Friday, 23 January 2015

Follow Your Bliss? Is everyone the genius of himself?


The mantra Follow Your Bliss comes from mythologist Joseph Campbell - he intended by it that Bliss be taken to mean something like your deepest sense of destiny - do what you feel you are 'meant' to do.

What did Campbell say would be the consequence? Essentially, that there would be unanticipated helps, that you would find doors open to allow you to progress towards your Bliss, and ultimately that your life would be happier and more fulfilled as a consequence. Perhaps also that you would do more good to others by Following Your Bliss than by directly trying to help others.


The intention behind this advice was that modern society was life-less and alienating, and that the big problem of life was to escape its soul-draining coils.

But the specific advice was very much concordant with the idea that everybody is, potentially, the genius of himself; everybody is an artist of his own life - and that this is is primary satisfaction: the idea is that we as individuals create the meaning and purpose of our own life as an artist creates it in his work. 

The proof? Essentially, all this is based on a (I would say dubious - indeed false) 'reading' of the lives of great artists, who are regarded as the paradigms of living a successful life- the best possible life. Other non-artist's lives are seen in terms of this 'aesthetic' analogy - for example the successful life of father or an ascetic Saint is seen asif it were an artistic creation designed and intended to provide the kind of complex satisfactions of a Shakespeare play or a Beethoven Symphony. And it is also assumed that complex aesthetic satisfactions are sufficient to 'justify' life.    


But this is a Catch 22 - if you need advice to Follow Your Bliss, then you are not a genius; because if you are a genius than Bliss Following is what you are doing anyway (unless something is actively stopping you) - being indeed internally-driven to do it.

Follow Your Bliss assumes that Bliss is the kind of thing that people most deeply want to follow, and they are prevented only by a lack of confidence or courage. But this would mean that the Bliss of one's own special vocation was reward enough in itself. But I don't see the slightest evidence that that is true.

Advice to Follow Bliss from someone who has been rewarded with high status, travel, adulation... well this is misleading, confusing - because these rewards are generally desired but they are not the Bliss.


What works for a genius does not work for most people, because most people do not find the Bliss of a Genius Quest to be sufficiently rewarding to make it the centre of their lives. They like the idea of being hailed as a Genius, they like the idea of doing what they most want to do and being well rewarded for doing it - but that is not what is on offer.

To follow your bliss means to give-up on the normal social rewards, in order to enhance inner rewards. Not many people want to do this, not many people have ever wanted to do it: they aren't built that way; nor is it their destiny.

Campbell was himself a kind of moderate genius, he followed his own path, for many years his rewards were internal; but he never acknowledged how unusual he himself was - and he tried to make himself an example for others to follow. This was flattering to them, no doubt - but inaccurate.

So Follow Your Bliss is - nearly always - bad advice.