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.”
There’s more, but there’s already so much: genius, by definition a male condition. Genius, a male condition that inflects its maleness on the individual soul. Genius, an object of worship. Genius, perhaps slightly demonic. The derivation isn’t surprising on its own (no one would mistake a typical Roman for a feminist). What is striking, though, is that, millennia later, the biases of the language remain with us, tugging at the edges. Genius itself, the way we typically conceive of it, remains infused with the male gaze, or perhaps more aptly, the male haze: It is gendered by implication. It is a designation reserved, almost exclusively, for men. Guess who the first season of that new show Genius is about? I’ll give you a hint: The first name of the genius in question is Albert. The subject of the show’s second season? Pablo.
These dynamics are unavoidably at play when Mary Karr, the famous and celebrated writer, reminds the world of Wallace’s behavior toward her—reminds the world, indeed, that it needed the reminding in the first place. The horror stories had simply been subsumed into the broader story (the “greater good”) of Wallace’s personal genius: as evidence of his uncontainable passion, of the singular depth of his wanting. He wore his trademark bandana, he once said, not only to keep perspiration at bay, but also because “I’m just kind of worried my head’s gonna explode”; there is a certain romance to the admission. And Wallace has often, indeed, particularly in the popular press, been treated as a rom-comic hero: besotted, helpless, desperate. (Wallace once suggested that the writing of Infinite Jest was a grand gesture meant to impress Karr: “a means to her end (as it were),” he wrote in the margin of a book, seeming to have intended the sexual pun.) There Wallace was, then, raising the boombox. There he was, dropping the cards. There he was, refusing to take no for an answer.
One time, Karr recalled, Wallace arrived at a pool party she was attending with her family with bandages on his left shoulder. She thought perhaps he had been cutting himself; it turned out that the wounds being hidden had come from a tattoo Wallace had gotten: her name, and a heart.
“Wallace did not hear subtle variations in no,” Max notes in an excerpt of Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story; “he knew only one way to seduce: overwhelm. He would show up at Karr’s family home to shovel her driveway after a snowfall, or come unannounced to her recovery meetings. Karr called the head of the halfway house and asked her to let Wallace know his attentions were not welcome. Wallace besieged her with notes anyway.”