UNDISCOVERED GENIUS

A commentary on the history, contexts, and meanings of the word "genius."

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Genius According to Somerset Maugham

Genius According to Somerset Maugham

The Moon and Sixpence, (1919) a novel by Somerset Maugham, is ostensibly about Paul Gauguin, but could be about anybody. Moreover, it is a very broad and general discussion of the subject of genius. The word "genius" occurs in the book more than 50 times, and is examined from many varying perspectives. However, Maugham lets us have it right up front, in the second paragraph, with a definitive, early 20th century definition of genius. In speaking of his protagonist, Charles Strickland, he says:

". . . he had genius. To my mind the most interesting thing in art is the personality of the artist; and if that is singular, I am willing to excuse a thousand faults. I suppose Velasquez was a better painter than El Greco, but custom stales one's admiration for him: the Cretan, sensual and tragic, proffers the mystery of his soul like a standing sacrifice. The artist, painter, poet, or musician, by his decoration, sublime or beautiful, satisfies the aesthetic sense; but that is akin to the sexual instinct, and shares its barbarity: he lays before you also the greater gift of himself. To pursue his secret has something of the fascination of a detective story. It is a riddle which shares with the universe the merit of having no answer. The most insignificant of Strickland's works suggests a personality which is strange, tormented, and complex; and it is this surely which prevents even those who do not like his pictures from being indifferent to them; it is this which has excited so curious an interest in his life and character.

Thus it may be seen that "genius" is associated, in the early 20th century mind, with singularity of character at least as much as it is with richness of talent, or loftiness of intellect. The emphasis on the unique character of the genius leads us easily into the realm of originality, since singularity of artistic style must certainly follow from singularity of character.
Originality was the biggest bugga-boo of my early years as a composer. Everybody was so busy trying be original that everybody was trying all the same "new" (sic) things. The students at the university practically screamed in my ear, "How can you be original, if you don't sound just like us?" Another good one was, "Whoever heard of a composer that wasn't famous?"
I have always tried to take a broad view of style, and prided myself on my ability to effortlessly weave together stylistic references from an array of historical and cultural sources. The result was a potpourri with enough stuff in it to offend everybody: to the low-brow, it was too high-brow, and to the high-brow it was too low-brow. In 1995 I had a composition teacher tell me that including a swing drum part and a walking bass in the middle of an abstract piece was the most dissonant thing he'd ever heard.
I don't get it; I mean I didn't make this up, Charles Ives did it all 100 years ago, and Charles Ives is well respected. I guess few have had the courage to be as free with their ego-resolution as Ives was: to him, he and music, all music, were spiritually linked; like a babe in arms, he could not tell where he left off and the sweet breast of mother music began. It is the archetypal resonance in his pieces, that reaches into the soul of his attentive audience, and invokes, more than nostalgia, a sense of timelessness.
Are originality and singularity of character linked with honesty? Is the genius simply he/she who has the courage (or the stupidity) to speak only the truth of him/herself? In a later description Strickland, Maugham notes:

"But though he said nothing of any consequence, there was something in his personality which prevented him from being dull. Perhaps it was sincerity. He did not seem to care much about the Paris he was now seeing for the first time (I did not count the visit with his wife), and he accepted sights which must have been strange to him without any sense of astonishment. I have been to Paris a hundred times, and it never fails to give me a thrill of excitement; I can never walk its streets without feeling myself on the verge of adventure. Strickland remained placid. Looking back, I think now that he was blind to everything but to some disturbing vision in his soul."

Are we all unique beings, flecks of God-consciousness, some more or less willing (in this conformist society) to fess up to our individuality? If so, who chooses which spark of eternal mind will rise to distinction, and which to the obscurity of the void? Who brands the chosen one with the inner vision, so irresistible, so unattainable?

". . . how strange it was that the creative instinct should seize upon this dull stockbroker, to his own ruin, perhaps, and to the misfortune of such as were dependent on him; and yet no stranger than the way in which the spirit of God has seized men, powerful and rich, pursuing them with stubborn vigilance till at last, conquered, they have abandoned the joy of the world and the love of women for the painful austerities of the cloister. Conversion may come under many shapes, and it may be brought about in many ways. With some men it needs a cataclysm, as a stone may be broken to fragments by the fury of a torrent; but with some it comes gradually, as a stone may be worn away by the ceaseless fall of a drop of water. Strickland had the directness of the fanatic and the ferocity of the apostle."

The "ferocity of the apostle" is just the way the personality of Beethoven might be described. The idea of the hero, burdened with a special quest, is so attractive, so romantic, that few weak-minded individuals can avoid the seduction of its ego-stroking balms. Little do they know that the truly unique individual craves, with all possible heart, to be enfolded in the affections of the herd, protected and affirmed by the hearths of mediocrity. The fact that they suffer an outcast station in their own country, all for not being like other people--this is something the truly mediocre never think of; as they promote their own self-esteem, with the bells and baubles of their in-group, they blind themselves to the sensitivities necessary to discern real quality.

"When people say they do not care what others think of them, for the most part they deceive themselves. Generally they mean only that they will do as they choose, in the confidence that no one will know their vagaries; and at the utmost only that they are willing to act contrary to the opinion of the majority because they are supported by the approval of their neighbours. It is not difficult to be unconventional in the eyes of the world when your unconventionality is but the convention of your set. (italics, mine). It affords you then an inordinate amount of self-esteem. You have the self-satisfaction of courage without the inconvenience of danger. But the desire for approbation is perhaps the most deeply seated instinct of civilised man. No one runs so hurriedly to the cover of respectability as the unconventional woman who has exposed herself to the slings and arrows of outraged propriety. I do not believe the people who tell me they do not care a row of pins for the opinion of their fellows. It is the bravado of ignorance. They mean only that they do not fear reproaches for peccadillos which they are convinced none will discover."

To close this week's blog I quote Arnold Schoenberg:

"It is neither "obligatory" nor "permissible" to write either tonally or atonally. Write or not; but in either case, ask no questions, but do your best. Whoever really has it in him will produce it, whether it be tonal or atonal; let the others--those who do what they can--write tonally or atonally, or make what noise they please. They will certainly shout us down, who fulfill our musical destinies as we may: and they will quickly find the ears of all those who keep their ears open for everything ambiguous, but closed to the truth."

Character, Apostle, Destiny, Truth, all terms from the jargon of high universals. How is the true genius able to tell himself apart from just some schmuck with an obsessive-compulsive personality? The expression of Ego as an end in itself, works against the individual's development of sensitivities to his/her true identity. The use of Ego energy as the motive key to higher dimensions, promotes a consciousness of unimagined levels of self. Thus, doth divine truth pass a course through the entrails of a human being, and shit itself out on the concert stage for the edification of us all.

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