Genius at work

Trinidad Express
March 16, 2000

GENIUS, like philosophy, is a term that is loosely used these days. With the death of Kitchener and the crowning of Shadow, many commentators have been making references, invariably misinformed, on the nature of genius.

There is no doubt that Kitchener was a bona fide musical genius. Shadow would more accurately be called Trinidadian genius, by which I mean that he is a superior exponent of the purely Trinidadian musical form called calypso. Kitchener was the same, but his musical idiom encompasses the wider Western tradition, which Shadow's does not.

People of genius cannot be judged independently of their context. Save in mathematics and science, political considerations usually determine who is called genius or not (and even mathematical philosopher Gottlob Frege, who formulated important axioms in arithmetic, was ignored for decades). Genius is often recognised as such because, unlike mere talent, it irrevocably alters the very environment that spawns it.

This leads us to the most popular misconception about genius: that the genius is a person who works alone, indifferent and unaware of the world around him.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Thomas Edison, for example, was very conversant with the works of other technical people, and many of his inventions (like the lightbulb) were actually improvements on pioneering work done by individuals before him.

Geniuses also do not assume that their superior abilities mean they're always right. They seek out and welcome criticism (something people of mediocre talent rarely or never do). At the same time, geniuses are very mindful of the esteem of others and of their place in history. (Geniuses, therefore, although elite by nature, are often democratic in intention. This is why genius flourishes best within a democracy, and invariably withers under theocratic, communist or other totalitarian political systems.)

So anyone who says that "real" writers or artists or composers don't care for fame or fortune is only spouting artsy-fartsy nonsense. Both Derek Walcott and David Rudder make no bones about getting paid what they're worth and about wanting financial security.

However, it is true that fame and fortune are never the dominant motives of the creative genius. Instead, the enjoyment, satisfaction and challenge of the work itself are what motivates them.

This is why geniuses are invariably hard-working people. The average person tends to believe that geniuses discover or create their works in a flash of effortless inspiration. But the old saying about genius being one per cent inspiration and 99 per cent perspiration is completely accurate.

The great mathematician Henri Poincaré noted that: "Sudden inspirations never happen except after some days of voluntary effort which has appeared completely fruitless...These efforts have not been as sterile as one thinks, they have set going the unconscious machine...the second period of conscious work, after the necessary to put to shape the results of this inspiration."

Bertrand Russell described his process as follows: "Everyone who has done any kind of creative work has experienced, in greater or lesser degree, the state of mind in which, after long labour, truth or beauty appears in a sudden glory...when I wish to write a book on some subject, I must first soak myself in detail, until all the separate parts of the subject matter are familiar; then some day, if I am fortunate, I perceive the whole with all its parts duly interrelated."

And of the crafting of poetry, Walcott says: "The difficulty is the joy, and if you don't find the difficulty an elation, then there's no point in trying to write poetry."

Moreover, geniuses do not always create works of genius, for a willingness to take risks and fail is a necessary aspect of creativity. Picasso, for example, created about 20,000 works of art, but most of them are mediocre. Einstein wrote: "I think and think, for months, for years, 99 times the conclusion is false. The hundredth time I am right." In his youth, Walcott wrote poems, not to publish or even save, but solely to develop and hone his technique.

Despite all this, people who ought to know say that geniuses are not qualitatively different from other people: "I don't believe there is much difference between normal and creative thought," writes computer scientist and certified genius Marvin Minsky.

And Steven Pinker, author of two of the greatest non-fiction books of this century, holds that "The genius creates good ideas because we all create good ideas."

Why, then, are geniuses not more plentiful? It is not because geniuses are born rather than made. There are many high IQ people who are not real geniuses and who never will be. This is because they lack the temperamental qualities which are necessary to do great work. These qualities-commitment, objectivity, passion, courage and unconventionality-are uncommon even among normal human beings. That is why genius is rare, and probably always will be.