No Soul Is Ever Truly Free

Recently, freelance sports commentator Pat McAfee, who had previously had a long and successful career as a football player in the NFL before becoming a popular independent sportscaster, accepted a large deal to join ESPN sports. This move has attracted a fair bit of criticism, because for years McAfee had cultivated a loose, spontaneous, and independent approach that was a bit rough around the edges but demonstrated the authenticity of someone whose sports commentary was genuine and personal and not something that had been approved by test groups and professional cadres of oversensitive image consultants. With his show moving into ESPN, this loose and freewheeling approach is likely to change considerably as McAfee becomes far less free to pursue stories as he would because of the corporate concerns of the company he is now a part of. He has received, we hope, a great deal of money for this contract, but it has been at the cost of a considerable freedom in being able to comment on sports in the way he would wish.

This is by no means an isolated occurrence. To the extent that people throughout history–and certainly in the contemporary world–have sought to create art or to communicate their opinions and thoughts and feelings with others in the spoken or written word or by some other medium, there has always been a great deal of tension between the freedom of people to express what they wish or what they believe and their desire to find safety and a decent livelihood as creative people in a philistine world that often lacks an appreciation of culture and learning. People may think of their quirkiness and creative instincts as marking them as free souls unshackled by what is cliche or what is commonly held to be so, but the free soul has never really been free. Perhaps even more to the point, the free soul has generally not even desired to be free, because what such people have wanted have always embedded them within systems of patronage and authority, as the only way that creative people outside of the mainstream have ever been able to achieve some level of influence or safety from those who hate and mistrust them has been to find powerful protectors that allow them to create their art in peace with some degree of reward.

Let us consider the fate of the great Persian poet Ferdowsi, who is best known for the 120,000 line epic poem Shahnameh. This poem was begun under the rule of one ruler, the Saminid Mansur in what is now Afghanistan and was finished under the reign of a successor, Mahmoud of Ghazni. This poem contains a mythologized view of Persia extending over thousands of years and its influence on the areas of India and Central Asia that are viewed as being of kindred peoples. The work is also a patriotic work of Persian identity that views the Arab conquerors who destroyed the once-mighty Sassanid Empire with considerable hostility, and also did not stint on criticizing incompetent rulers who failed to be generous to the poor or behaving with high degree of integrity. In large part because of the critical tone that the poet took towards people in authority, his work has not always been appreciated by rulers who felt the sting of his pointed barbs, but has remained beloved by those who have read the book either in its Persian original or (as I have) in translation. Even great non-Western poets who have sought to earn a living through their creative abilities have found it both necessary as well as difficult to deal with the patronage of sufficiently powerful people who could ensure their safety as well as provide them with a decent and honorable living.

Patronage is and always has been a two-edged sword. He who pays the piper gets to call the tune, and whether people are professional journalists or actors or musicians or writers or any other sorts of creative people, they are the pipers who are paid in order to play a tune that is pleasing to those who provide them with patronage and support. Whether this patronage comes from authorities within the church and state, rulers, clergy, nobles, or even wealthy commoners, or whether it comes from being hired by entertainment companies or supported by decentralized consumers of culture whose purchases allow someone to make a living, this patronage has always come with strings attached. People have always limited their support of art based on their own beliefs and perspectives, and those creative sorts of people who have only followed their own personal muse selfishly and not made something that was designed to appeal to paying audiences have found to their discomfort that such support has often been abruptly withdrawn. To the extent that we desire to be free of the constraints to say things or avoid saying things based on the sensitivities of others, we become free of the support and protection that is offered by those who would or have in the past supported us with money and protection from those who would think us to be corrupt influences on others through our creations.

What is to be done about this situation? It is not worthwhile merely to attack those who are free souls whose unique perspectives and creations may run afoul of the conventional thinking of this or any place and time. If such an attack is to be made, I am wholly disqualified from making such a wholesale attack on my own kind as such a being myself. It is worthwhile to consider what it is that free souls do that benefit others through the work of entertaining others. We live in a world full of heavy burdens and great brokenness and people need an escape from the unhappiness and misery of our existence. Free souls, by virtue of their distinct perspective and approach, can offer such pleasant and necessary moments of escape from the despair and drudgery of this life. Yet in order to provide this entertainment and this escape, such free souls themselves must be free from attacks from those who condemn anything that gives people even an imaginative escape from the horrors of the cruel machinery that seeks to grind us all into a pulp over the course of decades of miserable toil and suffering. This freedom has always required the patronage of those who are willing and able to defend the free soul from such attacks, and has always required such free souls to give up something of their freedom in order to maintain this patronage. How to act wisely within the constraints of our existence has always been a task of the greatest importance, and those who rage against constraint as being itself unjust and unfair only bring trouble on the rest of us who seek to live as best as we can based on the realities that we must deal with if we wish to live the best possible way that we can.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in History, Musings, On Creativity and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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