Lecture Hopping: Malcolm Loves the Middle
Written by Bwog Staff
Bwog is proud to bring the second installment of “Lecture Hopping,” in which correspondents go to speeches, lectures, and public displays of erudition so you don’t have to. Find the first installment here.
Tuesday February 21
New Yorker Nights Series: Malcolm Gladwell
This lecture has been left untitled on purpose, says Malcolm Gladwell; it was not until that afternoon that he had decided on a topic at all. “Tonight, I will unlock the secrets of Fleetwood Mac.”
The audience laughs loudly. A banner reading “The New Yorker” is hung over the stage, properly ushering in the best-selling author of”The Tipping Point” and “Blink.”
He begins with a long-winded history of, yes, Fleetwood Mac – they started as a blues band in 1960s England, migrated to the San Francisco hippie scene, found themselves gaining and dropping multiple members, experimented with lots of drugs, etc. etc., and did not have their breakthrough album nor truly define their style until they had produced 49 other records. “Rumors,” Gladwell says, had been their 60th.
The Eagles, by contrast, had an individual sound from the beginning. Don Henley assembled his band without much to-do, hit success almost instantly, and they fell hard and fast.
The first four rows are marked as VIP, such as to be littered with members of the literati. Gladwell, who ranges around the stage like a stand-up comedian, wears dark jeans, a blazer, and conspicuous black sneakers with bright yellow stripes. He looks like the product of a night of lovemaking among Macy Gray, Carrot Top, and Keanu Reeves, with a voice one octave too high for his body.
He cites the work of the University of Chicago economist John Galveston, who believes that creative artists can be divided into those who peak early and those who peak late. According to Galveston, Fleetwood Mac was Picasso, and the Eagles were Cezanne. “Picasso’s” are prodigies with clear, well-realized ideas. They are able to simplify their field and work quickly and systematically. “Cezanne’s,” on the other hand, are slowpokes. They are experimentalists, constantly tweaking their work and seekin aesthetic improvement. And, just like in both of his books, Gladwell illustrates his point with numerous quirky examples; in this case, he’s showing that creativity can be divided into these two categories.
His examples: Alfred Hitchcock was a Picasso, Orson Welles a Cezanne; F. Scott Fitzgerald a Picasso, Mark Twain a Cezanne; American car manufacturers a Picasso, Japanese car manufacturers a Cezanne. And so on.
While expounding the theory, Gladwell juxtaposes phrases like “biological determinacy” against phrases like he was a good dude.” And for more on Fleetwood Mac, he tells us, we must consult VH1’s “Behind the Music.” He’s tapped into the inside joke that we’re all obsessed with pop culture, and knows that everyone loves hearing a writer of the nation’s premier literary magazine reference LSD (2 times), cocaine (5 times), and condoms filled with milk hanging from the tuning knob of a guitar (1 time).
The theory seems to be at least superficially compelling, even if the line between late- and early-bloomers is blurry. Enter Gladwell’s social commentary. He claims that our hyper-competitive society leaves little space for Cezanne, who take their time and often cannot provide technical explanations for their plans. In 2006, no record producer would ever stick with Fleetwood Mac long enough to allow their creativity to flourish. And then there’s the SAT: our system of evaluating intelligence with such finality at the raw age of 17 may be starving us of many brilliant minds.
By simply illustrating the model’s properties with easy examples, like he does in his books, Gladwell fails to provide us with any clear ways to apply his wisdom to — if you don’t mind my saying so — the real world. His books are self-help books that are (brilliantly) not marketed as self-help books, and even if they were, they are too detached and passive do us any real good.
Questions from the audience mostly attempt challenge the substance of the Cezanne/Picasso dichotomy. Everybody gets a little anxious. He half-jokingly asks for a substantial question.
“Are you more of a Picasso or a Cezanne?” someone in the balcony asks.
“I’d like to say I’m a little bit of both. When I was 21, I was probably a Picasso. But as I’m getting older, I think I’m turning to more of a Cezanne.” And everybody laughs again.