UNDISCOVERED GENIUS

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

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Genius According to Robert Heinlein

Genius According to Robert Heinlein

     Contradictory opinions and statements abound in this blog--I know that. Sometimes I appear to affirm the existence of genius--supernormal ability, insight. Sometimes I appear to denigrate the whole idea. To be sure, one primary posture is negative--it pisses me off that the snob appeal of genius desensitizes people to the accomplishments of artists with little or no reputation. It pisses me off that so many people people tend to invent their own aesthetic experiences, weaving them out of expectation, and surface scanning--this instead of focusing their minds and seeking for the truth, always, in the expressions they contemplate. I have tried to emphasize that: it is the expression of character, in its glorious essential humanity, that imbues an artwork with social validity, and that spark of eternal truth, that is the same, the same now and forever, amen, irregardless of the height of the artist's profile. It is not the idea of genius I wish to denigrate, it is the idea that divine humanity is to be found in relative quantities--that this man's truth is another man's merest intimation. I do not think that divine truth is transmitted in a continuum of levels of relative WORTH. I believe that divine truth may be found to pervade, in some form or other, every single created thing. And, I believe that divine forms will brook no literal definition at all--in higher planes all is one, all equally to be cherished.

     Several blog entries have drawn on writing of well-known authors. Certainly if any man deserves credit for a towering intellect, and breathtaking erudition it is Robert Heinlein. Heinlein's work always combines solid science with reflective summaries of just about every known discipline of world culture. His magnum opus, Stranger in a Strange Land, 1961, is a virtuosic display of encyclopedic knowledge not only of science, but history, politics, law, medicine, philosophy, religion, and aesthetics. The following excerpt from chapter 30 is an in-depth survey of principles that validate the work of any creative artist. Its springboard is an off-hand disparaging remark, by Ben Caxton, about a Rodin sculpture, La Belle Heaulmière, "she who was the Helmet-maker's once beautiful wife":

"Ben, I don't know what you have on your mind but it will have to wait while I give you a lesson in how to look at sculpture-though it's probably as useless as trying to teach a dog to appreciate the violin. But you've just been rude to a lady and I don't tolerate that. . ."

"You know I wouldn't be rude to the old woman who posed for that. Never. What I can't understand is a so-called artist having the gall to pose somebody's great grandmother in her skin . . . and you having the bad taste to want it around." . . .

Ben looked at it. "But I don't get it."
"All right, Ben. Attend me. Anybody can look at a pretty girl and see a pretty girl. An artist can look at a pretty girl and see the old woman she will become. A better artist can look at an old woman and see the pretty girl that she used to be. But a great artist-a master-and that is what Auguste Rodin was-can look at an old woman, portray her exactly as she is . . . and force the viewer to see the pretty girl she used to be . . . and more than that, he can make anyone with the sensitivity of an armadillo, or even you, see that this lovely young girl is still alive, not old and ugly at all, but simply prisoned inside her ruined body. He can make you feel the quiet, endless tragedy that there was never a girl born who ever grew older than eighteen in her heart . . . no matter what the merciless hours have done to her. Look at her, Ben. Growing old doesn't matter to you and me; we were never meant to be admired-but it does to them. Look at her!"

Ben looked at her. Presently Jubal said gruffly, "All right, blow your nose and wipe your eyes-she accepts your apology. Come on and sit down. That's enough for one lesson."
"No," Caxton answered, "I want to know about these others. How about this one? It doesn't bother me as much . . . I can see it's a young girl, right off. But why tie her up like a pretzel?"
Jubal looked at the replica "Caryatid Who has Fallen under the Weight of her Stone" and smiled. "Call it a tour de force in empathy, Ben. I won't expect you to appreciate the shapes and masses which make that figure much more than a 'pretzel'-but you can appreciate what Rodin was saying. Ben, what do people get out of looking at a crucifix?"
"You know how much I go to church."
"'How little' you mean. Still, you must know that, as craftsmanship, paintings and sculpture of the Crucifixion are usually atrocious-and the painted, realistic ones often used in churches are the worst of all . . . the blood looks like catsup and that ex-carpenter is usually portrayed as if he were a pansy . . . which He certainly was not if there is any truth in the four Gospels at all. He was a hearty man, probably muscular and of rugged health. But despite the almost uniformly poor portrayal in representations of the Crucifixion, a poor one is about as effective as a good one for most people. They don't see the defects; what they see is a symbol which inspires their deepest emotions; it recalls to them the Agony and Sacrifice of God."

"Jubal, I thought you weren't a Christian?"
"What's that got to do with it? Does that make me blind and deaf to fundamental human emotion? I was saying that the crummiest painted plaster crucifix or the cheapest cardboard Christmas Crèche can be sufficient symbol to evoke emotions in the human heart so strong that many have died for them and many more live for them. So the craftsmanship and artistic judgment with which such a symbol is wrought are largely irrelevant. Now here we have another emotional symbol-wrought with exquisite craftsmanship, but we won't go into that, yet. Ben, for almost three thousand years or longer, architects have designed buildings with columns shaped as female figures-it got to be such a habit that they did it as casually as a small boy steps on an ant. After all those centuries it took Rodin to see that this was work too heavy for a girl. But he didn't simply say, 'Look, you jerks, if you must design this way, make it a brawny male figure.' No, he showed it . . . and generalized the symbol. Here is this poor little caryatid who has tried-and failed, fallen under the load. She's a good girl-look at her face. Serious, unhappy at her fafrure, but not blaming anyone else, not even the gods . . . and still trying to shoulder her load, after she's crumpled under it.

"But she's more than good art denouncing some very bad art; she's a symbol for every woman who has ever tried to shoulder a load that was too heavy for her-over half the female population of this planet, living and dead, I would guess. But not alone women-this symbol is sexless. It means every man and every woman who ever lived who sweated out life in uncomplaining fortitude, whose courage wasn't even noticed until they crumpled under their loads. It's courage, Ben, and victory."

'Victory?'
"Victory in defeat, there is none higher. She didn't give up, Ben; she's still trying to lift that stone after it has crushed her. She's a father going down to a dull office job while cancer is painfully eating away his insides, so as to bring home one more pay check for the kids. She's a twelve-year old girl trying to mother her baby brothers and sisters because Mama had to go to Heaven. She's a switchboard operator sticking to her job while smoke is choking her and the fire is cutting off her escape. She's all the unsung heroes who couldn't quite cut it but never quit. . . "

Uh ... we won't look at any others; . . ."
"Suits. I feel as if I had had three quick drinks on an empty stomach. Jubal, why isn't there stuff like this around where a person can see it?"

"Because the world has gone nutty and contemporary art always paints the spirit of its times. Rodin did his major work in the tail end of the nineteenth century . . . Rodin died early in the twentieth century, about the time the world started flipping its lid . . . and art along with it.

"Rodin's successors noted the amazing things he had done with light and shadow and mass and composition-whether you see it or not-and they copied that much. Oh, how they copied it! And extended it. What they failed to see was that every major work of the master told a story and laid bare the human heart. Instead, they got involved with 'design' and became contemptuous of any painting or sculpture that told a story- sneering, they dubbed such work 'literary'-a dirty word. They went all out for abstractions, not deigning to paint or carve anything that resembled the human world."

Jubal shrugged. "Abstract design is all right-for wall paper or linoleum. But an is the process of evoking pity and terror, which is not abstract at all but very human. What the self-styled modern artists are doing is a sort of unemotional pseudo-intellectual masturbation . . . whereas creative art is more like intercourse, in which the artist must seduce- render emotional-his audience, each time. These laddies who won't deign to do that-and perhaps can't-of course lost the public. If they hadn't lobbied for endless subsidies, they would have starved or been forced to go to work long ago. Because the ordinary bloke will not voluntarily pay for 'art' that leaves him unmoved-if he does pay for it, the money has to be conned out of him, by taxes or such."

"You know, Jubal, I've always wondered why I didn't give a hoot for paintings or statues- but I thought it was something missing in me, like color blindness."

"Mmm, one does have to learn to look at art, just as you must know French to read a story printed in French. But in general it's up to the artist to use language that can be understood, not hide it in some private code like Pepys and his diary. Most of these jokers don't even want to use language you and I know or can learn . . . they would rather sneer at us and be smug, because we 'fail' to see what they are driving at. If indeed they are driving at anything-obscurity is usually the refuge of incompetence. Ben, would you call me an artist?"

"Huh? Well, I've never thought about it. You write a pretty good stick."
"Thank you. 'Artist' is a word I avoid for the same reasons I hate to be called 'Doctor.' But I am an artist, albeit a minor one. Admittedly most of my stuff is fit to read only once . . . and not even once for a busy person who already knows the little I have to say. But I am an honest artist, because what I write is consciously intended to reach the customer-reach him and affect him, if possible with pity and terror . . . or, if not, at least to divert the tedium of his hours with a chuckle or an odd idea. But I am never trying to hide it from him in a private language, nor am I seeking the praise of other writers for 'technique' or other balderdash. I want the praise of the cash customer, given in cash because I've reached him-or I don't want anything. Support for the arts-merde! A government-supported artist is an incompetent whore!


Embedded in this dense harangue are several gold nuggets.
My favorite is the last bit about,
"A government-supported artist is an incompetent whore! "
It's a cute reversal--usually it's the university composers who accuse the successful movie composers of being incompetent whores--selling their souls for a buck, prostituting the lofty ideals of whatever ism is in question at the moment. To turn around and tell these institutionally supported ivory tower wackos that they are cheap sluts is a very interesting twist. It was very clever to accuse them of harlotry just because they cater to a smaller, elitist clientele--a clientele confused by the vicissitudes of vogue and shallow thinking, and whose product will never ever attract the audience that bears the mighty dollar.

This brings to mind all the historical examples of composers being more or less ahead or behind their time, hence more or less professionally successful. Bach and Brahms were behind their time, while people like Mozart and Schoenberg were far ahead of their time. The rare Beethoven or Verdi, who were right spot on with their time, is often the exception rather than the rule because time is so slippery, and truth so large. But, since time immemorial, the value of things has been expressed in pesos, so pesos MUST have something to do with it.

This other bit from further up makes me stand up and applaud, too:

"Most of these jokers don't even want to use language you and I know or can learn . . . they would rather sneer at us and be smug, because we 'fail' to see what they are driving at. If indeed they are driving at anything-obscurity is usually the refuge of incompetence."


Indeed the idea of obscurity figures centrally in the mechanism of art, and it is the ability to make statements forthrightly that separates the called from the chosen. I always like to reread this Schoenberg quote:

It is neither "obligatory" nor "permissible" to write either tonally of 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 them open for everything ambiguous but closed to the truth."


Musical Truth!
Musical Truth!
The more you eat, the more you--
uh.
 
Glennallen
March 20, 2011
tomorrow is Bach's birthday (maybe)

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