Where does the self begin? The Freudian answer is that the ego makes an investment in itself, which thus centers a self. Shakespeare calls our sense of identity the "selfsame"; when did Jack Falstaff become Falstaff? When did Shakespeare become Shakespeare? … Our recognition of genius is always retroactive, but how does genius first recognize itself?
What Is Genius?
In employing a Kabbalistic grid or paradigm in the arrangement of this book, I rely upon Gershom Scholem’s conviction that Kabbalah is the genius of religion in the Jewish tradition. My one hundred figures, from Shakespeare through the late Ralph Ellison, represent perhaps a hundred different stances towards spirituality, covering the full range from Saint Paul and Saint Augustine to the secularism of Proust and Calvino. But Kabbalah, in my view, provides an anatomy of genius, both of women and of men; as also of their merging in Ein Sof, the endlessness of God. Here I want to use Kabbalah as a starting-point in my own personal vision of the name and nature of genius.
Scholem remarked that the work of Franz Kafka constituted a secular Kabbalah, and so he concluded that Kafka’s writings possess "something of the strong light of the canonical, of that perfection which destroys." Against this, Moshe Idel has argued that the canonical, both scriptural and Kabbalistic, is "the perfection which absorbs." To confront the plenitude of Bible, Talmud, and Kabbalah is to work at "absorbing perfections."
What Idel calls "the absorbing quality of the Torah" is akin to the absorbing quality of all authentic genius, which always has the capacity to absorb us. In American English, to "absorb" means several related processes: to take something in as through the pores, or to engross one’s full interest or attention, or to assimilate fully.
I am aware that I transfer to genius what Scholem and Idel follow Kabbalah in attributing to God, but I merely extend the ancient Roman tradition that first established the ideas of genius and of authority. In Plutarch, Mark Antony’s genius is the god Bacchus or Dionysus. Shakespeare, in his Antony and Cleopatra, has the god Hercules, as Antony’s genius, abandon him. The emperor Augustus, who defeated Antony, proclaimed that the god Apollo was his genius, according to Suetonius. The cult of the emperor’s genius thus became Roman ritual, displacing the two earlier meanings, of the family’s fathering force and of each individual’s alter ego.
Authority, another crucial Roman concept, may be more relevant for the study of genius than "genius," with its contradictory meanings, still can hope to be. Authority, which has vanished from Western culture, was convincingly traced by Hannah Arendt to Roman rather than Greek or Hebrew origins. In ancient Rome, the concept of authority was foundational. Auctoritas derived from the verb augere, "to augment," and authority always depended upon augmenting the foundation, thus carrying the past alive into the present.
Homer fought a concealed contest with the poetry of the past, and I suspect that the Redactor of the Hebrew Bible, putting together his Genesis through Kings structure in Babylon, struggled to truncate the earliest author that he wove into the text, in order to hold off the strangeness and uncanny power of the Yahwist or J writer. The Yahwist could not be excluded, because his (or her) stories possessed authority, but the disconcerting Yahweh, human-all-too-human, could be muted by other voices of the divine. What is the relationship of fresh genius to a founded authority? At this time, starting the twenty-first century, I would say: "Why, none, none at all." Our confusions about canonical standards for genius are now institutionalized confusions, so that all judgments as to the distinction between talent and genius are at the mercy of the media, and obey cultural politics and its vagaries.
Since my book, by presenting a mosaic of a hundred authentic geniuses, attempts to provide criteria for judgment, I will venture here upon a purely personal definition of genius, one that hopes to be useful for the early years of this new century. Whether charisma necessarily attends genius seems to me problematic. Of my hundred figures in this book, I had met three—Iris Murdoch, Octavio Paz, Ralph Ellison—who died relatively recently. Farther back, I recall brief meetings with Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens. All of them impressive, in different ways, they lacked the flamboyance and authority of Gershom Scholem, whose genius attended him palpably, despite his irony and high good humor.
William Hazlitt wrote an essay on persons one would wish to have known. I stare at my Kabbalistic table of contents, and wonder which I would choose. The critic Sainte-Beuve advised us to ask ourselves: what would this author I read have thought of me? My particular hero among these hundred is Dr. Samuel Johnson, the god of literary criticism, but I do not have the courage to face his judgment.
Genius asserts authority over me, when I recognize powers greater than my own. Emerson, the sage I attempt to follow, would disapprove of my pragmatic surrender, but Emerson’s own geniuswas so large that he plausibly could preach Self-Reliance. I myself have taught continuously for forty-six years, and wish I could urge an Emersonian self-reliance upon my students, but I can’t and don’t, for the most part. I hope to nurture genius in them, but can impart only a genius for appreciation. That is the prime purpose of this book: to activate the genius of appreciation in my readers, if I can.
These pages are written a week after the September 11, 2001, terrorist triumph in destroying the World Trade Center and the people trapped within it. During the last week I have taught scheduled classes on Wallace Stevens and Elizabeth Bishop, on Shakespeare’s early comedies, and on the Odyssey. I cannot know whether I helped my students at all, but I momentarily held off my own trauma, by freshly appreciating genius.
What is it that I, and many others, appreciate in genius? An entry in Emerson’s Journals (October 27, 1831) always hovers in my memory:
Is it not all in us, how strangely! Look at this congregation of men;—the words might be spoken,—though now there be none here to speak them,—but the words might be said that would make them stagger and reel like a drunken man. Who doubts it? Were you ever instructed by a wise and eloquent man? Remember then, were not the words that made your blood run cold, that brought the blood to your cheeks, that made you tremble or delighted you,-did they not sound to you as old as yourself? Was it not truth that you knew before, or do you ever expect to be moved from the pulpit or from man by anything but plain truth? Never. It is God in you that responds to God without, or affirms his own words trembling on the lips of another.
It still burns into me: "did they not sound to you as old as yourself?" The ancient critic Longinus called literary genius the Sublime, and saw its operation as a transfer of power from author to reader:
Touched by the true sublime your soul is naturally lifted up, she rises to a proud height, is filled with joy and vaunting, as if she had herself created this thing that she has heard.
Literary genius, difficult to define, depends upon deep reading for its verification. The reader learns to identify with what she or he feels is a greatness that can be joined to the self, without violating the self’s integrity. "Greatness" may be out of fashion, as is the transcendental, but it is hard to go on living without some hope of encountering the extraordinary.
Meeting the extraordinary in another person is likely to be deceptive or delusionary. We call it "falling in love," and the verb is a warning. To confront the extraordinary in a book—be it the Bible, Plato, Shakespeare, Dante, Proust—is to benefit almost without cost. Genius, in its writings, is our best path for reaching wisdom, which I believe to be the true use of literature for life.
James Joyce, when asked, "Which one book on a desert island?", replied, "I would like to answer Dante, but I would have to take the Englishman, because he is richer." The Joycean Irish edge against the English is given adequate expression, but the choice of Shakespeare is just, which is why he leads off the hundred figures in this book. Though there are a few literary geniuses who approach Shakespeare—the Yahwist, Homer, Plato, Dante, Chaucer, Cervantes, Moliére, Goethe, Tolstoy, Dickens, Proust, Joyce—even those dozen masters of representation do not match Shakespeare’s miraculous rendering of reality. Because of Shakespeare we see what otherwise we could not see, since we are made different. Dante, the nearest rival, persuades us of the terrible reality of his Inferno and his Purgatorio, and almost induces us to accept his Paradiso. Yet even the fullest of the Divine Comedy’s persons, Dante the Poet-Pilgrim, does not cross over from the Comedy’s pages into the world we inhabit, as do Falstaff, Hamlet, Iago, Macbeth, Lear, Cleopatra.
The invasion of our reality by Shakespeare’s prime personages is evidence for the vitality of literary characters, when created by genius. We all know the empty sensation we experience when we read popular fiction and find that there are only names upon the page, but no persons. In time, however overpraised, such fictions become period pieces, and finally rub down into rubbish. It is worth knowing that our word "character" still possesses, as a primary meaning, a graphic sign such as a letter of the alphabet, reflecting the word’s likely origin in the ancient Greek character, a sharp stylus or the mark of the stylus’s incisions. Our modern word "character" also means ethos, a habitual stance towards life.
It was fashionable, quite recently, to talk about "the death of the author," but this too has become rubbish. The dead genius is more alive than we are, just as Falstaff and Hamlet are considerably livelier than many people I know. Vitality is the measure of literary genius. We read in search of more life, and only genius can make that available to use.
What makes genius possible? There always is a Spirit of the Age, and we like to delude ourselves that what matters most about any memorable figure is what he or she shared with a particular era. In this delusion, which is both academic and popular, everyone is regarded as being determined by societal factors. Individual imagination yields to social anthropology or to mass psychology, and thus can be explained away.
I base this book, Genius, upon my belief that appreciation is a better mode for the understanding of achievement than are all the analytical kinds of accounting for the emergence of exceptional individuals. Appreciation may judge, but always with gratitude, and frequently with awe and wonder.
By "appreciation" I mean something more than "adequate esteem." Need also enters into it, in the particular sense of turning to the genius of others in order to redress a lack in oneself, or finding in genius a stimulus to one’s own powers, whatever these may emerge as being.
Appreciation may modulate into love, even as your consciousness of a dead genius augments consciousness itself. Your solitary self’s deepest desire is for survival, whether in the here and now, or transcendentally elsewhere. To be augmented by the genius of others is to enhance the possibilities of survival, at least in the present and the near future.
We do not know how and/or why genius is possible, only that—to our massive enrichment—it has existed, and perhaps (waningly) continues to appear. Though our academic institutions abound in impostors who proclaim that genius is a capitalistic myth, I am content to cite Leon Trotsky, who urged Communist writers to read and study Dante. If genius is a mystery of the capacious consciousness, what is least mysterious about it is an intimate connection with personality rather than with character. Dante’s personality is forbidding, Shakespeare’s elusive, while Jesus’ (like the fictive Hamlet’s) seems to reveal itself differently to every reader or auditor.
What is personality? Alas, we use it now as a popular synonym for celebrity, but I would argue that we cannot give the word up to the realm of buzz. When we know enough about the biography of a particular genius, then we understand what is meant by the personality of Goethe or Byron or Freud or Oscar Wilde. Conversely, when we lack biographical inwardness, then we all agree that we are uncertain as to Shakespeare’s personality, an enormous paradox since his plays may have invented personality as we now mostreadily comprehend it. If challenged, I could write a book on the personality of Hamlet, Falstaff, or Cleopatra, but I would not attempt a book upon the personality of Shakespeare or of Jesus.
Benjamin Disraeli’s father, the man of letters Isaac D’Israeli, wrote an amiable volume called The Literary Character of Men of Genius, one of the precursors to this book, Genius, together with Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, Emerson’s Representative Men, and Carlyle’s On Heroes and Hero-Worship. Isaac D’Israeli remarks that "many men of genius must arise before a particular man of genius can appear." Every genius has forerunners, though far enough back in time we may not know who they are. Dr. Johnson considered Homer to have been the first and most original of poets; we tend to see Homer as a relative latecomer, enriching himself with the phrases and formulas of his predecessors. Emerson, in his essay "Quotation and Originality," slyly observed, "Only an inventor knows how to borrow."
The great inventions of genius influence that genius itself in ways we are slow to appreciate. We speak of the man or woman in the work; we might better speak of the work in the person. And yet we scarcely know how to discuss the influence of a work upon its author, or of a mind upon itself. I take that to be the principal enterprise of this book. With all of the figures I depict in this mosaic, my emphasis will be on the contest they conducted with themselves.
That agon with the self can mask itself as something else, including the inspiration of idealized forerunners: Plato’s Socrates, Confucius’s the Duke of Chou, the Buddha’s earlier incarnations. Particularly the inventor of the Hebrew Bible as we know it, the Redactor of the sequence from Genesis through Kings, relies upon his own genius at reimagining the Covenant even as he honors the virtues (and failings) of the fathers. And yet, as Donald Harmon Akenson argues, the inventor-redactor or writer-editor achieved a "surpassing wonder," utterly his own. This exile in Babylon could not have thought that he was creating Scripture; as the first historian he perhaps believed only that he was forwarding the lost cause of the Kingdom of Judah. And yet he seems too cunning not to have seen that his invention of a continuity and so of a tradition was largely his own.
With the Redactor, as with Confucius or with Plato, we can sense an anxiety in the work that must have communicated itself to the man. How can one be worthy of the fathers with whom Yahweh spoke, face-to-face, or of the great Duke of Chou, who gave order to the people without imposing it upon themby violence? Is it possible to be the authentic disciple of Socrates, who suffered martyrdom without complaint, in order to affirm his truth? The ultimate anxiety of influence always may be, not that one’s proper space has been usurped already, but that greatness may be unable to renew itself, that one’s inspiration may be larger than one’s own powers of realization.
Genius is no longer a term much favored by scholars, so many of whom have become cultural levelers quite immune from awe. Yet, with the public, the idea of genius maintains its prestige, even though the word itself can seem somewhat tarnished. We need genius, however envious or uncomfortable it makes many among us. It is not necessary that we aspire after genius for ourselves, and yet, in our recesses, we remember that we had, or have, a genius. Our desire for the transcendental and extraordinary seems part of our common heritage, and abandons us slowly, and never completely.
To say that the work is in the writer, or the religious idea is in the charismatic leader, is not a paradox. Shakespeare, we happen to know, was a usurer. So was Shylock, but did that help to keep The Merchant of Venice a comedy? We don’t know. But to look for the work in the writer is to look for the influence and effect of the play upon Shakespeare’s development from comedy to tragicomedy to tragedy. It is to see Shylock darkening Shakespeare. To examine the effects of his own parables upon the figure of Jesus is to conduct a parallel exploration.
There are two ancient (Roman) meanings of the word "genius," which are rather different in emphasis. One is to beget, cause to be born, that is to be a paterfamilias. The other is to be an attendant spirit for each person or place: to be either a good or evil genius, and so to be someone who, for better or for worse, strongly influences someone else. This second meaning has been more important than the first; our genius is thus our inclination or natural gift, our inborn intellectual or imaginative power, not our power to beget power in others.
We all learn to distinguish, firmly and definitively, between genius and talent. A "talent" classically was a weight or sum of money, and as such, however large, was necessarily limited. But "genius," even in its linguistic origins, has no limits.
We tend now to regard genius as the creative capacity, as opposed to talent. The Victorian historian Froude observed that genius "is a spring in which there is always more behind than flows from it." The largest instances of genius that we know, aesthetically, would include Shakespeare and Dante, Bach and Mozart, Michelangelo and Rembrandt, Donatello and Rodin, Alberti and Brunelleschi. A greater complexity ensues when we attempt to confront religious genius, particularly in a religion-obsessed country like the United States. To regard Jesus and Muhammad as religious geniuses (whatever else they were) makes them, in that regard only, akin not only to one another but to Zoroaster and the Buddha, and to such secular figures of ethical genius as Confucius and Socrates.
Defining genius more precisely than has yet been done is one of my objectives in this book. Another is to defend the idea of genius, currently abused by detractors and reductionists, from sociobiologists through the materialists of the genome school, and on to various historicizers. But my primary aim is both to enhance our appreciation of genius, and to show how invariably it is engendered by the stimulus of prior genius, to a much greater degree than it is by cultural and political contexts. The influence of genius upon itself, already mentioned, will be one of the book’s major emphases.
My subject is universal, not so much because world-altering geniuses have existed, and will come again, but because genius, however repressed, exists in so many readers. Emerson thought that all Americans were potential poets and mystics. Genius does not teach how to read or whom to read, but rather how to think about exemplary human lives at their most creative.
It will be noted in the table of contents that I have excluded any living instances of genius, and have dealt with only three recently dead. In this book I am compelled to be brief and summary in my account of individual genius, because I believe that much is to be learned by juxtaposing many figures from varied cultures and contrasting eras. The differences between a hundred men and women, drawn from a span of twenty-five centuries, overwhelm the analogies or similarities, and to present them within a single volume may seem the enterprise of an overreacher. And yet there are common characteristics to genius, since vivid individuality of speculation, spirituality, and creativity must rely upon originality, audacity, and self-reliance.
Emerson, in his Representative Men, begins with a heartening paragraph:
It is natural to believe in great men. If the companions of our childhood should turn out to be heroes, and their condition regal, it will not surprise us. All mythology opens with demigods, and the circumstance is high and poetic; that is, their genius is paramount. In the legends of Gautama, the first men ate the earth, and found it deliciously sweet.
Gautama, the Buddha, quests for and attains freedom, as though he were one of the first men. Emerson’s twice-told tale is a touch more American than Buddhist; his first men seem American Adams, and not reincarnations of previous enlightenments. Perhaps I too can only Americanize, but that may be the paramount use of past geniuses; we have to adapt them to our place and our time, if we are to be enlightened or inspired by them.
Emerson had six great or representative men: Plato, Swedenborg, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Napoleon, and Goethe. Four of these are in this book; Swedenborg is replaced by Blake, and Napoleon I have discarded with all other generals and politicians. Plato, Montaigne, Shakespeare, and Goethe remain essential, as do the others I sketch. Essential for what? To know ourselves, in relation to others, for these mighty dead are among the otherness that we can know, as Emerson tells us in Representative Men:
We need not fear excessive influence. A more generous trust is permitted. Serve the great.
And yet this is the conclusion of his book:
The world is young: the former great men call to us affectionately. We too must write Bibles, to unite again the heavens and the earthly world. The secret of genius is to suffer no fiction to exist for us; to realize all that we know.
To realize all that we know, fictions included, is too large an enterprise for us, a wounded century and a half after Emerson. The world no longer seems young, and I do not always hear the accents of affection when the voices of genius call out to me. But then I have the disadvantage, and the advantage, of coming after Emerson. The genius of influence transcends its constituent anxieties, provided we become aware of them and then surmise where we stand in relation to their continuing prevalence.
Thomas Carlyle, a Victorian Scottish genius now out of fashion, wrote an admirable study that almost nobody reads anymore, On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History. It contains the best remark on Shakespeare that I know:
If called to define Shakespeare’s faculty, I should say superiority of intellect, and think I had included all under that.
Adumbrating the observation, Carlyle characteristically exploded into a very useful warning against dividing any genius into its illusory components:
What indeed are faculties? We talk of faculties as if they were distinct, things separable; as if a man had intellect, imagination, fancy, etc. as he had hands, feet and arms.
"Power of Insight," Carlyle continued, was the vital force in any one of us. How do we recognize that insight or force in genius? We have the works of genius, and we have the memory of their personalities. I use that last word with high deliberation, following Walter Pater, another Victorian genius, but one who defies fashion, because he is akin to Emerson and to Nietzsche. These three subtle thinkers prophesied much of the intellectual future of our century that has just passed, and are unlikely to fade as influences during the new century. Pater’s preface to his major book, The Renaissance, emphasizes that the "aesthetic critic" ("aesthetic" meaning "perceptive") identifies genius in every era:
In all ages there have been some excellent workmen, and some excellent work done. The question he asks is always:-In whom did it stir, the genius, the sentiment of the period find itself? Where was the receptacle of his refinement, its elevation, its taste?
"The ages are all equal," says William Blake, "but genius is always above its age." Blake, a visionary genius almost without peer, is a superb guide to the relative independence that genius manifests in regard to time: it "is always above its age."
We cannot confront the twenty-first century without expecting that it too will give us a Stravinsky or Louis Armstrong, a Picasso or Matisse, a Proust or James Joyce. To hope for a Dante or Shakespeare, a J. S. Bach or Mozart, a Michelangelo or Leonardo, is to ask for too much, since gifts that enormous are very rare. Yet we want and need what will rise above the twenty-first century, whatever that turns out to be.
The use of my mosaic is that it ought to help prepare us for this new century, by summoning up aspects of the personality and achievements of many of the most creative who have come before us. The ancient Roman made an offering to his genius on his birthday, dedicating that day to "the god of human nature," as the poet Horace called each person’s tutelary spirit. Our custom of a birthday cake is in direct descent from that offering. We light the candles and might do well to remember what it is that we are celebrating.
I have avoided all living geniuses in this book, partly so as to evade the distractions of mere provocation. I can identify for myself certain writers of palpable genius now among us: the Portuguese novelist José Saramago, the Canadian poet Anne Carson, the English poet Geoffrey Hill, and at least a half-dozen North and Latin American novelists and poets (whom I forbear naming).
Pondering my mosaic of one hundred exemplary creative minds, I arrive at a tentative and personal definition of literary genius. The question of genius was a perpetual concern of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who is the mind of America, as Walt Whitman is its poet, and Henry James its novelist (its dramatist is yet to come). For Emerson, genius was the God within, the self of "Self-Reliance." That self, in Emerson, therefore is not constituted by history, by society, by languages. It is aboriginal. I altogether agree.
Shakespeare, the supreme genius, is different in kind from his contemporaries, even from Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson. Cervantes stands apart from Lope de Vega, and Calderòn. Something in Shakespeare and Cervantes, as in Dante, Montaigne, Milton, and Proust (to give only a few instances), is clearly both of and above the age.
Fierce originality is one crucial component of literary genius, but this originality itself is always canonical, in that it recognizes and comes to terms with precursors. Even Shakespeare makes an implicit covenant with Chaucer, his essential forerunner at inventing the human.
If genius is the God within, I need to seek it there, in the abyss of the aboriginal self, an entity unknown to nearly all our current Explainers, in the intellectually forlorn universities and in the media’s dark Satanic mills. Emerson and ancient Gnosticism agree that what is best and oldest in each of us is no part of the Creation, no part of Nature or the Not-Me. Each of us presumably can locate what is best in herself or himself, but how do we find what is oldest?
Where does the self begin? The Freudian answer is that the ego makes an investment in itself, which thus centers a self. Shakespeare calls our sense of identity the "selfsame"; when did Jack Falstaff become Falstaff? When did Shakespeare become Shakespeare? The Comedy of Errors is already a work of genius, yet who could have prophesied Twelfth Night on the basis of that early farce? Our recognition of genius is always retroactive, but how does genius first recognize itself?
The ancient answer is that there is a god within us, and the god speaks. I think that a materialist definition of genius is impossible, which is why the idea of genius is so discredited in an age like our own, where materialist ideologies dominate. Genius, by necessity, invokes the transcendental and the extraordinary, because it is fully conscious of them. Consciousness is what defines genius: Shakespeare, like his Hamlet, exceeds us in consciousness, goes beyond the highest order of consciousness that we are capable of knowing without him.
Gnosticism, by definition, is a knowing rather than a believing. In Shakespeare, we have neither a knower nor a believer, but a consciousness so capacious that we cannot find its rival elsewhere: in Cervantes or Montaigne, in Freud or in Wittgenstein. Those who choose (or are chosen) by one of the world religions frequently posit a cosmic consciousness to which they assign supernatural origins. But Shakespearean consciousness, which transmutes matter into imagination, does not need to violate nature. Shakespeare’s art is itself nature, and his consciousness can seem more the product of his art than its producer.
There, at the end of the mind, we are stationed by Shakespearean genius: a consciousness shaped by all the consciousnesses that he imagined. He remains, presumably forever, our largest instance of the use of literature for life, which is the work of augmenting awareness.
Though Shakespeare’s is the largest consciousness studied in this book, all the rest of these exemplary creative minds have contributed to the consciousness of their readers and auditors. The question we need to put to any writer must be: does she or he augment our consciousness, and how is it done? I find this a rough but effectual test: however I have been entertained, has my awareness been intensified, my consciousness widened and clarified? If not, then I have encountered talent, not genius. What is best and oldest in myself has not been activated.
—from Harold Bloom, Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds