Wednesday, October 27, 2010

I came away from the brilliant movie The Social Network thinking, "Empathy is more precious than gold or rubies, it is the pearl without price, it is the only thing worth praying for."

Let me back up. In the movie, Jesse Eisenberg gives an amazing Oscar-worthy performance as Mark Zuckerberg, the genius who founded Facebook.He doesn't hit one false note that I could detect. He is every nerdy, hyper-intelligent, socially awkward, arrogant, isolated, pained Jewish boy I've ever known, rolled into one and heightened to an excruciating degree. The script is pitch-perfect. I have no idea how all this relates to the real Zuckerberg, but it doesn't matter, because the film is not a biopic it's a work of art.

The ending is of course, Zuckerberg as the world's youngest self-made billionaire--terribly alone. For all his genius he lacks that essential human quality of empathy which makes a human being whole. He might have a mild form of Asperger's syndrome--I don't know. It's not important what his diagnosis is. In many ways it is the illness of our age, the disconnection and subsequent narcissism that we all suffer from in varying degrees. (And yes, I'm aware of the supreme irony of blogging about this...)

The movie was produced by Trigger Street, which is the company that actor Kevin Spacey founded to promote quirky independent scripts. I think it's still operative at

This has been a rich week for creative inspiration. Friday night we went to the Berkeley Rep and saw Compulsion, the story of Mayer Levin's doomed battle to stage his dramatic adaptation of Anne Franks' diary. Mandy Patenkin was beautiful in the lead role, and the play was structured in such an innovative way, with marionettes and double--and in one case quadruple casting.

Both Compulsion and The Social Network were in a sense morality tales about what happens when genius and ego get tangled up. The headiness of having a vision and then the cost of that to the people close to the visionary, the collateral damage to relationships and sometimes to the soul of the creator.

It's such a poignant conflict because the act of creation (whether one is a genius or not) is as compelling as giving birth--caught in its throes you feel like it's the most important thing on earth at that moment--you have to push, and everything else becomes secondary. But once you have pushed--and the baby is born alive and healthy, or damaged, or dead--then you look around and notice that bills haven't been paid, gardens have gone unweeded, relationships untended, phone calls unreturned.

The cost of even producing a minor thing can be high--depending on the degree of compulsion, or drive or whatever you want to call it--and I can't even imagine what it takes to be the creator of something truly great, to sense that you have the world by the tail in that way, at least for that hour. How could one resist the seduction of that impulse, and how to return to tending ordinary life after that?

Both these pieces speak to the murky underside of great success. When a work like Anne Frank's Diary hits the world, or, on a much less morally profound but equal in terms of impact--Facebook--a work that generates a tsunami of attention and fame and money and glory--then I think inevitably things backstage must get messy. Because getting something that big launched into the world can never be solely the work of one person, there must be collaboration, support, people who got on board with the project early, others who came in later--and how do you compensate them all? Who gets to ride on the back of the elephant as it parades triumphantly through main street?

And how can we, as individual creators, not have our egos tied up in what we create?

My friend who is taking some classes at Stanford says the younger generation is working more collaboratively and less egotistically than we ever did. She says they all pitch in and work on each other's projects and don't seem to care so much whose name is attached. But whenever you have something like Facebook, which generates so much money, I think those generational differences fall away and things are bound to get nasty.

I should also say that what both Compulsion and the Facebook saga have in common is that they both center on Jews and the very contradictory qualities of brilliance and prickliness and apartness and universality that shape our cultural personality. The huge drive to "break in" to a world that seems closed, the outsider status, which was originally imposed on us by society and which we continue to resist and sometimes reinforce by our own attitudes and behavior. This feeling of otherness which also somehow lies at the very heart of being truly human.


Claudette said...

There is no creation without ego. That is, there is no sense of something apart (the creation or desire to create) without the sense of self (the creator, a conscious operator apart from others). Although I am hesitant to draw too many parallels with either AfAm, Jewish, or others who have experienced a muderous prejudice, the experience of being LGBT seems to be the bottom of the barrel apartness--we are universally despised and marginalized. It is what we push back against. The disdain of the "normative" social order that fires the furnace of our creativity. One thing that is not said of Zuckerburg is that, in this regard, he was courageous whatever his other flaws or personal limitations.

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