Tuesday, July 05, 2005

On Genius

Reading Schopenhauer a couple of nights back, I came across this amazing essay on the nature of Genius which set me thinking. Basically S. (forgive me, but I cannot spell Schopenhauer again and again, it's hard enough getting it right the first time; plus, is it just me, or does it sound like a brand of washing machines?) argues that geniuses are fundamentally different from other people [1] in that their intellect is not the slave of their will (by which he means a combination of physical and emotional needs) and they are therefore able to use it to hold up an objective mirror to the world around them. It follows that for the true genius intellectual activity is a desirable and essential end in itself. Based on this, S. proceeds to develop a number of ideas about the nature of genius:

First, he argues that the true genius will almost always be antisocial. This is partly because the true genius will never be able to find in others the intellectual excitement and challenge that he seeks (S compares this to a person out for a walk in the country who has no one to talk to but peasants), and will therefore choose the stimulation of his own company to meaningless prattle with others. Moreover, to the extent that the essence of genius is precisely to break away from the established and widely accepted, he must by definition resist socialisation and be willing to throw off all social bonds, and this is only possible if he is fairly anti-social to start with. And finally, on the logic that faculties / facility in one area must be compensated for by a lack in some other, the genius who can think more deeply and clearly about the great issues of life, meaning and art, may often lack other, lesser skills - such as the art of making polite conversation, say.

This raises the interesting question of causality, which S. does not really address. Do people become divorced from society because they are geniuses, or do people who cannot fit into society and therefore remain unsullied by socialisation and peer pressure, become geniuses because a) they see a side of the world that no one else sees b) they are not hampered (either in time or in thought) by the need to conform to the opinions / ideas of others and c) as failures in society, they have a deep-rooted urge to prove themselves superior in some other field.

The second point that S makes is that a modest genius is a contradiction in terms. His argument here is that in order to be modest a person must either genuinely subscribe to / prize the opinions of the common man above his own, or must be sufficiently concerned about the opinion of others to bend his own opinion to theirs even though he thinks himself in the right. In either case, such a person cannot be considered a true genius, because he lacks either the clarity or the independence of spirit that are the hallmarks of genius.

Third, S argues that precisely because the genius's chief concern is with intellectual pursuits, the genius will be unconcerned with either money or reputation and may often choose some occupation that provides him with no more than the most basic of physical needs, in order to have the maximum leisure available to pursue his own interests and activities [2]. This in turn makes the genius a bit of a recluse, but more fundamentally, it explains what motivates and drives the genius, and why true genius will blossom even in the face of adversity. It's not just that the true genius cares about his work; it is also that he doesn't really care for money or power or other more 'worldly' benefits (remember, his intellect is not a slave to his stomach) or for the opinion of those he knows are too inferior to understand him. What drives the genius, according to S., is the desire to put aside the fruits of his labour in the hope, nay, the certain knowledge, that there will come people in future generations who will appreciate what he has done.

While I think the essay makes a lot of sense overall, and I really enjoyed reading it (hey, geniuses are people who are antisocial, arrogant and who give up high paying jobs so they can have lots of free time, even if it means being penniless - do you see why this is an argument that appeals to me? [3]), this last part about the motivations driving genius is one I'm fairly unsure about. Basically, if the true genius is capable of functioning without external reference (the term comes from Wallace Stevens btw - see poem # 1653 on Minstrels; the whole thing works well with this argument, specially since Schopenhauer also uses the metaphor of mirrors) then why should he care about posterity either? S.'s explanation is logically flawed because he first argues that the genius can find happiness within himself, but then says that he is storing up his work for posterity, which is basically just a way of seeking external affirmation from the only external source it can possibly come from - future generations. Why should the true genius care about posterity? Why should he even care about anyone else's opinion [4]? What possible happiness can there be for the genius in knowing that people who he cannot discuss his ideas with will appreciate them? Either the genius cares about being appreciated (in which case he is miserable all his life) or he doesn't. Of course, you could argue that the genius may believe in the importance of future generations and the sanctity of life and the general good of mankind, but you would think a true genius could see beyond such platitudes.

All this leads me to an interesting speculation - what if the greatest geniuses cared so little for the world, were so removed from it, that they never bothered to share their work with the rest of us (notice that I include myself in the non-genius category. for now)? What if there are people out there who are thinking the most incredible thoughts / composing the most amazing music / writing the most amazing poetry and just not showing them to anyone else because a) they don't think others will understand or appreciate their work b) they don't care what other people think anyway and c) they'd rather push themselves to go further in their work than go to the trouble of trying to make themselves heard in the world? If you genuinely see that your own consciousness is the only valid reality, then the only thing that matters is to achieve the most that you are capable of within the span of your life - sharing it with other people (even people not yet born) is simply a mindless distraction. Essentially, the true genius should be able to see beyond the fiction that no work of art or thought is meaningful unless it is shared with and appreciated by others. The tree falling in an empty forest is still a tree falling. There's something very fascinating and at the same time very poignant about this idea of the self-contained genius.

[1] Readers of Nietszche will notice the resonance with Zarathustra, etc. In some ways, everything that S is saying exists in Zarathustra, except of course, S. says it more clearly (which Nietszhe would argue against though - what was that passage about leaping from mountain top to mountain top?)

[2] S. also makes the interesting point that leisure is in general something that lesser humans find undesirable - seeing hours spent in random intellectual activity as eccentricity and filling the little free time they have with mind-numbing activities like drinking or playing cards (or in the modern world, for instance, going to nightclubs). S. argues that as technology has improved, the human race has received a great capacity for leisure, we could all take it easy and survive on the basic inputs that were all we required to live quite happily for centuries - it's precisely because we fear this leisure that we invented new needs to pursue, so as to always keep busy. (A good illustration of this point is the way so many working professionals feel 'lost' when they retire; and end up going back to work in some form or the other, simply because they don't know how to fill their days. I, personally, could do no work for the rest of my life and spend it all on leisure activity and never get bored - in fact, I wish I had the option - what? No, that's not what I'm doing now. I do work you know. Sometimes.).

[3] Besides, how can you not love a writer who argues that if you really want company for the sake of not being alone, it's better to get a dog than interact with other people, and then goes on to say that he's constantly surprised by both the intelligence and the utter idiocy that his dog is capable of; and that he has the same experience with people.

[4] One other problem I have with S. is that he doesn't distinguish between the creative genius and the intellectual genius - while I see why the line between the two blurs a little in literature (the essay is in a book on the nature of literature) I think there is fundamental difference between an artistic genius (like Van Gogh or Mozart) and a great thinker (like S. himself, for instance).


shivani said...

1. I came across this blog today, read a post on "Sabrimala" and then started from the first one.. am left with one question
"Who the heck are you!!!"
read it more like a wow :).

Having read a few of your posts, I know am not qualified enough to comment, but that never has stopped me ever, so why should it now..

"Of course, you could argue that the genius may believe in the importance of future generations and the sanctity of life and the general good of mankind, but you would think a true genius could see beyond such platitudes."

Is it not a basic human need to be understood by someone else, to just share, show , even if the person is not right there. People are recluse, because they do not find anyone to disclose themselves to, until it becomes a habit...or what do I know :).

Again, pleasure to have come across this blog.

Anonymous said...

i can't stop drawing or writing--i even bring my stuff with me wherever i go. i don't care if anyone else sees it. i think i don't care and can't stop because there is something fundamentally wrong with me neurologically. i also don't care about money--but again, it's not because i'm talented (far from it), i just can't cope with things that aren't about drawing or writing.

Anzaan said...

I can't help think about No True Scotman fallacy as I was reading your article.

If we stick to adhoc definition of what true genius is, we'll fall in the same trap as the No True Scotman fallacy.
I can argue that since so-and-so is a polite man he cannot be a genius, QED.
IF anti-social is such a big characterstics of being Genius, then I can attribute a whole lot more to a genius.
I can say, if so-and-so prefers coffee over tea he's not a genius because the genius I have met so far all preferred coffee over tea.

One cannot apply science to reason about something that isn't based on science to begin with.
And as such any claim is as good as the clever words of the presenter. All it takes is another person with better grasp of words and spin to come and debunk a theory and come up with a brand new one.
And so it goes on and on.

Alejandro, fsc said...

What S's text did you read???

I'm finding myself in 90% of what you comment.