A commentary on the history, contexts, and meanings of the word "genius."
My history, wrestling with the word "genius," dates back to about age 14 or 15.
I am a musician, and an Aspie (a victim (sic) of Asperger's Syndrome): at a very early age it became apparent that I was gifted with that Asperger natural fluidity of thought and muscle memory, such that musical instruments and music composition were a mystery revealed. However, having been brought up in the most basic of white trash traditions of Jesus and Mr. Ed, I became a musician in a cultural vacuum. My precocity was noted by all, but my "all" was a congregation of country hicks, to whom the existence of professions of the mind was unknown and unacknowledged. It had not yet occurred to me to compare myself to anybody else, so I was fairly clueless as to the scope of my gift; I did not realize how special I was, and thus I proceeded along my innocent way, uncorrupted, the serpent's apple as yet untasted.
It wasn't until music camp after 9th grade that I met my mad painter friend, son of two nationally known university musicians. He brought the word "genius" into my life. He was an insanely brilliant artist, (who later distinguished himself nationally), but as a teen-ager, he was really pretty much of an asshole. But he had been involved in high culture all his life, and had grown up in the typical artistic atmosphere of ego strife that is always the consequence of intense self-involvement. Thus, the concept of "genius," I'm sure, had been a common subject bandied about his family breakfast table from earliest memory.
To him, to be the BEST was the only way he could validate being who he was. Perhaps, by claiming a divine right of kings, he sought to justify in his mind the excesses of egocentricity that densely characterized his daily life. Surely, as a teen-ager in the 60's, to establish your own personal moral universe must have seemed a reasonable desire for many, and a necessity for some.
My friend introduced me to the idea of hierarchies of excellence, and insisted on putting himself on the top rung of the ladder. And, of course, having once heard of it, I wanted to be a genius TOO. An intense ago battle ensued for the next year or so, I constantly testing myself to see if I measured up to the lofty standards of my mad painter friend.
It's interesting that my first step across the Rubicon of genius-self-validation was accompanied by Robert Schumann, the composer and critic who first brought the word "genius" to public consciousness in his new music magazine of the 1830's Die Neue Zeitschrift für Musik (English: New Journal of Music). To Schumann, the term genius did not refer to some specific artist of towering accomplishment, but, rather, to the zeitgeist, the spiritual muse that whispers in the ear of ALL artists. Only later did the word come to refer to somebody who was BETTER than everybody else. I did not know this then. (We'll get back to this.)
It was during the contemplation of Schumann's Traumerei that I first noticed a subtle movement of spirit permeating the internal workings of the music; the music flowed by and there was a "click" like the tumblers in a padlock syncing into place, and suddenly the music was illuminated with the light of truth; notes that were just notes before were transformed into symbols of portent and significance. I could not put a name to this experience, but I could feel the sense of it, the rightness of it, in my body; I know not whether it was in my gut, in my groin, or in my head. But I could FEEL the music come alive in me.
Then I noticed that I could have the same experience listening to a piece of mine. (By this time, say age 16, I had already written two string quartets, other string chamber music, several piano pieces, a full-length musical, and a symphony concertante.) The detection of subtle movements of spirit became the index of greatness in my mind--if I could sense this movement, the piece was great, if I could not, it was trash; no middle ground for me--genius or nothing. And it was with a solemn and frighteningly overwhelming sense of responsibility that I accepted myself into the ranks of the music immortals.
It took me over 30 years to come to truly understand what a crock this was, but considerations like this haunted me and corrupted me for most of that time. School didn't help: college musicians spend 1/3rd of their time learning about music, and
2/3rds of their time learning how to be a snob, and I learned my lesson well. Being a professional failure didn't help either: as an aspie I have always achieved professional distinctions like teaching jobs, commissions, awards, publications, etc., on a level far below musicians of comparable talent and attainment who weren't autistic; thus my ego had to battle with the dissonance that arose from my own sense of inner excellence and the pitiful dearth of tangible rewards it had brought me. I hasten to add that I can claim the admiration and respect of some of the best, most famous musicians in the country, but the musical establishment at large has essentially passed me by. Poverty and anonymity were good breeding grounds for bitter twisted attitudes; sometimes clinging to the persona of undiscovered genius was the only thought that kept my mind afloat during years of emotional hardship and neglect.
If I had not been an aspie, perhaps these critical mind obsessions would have damaged my music more than they did; but, as an autistic person, my conceptual world hardly ever touched my creative world. Therefore my artistic activities were spared the corrupting influence of the ego-centric self-consciousness that has invalidated the work of so many artists, thank God--but my philosophy of art, and my professional personae were not spared. I strove to become as much of an arrogant asshole as my friend. And so, through conversion reaction, I repelled every possible professional distinction I MIGHT have accrued, and became my own worst nightmare--misunderstood genius, eccentric weirdo, professional failure.
There was one tempering consideration that gained positive ground as time went on: all through my ego battles of the 70's and 80's there ran a motto theme that resounded in my ears with a comforting ring: "here we are with eternity on one side and eternity on the other side, and you're telling me it's 1975!" In other words, in the long run, the glittering bauble of earthly fame counts for less than one note of music reverberant through the eternal halls of the astral plane. If nobody listens to me in this world, at least I am known by heart in higher dimensions. Words of comfort to an unrecognized genius, to be sure!
How my attitude changed on the subjects of genius and greatness is to be the primary concern of this blog, with sideways flights into musical aesthetics and ethics. I intend to provide many examples of unrecognized greatness, and reflect on the larger cosmic significance of creativity.
Jan 17, 2011
Next week: Skalkatos.