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To answer John’s question first, the book I’m reading is called Intellectuals:  From Marx and Tolstoy to Sartre and Chomsky, and since I got it years ago–in a Barnes and Noble brick and mortar store, if I remember corectly, I’ve got no idea how it’s being present online.

That said, I’d like to take up a couple of things, most of them I think said by Robert.

The first is that we hear more about this kind of reprehensible behavior, and just petty meanness, in the cases of intellectuals than in those of other versions of Great Men.

I’d say this is certainly true, but I’m not sure it actually indicates that intellectuals are in reality m ore prone to this behavior than highly successful businessmen, statesmen and inventors.

The simple fact is that intellectuals write more than other people do, and they write about everything, including themselves and each other.  One of the interesting side issues in Johnson’s book has to do with just how many of these men and women kept extensive “private” diaries, most of them fully expecting that those diaries would be published eventually, if only after their deaths.  These diaries not only included personal thoughts and reports on personal activities (like the sex in their marriages), but commentary and reports on their fellow i ntellectuals. 

We have, therefore, a vast amount of material on these people that exists to this extent for no other group.

The fact that we don’t know petty and shameful things about the private behavior of someone like  Aristotle may mean only that such commentary was less common at the time, a or that it hasn’t come down to us.  Some commentary on the private habits of Socrates, however, has–in Aristophanes’s The Clouds–and it is not only not complementary, it bears an uncanny resemblance to complaints about “bohemian” behavior now. 

Of people who were not intellectuals for whom we have a wealth of reports, I’m not sure they do much better.  Lorenzo de Medici, for instance, was a brilliantly entreprenuerial, brilliantly cultivated thug, and there was more than a little sarcasm involved in his contemporary nickname of “Lorenzo the Magnificent.”

The big issue, for me, is the idea of ‘genius.”  Part of my problem is that we use the word in a number of different ways, some of which are unexceptionable.  But the idea of genius as a man of great talent, so great it is nearly unique, whose cmpetence is so far above the rest of ours that it constitutes a difference of kind and not a difference of degree, and who cannot therefore be expected to behave the way the rest of us do, is very new, and I think it may be the most pernicious idea in the history of the arts in the  West.

When I say the idea is new, I’m acting like an academic–we’re back to The Sorrows of  Young  Werther again, which introduced the mythic archetype of the Suffering Genius into the world.  The Sorrows of  Young  Werther is a thoroughly silly book, and worse. It’s also the pilot fish and the founding document of the Romatic period.  What it isn’t is an accurate depiction of any known human being.

Michaelangelo, who probably was one, would have laughed himself silly at the entire idea of “genius.”  Leonardo would have had no use for it.  That some men were smarter than others, and more talented, was something they knew from first hand experience.  That being significantly smarter and more talented than the people around you makes you lonely, they knew as well.

But then, being men of the Renaisance and not products of the Enlightenment, they didn’t expect to be perfectly happy on this earth.   They probably saw loneliness a fair trade off for the other things they had.

And I’m not denying that this loneliness is often all too real on a practical level, and that it can sometimes be dangerous to the “genius” involved.  A contributor to a couple of forums I’ve been on, the psychologist Ctherine Fiorello, has pointed out on numerous occasions that teachers who are not intellectually gifted often find the behavior of students who are as “indistinguishable from psychosis.”   If you’ve ever had a child in that position–and I  have–you know what an incredible mess it can be.

All that said, however, I think the idea of the genius is essentially fraudulent.   Human beings exist on a continuum on a whole raft of traits–not only raw intelligence, but imagination, visual acuiity, musical ability, and a lot of other things.

When my brother was very young–I want to say twelve, but it might have been fourteen–he brought home the reck of a car and parked it in our garage.   This was going to be his car, he said.  He’d have it up and running in no time.

My mother freaked.   My father told her not to bother, Zennie was never going to get that thing going.   Not in a million years.

It didn’t take him even half a year.  He’d never worked on a car before.  He had no one to teach him how to do it.  He just looked at the hing, and knew.

I don’t think there’s much difference in what Zennie’s brain was doing than in what Moxart’s was doing when, at the age of four, he was sat down at a keyboard by his father and found that he could just play.  

In both cases, their brains were simply so constructed that in this particular thing, they were “naturals.”  Both of them had to work hard, and study, to turn that natural talent into something more serious, but the naturalness was a simple gift of nature.  Not everybody gets that gift, but it’s wonderful to watch the people who do.

We paste the label “genius” on people who have that kind of natural talent for things we respect, or take seriously, or have decided are “hard.”   I grew up with a kid who had that for mathematics, so that he was literally incapable of “showing all work” in algebra class.  What work?  You look at the equation, and the answer is obviously 42. 

When they got this little hitch straightened out and sent him off to college at the age the rest of us were going to high school, he was roundly deemed a “genius,” by which people meant “really, really, smart, because he can do mathematics and we can’t.’

And he was an incredibly intelligent kid.  He was not, however, as intelligent at everything as he was at mathematics.

All the intellectuals in Paul Johnson’s book are “geniuses” in the sense that they’re naturals at one particular kind of thing.  Almost all of them have been infected by the Romantic notion that geniuses are “special” people to whom the rules and conventions of society do not apply, and by the equally pernicious (and Romantic) idea that such genius resides in their differences from their fellow human beings, and therefore in their “originality.”

This seems to me to be an incredibly dysfunctional way to think of high intelligence of any kind.   It not only encourages highly intellegent people of every kind to think of themselves as divinely ordained to rule the idiots for their own good,  it makes bad art nearly inevitable.  A urinal sits in a display in the Museum of Modern art because Goethe demonstrated conclusively that the only way to be sure you’re a genius is if all the non-geniuses can’t understand you, and because trying to come up with an “original” improvement on the Pieta is like asking God to make a rock too big for Him to lift.

Anyway, I’m up to Memingway at the moment, and that chcapter has revealed one of those truly wonderful trivia things I’d never have guessed.

It turns out that, from the age of fifteen, Ernest Hemingway’s favorite author was…

wait for it…

Rudyard Kipling.

Written by janeh

April 17th, 2009 at 10:17 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'Genius'

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  1. Maybe. It’s a bit tricky to prove that someone wasn’t a scoundrel in private life and that it isn’t that we just lack sufficient information. It’s certainly true that intellectuals provide the biographical hangman with a LOT of rope.
    But I think we can demonstrate pretty conclusively that many successful–even highly successful–people are not bad friends, neighbors, parents or spouses. So either not all driven people are like that, or people can make it to the top without being driven.

    But I will hold to the category of genius. Mind you, nine times in ten what you need is a highly competent professional, and the label “genius” is certainly overused. But sometimes what a good solid professional approach to a problem will do is cause you to lose very slowly. Only the genius sees a way to win. Military history is what I know best, and a major war might produce hundreds of competent professionals–but maybe only two or three of something else. I’d say in American military history Patton, McArthur, Sherman (maybe) Stonewall Jackson and possibly Nathaniel Greene. They weren’t early achievers. We’ve had people promoted to General in their mid-twenties. These are people who did manifestly stupid unprofessional things which worked brilliantly, after which the playbook was rewritten, if we could figure out what they did. Clausewitz said you discovered the principles of war by studying what genius did, and then making rules that explained it.

    But they had results anyone could see and appreciate. That’s not the same as having accomplishments that only the other self-selected geniuses can understand.


    17 Apr 09 at 4:09 pm

  2. I like Kipling!

    I wonder is there is any significance in the fact that Jane thinks of literary or artistic genius, Robert thinks of military genius and I think of scientific genius such as Newton or Feynman.


    18 Apr 09 at 1:52 am

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