What role does competition play in the generation of imaginitive art and literature? Here are six things that suggest that competition plays a very large part indeed:
- First, in ancient Indian literature, particularly in the early formation of the Rig Veda and Upanishads, it appears that the subcontinent’s early poets were in competition with regard to who could be the most successful at portraying the universe as a cosmos (as opposed to a chaos). Here’s one scholar of this literature (William Mahoney) characterizing their poetic project of the imagination:
[I]n the Vedic world view, it is the imagination, especially the divine imagination, that gives image to the transcendent artfulness of the universe; and it is the human imagination—especially the poetic, sacerdotal, and contemplative imagination—that sees through the apparently deadened and perplexing chaos of the objective world, recognizes within it the hidden, unified, and unifying principle of being, and draws that principle and power into effect. (Mahoney, The Artful Universe, State University of New York Press, 1998, p. 7)
Put another way, the oral performative poet in ancient India was a wit, with the power to see through the multiplicity and chaos of the visible world to the underlying artfulness, harmony, and oneness of Brahma. Imagine the prestige and power that might have come to the poet-seer capable of visionary expression of Brahma. Here’s Mahoney on the Vedic priests:
[V]erses expressed a visionary poet’s recognition of significance of meaning in a setting that remained insignificant and meaningless to others. Vedic poet-priests seem to have challenged each other with various linguistic tropes in order to discern which priests were capable of insight into the true meaning of things. (13)
- The Hebrew Bible also has what seems to be an underlying competition at work in its production. Something that scholars in the past may have underappreciated or underemphasized, but which Regina Schwartz, in her groundbreaking book, The Curse of Cain (University of Chicago Press 1997), picked up on, is the role that scarcity plays in the Hebrew Bible. Blessings are scarce (God accepts Abel’s offering, but not Cain’s; God blesses Jacob, but not Esau etc.), and land is scarce, and this scarcity drives the narrative. The implications of this are huge. One of them is the following: If you can tell memorable stories about how land is acquired and who gets what blessings from God, you might, over generations of telling, strengthen your claim on “rightful ownership.” The Hebrew Bible narratives may thus function, in part, as property deeds to scarce blessings and scarce lands. A culture that can lay claim to such things through powerful stories is a stronger one than one that cannot.
- Greek tragic theatre, as is well known, was born of competition—as part of Athens’s annual celebration of the god Dionysus. The plays were set into competition with one another, judged, and one play each year was acclaimed the best. The plays of the great tragedians—Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides—were born of this process.
- Harold Bloom, in his now classic work of criticism, The Anxiety of Influence (1973), made the case for a Freudian reading of all great art—that what the artist is doing is Oedipally struggling, as it were, against precursors, to do something better—or at least different. How does one, for example, attempt to write a play after reading Big Daddy Shakespeare? You are either paralyzed by a feeling of pointlessness, or try to do something transformitive or starkly different in response. You may be bemused by your belatedness (living after Shakespeare), but you still marshal forward.
- Richard Dawkins, in his now famous (or infamous) first book, The Selfish Gene (1979), brought us, for good or ill, in an afterword, an analogy of genes with what he termed memes—ideas that replicate like organisms or viruses. In this sense, as has been quipped, the Bible may not be the greatest book of literature that humans have ever produced, but it is the fittest book that has ever been produced (insofar as it gets copied and passed around from person to person). In the memetic competition of words moving about in brains and on paper, the words of the Bible seem to be unusually successful in getting themselves reproduced.
- Lastly Nietzsche, in his Birth of Tragedy, suggests that all of art is ultimately a struggle, a competition, against the Dionysian forces of chaos and nature. To make something Apollonian and beautiful and interesting, however large or small, against the entropic elements all around us, constitutes an achievement, however brief, of the human spirit.