Do We Really Need Geniuses That Badly?

Paul Klee's "Ghost of a Genius" - CC

A GQ piece by Michael Chabon is making the rounds.

Michael Chabon, if you don't know (I didn't), is a novelist. He wrote The Amazing Adventure of Kavalier and Clay, among other things.

The piece talks about how Chabon was at a party, and an unnamed older, more successful writer advised him to never have kids.
Excellence plus productivity, that was the formula for sustained success, and time was the coefficient of both. Children, the great man said, were notorious thieves of time. Then there was the question of subject matter, settings, experiences; books were hungry things, and if you stayed too long in any one place, they would consume everything and everyone around you. You needed to keep moving, always onward, a literary Masai driving your ravenous herd of novels. Travel, therefore, was a must, and I should take his word for it because he had made a careful study: Traveling with children was the world's biggest pain in the ass. Anyway, writers were restless folk. They could not thrive without being able to pick up and go, wherever and whenever it suited them. Writers needed to be irresponsible, ultimately, to everything but the writing, free of commitments to everything but the daily word count. Children, by contrast, needed stability, consistency, routine, and above all, commitment. In short, he was saying, children are the opposite of writing.
You lose one book per child you have, apparently.

This would be disastrous if you have 1-4 books in you, I suppose. For Stephen King, who Google says has written "at least 97" books, the loss of three, for his three children, may not be the end of the world. Although perhaps King wouldn't qualify as "great" to this unnamed genius.

Regardless, I had a reaction to this article. I will admit, I am not entirely proud of it. It wasn't my best self that reacted in this way, but it was real and I might as well be honest about it.

I was happy. For once - ONCE - in my life, I was hearing about a man who was told he had to choose between his career of choice or having a family.

While it is unfair and kind of terrible for anyone to have to make that choice, it was nice to know that at least one man on the face of the earth has had to grapple with the decision most women (who want to work) must face. The difference, of course, is that he wound up having it all: four children, 14 books. Knowing nothing about his personal life or the division of labour in his home, I don't know how much of the compromise was his, and how much belongs to his wife.

Next, I read another article, one about the dangerous problem of the male genius. Dangerous because it is inherently male and it inherently devalues women.

Inherently male:
Here is the etymology the Oxford English Dictionary provides for the word genius, imported to English straight from the Latin: “male spirit of a family, existing in the head of the family and subsequently in the divine or spiritual part of each individual, personification of a person’s natural appetites, spirit or personality of an emperor regarded as an object of worship, spirit of a place, spirit of a corporation, (in literature) talent, inspiration, person endowed with talent, also demon or spiritual being in general.”
Devalues women:
Genius, a means to godliness and its best evidence, cannot be argued with. Genius cannot be reasoned with. Genius is the answer and the question. It will be heard. It will be respected. Even when it kicks and stalks and climbs up the side of the house at night.
(The kicking and stalking and climbing the side of a house refers to a few of the things David Foster Wallace, genius author, did to poet Mary Karr in his obsession with her. Things everyone knew about, including police, but nobody did anything about. Because his books were so good.)

So basically, a total reverence for genius and a movement like #metoo are not entirely compatible.

What if we smushed these two articles together? What if they smushed and smashed and we realized that, just maybe, the sacrifices involved in holding up geniuses is not really worth it? That whether or not genius is inherently male, there is plenty of incredible art made by non-geniuses and geniuses alike and maybe it is just not that big of a deal.

Not so big of a deal that, if you are a genius, you need to be tortured and lonely. Not so big of a deal that you are beyond reproach. That we have to protect you lest future work be interfered with. That we must treasure everything that you do.

(This is, I believe, different from the discussion of whether we can separate the creator from their creation, and what to do with the works of artists we know to be terrible people. At this moment, I will simply say that it is possible to both love something and be critical of it, but at some point, there may be a line of horribleness that overwhelms the good. This discussion, however, is about how much we worship genius in the first place.)

Right now, we tread lightly around geniuses. We don't want to hurt their process, even when their process hurts other people. We are all expendable, at the feet of a genius. And for what? Perhaps for a transcendent piece of art. Art is important. Vital. But perhaps humans, in general, are at least as vital as a good piece of art.


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