Genius

Why do we shy away from terms such as “genius,” and “talent”? Ours is an egalitarian age, to be sure, and we insist that all be treated equally, but the notion that all are the same is not a claim — moral or otherwise — that can be substantiated. People are not all the same. Some are taller than others, some are faster than others, some are simply better than others — as we can plainly see today. And there are persons with genuine talents that others lack. And there are some, a few, who can lay claim to the title of “genius.”

Consider the fact that Mozart died when he was 35 years of age. By that time he has composed 600 musical works, starting at age 5. He performed before royalty at a very early age and was the darling of his times. But we might also note Honoré de Balzac, the novelist, who wrote 90 short stories, novellas, and novels, including the “Human Comedy,” a host of novels focusing on human foibles and, among other things, drawing attention to the dangers of wealth in the lives of ordinary people. And we must not forget Anthony Trollope who worked full-time for the Post Office in England and still managed to write 47 novels, dozens of short stories, and a few books on travel. But quantity proves nothing without quality: the works of the men noted above were exceptional by any standards. And some, like Cervantes, George Eliot, or Jane Austen, created fewer works but must also be allowed the title of “genius.” Goethe spent his life writing Faust, regarded as one of the most remarkable works of art ever created by man. The same is true of Edward Gibbon who wrote The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

In any event,  we need not resort to data to show that some are more prolific than others, some have been touched by the Muse again and again, to argue that some people are simply different from others. Just as there are master criminals and politicians who lie at a record pace, there are also extraordinary human beings, of both sexes, who can legitimately be called “genius.” Such people simply stand out and ought to be regarded as the best of us. We revere the exceptional athletes and even call some of them (too many of them?) GOAT — the Greatest of All Time. We do not hesitate to allow that certain human beings are better athletes, but we refuse to acknowledge that some humans are also better piano players, better composers, better novelists, better human beings — in the case of those among us who can legitimately be regarded as saints (such as Mother Teresa and Albert Schweitzer).

It is one thing to insist that all humans ought to be treated alike, that fairness is defined by our demand that no one be discriminated against. But we must, at the same time, allow that discrimination in itself is not a bad thing. It allows us to separate the truly great works or art, for example, from the pretenders. It allows us to determine that certain works of music are simply better than others, more complex and more rewarding to the attentive listener. And it allows us to identify the few truly outstanding human beings who stand out among the rest of us.

Moral equality is a good thing. But the notion that discrimination is a bad thing and that all humans are alike in all important respects is simply wrong-headed. And, more to the point, it disguises from us the fact that there are men and women out there who can legitimately lay claim to the title “genius,” folks who set the bar very high for the rest of us, but who make us aware that some of us have achieved in their lifetime — sometimes a very short lifetime — more than the rest of us. These are the people we should hold up as examples of what humans can be, not those who are in the news almost daily working hard to make their way into the Guinness Book of Records or score the most points before their ACL is torn and they must retire from sports.

I recently read a rather self-involved editorial by the skier Lindsey Vonn recounting her many victories on the slopes — along with her many injuries and astonishing recoveries. She is a remarkable athlete and worthy of admiration. But she pales when compared with Mozart, Austen, Balzac, or Trollope who can in all fairness be regarded as geniuses. It is a word that applies to only a few. But we need to remind ourselves who they are and what remarkable things they accomplished in their day.

Because we are not all alike. Some are simply more remarkable than others — both for what they have accomplished and for what they have not.

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Losing Our Faculties

When philosophers first started exploring the human mind in a study that eventually became psychology, there was virtual unanimity that the human mind was comprised of a number of “faculties.” This eventually became known as “faculty psychology,” which, I am given to understand, is no longer accepted by all members of the psychology fraternity. I, however, find it most helpful in attempting to understand myself and my fellow humans.  Two of the human  faculties that have received a great deal of attention over the years are memory and imagination and much of the effort in the schools in bygone days was devoted to developing both of these faculties. But no longer.

Students are seldom asked to memorize passages from poetry or literature or even the times-tables in arithmetic: it is all available on the student’s i-pod. Whatever needs to be known can be looked up and there seems to be no need to develop the child’s memory, which is a shame, since memory is an integral part of human intelligence. But even more to the point is the lapse in attention to the human imagination, which is an essential part of being human. I have touched on this before, but it bears repeating. Besides, I have another point to make.

Take sex. In reading Balzac’s Cousin Bette recently the point was driven home by the circuitous way the author has of describing the wiles of his very sultry and sexy protagonist Valérie Marneffe who, while a married woman, manages to entertain three lovers at the same time. She is a remarkably beautiful and talented woman! But Balzac merely suggests this; he does not lay it all out there for us to lap up. He relies on the power of suggestion and the lively imagination of the reader to construct the complete picture while provided with mere hints. That’s the way things were done in his day — the nineteenth century — even in France! Take the following description of Valérie’s seductive attentions to one of her lovers, the wealthy and very bourgeois Célestin Carvel. He appears before her deeply troubled by a scene he has just witnessed and Valérie is determined to get his mind back on more important things, namely, herself. As Carvel enters her bedroom, Valérie is having her hair combed by her maid.

“Reine [her maid] that’ll do for today. I’ll finish my hair myself. Give me my Chinese dressing-gown, for my Monsieur looks as rum as an old Mandarin. . . Valerie took her wrap, under which she was wearing her vest, and slid into the dressing gown like a snake under its tuft of grass. . . .[Later] she struck a pose in a fashion that was enough to lay Carvel wide open, as Rabelais put it, from his brain to his heels; she was so funny and bewitching, with her bare flesh visible through the mist of fine lawn.”

You get the picture — I hope. Here we have a sketch that the writer presents to the reader allowing him or her to fill in the details. It is sufficient to create an image that Balzac wants and it is very effective. But it relies on the reader’s imagination. Without that, there is no picture. And this is true of art generally: it requires an effort on the part of the reader or spectator to complete the picture, whether it is drawn, painted, or written — an effort of imagination.

But we are no longer asked to make that effort. The above scene would be written today in lurid detail in an effort to shock and stimulate — but not to ask the reader to imagine. The writer or painter, or photographer, sets it all out there for the viewer to see in graphic detail, the more vivid the better. This is certainly the case when it comes to sex and violence, but it is true generally of the media today that seek to sensationalize all human emotions. Lost is subtlety and suggestion. Lost, too, is the sense of mystery that surrounds the unmentioned. The human imagination is in danger of becoming flaccid, emaciated, unable to stand on its own, much less run and leap. As Henry Adams would have it, “. . . the feebleness of our fancy is now congenital, organic, beyond stimulant or strychnine, and we shrink like sensitive plants from the touch of a vision or spirit.” And he noted that long before i-pods and video games!

But so what, you might ask? The answer is that the human imagination is necessary for the possibility of ethical behavior. This is something that is seldom noted but which is worth pondering. The so-called “Golden Rule” which lies at the heart of so many religions and ethical systems requires that we imagine the effects of our own actions and treat others as we would imagine they might treat us in the same circumstances. Without imagination there can be no sympathy, much less empathy, which many would regard as central to ethical actions. We do the right thing by others because we can imagine ourselves in the same straits and we care enough to act to relieve their suffering. Again, without the imagination, there can be no action.

Thus while the entertainment industry works hard at devising new tricks to present to masses of viewers the latest in technical expertise and trickery, they threaten to render impotent the human imagination. Not only will art suffer in the end (as it has already) and our lives become shallow, we are in danger of losing our faculties — not only memory, but, more importantly, imagination. The mental faculties are like muscles: they need to be exercised to gain strength.