Divine Fury: A History of Genius

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Genius. With hints of madness and mystery, moral license and visionary force, the word suggests an almost otherworldly power: the power to create, to divine the secrets of the universe, even to destroy. Yet the notion of genius has been diluted in recent times. Today, rock stars, football coaches, and entrepreneurs are labeled ‘geniuses,’ and the word is applied so widely that it has obscured the sense of special election and superhuman authority that long accompanied it.

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Divine Fury: A History of Genius

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Overview


Genius. With hints of madness and mystery, moral license and visionary force, the word suggests an almost otherworldly power: the power to create, to divine the secrets of the universe, even to destroy. Yet the notion of genius has been diluted in recent times. Today, rock stars, football coaches, and entrepreneurs are labeled ‘geniuses,’ and the word is applied so widely that it has obscured the sense of special election and superhuman authority that long accompanied it.

As acclaimed historian Darrin M. McMahon explains, the concept of genius has roots in antiquity, when men of prodigious insight were thought to possess—or to be possessed by—demons and gods. Adapted in the centuries that followed and applied to a variety of religious figures, including prophets, apostles, sorcerers, and saints, abiding notions of transcendent human power were invoked at the time of the Renaissance to explain the miraculous creativity of men like Leonardo and Michelangelo.

Yet it was only in the eighteenth century that the genius was truly born, idolized as a new model of the highest human type. Assuming prominence in figures as varied as Newton and Napoleon, the modern genius emerged in tension with a growing belief in human equality. Contesting the notion that all are created equal, geniuses served to dramatize the exception of extraordinary individuals not governed by ordinary laws. The phenomenon of genius drew scientific scrutiny and extensive public commentary into the 20th century, but it also drew religious and political longings that could be abused. In the genius cult of the Nazis and the outpouring of reverence for the redemptive figure of Einstein, genius achieved both its apotheosis and its Armageddon.

The first comprehensive history of this elusive concept, Divine Fury follows the fortunes of genius and geniuses through the ages down to the present day, showing how—despite its many permutations and recent democratization—genius remains a potent force in our lives, reflecting modern needs, hopes, and fears.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - James Ryerson
One of the satisfactions of Divine Fury, Darrin M. McMahon's erudite and engaging history of genius, is that he does not presume to fix a single definition of genius and then trace exemplars back through time. While he does recount the lives and accomplishments of many idols of the mind…he has not written a reverent Great Man history. Instead, McMahon…has written a history of ideas of genius. His story ranges from attempts in antiquity and early Christianity to understand what made men great…or holy…to early modern thinking about innate gifts…to Romantic notions of a wild, even dangerous creative power…to the peculiar logic of 20th-century cults of genius…McMahon is refreshingly unafraid to embrace the mythic dimension of his subject as part of its true importance, an approach that offers to deepen…our appreciation of genius.
Publishers Weekly
McMahon (Happiness: A History) delivers a comprehensive look at the concept of genius in all its philosophical glory. He takes readers from Socrates to Enlightenment figures like Isaac Newton and on to Oscar Wilde, noting how the ancient Greeks conceived of genius as the daimonion (the root of our modern “demon”) that inhabited a body, whereas the 19th-century Romantics’ notion of genius privileged originality. He goes on to show that our contemporary idea of genius is based on celebrity. McMahon touches briefly on the usual names—Mozart, Shelley, Einstein, and Lenin—and he also addresses the inherent dangers of genius, from Dr. Frankenstein to Adolf Hitler. He ends with a look at the medical and religious implications of the idea, from the development of IQ tests to the perception that geniuses pose potential dangers to the social order. Throughout its history, genius has been attributed mostly to white European males, and this account admittedly reflects that. Covering topics from science to the arts to philosophy, the book offers a densely packed, earnest look at how genius has been viewed throughout the centuries. It’s clear that McMahon knows his topic; it’s less clear that we are any better off for having geniuses among us. Agent: Tina Bennett, William Morris Endeavor. (Oct.)
From the Publisher

New York Times Book Review
“[An] erudite and engaging history of genius…McMahon is refreshingly unafraid to embrace the mythic dimension of his subject as part of its true importance, an approach that offers to deepen, not undermine, our appreciation of genius.”

Wall Street Journal
“A deeply researched history of the idea of genius in the Western world.”

Nation
“An engaging survey of the history of genius in European culture…McMahon tells the history of genius with verve, wit and insight, and his book is a pleasure to read…Divine Fury makes innumerable fascinating connections and weaves many threads into a coherent narrative spanning 2,500 years. No theoretical statement could vindicate a revived history of ideas so well as this exemplary work…a superb book that judiciously blends celebrations of genius with cautionary tales.”

Daily Beast
“A fascinating account of the evolution of the idea of genius in Western culture from its divine origins in ancient Greece and Rome to the modern culture of celebrity.”

Choice
“Offers an ambitious survey of genius and geniuses…McMahon uncovers a rich metaphysical tradition associated with genius, intriguing linguistic connections, and a fascinating historical response to genius…McMahon highlights a phenomenon that invites discussion…Recommended.”

Buffalo News
“An exceptional work of accessibly written scholarship that seems poised to usher the history of ideas back into vogue.... A book that is bound to intrigue anyone interested in the concept of genius, especially today when it seems that anyone and everyone can be one.”

Commentary Magazine
“A work at once erudite and intellectually penetrating and immensely readable.”

Brain Pickings
“A fascinating, first-of-its-kind chronicle of the evolution of genius as a cultural concept, its permutations across millennia of creative history, and its more recent role as a social equalizer and a double-edged sword of democratization…Divine Fury is excellent in its entirety.”

Psychology Today.com
“This absorbing history of ideas about genius includes genius's 'intimate connection to the divine,' as well as the social construction of genius. From the ancients to today, every possible aspect of this fascinating topic is explored…It’s a book for scholars, certainly, but also for anyone wanting to get behind and beyond the way genius is discussed in popular media.”

Booklist, starred review
“A sweeping, completely engaging look at a subject that has fascinated humans through the ages."

Library Journal
“There have been many studies of the idea of genius, but a signal virtue of this new account is its comprehensiveness…[An]exceptional intellectual history…A gem of a book to be widely read by scholars in many fields, not just in the history of ideas.”

Publishers Weekly
“McMahon delivers a comprehensive look at the concept of genius in all its philosophical glory…Covering topics from science to the arts to philosophy, the book offers a densely packed, earnest look at how genius has been viewed throughout the centuries.”

Samuel Moyn, Columbia University, author of The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History
“As Darrin McMahon shows, the genius is the god among men—providing one of the last connections to the transcendent that our common secular culture retains, and setting up a struggle between our desire for exceptional beings and our leveling egalitarianism. In its absorbing and remarkable way, Divine Fury educates and entertains, vindicating the importance of grand history told over the long term.”

Daniel Gilbert, Edgar Pierce Professor of Psychology, Harvard University, and author of Stumbling on Happiness
“Darrin McMahon has become one of the world’s greatest historians of ideas. His analysis of genius is eye-opening and original, his insights are deep and fresh, and his prose is sparkling and subtle. Prepare to be blown away.”

Jim Holt, author of Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story
“Darrin McMahon has given us all we could want in an intellectual history of genius—I especially liked his sharp observations on the cult of Michelangelo and his droller ones on Einstein—in prose that is a delight to read for its elegance and lucidity.”

Lynn Hunt, author of Inventing Human Rights
“This elegant and probing book is about much more than genius—it is about why we think of ourselves as we do. Demons, saints, angels, poets, physicists, and generals parade through these pages, offering the reader an extraordinary series of insights into the modern tension between the cult of celebrity and a deepening suspicion of greatness.”

Mark Lilla, author of The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West
“What an illuminating book Darrin McMahon has given us. By tracing the history of a seemingly simple idea—that of the individual genius—he sheds a bright and sometimes disturbing light on how we think about ourselves and our societies today. Drawing artfully on a wide range of philosophical, religious, artistic, and scientific material, McMahon forces us to ask: why are we so eager to identify geniuses? What do we expect from them, and why? After reading his compelling story you may never use the term ‘genius’ again.”

Peter E. Gordon, Amabel B. James Professor of History, Harvard University, and author of Continental Divide: Heidegger, Cassirer, Davos
“It is rare to find an historian who writes in a style both so sure-footed and so light, and with such joy in the telling of a tale. In his engaging new book Darrin McMahon takes us on an intellectual adventure, tracing the transformation of the idea of genius as it shed its sacred garments to become the common property of our own democratic age. Ranging with ease across history—from the poets of Romanticism to the tyrants of the twentieth-century, from Einstein to the “IQ Test,” and from Benjamin Franklin to the “wiz-kid” inventors of silicon valley—McMahon invites us to consider a central paradox of our time: If anyone can be a genius, then perhaps no one is.”

From the Publisher

Publishers Weekly
“McMahon delivers a comprehensive look at the concept of genius in all its philosophical glory…Covering topics from science to the arts to philosophy, the book offers a densely packed, earnest look at how genius has been viewed throughout the centuries.”

Samuel Moyn, Columbia University, author of The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History
“As Darrin McMahon shows, the genius is the god among men—providing one of the last connections to the transcendent that our common secular culture retains, and setting up a struggle between our desire for exceptional beings and our leveling egalitarianism. In its absorbing and remarkable way, Divine Fury educates and entertains, vindicating the importance of grand history told over the long term.”

Daniel Gilbert, Edgar Pierce Professor of Psychology, Harvard University, and author of Stumbling on Happiness
“Darrin McMahon has become one of the world’s greatest historians of ideas. His analysis of genius is eye-opening and original, his insights are deep and fresh, and his prose is sparkling and subtle. Prepare to be blown away.”

Jim Holt, author of Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story
“Darrin McMahon has given us all we could want in an intellectual history of genius—I especially liked his sharp observations on the cult of Michelangelo and his droller ones on Einstein—in prose that is a delight to read for its elegance and lucidity.”

Lynn Hunt, author of Inventing Human Rights
“This elegant and probing book is about much more than genius—it is about why we think of ourselves as we do. Demons, saints, angels, poets, physicists, and generals parade through these pages, offering the reader an extraordinary series of insights into the modern tension between the cult of celebrity and a deepening suspicion of greatness.”

Mark Lilla, author of The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West
“What an illuminating book Darrin McMahon has given us. By tracing the history of a seemingly simple idea—that of the individual genius—he sheds a bright and sometimes disturbing light on how we think about ourselves and our societies today. Drawing artfully on a wide range of philosophical, religious, artistic, and scientific material, McMahon forces us to ask: why are we so eager to identify geniuses? What do we expect from them, and why? After reading his compelling story you may never use the term ‘genius’ again.”

Peter E. Gordon, Amabel B. James Professor of History, Harvard University, and author of Continental Divide: Heidegger, Cassirer, Davos
“It is rare to find an historian who writes in a style both so sure-footed and so light, and with such joy in the telling of a tale. In his engaging new book Darrin McMahon takes us on an intellectual adventure, tracing the transformation of the idea of genius as it shed its sacred garments to become the common property of our own democratic age. Ranging with ease across history—from the poets of Romanticism to the tyrants of the twentieth-century, from Einstein to the “IQ Test,” and from Benjamin Franklin to the “wiz-kid” inventors of silicon valley—McMahon invites us to consider a central paradox of our time: If anyone can be a genius, then perhaps no one is.”

Kirkus Reviews
2013-09-15
McMahon (History/Florida State Univ.; Happiness: A History, 2006, etc.) examines the varied meanings attributed to the word "genius." Once upon a time, the author freely admits, his approach "might have been glibly dismissed as old-fashioned or methodologically suspect." Perhaps he should have wondered why. It is not simply a matter of the long-running debate as to whether genius is borne or made, but also how far other meanings referencing different times, contexts and peoples can be enfolded into usages now employed. "Even today," he writes, "more than 2,000 years after its first recorded use by the Roman author Plautus, it continues to resonate with power and allure." As the author notes, Hitler presented himself as a genius, and his flatterers and sycophants--e.g., his propaganda chief Goebbels--agreed. Albert Einstein was certainly a scientific genius. McMahon proposes that the moral and political differences that separate the two can be included as attributes of "genius." The author's method includes stretching the current meaning of the word "genius" to include the quality that the ancients Greeks associated with Socrates: his daimon (demon). With great detail and useful scholarship, McMahon uses the word "genius" to assimilate the different qualities of these meanings under a common heading. In the process, the author presents intriguing information--e.g., regarding the 19th-century origins of race science and eugenics and the application of eugenics in both the early days of the Soviet Union and under Hitler. However, his attempt to use what has become such a conflicted, and debased, vehicle to organize the material is a bit disjointed. After all, the word "genius" can now reference sports figures, musicians and nearly anyone somewhat exceptional in their field. An uneven but wide-ranging and intermittently illuminating survey.
Library Journal
11/15/2013
There have been many studies of the idea of genius, but a signal virtue of this new account is its comprehensiveness. Rather than start in the 18th century, when the modern idea of genius emerged—as an exceptional quality located not in God but in man—or with the 19th-century Romantic poets' exaltation of genius as a kind of "divine fury," McMahon (history, Florida State Univ.; Happiness: A History) begins with the ancients, contrasting the Roman notion of ingenium with varied interpretations of genius in modern times. Crucial to the change in meaning of the term was "the waning of mimetic aesthetics," the idea that art was imitation rather than creation. Uniqueness and creativity became the hallmarks of genius from the 18th century on: "The man of genius has a way of seeing, of feeling, of thinking," wrote Diderot, "unique to him alone." McMahon concludes by examining the not always happy fate of the idea in our times. VERDICT This exceptional intellectual history is too densely written to appeal to the casual reader, but it's a gem of a book to be widely read by scholars in many fields, not just in the history of ideas.—David Keymer, Modesto, CA
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780465003259
  • Publisher: Basic Books
  • Publication date: 10/22/2013
  • Pages: 360
  • Sales rank: 280,448
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author


Darrin M. McMahon is the Ben Weider Professor of History at Florida State University. The author of Happiness: A History and Enemies of the Enlightenment, he lives in Tallahassee, Florida.
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