what might Lauryn have seen that I haven't?”

With Armah's breakdown of inspiration in mind, I'll add: What is your inspirational lineage, and how might that inform how you relate to the way in which Lauryn Hill -- or anyone else, for that matter -- manifests their own?

Originally Posted 1/10/2011

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