My professor once asked this question in one wintry afternoon, “Is genius born or learned?”. “The next few hours will be very interesting,” I remember saying that to myself smiling, lacking an answer.
What makes one a genius? What does a genius have that the others don’t?
Shakespeare, according to Edward Young (1681-1765) (and the whole world), is a genius. He’s considered to have possessed this creative and life-giving power through his proliferate stunning poems, plays and sonnets. He is called “that much more than common man,” which nowadays would refer to the term superman or in German, Übermensch. His works consist of “extraterrestrial” ideas, more than what a normal man could produce, from out of this world or in a more moderate term: original (did not priorly exist). A genius is the one who can create something that did not exist before. Let’s say Einstein with his theory of relativity, Picasso and his cubism, Edison and his “enlightening” light bulb, Darwin and his “ego-smashing” theory which robbed man of his peculiar privilege of having been specially created, and relegated man to a descent from the animal world yet it’s the basis of biology until the present day.
A genius doesn’t only possess a good understanding. Speaking in metaphor, Young says “a genius differs from a good understanding as a magician from a good architect”. A genius is like a magician for he possesses this so-called “powerful imagination” that can create, populate, and also animate new worlds, and thus it’s called a sort of magic.
“Is genius born?”. Edward Young once again asserts that true genius speaks not only of nobility but of divinity. He reaches a conclusion that genius must be born, being a genius can’t be acquired by learning: “Genius is from heaven, learning from man.” A genius has this seed within him/herself, the seed of muse, a powerful ability in creating not based on another object but based on his/her out-of-this-world imagination. Creating something that isn’t there in the first place. A genius is a creator, a magician that speaks “be”, and it exists.
Kant, the german philosopher agrees that the essential characteristic of genius consists of a productive imagination. A productive imagination that drives Oscar Wilde to boldy argue that life imitates art far more than art imitates life. From a scientific or a metaphysical point of view, Wilde argues that Nature is our creation, not vice versa:
“It is in our brain that she (nature) quickens to life. Things are because we see them, and what we see, and how we see it, depends on the Arts that have influenced us. To look at a thing is very different from seeing a thing. One does not see anything until one sees its beauty. Then, and then only, does it come into existence.”
He mentions the fogs as an example:
“At present, people see fogs, not because there are fogs, but because poets and painters have taught them the mysterious loveliness of such effects. There may have been fogs for centuries in London. I dare say there were. But no one saw them, and so we do not know anything about them. They did not exist till Art had invented them.”
And that mysterious loveliness of fogs is there in the poet or the painter’s mind as a result of their productive imagination, a productive effect from muse that strikes them. Perhaps the same thing as one would not enjoy or look at the exquisite beauty of a scene when passing an array of daffodils (which in fact is a very ordinary-looking flower) and imagining them to dance in the breeze in a windy spring day before one encounters Wordsworth’s poem Daffodils (1804):
I wander’d lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
Continuous as the stars that shine
As today’s creative mind might agree with the fact that imitation is inseparately a part of a good creation of art or creativity in general, it’s true. Imitating (in its variety of type/level) is in fact an important process that most of us cannot disengage from, and the great creative fathers aren’t against imitation. But one thing has to be understood first about imitation and original. About good artists and genius.
Oscar Wilde once mentioned that the more perfect art is, the more autonomous it becomes that it frees itself from the burden of resemblance (or imitation). In other words, imitation is lower than original since to imitate one doesn’t require the capacity of powerful imagination, but still, one needs creativity and talent, and don’t forget, learning.
In the context of this perfect art, Baudrillard has another name for it; perfect simulacra: a simulacrum has no relation to any reality whatsoever. It creates a new reality. A perfect simulacrum doesn’t have to resemble anything to be powerful because it no longer works under the logic of representation, it works only for the sake of productivity, its own simulation. An imitation gives credit to the subject it imitates, whereas a perfect simulacrum attracts the whole attention and praise to itself. An imitation might be superficially awesome, while an original is wholly striking. Young describes it as:
“Of that spring originals are the fairest flowers: imitations are of quicker growth, but fainter bloom. [...] But suppose an imitator to be most excellent, (and such there are,) yet still he but nobly builds on another’s foundation; his debt is, at least, equal to his glory; which, therefore, on the balance, cannot be very great. … An imitator shares his crown, if he has one, with the chosen object of his imitation; an original enjoys an undivided applause.”
A genius in authorship produces words in a way that it awakes us to a new reality, it opens our eyes of understanding to a completely new horizon and since then the way we look at things he describes would never be the same again. It has the power to surprise a mind, produces pleasure so great that it inspires to create another pleasure, a pleasure that shelters us:
“we have no home, no thought, of our own, till the magician drops his pen; and then, falling down into ourselves, we awake to flat realities, lamenting the change, like the beggar who dreamt himself a prince.”
While imitation, no matter how excellent they are, are common things, and thus Young calls it as a flower that grows quicker but blooms fainter. The meaning it carries is already carried many times before:
“So thoughts, when become too common, should lose their currency; and we should send new metal to the mint, that is, new meaning to the press. … We may as well grow good by another’s virtue, or fat by another’s food, as famous by another’s thought. The world will pay its debt of praise but once, and, instead of applauding, explode a second demand as a cheat.”
Oddly new to me, the term genius indeed holds a very high standard of exceptional quality more than what I thought at first as I was reading this Edward Young’s Conjectures on Original Composition (1759) . Later on he audaciously calls most of the Latin classics, and all the Greek that receive world’s highest applause are all in fact imitators except for Homer, Pindar and Anacreon. He says “though not real, (they) are accidental originals; the works they imitated, few excepted, are lost.”
To the contemporary new artists and creative (hopefully imaginative) people out there, don’t lose heart. Genius are a minority it is true, but Herder, another German philosopher believes that “every man has a genius, that is, deep in his soul he has a certain divine, prophetic gift, which guides him”
But perhaps this gift may extinct within you, or may never come out of you, without one thing called ambition. Young names the lack of this trait as “how few are awakened by it into the noble ambition of like attempts! Ambition is sometimes no vice in life; it is always a virtue in composition.” This extraordinary ambition is the power that drives a genius to be revealed, and because only few that are willing to strive for this ambition, so few are our originals.
Furthermore, why are originals so few? Why are genius a minority among the minority?
Here’s what’s great, read on.
It’s not that ideas are running out from the earth’s atmosphere that we who live in this 21st Century are left with nothing but imitative creativity (which I’m saying, requires learning and hardwork to succeed). It’s not that the good old era had long gone. Edward Young comes up with what he calls the engrossing, prejudicing and intimidating effects of the great works before us:
“because illustrious examples engross, prejudice, and intimidate. They engross our attention, and so prevent a due inspection of ourselves; they prejudice our judgment in favor of their abilities, and so lessen the sense of our own; and they intimidate us with the splendor of their renown, and thus under diffidence bury our strength.”
Funnily said, he states that those ancient genius shouldn’t be given credit for being originals, because they couldn’t be imitators since there’s nothing to imitate before them. They simply didn’t have the choice even to be imitators. While the modern artists, the modern creative minds all have a choice to make, and therefore may take pride in their power of choosing: to “soar in the regions of liberty, or move in the soft fetters of easy imitation”
It doesn’t mean that we should restrict ourselves from engaging with and being inspired by the great ancient works or great works before us. But the more important thing is, imitate the ambition and give yourself a chance, not to be intimidated that you are hindered from seeing the genius within you, in whatever context it is or whichever fields you’re involved in. But frankly speaking, in this Internet and Information Age, where the biggest crisis takes place when system of communication breaks down, it’s even harder for us not to be engrossed, prejudiced and intimidated by the other great works, thanks to the excessive information on our finger tips on the wild wild web.
So my accurate example of contemporary artists would be the indie genius whose works I’ve been listening to on a daily basis, Justin Vernon with his Bon Iver.
Why? Vernon started Bon Iver’s debut album For Emma, Forever Ago during his solitary living in his father’s cabin in the Wisconsin forests for four months due to a personal crisis. This 4 month-solitary life produces nine excellent tunes for the mentioned album, unlike anything he had ever composed before. This decidedly low-tech recorded album was a breakout hits of 2008, selling more than 325,000 copies for an independent band. It made him an international headliner, LA Times calls him a critics’ darling whose songs landed in hit movies and TV shows like House, Grey’s Anatomy and One Tree Hill.
Come on skinny love, just last a year
Pour a little salt we were never here
The solitary 4 months have definitely awakened a muse, an imaginative creator of tunes and lyrics, a musical genius within him. His enchanting falsetto voice collaborates with ethereal tunes producing a calming effect and contemplative mood, not to mention his rich-imaginative lyrics, they are melodious poetry. Many people that went to his concert would say something similar, of having something so strongly magical and ethereal experience about it. His concert last September in LA was remarked by LA Weekly as “better than Monday Night Football”, with a plenty budget affording nine vocalists, a horn section, and 2 drummers, “it reached new height” and if you just happened to be there, you would feel like “Dorothy stepping into the Land of Oz in all of its Technicolor glory.” Notice something divine here (not just great)?
Now I can relate well between his quality of genius and his 4 month-seclusion of chopping woods. He might not intentionally try to discover that trait, but he accidentally managed to escape from the burden of resemblance and intimidation from the other great works by alienating himself, focusing on his own affliction but at the same time embracing his own strength and buried imaginative genius.
Back to my professor’s question, “Is genius born or learned?”. It’s most probably not learned. But perhaps one would never know until he fully explores himself and strives for the same ambition of the ancient greats. Or to put it simply, Freud taught us that we could be angry and not know it. Similarly, you could be a genius and not know it.
image from here.