Our Genius Problem

Why this obsession with the word, with the idea, and with the people on whom we've bestowed the designation?

During the unexpected and glorious ascendancy of the New England Patriots to pre-eminence in the football world last season, the press was full of the word "genius." As a sports reporter for The Boston Globe noted, a computer search had matched "genius" with the Patriots' coach, Bill Belichick, "not once, but more than 200 times." And when the Pats actually defeated the heavily favored St. Louis Rams in the Super Bowl, the New York Times headline for the Boston edition, in sixty-point type, read simply "DEFENSIVE GENIUS." The text of the article made it clear that this figure of speech had taken hold. Coach Belichick was likened to a "neighborhood tough guy in a dark alley" who "also has the I.Q. of a nuclear physicist."

Belichick was hardly alone in this peculiar species of gridiron celebrity. The Rams' coach, Mike Martz, was touted as an "offensive genius," the Washington Redskins' newly designated coach, Steve Spurrier, as a "genius strategist," and so on through a parade of sports pages, until even the TV commentators began to call for an end to the hyperbole. And as Belichick's father, a ripe eighty-three years old (and himself a former coach), took time out to observe, "genius" seemed an odd appellation for "somebody who walks up and down a football field."

We live in a time in which all terms and traits are inflated, and even the standard size at Starbucks is a tall. But "genius" appears marked for special inflation, so much so that the term "overrated genius" has begun to seem like a tautology rather than a cautious qualification. What is a genius, anyway? And why does our culture have such an obsession with the word and with the idea?

Genius is fundamentally an eighteenth-century concept, though it has had a good long run through the centuries since. The genius was, and to some extent continues to be, the Romantic hero, the loner, the eccentric, the apotheosis of the individual. The further our society gets from individual agency—the less the individual seems to have real power to change things—the more we idealize the genius, who is by this definition the opposite of the committee or the collaborative enterprise. Indeed, some of the resistance to the idea that Shakespeare wrote his plays in collaboration with other playwrights and even actors in his company comes from our residual, occasionally desperate, need to retain this ideal notion of the individual genius. We prefer the myth: It was Watson and Crick who discovered DNA—not a whole laboratory of investigators. Edison invented the electric light bulb and the phonograph—never mind that he worked with an extensive team of technicians, mechanics, and scientists.

The pursuit of genius is the pursuit of an illusion. As illusions go, it's among mankind's happier ones—the idea that an individual might have an exceptional and intrinsic talent for art, music, science, mathematics, or something else beneficial to civilization and culture. There's no doubt that such individuals have lived among us throughout history, and have bequeathed to us the legacy of their art and their ideas—but do they constitute an actual class called geniuses? And if so, how can we tell the real ones from the wannabes, the genuine articles from the poseurs?

Over the years we have increasingly tried to analyze, codify, and even quantify "genius," the post-Enlightenment equivalent of sainthood. This wistful quest has itself become a kind of secular religion. Saint Einstein, Saint Newton, Saint Darwin, and Saint Edison have replaced the healers and martyrs of the past, their "miracles" the discoveries of modern science and modern research: relativity, gravity, evolution, electricity.

Artists, musicians, and writers, too, look to the genius standard to separate the "timeless" from the time-bound or the merely timely. In the British novelist Ian McEwan's Booker Prize-winning novel, Amsterdam, a self-absorbed and slightly over-the-hill composer, struggling to write a commissioned symphony, reflects on his musical gifts.

Clive stood from the piano ... and had once more a passing thought, the minuscule fragment of a suspicion that he would not have shared with a single person in the world, would not even have committed to his journal, and whose key word he shaped in his mind only with reluctance; the thought was, quite simply, that it might not be going too far to say that he was ... a genius. A genius. Though he sounded it guiltily on his inner ear, he would not let the word reach his lips. He was not a vain man. A genius. It was a term that had suffered from inflationary overuse, but surely there was a certain level of achievement, a gold standard, that was nonnegotiable, beyond mere opinion.

As it turns out, Clive is mistaken. His Millennial Symphony, desperately written in high hopes of praise, is a "drone" of sound even to his own ears; later assessments will call it a "dud," and note that a melody at the end is a "shameless copy of Beethoven's Ode to Joy." A worldly conductor, praising Clive's past achievements in tacit contrast to his present ones, remarks with unconscious cruelty, "The inventiveness of youth, so hard to recapture, eh, maestro?" The real barb here is that honorific "maestro": master. Clive has become a public figure and a society success story, but he is further away from genius than he was as a young man.

At this point in history genius has become a commodity, an ambition, and even a lifestyle. Biographers, scholars, critics, and fans spend untold hours trying to nail down a concept that can't be nailed down, to identify a proof or a marker the way scientists identify genes. At the same time, they seek to "humanize" or "personalize" the story of cultural and intellectual achievement, to make the genius lovable, accessible, and ready for prime time.

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