Who now is awed by genius? I pity them, considering that, unlike me, they are so inadequate to life, that they have to compensate for their deficiency by growing desperately great. And we look with condescension on those turbulent germinal epochs which didn’t know how to husband their force so as to shrink to our snug and lucrative barrenness.
Genius makes life hard and art easy. It puts everything to its best use, by smoothing the path, or else by roughening it.
Impotence is the teeming father of imagination. Those who can’t do dream. ‘He who desires but acts not breeds pestilence,’ as Blake said. But a grand idea may be the most productive pestilence of all.
Great thoughts are the crimes that cravenly good people lacked the courage to commit. ‘Each work of art,’ as Adorno points out, ‘is an uncommitted crime.’ A questing intellect is blest with a boundless capacity not just for taking pains, as Buffon said, but for giving them as well.
1 The economy of genius
Teeming brains have trained themselves to have punctual inspirations, and have cultivated a knack for scoring habitual lucky hits.
There is no kind of food that genius can’t make use of to grow to be what it is. Great minds are omnivorous yet monomaniac. They may take in a broad spread of stuff, but they assimilate it all to feed their solitary fixation. There’s nothing that they can’t do without, yet there’s nothing that they put to waste. They can profit from everything, while not requiring any one thing. All is dispensable, but nothing is lost. Each thing serves, but none is necessary. When the mind’s on fire, all facts fuel it. ‘To a poet,’ as Johnson says, ‘nothing can be useless.’ Their insights make all things redundant and all more fertile.
A genius is one for whom more things mean more than they do to the rest of us, and all in a new way. The more you know, the more you see in each fact or thought or thinker, as Pascal said. But the more divergence you see to separate them too.
A prolific artist or hero or a whole epoch knows when to conserve their force and when to spend it. They sagaciously save all their strength for the noble quests which they know will break them. They draw on a mental thrift that lives beyond its means. Their squandering is the true prudence.
Ideas, like capital, aggregate in accordance with two laws, the law of self-reproduction and the law of concentration. Ideas make ideas as money makes money. And to those who have more will be vouchsafed. To think great thoughts, you need merely have thought a lot of great thoughts beforehand, since it is the thoughts themselves that do most of the real thinking.
Most poets are dead by forty, though they may continue to live and write for thirty years more. They keep on pumping, though the well has long gone dry. A prose writer’s prime lasts for a mere twenty years, customarily from when they’re thirty to fifty, and their golden age lasts for as short as seven. After that the mind starts to grind on its own gears. So brief an instant between two eternities in which to catch a timeless world.
The task of the thinker is to conceive thoughts that are true, important and original. Anyone can say something new about what’s trivial, or important things that are trite. Scholars do the first, and moralists the second.
Concepts are like musical instruments, which most of us have learnt to play, but few know how to compose with.
Thinkers have to toil so untiringly to reach a fresh idea, that they can’t be blamed for not reviewing all the obvious ones that might invalidate it. Next to conceiving a new thought, the most difficult thing is to critically examine our old ones. ‘Can it be,’ asked Keats, ‘that the greatest philosopher ever arrived at his goal without putting aside numerous objections?’ The average professor could refute Descartes’s cogito in ten minutes.
A truth that yields to anyone else’s wooing must be a whore.
Even for the most adventurous inquirer originality doesn’t shine like a continual sunbeam, but may flash like a stray thunderbolt.
Even your most original discoveries will in the end form a barrier to fence in your originality.
A great idea opens up at its back a silent canyon, into which you can hear all the old certitudes lurch and crash.
Bold searchers are enveloped in a soundless solitude, which our babble is too blunt to pierce. At the outset they seem to us not mistaken or mad, but small and peripheral like distant stars. And we pay no mind to them, since they twinkle so far from the constellation of our own inert views. ‘The higher we soar,’ Nietzsche says, ‘the smaller we look to those that cannot fly.’ Most of us can’t make out a new truth till we’ve been shown where it is and why it matters.
Originality and abstraction make too thin and chilly an air for our gross minds to breathe. So we’re glad to get back down to the lowlands of our muggy platitudes and anecdotes.
A narrow mind grabs hold of the largest questions by the smallest handle.
A new truth repels us like a dishevelled and disreputable freak. We shun it till it’s been scrubbed and spruced up as a respectable commonplace. It ceases to alarm us, once it has been domesticated by the crowd. We come to dote on it on grounds as risible as those for which we initially spurned it. We embrace it when it’s been translated into the debilitated discourse of our empty platitudes. We try to grasp the unknown by the known, but what we know is a few dry formulas and smug truisms.
Most of us can’t understand a new truth till we have assimilated it to the old lies that we hold dear.
Few people will take the trouble to understand a new idea, till they’re sure that it’s so well known that there will be some cachet in understanding it.
We need to be led like the blind to an unfamiliar truth, so that we can finger it with our smutty paws which we keep thickly gloved with our ready-woven notions.
We are skittish creatures who love what looks new as much as we fear and fight change. Yet we pine for repetition as much as we pant for what’s cheap and new. We are bedazzled by innovation in trifles, but we squint when it is shown in anything more sizable. We crave ceaselessly recurring novelty and ceaselessly varied iteration. We seize on the new-fangled and the old-fashioned. We want all things surprising, and all things recognizable. Hypnotized by our low familiar dreams, we won’t lift our eyes to high imagination. We now, as Colton wrote, ‘run after that which is new, but are prejudiced in favour of that which is old.’ We itch to do new things as much as we hate to think new thoughts.
An age of hectic innovation such as ours won’t wait for real originality, which takes so long to ripen.
The one sane method is mad obsession.
The best way to subdue a newly discovered idea is by stationing it with your obsessions.
A concept, like a territory, is the property not of the first person to explore it, or of the best to occupy it, but of the one who has seized the most thorough hold of it, and here bulk may do more than brilliance, as Proust or Dickens shows.
Aren’t most of our fixations as facile as they are consuming, and as empty as they are tenacious? They are the obverse of our insouciance. Girls and boys flit from one toy or sport to the next, since their green vagrant moods have not yet formed the hard skeleton of a career which will hold up their full-grown hopes.
Dour obsession may yield the fruit of sweet reason.
The thoughts that fill our minds from one moment to the next make up the best and worst of us. We can hope to grow just as large or small as they are. And since most people’s brains are stuffed with plans for their own advancement, nothing great can be hoped for from them.
The same obsessiveness may make a genius or else a captious pedant.
We are too distracted to reason consecutively or systematically, so we have to ruminate compulsively. How could you create and edit the successive drafts of your thoughts, but by revisiting them in relays of obsession?
5 Genius is a repeating
Originality is where we end. It is not where we set off from. We are not born fresh with a clean slate but prone to be imposed on by coatings of suffocating custom. And we learn to create by endless reiteration, each time exchanging a thin sliver of new for old, till at last we echo our way to individuality. Creators start off by mimicking a form’s exterior mannerisms, till they reach the core and they pass out of imitation’s junior school. Those who have their minds fixed on a small square of thought retrace the same ground so often that they may at length hit on some quite fresh way of looking at it. Ideas evolve not by abrupt convulsions but by slow geological accretion.
It may take you years to see some things, but having seen them once, you start to see them all the time. ‘If you are possessed by an idea,’ Mann says, ‘you find it expressed everywhere, you even smell it.’ Those who think new thoughts keep restating them. They’re rediscovering them over and over for the first time, startled that anything so unlikely could be so true.
Even the most fearless minds distrust their freshest thoughts, since they can discern in them neither their own self nor the comforting commonplaces of their drove. The theorist may be too timid for the consequences of the theory.
I fall short of my mentors and models, because I ape them so badly, or else because I ape them too well.
Great artists are inimitable, not because they are so quirky and personal, but because their stark impersonality gives us no idiosyncrasies to take after.
An independent mind matures by imitating. Artists grow to be who they are by emulating what they are not. Genius, as Reynolds wrote, ‘is the child of imitation.’
Those who copy inadvertently jeer at those who copy intently. But what you learn when you set your mind to imitate is that most of the time you do little else. When we think that we are behaving spontaneously, we are usually just mimicking models that we’re not aware of, because everyone else is mimicking them too. Choose to emulate what’s fresh, and you are freed from following fads.
You surrender to influences like a surfer to a wave, to see to what height it will lift you and how far it will take you.
We copy by nature, but grow original by art. We imitate by instinct. But the patterns that we imitate are allocated to us by custom.
Dull writers, such as roman ones, have descendants. The best, like Shakespeare, have nothing but forebears. They culminate what has gone before them but give no clue as to what will come after. They are not planters or sowers but perfecters and reapers.
You need a long ancestry of thinkers to draw on if you are to think new thoughts. Like Adam, ancient authors had too few precursors to pioneer fresh ways of looking at the world. They came too early to be able to write anything new. Originality is a late growth, which arrives at the end of a tradition, not at its birth.
Most notions have long been platitudes by the time that they are first put in words.
7 Ahead of its time
The innovations of genius are further in advance of it than the genius is of its time. And genius lags behind its own ideas almost as far as we lag behind it.
Minor writers divine the age to come with more clairvoyance than a major one, since they stay closer to the stale assumptions which are sporing it. Great insights are perennial rather than prescient.
Those who see farther into the future have caught its diseases a few years before the rest of us. If great minds are harbingers of what’s to come, it’s because they are farther gone on the road to decadence. The poet, as Rimbaud wrote, is ‘the sickest of the sick, the great felon, the great accursed.’
The present detects in the best minds of the past plenty of plausible grounds to commend its own progress. It’s gratified by their advanced doctrines, since they smoothed the way for its own truisms. And it’s gratified by their retrograde dogmas, since they give it an excuse to be smug. We praise past masters for surmounting the pieties of their own age and foreshadowing the pieties of ours. We pay them the fulsome compliment of acknowledging that they were preparing the way for us. The present is a ruthless darwinist. It always records that the right side won, since it was leading up to it. As monks saw their parochial creed prefigured in every personage or happenstance in books or history, so we read in a strong writer such as Shakespeare the first flickerings of our bright egalitarian suppositions. The present looks on the past as a precocious child. It would not pay it much heed had it not grown up to be itself.
It’s those whose minds are in thrall to the idols of the age who assume that a genius must be ahead of its time.
Reactionaries like Burke or Maistre are best qualified to read the present. And revolutionaries like Marx are best qualified to read the past. Those who see farthest in front of their own epoch may at the same time lag centuries behind it. They’re resurrectionists, who suture the joints of their revelations from the exhumed assumptions of a prior age. Nietzsche’s thoughts were so untimely because most of them were already hoary three thousand years before he thought them. The most reliable guide through the chaos of the modern mind is Dostoyevsky. The most reliable guide through the chaos of modern society is Balzac. The most reliable guide through the chaos of modern culture is Nietzsche. The most reliable guide through the chaos of modern art is Yeats.
Pioneering minds are as many years in advance of their time as it takes the world to shrink their fresh thoughts to its own soggy truisms. They seem as far in front of it as distant stars whose light takes so long to reach us.
A demagogue says the wrong thing at the right time, a genius says the right thing at the always wrong one.
8 Genius and mediocrity
It takes a lot more wit to be a mediocrity than to be a genius. To be competent and efficient, you need to have dull ideas or no ideas at all. Talent ables, genius disables.
A deep mind is dim where the rest of us scintillate, and is stumped by the jobs that we get done so adroitly. ‘Mine indeed is the mind of a very idiot,’ said Lao Tzu. Many first-rate geniuses have had third-rate minds. So it may be I am a genius after all.
Narrow ideas make for broad competence. It takes a middling talent to do more than one thing expertly. A profound intellect can only do a single thing at a time, since so many things crowd in on its imagination. ‘Beethoven can write music, but he can do nothing else on earth.’ A mediocrity is more quick-witted and versatile than a first rate mind. A genius in a drawing room has to work so hard to seem like one of us, that they’re hard put to it to say anything smart. ‘When I am not original,’ Renard confessed, ‘I am stupid.’ A comprehensive mind is comprehensive only in its own small preserve, as Shakespeare was in poetry. Or if, like Leonardo, Goethe or Jefferson, they’re skilled in a suite of them, they are so in just one compartment of each. ‘If you do one thing well,’ asked Thoreau, ‘what else are you good for?’ Genius itself may be just one of mediocrity’s more infrequent specializations.
The only certain way of becoming universal would be, like Shakespeare, to be as little of an integrated being as is possible.
It takes a great deal more ingenuity and erudition to be a critic than to be a creator.
What small differences make all the difference to us. The magnification of slim distinctions gives rise to all substantial things. A forceful mind starts with a few lean advantages and stretches them to large effects. Napoleon, a marginally more skilful general than his peers, overran the whole of Europe. Buffet earned a huge fortune by extracting a somewhat higher rate on his capital. Transpose one or two notes of a rude tune, and it makes the most delectable air. ‘Trifles make perfection,’ as Michelangelo said. What drab constituents may add up to a masterwork, yet how magically it will upraise them to epiphanies. A thousand shuffling steps lead to the peak of achievement. A slight mutation may through many forks in time throw up a fresh type.
We start out with miraculous potentialities, which we stunt by restricting them to such mean uses. ‘The youth,’ Thoreau says, ‘gets together his material to build a bridge to the moon, and at length the middle-aged man concludes to build a woodshed with them.’ The mind is an astonishing and intricate utensil, which for the most part we employ for no more exalted end than shelling peas. The world is a dazzling contraption which consumes all our craft to run it. We develop our most ingenious constructions, whether establishments, trade, science or statecraft, by elevating our elementary gifts to a high degree of mediocrity. How much skill, diligence and teamwork it takes to accomplish all second-rate things. Is it any wonder that so few of us succeed in becoming even second-rate? You need as much dedication to do a mediocre work as you would to do a marvellous one. We strain all our powers to carry out the most humdrum tasks, but how flabbily we exert our imagination to do creative ones. Our highest achievements alone redeem the pledge of our simplest gifts.
An adventurous mind delights in its own productions. But so does a dull and lustreless one. Who feels so jubilant as Catullus’s or Borges’s self-deluded and scrawling poetaster? Mediocrity is all that greatness is except great.
Though original minds may say the same thing as vapid ones, they mean incalculably more by it. Their bald yes or no may give the clue to a whole table of values.
9 Genius and madness
Genius and madness are closer to mediocrity than they are to each other. Genius nears insanity only when it has ceased to be what it is.
Madness may be more an effect of the kind of life that genius needs to lead so as to do their great work than the cause that makes them able to do it.
The poet may be like a lunatic, but the lunatic is not in the least like a poet. Bold minds may be like the crazy, and yet the products of a bold mind are the antipodes of the tedious and mechanical outpourings of craziness. Mad people, like sleepers, have erratic but dingy visions, and, like slovenly poets, they keep recycling stereotypes from the common stock. In the west they are all Jesus or Napoleon. Their fixations don’t open a door to wondrous truths. They’re as predictable and repetitive as rats in a maze.
What is quintessential is often atypical. The most distinctive comes in time to be the most representative. Greatness is singular in its very universality. The finest style is at once exemplary and inimitable. And the best writers indicate the typical by revealing to us the exceptional. Dickens’s characters are eccentric but not extraordinary, Shakespeare’s are extraordinary but not eccentric. Mad people, like the dull, are freakish yet derivative. A mind working at highest pitch is unconventional yet archetypal.
10 Lives of the artists
We love geniuses where they are most like us, in their lives, where they are least like geniuses. Some of us can love art only by loving its fashioners, as the superstitious do homage to the trinity only in its saints. Artists focus their force with such narrowness in their works, what do they have to spare for life but their average drabness? ‘Great geniuses,’ as Emerson notes, ‘have the shortest biographies.’ A true artist leaves no memoirs. All that we need to know of artists’ lives is housed in their work. And if they are real artists, that’s nothing at all. But we don’t care much for their works, though we love to hear one or two salacious titbits from their life.
How could God be a credible artist, when he so far outshines his handiwork, and wants to be honoured more than his productions, and was so vastly pleased with what he had made? Would a human being not blush to have brought forth nothing more admirable than a jellyfish or a snail? ‘If I had invented them,’ joked Twain, ‘I would go hide my head in a bag.’
‘The work is all,’ as Flaubert said, ‘the person is nothing.’ The life is the husk which the work has no more need of. Life is for consumers, the creator cares for nothing but the work. The life was just a long mistake which they had to make so that the work might get done and which will soon be thankfully rubbed out by death. The book lives a better and truer life than its author, more pure, quiet, proud and self-contained.
Artists are mere conduits for the energies of their culture. Whatever the quality of the pipes, from now on they will be pumping nothing but sludge.
Imagination belongs more to the work than to the man or woman who conceived it. And the work, which is all on the surface, is measurelessly deeper than the soul that gave it birth. Imagination inheres in the medium. It is only an occasional visitant to the maker.
A work of art is worth a great deal more than any mere soul that it might channel. Artists mean more than their lives but less than their works. And they grow as great as they are less than the works that issue from them. ‘Good artists,’ Wilde says, ‘exist simply in what they make, and consequently are perfectly uninteresting in what they are.’ They make better than they are. The more fully they give form to their vision, the further they fall short of what they create. And what they create surpasses them more than they surpass the rest of us. A writer is a miserable contraption for turning out miraculous sentences. But in our overeducated age writers are now more interesting and articulate than their books.