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.

Illustration by Charlie Powell. Click image to expand.

I've been thinking about the question of genius lately. I received an invite to an early screening of Richard Linklater's new film, Me and Orson Welles, which is in one sense a meditation on genius. It re-creates a turning point in Welles' rise to genius-dom: his triumphant struggle to put his sensationally received Mercury Theater production of Julius Caesar— done in modern dress, as if set in Mussolini's Rome—on Broadway in 1937.

And then, by chance, just before I saw the film, I'd found myself reading a curious—or anyway contrarian—take on genius in Lionel Trilling's 1952 introduction to Orwell's Homage to Catalonia, which argues that we should admire Orwell precisely because he's not a genius.

Orwell, Orson Welles—one fighting fascists in Catalonia, the other putting fascists onstage in New York the same year: freaky.

And then there's director Richard Linklater. One of the great satisfactions of my writing life is that my essay on his film Slacker is included in the booklet that accompanies the Criterion boxed DVD set of that offhandedly brilliant, deceptively philosophical (or is it philosophically deceptive) work of … genius? Do I think it's a work of genius? By a genius? It's not totally clear who we consider genius, these days.

Has the term been applied somewhat—or wildly (Tarantino?)—indiscriminately of late? And have the prerogatives of genius too often been used to excuse transgressions or mediocrity? ("Not his best work, but he's a genius!")

Those are precisely the questions—the nature of genius, the profligacy of genius, the questionable allowances made for genius—that are at the heart of Me and Orson Welles, which is perhaps Linklater's most ambitious film and is scheduled to be released this Thanksgiving. I think it will cause a stir. Oh, let's not be restrained: When I saw it, I found it amazing and moving.

Chiefly because of Welles, his genius and his tragedy. The film celebrates the triumph of Welles' genius, but it also gives us a Welles who abuses the prerogatives of genius in ways we know will eventually cost him. The future casts a melancholy shadow over the proceedings.

Linklater's film, which is a loose adaptation of a fact-based novel about Welles by Robert Kaplow, is the rare piece of cinema that centers on a Grecian urn of the sort that inspired Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn." (Linklater gets respect for that alone.) But I think the film suggests a relationship between Keats and his urn that's parallel to the one between Welles and Shakespeare. Welles (in his version of Caesar) and Keats (in his ode) celebrate Shakespeare and the urn, respectively: genius celebrating genius. Does that mean there is such a thing as primary and secondary genius? Though I can't see Keats as secondary in any way. The whole thing is complicated.

But that Keatsian urn shouldn't give you the wrong impression of Linklater's achievement. The movie is a full-blown, full-blooded, skillfully, noisily executed carnivalesque reincarnation of '30s New York. Linklater brings to this frenetic chaos an almost seamless sense of complex, multilevel storytelling. And it's an important story, not just for Welles but for theater and for Shakespeare.

Welles was on a mission. One senses he wanted to shake the world's theatergoers by the shoulders and make them aware of how urgent, how unimaginable, Shakespeare's genius was. One of the questions I asked in both my Hitler and Shakespeare books was the "exceptionalist question," which is at the heart of the genius question: On whom do we bestow the name? How profoundly must a "genius" transform our world?

Was Shakespeare on the continuum of other great writers, just at the furthest extreme of ordinary genius? Or was he in a realm of genius all his own that transcended the accomplishments of others? Was Hitler on the continuum of other evildoers, again on the extreme? Or did he occupy a hellish category of his own? Did he deserve the title "evil genius" for his satanic sculpting of history? I've sometimes thought that what separates the genius from the merely brilliant is just that: the creation of a realm apart.

But you could also argue that true geniuses transform the realm we live in. We never see the same way again after we see Picasso. How he creates, or re-creates, the world like a god.

Linklater's Welles flatters his actors by telling them, "You're a God-created actor." (One suspects the god he was referring to was as much himself as any Big Guy in the Sky.)

I was ready to concede Welles' genius the first time I saw it. I make the argument in my book that his production of Chimes at Midnight, his conflation of the two Henry IV plays (in which he plays Falstaff with a melancholy, Lear-like overtone), exemplifies how filmed Shakespeare can, anachronistically, in the hands of a genius, be more Shakespearean than most staged Shakespeare.

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.

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, 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:

Ron, There have been only three geniuses in fine art since 1900: Pablo Picasso, Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol. All art praxis flows from them. Picasso freed artists from perspective and representation; Duchamp made the concept rather than the visual the purpose of art; Warhol merged art with modern culture. In Western Art genius is associated with radical transformation of art-making by one individual artist. Leonardo introduced technology, Michelangelo added naturalism, Caravaggio brought in the beauty of the lower classes, Rembrandt introduced art images to the common home, Manet eliminated the mythological basis of art and reified "street" experience, Monet revolutionized the portrayal of light and Van Gogh did the same for color. Genius is the transformation of collective experience by one individual for the common good. It must be, by definition, the antithesis of evil, although evil may be one of its subjects. Postmodernism precludes genius because it assumes that artistic creation is a constant recycling of previous work, so that someone like David Foster Wallace could not be labeled a genius because modern Western culture denies the role. Postmodernism, indeed, adjudges genius as fundamentally reactionary, because the domination of culture by one individual denies the historical power of the collective. Postmodernism is a deadly vise which restricts creative people from transcending it, yet the challenge of artists and writers today remains to crush the postmodern paradigm. Hasn't yet been done.

Charlie made another interesting point: "It would be better to define 'genius' rather than 'a genius,' as in 'Pynchon has frittered away his genius' or 'Tristram Shandy is a work of genius.' … Genius is what has never quite been done before, quicksilver in the hands of its progenitors."

I have my own strong feelings about the question of genius in literature. I've always felt that if we look at the past century, Nabokov was a game-changer, as the academic phrase has it. Nabokov showed there is a place you can go, a place that the alchemy of words can transport reader and writer to, that no one had gone before. And Nabokov went there, with ease, in Lolita and Pale Fire. So it's hard to call any other writer in the past century a genius of the same order. Which in part accounts for my ambivalence about the decision to publish, against his wishes, an unfinished draft of his last incomplete work, The Original of Laura: No one was more aware than he of when a work of his had reached its zenith of genius. He didn't feel this one had. Perhaps, though, we'll learn some valuable lessons about the degrees of ascent to genius. Is it all or nothing?

I'd say the only work of genius in the past half-century to come close may have been Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49. (Gravity's Rainbow was to be his Ulyssesbut turned out to be his Finnegans mistake.)

Maybe genius must give the feeling of effortlessness as well as utter confidence and transcendence. Ulysses and Gravity's Rainbow both show the palpable sweaty strain to become encyclopedic works of genius: Always screaming across the sky: "This is a work of genius!"

So who is a living genius? Let's set aside physicists and cosmologists who are all, technically, geniuses (even though every five years they seem to admit they were wrong, as iconic physicist genius Stephen Hawking recently did about essential aspects of his black-hole theory, for instance).

I asked people around the Slate office who they think qualifies as a living genius and got a remarkable array of nominees. What was fascinating was the variation in number. There were those who would bestow the honor on only one person (Bob Dylan or Werner Herzog), there were those who named two (pairing Steve Reich and Philip Glass), and there were those who named two dozen. How high should we raise the bar? Should we limit it to work in the traditional fine arts, excluding Slate nominees R. Crumb; or Shigeru Miyamoto, the Mario Bros. game designer; or David Chang, the chef at the New York restaurant Momofuku?

Some raised the question of collaborative genius. (Lennon, yes; McCartney, no?) And what about Jobs, Gates, the Google founders, others who have sculpted an entire culture, made it their art forms.

I found myself thinking: I see lots of works of genius but not a landscape crowded with figures of genius. Can one pass through a period of geniuslike inspiration and then return to earth on broken wings, as Joni Mitchell (genius?) wrote about Amelia Earhart (genius?) in the song "Amelia" (genius!).

Maybe this is good. Maybe genius has been, if not democratized, more widelyand thinly distributed, rather than concentrated in the hands of a precious few. Maybe there are more "one-hit wonders," no less wondrous for being so. Maybe it's been "crushed by postmodernism" as Charlie Finch suggests, or undermined by irony (see: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius). Maybe we no longer live in the kind of romantic age that created Byron, the template of genius.

Maybe it's time to discard the Byronic caricature and the questions it brings entirely. We don't have to abolish the notion of genius, but we can discard the cult of the genius as person and pour our adulation into the cult of the work.

Farewell, genius.

Got a nomination for a living genius or a contemporary work of genius? Post your submissions in the Fray and we'll append some to this article.