"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, July 20, 2014

There Is No Such Thing As Genius -Think Again

Joshua Wolf Shenk has recently written a book, The Power of Two about the creative partnership between John Lennon and Paul McCartney, and has extrapolated his research to include all creative enterprise.  The solitary genius, he says, elaborating on his book in the New York Times 7.20.14), does not exist, nor ever has.  Shakespeare, Picasso, Faulkner, Bach, and Mozart were dependent on others and would never have written a line or painted a stroke without help.

Academics subscribing to the postmodernist manifesto have for decades dismissed the idea of individual creativity, let alone genius, because of its celebration of individual rather than collective enterprise.  Personal will and ambition are antithetical to social progress; for although society may be a collection of individuals, it is only the subjugation of the individual to the collective will of the group which is a sign of cultural evolution and maturity.

Postmodernists have continuously debunked works of literature as nothing more than ‘texts’ – productions which are important only as expressions of culture and history and especially race, gender, and ethnicity.  In the postmodernist view Shakespeare was no more than a product of the Elizabethan age and influenced by the politics, society, and culture of the times.  His works are predictable depictions of male power, female subjugation, and the rise and fall of imperial powers which dominated the perpetually poor and disenfranchised.  If one ‘deconstructs’ Shakespeare, one will find only traces of the influence of these ‘secular’ influences.  Anyone could have written what Shakespeare did.

As Shenk points out in his Times article, ‘Shakespeare’ had to have been a collective.  No one person could have possibly written 37 plays and 154 sonnets of such richness and complexity.  Evolution – micro-changes over millennia - could not possibly explain the depth and resources of the human soul, say religious fundamentalists; and Shenk and his postmodernist colleagues use the same fairy tale to explain away genius.

Tolstoy in War and Peace expounds at length on his theory of ‘accretive history’.  All actions, whether by Napoleon or the soldier in the ranks of the Tsar, are conditioned by a bewildering and indecipherable cascade of past events and influences.  French historians opine that if Napoleon had not been indisposed with a bad cold on the day of the Battle of Borodino, things might have turned out more favorable.  He was so fogged with rheum and so rattled by cough and congestion that he could not think straight and uncharacteristically misjudged the moves of his opposite number, Prince Kuznetzov.

Not only was Napoleon’s valet responsible for the defeat at Borodino because he had forgotten the Emperor’s waterproof boots (he was distracted from his duties by his unfaithful wife), thus obliging him to ride in wet leather and get chilled, but every general, colonel, and subaltern under Napoleon’s command was equally driven by past history, circumstances, and luck.

While this is true neither Tolstoy nor any historian has dismissed Napoleon the man.  He was a military genius, canny political leader, and man of indomitable  will and determination. His rise and fall may have been conditioned and facilitated by history and chance, but few leaders had Napoleon’s particular complex of character, will, and intelligence.  Napoleon understood history, human nature, and the behavior of both individuals and massive armies. His battlefield strategies had the insight and foresight of a grandmaster.  He could envision not only the field of combat but the theatre of war as clearly as Karpov, Kasparaov, or Paul Morphy could the chessboard.

Nietzsche understood the nature of genius better than anyone, and he rejected the idea that everyone simply floated in a tide of history, insignificant individuals in a mass of conditioned, predictable social products.  His Supermen were, like Napoleon, men of vision, power, and will who through their rejection of morality, good, and evil, rose above the herd.

Shakespeare’s villains – Iago, Edmund, Goneril, Regan, Richard, Aaron the Moor, Dionyza and others – were Nietzschean Supermen who were products of history, but who rejected historical inevitability.

The literary critic Jan Kott observed that if one were to lay Shakespeare’s Histories side by side and read them in chronological order, one would be struck by their similarity.  The Grand Mechanism of history was at work.  Shakespeare understood that history would always repeat itself because of a permanent and ineluctable human nature which was the engine moving it; but that there was no end to the individual genius that always showed up.  Henry V may have been influenced by his father and the English kings who preceded him; he may have been a wastrel who finally saw the light of day and rejected the buffoonery of the tavern, but he was a Nietzschean hero who drew his own conclusions about England’s rights in France and heroically and brutally beat the enemy to reclaim them.

The case of art and literature is no different.  Of course they are derivative.  Even the most cursory glimpse of literary history illustrates the influence of the past. Faulkner was certainly influenced by Joyce, but that in no way devalues the innovativeness and brilliance of Absalom, Absalom, a book in many ways greater than Ulysses. Faulkner may have had the inspiration to loosen narrative from chronological time thanks to Joyce, but he took this freedom and license to new and still unparalleled levels.  In the first two pages of Absalom, in the long monologue of Rosa Coldfield, Faulkner evokes Southern history, human vice and failing, psychological frustration and ambition, and the influence of a Mississippi summer.  He goes beyond the monologues of Bloom or Molly, for he integrates every element of this heroic drama into one.  Rosa’s plaint is more than a personal reflection, but a cry of the South.

Cezanne was a transitional painter, who began to move away from Impressionism and reject its impersonal formulations.  There was a very internal, psychological dimension to his art that presaged later modernist painters.

Braque and others took these insights further, and their brutal disassembling of human form definitely influenced Picasso.  But no historical antecedent can explain the frightening insight of Guernica.  Picasso and Faulkner built on the past but neither Braque nor Joyce can explain the singular and dramatic expression of these artists.

Postmodernism has surprising staying power.  The fact that a theory which neutralizes if not trivializes individual expression in the face of thousands of examples of absolute genius from Genghis Khan to Mozart is still around is truly amazing; and yet understandable.  The difference between political ‘progressives’ and conservatives is profound.  Progressives believe in human perfectibility and the power of social intervention.  Antisocial forces can be beaten, retrograde policies can be removed, and the human community can progress towards an ideal, perfect state.  Conservatives believe that human nature is hardwired and unchangeable. We all act according to our own self-interest and will always be self-centered and individually ambitious.  Human society is not progressing and never will.

At the same time this conservative philosophy acknowledges the individual, celebrates individual enterprise, and most importantly the existence of a unique human soul.   Collectively we may never improve, but every generation will have its genius.

Chekhov was obsessed by this debate, and especially in Three Sisters presented both sides of the argument.  Vershinin (and Chekhov) anticipated the revolutionary changes in Russia and the promise of a better, more just and ideal society.  Tutzenbach felt that human nature would never change, and that in a thousand years although human society would on the surface look far different, at its core it would be the same.

So Shenk comes by his conclusions honestly and is faithful to this progressive philosophy which admires cooperation, sharing, and community – even if it is a community of two.

Nevertheless he is wrong to dismiss or even question individual genius, for this skepticism is little more than dressing the naked Emperor.  Of course individual genius exists; and of course each creative, or heroic individual has been conditioned by the past.  But there can be no denying the uniqueness of insight, intelligence, and ambition that characterizes Shakespeare, Faulkner, Napoleon, and Genghis Khan.

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