THE GENUS OF GENIUS

The Creation And Construction Of A Modern Day Myth

If you, like me, took piano lessons as a child, chances are you’ve spent some time being looked down upon by a miniature bust of one or another great composer. Placed beside the metronome, in plaster or in plastic, was the glowering Beethoven, the dreamy Chopin, the serene Bach, the puckish Mozart or the sovereign Wagner, each a reminder of the mountain your little fingers were scaling and the mastery required to ascend the summit. More or less unwittingly, you were participating in the rites of a cult. The celebration of the supremely gifted, uniquely creative individual is a modern phenomenon, insists Darrin M. McMahon in Divine Fury, an engaging survey of the history of genius in European culture. The cult of genius emerged in the eighteenth century, but if McMahon is correct, your obeisance at the upright piano was a tribute paid to a dying god. The recognition of extraordinary individuals, he argues, has yielded to claims for the genius in us all. The religion of genius has collapsed under the blows of egalitarianism, aspirational self-help and commercial celebrity.

Continuities abound in McMahon’s story, but so do transformations, the most significant of which is the gradual migration of genius from the exterior to the interior of the individual. Socrates spoke of his intelligence as if it were an other, a daimonion that accompanied and guided him. Socrates shared Greek culture’s broad belief that the greatest minds were chosen and possessed by specific guardian spirits. Early Romans imagined genius as a generalized life force linked to the procreative powers of the paterfamilias; places had their genius loci, their protective spirit, often depicted allegorically as a snake. Eventually, every individual man came to enjoy the protection of a specific genius, his own private divinity to attend and watch over him. As to the vast disparities in talent and fortune observable among men, some had better luck with their genius than others.

The seeds of a different view were already planted in antiquity. Plato suggested that Socrates’ daimonion was not an extrinsic spirit, but the rational part of his own soul. Some Aristotelians went even further by offering something like a corporeal theory of genius, seeing the roots of individual greatness in a volatile imbalance of the humors. McMahon observes a similar process in Rome, where genius — the guardian and companion spirit — gradually became fused with ingenium, understood as the unique personality or nature of the individual. The merger of genius and ingenium persisted into the Christian era, with angels and other divine intercessors taking the role of the former, and saints that of the latter; but Christians were easily troubled by the exceptional person’s potential for sin. A lust for perfection tempted one into rivalry with God, while the daimonionthat breathed inspiration into the great soul might in truth be an evil demon. Renaissance thinkers were not untroubled by these concerns, but McMahon argues that beginning roughly in the fifteenth century, works like Vasari’s Lives of the Artists increasingly celebrated those individuals possessing extraordinary human powers. Ancient divisions over the origin of genius did not vanish, but the Florentine philosopher Marsilio Ficino wove what Aristotelians had long described as an excess of melancholic humor together with what Platonists had considered a mania of divine possession. Ficino realized they were one and the same thing, just described differently. The two were united, writes McMahon, in “the soul of the unique individual, the mind of the great man, which was slowly assuming powers that for centuries had been entrusted to the angels and the demons and to those men and women — the sorcerers and the saints — whose bidding they performed.”

These tendencies culminated in the eighteenth century with the modern conception of genius. This was an idea firmly rooted in the flesh, in the person, with a premium placed on individuality, uniqueness, and titanic powers of imagination and creation. McMahon calls this being sui generis, but in fact he shows that Enlightenment discussions of genius perpetuated the language of possession, transcendence, rapture and special revelation. Such survivals, of course, account for the emergence of what McMahon calls a cult, or even a religion, of genius, with its veneration of great-souled men, genius incarnate.

But this raises the question of why exactly it is that the 18th century holds such a pivotal position in the history of genius? For the answer, we turn again to McMahon who claims that there are two reasons, the first having to do with the emergence and proliferation of the political notion of equality — that is to say the idea that all men are created equal — and the second being the fact that in an increasingly secular age, the “withdrawal of God” and the demise of the panoply of intercessors between the divine and the mundane prepared the ground for an ersatz religion of genius, a form of re-enchantment for a disenchanted age. Of course, rumors of God’s withdrawal can be exaggerated.

Many of the champions of genius continued to believe in a divine being, as did the philosopher J.G. Herder, whose day job was preaching in the German city of Weimar.

In making his argument, McMahon draws on the French philosopher Marcel Gauchet’s magisterial account of secularization in The Disenchantment of the World: A Political History of Religion, published in France in 1985. Yet reading McMahon, you would not know that Gauchet locates the process and effects of withdrawal much earlier, or that his book scarcely contains references to the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries.

More important, Gauchet argues that the more distant God is, the freer human beings become. His theory of secularization argues for increasing human self-assertion and for a growing sense of autonomy. So the elevation of genius might be understood less as a compensatory reaction to loss, and more as a celebration of human liberation from the gods and of the power of humans to address their own needs.

If compensation is part of the eighteenth-century story, it may be that genius was a kind of prodigal child of the epistemology of sensation, the exuberance of genius offsetting the flattening tendencies of empiricism while remaining within its general bounds. After all, in an age putatively committed to rationality, the main focus of discussions of genius was the power of feeling. “I felt before I thought,” recounts Rousseau in the opening of his Confessions, a memoir that never shies from proclaiming the singularity of its author.

Feeling is inextricably linked to genius in d’Alembert, and it forms the heart of Jean-François de Saint-Lambert’s celebrated article on “genius” for the Encyclopédie. To be sure, empiricism yielded to new theories of knowledge toward the end of the eighteenth century, particularly in Germany, where Immanuel Kant assigned the mind unprecedented powers to create its experienced reality. Kant’s philosophical revolution had direct implications for thinking about genius, especially among the Romantics; but if a compensatory structure continued to serve an explanatory function in nineteenth-century culture’s ongoing fixation on genius, it may have had less to do with filling the void left by a withdrawn God than with a desire for enriching supplements to rationalism and, increasingly, to bourgeois utilitarianism.

The second claim that McMahon is simply that the creation and proliferation of political notion of equality — that is to say the idea that all men are created equal — these, he writes, helped fueled a kind of reaction in which genius emerged as the exception to the rule.

Divine Fury ends with the suggestion that we may have reached a terminal point in the history of genius — In academia, humanities scholars have become extremely reluctant to utter the word, not only because they are wary of the excesses of our predecessors, but because genius explains everything and nothing. Further, our understanding of innovation and creativity has shifted profoundly in an era of big science. More broadly, McMahon sees a tendency to cheapen the language of genius by spreading it thin in a society that awards students gold stars merely for completing homework and promises exceptional attainment to anyone willing to follow twelve steps or seven habits. “The truth is,” he writes, “that we live at a time when there is genius in all of us, but very few geniuses to be found.” In the logic of McMahon’s narrative, this would seem to be the final revenge of the proclamation of equality, which seems to have devoured its dialectical other. His book ends with a surprising lament for the loss of our capacity to recognize and appreciate true greatness.

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