Thursday, 20 December 2012

Genius as a form of power


I have been mulling-over the idea that genius could be regarded as a form of power; when power is considered as being able to shape the world according to desire.

This captures the ambiguity, or two-faced quality of genius - that because it is power, it can be used for good or ill.


By this account there used to be large numbers of individuals who were gifted with exceptional power; and if this was combined with hard work and luck, these individuals each had an exceptionally large influence on the world.


The 'world' that genius influences necessarily includes the human world, and may be restricted to the human world. So genius in the arts is of this type.

But let us first consider scientific, technical, economic genius - the kind of genius which when found in high concentration for several generations led to modernity: this world of increasing productivity, capability, specialization.


A scientific genius re-orders some aspect of the world - by discovery, invention, theory - and this re-ordering survives, spreads, replicates through the human world.

It is as if the genius is the origin of an epidemic, or the first of a successful lineage of mutants.

But this is purposive, it is non-random - the genius knows what he is doing, and knows what he is trying to do - even if he cannot possibly predict the consequences of succeeding.


And this is where the transcendental aspect of genius comes in. There are those who are gifted with the potentiality for changing the world, and they, as individuals, have a choice - a profound choice - how they deploy that gift, in which direction they point that gift.

As the gift unfurls itself, they will be confronted with forks in the road when they are able to choose and to influence the direction of the power they are unleashing - and whether it will be for God, or against God.

The way that it works is that the whole nature of the power unleashed may be decided by this quantitatively small choices - so that, in effect, a genius may create a power that is 99.9 percent Good; yet is evil in nature due to one choice made.


In Tolkien's world, Feanor is the greatest ever genius of science, and is defined by the unsurpassed beauty of the Silmaril jewels - yet his choice not to allow the jewels to be sacrificed in order to restore the light of the destroyed trees of light, is an evil choice which sets in motion a vast tide of misery and further destruction.

The Silmarils are thus almost wholly good - yet from this choice, and from the possessiveness they engender - are a net evil.


This is a symbol of genius. There are - or were - individuals with Feanor-like power to change the world; but the cumulative misdirection of this power, generation upon generation, has led to the psychotic, purposively evil aspects of the world which are ascendant.

This has been the doing of genius in the world of the arts, just as has the several generations of rapid economic growth, the several centuries of increasing scientific and technical capability...

So many of the geniuses of the past chose, in the crux, to deploy their power against God: sometimes very obviously and explicitly, sometimes (as with so many of the scientists) simply by leaving-out God or by eroding his nature.


I found the seeds of this idea in George Orwell's essay on Salvador Dali - where Orwell acknowledges that Dali was, qua painter, of genius or near-genius level - but deployed this power to sicken and demotivate, to poison the minds of many. At a lesser level, something similar is true of  painters such as Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud.


And the same could be said of many or most artistic geniuses in the past century especially - and although some repented, they were not able to undo the harm done by the unleashing of evil-directed power in their early work.

So, James Joyce was an unrepentant genius who unleashed his amazing power over language against God; and TS Eliot did the same in works such as Prufrock and The Waste Land -  which have acted like a residual toxin on the world view of four generations.

Eliot's later repentance seems incomplete (since he seems not to have repudiated the early work which made his name) - but either way the harm had been done: the toxic phrases had been launched on the world, had replicated, had become an epidemic.


In science and technics, a similar phenomenon has of course been at work.

Geniuses have, by and large, lined-up to attack God and tradition - and the changes they wrought have not, therefore, taken life and then enhanced it by addition of Good and subtraction of evils; but have instead utterly transformed life;

such that people have become so deeply perplexed they cannot make comparisons nor evaluations - but simply gaze around bewildered as they are swept out into the ocean by a tidal flow which they cannot comprehend; the withdrawing tide of faith generated by cumulative individual choices of past genius.



Thursday said...

I've been thinking about the potentially great artists who haven't wanted to do outright perverse and destructive things, but haven't wanted to do the traditional things either, so instead turned to trivialities. I'm thinking of people like Mark Rothko or Jasper Johns. Targets, numbers, flags, pleasant arrangements of colours: it's all very well done, I suppose, but doesn't seem to add up to anything much. Interior decorating writ large.

Bruce Charlton said...

@THU - I've seen a lot of Rothko over the years and I see nothing there at all, intrinsically - so I cannot suppose he was potentially great - indeed, I can't imagine how greatness could be expressed in that form.

But the fact that these dreary canvasses take up so much prominent space in galleries, and are so revered by the establishment, is a certain and considerable evil. I would imagine many thousands, tens of thousands, of young lives have been blighted by the example of Rothko's success.

So I suppose that the decision, the choice, to paint as he did was anti-God - a choice to poison and demotivate, yet with covert lust for fame driving it.

Barbara H said...

Yes, one wants to shout, "the Emperor has no clothes!"

Art must be made for the glory of God. In fact the result of all genius whatever must be for God's glory or it's worse than useless.

'Who is not for Me is against Me'. This is basic. And must be said.

dearieme said...

I read the Wikipedia entry on Newton recently. He still has the capacity to awe me. You must presumably have reservations, Bruce, about a cove who was not a Trinitarian. I mean, the cleverest chap who ever was, and he didn't believe in the Trinity. Shocker!

Sylvie D. Rousseau said...

"So I suppose that the decision, the choice, to paint as he did was anti-God - a choice to poison and demotivate, yet with covert lust for fame driving it."

If I am not mistaken, this applies perfectly to the last book by Mrs J.K. Rowling, specially the bit about lust for fame.

Bruce Charlton said...

@SDR - I'm afraid she has crossed over to the dark side. A tragedy.

Bruce Charlton said...

@D - He was also an alchemist: I suppose that's the kind of thing that Christian apostasy leads onto... Genius provides no safeguard against being a fool, or unusually sinful.

Hello said...

I think you are over-idealizing the power of the genius.

The insight of a genius is not meaningfully random - it is a kind of gift. But it's success, the spread of whatever insight? I see the success of a genius as being due to luck, or randomness, necessitating luck for the genius both personally and culturally to support whatever insights are generated.

The removal of idolatry of the genius in the view of random success is almost certainly true, and ultimately freeing.

As for a genius may create a power that is 99.9 percent Good; yet is evil in nature due to one choice made.
this is the human condition. There is no avoiding some of what Christians would call sin. So by necessity every insight, every blessed 'advance' is layered with some amount of evil.

We live in duality.

You note an interesting pattern: the smartest people, the geniuses, rebel against God, or discard God. There is always the problem of suffering, and injustice, and I think geniuses in particular cannot reconcile those truths with beliefs about God.

If geniuses in particular consistently rebel against God, what does this say? It seems to me to be a rather striking if unwelcome message.

dearieme said...

"the smartest people, the geniuses, ...": he'll correct me if I'm wrong, but I thought that the gist of bgc's view of genius is that it is not a matter of being "smartest".

Bruce Charlton said...

@D - Happy to correct you!

Genius = high intelligence plus creative (high 'psychoticism' personality)

The combination has always been rare - therefore all geniuses are highly intelligent, BUT most highly intelligent people are not geniuses.

(Indeed, in some human groups - ?East Asians - there is a near-zero number of creative geniuses, due to low psychoticism).

dearieme said...

You didn't correct me, Bruce, you simply elaborated on what I said.