Book Review: Divine Fury


January 6, 2014

Who but for the most addlebrained mediocrities—and even some of them—isn't a genius these days? In a recent "special" edition of Time called "Secrets of Genius: Discovering the Nature of Brilliance," the magazine tells us that not only was Einstein an Einstein but so too are such luminaries as Kim Kardashian, Angelina Jolie and Lady Gaga. Time devotes some six pages to the staggering genius of the comedian Stephen Colbert. Mozart gets a paragraph.


Our democratized notions of genius may be preposterous, but they aren't necessarily a bad thing, suggests Darrin McMahon in "Divine Fury," a deeply researched history of the idea of genius in the Western world. Current low standards, he notes, at least save us from looking for gods among men, an impulse that, in modern times, has lifted flawed thinkers and tyrannous men to dangerous heights of authority.


It is true that the ancients looked for gods among men, but not in the modern way. The ancients believed that each man had a "genius"—a sort of guardian or companion spirit. The great man—whether he was Caesar or Alexander or Socrates —was blessed with a great genius that made remarkable accomplishment possible. When Romans swore by the genius of Caesar, they weren't attesting to the emperor's outsize mental gifts but acknowledging the powerful guardian spirit that connected Caesar with the gods.


Genius was a theological concept, and a contentious one at that. "If you vainly suppose that I will swear by the genius of Caesar," said Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna, in Asia Minor, under interrogation by a second-century Roman proconsul, "you are ignorant of who I am. Listen plainly; I am a Christian." The Romans are said to have killed the bishop with a sword to the neck when burning him at the stake didn't do the job. Martyred for refusing to venerate a genius, Polycarp would be revered as a saint. And yet Christians, Mr. McMahon writes, would soon regard their growing ranks of saints as the sort of "guardian protectors" that geniuses had been for pagans. Saints, Mr. McMahon writes, assumed "the role of the Roman genius of old."


Pagan genius or venerated saint: Both alluded to a spiritual presence that bridged the chasm between man and the divine. By the 17th century, the old uses of the term genius could still be found in the dictionary, but primarily as a historical reference. After guiding us through an etymological slog, Mr. McMahon gets us to the "Dictionnaire universel" of 1690. The book's entry on genius, while noting the ancient meanings, gives a usage that was just then coming into fashion in France. Genius is "used as well to refer to natural talent," and of the man with plenty of it, one could say: "This man is a genius."


The modern obsession with genius got going in earnest in the 18th century with the crazes for such worthies as Mozart and Ben Franklin. Wolfgang Amadeus, the child prodigy, was paraded around Europe performing astonishing keyboard feats. In France, Franklin's image was struck on medallions, worn on lockets and even, as sports heroes are today, made into figurines. The Promethean genius who wrested lightning from the heavens looked about and deprecatingly joked that he was being "i-doll-ized."


Geniuses weren't just smart or learned, they were expected, above all, to be creative. Mr. McMahon attributes this view to the Enlightenment tendency to put God aside. The Creator, in short, was no longer the only creator. "In God's absence," Mr. McMahon writes, "human beings were free to assume elements of his power, taking upon themselves capacities that they had long attributed to him." But would it matter whether that creativity was put to good use or bad? And who was to say which was which?


The Enlightenment fashion for celebrating inventive minds gave way in Europe to a 19th-century cult of great men. In the hands of the Romantics, genius was championed as an untamed force of radical creativity setting the great man apart from the masses. Such creativity mustn't be hindered by the fusty old rules that chained the average man to his dreary routine. "On this view," Mr. McMahon writes, "social convention, prevailing taste, and considered judgment were more apt to serve as shackles than as wise restraints." Genius, in the Romantic age, needed to be set free. And if a little crockery got smashed, well, that was not only the great man's prerogative, it was a sign that he was living up to expectations. In the Hegelian formulation: "A mighty figure must trample many an innocent flower underfoot, and destroy much that lies in its path." What could go wrong?


"Evil always arrives on earth by means of some man of genius," the 18th-century French philosopher Denis Diderot had warned, anticipating the hazards of genius worship. Napoleon would soon prove him right, as would the authors of the 20th century's abundant evils. Stalin's personality cult was boosted with copious testaments to his genius. But it was Hitler who, exploiting a German "religion of genius," seized power proclaiming, and having his propagandists proclaim, his towering genius. He would prove just how much destruction a "mighty figure" could manage, given the opportunity.


As Time magazine reminds us, ours is a celebrity age in which even an insipid reality-show star can be labeled a genius. But there is no doubt something healthy in what Mr. McMahon calls the "all-too-human dimensions" of postmodern genius. It produces a skepticism that serves "to protect us from the impulse to raise idols and to bow and scrape before them"—and maybe that's worth blurring the line between da Vinci and DiCaprio.