S. B.
Original publication: plover.net:80

The Banality of Genius (2013)



You can identify a Very Important Person because they get the proper VIP treatment: they come surrounded by an entourage of PR gurus, secretaries, agents, media handlers and bodyguards. Access to the VIP is limited and controlled, their public appearances are stage managed, their speeches are delivered and reported in soundbites.

You can identify Very Important Culture — a piece of Great Art or literature or music — because it gets the same kind of treatment. You can almost never meet it alone or on your own terms; your experience of the Great Artwork is carefully mediated by interpreters with privileged access to its secrets. To properly appreciate the Great Artwork, you must observe a protocol that defines the acceptable range of responses. The Great Artwork frequently comes packaged in short snippets, edited and arranged ostensibly for your benefit. Something about it is deliberately kept mysterious and unknowable, forever beyond your reach.

This treatment is called mystification, and mystification is a means of asserting and maintaining power. It’s the means by which charlatans hold power over their dupes, cults hold power over their adherents, and academics guard their areas of expertise from prying eyes. Mystification is the means by which high culture is secured in its role as the intellectual currency of an elite. And the key mystifying concept — high culture’s 24-hour bodyguard — is the concept of artistic genius.

Poet-Saints of the Nation

Artistic genius is a concept with a relatively young history; like a lot of bad ideas floating around today, it was an invention of 18th-century Europeans. Before that time, the English word “genius” (like its cognates in various European languages) was used to refer to supernatural entities: guardian spirits, the embodied spirits of a place, movement, or idea. The “Cold Genius” in Henry Purcell’s 1691 opera King Arthur, for example, is the embodied spirit of winter. The contemporary usage of the word first gained currency in the Sturm und Drang era of German literary culture, when “genius” came to refer to a level of artistic talent that was almost supernatural: the spirit of a whole nation embodied in one mortal artist. Writing in 1773, the German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder described the workings of poetic genius:

“A poet is the creator of the nation around him, he gives them a world to see and has their souls in his hand to lead them to that world.”

“Genius,” like gymnastics, has its roots in early German nationalism. German nationalists wanted to resist all that French talk about reason and universal brotherhood, which they saw as cover for French imperial ambitions, and assert something mystical and folkish and distinctly German in its place. They wanted to install figures of national worship, figures that could define and unite a culture, figures that could precipitate a moral and spiritual awakening of the German people. They were holding out for an artistic hero. What Shakespeare supposedly did for the English, they hoped Goethe and Schiller could do for Germans.

These ideas helped to seed other, rival nationalist movements, and to this day, genius is closely related to nationalism. New nations are always anxious to establish a pantheon of hero-poets who embody the mystical national spirit, and established nations are always on the lookout for another genius of the national culture. You can see this in the quest for the “Great American Novel” and the canonization of national laureates.

The stature of artistic genius further increased in the 19th century, in the Romantic era of European culture. Romanticism was a reaction to the Industrial Revolution, and the Romantic genius a way of asserting the values and education of old money against an upstart industrial class. As high art became accessible to nouveau-riche industrialists, it became important to emphasise that its leading lights had an innate mystical quality no merely talented clogger could attain. Artists became near-deities in their own right, and to ascend to artistic genius became the highest aspiration of any sufficiently cultured and sensitive young man. Then as now, “genius” was a category largely reserved for men. Women could at best aspire to be muses: inspirations for male genius.

Like a lot of bad ideas floating around today, artistic genius was not all bad in its original context. German nationalism, hard as it is to believe today, was once a positive political force: in the divided German states of the early 19th century, it united the common people against their feudal rulers. Even the Romantic movement had its good points, working to preserve the value of the emotional and natural against the rational and mechanical, and emphasising that the numinous and sublime still had their role in human experience.

That original context has now gone, but artistic genius has stayed with us, and gets more rancid by the day. Today, “genius” is mostly about disguising the process by which Great Art enters the canon — the privilege, the nods and winks and manoeuvres, the sheer luck. (Behind every great artist you’ll find stories almost as sordid as those behind every great fortune.) Today, as dissatisfaction with high culture rises and wonder declines, “genius” smacks of desperation: a cultural elite trying to prop up its sagging moral advantage by appealing to mystic forces. “Genius” is intoned like an empty ritual, in platitudes that ring hollow.

Banality on Banality: DFE on DFW

Here’s one self-described genius, Dave Eggers, describing the work of another, David Foster Wallace:

“[Infinite Jest] appeared in 1996, sui generis, very different than virtually anything before it. It defied categorization, and thwarted efforts to take it apart and explain it. […] This book is like a spaceship with no recognizable components, no rivets or bolts, no entry points, no way to take it apart. It is very shiny, and it has no discernible flaws. If you could somehow smash it into smaller pieces, there would certainly be no way to put it back together again. It simply is.” [1]

It’s hard to image a more blatant or wretched example of mystification. As a description of Infinite Jest, Eggers’ words are simply meaningless. They’re better understood as a prescription, telling us the proper reaction to the book, which is slack-jawed incomprehension. We should contemplate Infinite Jest as our ape ancestors might have contemplated an alien monolith, or a Catholic peasant might have contemplated the Holy Trinity: an object of wonder beyond analysis or understanding.

I have no problem with the numinous. I too want to feel awestruck at spaceships and music and mountains, and while I don’t believe in a supreme being, I wouldn’t any longer begrudge a believer the wonder they find in their god, or the solace and empowerment that brings them. [2] What I do object to is these preachy WASPs trying to set themselves up as an alternative. [3]

In appraising Wallace’s genius, Eggers is also puffing himself up. A writer in the same genre, covering the same subject matter, for the same audience, in much the same style, Eggers has a privileged relationship to his subject that most of us lack. He speaks with authority. When he divines the genius of Wallace, it means something: it means Eggers is party to the secret rules by which genius manifests itself. He’s in the priesthood of genius, a representative of genius on Earth.

And like the most tedious of priests, Eggers treats us to an unsolicited sermon, reminding us of our feudal obligations. He suggests that it’s our moral imperative to appreciate the genius of DFW and similar writers, to gawp reverently at their great works and keep them in our prayers:

“If we think it’s our duty to read this book, it’s because we’re interested in genius. We’re interested in epic writerly ambition. […] The point is that if we are interested with human possibility, and we are able to cheer each other onto leaps in science and athletics and art and thought, we must admire the work that our peers have managed to create. We have an obligation, to ourselves, chiefly, to see what a brain, and particularly a brain like our own — that is, using the same effluvium we, too, swim through — is capable of.”

After presenting us with the mystery of DFW’s flawless spaceship, Eggers invites us to contemplate another mystery: that a vision so awesome and incomprehensibly perfect became incarnate in a being as vulgar as plain old Dave Wallace:

“[I]t’s useful to tell you that the author is a normal person. Dave Wallace — and he is commonly known as such — keeps big sloppy dogs and has never dressed them in taffeta or made them wear raincoats. He has complained often about sweating too much when he gives public readings […]. He is from the Midwest — east-central Illinois, to be specific, which is an intensely normal part of the country (not far, in fact, from a city, no joke, named Normal). So he is normal, and regular, and ordinary, and this is his extraordinary, and irregular, and not-normal achievement, a thing that will outlast him and you and me, but will help future people understand us — how we felt, how we lived, what we gave to each other and why.”

Rather than making Wallace’s genius more relatable, his alleged ordinariness makes it all the more mysterious. This regular, sweaty, dog-owning dude, it seems, was inexplicably chosen to become a paragon of human possibility. But the mystery of this unlikely genius becomes all too explicable when you consider that neither Wallace nor Eggers were ever “normal” guys. No, what we have here is a pair of seriously well-connected rich kids, born into America’s cultural aristocracy, who took up their anointed places in the national literary circlejerk — places which are closed to everyone outside their social class, barring a few token exceptions. It’s amazing how often the mantle of literary genius is borne by expensively-educated people with contacts in publishing houses; but people like Eggers wouldn’t like that to be too widely known or believed. Better to preserve the mystery.

The Amadeus Mystery

The phenomenon of the common schlub with genius inexplicably thrust upon him might well be called the “Amadeus Mystery,” since its market was cornered by Peter Shaffer in his dreadful Mozart biopic, Music Appreciation: The Movie. Shaffer’s script (adapted from his Broadway play) labours the mystery of why God chose a vulgar, farting manchild as a vessel for his divine music. Textbook mystifications of Mozart’s genius are delivered through the mouth of his rival, Antonio Salieri:

“On the page it looked — nothing! The beginning simple, almost comic. Just a pulse: bassoons, bassett horns — like a rusty squeeze box. And then, high above it, an oboe — a single note — hanging there unwavering — until a clarinet took it over and sweetened it into a phrase of such delight! This was no composition by a performing monkey! This was a music I’d never heard — filled with such longing, such unfulfillable longing, it seemed to me that I was hearing the voice of God! But why — why would God choose an obscene child to be his instrument?”

While Shaffer’s Salieri is a mediocrity, he (also like Eggers) suffers the tragedy of being uniquely qualified to appreciate his rival’s mystifying genius: he’s a priest of Mozart’s music amid the heretic dunces who think it has too many notes. Another feature he has in common with Eggers is his inability to describe his subject’s genius in anything other than meaningless generalisations that leave no room for independent reaction. As evidenced by Shaffer’s article on Amadeus in the New York Times magazine, this is an affliction shared by the scriptwriter himself:

“[E]verything we played of Mozart — no matter how often repeated — never staled or irritated, nor lost its power to enchant […]. The music itself possesses the attributes of total invulnerability under the assault of relentless repetition […]. I myself have found this mystery in Mozart to hold intact for almost 40 years.”

The Amadeus Mystery looks a lot less mysterious upon closer inspection. Mozart was a child prodigy pushed to the limit and hawked all over the courts of Europe by his maniacal father, the deputy Kapellmeister of the Archbishopric of Salzburg, who had decided to pursue his thwarted career ambitions through his son — in other words, Mozart was a kind of 18th century Michael Jackson. That accounts for his prodigious talent and his early exposure. The social and historical processes by which this talent and exposure turned into “genius” are rather more complex, an interplay of happenstance, individual ambitions, Austrian and German nationalism, moneymaking, and various conscious attempts to build a canon or claim a legacy. But they certainly can’t be derived from Mozart’s music and its “phrases of delight” and “unfulfillable longing” and “total invulnerability under relentless repetition.” That way lies bullshit.

We’re Not Worthy

I take the Shaffer quotes above from Joseph Horowitz’s essay “Mozart as Midcult: Mass Snob Appeal,” a merciless skewering of the pretensions behind Amadeus. Horowitz constrasts Shaffer’s banality with the words of the composer Ferrucio Busoni, who wrote the following in a letter to his wife after revising Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro:

“All through the years the score of Figaro has remained unchanged in my estimation, like a lighthouse in the surging seas. But when I looked at it again, a week ago, I discovered human weaknesses in it for the first time; and my soul flew for joy when I realised that I am not so far behind it as I thought, in spite of the discovery being a real loss, and a pointing to the lack of durability in all human activities; (and how much more in my own!) […].”

On the surface, this quote from Busoni might seem arrogant — he’s comparing himself to the great Mozart! — but like Horowitz, I find it an honest and moving antidote to the pomposity of Shaffer (and Eggers). Busoni’s joy in discovering that Mozart was not so far ahead of him shows a greater respect not only for Mozart, but also for himself and humanity in general. How much more generous and humble it is to regard another as a fellow human being whose work has human flaws!

It’s neither humble nor generous to bow before “genius”; it’s quite the opposite. Worship is always demeaning to the object of worship. In declaring someone a genius, you’re imposing your own schema on them, reducing them to a mere conduit for greatness, denying them a key feature of human agency: the ability to fuck up and produce something flawed. [4] In declaring someone a genius, you’re attempting to control audience reaction to their work, to stifle opposition, to place some aspect of their work beyond question. In declaring someone a genius, you’re attempting to validate your own tastes and your own ability to discern greatness — an act that betrays equal parts insecurity and vanity.

Maybe there are true geniuses out there — beings of supernatural artistic ability, producing incomprehensibly flawless works. But for me, these entities can have nothing of interest to say. Ultimately, I’m a humanist, interested in the works of human beings. I’m interested in the work of my brothers and sisters, not in the workings of the supernatural. As far as I’m concerned, geniuses can go to hell.

  1. Dave Eggers on David Foster Wallace, 2006-11-16. Jest Fest. LA Weekly. [web] 

  2. S. B., 2011-08-28. Why I am no longer a skeptic. 

  3. S. B., 2013-02-08. Bronies and the New Sincerity. 

  4. S. B., 2013-07-17. Ways of Objectifying.