2. Kinds of Genius Can a person have more than one kind of genius? Samuel Johnson thought that a genius could work in any field; “Had Sir Isaac Newton applied himself to poetry,” said Johnson, “he would have made a very fine epic poem.... The man who has vigor, may walk to the east, just as well as to the west.”2 Some have argued that Bacon wrote the plays that are attributed to Shakespeare, and thus that Bacon had both philosophic and artistic genius.
There have been a few versatile geniuses, such as Leonardo and Pascal, but it’s very unusual for a person to have more than one kind of genius. Most geniuses can work in only one field. It’s inconceivable that one person could have written the plays of Shakespeare and the philosophical works of Bacon. If Newton had applied himself to poetry, he wouldn’t have written “a very fine epic poem.” Since Newton knew his own limitations, he never applied himself to poetry. Most geniuses never attempt to work outside the field for which they were born.
3. Grades of Genius Just as there are various kinds of genius, so too there are various grades of genius. The lowest grades of genius resemble the highest grades of talent. Thus, it’s difficult to say precisely where the dividing line is between genius and talent; it’s difficult to say precisely who has a low grade of genius, and who has a high grade of talent.
4. Origin of Genius What is the origin of genius? Schopenhauer, who thought that character came from one’s father and intellect came from one’s mother, said that genius was the product of an exceptionally strong-willed father and an exceptionally intelligent mother. Karl Abraham, one of Freud’s disciples, thought that genius emerged from a family that was declining in vigor and strength, but managed to produce one or two people who combined a neurotic disposition with intellectual gifts. As an example, Abraham cited Ikhnaton, an Egyptian pharaoh whose ancestors were vigorous, practical and warlike, and who combined neurotic traits with genius.
Many geniuses emerged from families that had been successful in practical affairs, and then had declined in vigor and strength. Thomas Mann is an example. Mann’s family had a long history of business success and social prominence. His ancestors must have been strong-willed, energetic and intelligent. Mann’s generation, however, seems to have been touched by both genius and neurosis — or if not actual neurosis, at least mental instability. While Mann’s brother, Heinrich, was a well-known writer — only slightly less famous than Thomas himself — two of Mann’s sisters committed suicide.
In Wittgenstein’s family, one finds the same combination of business success and mental instability; Wittgenstein’s father was a steel magnate, one of the richest men in Europe, but three of Wittgenstein’s brothers committed suicide. Mental instability is also found in van Gogh’s family; three of van Gogh’s siblings had “severe psychological disturbances.”3
The best solution to the problem of the origin of genius is a solution that combines Schopenhauer’s theory with Abraham’s theory. Genius is found in a family that is declining in vigor and strength, and in which the father is strong-willed, the mother intelligent.
While genius inherits certain virtues and talents, it usually bequeaths little. Genius doesn’t beget genius; genius is an end, not a beginning.
6. Genius and Prophecy Genius can see into the future. The Roman writer Seneca foresaw the discovery of the Americas. In the thirteenth century, Roger Bacon foresaw the automobile and the airplane. Leonardo foresaw many mechanical inventions, including the steam engine, the airplane, the parachute, the submarine, the tank, and the machine gun. Rousseau, in 1762, foresaw the French Revolution and the demise of the European monarchies. Jefferson, in 1820, foresaw the American Civil War. Tocqueville, in 1835, foresaw that the United States and Russia would one day be the world’s most powerful nations.4 Heine foresaw Nazi militarism and genocide; Heine predicted that the forces found in German philosophy would someday “erupt and fill the world with terror and amazement,” and that, “a play will be performed which will make the French Revolution look like an innocent idyll.”5 Kafka predicted that men “will try to grind the synagogue to dust by destroying the Jews themselves.” Burckhardt foresaw the misfortunes of Germany; when the Kaiser was crowned at Versailles in 1871, Burckhardt said, “that is the doom of Germany.”6 Nietzsche foresaw the psychology of the unconscious, the world wars and the rise of Russia.
7. Hitler and Fate Do individuals control history, or do history and fate control individuals? The prescience of genius is an argument in favor of fate, and an argument against free will; if events can be foreseen long before they occur, they must have been caused neither by individuals nor by circumstances, but by history and fate. It appears that Hitler was the cause of the Holocaust, and that the Depression was the cause of Hitler’s rise to power. But if the Holocaust was foreseen a century before it occurred, then it can’t be ascribed to particular individuals, or to particular circumstances. While Hitler was the proximate cause of the Holocaust, and while the Depression was the proximate cause of Hitler’s rise to power, the root causes of these events lie far deeper than any particular individuals or particular circumstances.
Throughout his life, Hitler acted like one who was the agent of fate. When he wrote Mein Kampf in the 1920’s, Hitler sketched the history of the 1930’s and 1940’s. He anticipated a great war, and he anticipated that Germany might be destroyed by the war. Hitler felt that his life and his actions were the result not of accident or of choice, but of fate. With fate supporting him, he felt that he possessed great power, that he was invincible, hence he had complete confidence in himself. His confidence enabled him to speak with passion, energy, and conviction, and it enabled him to captivate a nation.
Hitler relied on his unconscious to reveal what was fated to occur; he relied on hunches and intuitions. “I go the way Providence dictates,” said Hitler, “with the assurance of a sleepwalker.”7 Hitler’s dependence on fate and on his unconscious was so complete that he lost touch with reality, and wasn’t wholly sane.
Napoleon, whose career resembled Hitler’s in many ways, felt, like Hitler, that he was the agent of fate, that he could foresee the future, and that he didn’t control events but rather was controlled by them. “I always had an inner sense,” said Napoleon, “of what awaited me.... Nothing ever happened to me which I did not foresee.”8 Napoleon thought that any attempt to assassinate him, before his fate had run its course, was certain to fail — and in fact, many such attempts did fail.
8. Mad Genius How is genius able to see into the future? Partly because genius has a high level of consciousness, and partly because genius is in close contact with the unconscious. The prescience of genius is the result of unconscious feeling, as well as conscious thought. The genius draws from his unconscious ideas, images and intuitions.
Because the genius is in close contact with his unconscious, he runs the risk of becoming insane. Many geniuses have gone insane; examples are Tasso, Newton, Swift, Comte, Gogol, Ruskin, Hölderlin, Schumann, Nietzsche, Strindberg and van Gogh.
9. Semi-Mad Genius Many geniuses were partially insane, if not wholly insane; many geniuses lived on the borderline between sanity and insanity. Schopenhauer is an example of a genius who was partially insane. Schopenhauer had many irrational fears and anxieties; fearing that people would misinterpret a trance as death and bury him alive, Schopenhauer “stipulated that his remains be left unburied beyond the usual time.” Cézanne is another example of a genius who was partially insane. Cézanne experienced “chronic paranoia”; when his friends threw a party to celebrate his birthday, he left abruptly, thinking they were making fun of him. Gödel was so afraid of being poisoned that he stopped eating, and starved to death.
It is an indication of the genius’ partial insanity that he goes to extremes and is one-sided. The genius lacks moderation. Dostoyevsky, for example, said, “I go to the ultimate limit everywhere and in everything; all my life long I have always approached the limit!”9
A second indication of the genius’ partial insanity is that he’s moody, more so than most people are. Genius often oscillates between elation and depression. Kierkegaard is an example of a moody genius. Kierkegaard’s mental state was described as “depression, alternating with, but more commonly blended with, a condition of exaltation.” Strindberg was also moody; “throughout [Strindberg’s] life,” wrote one of his biographers, “his moods varied from elation to the blackest depression.” The moodiness of genius tends to take the form of depression rather than elation; genius is melancholy. Kafka is an example of a melancholy genius: “every day,” said Kafka, “I wish myself off the earth.”10
A third indication of the partial insanity of genius is that genius often has a tendency toward illness. Examples of geniuses who were chronically ill are Epicurus, Pascal, Lichtenberg, Schiller, Leopardi, Darwin, Nietzsche and Proust. Illness often has a psychological cause, and chronic illness is often the result of psychological problems. Certain illnesses, such as epilepsy and asthma, almost always have a psychological cause. Several geniuses were epileptics, including Muhammad, Dostoyevsky and Flaubert. Proust’s asthma was a symptom of his psychic state, a plea for maternal attention.
While the ideal man, according to the adage, has a healthy mind in a healthy body (mens sana in corpore sano), the genius often has an unhealthy mind in an unhealthy body. Is it surprising, then, that so many geniuses die young?
10. Protean Genius Genius is multi-faceted and protean; genius has a wide variety of different personalities. Strindberg is an example of a multi-faceted genius; one of his friends addressed Strindberg thus: “O warm, strong, weak, O trusting-suspicious, brave-timid, loving-hating, poetic-prosaic, solicitous-uncaring Strindberg!”11 Jung also had a variety of different personalities; “Jung left the most contradictory impressions on those who knew him,” one scholar wrote, “he was sociable but difficult, amusing at times and taciturn at others, outwardly self-confident yet vulnerable to criticism.”12
11. Woman, Child, Genius Though the genius may be a male, he has some feminine traits, and though the genius may be an adult, he has some childlike traits. Virgil, because of his feminine traits, was nicknamed Parthenias, or The Virgin. Milton was nicknamed The Lady of Christ’s (he attended Christ’s College). Chekhov was described as “modest and quiet like a girl. And he walks like a girl.”13 Artistic creation requires an especially high degree of femininity. Philosophical, scientific and political geniuses are less feminine than artistic geniuses, and accordingly they’re less inclined toward homosexuality than artistic geniuses are.
12. Immature Genius Genius is childlike. Genius approaches the world with naiveté, as if it were new and strange. Leonardo is an example of a childlike genius; “the great Leonardo,” wrote Freud, “remained infantile in some ways throughout his whole life....As a grown-up he still continued playing.” It was said of Mozart that, “in his art he early became a man, but in all other respects he invariably remained a child.”14
13. Cheerful Genius Though genius is melancholy, it is also, paradoxically, cheerful. Cheerfulness can coexist with melancholy; as the French say, “sad heart, gay spirit (le coeur triste, l’esprit gai).” The cheerfulness of genius is an indication of its childlike nature; like the child, the genius can enjoy things that other people have ceased to enjoy. Kant is an example of a cheerful genius; Herder said that Kant, “had the happy sprightliness of a youth.” Kafka is another example of a cheerful genius; despite his melancholy, Kafka was said to be “always cheerful.”15
14. Playful Genius The genius, especially the artistic genius, shares with the child a tendency to create imaginary worlds. The genius and the child both turn their backs on the real world, and invent worlds of their own. The artist has often been compared to a child at play.
15. Genius and Narcissism Why do geniuses have some feminine traits and some childlike traits? What do geniuses have in common with women and children? Women and children have a tendency toward narcissism — toward internalizing their libidinal energy — and genius also has a tendency toward narcissism. Because of their narcissism, geniuses are often solitary and friendless. “I have no friends,” said Michelangelo, “need none, and will have none”; Michelangelo was said to be “lonely as a hangman.” A woman who knew Kierkegaard and Ibsen said, “I have never seen in any other two persons, male or female, so marked a compulsion to be alone.”16
As a result of their narcissism, geniuses have difficulty loving another person. The love affairs of geniuses have sometimes been suspected of having a narcissistic nature. It was said of Beethoven that he “loved only love, not women.” Ortega said that Stendhal and Chateaubriand, though they were frequently involved in love affairs, never actually loved.
Because it’s difficult for them to love another person, geniuses are often bachelors. If they’re married and have children, they usually aren’t good parents. Rousseau, for example, wasn’t a good parent; Rousseau put all his children in an orphanage. Hitschmann said, “If the children of men of genius do not succeed or turn out badly... the narcissism of the fathers should not be forgotten as an explanation.”17 Examples of geniuses whose children turned out badly are Goethe, Melville, Joyce, Hemingway, O’Neill and Einstein.
16. Genius and Homosexuality Just as everyone is to some extent insane, so too everyone is to some extent a homosexual. While the average person has some homosexual proclivities, the genius has even more; the genius is closer to homosexuality than the average person is, just as the genius is closer to insanity than the average person is. Many geniuses were homosexuals: Verlaine, Rimbaud, Whitman, Swinburne, Baudelaire, Wilde, Proust, Gide, Forster, Auden, etc.
Why does genius have a proclivity for homosexuality? Geniuses and homosexuals both tend to be effeminate and narcissistic. The narcissism of homosexuals prevents them from loving a body different in gender from their own.
If all geniuses are effeminate and narcissistic, why aren’t all geniuses homosexuals? The nature of one’s relationships to one’s parents is an important factor in determining whether one becomes a homosexual. Freud thought that male homosexuality originated in early childhood, and could usually be traced to one of the following causes:
Any one of these causes could hinder the son from identifying with his father, and from acquiring his father’s masculine traits. Geniuses who, as a result of one of these causes, couldn’t identify with their fathers became homosexuals. Proust, for example, had an especially close relationship to his mother, and his father was often absent; Forster’s father died when he was a baby, and Forster was raised by his mother and his aunts; Gide and Wilde had dominating, masculine mothers.18 While the narcissism of genius makes homosexuality more likely, environmental factors should be taken into account, too.
17. Greek Love, Self Love Homosexuality was open and widespread in ancient Greece; homosexuality is sometimes referred to as “Greek love.” Sachs argued that the ancient Greeks were narcissistic, and that their narcissism caused their proclivity for homosexuality, caused them to celebrate the body in their art, caused them to be indifferent to nature, and caused them to avoid technology.
One might add another item to this list: the Greeks abhorred death, they viewed death in an entirely negative way. To lose their beloved self in the Whole, to merge with the universe, was abhorrent to the Greeks. The Greek view of life was tragic because they saw the individual as separate from the world and at odds with the world. If we see the individual as part of the Whole, in harmony with the universe, we don’t have a tragic view of life. The Greeks’ abhorrence of death, and their tragic view of life, may be related to their narcissism.
Why were the ancient Greeks narcissistic? Narcissism is characteristic of a primitive society, of a society that hasn’t passed through the narcissistic stage of libidinal development and reached the stage of object love, just as narcissism in an individual is characteristic of immaturity, and of not having reached the stage of object love. Thus, primitive peoples have proclivities for narcissism and for homosexuality; according to Freud, “[homosexuality] is remarkably widespread among many savage and primitive races.” Though the ancient Greeks weren’t in all respects “savage and primitive,” they were in some respects immature; the ancient Greeks have often been described as youthful, as adolescents.19
18. Genius and Nature Just as the narcissism of the ancient Greeks made them indifferent to nature, so too the narcissism of geniuses often makes them indifferent to nature. Flaubert, for example, wrote thus: “I am no Nature addict: her ‘marvels’ do not move me as much as the miracles of Art.” Dostoyevsky was described as “utterly indifferent to natural scenery.” “I hate views,” said Oscar Wilde; “a gentleman never looks out of the window.”20
19. Genius and Adolescence Like the genius, the adolescent is narcissistic. The narcissism of the adolescent is manifested by a certain aversion for the opposite sex, especially for the genitals of the opposite sex. Because the ancient Greeks were narcissistic, they too had an aversion for the genitals of the opposite sex. Thus, in Greek mythology, any man who looks at the female genitals, symbolized by the Medusa head, is turned to stone.
In addition to narcissism, many other traits are common to genius and adolescence: melancholy, eccentricity, moodiness, a tendency toward partial insanity, and a tendency to go to extremes. Genius has often been viewed as a kind of adolescence, as protracted or repeated adolescence.
20. Genius and Infancy The adolescent and the infant face similar challenges: the adolescent must learn to live outside the family, the infant must learn to live outside the womb. The way in which one copes with adolescence repeats the way in which one coped, at an earlier age, with infancy. Genius often matures slowly and lingers in adolescence, and genius often lingers in infancy, too; Macaulay, Nietzsche and Einstein, for example, were slow in learning to talk.
The infant doesn’t distinguish between itself and the external world; the infant hasn’t established the boundaries of its own ego. The infant is one with the universe. Genius lingers in infancy, and never completely loses the infant’s feeling of oneness with the universe. This feeling of oneness with the universe, this unbounded ego, helps the philosophical genius to understand man and the world, helps the scientific genius to understand nature and the cosmos, helps the political genius to understand his nation, and helps the artistic genius to sympathize with the external world. If genius can be viewed as protracted adolescence, it can also be viewed as protracted infancy.
21. Genius and Sex Some geniuses, instead of lingering in adolescence, mature quickly, both sexually and intellectually. Examples are Byron and Rimbaud. According to Freud, “sexual precocity often runs parallel with premature intellectual development.”
The combination of sexual and intellectual precocity, though it may be found in artists like Byron and Rimbaud, is never found in philosophers. Philosophers generally arrive at their central ideas while they’re young, but they never develop and express those ideas until they’ve reached at least their late twenties. Philosophy requires a high level of consciousness, which is attained by repression of the unconscious, and repression of the unconscious precludes sexual precocity. Repression of the unconscious sometimes precludes all sexual activity, hence many philosophers have been sexually abstinent. It was said of Plato that he “never touched a woman,” and the same is probably true of Pascal, Kant, Kierkegaard, Mill, Carlyle, Thoreau and Nietzsche.
Scientists, like philosophers, often attain a high level of consciousness by the repression of their unconscious. This repression sometimes precludes all sexual activity; according to Eissler, Newton “never had intercourse,” and the same is probably true of Mendel.
Art, unlike philosophy and science, doesn’t require the repression of the unconscious, but rather the participation of the unconscious. Accordingly, artists are often sexually uninhibited.21