Genius is a strange concept and our tendency toward deference and to regard it as overpowering is even stranger. There are some disturbing implications to the whole idea outlined to really profound effect in The Atlantic by columnist Megan Garber recently. She writes:
“Genius, after all, is a powerful force. (Talent is its own expectation.) A fealty to genius is its own kind of faith: in transcendence, in exceptionalism, in the fact that gods, still, can walk among us. And genius, itself, becomes its own kind of infrastructure. We have organized our art around its potential; we have organized our economy around its promise. We have oriented ourselves according to the light of its stars—and so when they flicker, even momentarily, we lose ourselves. And: We defend ourselves. We delude ourselves. We choose not to question the makeup of the firmament. It’s so much easier that way.”
Garber, of course, is writing about a specific genius (David Foster Wallace) and an extremely common blind spot in our idolization of chaotic brilliance (misogyny). She is quite clear from the anchor of that particular case in question that her observation has much wider implications.
Our tendency to treat genius as a personal characteristic rather than a cumulative contribution not only encourages us to ignore shortcomings, but also short-circuits our ability to comprehend work as the product of a complete and flawed individual, and thereby understand the work fully. We are unable to reconcile imperfection, disgust, or evil in genius so we minimize its importance or learn to ignore it entirely. More often, however, we just accept it without criticism as normal.
When that imperfection is misogyny in the genius of David Foster Wallace (or many others, or racism in Thomas Jefferson and others, or narcissism in John Lennon, or imperialism in Joseph Conrad) the implications of our infatuation should be obvious. Whether those complexities are sad but incidental ( depression, anxiety, or mental illness), truly damaging but on an interpersonal level (eccentricity, chaotic behavior, anger, or unreliability) or the more dangerous type like that which Garber describes (misogyny, sociopathy, violence, or racism) they become synonymous with our conception of genius. We can’t separate brilliance from deeply damaging behavior.
That shouldn’t be the case.
Genius may see a sad world for what it is but it can be joyous or funny. Brilliance can be quiet. Creativity can be kind. Perception can be staid.
In an interview last year, Ta-Nehisi Coates reflected on the comparatively boring life he has chosen to lead and offered a competing conception of brilliance:
“Be regular and ordinary in your personal life so you can be wild and unpredictable and creative in your work. And I’m, like, a huge believer in that. I think you’ve got to get a disciplined-as-possible personal life because that enables you to wreak havoc with your work.”
I appreciate the sentiment, in part because I’m dull, but also because our bizarre infatuation with brilliant individuals leads us to forgive and rationalize staggering levels of personal misbehavior. Even still, the implications are wider given the objective talent of the genius and our subjective idolatry of their personality. These people (mostly men for reasons Garber lays out) change the flow of social thought. David Foster Wallace isn’t a rock on the ocean floor. John Lennon isn’t a sluice in a creek bed. We allow these people, often for good reason, to be seismic forces; shifting plates, gravitational attractions, forces of nature. When we can’t interrogate the damage they leave in their wake as well, then we allow it to play its own role in the shifting.