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What Is Genius?
In employing a Kabbalistic grid or paradigm in the arrangement of this book,
I rely upon Gershom Scholem's conviction that Kabbalah is the genius of religion
in the Jewish tradition. My one hundred figures, from Shakespeare through the
late Ralph Ellison, represent perhaps a hundred different stances towards
spirituality, covering the full range from Saint Paul and Saint Augustine to the
secularism of Proust and Calvino. But Kabbalah, in my view, provides an anatomy
of genius, both of women and of men; as also of their merging in Ein Sof, the
endlessness of God. Here I want to use Kabbalah as a starting-point in my own
personal vision of the name and nature of genius.
Scholem remarked that the work of Franz Kafka constituted a secular Kabbalah,
and so he concluded that Kafka's writings possess "something of the strong light
of the canonical, of that perfection which destroys." Against this, Moshe Idel
has argued that the canonical, both scriptural and Kabbalistic, is "the
perfection which absorbs." To confront the plenitude of Bible, Talmud, and
Kabbalah is to work at "absorbing perfections."
What Idel calls "the absorbing quality of the Torah" is akin to the absorbing
quality of all authentic genius, which always has the capacity to absorb us. In
American English, to "absorb" means several related processes: to take something
in as through the pores, or to engross one's full interest or attention, or to
I am aware that I transfer to genius what Scholem and Idel follow Kabbalah in
attributing to God, but I merely extend the ancient Roman tradition that first
established the ideas of genius and of authority. In Plutarch, Mark Antony's
genius is the god Bacchus or Dionysus. Shakespeare, in his Antony and Cleopatra,
has the god Hercules, as Antony's genius, abandon him. The emperor Augustus, who
defeated Antony, proclaimed that the god Apollo was his genius, according to
Suetonius. The cult of the emperor's genius thus became Roman ritual, displacing
the two earlier meanings, of the family's fathering force and of each
individual's alter ego.
Authority, another crucial Roman concept, may be more relevant for the study
of genius than "genius," with its contradictory meanings, still can hope to be.
Authority, which has vanished from Western culture, was convincingly traced by
Hannah Arendt to Roman rather than Greek or Hebrew origins. In ancient Rome, the
concept of authority was foundational. Auctoritas derived from the verb augere,
"to augment," and authority always depended upon augmenting the foundation, thus
carrying the past alive into the present.
Homer fought a concealed contest with the poetry of the past, and I suspect
that the Redactor of the Hebrew Bible, putting together his Genesis through
Kings structure in Babylon, struggled to truncate the earliest author that he
wove into the text, in order to hold off the strangeness and uncanny power of
the Yahwist or J writer. The Yahwist could not be excluded, because his (or her)
stories possessed authority, but the disconcerting Yahweh, human-all-too-human,
could be muted by other voices of the divine. What is the relationship of fresh
genius to a founded authority? At this time, starting the twenty-first century,
I would say: "Why, none, none at all." Our confusions about canonical standards
for genius are now institutionalized confusions, so that all judgments as to the
distinction between talent and genius are at the mercy of the media, and obey
cultural politics and its vagaries.
Since my book, by presenting a mosaic of a hundred authentic geniuses,
attempts to provide criteria for judgment, I will venture here upon a purely
personal definition of genius, one that hopes to be useful for the early years
of this new century. Whether charisma necessarily attends genius seems to me
problematic. Of my hundred figures in this book, I had met three—Iris Murdoch,
Octavio Paz, Ralph Ellison—who died relatively recently. Farther back, I recall
brief meetings with Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens. All of them impressive, in
different ways, they lacked the flamboyance and authority of Gershom Scholem,
whose genius attended him palpably, despite his irony and high good humor.
William Hazlitt wrote an essay on persons one would wish to have known. I
stare at my Kabbalistic table of contents, and wonder which I would choose. The
critic Sainte-Beuve advised us to ask ourselves: what would this author I read
have thought of me? My particular hero among these hundred is Dr. Samuel
Johnson, the god of literary criticism, but I do not have the courage to face
Genius asserts authority over me, when I recognize powers greater than my
own. Emerson, the sage I attempt to follow, would disapprove of my pragmatic
surrender, but Emerson's own genius was so large that he plausibly could preach
Self-Reliance. I myself have taught continuously for forty-six years, and wish I
could urge an Emersonian self-reliance upon my students, but I can't and don't,
for the most part. I hope to nurture genius in them, but can impart only a
genius for appreciation. That is the prime purpose of this book: to activate the
genius of appreciation in my readers, if I can.
These pages are written a week after the September 11, 2001, terrorist
triumph in destroying the World Trade Center and the people trapped within it.
During the last week I have taught scheduled classes on Wallace Stevens and
Elizabeth Bishop, on Shakespeare's early comedies, and on the Odyssey. I cannot
know whether I helped my students at all, but I momentarily held off my own
trauma, by freshly appreciating genius.
What is it that I, and many others, appreciate in genius? An entry in
Emerson's Journals (October 27, 1831) always hovers in my memory:
Is it not all in us, how strangely! Look at this congregation of men;— the
words might be spoken,—though now there be none here to speak them,—but the
words might be said that would make them stagger and reel like a drunken man.
Who doubts it? Were you ever instructed by a wise and eloquent man? Remember
then, were not the words that made your blood run cold, that brought the blood
to your cheeks, that made you tremble or delighted you,—did they not sound to
you as old as yourself? Was it not truth that you knew before, or do you ever
expect to be moved from the pulpit or from man by anything but plain truth?
Never. It is God in you that responds to God without, or affirms his own words
trembling on the lips of another.
It still burns into me: "did they not sound to you as old as yourself?" The
ancient critic Longinus called literary genius the Sublime, and saw its
operation as a transfer of power from author to reader:
Touched by the true sublime your soul is naturally lifted up, she rises to a
proud height, is filled with joy and vaunting, as if she had herself created
this thing that she has heard.
Literary genius, difficult to define, depends upon deep reading for its
verification. The reader learns to identify with what she or he feels is a
greatness that can be joined to the self, without violating the self 's
integrity. "Greatness" may be out of fashion, as is the transcendental, but it
is hard to go on living without some hope of encountering the extraordinary.
Meeting the extraordinary in another person is likely to be deceptive or
delusionary. We call it "falling in love," and the verb is a warning. To
confront the extraordinary in a book-be it the Bible, Plato, Shakespeare, Dante,
Proust—is to benefit almost without cost. Genius, in its writings, is our best
path for reaching wisdom, which I believe to be the true use of literature for
James Joyce, when asked, "Which one book on a desert island?", replied, "I
would like to answer Dante, but I would have to take the Englishman, because he
is richer." The Joycean Irish edge against the English is given adequate
expression, but the choice of Shakespeare is just, which is why he leads off the
hundred figures in this book. Though there are a few literary geniuses who
approach Shakespeare—the Yahwist, Homer, Plato, Dante, Chaucer, Cervantes,
Moli?re, Goethe, Tolstoy, Dickens, Proust, Joyce— even those dozen masters of
representation do not match Shakespeare's miraculous rendering of reality.
Because of Shakespeare we see what otherwise we could not see, since we are made
different. Dante, the nearest rival, persuades us of the terrible reality of his
Inferno and his Purgatorio, and almost induces us to accept his Paradiso. Yet
even the fullest of the Divine Comedy's persons, Dante the Poet-Pilgrim, does
not cross over from the Comedy's pages into the world we inhabit, as do
Falstaff, Hamlet, Iago, Macbeth, Lear, Cleopatra.
The invasion of our reality by Shakespeare's prime personages is evidence for
the vitality of literary characters, when created by genius. We all know the
empty sensation we experience when we read popular fiction and find that there
are only names upon the page, but no persons. In time, however overpraised, such
fictions become period pieces, and finally rub down into rubbish. It is worth
knowing that our word "character" still possesses, as a primary meaning, a
graphic sign such as a letter of the alphabet, reflecting the word's likely
origin in the ancient Greek character, a sharp stylus or the mark of the
stylus's incisions. Our modern word "character" also means ethos, a habitual
stance towards life.
It was fashionable, quite recently, to talk about "the death of the author,"
but this too has become rubbish. The dead genius is more alive than we are, just
as Falstaff and Hamlet are considerably livelier than many people I know.
Vitality is the measure of literary genius. We read in search of more life, and
only genius can make that available to use.
What makes genius possible? There always is a Spirit of the Age, and we like
to delude ourselves that what matters most about any memorable figure is what he
or she shared with a particular era. In this delusion, which is both academic
and popular, everyone is regarded as being determined by societal factors.
Individual imagination yields to social anthropology or to mass psychology, and
thus can be explained away.
I base this book, Genius, upon my belief that appreciation is a better mode
for the understanding of achievement than are all the analytical kinds of
accounting for the emergence of exceptional individuals. Appreciation may judge,
but always with gratitude, and frequently with awe and wonder.
By "appreciation" I mean something more than "adequate esteem." Need also
enters into it, in the particular sense of turning to the genius of others in
order to redress a lack in oneself, or finding in genius a stimulus to one's own
powers, whatever these may emerge as being.
Appreciation may modulate into love, even as your consciousness of a dead
genius augments consciousness itself. Your solitary self 's deepest desire is
for survival, whether in the here and now, or transcendentally elsewhere. To be
augmented by the genius of others is to enhance the possibilities of survival,
at least in the present and the near future.
We do not know how and/or why genius is possible, only that—to our massive
enrichment—it has existed, and perhaps (waningly) continues to appear. Though
our academic institutions abound in impostors who proclaim that genius is a
capitalistic myth, I am content to cite Leon Trotsky, who urged Communist
writers to read and study Dante. If genius is a mystery of the capacious
consciousness, what is least mysterious about it is an intimate connection with
personality rather than with character. Dante's personality is forbidding,
Shakespeare's elusive, while Jesus' (like the fictive Hamlet's) seems to reveal
itself differently to every reader or auditor.
What is personality? Alas, we use it now as a popular synonym for celebrity,
but I would argue that we cannot give the word up to the realm of buzz. When we
know enough about the biography of a particular genius, then we understand what
is meant by the personality of Goethe or Byron or Freud or Oscar Wilde.
Conversely, when we lack biographical inwardness, then we all agree that we are
uncertain as to Shakespeare's personality, an enormous paradox since his plays
may have invented personality as we now most readily comprehend it. If
challenged, I could write a book on the personality of Hamlet, Falstaff, or
Cleopatra, but I would not attempt a book upon the personality of Shakespeare or
Benjamin Disraeli's father, the man of letters Isaac D'Israeli, wrote an
amiable volume called The Literary Character of Men of Genius, one of the
precursors to this book, Genius, together with Plutarch's Parallel Lives,
Emerson's Representative Men, and Carlyle's On Heroes and Hero-Worship. Isaac
D'Israeli remarks that "many men of genius must arise before a particular man of
genius can appear." Every genius has forerunners, though far enough back in time
we may not know who they are. Dr. Johnson considered Homer to have been the
first and most original of poets; we tend to see Homer as a relative latecomer,
enriching himself with the phrases and formulas of his predecessors. Emerson, in
his essay "Quotation and Originality," slyly observed, "Only an inventor knows
how to borrow."
The great inventions of genius influence that genius itself in ways we are
slow to appreciate. We speak of the man or woman in the work; we might better
speak of the work in the person. And yet we scarcely know how to discuss the
influence of a work upon its author, or of a mind upon itself. I take that to be
the principal enterprise of this book. With all of the figures I depict in this
mosaic, my emphasis will be on the contest they conducted with themselves.
That agon with the self can mask itself as something else, including the
inspiration of idealized forerunners: Plato's Socrates, Confucius's the Duke of
Chou, the Buddha's earlier incarnations. Particularly the inventor of the Hebrew
Bible as we know it, the Redactor of the sequence from Genesis through Kings,
relies upon his own genius at reimagining the Covenant even as he honors the
virtues (and failings) of the fathers. And yet, as Donald Harmon Akenson argues,
the inventor-redactor or writer-editor achieved a "surpassing wonder," utterly
his own. This exile in Babylon could not have thought that he was creating
Scripture; as the first historian he perhaps believed only that he was
forwarding the lost cause of the Kingdom of Judah. And yet he seems too cunning
not to have seen that his invention of a continuity and so of a tradition was
largely his own.
With the Redactor, as with Confucius or with Plato, we can sense an anxiety
in the work that must have communicated itself to the man. How can one be worthy
of the fathers with whom Yahweh spoke, face-to-face, or of the great Duke of
Chou, who gave order to the people without imposing it upon them by violence? Is
it possible to be the authentic disciple of Socrates, who suffered martyrdom
without complaint, in order to affirm his truth? The ultimate anxiety of
influence always may be, not that one's proper space has been usurped already,
but that greatness may be unable to renew itself, that one's inspiration may be
larger than one's own powers of realization.
Genius is no longer a term much favored by scholars, so many of whom have
become cultural levelers quite immune from awe. Yet, with the public, the idea
of genius maintains its prestige, even though the word itself can seem somewhat
tarnished. We need genius, however envious or uncomfortable it makes many among
us. It is not necessary that we aspire after genius for ourselves, and yet, in
our recesses, we remember that we had, or have, a genius. Our desire for the
transcendental and extraordinary seems part of our common heritage, and abandons
us slowly, and never completely.
To say that the work is in the writer, or the religious idea is in the
charismatic leader, is not a paradox. Shakespeare, we happen to know, was a
usurer. So was Shylock, but did that help to keep The Merchant of Venice a
comedy? We don't know. But to look for the work in the writer is to look for the
influence and effect of the play upon Shakespeare's development from comedy to
tragicomedy to tragedy. It is to see Shylock darkening Shakespeare. To examine
the effects of his own parables upon the figure of Jesus is to conduct a
There are two ancient (Roman) meanings of the word "genius," which are rather
different in emphasis. One is to beget, cause to be born, that is to be a
paterfamilias. The other is to be an attendant spirit for each person or place:
to be either a good or evil genius, and so to be someone who, for better or for
worse, strongly influences someone else. This second meaning has been more
important than the first; our genius is thus our inclination or natural gift,
our inborn intellectual or imaginative power, not our power to beget power in
We all learn to distinguish, firmly and definitively, between genius and
talent. A "talent" classically was a weight or sum of money, and as such,
however large, was necessarily limited. But "genius," even in its linguistic
origins, has no limits.
We tend now to regard genius as the creative capacity, as opposed to talent.
The Victorian historian Froude observed that genius "is a spring in which there
is always more behind than flows from it." The largest instances of genius that
we know, aesthetically, would include Shakespeare and Dante, Bach and Mozart,
Michelangelo and Rembrandt, Donatello and Rodin, Alberti and Brunelleschi. A
greater complexity ensues when we attempt to confront religious genius,
particularly in a religion-obsessed country like the United States. To regard
Jesus and Muhammad as religious geniuses (whatever else they were) makes them,
in that regard only, akin not only to one another but to Zoroaster and the
Buddha, and to such secular figures of ethical genius as Confucius and
Defining genius more precisely than has yet been done is one of my objectives
in this book. Another is to defend the idea of genius, currently abused by
detractors and reductionists, from sociobiologists through the materialists of
the genome school, and on to various historicizers. But my primary aim is both
to enhance our appreciation of genius, and to show how invariably it is
engendered by the stimulus of prior genius, to a much greater degree than it is
by cultural and political contexts. The influence of genius upon itself, already
mentioned, will be one of the book's major emphases.
My subject is universal, not so much because world-altering geniuses have
existed, and will come again, but because genius, however repressed, exists in
so many readers. Emerson thought that all Americans were potential poets and
mystics. Genius does not teach how to read or whom to read, but rather how to
think about exemplary human lives at their most creative.
It will be noted in the table of contents that I have excluded any living
instances of genius, and have dealt with only three recently dead. In this book
I am compelled to be brief and summary in my account of individual genius,
because I believe that much is to be learned by juxtaposing many figures from
varied cultures and contrasting eras. The differences between a hundred men and
women, drawn from a span of twenty-five centuries, overwhelm the analogies or
similarities, and to present them within a single volume may seem the enterprise
of an overreacher. And yet there are common characteristics to genius, since
vivid individuality of speculation, spirituality, and creativity must rely upon
originality, audacity, and selfreliance.
Emerson, in his Representative Men, begins with a heartening paragraph:
It is natural to believe in great men. If the companions of our childhood
should turn out to be heroes, and their condition regal, it will not surprise
us. All mythology opens with demigods, and the circumstance is high and poetic;
that is, their genius is paramount. In the legends of Gautama, the first men ate
the earth, and found it deliciously sweet.
Gautama, the Buddha, quests for and attains freedom, as though he were one of
the first men. Emerson's twice-told tale is a touch more American than Buddhist;
his first men seem American Adams, and not reincarnations of previous
enlightenments. Perhaps I too can only Americanize, but that may be the
paramount use of past geniuses; we have to adapt them to our place and our time,
if we are to be enlightened or inspired by them.
Emerson had six great or representative men: Plato, Swedenborg, Montaigne,
Shakespeare, Napoleon, and Goethe. Four of these are in this book; Swedenborg is
replaced by Blake, and Napoleon I have discarded with all other generals and
politicians. Plato, Montaigne, Shakespeare, and Goethe remain essential, as do
the others I sketch. Essential for what? To know ourselves, in relation to
others, for these mighty dead are among the otherness that we can know, as
Emerson tells us in Representative Men:
We need not fear excessive influence. A more generous trust is permitted.
Serve the great.
And yet this is the conclusion of his book:
The world is young: the former great men call to us affectionately. We too
must write Bibles, to unite again the heavens and the earthly world. The secret
of genius is to suffer no fiction to exist for us; to realize all that we
To realize all that we know, fictions included, is too large an enterprise
for us, a wounded century and a half after Emerson. The world no longer seems
young, and I do not always hear the accents of affection when the voices of
genius call out to me. But then I have the disadvantage, and the advantage, of
coming after Emerson. The genius of influence transcends its constituent
anxieties, provided we become aware of them and then surmise where we stand in
relation to their continuing prevalence.
Thomas Carlyle, a Victorian Scottish genius now out of fashion, wrote an
admirable study that almost nobody reads anymore, On Heroes, Hero-Worship and
the Heroic in History. It contains the best remark on Shakespeare that I
If called to define Shakespeare's faculty, I should say superiority of
intellect, and think I had included all under that.
Adumbrating the observation, Carlyle characteristically exploded into a very
useful warning against dividing any genius into its illusory components:
What indeed are faculties? We talk of faculties as if they were distinct,
things separable; as if a man had intellect, imagination, fancy, etc. as he had
hands, feet and arms.
"Power of Insight," Carlyle continued, was the vital force in any one of us.
How do we recognize that insight or force in genius? We have the works of
genius, and we have the memory of their personalities. I use that last word with
high deliberation, following Walter Pater, another Victorian genius, but one who
defies fashion, because he is akin to Emerson and to Nietzsche. These three
subtle thinkers prophesied much of the intellectual future of our century that
has just passed, and are unlikely to fade as influences during the new century.
Pater's preface to his major book, The Renaissance, emphasizes that the
"aesthetic critic" ("aesthetic" meaning "perceptive") identifies genius in every
In all ages there have been some excellent workmen, and some excellent work
done. The question he asks is always:-In whom did it stir, the genius, the
sentiment of the period find itself? Where was the receptacle of his refinement,
its elevation, its taste? "The ages are all equal," says William Blake, "but
genius is always above its age."
Blake, a visionary genius almost without peer, is a superb guide to the
relative independence that genius manifests in regard to time: it "is always
above its age." We cannot confront the twenty-first century without expecting
that it too will give us a Stravinsky or Louis Armstrong, a Picasso or Matisse,
a Proust or James Joyce. To hope for a Dante or Shakespeare, a J. S. Bach or
Mozart, a Michelangelo or Leonardo, is to ask for too much, since gifts that
enormous are very rare. Yet we want and need what will rise above the
twenty-first century, whatever that turns out to be.
The use of my mosaic is that it ought to help prepare us for this new
century, by summoning up aspects of the personality and achievements of many of
the most creative who have come before us. The ancient Roman made an offering to
his genius on his birthday, dedicating that day to "the god of human nature," as
the poet Horace called each person's tutelary spirit. Our custom of a birthday
cake is in direct descent from that offering. We light the candles and might do
well to remember what it is that we are celebrating.
A Personal Definition
I have avoided all living geniuses in this book, partly so as to evade the
distractions of mere provocation. I can identify for myself certain writers of
palpable genius now among us: the Portuguese novelist Jos? Saramago, the
Canadian poet Anne Carson, the English poet Geoffrey Hill, and at least a
halfdozen North and Latin American novelists and poets (whom I forbear
Pondering my mosaic of one hundred exemplary creative minds, I arrive at a
tentative and personal definition of literary genius. The question of genius was
a perpetual concern of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who is the mind of America, as Walt
Whitman is its poet, and Henry James its novelist (its dramatist is yet to
come). For Emerson, genius was the God within, the self of "Self-Reliance." That
self, in Emerson, therefore is not constituted by history, by society, by
languages. It is aboriginal. I altogether agree.
Shakespeare, the supreme genius, is different in kind from his
contemporaries, even from Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson. Cervantes stands
apart from Lope de Vega, and Calder?n. Something in Shakespeare and Cervantes,
as in Dante, Montaigne, Milton, and Proust (to give only a few instances), is
clearly both of and above the age.
Fierce originality is one crucial component of literary genius, but this
originality itself is always canonical, in that it recognizes and comes to terms
with precursors. Even Shakespeare makes an implicit covenant with Chaucer, his
essential forerunner at inventing the human.
If genius is the God within, I need to seek it there, in the abyss of the
aboriginal self, an entity unknown to nearly all our current Explainers, in the
intellectually forlorn universities and in the media's dark Satanic mills.
Emerson and ancient Gnosticism agree that what is best and oldest in each of us
is no part of the Creation, no part of Nature or the Not-Me. Each of us
presumably can locate what is best in herself or himself, but how do we find
what is oldest?
Where does the self begin? The Freudian answer is that the ego makes an
investment in itself, which thus centers a self. Shakespeare calls our sense of
identity the "selfsame"; when did Jack Falstaff become Falstaff? When did
Shakespeare become Shakespeare? The Comedy of Errors is already a work of
genius, yet who could have prophesied Twelfth Night on the basis of that early
farce? Our recognition of genius is always retroactive, but how does genius
first recognize itself?
The ancient answer is that there is a god within us, and the god speaks. I
think that a materialist definition of genius is impossible, which is why the
idea of genius is so discredited in an age like our own, where materialist
ideologies dominate. Genius, by necessity, invokes the transcendental and the
extraordinary, because it is fully conscious of them. Consciousness is what
defines genius: Shakespeare, like his Hamlet, exceeds us in consciousness, goes
beyond the highest order of consciousness that we are capable of knowing without
Gnosticism, by definition, is a knowing rather than a believing. In
Shakespeare, we have neither a knower nor a believer, but a consciousness so
capacious that we cannot find its rival elsewhere: in Cervantes or Montaigne, in
Freud or in Wittgenstein. Those who choose (or are chosen) by one of the world
religions frequently posit a cosmic consciousness to which they assign
supernatural origins. But Shakespearean consciousness, which transmutes matter
into imagination, does not need to violate nature. Shakespeare's art is itself
nature, and his consciousness can seem more the product of his art than its
There, at the end of the mind, we are stationed by Shakespearean genius: a
consciousness shaped by all the consciousnesses that he imagined. He remains,
presumably forever, our largest instance of the use of literature for life,
which is the work of augmenting awareness.
Though Shakespeare's is the largest consciousness studied in this book, all
the rest of these exemplary creative minds have contributed to the consciousness
of their readers and auditors. The question we need to put to any writer must
be: does she or he augment our consciousness, and how is it done? I find this a
rough but effectual test: however I have been entertained, has my awareness been
intensified, my consciousness widened and clarified? If not, then I have
encountered talent, not genius. What is best and oldest in myself has not been