Divine Fury by Darrin McMahon (Basic Books)

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McMahon’s Divine Fury: A History of Genius takes readers from ancient Greece and Rome, where the history of the word “genius” begins, to the present. Beginning with Socrates’s reference to his daimonion, a guiding spirit that aids us on our life’s path, directing us in the world of thought and action and the Latin genius, “to generate, to beget,” which would then become the “spirit of the place” in ancient Rome, McMahon gives us a study of how these original understandings of the concept were transformed throughout the history of Western thought, bringing us to a conclusion that states “genius” cannot truly be identified, or clearly delineated.

Genius seems to be an “elemental ‘life force,’ ” “a guardian and protector . . . simultaneously conceived as an intercessor to the divine and a spiritual embodiment of what was unique to the character of each man” (20, 22). For the early moderns, “genius” became a moral guide helping us to come to terms with our selves and the world, an agent, if you will, in service to a deeper understanding of “the mysteries of the self and of the world” (77). But once scientific progress began to revolutionize Western thought in the seventeenth and eighteen centuries, along with the apotheosis of Reason and the birth of the concept of equality among men in the Enlightenment, during which time God began to be drawn away from the human understanding of the self, the body, society, kingship, nature, and the universe itself, the notion of “genius” began to transform into a being who stood beyond men, between humankind and the universe, from which he seemed to derive almost a “superhuman” quality, from which he could create something new, and ultimately potentially dangerous, if not properly directed.

In the Romantic period, the genius as someone almost divine, with creative powers which expressed a new vision of the intellect and a deeper understanding of the mysteries of the cosmos, which he seemed to harness and bring down to the human, natural, and material worlds (as did Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods, himself a key figure in Romanticism), coincided with the emerging cult of the celebrity. A genius seemed to reverse and defy the purpose of an artist in antiquity, which was to imitate what was seen in nature, not transform it into something else, into an original work of art, something that expressed creativity and imagination. An artist need be only skillfully replicate what he keenly observed in nature and the world around him, but as genius began to come into its own in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, he became a figure of originality, of striking creative ability rendered in his imaginative interpretation of what he saw in nature, read in literature, myth, and scripture, or saw in his own mind, hence the “visionary” attribute of the Romantic artist.

Finally, genius, some claim, existed in the figures of Napoleon, Hitler, and Einstein. Napoleon and Hitler were able to inspire, to take control, to lead a people in times of great need and despair, to penetrate the minds of their followers with a sense of their own superiority as well as of those who believed in them; they were men of action who fought and defied the nations of the West for power and domination. Einstein, on the other hand, was a man who could look deep into the mysteries of the nature of universe and reveal them for those who were willing to listen to him. Einstein, I believe, was a true genius, because his mind seemed to easily comprehend the interconnectedness of various things, identifying and understanding the underlying principles of life and creation. Between these three men, one can also see the spark of an issue that has been present in the concept of “genius,” even from the days of Socrates—the problem of madness. Were these men mad? Genius, as McMahon wonderfully makes clear, particularly in his discussion of these three men, is both able to create as well as destroy; it can bring about both creation and ruin simultaneously.

Genius is something to be wondered at, in some ways revered, and in many others, feared. Genius, though it seems to have lost its cultural strength, according to McMahon, in the twenty-first century, thanks to the media and technology, through which anyone can exploit their talent or their artistic creativity and be deemed “a genius,” is something that came into full flower at a time when, as McMahon writes, the world became “disenchanted,” losing its belief in a divine, spiritual source that seemed to permeate it to the edges of the infinite cosmos, and at a time when the political belief in all men being created equal was sweeping the West. Genius, ironically, as McMahon points out, stood in contrast to this very notion of equality, asserting a very individualized perception and performance of a self greatly empowered beyond the dull, mundane lives of other men. A vibrant, vocal leader amongst the boring, unthinking, helpless masses, which Napoleon and Hitler capitalized upon, and who then were able to seduce their followers for the sake of the fulfillment of their own hunger for wealth, power, and global domination. Seeing much validity in this, then questions must be asked: Were these men geniuses? Was the madness they seemed to have displayed a character trait of that questionable genius?

And to return to Einstein, who introduced the world to the greatest weapon of mass destruction: Can genius be trusted, even when it is only seemingly seeking to shed light on the mysteries of the human, of nature, the cosmos, and the divine? Or is it better to leave those doors closed tight, triple locked, no matter how curious our minds are to uncover the truth, dangerous and even futile as it may be?

All in all, Divine Fury is a brilliant book, a book well written and constructed, a book that does what all good books should do, as I seem to say a lot lately, and that is make you think critically, make you ask questions about the concept, idea, or theme that is the book’s subject. Books on the history of ideas, or, as McMahon states in his introduction, on the “history in ideas,” have fascinated me for many years now, because I believe that if one wants to truly understand the world as it is today, and grasp the tumultuous depth of the history of events happening in the present, one must look to the history of ideas and ideologies, and the many different historical figures who gave birth to and transformed these ideas through thought and action, to do so.

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