I just watched the Steve Jobs bio-pic last night played by the surprisingly good Ashton Kucher, better known for his lazy pothead ’70s teenager than his twisted genius roles. And it got me thinking about great artistic minds and the role they play in the motivating devoted creation and, sometimes without fail, the destruction of those around them. I thought of the roles actor Tim Roth plays, which I typically love and which typically are this very kind of misanthropic, single minded loner genius type. I leave Roth’s dramas bothered, angry, even, but I never forget them. I usually recommend them, even. But Roth’s parts have been only fictitious, I believe. Jobs, in Kucher’s adaptation, was a madman. Am I to take this portrayal as the truth? Does a dramatic biography need to be true? Did this film about an undisputed genius require it? Did Apple require it? Who’s to say. What we do know is that Jobs, an inventor of extraordinary talent, abandoned his pregnant girlfriend as a young man and denied paternity to his daughter under the claim that he was infertile and the victim of false identification. He did this when he was himself an adopted child. And then he went on to father other children and to marry an educated woman who he lived with until his death.
Do we admire Jobs for his life? I, for one, do not. For his work, yes. For his leadership, no. Do I need to accept him as a giant of industry, of course. Without him I could not compose this post or host a blog. I would be invisible to almost everyone except my loved ones, friends and neighbors. Should I accept Steve Jobs for showing us eccentrics a path to greatness? I don’t know. It can have tremendous cost.
Consider the life of Frank Lloyd Right. I fall apart over his buildings. I cannot describe how much i love them, how his composition produces the appearance of the limitless. He was like Steve Jobs in that. But he was a monster to his family. He wrecked his own marriage and then that of a woman his wife was friends with, who later died a horrific death in Wisconsin. It is not his fault she met her end that way, but his absence of conscience does seem to have invited doom. So, too, perhaps, did Jobs’ maniacal perfectionism. His rage with his staff, his isolation and narcism were surely part of what doomed some of Apple’s early projects and, perhaps, brought on the illness he eventually died of. I do believe that intolerance and the stress it builds inside can damage the workings of our organs.
That said, plenty of generous, unselfish people live short lives. Many of them can be lonely and unsuccessful. They can though still be great people. They can be great in any field, at painting, electronics, filmmaking, writing, graffiti art. But they may have to practice these fields in solitude, or with an audience of one or two. It is indeed the very path I have been following. I have written 8 books none of which are published. None have been read except by my closest friends and family and they may never leave my computer. I’d like to think that should one of my titles ever see the light of day that I would’t ditch my children. I never needed fame nor riches. Did Steve Jobs? I don’t know. He had a modest home, he didn’t seem to travel much or to spend conspicuously. His one addiction seemed to be his work. Like Mozart, he was all about the notes. The tiny details that would make the masterpiece complete before it killed him.
I don’t think great art has to kill us. Nor do all the world’s innovators have to be cruel men. I’m sure there are plenty of women who answer to my string of criticisms, but, as it happens, the famous narcissists tend to be the guys. They also are the ones who ditch their children. To dump wives and go off after gurus and howl at the moon. “It’s a guy thing. A phase. He’ll sober up and come back home.” Will he? Does he? I’m not so sure. If the fix he’s looking for is genius, or the acknowledgement from others that he is among the giants, what else will satisfy? The trivial needs of others, love, attention, notes at graduation, they will mean nothing.
Why do people of genius marry and have children? I wonder that about Paul Farmer, a father and husband and two-book author, world renowned for helping the poor and sick in Haiti but who sees his family about two weeks of the year. We all, I’m sure, think we deserve some greatness. Think ah, I could have published that. My joke was better. I had that plot ten years ago, and then that other guy stole it! But if we kept it to ourselves or in the clutter of our Jobsian desktop, maybe we’re a little better off. We will probably live younger than poor Mozart did, and Christ, and Jobs. To shine bright is to shine half as long. But to shine cruelly? How long should that go on? And should we creatures underneath that light raise hands in gratitude or ask for a gentler bulb? I know what another great man would say — the Dalai Llama. Love one another. Love and receive love. Do not impose your will on others. Your exceptionalism will come in your humility and your acceptance of others’ frailty. In your own limitations.
If I were the DL I’m sure I wouldn’t need my 8 novels published. I’d be content to keep them where they are. But if I were Steve Jobs, would I be remiss in leaving all those gears in dad’s garage? History will scream no to that. Same as with Mozart’s symphonies. But about their children? Their wives? What of the friends they abandoned or fired or humiliated, who propped them up and made them supernovas of their field? I think we owe mankind the action of humanity. To be human should mean to be humanitarian. To humble ourselves to fellow man. And not to take from others in order to thrust ourselves into the stars. Make your monsters, if you must, make them big and loud and awful, and then have the courage to move aside and let another take your place. It is not for us to outmake creation, not without thanking it along the way.