Monday, February 9, 2009

The Death of Genius

I recently stumbled across an interesting article that some of you might want to glance at: TED: Eat, Pray, Love Author on How We Kill Geniuses. It explores Elizabeth Gilbert's views of "genius" and the humanist emphasis on the artist with which we currently view said genius. (Disclaimer: let me state here for the record that I have never read Eat, Pray, Love and do not intend to as it does not sound like my cup of tea. That is not to say that it isn't good, just that I have yet to decide to pick it up.)

In tracing the history of the word "genius," it might be best if we went back to Roman mythology, in which Genius was on of the pantheon of Roman Gods. Its meaning morphed over time to represent the male energy of the family unit--one's ancestors serving as a kind of proto-guardian angel. [1] Genius, in this case, was an external force that influenced one's life for the better.

Fast-forward to the 18th century in which literary theory and criticism began to flower, and the term began to take on a different meaning due to a renewed interest in the sublime and the part it played in men's lives. Poets suddenly took on the role of verbalizing the collective subconcious, driven by "genius," a force outside their own control. (Comparisons of Shakespeare and Ben Jonson were especially notable in this argument, with many arguing that Ben Jonson had skill but Shakespeare had genius.)

It would not be until Freud's argument that this poetic ferver stemmed from the subconcious that genius was attributed to the artist alone. Suddenly, everything the artist created was his and his alone. According to Gilbert, this view is dangerous because
"'Allowing somebody ... to believe that he or she is ... the essence and the source of all divine, creative, unknowable, internal mystery is just like a smidge of too much responsibility to put on one fragile human psyche. [...] It's like asking somebody to swallow the sun. It just completely warps and distorts egos, and it creates all of these unnatural expectations about performance. I think the pressure of that has been killing off our artists for the last 500 years.'"
While I would argue that "500 years" is a bit of an exaggeration (as it wasn't until the Romantic period that artists (or at least writers) became warped, in my humble opinion), her point may have validity. On the other hand, many of her arguments are based on her own experience writing Eat, Pray, Love, and while it was a bestseller, I've never heard anyone else label her a "genius," so it may be a bit presumptive for her to refer to herself as one. She almost seems like one of those kids who gives himself a nickname and then expects others to call him by it.

I also suspect that she may be trying to lower expectations for Eat, Pray, Love II.


Homero said...

EPL is one of those pseudo/quasi/semi-religious/spiritual self awakening books that are fully endorsed by the deity known as Oprah, and followed fully by Her cult.

(And, wouldnt't you know it, the word verification is 'bless.' Huh. Praise the mightly O!)

Lindsay-with-an-A said...

I decided I didn't want to read it when I read an article about an interview Gilbert had given in which she said that she had gotten so distracted by looking at the air that she had missed her flight. I find it hard to respect someone who does something like that.

Anonymous said...

"Chris! Focus!"

*Tries to focus, but that puzzle is too damn distracting*


Lindsay-with-an-A said...

Just as long as you don't talk about how our definition of genius is crushing people and then segue with, "Like this one time, when I was feeling particularly inspired..."


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