By Robert Archambeau
If one were to shout the question “who is a literary genius?” in the general direction of a gaggle of young men in Warby Parker glasses and Chuck Taylor sneakers, the air would likely resound with shouts of “David Foster Wallace!” much to the chagrin of Jonathan Franzen, should he skulk within earshot. But what is meant by the term genius? And how much longer will it be with us? The term, after all, sits more easily with the Romantic poet in his garret than with the writer of our moment, recycling found text on her Twitter account, and thinkers and artists from Walter Benjamin to Damien Hirst have sought to consign the term to the dustbin of critical history. Indeed, should you punch the word into Google’s ngram viewer, you’ll see a slow decline in frequency of usage since 1800, with a steepish drop between 1970 and 1980 before a more recent leveling off. One wonders, then: does genius have a future in our understanding of literature? Or is the genius to be taken to Roland Barthes’ graveyard and buried in state, next to his less-distinguished peer, the author?
To understand the possible death of the genius we need first to go back to the circumstances of his birth.
The idea of genius, of course, has been with us since long before 1800: the Romans used the word to refer to a tutelary spirit attendant upon a birth or creation, the guiding force of a life, institution, or nation. In the Renaissance, the notion was revived in a less supernatural sense, and used to refer to someone’s disposition or personality. By the seventeenth century, it had come to refer to one’s capacities or capabilities, but it lacked the sense of uniqueness and creativity that it was to take on a century later, when it became the subject of intense theorizing. In the middle of the eighteenth century we find Samuel Johnson arguing in The Rambler to the effect that genius was nothing but hard work, a property of all who would earn their laurels by the sweat of their brows. But as with so many of Johnson’s efforts, this was a rearguard action: a new genius, shimmering with glamor, was about to be born, Johnson’s reservations notwithstanding.
While the creation of the modern genius was a group effort, it was preeminently Kant who shaped the contours of the idea. Echoing the ancients with their tutelary spirits, Kant saw genius as something with which one was born, not something gained through efforts and exertions. He also saw it as something that could not be governed by rules: “no definite rule can be given beforehand the products of genius,” he writes in Critique of Judgment, “originality must be its first property.” Indeed, the genius feels the force of original perception thrusting itself upon him, beyond any idea he may have had about good taste or fine art: he “does not know himself how the ideas come to him, and also does not have it in his power to think up such things at will or according to plan, and to communicate to others precepts that would put them in a position to produce similar products.” Despite this inability to lay down rules, genius demands posterity. It’s not that the work of a genius is not to be imitated, not exactly, but that it calls out the genius in others, “whom it awakens to a feeling of their own originality and whom it stirs to exercise art in freedom from the constraint of rules.”
The Kantian idea of genius has resonated down the centuries: John Stuart Mill, for example, sings a Kantian tune to a Victorian liberal beat when, in On Liberty, he describes the “necessity of allowing it [genius] to unfold freely both in thought and practice,” away from rules, and he grants genius the capacity to give those who appreciate it “a chance of being themselves original.” Closer to our own time, Michel Foucault sounds the Kantian note when, in “What is an Author?” he describes the “founders of discursivity” as “not just the authors of their own works” but the makers of possibilities for new creation by others, including marked departures from their own works. “Freud,” says Foucault, “is not just the author of The Interpretation of Dreams or Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious; Marx is not just the author of the Communist Manifesto or Das Kapital: they both have established an endless possibility of discourse” including divergences from their own writing.
Geniuses like Freud and Marx have a fecund posterity, inspiring not only imitators but the original genius of others.
Foucault, it is true, flinches at the possibility of extending his concept to literary writing, seeing the conventions established by a literary innovator as too prescriptive, a matter of rules rather than new possibilities:
Ann Radcliffe’s texts opened the way for a certain number of resemblances and analogies which have their model or principle in her work. The latter contains characteristic signs, figures, relationships, and structures that could be reused by others. In other words, to say that Ann Radcliffe founded the Gothic horror novel means that in the nineteenth-century Gothic novel one will find, as in Ann Radcliffe’s works, the theme of the heroine caught in the trap of her own innocence, the hidden castle, the character of the black, cursed hero devoted to making the world expiate the evil done to him, and all the rest of it. On the other hand, when I speak of Marx or Freud as founders of discursivity, I mean that they made possible not only a certain number of analogies but also (and equally important) a certain number of differences. They have created a possibility for something other than their discourse, yet something belonging to what they founded.
Foucault’s refusal to see Radcliffe in the company of Freud and Marx may simply stem from ignorance, though: who among the viewers of Buffy the Vampire Slayer can say that Radcliffe’s gothic novels haven’t led to something other than her own discourse, yet still belonging to that which she founded?
Along with its inborn quality, its rule-breaking, and its inspiring of future originality, genius has another element: autonomy vis-a-vis the needs of its immediate audience.
Saint-Lambert, writing for Diderot’s Encylopédie, tells us that genius cannot be bound by the taste of an audience:
For something to be beautiful according to the rules of taste, it must be elegant, polished, wrought without the appearance of labor: to be a work of genius it must sometimes be careless, must have an appearance of irregularity, roughness, wildness. Sublimity and genius shine in Shakespeare like lightening in a long night, while Racine is always beautiful: Homer is full of genius, and Virgil full of elegance.
Mill puts the matter a bit more bluntly. People will nod and agree that genius is a good thing until they actually encounter it, when “nearly all, at heart, think that they can do very well without it.” Sad though this is, it should, he continues, come as no surprise, since “originality is the one thing which unoriginal minds cannot feel the use of.” From where Mill sat when he wrote these lines in On Liberty we can take in a historical vista including several generations of bohemian artists, whose freedom from conventional taste is matched only by their belief in posthumous appreciation, and by the desperation of their material poverty. The desire to offend established taste with newness continues to our own day, too, not only in obvious ways, but in ways that could only come out of the long history of the idea of the originality of the genius. What is the Conceptualist “unoriginal genius” of a writer like Kenneth Goldsmith—who seeks to present unmodified existing texts under his own name—but an attempt to shock the taste of a public long accustomed to originality? Rule-breaking remains the currency by which certain ambitious writers seek to claim the prized title of genius—all that has changed are the rules of the moment, waiting to be broken.
Why, we may ask, was our particular notion of the genius born in the eighteenth century, and why didn’t it die there?
The answer, or much of it, is simple: the genius had a friend, far less glamorous but in a historical sense far more consequential: that drab hero of history, the hardy, stolid bourgeois. Just as the genius was to break the rule-bound aesthetic conventions of the court (whose great icon must be Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux, Louis XIV’s arbiter of taste), the bourgeois set out to break the norms of aristocratic behavior and the aristocratic stranglehold on the economy. Both genius and the bourgeoisie hold up the free individual as an ideal, and overlap so strongly in disposition that the literary historian Alfred Optiz would declare “genius is the elevation of the free bourgeois individual.” He glosses his thesis by saying that genius offers
…an image of man that proclaims the creative freedom and unlimited possibilities of the outstanding individual. The figure of the artist or scientist of genius displays the same features as that of the dynamic entrepreneur of original accumulation which entered upon an expansive phase in France during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries with the growth of manufacturing and overseas trade. Where the artist of genius demands freedom from censorship and emancipation from restrictive institutional rules or intellectual prejudices, the entrepreneur calls for economic freedom of trade and the abolition of the guild system.
Rule-wreckers, born to remake the world in their image rather than to bow and scrape to the court on its own terms—such are the geniuses, and such are the members of the bourgeoisie. Is it any surprise that Romanticism, the first truly bourgeois literary movement, puffed itself up on the idea of genius? And it didn’t just do this in literary manifestoes: it did it in the realm of the law.
The very notion of copyright was invented with reference to the idea of a genius’ unique style making his writings more than a mere restatement of commonly known facts.
The need to protect the genius’ claim on his work into the future was born out of the sense that only in posterity would his work become recognized, accepted… and profitable. Indeed, the legal writings of Thomas Noon Talfourd, the great nineteenth century English advocate of copyright, are peppered with phrases from Wordsworth, especially the quip that “every great and original writer in proportion as he is great and original, must himself create the taste by which he is to be relished.” The genius and the creator of intellectual property law stand as unlikely, but vital, allies.
Genius, though, is an unreliable ally, and is at least as much an anti-bourgeois force as it is an emanation of bourgeois civilization. When the great theorist of the avant-garde, Peter Bürger, turned his gaze to the question of genius, he concluded that the questioning of rule-driven aesthetics was integral to the rejection of bourgeois rationality. Commitment to genius, that inexplicable, indefinable gift from beyond, was part of an irrationalist rebellion against the quantification, commodification, and disenchantment of the world, a rebellion breaking out worldwide from Romanticism to Surrealism and beyond. Historian Darrin McMahon expands on this idea, seeing the idea of the genius as a way of preserving the idea of the divinely touched prophet in a secularized age. He also sees in the ideal of genius a rejection of bourgeois egalitarianism: in the age of democracy, when we are taught that all men are created equal, the genius gives those who crave it someone to believe in as a glamorous superior, an übermensch Zarathustra in a world gone grey with disappointing sameness.
The genius, like Barthes’ author, is very much a modern figure, produced (as Barthes has it) as our society “discovered the prestige of the individual,” and in good measure the result of capitalism, with its emphasis on the individual over the collective, its contempt for old rules and love of “creative destruction,” and its emphasis on everything—even individual style—as a kind of property. But is it likely to remain with us?
The important thing to remember, when asking about the future of genius, is that the authority of genius is charismatic: it derives from an individual’s exemplary status, his or her ethos, rather than any external force.
No institution bestows it; nor is it legitimated by a religion, by credentials, or by state ideology. It is no coincidence that the genius is born when literature enters its un-institutionalized phase: it comes into being when the writer ceases to subsist on court patronage, basking in an authority that radiates out from the prince or monarch. It is the child of an era when literature is subject to fickle market forces, and must accommodate itself to them (via copyright and other measures) or defend itself against them (by claiming the autonomy of genius, a self-affirming rejection of market values). The novel is a child of this era, whereas poetry is flung into it kicking and screaming and nostalgic for lost status, but both genres are equally without external sanction. The authority of the writer must be charismatic, since (a very few knighthoods and laureateships notwithstanding) there is precious little institutional authority on offer.
But what now, when much of literature (especially literature that sees itself as literary) has entered the academy, not only as the site of interpretation and evaluation but as the site of creation? For those who make their way in creative writing programs, authority is, for most practical purposes, a matter of credentials and institutional position. In this academic context, the term “genius” has come to seem quaint as a way of describing literary glamor—and how could it not? If, as Marx has it, our social being determines our consciousness, a life led in a context of institutionally sanctioned authority will sap one’s faith in charismatic forms of power. One of academe’s contributions to the dip in the Google ngram ranking of the word “genius” in the 1970s stems from how critical thinking, in that period, followed Barthes’ cue to direct critical thinking away from the individual and toward large-scale processes of signification. But the failure of the term to revive since then owes something to another side of academe, with offices across the corridor from the critical theorists: the institutionalized, even industrialized, creative writing program.
The literary genius may be languishing among the academics, but he still breathes in non-institutional contexts.
Among those Brooklyn-and-Portland dwelling wearers of Chuck Taylors and Warby Parker glasses, the dream, or myth, of the unique, free, rule-breaking original genius, unbeholden to any authority beyond his own charisma, lives on, and inspires. And as we enter a crisis of the academic humanities, with its attendant undermining of institutional literary authority, we may be seeing history breathe new life into the body of the literary genius.
ROBERT ARCHAMBEAU is a literary critic and professor of English at Lake Forest College. His most recent books are The Poet Resigns: Poetry in a Difficult Time (2013), Laureates and Heretics: Six Careers in American Poetry (2010) and Home and Variations (2004). His edited books include Letters of Blood and Other English Works by Göran Printz-Påhlson (2011), Vectors: New Poetics (2001), and Word Play Place: Essays on the Poetry of John Matthias (1998). He has received grants and awards from the Academy of American Poets, the Illinois Arts Council, and the Swedish Academy. Archambeau is professor of English at Lake Forest College. He blogs at samizdatblog.blogspot.com.