Friday, 10 June 2011

On Genius

Once upon a time a ‘genius’ was a supernatural creature that was not quite a god, and not quite a mortal. Nowadays ‘genius’ means a particular individual gift or talent, a facility for some activity that surpasses what might be achieved by mere diligence and practice. There are still shades of the original meaning in odd corners of popular culture (as in the fairy tale ‘genie’), but generally speaking the former meaning has been wholly supplanted by the latter.

The passage from the original to the present-day meaning is not so counterintuitive as it might seem. The Greeks thought daimones lived in the aerial space between our terrestrial locale and the aetherial existence of the gods; Socrates, for instance, explained what we nowadays would call his schizophrenic auditory hallucinations with reference to ‘something divine and daimoniacal’ that happened to him. This is in the Phaedrus [242 b-c]: ‘I hear a voice which, whenever it speaks to me, always forbids me from something I am about to do, and never instructs me to do something.’ Sometime in the late first-century AD Apuleius pondered this strange passage (in his ‘De Deo Socratis’), and he concluded that Socrates’ personal daimon was not something specific to the great philosopher. Rather, every one of us has been allotted a personal daimon; a being that attends to us as both witness to our lives and as some sort of guardian spirit. This, of course, is the idea Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy draws on, and why his daemons are called that. Under the rubric of its standard Latin translation, ‘genius’, the concept has had a very long life in the West.

It makes sense to me that the Romantics should take this notion of an external supernatural and guiding ‘genius’ and internalise it as the trope of their own literary abilities. This is, after all, to do nothing more than adapt the vocabulary to the long-standing idea of the writer as somebody Muse-inspired. Rather than nine Muses for the whole community of artists, we imagine every single person possessing their own Muse, and then this Muse becoming internalised. It’s a small step from there to the spreading-out of the concept such that it becomes a more general way of talking about any inspiration: Zidane’s footballing genius; the genius of the man who first thought to put bread on sale pre-sliced; that sort of thing.

What interests me here is whether this particular conceptual trajectory manifests a larger cultural logic. C S Lewis certainly thought so. In The Discarded Image he elaborates the history of the concept, and concludes:
To understand this process fully would be to grasp that great movement of internalisation, and that consequent aggrandisement of man and desiccation of the outer universe, in which the psychological history of the West has so largely consisted. [p.42]
Is this right? I’m asking two things there. The first: is Lewis correct when he says that the psychological history of the West has largely consisted of a great movement of internalisation? It’s an attractive thesis: once upon a time men and women thought the whole cosmos was sentient; now we no longer believe that the heavens are thronging with intelligent beings, nor that the stars and planets think. We see the cosmos now as gazillions (I use the number precisely) of miles of emptiness, with a few spits and spots of matter here and there. Sentience has shrunk by comparison, become wizened, for it’s only us now, little specks of intellect wandering through a wilderness of mere matter. In the face of this it might be thought inevitable that our attention will increasingly focus on that intelligence, in the only place we can find it; and that the study of ‘the cosmos’ in a larger sense would become an object of interest only to specialists and radioastronomers.

But the second part of Lewis’s judgement puzzles me: ‘that great movement of internalisation, and that consequence aggrandisement of man and desiccation of the outer universe …’ But can we really say that the Copernican revolution and the desacralization of the world involved an aggrandisement of man? I suppose Lewis says so because he prefers the older model: he believed that modern man’s rejection of God manifests a prideful self-importance.

Is he really saying that under the pre-Copernican logic human souls were somehow smaller, or were perceived to be smaller? Surely not. Desacralisation carries with it the withering away of ‘soul’ altogether. The universe we live in is so much more enormous than the Copernican one that it’s not possible for us to feel aggrandized within it. Lewis’s model seems to be that ‘spirit’ is a zero-sum quantity; that once the cosmos was full of it, and that since it is no longer we must have sucked it all up, like monstrous sponges; desiccating the vacuum of space and swelling like great toads.

What a strange notion.

I could be persuaded that the history of the West has been one of a process of conceptual internalisation. I can believe, for instance, that there was a characteristic Ancient cast of mind such that, when it saw similarities between things in the world (three chairs here, three chairs there) would assume with Plato that those similarities were somehow out there in the real world, and not just in the observing consciousness. But it seems to me that the modern, internalised understanding of that recognition of similarity (that it’s my pattern-making mind, not the world as such) is the exact opposite of an aggrandisement. The aggrandisement is in projecting yourself onto the world around you, such that you believe it shares your joys and fears, that it cares whether you act well or badly. What greater fantasy of omnipotence can there be than the thought that a powerful supernatural being has been specifically delegated to attend to me? To note my every burp and fidget, to hang on my every mumbled word, to protect me and watch me as if fascinated?

Which makes me wonder. If we talk of Zidane’s genius we don’t picture a supernatural being invisibly attending him, helping him balance and give his left foot that extra shove to make the ball fly faster and straighter. Nor, if we talk about the genius of Derek Walcott, do we picture (Robert Graves notwithstanding) him literally inspired by an actual Muse. Yet, if the commentators are to be believed, more people in America today believe quite literally in angels than at any time in the past. There is a broad spread of African cultures that support beliefs in supernatural figures of both good and evil type. Islam countenances devils and angels in its worldview. Is there an insufficiency of internalisation at work, I wonder?

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