Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Throwing Away Your Shot

Lin-Manuel Miranda is a genius. This goes without saying: he was the the author, composer, and leading man of the Broadway musicals In the Heights and Hamilton, and he can come up with jaw-droppingly clever rhymes in the spur of the moment. Just give him a beat. But what does it mean to say that someone is a "genius?" The word comes from Latin, where it meant "an attendant spirit present at one's birth," what the Greeks called a "daimon." The genius is like the angel on your shoulder: a little ghost that whispers inspiration to you. When we say that Lin-Manuel is a genius, we mean that he has a genius. And he's no stranger to it.

On the Genius

But isn't this just a bunch of old Roman hooey? It isn't. Here's my evidence: Lin-Manuel is very talented at doing things "on the fly." Not only can you see this in the talk show episodes where he cleverly does freestyle raps with only a few seconds to prepare, but it shows up in the musicals he writes too. Most of the songs in Hamilton have rhymes, rhythms, and meanings so well woven together that they bear the character of something whole. No part of My Shot's lyrics can be separated from the other parts without the whole thing losing its meaning. This organized whole - what psychologists would call a gestalt - can't be assembled piece by piece. Its living kernel needs to come all at once, and as such it needs to have been given. The one who gives this whole is the genius. The genius is where inspiration begins.

The concept of the genius is another way of saying that works of art aren't just a collection of notes or drops of paint. Hamilton isn't a collision of billiard balls on a musical pool table. As a gestalt, it's more than the sum of its parts. If you took the parts away and considered them apart from each other, it would lose meaning and its life. And this life is the genius: what organizes these parts into something whole, something significant. Without the genius, the work is contrived, uninspired, or even dead.

The genius of Lin-Manuel is what caused a sensation in the nation, what kept "the ten-dollar founding father" on our bills. Without it, all of that would fall apart into brittle, dissociated pieces. It's time we learned more about it.

Hamilton's Shot

"You have married an Icarus. He has flown too close to the sun."

Hamilton isn't just a product of genius. It's about more ways than one. Not only is its main character a prodigy, a Mozart of letters, but its ultimate message is about what happens to genius when it pops into the world. In Hamilton, the genius announces who he is and tells us about himself. It's a tell-all, a full disclosure.

The genius comes from somewhere else. It strikes us unawares - while sitting on a park bench, walking, or reading a biography - but the genius isn't confined to the book we're reading. It only appears by means of it, as if Ron Chernow's book were a mirror the genius used to see itself. In itself, it exists beyond the bounds of things and definite ideas. It breaks through; it "bursts" into awareness.

Hamilton (the character) is a lot like that genius. Like a flash of inspiration, he comes from somewhere else (the Caribbean), and he comes here (the colonies) to shake everything up. Both Hamilton and the genius affect everything they touch. They're both a bundle of fiery energy just waiting to explode. And fire can't easily be held: he commits adultery, he gets into fights, and he spills his private secrets out into the world without any scruples, just as inspiration doesn't lend itself easily to the real-life projects that can contain it.

But I'll argue that Hamilton isn't just similar to the genius. Hamilton is genius announcing itself. He is the promise of a new idea, the openness of a gestalt and all the ways you can understand it. He is the possibility of curiosity, intuition, and ambition. In every flash of insight, Hamilton's ship is in the harbor. See if you can spot him.

But the genius often isn't received well. New ideas and fresh perspectives are all well and good, but many people are scared by the thought of any change. The inevitable resistance that rises up against social progress is a case in point. Hamilton threatens the establishment. That establishment says: "if you talk, you're gonna get shot." And he often does. Look at John Lennon or Martin Luther King Jr.: both shot at the height of their path toward change.

It goes without saying at this point that the establishment gets personified in Hamilton through Aaron Burr. He "keeps out of trouble," and "keeps his cards close to his chest": both motions of closure as opposed to Hamilton's radical openness. Hamilton is soaring freedom; Burr is enclosed restriction. Hamilton is the liberal; Burr is the conservative. Hamilton is yes; Burr is no. These are opposites, but they need each other. You can't have open without closed, after all. But neither of them see this until the very end. With Hamilton's and Burr's dueling pistols loaded and pointed at each other, the opposition that defines our culture - ambition and pessimism, idealism and realism, liberal and conservative - goes into its final showdown. Who will win? Who will lose? What actually happened, at least in the musical, surprised everyone: Hamilton threw away his shot.

Hamilton, who fought against tyranny and restriction his whole life, decides to let it have the last word. He points his pistol at the sky, like his son, knowing that he would probably die. Why? I think it's because, at that last moment when he saw the "other side," he saw the secret behind the world's deceptive appearance: that when Burr and Hamilton fight, both lose. So instead of pointing his pistol at his enemy, he points it at the sky. He sees that "whoever takes the sword perishes by the sword" and that "an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind." And he perishes by a twitch of Burr's finger.

But this act, where the genius points himself back at the sky instead of fighting the limitations of the earth, doesn't count for nothing. It leaves everyone dumbfounded. As the genius returns to the beyond where he came from, we - like the centurion at Christ's crucifixion - can tell that something more-than-human has just happened. The air is pregnant with unsayable meaning even as there's "wailing in the streets." And it leaves people changed.

Likewise, every time we realize that our high-flying ideals, ambitions, and insights don't belong on earth, we point its pistol at the sky and it returns home. We don't lose the insight, but we remember that it comes from something fundamentally other than me: the genius. For the genius will return home sooner or later. With the geniuses in history like John Lennon, Kurt Cobain, or Mozart, it could only ascend by killing the person. But a person - realizing that he's "only human" - puts down the burden of "being the genius" and can work with that inspiring spirit productively.

This is crucial for our culture today. As liberals fighting conservatives and conservatives fighting liberals, we don't realize that these political ideals which Hamilton and Burr show so well don't belong on earth. They come to us from somewhere else, somewhere divine and not human. By acknowledging that and realizing that they aren't our own, we point our pistol at the sky and let the conflict so bitterly played out on the national stage lose its life-or-death quality. But this is true of every ideal, every cause, or even every emotion that carries us beyond ourselves. It's not us: it's something greater than us, and only by acknowledging that can we end the cycle of pain that getting possessed by these forces inevitably causes. Let the gods be the gods; let humans be humans. Only apart can they work together.

Will you throw away your shot? Will you plant seeds in a garden you never get to see? More depends on these questions than you could ever think.

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