Saturday, January 10, 2015

Who is a genius?

Wil Wheaton as Wesley Crusher
This week marks the third time I've been told I'm a genius. The first two men who said I was a genius were boyfriends of mine at the time they told me. The third is just a friend.

I find it interesting, because they are three very different people and so I assume must have very different views of what it means to be a genius.

The first ex-boyfriend, in his 50s now, is an autodidact bibliophile who has little use for technology and knows virtually everything there is to know about World War II. He's also the quickest-witted, funniest person I've ever known. We were in much agreement about politics, the arts, etc. but nevertheless he used to provoke me into arguments frequently by playing devils advocate because he enjoyed our debates. If I am good at debating - and I'm told I am - it's due at least in part to his training me.

The second ex-boyfriend, now in his 40s, is a database developer, and is always up on the latest technology. He considers himself a genius too - he certainly is a genius at database development. We use to come up with fanciful ideas together, my favorite of which was a cruise ship registered in Holland that would sail the seven seas, allowing passengers to smoke marijuana legally while out on international waters. This idea was inspired by the psycho-nautic adventures of William F. Buckley. We would call this ship The Flying Dutchman. This was years before the loosening of marijuana laws in the US of course.

The third guy is 30-something, a talented actor, world-class charmer and life-long babe magnet. And that's no joke - when he was an 18-year-old high school student a newspaper article was published about him that described him as "textbook tall, dark and handsome" and as having a "female entourage," two members of which are quoted as saying "everybody loves" him. How epically hot do you have to be for a newspaper to think it's worth writing a whole freaking article about how beloved of the ladies you are? He wrote to me this week, when asked for feedback about a play I'm working on:
I love this play. You're a genius. I love this play.
About the only thing these three men have in common is that they all love Star Trek. It's funny, really, I've never been a huge fan of Star Trek but I know quite a bit about the show simply through osmosis. The geekiest moment of my life was when the second ex-boyfriend, who was just learning database development at the time, brought his reams of computer-printed code to share with his friends and me while we sat in a movie theater, after we arrived very early, for the first showing of the just-released Star Trek movie. (It must have been Star Trek: Insurrection.)

I don't know how serious any of these men were in the use of the term "genius" though. They could have been using it in the sense of an outlandish superlative, not to be taken literally, as if they'd called me a "goddess." Don't laugh - I've been called goddess more often than you would think - just the past week someone participating in the NYCPlaywrights poll wrote to me:

I love everything about (the NYCPlaywrights web site) ... it is my Bible for sending work out, & I guess that makes you Goddess! 
Certainly that's how people tend to think of genii - as these fabulous, rare creatures like Shakespeare or Mozart or Einstein. The fact that the plural of genius, genii (although the dictionary also allows "geniuses") is also used to refer to a magical being, usually spelled "genie", gives you some sense of the awe attached to the term.

The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer had an interesting take on genius. While he thought genii were rare, he actually lowered the bar in his definition:
No difference of rank, position, or birth, is so great as the gulf that separates the countless millions who use their head only in the service of their belly, in other words, look upon it as an instrument of the will, and those very few and rare persons who have the courage to say: No! it is too good for that; my head shall be active only in its own service; it shall try to comprehend the wondrous and varied spectacle of this world, and then reproduce it in some form, whether as art or as literature, that may answer to my character as an individual. These are the truly noble, the real noblesse of the world. The others are serfs and go with the soil — glebae adscripti. Of course, I am here referring to those who have not only the courage, but also the call, and therefore the right, to order the head to quit the service of the will; with a result that proves the sacrifice to have been worth the making. In the case of those to whom all this can only partially apply, the gulf is not so wide; but even though their talent be small, so long as it is real, there will always be a sharp line of demarcation between them and the millions. 
The correct scale for adjusting the hierarchy of intelligences is furnished by the degree in which the mind takes merely individual or approaches universal views of things. The brute recognizes only the individual as such: its comprehension does not extend beyond the limits of the individual. But man reduces the individual to the general; herein lies the exercise of his reason; and the higher his intelligence reaches, the nearer do his general ideas approach the point at which they become universal.]
The works of fine art, poetry and philosophy produced by a nation are the outcome of the superfluous intellect existing in it.
 What Schopenhauer does is contrast those who are in the service of the "will" - best understood as the will to survive - and those who escape the relentless grasp of the will through intellectual/artistic pursuits. Schopenhauer made the point that people who are genii basically have more intelligence than they need to get by - genii have superfluous intelligence, according to him:
For as with money, most men have no superfluity, but only just enough for their needs, so with intelligence; they possess just what will suffice for the service of the will, that is, for the carrying on of their business.
Their "business" meaning survival and reproduction.

Schopenhauer includes virtually every person who is involved in a more than a casual way with intellectual and artistic pursuits as a genius and doesn't even consider great talent a necessity: "even though their talent be small, so long as it is real, there will always be a sharp line of demarcation between them and the millions."

Of course in Schopenhauer's time education was far less available than it is now, and so people who might have been considered genii by Schopenhauer never stood a chance, being illiterate and too oppressed by their serfdom to ever have a chance to develop their native intelligence and natural curiosity. Our present day would no doubt appear to be overrun by genii to Schopenhauer.

The Bronte sisters, indisputable genii all three, had to struggle more than most to make a life in the arts, but even they had the advantages of education to help their writing talents blossom - that and each other, because they acted as mutual sounding boards from an early age, when they were writing fanciful stories about invented societies. The Brontes were contemporaries of Schopenhauer, although he was born decades before them and outlived them all.

Later on in his essay on genius Schopenhauer says:
...the relation between the genius and the normal man may, perhaps, be best expressed as follows: A genius has a double intellect, one for himself and the service of his will; the other for the world, of which he becomes the mirror, in virtue of his purely objective attitude towards it. The work of art or poetry or philosophy produced by the genius is simply the result, or quintessence, of this contemplative attitude, elaborated according to certain technical rules.
I used his concept of the "double intellect" in my play JULIA & BUDDY, to help Julia understand her panic attacks - which would seem to imply that I believe people who get panic attacks are therefore genii. However, that isn't me talking, it's Schopenhauer, and he isn't talking specifically about genii in my play, but about philosophers - although as you can see from the text above, Schopenhauer basically considered anybody involved in philosophy to be a genius by definition. I have Schopenhauer call this double intellect "existential displacement. Here's what he says in my play:
The ordinary mass of humanity is aware of the everyday world only. But philosophers see another world besides the everyday - we see a world that is composed of endless fleeting phenomena in the ever-rushing stream of time. And sometimes the philosopher will see both states of existence at once, and this overwhelms the mind, which may result in disorientation and nausea and panic.
The "endless fleeting phenomena in the ever-rushing stream of time" is a real thing, I should note, one that I first experienced in my 30s. I won't say that's connected to the panic attacks, but sensing your own impermanence doesn't help either.

It's interesting that while the second ex-boyfriend mentioned here is more likely to be considered a genius by most people than the other two, since he is so brilliant at computer technology, the other two are more likely to be considered genii by Schopenhauer. Of course Schopenhauer wasn't aware of computer technology, but the second ex-boyfriend does database work as part of his job, so it is in the service of his will in the Schopenhauerian sense of the word "will" while the other two,  not involved to a great extent in technology work (hell I think the first ex-boyfriend still doesn't have an email address to this day) are more involved in pure intellectual and artistic pursuits that don't provide the bulk of their incomes. A labor of love is Shopenhauer's purest definition of genius.