Music has given us some of the greatest geniuses in history, including Beethoven. But is the word ‘genius’ thrown around too freely in modern workplaces? P f Sloan and S E feinberg search for enlightenment
16th century Rabbi once wrote: “In the days to come, any one with common sense will be considered a genius.” Author Mark Twain agreed when he opined: “The thing about common sense is that it’s not so common.” An Indian story tells of a man who had lost a valuable ring in his house. He went outside and started to look for the ring under the street lamp. A man approached him and wanted to help.
“What are you looking for?” the man asked. “Oh, I’m looking for a ring.” “Where did you lose the ring?” “In my bedroom.” “Why are you looking for the ring out here?” “The light is better.”
There is an obverse logic of common sense in the man looking for the ring. He is right in a humorous way. You cannot find a ring in the dark.
All the endeavours of “humanity” since our emergence from caves have come from subtle shifts in perception. The human race seems to continue to slog and plod through the muck of history, waiting for the next genius to lift it up and out. Genius seems to be a level of awareness that, when put into practice, moves humanity forward for the benefit of all.
“Spread out!” The first soldier, who yelled this while marching in close order into a hail of bullets and certain death, saved many of the lives of his friends. That was certainly innovative. Was he a genius? Is self-preservation a spark that ignites the imagination that can change the world?
What and who do you think of when you think of genius? The art of Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Milton? The science of Newton, Galileo, Pasteur, Einstein, Tesla? The music of Mozart and Beethoven – Dylan or Brian Wilson? How about Steve Jobs? Forgive us if we have left out your favourite genius. Everyone has one.
A curious thing happened while writing this article. We discovered when asking people about the nature of genius, that rather than having a calm and interesting conversation about it, they became agitated and angry – even threatened about their own personal ideas of who is and who is not a genius. Who knew that a discussion about genius could become so controversial? We had no idea that people covet their own personal genius as one covets one’s favourite Italian restaurant.
It is in the nature of all sentient beings to think, analyze and produce solutions. Ants, monkeys, lions and birds can do this. The human being differs from the animal in that he can conceive of the good of all. The human mind (having long suffered due to separation from its source) comes closest to finding relief – if not self-awareness – when exploring its own heart. And in doing so, it gets to the heart of the matter, answering its own questions. Genius comes in flashes of inspiration, but it has been working in the depths of the human heart, perhaps for lifetimes. While genius seems to come in many sizes, little geniuses, in all fields of human endeavour, push the ball forward to the goal line.
Genius of creativity
Let’s take a look at two recognized geniuses working in the same field. Mozart, a child prodigy, wrote from a fully conceived idea that swiftly developed into a symphony. Beethoven, also a child prodigy, was able to fully conceive a symphony in all of its glory, but had to wait years before it would materialize. Some consider Mozart to be the greater genius because we are told he received divine inspiration and immediately acted upon it, whereas, Beethoven struggled to remain true to his initial inspiration. Both composers lift our spirits into the realm of beauty and truth. And like love itself, it feels natural.
Genius, therefore, is natural because it has, within its nature, truth, beauty, simplicity, imagination and discernment. The music of Beethoven and Mozart has all of these elements. The point is, it doesn’t matter how long the symphony takes to write, as long as it is written.
Is genius transferable? If I spend time with genius, will it rub off on me? Another German composer Ferdinand Ries spent years with Beethoven and asked him these very questions. As a composer himself, he pressed Beethoven for answers (see box below).
Mostly, they come as simple reminders of things that need to be done; very few of us gain an inspiration for a symphony or a perpetual motion machine. Fewer still have the wherewithal to wrap a rope around the idea and then haul it into the workshop and dedicate the next 25 years to make it a reality – while in the midst of attending to other projects.
“We must stand on the shoulders of giants” is a phrase attributed to Albert Einstein. Beethoven stood on the shoulders of Haydn and Mozart and said he couldn’t have done what he did without them. They came first. The past is important. “I seem to be existing, in a world that will not listen, like a book with pages missing and just blots out the past,” writes P F Sloan, the co-author of this article, in his song This Mornin’. “I was 17 and listening to the heart and soul of Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan, standing on their shoulders and getting to see from a higher view.” It is in the nature of genius to learn from the past with a keen sense of discernment.
All that is new and fashionable today we know will fade away quickly and the new stuff that will take its place will again take its toll on our excitement. We call this malady Modern Exceptionalism. The pages of the past are discarded, and the chant goes up: “We are living in the most modern society of all time!” This is why, in education, “new” concepts like emotional intelligence are reinvented, starting with Euripides and continuing until Goleman and beyond.
Therefore, we are better than anyone else who has ever lived.
How many times in history has that proclamation been heard? But is this true? Do the peace and serenity that have been replaced with instantaneous communication mean a better life?
The human mind has reached out into the stars. Scientists study subatomic particles. The world gets smaller and smaller as communication gets faster and faster. Some say the new generations coming in is already hard-wired for this leap in technology, but the so-called genius child who can figure out the intricacies of a computer at four years of age may still need a picture of a hamburger on the menu. What good is all this technology if we are constantly absorbed in the outside world and looking for fulfilment there? Genius requires fantasy, dreaming and a modicum of solitude. Would there ever have been a space programme without the imagination from a genius like author H G Wells? Probably. Man has always dreamed of going to the moon and feasting upon an endless supply of cheese.
Can genius have its day and then become passé? The nature of genius is unswerving faith and adherence to the truth and it cannot rest until the solution is obtainable. Without the adherence to the truth, even if E=mc2 becomes passé, progress would have been impossible without it having been so. So, the answer is, we need a genius with common sense to fix the new messes we have created for ourselves.
Genius is a genre, not a description. It is the mountain peak. When the confusion of complexity clarifies into simplicity, we tend to characterize it in popular language as the “aha!” or “eureka!” moment. But, often as not, that singular, sudden burst of illumination can get buried somehow. So, like the task of the detective, the work of remembering and uncovering the brilliance of the shining diamond becomes necessary. Perseverance and patience, along with tremendous endurance, is in the very nature of genius.
If everyone who has been labelled a genius by someone or by society were a genius, one could throw an iced macchiato and hit five geniuses in front of any Starbucks. But we know, in reality, it really would be less than 1% of all people who have ever lived, since it is society that bestows the mantle of genius upon someone who seems to satisfy their immediate needs. Say, for example, if Hitler had won World War II, would we not be reading about the genius of Goebbels or Albert Speer? Is there such a thing as evil genius? So-called evil geniuses have one thing in common – whatever they do, it benefits themselves first, or their own specific interests, and does not take the benefit of all into consideration.
An Aztec priest who cut out the hearts of terrified, young, captured warriors to the cheers of thousands may have been perceived as beneficial to society (because the act, in this example, could have been believed to help improve the chances of rain). We imagine two Aztec citizens walking away from this rite, feeling very good indeed about the genius of the priest on top of the pyramid.
When the French Emperor Napoleon declared that all art came from God and therefore, by law, was the property of all and not of one person, artists stopped working, as there was no reward. Beethoven, however, continued writing, rarely being compensated for his work while proclaiming that “genius requires a sense of beauty!” Does genius require reward? No. But it does require self-satisfaction.
Today’s concept of the word genius is generally confused with the word “talent” and is bandied about with little regard to its lofty place, like the words “hero” or “brilliant”.
Even the car mechanic who figures out what is wrong with your engine is decried a genius! He may be very clever, but is he a genius? Just for a moment, let’s take on the role of peacemaker and play Genius Tradeoff. Is the car mechanic a genius? You say he is, we respectfully disagree and argue for the hair stylist who has the ability to turn a “sow’s ear into a silk purse”. Frank Lloyd Wright. One yea and one nay. Do we all have to agree, for it to be so? Or can we simply realize that there is a looser definition of genius today that did not exist in the past, and accept that pre- modern genius had a higher bar than has post-modern genius. If so, we can now enjoy all the five-year-old mini Beethovens pounding on piano keys, while the mother, with great pride, tells everyone that their sons are geniuses. We can smile and look on with understanding, as long as we have some insight into the true nature of genius.
We have designated nine pillars to the architecture of genius. First, is an unwavering faith in, or obsession with, truth. It may manifest as a conceptualization, which then leads to a search – this is the “great pursuit of truth.” We find the second in the inner realms of the mind and spirit – the dual sisters of imagination and curiosity – ultimately released into the material world of the practical. The third is perseverance and persistence and the ability to endure, both physically and mentally. This is essential, as the hindrance of failure must not interfere with this unwavering pursuit. The fourth pillar is knowing that the fully realized idea is self-evident and will ultimately enlighten and remove ignorance. The fifth is simplicity from complexity. The sixth is awareness of the past and discernment, the tool of deductive reasoning – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. The seventh is that an idea be for the betterment and uplifting of all humanity. The eighth is the allowance of fantasy, dreaming and the essential element of solitude. The ninth is the ability to keep an open mind, sincerity of purpose and beauty. In our opinion, one of the many gifts in the world is the gift of genius.
Here is an excerpt from our popera Louie! Louie! (The Secret Life Of Ludwig van Beethoven) that deals with the genius of creativity. By the way, these are the actual words of LV Beethoven and ferdinand Ries, taken from their personal letters:
Ries says to Beethoven: “You have allowed me personal closeness. That of a confidante and friend. I have learned so much from copying each note as it plays in my heart… from my eyes to my hand… I say to myself… how does he do this? Always surprising me… and delighting me in unexpected ways. Can what you have be learned by someone like me? Or am I doomed to mere mediocrity – not having been a prodigy. I’m fearful of a life wasted… fearful of deluding myself that I can do great things in music. But I am desperate to know where creativity comes from? From where is creativity conceived? Where does it begin, I mean… for you? Please, you must tell me if you place any value at all on my service and love for you!”
Beethoven responds with a suppressed sense of aggravation: “You ask me where I get my ideas. That I cannot tell you with certainty; they come unsummoned, directly, indirectly – I could seize them with my hands out in the air… or in the woods… in silence of the nights… early in the morning; incited perhaps by moods, which are translated by the poet into words, by me into tones… that sound… and roar and storm about me until I have set them down in notes. I carry my ideas with me for a long time before I write them down… my memory is so reliable that I am certain even after years, never to forget a subject which has once been created. I alter a little and try again until I feel I am satisfied and have found it right. Then begins in my head the process of working it out… and as I am fully conscious of what I want… the original idea never leaves me, but rises and grows. I never write a work continuously through, without interruption. I am always working on several at the same time… taking up one… then another.”