After having read Darrin McMahon’s Divine Fury, which inspired many questions in me, I thought I’d blog not just about the book but about what genius means to me. The book begins with the notion of the daemon that Socrates claimed was inside him, naturally startling the elite, becoming something to be feared as disruptive to the status quo, to the seeming order worked so hard for by these members of Athenian society.
Genius, for many, has thus been seen as a divine, maybe even demonic, spirit or force within the self, something we are born with, determining and directing who we are in thought and deed. But it has also been interpreted as a spirit or force that descends from the divine world infusing the body and soul of the chosen; hence not something each of us shares, leading to the idea that some of us are superior to others.
Genius is something with many faces, and after over two thousand years of trying to identify the true one, McMahon leads his readers to accept that genius isn’t any one thing, but many things, that its true nature cannot really be uncovered. As with pretty much everything in life, genius is not black and white, the fine lines are too many, too fine, and too easily crossed in trying to pin down any one, coherent definition of the idea without having a meaning riddled with paradoxes.
Eventually, the question of genius in art and literature, in poetry in particular, in relation to its full flowering during the Romantic period, comes up. Genius becomes something in the nineteenth century that is identified with a leader who remakes the world, laying down new laws in a quest to lead the people into a “new kingdom” built upon the ruins of the old that must first be consumed by the flames of apocalypse. The genius of the Romantic period is one that creates as he destroys, for the original, the truly creative, must be born of the imagination that sets fire to the old, restrictive models of art that merely imitated what the physical eye saw, and produce a lasting work of literary or visual art in the crucible of the imagination, “the Poetic Genius” of William Blake, that exists in the minds of all creative, truly artistic, men of originality.
Naturally, if the imagination is the mind’s creative faculty, creating works of art that are considered genius, and so by extension the creator himself is termed a genius, my concern is where does that “genius,” that creative power, come from? Is it divine, from the spiritual realm, the invisible that goes unseen, unfelt, until given shape and form in the visible? Is genius itself art, and needs only to be rendered unto the senses to be known and understood? Or, are the character traits that lead to one and their work, of any type, being called “genius” found within us, within our genetic code? Is genius something natural, a gift of the gods implanted in us at birth, which needs only time and activity to make itself known? Is genius natural, needing nurturing and exercise (practice) to make itself manifest? Does genius come solely from the creator, or do family, education, and the nation itself nurture it within the individual and aid in cultivating and drawing it out? A few of these questions are those that, in one way or another, are asked by McMahon or gleaned from his text.
After reading his book and giving it some thought, I must say “genius,” whatever it is, can hardly be put into a box, into a category that the thinkers of the Enlightenment hoped they could fit it in, when they themselves were the ones who further confused the concept more than any other group of philosophers and thinkers.
I find “genius” to be a term limited in scope. I think genius as understood in today’s world, post-Einstein, has to do with intellect, an intellect so sharp, so penetrative, and driven to discover the truth, the true nature, structure, and form and substance of a thing that it leads to a deep understanding and drawing together of seemingly disparate fields of interest and investigation, showing their interconnectedness; an intellect that is able to derive and explain the underlying principles of life, of creation, as made manifest not only in the microcosm of the human being, but in the macrocosm of the universe, including Nature, and showing us their source within the invisible spiritual world that is itself a divine, eternal, living, breathing, flowing energy that cannot be glimpsed by the senses. In short, I see genius as an intellectual property, if you will.
When it comes to a work of literary, musical, or visual art, I think that “genius” is too often used to describe the work without any tangible way to adequately, instructively explain why one considers it “genius.” (In a separate post I will discuss the genius of the actor and theatrical performer.) I think the creator himself can be more readily conceived of as a genius, someone that synthesizes a variety of materials and ideas into a work that is coherent, symmetrical, clear in structure and meaning (purpose), and beautiful. But, I think that there is a difference between a genius of scientific intellect and skill, such as one I allude to above, and what one may call a genius of creative art.
I think that creative artists are not geniuses per se, but rather divinely, spiritually inspired, infused by a muse or daemon that descends from the Transcendent and takes hold of the mortal instrument that is the poet, the sculptor, and the musician, and uses them to give shape and form to the Transcendent in the present, in the now, in a medium that can be grasped by the human mind and spirit through the senses. The artist is charged with making the invisible visible, with making the Transcendent tangible and recognizable in the material world.
Genius today, as it has since the eighteenth century, seems to point to a superiority of skill, an incredible difference in talent and ability in science or art, as discussed here in particular, from others who participate in the same field. And if this is the case, there are questions to be asked: How much of this superior skill is inborn, and how much of it is cultivated and shaped through its exercise? Or is it wholly inborn and endures an unspecified incubation period until it’s made manifest? And finally, does this fact, that some of us seem to be more “superior,” more “divinely gifted,” than others, really defeat the notion of the equality of all humankind?
In the end, as with so many other words unfortunately, I think “genius” is used too liberally, almost as a catchall phrase, without any understanding of the origin and original meaning of the word.