TALENT or GENIUS?
What is genius? How is it different from talent? Is it a matter of degree, or is it something altogether distinct?
In the past week on Facebook—admittedly not the most elevated forum, though I like to think that most of my friends are fairly bright—I have read that the following people are geniuses: JK Rowling, Prince and Stevie Wonder. I also read that Taylor Swift is extremely talented: she must be, said my friend, an intelligent person, because she is so widely popular. (I had perhaps foolishly, and certainly thoughtlessly, given the opinion that she was ‘completely talentless.’)
For a number of reasons, these comments disturbed me, and forced me to consider—yet again—whether it is possible to make any objective evaluation of the talent of an artist—Aesthetics 101—and also, if it’s possible to discuss the subject without simply getting into a curmudgeonly rant about declining standards, whether there is such a thing as genius, and if so, whether we might be able to define it, rather than simply apply it to anyone whose work appeals to us.
Let’s take talent first. We probably all agree that talent is a set of skills, combined with imagination and intelligence, which enable an artist to produce a work of art or entertainment, serious or not, that is above average technically, whether we happen to like it or not. In this regard, I can recognize Prince as talented, for example, since he’s an accomplished musician (I am less accomplished than he is, but sufficiently skilful as a musician to know a good one when I hear one), as is Stevie Wonder. Even though I dislike their music—I find the latter’s too sentimental, while the former’s seems to me, with some exceptions, both self-consciously commercial and also pretentious—I concede that they are talented, well above the common run of musicians. Similarly with JK Rowling. It is clear that she can write colourfully, humorously, create memorable characters and keep up suspense, and that she has a vivid and unusual imagination. Fantasy does not interest me, but that does not impede me from seeing that her work is better than most in the genre. Taylor Swift is a somewhat different case. She is not a truly terrible singer, although I find her shrill, over-energetic voice irritating; as a song-writer, she is doing nothing original, but does seem to have a certain facility for creating catchy (if hackneyed) melodies; as a lyricist she seems to me insignificant. I suppose I have to admit that ‘completely talentless’ was perhaps too extreme, though I would submit that she is mediocre at best and will be forgotten twenty years from now.
Of what relevance are these thoughts, in any case, in a book blog? Taylor Swift herself would probably not consider her work to have any literary importance. Nevertheless, I think this discussion may be relevant, because of the implications of the comment made by my friend—an MFA student in Creative Writing—that Swift must be considered talented because she is so popular. If she is right, then we will have to agree that Britney Spears and Justin Bieber are very talented too, or to put it in literary terms, that John Grisham, David Baldacci and Jacqueline Susanne are among the best writers we have. I hope that none of my readers will argue that they are! Notice I am not denying that they must have some talent, however limited, otherwise they would probably not have any readers. Even Dan Brown, who very obviously cannot write, has a talent: he tells stories that many people find gripping. Nor am I claiming that it is wrong to enjoy these people’s ‘work’ (or whatever you want to call it.) One does not dispute matters of taste, went the old Latin saw. I confess to enjoying certain lowbrow entertainments myself: the movies of Jack Black, for example, or the music of The Troggs or The Small Faces.
But I do not claim that everything I like is a work of genius. I love Muddy Waters’ music, but, it seems to me, he is obviously not a genius, whereas Mozart is. Why? For a start, Mozart’s music is vastly more complex, as anyone can verify. Second, Mozart’s works were all different, whereas Muddy’s were so repetitive that often when you hear the first bars of one of his songs, they’re interchangeable with the intros of any number of his others. The lyrics may be different, but the tune and rhythm, as well as the delivery, are frequently identical. In other words, he was working to a formula, the way most thriller writers do. Another thing about Mozart is the astonishing ease with which he composed. It takes a trained copyist about three weeks simply to copy one of his symphonies—and yet Mozart could compose one in that time. Consider what that means: he had no time to try passages on the piano, amending, cutting, adding, and revising. No: he heard the entire symphony in a lightning-like flash, and then all he had to do was write it down—as if he were copying, as if it were being dictated to him. Such inspiration was considered divine in previous centuries, and even if such an idea now seems crude to us—that some sort of personal god is infusing the mind of the chosen one, this semi-divine being, with sublime thoughts and feelings—we may perhaps have a lingering suspicion that work on the level of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, or Shakespeare, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, must have more than a merely human source. This brings me to the last characteristic of genius, as I see it: it elevates spiritually. That is not to say that it cannot be sensual and intellectual at the same time—of course it can, we contain multitudes, to paraphrase Whitman—but that on hearing the music, or the poem, or the play, one’s soul soars. I am not talking about enjoyment here! Of course one may, and probably does, enjoy it. There may well be pleasure, even intense pleasure. (Read Keats “Ode to a Nightingale” aloud or listen to a great actor reading it aloud.) But that is not essential. Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is a work of genius, in my opinion, although it is horrifying. One might object that in spite of the horror one experiences because of the content, still one experiences aesthetic pleasure because of the beauty of the Pole’s prose. That is so. But how then do we explain the effect that Goya’s Black Paintings have on us? They are pure, unmitigated horror. Is it possible that they elevate, in that case? I think so. They force us to confront the darkness in our own souls, in the souls of humanity, and transcend it. Like the ancient Greek idea of tragic catharsis, they force us to face terrifying truths about ourselves—but then emerge from that experience purified. This is not the case with Stephen King!
At the moment I am re-reading Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, one of the few works of literary genius of the last century (and I would say the majority of them came from Europe or Latin America.) In one of the discursive essay-like passages Musil frequently allows himself, he notes that already in the twenties the media are talking about soccer players who are geniuses, and even racehorses of genius. In a society afflicted with hyperbole like ours, the inflation of the language inevitably devalues it. If David Beckham is a genius—if Stevie Wonder and Kanye West are geniuses—then how can we describe Keats or Conrad or Chekhov? We can’t. They are lost among the morass of the merely talented. Paul McCartney may be a poet—but is he a great poet? I don’t think so, even though I love some of his songs.
I’m afraid that one of the problems with our current artistic education—and I don’t just mean the way the humanities are taught, but also the way young artists are taught in fine arts programs—is that the models are mostly hip, cool for their political opinions, their looks, their diversity or whatever, and of course many of them are talented—Michael Chabon is talented, as is Miranda July or George Saunders—but how often are we studying the truly great, the spiritual giants?
Certainly read these people if you enjoy them; they aren’t that bad. But stand them up against Borges, García Márquez, Kafka, Kundera and Kawabata, not to the mention the great Russians and Germans, and you see how pitiful they are. The current American literary heroes (and the English too, although the English are better) are like figure skaters in their costumes of satin and sequins: they describe their marvellous arabesques on the surface of the ice, but it is the surface that they fly over so gracefully. If you want to plumb the depths like a deep-sea diver, or ascend into the ether and the empyrean—and actually your soul does want this, whether you are aware of it or not—then you may need an artist of genius to be your guide. Dante calls on Vergil.
Who will you call on?