Five Best Books on Genius

From a Wall Street Journal story by Patrick Mackie headlined “Five Best: Books on Genius”:

By Peter Shaffer (1979)

1. It was a stroke of genius for Peter Shaffer to write a play about genius and feature at its heart a character of mediocre talent. But then the point of his Salieri is the destructive intensity with which the arrival of Mozart in 1780s Vienna exposes that mediocrity. Salieri is sickeningly aware of the tyro’s superiority; “Amadeus” also makes the older composer the most penetrating admirer of Mozart’s music all while becoming his monstrous enemy.

Salieri discovers how weird and shattering beauty can be, and conjures his rival’s music as a matter of crushing harmonies, glancing collisions and agonizing delights. Shaffer throws his own eloquence and stagecraft at Mozart’s dazzling music with a similar sort of lurid fervency that is itself sometimes brutal. Musicologists berate the play’s assaults on the historical record with a tiresome regularity. Is there something too unsettling about how vehemently the play asks us how we relate to the heights?

Rimbaud the Son
By Pierre Michon (1991)

2. Pierre Michon’s portrayal of Arthur Rimbaud is like a sculpture made of shafts of stridently colored light. Rimbaud’s legend, as he revolutionizes French poetry while a teenager and then flies away from it for a squalid life as a gunrunner in Africa, is made new and strange here by a combination of wiry narrative obliquity and shattering sensory and conceptual vividness. No one makes larger claims for creative genius than Mr. Michon, but no one sees more clearly its absurdities and traps.

The great poet is an archangel in this book but does not know how or why himself. He is also a dissolute, sulky wretch. If genius cannot be ratified, is that a strength or a weakness? Mr. Michon’s feel for filiation and entanglement makes his book’s vision of freedom bristlingly cogent. Genius may be the only way to cope with the problems posed by being a genius.

By George Eliot (1871)

3. We do not lack evidence of how terrible being married to a genius can be. “Middlemarch” suggests that marrying someone who is not a genius may be even worse, at least if the whole idea was that he was meant to be a great man. “It would be like marrying Pascal.” So thinks Dorothea, referring to the French mathematician, as she approaches her engagement to Casaubon. The iciness within George Eliot’s style surely means us to register that marrying Pascal would have been bad enough. Casaubon turns out to be neither a great mind nor even a grand failure, but a mediocrity.

Luckily, the whole argument of the novel is contained within Dorothea’s imagining of what a life with Pascal might be like, and her conviction that in such a marriage everyday things would mean the greatest things. The heights of art and thought would be hers everyday with such a husband. Seeing such greatness in the commonplace had been more or less Wordsworth’s idea of genius, but Eliot makes it novelistically broad and teemingly social. Someone needs to write a book someday about how volatile, ardent and uncanny Eliot’s mind was.

If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho
Translated by Anne Carson (2002)

4. One of the many weird things about extreme creative talent is how impersonal and objective it can feel to the person lucky or unlucky enough to have it—how coolly separate it can seem from the churn of the life that the talent often dominates. The Greeks brought in the muses to explain how this works. Anne Carson has defined literary creativity over recent decades partly because of the symbiosis between her life as a classical scholar and the Wordsworthian scale and rapture of her own poetry. “If Not, Winter” is Ms. Carson’s translation of Sappho, and there is something both thrilling and eerie about how easily its scrupulous panache cuts through notions of translation and originality.

Ms. Carson is original because she is obedient, and monumental because she is humble. This is not another book in which the past comes back to life; Sappho stays where she is, and Ms. Carson does not so much rescue her as join her. Language and the world abound together here as “goldsandaled Dawn” and “spangled straps”; indeed “Muses with beautiful hair” emerge within the choreography of glimpses and gaps that Ms. Carson makes out of the ruins of Sappho’s oeuvre. Genius may begin here in a desire for genius, but it becomes a sort of passion for the real itself.

Gödel, Escher, Bach
By Douglas R. Hofstadter (1979)

5. Calling Douglas Hofstadter’s book about minds and machines dazzling is like saying that the sun is hot. A sensation at the dawn of the first great decade of mass computing, the book deserves revisiting for the rigorous exuberance it brings to topics now discussed in lumpy moods of hype and panic. Mr. Hofstadter seems totally wrong about the underlying nature of thought.

But as he herds together complex arguments about strange loops, tangled hierarchies and self-referential systems, shifting across the fields of logic and visual form and music, he turns his own relentless and droll appetite for ideas into a vision of thinking as the desire to keep thinking more things. The Bach fugues that he loves seem capable of developing endlessly, and the mind, too, becomes a “beautiful many-voiced fugue.” Let us imagine where such a vision could take us, to a place where all thinking is equally interesting and genius is inextinguishably general. Genius is a topic that the future of the human may rely on.

Selected by Patrick Mackie, the author, most recently, of ‘Mozart in Motion: His Work and His World in Pieces.’

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