I was thinking today about genius, which is a word I use very sparingly. I have such great regard for genius, and believe so strongly that it is rare if it is anything at all, that I prefer to reserve it for a very select group of people. (Now, when I talk about genius, I refer only to genius as it has manifested itself in Western civilization. I simply know too little about other civilizations to have a meaningful view of the question.)
It annoys me when the word genius is bandied about thoughtlessly. I have heard it applied to virtually anyone in any field who does what he or she does better than most people. But what one means in such a case is that the person possesses a greater degree of skill than even others who share the same profession. I think it is possible for someone to possess a very high degree of skill indeed, and still not deserve the accolade of genius.
Mozart was clearly a genius - I doubt that many people would dispute the statement. But was Haydn a genius? Personally, I do not think so. Shakespeare was a genius beyond question. But was John Donne? My answer would be no. Yet Haydn and Donne did exhibit an extremely high degree of skill in their work. They were great artists whose contributions are of the highest importance. Yet there is, to my mind, something lacking in their work that places them beneath Mozart and Shakespeare.
In my view, the true geniuses of our civilization include Bach, whom I regard as the greatest musical genius of all; Beethoven, Mozart, Michelangelo, Raphael, Tolstoy, Shakespeare and Leonardo. These men's genius is above all question. Beyond them, there are others who deserve the appellation, but a case must be made for each. Among these I would include Einstein, Dostoevsky, Sophocles, Schubert and perhaps Brahms and Wagner. But once again, I think that their position as geniuses can be disputed in an intelligent and meaningful way.
Conversely, I do not think for a moment that Ray Charles or Miles Davis or Ernest Hemingway or Tchaikovsky were geniuses, though they did possess a very high level of skill. Thomas Jefferson may have been a genius, and in his own homespun way, so perhaps was Lincoln. I admire both men greatly, but I would not put them into the same category as Bach and Shakespeare and Tolstoy.
Now you will say that I am mixing apples and oranges by comparing Jefferson to Tolstoy or Einstein to Ray Charles. But I am not talking about the category of the individual; rather, I refer to an evaluation of his contribution to humanity. It is possible to put both apples and oranges into a golden bowl, and that is what I am doing when I speak of genius as an attribute of achievement regardless of the nature of the achievement.
All of this raises the question: What constitutes genius? What is it that elevates it above even the loftiest level of skill? In order to begin to answer this question, I think it is useful to point out that not all human endeavors, and not even all artistic endeavors, are amenable to genius. To give some examples of what I mean by this: painting is an arena for genius but film and photography are not; music is certainly such an arena, but dance is not; the novel, poetry and drama are also forms which lend themselves to genius, whereas song writing, singing and, I think, even instrumental performance are not.
Martha Graham, Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev were consummate masters of the dance, but I would not call them geniuses. For their art was entirely a matter of performance, or of interpretation and of skill. Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan were not geniuses, but it is possible that John Coltrane was. Coltrane, to my mind, offers an instructive example of what may be genius in a popular art form, namely, jazz. His skill was of the highest degree, indeed, it would be difficult to name another virtuoso who achieved a comparable level of performance. But had Coltrane been only a performer, I do not think he could be considered a genius. It is in his compositions, coupled with his artistry, that something like genius emerges. And his compositions were characteristically ethereal, transcendent, spiritual.
This, I think, is what sets genius apart. Genius, in order for it to be authentic, must manifest itself in a form which enables creation as well as performance, and which offers the possibility for transcendence, not only of the art, but of the very experience of life itself. Genius puts us in touch with that which outlasts time and the mundane categories of existence in a way that nothing else can. It represents a direct communication among souls, and a connection between souls and the source of that spiritual reality which souls reflect. Bach surely did this, as did Beethoven and Tolstoy. Shakespeare revealed to us truths about the human condition that endure as revelation in every generation. All practiced their art to the highest possible degree, but all, also, transcended their art, taking us to a higher plane of existence. That is what makes them geniuses.
If genius does not reveal the existence and nature of universal truth, then it is not genius. If it is merely skillful rendering, no matter the brilliance or virtuosity of the performance, it is not genius. And another point is worth making: Genius is not acquired, it is inbred. This is so, I think, because genius is the transcendent expressing itself through the corporeal. And this, in turn, implies that the source of genius is some form of consciousness. To put it another way: because people are born with genius, the source of genius must lie outside of the mortal; that is, it must be immortal, eternal, transcendent.
Relatively few people in any given generation are born with a potential for true genius, but that potential is not always realized. To do so requires a great deal of work, a great deal of sacrifice, and a great deal of opportunity. I have said elsewhere here that the true tragedy of the Third World, or of the fundamentalist Muslim world, is that, by simple statistics, there must be within them a few great, lofty geniuses whom we will never know because their genius was stifled by poverty, or disease, or early mortality or the ignorant prejudices of religious fanaticism. The loss of such genius is, to my mind, a matter for universal mourning. For genius is so rare, so unique and so needful to the human spirit that to destroy even one particle of it is a loss that may never be recovered.
Perhaps that is why the world is in the lamentable condition it is: because we have had so little care for the possibility of genius and for its role in elevating humanity that we have, in effect, performed a lobotomy on our race and an excision of our spirit for which we all suffer.
But there is genius among us, both past and present. And the hope that such genius will continue to nourish our souls and enlighten our culture must yet sustain us.