Thursday, November 19, 2009

Elizabeth Gilbert, Oprah, Hosea and Embarrassing Ringtones

A couple of mornings ago, a cell phone rang during shacharit (morning services). The owner fled the room, crushing the phone against his suit in an attempt to smother a Latin-sounding rhythm that reminded me of the cars cruising the streets of Washington Heights. You know the ones I mean – with the tinted windows, the purple-illuminated details,the chrome-lined license plates. I can’t wait to see them again on my trip to NY this coming Monday. But I digress.

The red-faced owner of the cell phone was embarrassed, obviously – but I think his discomfort came more from the specific ringtone than from his exposure as the sort of callous, less-than-perfectly-pious person who would leave his ringer on while praying to the Almighty. He was embarrassed to be found out in that staid company as a lover of Colombian rhythms, or, more precisely, as one who would whimsically include those beats on his cell phone, as a calling card (so to speak).

And witnessing this, I remembered a TED video I saw a couple of weeks ago, featuring author Elizabeth Gilbert. She spoke both entertainingly and compellingly about the morbid fate of many of our creative geniuses: madness and death at an early age. Ms. Gilbert posited - to do her the disservice of compressing twenty minutes into one sentence – that our radiant stars burn out because we allow them to feel, and we encourage them to feel, that they are responsible for their own creativity.

In bygone days of Muses and Faeries, artists and poets and musicians could blame the spirit world for their failures, and this shifted a burden from their shoulders. The small price was that they shared their successes with such spirits, but the benefits included the ability to dissociate themselves from their lowest creative moments. Now, artists have nowhere to hide, no one to blame for their blocks, but themselves, and the stress erodes their confidence, their self-image, and, ultimately, their ability to survive.

It’s an interesting idea, and I won’t deny it has some resonance for a man who spent 12 years developing speeches at deadline on an at-least weekly basis, to say nothing of thousands of classes during that span. But I see another element in the madness of our artists: The fact that they divulge their deepest selves on stage, before the world, and call the world to see them, to know them, and, hopefully, to love them. They live on stage, and in the past century more so than ever before, not only in publications of their own choosing but on Oprah's couch [at least until she ends her show in September 2011, anyway], in tabloids, on the red carpet and in re-hab. They are exhibitionists, and what exhibitionist does not live, and die, for his audience?

And the creator’s exhibitionist tension is actually twofold: First, to find that element within that is authentic, true and real and free of contamination. And second, to display that element in a way that will communicate its truest self to the world beyond. And then, after all of that – the creator must worry whether she got it right in that spotlight, and whether others will get it right, and whether they will, having gotten it right, appreciate it as beautiful or reject it as ugly, dirty, something that should have been left beneath its rock.

It’s an idea at the core of the book of הושע (Hosea), which I’ve been teaching for the past several weeks. Repeatedly, Gd calls upon the Jews to know – וידעת את ה', Know Me, Love Me. Like the old Who song, “See me, heal me, touch me, feel me.” Gd calls upon the Jews to know Him, and reacts to their willful disregard with, by turns, displays of cynicism, grief and fury. [No, I am not anthropomorphising Gd; hence the term “displays of” above. No heresy here.]

It’s the idea at the heart of all love relationships; והאדם ידע את חוה אשתו, Adam knew Chavah, and so lover knows beloved.

And it’s what drives creators off the deep end, this display of what they believe to be their inmost selves, and the sandwich board they wear, marching up and down Fifth Avenue, “Know me!”

And it’s what embarrasses the fellow with the quirky ringtone, because he has just accidentally displayed his normally-hidden quirkiness to fifty or sixty of his sort-of-close friends, people who had never been admitted into that sphere.

The answer for him, of course, is to avoid ringtones if he doesn’t want to have people hear them. If he is not ready to let the world know of his love for Ricky Martin, Nickelback, the B-52s, Deep Purple, Def Leppard or Lady Gaga [to quote a few recently-heard jingles], then he would be wise not to publish it.

But if he is going to publish it, then I pray for Divine aid on his behalf. I applaud the man who reaches into his own depths and draws up a shard and says to the world, “This is me.” Whether you take Elizabeth Gilbert’s version or mine, Creativity is a dangerous pursuit, and I wish its practitioners all the best.


  1. Rabbi,
    Plenty to ponder in the section on the artist in public, but re the cellphone ringtone, let me quote an artiste of a different sort--G. Marx--"Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar." And sometimes that ringtone is nothing more than a ringtone. It doesn't say anything more to the world then "your phone is ringing." I'll be l'chav z'chus that the man at minyan was embarrassed because he forgot to turn off the phone while he was davening rather than because of the way the phone sounded.

    I've got a Latin rhythm ringtone on my phone also because after much experimenting it was the only ringtone I could clearly hear when the phone was in my purse and I was concentrating on some activity like shopping, with competing sounds in the store. If people presume they have a portrait of me thanks to that ringtone, well, it wouldn't be the first time or the last that people were wrong.

  2. ProfK-
    Certainly could be. To me, the main point really is the artist, in any case. The ringtone is a convenient parable.

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