“If we wish to appreciate the role that genius has played in the modern world, we must [remember] that genius is ultimately the product of the hopes and longings of ordinary people.”
“Genius is nothing more nor less than doing well what anyone can do badly,” celebrated British novelist Amelia E. Barr wrote in her 9 rules for success in 1901. Indeed, the notion of what genius is and isn’t endures as one of our culture’s greatest fixations. We apply the label of “genius” to everyone from our greatest luminaries to exceptional children’s book editors to our dogs, and we even nickname prestigious cultural awards after it. But what, precisely, is genius? Why was the concept of it born in the first place, where did it begin, how did it evolve, and what does it mean today? That’s precisely what historian Darrin M. McMahon explores in Divine Fury: A History of Genius (public library) — a fascinating, first-of-its-kind chronicle of the evolution of genius as a cultural concept, its permutations across millennia of creative history, and its more recent role as a social equalizer and a double-edged sword of democratization.
Even today, more than 2,000 years after its first recorded use by the Roman author Plautus, [the word “genius”] continues to resonate with power and allure. The power to create. The power to divine the secrets of the universe. The power to destroy. With its hints of madness and eccentricity, sexual prowess and protean possibility, genius remains a mysterious force, bestowing on those who would assume it superhuman abilities and godlike powers. Genius, conferring privileged access to the hidden workings of the world. Genius, binding us still to the last vestiges of the divine.
Such lofty claims may seem excessive in an age when football coaches and rock stars are frequently described as “geniuses.” The luster of the word — once reserved for a pantheon of eminence, the truly highest of the high — has no doubt faded over time, the result of inflated claims and general overuse. The title of a BBC television documentary on the life of the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman sums up the situation: No Ordinary Genius. There was a time when such a title would have been redundant. That time is no more.
McMahon argues that, in an age where we’re urged to explore the “genius” in all of us, we’ve grown increasingly obsessed with the word and the idea of genius, robbing it of substance in the process. Particularly in the last century, we’ve applied the label of “genius” frivolously and indiscriminately to everyone from rock stars to startup founders to, even, Adolf Hitler, whom TIME magazine crowned “man of the year” in 1938 for his evil genius. And yet the impulse to know — to be — genius is among our greatest, most profound human yearnings for union with divinity, something the legendary literary critic Harold Bloom has explored in his own meditation on genius. For the perfect embodiment of this desire, McMahon points to Albert Einstein, whom he considers “the quintessential modern genius”:
“I want to know how God created the world,” Einstein once observed. “I want to know his thoughts.” It was, to be sure, a manner of speaking, like the physicist’s celebrated line about the universe and dice. Still, the aspiration is telling. For genius, from its earliest origins, was a religious notion, and as such was bound up not only with the superhuman and transcendent, but also with the capacity for violence, destruction, and evil that all religions must confront.
McMahon sets out to unravel this lineage of unexpected associations by tracing the history of genius, both as a concept and as a figure, from antiquity to today, exploring a vibrant spectrum of individuals who both embodied and shaped the label — poets, philosophers, artists, scientists, inventors, composers, military strategists, entrepreneurs, and even a horse. As much a history of ideas as a psychological history of our grasping after the divine, the journey he takes us on is above all one of introspection through the lens of history. Reminding us that, as Toni Morrison memorably wrote, “definitions belong to the definers, not the defined,” McMahon argues for the social construction of genius:
If we wish to appreciate the role that genius has played in the modern world, we must recall the evil with the good, bearing in mind as we do so the uncomfortable thought that genius is ultimately the product of the hopes and longings of ordinary people. We are the ones who marvel and wonder, longing for the salvation genius might bring. We are the ones who pay homage and obeisance. In a very real sense, the creator of genius is us.
Which is not to deny that geniuses almost always possess something special, something real, however elusive that something may be. But it is to recognize the commonsense fact that genius is in part a social creation — what historians like to call a “construction” — and, as such, of service to those who build. That fact reminds us further that for all their originality (and originality is itself a defining feature of genius in its modern form), extraordinary human beings not only define their images but embody them, stepping into molds prepared by the social imaginary and the exemplars who came before. Even outliers as remarkable, as deviant, as Einstein and Hitler are no exceptions to this rule: however inimitable — however unique — their genius was partly prepared for them, worked out over the course of generations.
This construction of genius as “a figure of extraordinary privilege and power,” McMahon argues, began in ancient Greece, where the era’s luminaries — poets, philosophers, politicians — first pondered the question of what makes a great man. (For, as McMahon explores in a later chapter, the original concept of genius was an exercise in cultural hegemony excluding women and various “others.”) The Romans picked up the inquiry where the Greeks had left off, seeking to understand what lent Julius Caesar his military might and why Homer could enchant as he did. This quest continued through Christianity, which attempted to answer it with the image of the God-man Christ, the ultimate genius. During the Renaissance, da Vinci and Michelangelo bent this fascination with Godlike genius through the lens of art, attempting both to capture it and to further illuminate its elusive nature.
And so we get to the modern genius. McMahon writes:
The modern genius was born in the eighteenth century—conceived, in keeping with long-standing prejudices, almost exclusively as a man. There were precedents for this birth, stretching all the way back to antiquity. But that the birth itself occurred in the bright place of deliverance we call “the Enlightenment” is clear. Scholars have long recognized the genius’s emergence in this period as the highest human type, a new paragon of human excellence who was the focus of extensive contemporary comment and observation.
What remains a mystery, however, is why the genius emerged in the first place, and why it did under those specific circumstances of time and place. Tracing scholars’ attempts to answer these questions, McMahon points to several factors, ranging from the rise of capitalism to the evolution of aesthetics to new models of authorship and selfhood. But his own explanation has to do with something else entirely: The religious change described as the “withdrawal from God” — a collective pulling back from spiritual companions, which opened up a space for humans to embrace self-reliance as we came to entrust ourselves with the fate of our civilization and our individual lives. That, in turn, catalyzed the birth of the modern genius — at once a stand-in for God and a testament to the human spirit at its highest potential. McMahon frames the shift:
Geniuses mediated between human beings and the divine. Chosen to reveal wonders, geniuses were conceived as wonders themselves, illustrating perfectly the proposition that the gradual disenchantment of the world was accompanied from the outset by its continual re-enchantment. Geniuses pulled back the curtain of existence to reveal a universe that was richer, deeper, more extraordinary and terrible than previously imagined. The baffling beauty of space-time was no different in this respect from the sublime majesty of Byron’s poetry, Beethoven’s symphonies, or Poincaré’s theorems, as radiant as an Edison light bulb or the explosion of the atomic bomb. Genius was a flash of light, but its brilliance served to illuminate the dark mystery that surrounded and set it apart.
Geniuses, then, were believed to possess rare and special powers: the power to create, redeem, and destroy; the power to penetrate the fabric of the universe; the power to see into the future, or to see into our souls.
By the early twentieth century, geniuses rose to greater cultural authority and a new, scientifically driven movement to understand the nature of genius was afoot. The IQ test was invented. Dominant political ideologies sought to justify the worship of their leaders — from Stalin to Hitler — by means of religious genius. A new generation of geniuses, from Einstein to Twain, entered the realm of pop-culture celebrity. Then, as is our tendency as a culture of extremes, we took it too far. McMahon worries:
Genius is seemingly everywhere today, hailed in our newspapers and glossy magazines, extolled in our television profiles and Internet chatter. Replete with publicists, hashtags, and “buzz,” genius is now consumed by a celebrity culture that draws few distinctions between a genius for fashion, a genius for business, and a genius for anything else. If the “problem of genius” of yesteryear was how to know and how to find it, “our genius problem” today is that it is impossible to avoid. Genius remains a relationship, but our relationship to it has changed. All might have their fifteen minutes of genius. All might be geniuses now. … [But] a world in which all might aspire to genius is a world in which the genius as a sacred exception can no longer exist. Einstein, the “genius of geniuses,” was the last of the titans. The age of the genius is gone. Should citizens of democracies mourn this passing or rejoice? Probably a bit of both. The genius is dead: long live the genius of humanity.
We’ve also grown increasingly obsessed with dissecting “genius” — from literally dissecting Einstein’s brain to being transfixed by the daily rituals of geniuses, as though emulating those would somehow sprinkle some of their pixie dust on our own ordinary lives. Rather than a cultural tragedy to lament, however, McMahon reminds us that this is merely a manifestation of our intense yearning for transcendence, for touching the extraordinary:
Einstein’s brain had become a “mythical object,” and Einstein’s genius a myth, which served to mediate the secrets of the universe and to comfort us in our darkness and insecurity. The genius of Einstein resembles even now what the ancients once called a “middle term” of the universe, shuttling between ordinary human beings and the heavens. The divinum quiddam of his brain provides a glimpse of another dimension; it is a portal to a mysterious realm.
The celebrated political theorist Hannah Arendt addressed this in a 1958 essay admonishing against the “vulgarization and commercialization of the notion of genius,” driven by “the great reverence the modern age so willingly paid to genius, so frequently bordering on idolatry.” But rather than a cheapening of the notion of genius, McMahon argues, this shift bespeaks a certain democratization that broadens traditional definitions to make genius a more inclusive concept, especially after the end of WWII:
This trickling down (or welling up) of genius along the vertical axis leading from high culture to low was accompanied, as well, by a horizontal expansion, a pushing outward of gender boundaries and geographical frontiers.
Touching on, though not naming, Howard Gardner’s seminal 1983 theory of multiple intelligences — the necessary antidote to the limitations of IQ — McMahon continues:
This gradual expansion of genius — in effect, its democratization and globalization — gathered momentum in the aftermath of 1945. The development marked, in some sense, a return to an older understanding of genius as a faculty possessed by all. That understanding, it is true, had never been entirely abandoned. Although men and women had spoken for centuries of genius as a general disposition or trait, Europeans, and especially Americans, continued long after the eighteenth century to acknowledge that different people might have a genius for different things.
And yet there is a downside to this democratization. Much like “curation,” which used to stand for something and now means nothing since we’ve applied it to everything, the ubiquity of “genius” renders its true manifestations all the more invisible:
If genius is everywhere, the genius is nowhere, or at least harder than ever to see. The same forces that have democratized and expanded genius’s kingdom have sent the genius into exile or to an early grave. That curious fact will become apparent if one tries to name a genius in the postwar world. Einstein comes immediately to mind, of course. But he is the exception who proves the rule. And though there are others — including artists, such as Pablo Picasso and Jackson Pollock, or scientists, such as J. Robert Oppenheimer and Richard Feynman — they tend either to be holdovers from an earlier age or fail to command common and overwhelming assent. The truth is that we live at a time when there is genius in all of us, but very few geniuses to be found.
Though McMahon allows for the possibility that genius can often only be recognized in retrospect, with the hindsight of generations — Shakespeare, after all, was only widely celebrated after the fact — he remains unconvinced that this dilution of “genius” is doing our culture justice:
Even if they now walk among us, we no longer regard geniuses as we once did; nor do we look to them for the same things that we did in the past. The religion of genius is a moribund faith: the genius is all but disenchanted.
Ultimately, however, McMahon turns to Emerson — the ultimate champion of self-reliance, who shaped the modern cultural ideal — for reassurance that everything is as it should be, even it if requires our constant mindfulness in recalibrating the genius of humanity:
As Ralph Waldo Emerson acknowledged of “the excess of influence” of great men, their “attractions warp us from our place.” But he also knew that it was natural to believe in them. “We feed on genius,” he said, we need it as sustenance to survive.
In an age as suspicious of “greatness” as our own, it is worth recalling that truth, and recalling that, although those who prostrate themselves before idols make themselves small, those who fail to take the measure of true stature are similarly diminished. Great men and great women still have their uses. As Emerson put it over a century and a half ago in a passage that serves as an epigraph to this book, the genius of humanity continues to be the right point of view of history. “Once you saw phoenixes: they are gone; the world is not therefore disenchanted.” May it never be.