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.

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