Sunday, September 21, 2014

George Eliot

Although I am off fiction for the most part, I can't have a blog without saying something about George Eliot. When I lived Dixon, Illinois, which is of little inherent interest unless you want to plumb the depths of how the character of a mediocre American president might have formed, in my spare time I began catching up on literature that I had never read and surveying newer fiction. This lasted for over two decades and extended almost to the present.

American literature did not impress me at all. I tried Henry James, Thomas Wolfe, F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner. More recent writers included Flannery O'Connor, Eudora Welty, Jack Kerouac, Henry Miller, John Kennedy Toole, Carson McCullers, Vladimir Nabokov and Sylvia Plath. I also read contemporary fiction by T.C. Boyle, Jane Smiley, Sheila Schwartz, Lorrie Moore, Anne Tyler, Alison Lurie, Francine Prose, Cathleen Schine, Mona Simpson, Michael Cunningham, Cormac McCarthy, Don DeLillo, Dan Chaon, Alice Munro (Canadian), Carol Shields (Canadian), Carl Hiaasen, Marilynne Robinson, Lauren Groff and Dave Eggers. Recently I read a short story by Willa Cather. Of the entire American group, I would say that The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, by Carson McCullers, is the only outstanding work. I could write an essay on what is wrong with Lorrie Moore, but would rather not. My overall perception has been that the U.S. has made less of a contribution than one would expect to the arts in general compared to many other countries, when you take into consideration its size and wealth, partly because it is a relatively new country, partly because of its emphasis on commerce and partly because its patrons have tended to be the nouveaux riches.

In European literature, I read some Dostoevsky and James Joyce that I had missed. I spent a lot of time on France, reading Victor Hugo, Balzac, George Sand, Flaubert, Zola and Proust. The only French contemporary whom I've read is Michel Houellebecq. British writers, besides George Eliot, included Emily and Charlotte Bronte, Joseph Conrad, E.M. Forster and D.H. Lawrence (I had read two novels by Thomas Hardy much earlier). Recent British writers were A.S. Byatt, David Lodge, A.L. Kennedy and Jeanette Winterson (I skipped Martin Amis, Julian Barnes and others). I also read a lot of Kafka, some Milan Kundera and a little Witold Gombrowicz. I have little interest in German, Spanish or Italian culture, and therefore skipped those countries. While I find flaws in all writers, my favorites are George Eliot, D.H. Lawrence, Emily Brontë and Gustave Flaubert.

As for the other continents, I've read very little. Last year I read a novel and short stories by the Peruvian Julio Ramon Ribeyro and thought some of his short fiction was very good. If I were to delve further into fiction, I suspect that South America may have a lot to offer. Yet, besides not being interested in fiction, I am not particularly interested exploring unfamiliar cultures. The above list does not include fiction that I had read earlier. For historical context, I wasn't inspired at all by any fiction until my junior year in college, when I studied early twentieth century Russian fiction, not mentioned here.

While discussing their preferences in fiction, few people go to the trouble of summarizing everything they've read, which admittedly would be cumbersome. I listed some of that information in order to provide the context of what I know and what I don't know. Thus, if someone wants to challenge my position that, say, Jack Kerouac, is not the greatest writer in history, they have an obligation to first read George Eliot and D.H. Lawrence. One of the reasons why I'm reluctant to read fiction is that people, reviewers in particular, plug books that I almost invariably end up deciding are a waste of time if I read them. If every review included access to a list of all of the books ever read by the reviewer and which of those books he or she found to be excellent, it would be much easier for me to determine whether I should read the book under review. You can apply that same standard to what I say in this post. Fiction is a vast topic, and everyone's knowledge about it is bound to be limited in one way or another.

In an earlier post I discussed the difficulty of establishing aesthetic merit. That applies here too, so I'll mention some of the factors that go into my literary tastes. I think what I like best is long fiction that realistically interweaves the lives of people in a well-defined environment and covers a long time period. Obviously this is something that can't be done well in short fiction, which is why I often see the characters in short stories as stick figures who may never be able to break out of their comic book existences. Because of mobility, population growth and development in much of the West, it has become increasingly difficult to approximate the comparatively stable environments that existed up to the late nineteenth century, which is when the novel probably peaked for my purposes. That period also stands out because by then the novel had had time to mature as an art form. Beginning with World War I, the world descended into instability, and the art world changed its focus from the transition away from agricultural life to the transition to post-industrial life, which then became modernism. The modern world has a less static basis than the world of the past, making it much easier to fudge on realism: fewer people know what's going on, and a writer can now just make things up with little accountability. When challenged, they can call it artistic license, and when all else fails they can drum up critics who will call them artistic geniuses. The public, not knowing any better, takes it all in, hook, line and sinker.

For someone who prefers realism, most modern fiction is a disaster. I don't care about the nuances of one person's perceptions of Dublin, especially if he is a jaundiced literary person, so James Joyce is of little use to me. Kafka's imagination has its merits, as do his writing skills, but I find him repetitive and uninformative; in a way, his life and works are a testimony to his never having figured things out. Postmodern fiction has even less to say for a number of reasons; it often isn't well-grounded in real places or people and simulates them in a wholly unsatisfactory way, much like the empty visual art of Andy Warhol.

* * *

During my fiction period, I read that Virginia Woolf had called Middlemarch, George Eliot's best known work, "one of the few English novels written for grown-up people," which captured my attention, since, in case you haven't noticed, I have a serious streak. When I began to read it, I became enchanted. I think I can say that it is the only novel I've ever read that creates a realistic world containing a variety of plausible characters who each have their distinct problems and are making their ways through life. The narrator seemed so omniscient that I sometimes felt as if the book were written by God. Moreover, it convincingly portrayed the lives of a broad swath of people, from peasants to the bourgeoisie to criminals to intellectuals, something that I had never seen before. It became my favorite novel, and I went on to read all of George Eliot's fiction and several biographies.

Most of her fiction, including the earliest, still holds up well. Her writing style, with long, convoluted sentences, appeals to me, as it did to Proust, but is not compelling to the majority of contemporary readers. As pre-modern fiction, you don't enter people's heads and access their thoughts directly, but that is made up for by close observation, which is at the heart of George Eliot's skill. Her earliest works were so accurate that readers could easily identify some of the actual people on whom her characters were based. To me, George Eliot's life is a valuable study in what I think it takes to be a good writer, and once this is understood there isn't much of a puzzle left about why I find most fiction unsatisfactory.

I attribute much of George Eliot's success as a writer to the fact that she had lived a full life, encompassing a variety of experiences and challenges, before she began to write fiction at age 36. Her father was an estate manager in Warwickshire, where she was exposed to a variety of people when she accompanied him on his rounds. Because she was not pretty, her father provided her with a better education than was the norm, perhaps in anticipation that she would not attract a husband. This prompted a lifelong intellectual curiosity that eventually led her to become an editor at the Westminster Review.

Her love life seems to have been choppy and difficult due to her preference for intellectual men. She was deeply hurt when Herbert Spencer dumped her, but soon developed a relationship with G.H. Lewes. Lewes could not marry her because he could not obtain a divorce from his wife, Agnes Jervis, who had cuckolded him with his friend Thornton Leigh Hunt, who fathered four of her children. Lewes was technically complicit in his wife's adultery, because he had knowingly accepted one of Hunt's children as his own. George Eliot and Lewes scandalized Victorian society by living together unmarried as man and wife until Lewes died in 1878. Lewes's encouragement and skill as her agent played an important role in her eventual literary success. In 1880 she created more gossip when she married an admirer, the not-so-intellectual John Cross, who was twenty years her junior. On their honeymoon in Venice, Cross jumped from a balcony in their hotel rooms into the Grand Canal. The official explanation was that he had had a sudden fit of depression. Others, Gore Vidal in particular, think that Cross was gay and perhaps had misjudged his responsibilities as a husband to his then-elderly wife. George Eliot became ill later that year and died on December 22.

I visited her grave in Highgate Cemetery in 2002. 

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

If a Lion Could Talk

Ludwig Wittgenstein made many statements that became famous in philosophical circles. At the conclusion of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus he wrote "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent." This is the odd ending to the quasi-logical tract that he wrote while he was a soldier and prisoner during World War I, which later became his Ph.D. thesis at Cambridge. Towards the end of his career he wrote, "If a lion could talk, we could not understand him." This was published posthumously in Philosophical Investigations.

The "If a lion could talk" statement occurred in the context of Wittgenstein's thoughts about language games. Although it is an ambiguous sentence, it is generally thought to mean that the frame of reference of a lion is so different from that of a human that lion language would be unintelligible to us. The theory is that meaning is related to the use of words, and that lions, if they could speak, would have entirely different uses for language than we do.  I have tended to agree with this idea but was thinking about it again recently and am no longer sure that I do. Language involves more than words and grammar: it contains symbols. Most other animals have little or no capacity to understand symbols, but some do. I found it instructive that no animals besides humans, including all other primates, understand the meaning of pointing, with the exception of dogs. Wolves don't either. Among humans, pointing is a symbolic shorthand used to indicate that an object worthy of attention is located in a specific direction. In the case of people it might be the location of a gas station. In the case of dogs, it might be the location of prey. For all intents and purposes, a pointing dog might be saying "There are quail in these bushes."

What is different about the case of dogs is that, through habituation and breeding, they have interacted with humans enough to understand some basic symbolic communication, which I consider a form of language. Thus, in theory, if a dog could speak in sentences, we might understand some of what it says exactly. I'm sure many dog owners would agree. Some cat owners would probably be able to understand at least part of what their cats were saying if they could speak: "I'm hungry" or "I want to play," for example. Mutatis mutandis, the same might be true for lions, making Wittgenstein technically incorrect.

This brings me to Noam Chomsky, whom I recently saw speaking in a video about artificial intelligence. Apparently he thinks it isn't going anywhere anytime soon. He believes that humans have unique genetics that support language, and that we are nowhere near figuring out how it works. Since language is central to our thinking abilities, Chomsky is also skeptical about our ability to create meaningful artificial intelligence that might actually rival our own intelligence. According to him, there may never be a singularity. I am not up to date on research in the fields of language simulation by machines and artificial intelligence, but I suspect that Chomsky will be proven wrong. For example, if computers can be taught to reconstruct languages based on their exposure to grammar and word usage, it seems to me that they might be able to use language just as well as humans. One of the advantages of computer learning is that if a process works at all, it can be sped up and developed rapidly simply because of the processing power and memory capacity of a large computer. While an infant might pick up grammar and usage gradually over a period of years through real-time experiences, a computer might work its way through an enormous database in a short amount of time, permitting more rapid language acquisition than humans. Once computers are able to perform a broad range of learning activities comparable to humans, it seems probable to me that they will quickly surpass humans in cognitive functions.

Whether that will happen or not remains to be seen. At the moment I am interested in the reasons why Chomsky, more so than Wittgenstein, thinks that human language is unique. It seems to be because we are the only animal that we know of that has true language. Certainly language has given us an enormous advantage, but Chomsky seems to project a sort of hubris about it. If you look into Chomsky, he is quite an odd fellow. By contemporary standards he is an off-the-charts radical who advocates anarchism and the end of the nation state. The reality is that he is a dyed-in-the-wool Enlightenment thinker who still thinks that man is the center of the universe. I think this is a better explanation for his minimization of the potential value of research in artificial intelligence than any particular knowledge that he may have of the subject. What I have noticed over the years is that even when an intellectual legitimately reaches prominence through hard work and important discoveries, once he is given a pulpit from which to speak, his ideas for the public often bear no relationship to his research and in fact may be ideas that he arbitrarily absorbed as a teenager. In Chomsky's case, he was strongly influenced by a radical uncle when he was growing up. Most of his political ideas originated then and have nothing to do with his research. Thus, as I suspect is true in the case of many public intellectuals, there is no direct link between their areas of expertise and the public opinions for which they are known.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Obama Persona

I haven't written much about politics or news events, because I don't pay much attention to them other than reading headlines and watching the PBS NewsHour. However, I did see Barack Obama's speech on ISIS last night and will take this opportunity to make a few comments.

I had high hopes for Obama based on his 2004 convention speech for John Kerry. In 2008 he was obviously a better choice than John McCain. But over time I have come to find him unbearable. It seems impossible to know, and it is therefore essentially irrelevant, what his true worldview may be. His speeches lack authenticity to the extent that they are carefully scripted, and are off-putting to the extent that they may accurately convey his thoughts.

Obama's speeches are always laced with words, phrases and thoughts that I find offensive. He is fond of invoking evil and American values and using religious language to make his points, and I find it jarring. His job isn't to combat evil, which, in my opinion, is primarily a social construct. American values are not something that the U.S. has a right to impose on others. And religion should be removed from all political speeches, because this is a secular country.

Even if you accept the premise that the U.S. has a responsibility to maintain world order, I don't think that Obama frames issues such as ISIS appropriately. There is always an allusion to potential attacks on U.S. soil and a suggestion that this must be prevented at all costs. I don't think, for example, that each American life potentially saved is worth, say, one billion dollars. Obama, as far as I know, never discusses estimates of potential American casualties that might result from inaction. Furthermore, he, and politicians generally, do not mention that prolonged attempts to stabilize parts of the Middle East may never succeed regardless of any actions we take. It always seems to come down to good guys versus bad guys and killing or destroying the bad guys. In this respect, Barack Obama isn't much different from George W. Bush.

In my view, the assassination of Osama bin Laden, while technically justifiable, was primarily a publicity stunt. As a strategic matter, it was irrelevant that bin Laden died, because he had no operative function at the time. It immediately became an Obama talking point used to highlight his leadership skills and effectiveness in bringing bin Laden to justice, despite the fact that there was no trial and that it violated Pakistani sovereignty. As in the case of countless drone strikes, Obama was the judge, jury and de facto executioner. Should he be applauded for actions like these?

One aspect of Obama's new initiative that disturbs me is that it may have been precipitated in part by public opinion. Apparently it isn't that big a deal if thousands of Syrians and Iraqis are dying, but the entire U.S. policy in the Middle East must change instantly when Americans become upset about the beheadings of two American journalists. It is true that Obama may merely be using this as an opportunity to present his plan, but I find the linking of major foreign policy initiatives to small-scale events that happen to have had an emotional impact on the American public inappropriate.

Whenever I see Obama speak, I sense that everything he says has been concocted. Is he religious? I don't know. Does he think that the American model of capitalism is good for the world? If so, I disagree with him. Does he think that America's unemployment problem will be fixed by providing people with better educations? If so, he is probably incorrect.

The overall impression I have is that Obama is a mask. He acts as if he is attempting to channel the beliefs of the American public and to speak for them, but is that his role? I don't think so. In the process he often seems to suspend critical judgment, which might show just how irrational the public is and how public opinion can be wrong. Obama almost seems to have an identity disorder that prevents him from voicing his own views, and this signifies to me a lack of responsibility, or at a minimum brings into question his suitability for the job. The president is supposed to make decisions, not seek consensus. He seems to search for the view least likely to receive strong public criticism and then promote it, rather than make his own analysis and convince others of its merits, and as a consequence many justifiably see him as a feckless president. He exhibits the kind of behavior that could be simulated by an algorithm that rates ideas based on their popularity - or the number of "likes" they get on Facebook. Such predictability indicates a weakness in originality, and, more seriously, a deficiency in understanding.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Notes on Feminism

Throughout most of my adult life, it has been politically incorrect to say anything negative about feminism. Feminism is a broad topic that covers a long time period and a large geographical area, but I think of it mainly in terms of its second wave in the U.S. during the 1970's. When I was in college in the Midwest during the late 1960's and early 1970's, attitudes were still patriarchal, and even though political activism and sexual liberation were in vogue, men still behaved in what would now be considered a sexist manner, and most women went along with it. For that reason, it was difficult to argue convincingly against the basic concepts of feminism, which had been around at least since Mary Wollstonecraft published A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792.

In my current thinking, equality is one of the few organizing principles that continue to be valid for humans. I think it has a basis in evolutionary biology, and belief in equality can be considered a basic human trait that stems from our predisposition to belong to cooperative groups. If E.O. Wilson is correct, natural selection for humans is based on groups, not individuals or selfish genes. The theory of group selection has its detractors, but I agree with Peter Richerson and Robert Boyd, who support Wilson when they say that "in the human species, a pro-social psychology arose by cultural group selection and gene-culture coevolution." This can be construed to make a strong case for equality, while other popular ideas such as democracy or capitalism seem comparatively arbitrary, transient and weak. Democracy is primarily a political system that attempts to enforce equality among conflicting groups. Capitalism is an economic system that is perceived as natural to many people only because it tends to break down society into different groups, allowing one group to feel justified in exploiting another. Earlier, slaveholders exploited slaves, and now corporations exploit workers. In a realized state of equality among all people, neither democracy nor capitalism would be necessary. It could be argued that the remaining world conflicts are related to the difficulty of convincing all people that they belong to the same group.

Although I support feminism to the extent that it advocates equality, it is difficult for me to overlook some of the destructive effects that it has had on my life. I think it helped generate interpersonal chaos in my generation. Previous generations were pressured to marry and remain married, and they usually did. Greater equality for women has allowed more women to enter the workforce and attain economic and social independence without male support and approval. In my experience, many women in the transitional group of the 1970's unconsciously absorbed both the old and new ways while they were growing up. On one hand, they saw their fathers as solid breadwinners who took care of their mothers in an unequal system that bestowed greater authority to males. On the other hand, they thought that they could live independently and make free choices without male interference. The upper-middle-class women with whom I became familiar sometimes developed unrealistic expectations as a result of exposure to both systems. They thought that they could have the security and social prestige accorded to their mothers with the support of their uxorious fathers, while simultaneously disdaining dependence on men.

In the case of my ex-wife, she deeply resented parental pressure to follow their guidelines. She was forced to study nursing under the unstated presumption that she would meet and marry a successful professional and not work. That was the model of her parents' generation. She rebelled and married an unconventional philosophy major, but when it became apparent that this would not lead to socioeconomic status comparable to what her mother had, she got a divorce. Later, when her idealized picture of life as a single mother with two children didn't materialize and her relationship with her daughter deteriorated, she defaulted to a strategy that centered on self-preservation. In her later life she is still single, with no partner and strained relations with her siblings and her daughter.

While feminism corresponded with necessary social changes, on a personal level it was disruptive to my life. I find that many educated American women in my age group retain elements of both pre- and post-feminism ideology, though the two are not compatible. In my opinion, this impedes their ability to have good relationships with men, a problem that was less common among their mothers, who in hindsight often seem happier and far more realistic.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Panic Attacks

In 1997 I had lived in Dixon, Illinois for ten years. Since I had little in common with anyone there, for my mental health I used to participate in the UC Berkeley summer programs in Europe. That year I spent three weeks in Oxford studying cathedrals and abbeys. It was my second trip to Oxford, having studied Anglo-Saxon archaeology in 1993. In 1997 I met Kimberly there; she was studying historical English journals.

We were both looking for changes in our lives. I was sick of Dixon, and it wasn't a good location for my daughter, who had just finished tenth grade at Dixon High School. Staying there, she might have turned out the way some of her friends later did, becoming a topless dancer or an unwed mother. Kimberly had worked for ten years in the Religious Studies Department at UC Santa Barbara and had recently broken off an engagement.

In the early fall, Kimberly visited us in Dixon. During that trip, she suddenly had a small panic attack. I don't recall what precipitated it, but it was the first of many to follow. Nevertheless, we began to develop a tentative plan to pursue the relationship. I started to look for jobs in the Chicago area, and I planned a trip to see Kimberly in Santa Barbara over the Christmas holidays. As it happened, I got a job offer in Wheeling, Illinois, near Chicago, and accepted it over the phone while I was in Santa Barbara. In January, 1998 my daughter and I moved to Lake Forest, Illinois. Kimberly soon quit her job, moved to Wilmette, Illinois and shortly thereafter found a new job nearby at Northwestern University in Evanston.

The next panic attack that I distinctly remember occurred when Kimberly came over to our apartment in Lake Forest to watch a movie. We watched River's Edge, starring Keanu Reeves, with a humorous cameo by Dennis Hopper. I had seen the film previously and liked it. It is a dark film, but very well done, and an observant study of teenage culture in a small Western town. However, it was too upsetting for Kimberly to watch, and it triggered a panic attack. She couldn't stand watching it, became extremely agitated, and finally asked me if I had ever killed anyone.

The relationship lasted for about three years, and was punctuated by panic attacks, which diminished in intensity over time as she became accustomed to me. One of the things I liked about Kimberly was that she knew herself well and provided specific instructions about what I should do on occasions such as birthdays, Valentine's Day, Christmas, etc. She knew exactly what might upset her and had learned to speak up about it in advance whenever possible. I came to see that she suffered from an anxiety disorder and tended to resolve her issues by being a control freak, but I appreciated having much of the guesswork taken out of the relationship, because women are often far more capricious in their expectations.

Although I attempted to accommodate Kimberly as best I could, it wasn't really possible to save the relationship. My daughter at that time was in the process of stabilizing after a rebellious adolescence during which her mother had in effect kicked her out twice. Kimberly was ill-equipped to deal with children. She was unable to develop rapports with them and was easily disturbed by unruliness. At that time, my son was having difficulties living with my ex-wife, and Kimberly was troubled by him too. Shortly after the Columbine High School massacre, he was visiting in Lake Forest, and the three of us went to a Cubs game. My son's behavior seemed to precipitate a small panic attack roughly based on the idea that he might become a murderer because he played violent video games. By then I was getting a little fed up with Kimberly, who obviously had led a sheltered life and hadn't been challenged much. She had never lived with anyone, never been married and never had children, though in 1999 she was 43. After a bad experience as a schoolteacher, she had avoided demanding jobs and lived like a college student. Although she was very frugal, she was subsidized by her father, who was a retired engineer.

There were other things that Kimberly didn't like about the relationship, but she tended to discuss them with female confidantes, clergymen and psychologists rather than with me. Religion was of considerable interest to her, and she had played at being a Roman Catholic and an Episcopalian. I, on the other hand, have been an atheist continuously since about age 14. Ordinarily this did not produce a conflict, because she only had half-baked religious ideas and was pretty smart; I suspected that at the back of her mind she knew that it was all bunk. As part of her control freak strategy, it suited her to think that God was providing order to the apparent chaos of everyday life.

In August, 2000, during the final build-up to the end of the relationship, we went on a two-week vacation to Switzerland, with side trips to Annecy, France and Tremezzo, Italy. There were things I did that upset her on the trip, but she said nothing at the time. Apparently it bothered her a lot that I had walked ahead of her in the hills around Gruyere when she had a leg cramp. Later, in November, it came to a crescendo. She had thought over the relationship and discussed it with others, and then went through a major anxiety episode, during which she became an insomniac requiring medical attention. Shortly after that, she unilaterally broke off the relationship without discussion.

While I was hurt and saddened by the breakup, I was assuaged by my awareness of her apparent mental illness, and there was in fact little surprise, because there had been clear intermittent warnings of the potential demise of the relationship ever since its inception. However, I misjudged the severity of Kimberly's self-protective regimen that ensued. I mistakenly thought that we would still see each other occasionally and discuss aspects of the relationship in a way that might increase our understanding so that we might each benefit from that knowledge in the future. That was not to be, and I haven't spoken to her since November, 2000. We exchanged a few e-mails, but she no longer replies to mine.

What has stuck with me over the years is Kimberly's unwillingness to communicate. In this context I find it completely unacceptable. How does one honestly erase three years of one's life without any accountability? It is deep hypocrisy to espouse Christian or similar values while blotting out a person who is at odds with your personal mythology. If you've ever read Martin Buber, Kimberly has made me an It.

As far as I know, Kimberly now lives alone in a condominium on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

Monday, September 1, 2014


When I was growing up, I got the impression that a genius was a person who had an extremely high IQ and could figure things out much better than most people. A model genius was Isaac Newton, who made astounding advances in physics and developed a new branch of mathematics in the process. I thought that you either had it or you didn't, and if you had it you would get high grades and high SAT scores and go to an elite university. A girl in my high school class was like that; she skipped the twelfth grade and departed for M.I.T. In those days I didn't read much, and I wasn't fully aware that someone might also be called an artistic or literary genius. In any case, genius then seemed to me to be an innate characteristic.

Over the years I came to realize that genius is largely culturally defined and, particularly in the U.S., the term shows up in many different areas of human success. There are business geniuses such as Steve Jobs and pop music geniuses such as Bob Dylan. This really complicates things, and you have to look closely at each "genius" to see exactly what is going on. I think Jobs was an extraordinarily ambitious marketing guy with good aesthetic sensibilities and psychopathic tendencies. Bob Dylan was an extraordinarily ambitious musician who fortuitously resorted to his innate linguistic skills when he saw that his musical skills, physical presence and voice would be insufficient. Both of these men were single-minded and probably would not have been particularly successful without that trait.

I've spent a lot of time ruminating over Bob Dylan. He stood out as a pop artist mainly because he had good lyrics. However, on close examination it becomes apparent that during his rise to success his lyrics were tailored to meet market demand, and his persona was sculpted from elements stolen from other performers. In short, he was just an act. Within a full social context, Dylan closely resembles Steve Jobs, and there is a point at which their talent is inextricable from their will to succeed commercially.

As mentioned in an earlier post, aesthetic merit is something that is hard to pin down, and that becomes nearly impossible when you elevate it all the way to a "genius" level. In my view there are two different aspects to great writing. One is a pure linguistic facility, which varies greatly among writers and reaches a peak in writers such as Shakespeare and James Joyce. The other is a facility for reaching depth, and that is far more elusive. To me, poetic genius skirts around deep enigmas without being explicit. I wouldn't expect everyone to agree with me, and I don't read much poetry, but I've seen it in snippets of Emily Dickinson and Denise Levertov. In fiction I've seen depth in George Eliot, Dostoevsky, Flaubert and a few others. According to my taste, very few writers deserve to be called geniuses, and I would not include in that group Shakespeare or Joyce or the merely fluent and linguistically creative.

If you read my previous post, you will have seen that in the visual arts, genius has become entirely subject to contemporary cultural definition. Thus, while some collectors consider Andy Warhol a greater artist than Leonardo da Vinci, Robert Hughes won't hesitate to tell you that he thinks Warhol was an idiot. In this sense, "genius" means little more than "of great cultural significance." To my way of thinking, that diminishes the importance of genius to such a degree that it isn't even worth discussing.

I think a case can be made for genius in film-making, but it would be hard to reach a consensus. Moreover, film production is a group effort and usually occurs in a factory-like setting. Nevertheless, I think some of the subtle films of Eric Rohmer can be called works of genius; not so for any American director, except perhaps Stanley Kubrick (who moved to England!).

Music is probably the art that best accommodates the use of the word "genius." It can comfortably be applied to Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, but after that it gets fuzzy quickly. Is Stevie Wonder really a genius? I'm not sure.

With all this ambiguity I am tempted to revert back to my earlier understanding of "genius." However, that doesn't work either. It's fairly obvious that most of the smart people streaming into the top universities aren't much like Isaac Newton, even if they have good grades and high IQs. The majority of them go on to lead ordinary lives, while perhaps living in a higher socioeconomic bracket than most people. Similarly, if you look at the current crop of college professors and intellectuals, you probably won't find many Newtons or Einsteins in that group. Science is now much more of a cooperative activity than earlier and has few solitary players. In the writing programs there probably aren't any Flauberts or Dickinsons. As for the public intellectuals, on the whole they have been an enormous disappointment in recent decades.

The conclusion, then, is that, while genius may still be construed as a special talent that is confined to a small number of individuals, there is an irreducible element to it that at any given time depends on the prevailing social values. Thus, under the current conditions of late-stage capitalism and conspicuous consumption run wild, genius isn't what it used to be.