How we use and abuse the word genius.

Scrutinizing culture.
Sept. 9 2009 3:17 PM

Who Are You Calling Genius?

It's time to retire the term.

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But needless to say I'd never seen Welles-staged Shakespeare. And his Caesar was said to be a turning point in his boy-genius career: He was only 22 at the time.

Linklater has found a British actor, Christian McKay, who conveys the brusque impatience and urgency of genius convincingly, the blithe and utter self-confidence of it. His performance convinces you that one aspect of genius is never really doubting one's own genius.

Recently, the writer Ron Radosh told me a story about a visit he had from Bob Dylan when the newly de-Zimmerman-ized Dylan was making his first journey from Minnesota's iron mines to the irony minefields of New York City in the early '60s.

Dylan stopped off to visit Radosh, who was then a leading student activist at the University of Wisconsin, and over the course of the visit he confided, Radosh says, that he was going to be "bigger than Elvis." He just knew.

This was pretty amazing for the early '60s, because who even knew how big Elvis was going to be then, and Dylan at the time was a totally unknown purveyor of cover versions of Woody Guthrie songs and imitations of other folk imitators.

And there's an eerily similar story, told to me by Steven Zipperstein, author of the recent Rosenfeld's Lives, a book about the early promise and early termination of Isaac Rosenfeld. Rosenfeld was a tormented near-genius and close friend—and childhood rival—of Saul Bellow in Chicago. Rosenfeld died before he reached 40, leaving people to wonder what might have been.

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Zipperstein told me how Bellow and Rosenfeld used to talk, when they were teenagers, about how one of them would win the Nobel Prize for literature. They just knew.

Which brings me to that Trilling essay I read before I saw Linklater's Welles: It's got to be considered in any consideration of genius. It's a somewhat tortured meditation that goes to considerable lengths to argue that the one reason we should value Orwell is that he was not a genius.

While this sounds like a negative virtue, not one you'd put on a résumé, Trilling gives it a positive spin: "Not being a genius" means "fronting the world with nothing more than one simple direct undeceived intelligence and a respect for the powers one does have. … We admire geniuses, we love them, but they discourage us. … They are great concentrations of intellect and emotion, we feel they have soaked up all the available power, monopolizing it and leaving none for us. We feel that if we cannot be as they, we can be nothing." (The italics are mine.)

Who knew that being a genius could be so contentious? And yet it's a worthy sentiment: We should not use lack of genius as an excuse for ourselves to do nothing because we won't do anything geniuslike.

Trilling then compares Orwell's talent—his ability to give simplistic, if not invalid, moral lessons, to voice worthy sentiments—to the genius of Byron. Of Byron it was famously said he was "mad—bad—dangerous to know." (Check out Irish novelist Edna O'Brien's recent irresistible portrait of his insanely complicated mad and bad and dangerous affairs in the recent Byron in Love.)

By contrast, to Trilling, Orwell is explicitly anti-Byronic, even a bit pedestrian: "He seems to be serving not some dashing daimon but the plain solid Gods of the Copybook Maxims. He is not a genius—what a relief! What an encouragement: For he communicates to us a sense that what he has done, any one of us could do."

I have some problems with this idea that our only choice is between mad, bad genius and servitude to copybook maxims about a well-ordered life. Do we really admire Orwell because he kept his room neat? I also don't think copybook maxims are all that Orwell embodied at his best. Or that anyone else could have done what Orwell did.

I have a few more thoughts on literary genius, but first I thought it might be interesting to see what the current thinking on the matter of genius is in a realm I was unfamiliar with. How high is the bar of genius set in the art world, for instance? I e-mailed my polymathic friend Charlie Finch, a noted columnist for Artnet.com, and asked him which modern artist deserved the appellation genius.

He replied with a satisfyingly definitive answer and an interesting theory on our distrust of the word these days:

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