I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of genius, recently. This isn’t because of some conceptual height I’m reaching but because of what I’ve been teaching. In rhetorical theory, which is as much a rhetorical history class as much as anything else, we’ve been discussing the pre-Enlightenment and Enlightenment thinkers. And they had a lot to say on the topic of genius.
The Belletrists, who were some of the leading rhetoricians leading up to the Enlightenment, were very interested in taste, beauty, the sublime, and genius.
We’ve discussed the sublime on this podcast before, so I won’t go into that in great detail. But basically it was an explosion of emotion in response to something you read or heard. A big, wonderful response to something rhetorical or artistic. Taste, according to the belletrists, was the human capacity to critically appreciate and receive pleasure from beautiful things. Taste was closely related to the idea of the sublime. Taste was important to status. You had to be able to discuss the right literature, art, and politics with appropriate insight. You had to show an appropriate appreciate of nature and art (the sublime) and deliver pleasing performances (demonstrate genius). Genius was the ability to see the relationships between these things and create worthy objects. All of this required access and money. It kept the classes stratified and disciplined.
Edmund Burke had some unique ideas on the sublime and the beautiful. He said certain passions have the power to create strong impressions upon the imagination of the beholder. Specifically, things like “rugged,” “gloomy,” “massive” and “terror.” If these things caused pain, that is the cost you pay to experience the sublime.
Beauty, he said, is more gentle than sublimity and its object is love. Its causes are (according to Burke): smallness, smoothness, variation, delicacy, color, and clarity. So, the sublime is built on terror and leads to astonishment and beauty depends on pleasure and leads to love.
Burke was kind of unique in his approach to understanding the sublime, taste, and genius, however. Others were a bit more mainstream.
Hugh Blair had a few things to say on genius itself.
He said, to say that a person possesses genius is to say that they have unusual inventive or creative powers. Invention, on the other hand, requires a thorough knowledge of the subject and the ability to reason adequately concerning the theme. The only source from which this can be derived is nature. All rhetoric or art can do is guide genius.
So genius was, for many of the belletrists, a matter of creativity. It was a matter of seeing connections where other people did not, and synthesizing ideas and putting information together in ways that had previously not been done before.
It makes sense, then, that the sublime, beauty, taste, and genius were so wound up. If genius was a matter of creativity, then it should lead you to the sublime. And unless you were Burke, the sublime was often a beautiful experience. AND, appreciating all of this was a matter of taste. This was, of course, all terribly classesdand used to discipline those who weren’t propertied and well-heeled. You had to have money and privilege to access any of these qualities.
But what does genius mean to us today?
Does genius have something to do with the sublime and beauty and taste now? In class we discussed this, and we tried to think of examples of “genius” and “sublime” and “beauty.” And I asked them if Beyonce is an example. Certainly, by just about any metric she hits the mark when it comes to beauty. Does her work elicit a sublime reaction? Does she have that quality of creativity of “genius” that sets her apart from other people in her field? It was an amusing and interesting conversation because there were some students who gave an emphatic “yes.” They said Beyonce fits all of these categories and this was objective fact and anybody who didn’t see that lacked what we were talking about, which was taste. Others admitted she was popular, and even talented, but felt her work fell short of genius. They weren’t convinced she reached the level of “sublime.” The point being, there seems to be some disagreement, or at least some subjectivity to these ideas.
Supposedly if you have an IQ of 140 or higher you are “near genius” or “genius.” But we know those tests are problematic in a number of ways. And what does IQ tell you? It doesn’t indicate how successful you will be. Or how you will be able to function in society. Lots of people with high IQs struggle and lots of people with perfectly average IQs go on to do great things.
When you think “genius” you may think of somebody like Albert Einstein or Stephen Hawking or. These are two easy examples. These are two people who completely changed their fields, and as a result, changed the world. There might literally be nobody smarter. But do you also think of Pablo Picasso or Rembrandt or Van Gogh? They weren’t great scientists, but they were masters of their art. They changed the way people thought about what art is and how it could be done. Are they equally as genius as Einstein or Hawking, or do we reserve that word for scientists? Why do we always think of men? Why don’t we immediately jump to Marie Curie or Frida Kahlo or Georgia O’Keefe?
We hear the phrase literary genius, but I think that’s hard to pin down. Do you mean Walt Whitman? Do you mean Chaucer or Edgar Alan Poe? If you spend time on the writing threads on reddit you’ll find that Tolkein and George R.R. Martin are the end-all-be-all authors amongst that crowd. Who counts as a genius when it comes to the literary arts? Kazuo Ishiguro has never written anything that didn’t win a major award, but I know a lot of people that never made it through The Remains of the Day because they just found it so boring. Not everybody is interested in the slow burn of a detailed character study, but that’s what the literary elite tells us is good writing.
If there were ever an artistic or literary genius, surely it was William Shakespeare, right? When it comes to things written in English it doesn’t get any better than that. Haven’t we as a society kind of agreed on that?
But consider that for a moment. When Shakespeare was alive he wasn’t writing literary stuff. He was writing for the masses. The plays he was writing were for the everyday, regular Joe. He was writing commercial stuff. This raises a question: was the commercial stuff of the Elizabethan era just much headier than what we are accustomed to, or are people generations from now going to see our mass marketed trash and see great lessons about humanity in them? Are the themes from Shakespeare running through our very own novels and movies or were the folks from the 1500s just a much more discerning audience?
In other words, is Stephen King going to be the voice of our era years from now? He’s prolific, he’s wildly popular, he speaks to the common person, he writes for a commercial audience and has tapped into some of our more primal ideas. In some ways Stephen King is more analogous to Shakespeare than Ishiguro or Seamus Haney. If not Stephen King then maybe Aaron Sorkin because he is closer to a playwright and has made such a mark on our understanding of entertainment. But it calls into question our understanding of who is a genius and how they are perceived by their audience.
It brings to mind a conversation Carl, my co-producer and tech-guy, and I have had numerous times over the years. The question of the game-changer. We’re fascinated by people who changed the game. There are people who are famous – people who are at the top of their field – and then there are people who irrevocably changed it. And we like to talk about who those people are and postulate on the difference between those. And it’s interesting because sometimes the game-changers aren’t the most talented. Sometimes it’s a matter of business acumen or timing or politics or any number of other things.
Rock n’ roll has had no shortage of superstars. But there are some that changed the game. When Elvis Presley hit the scene the music industry changed forever. He literally changed the direction of music in America. And we have to note how much he owed to the Black music tradition in America and his gospel roots. But after Elvis nothing was the same.
And there were lots of popular bands in the 60s but it is no stretch to say that the Beatles changed how we understood music and the music industry.
Boxing was a popular sport and there were many famous boxers, but Muhammed Ali changed the face of that sport forever. He brought his Blackness and politics unabashedly to the ring year after year, making boxing a political and civil rights arena.
J.K. Rowling, for all her many faults, changed the literary and publishing worlds permanently. Is she the greatest writer ever? No. Is she even a good person? No. But she made fantasy and reading cool again for more than a generation of kids and revived a genre and a habit and created a cultural phenomenon that has changed society.
There are lots of really talented people, like Elton John or Bruce Springsteen that have incredible staying power. Their careers span decades and they have certainly made a mark on their art. But whether they fundamentally changed it or not is a different question.
But then we have people like Lin-Manuel Miranda. Love him or hate him, chances are the theater will not be the same for a while. The question is, will other people take up his mantle? Is Miranda so unique that people will not try to emulate what he accomplished, or will his influence spread? Between In the Heights and Hamilton there is a big possibility that the influences of previously under-represented populations could become more and more of a presence in theater. But that’s if people decide that Miranda is somebody they think they can imitate, or if he is a power unto himself.
So are all these people geniuses? Do they reach the sublime? That’s a tough question.
On a darker note, Seneca the Younger tells us that Aristotle said that “There is no great genius without a touch of madness.”
Links between creativity and mental health have been extensively discussed and studied by psychologists and other researchers for centuries. Parallels can be drawn to connect creativity to major mental disorders from bi-polar disorder to ADHD. Studies have demonstrated correlations between creative occupations and people living with mental illness. There are cases that support the idea that mental illness can aid in creativity, but it is also generally agreed that mental illness does not have to be present for creativity to exist.
There is a cultural trope of the tortured artist, brutalized by their own demons while they try to produce the next great work of genius. And in some cases that is true. There have been plenty of artists, and some scientists and mathematicians, who suffered from depression or a related disease.
But the question is, does genius automatically mean tortured?
The thing about a genius, supposedly, is that a genius’s mind works differently that other’s people’s. If we go back to our pre-Enlightenment and Enlightenment thinkers that’s what they told us defined genius. Being able to see connections where others couldn’t. A genius can work out things that the rest of us can’t. They see the world differently. Something about their brain operates differently than everybody else’s.
In some ways, that seems like an invitation for difficulty in a couple of ways. If you believe in intrinsic properties of the mind, then it would seem that a genius’s mind is already different. It stands to reason that if their mind is different in one way it might be different in another.
But I don’t think you need to get into inherent properties to explain it necessarily.
If your mind works differently, and you see the world differently than everyone around you – then it would be hard to connect to people, maybe. If you are functioning differently then everyone around you then you are going to feel lonely, disaffected, misunderstood, and like there is something wrong with you. Now, that wouldn’t explain diseases like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, which are chemical imbalances in the brain, but it would contribute to symptoms and mood disorders.
Genius must be very lonely. Nobody sees the world as you do. Nobody understands the connections you make, or the worlds you build. I would guess it is a difficult place to be.
And, like all classifications of ability or intelligence, we have to think about the exclusivity of genius.
History is dotted with people who many would classify as genius in some way. Aristotle, Isaac Newton, Geoffrey Chaucer, T.S. Eliot, Jackson Pollack…but notice that these geniuses seem to have a lot in common. They’re all men, and mostly from the same ethnic background.
Geniuses tend to be European men. Occasionally we acknowledge a Virginia Woolf, a George Washington Carver, or a Jane Goodall, but those cases are few and far between.
Genius tends to be a raced, sexed, and classed category.
So if genius is exclusive is it even a useful category or attribute? What does it tell us other than these are some notable white men?
For the belletrists genius was necessary to be an excellent orator or poet. You needed to be able to make those creative connection and see the world in fresh and innovative ways.
Are we so demanding now? Is genius required to be a good rhetor in the 21st century? Or do we mean something different by genius than they did? Certainly I want a speaker or a writer to be inventive and original. But I’m not sure if that makes them a genius.
In all fields there are people who are operating on their own level. The stand-outs. The brilliant ones. The game-changers. It’s hard to know who the people are who will irrevocably leave their mark on things until time has past. It may that history is what tells us who is an is not a genius.
Music in this episode is “Fearless First” by Kevin MacLeod at https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/3742-fearless-first.