Who IS a genius, anyway? Darrin McMahon tries to tell us - The Buffalo News

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Who IS a genius, anyway? Darrin McMahon tries to tell us

Divine Fury: A History of Genius

By Darrin McMahon

Basic Books

360 pages, $29.99

By Jack Quinan


“Divine Fury: A History of Genius” belongs to the genre the History of Ideas that Harvard professor Peter E. Gordon, has described as “a rather old fashioned phrase, not currently in vogue, which looks at large scale concepts as they appear and transform over the course of history.”

The History of Ideas flourished during the first half of the 20th century under the aegis of Arthur O. Lovejoy, who founded the still popular Journal of the History of Ideas in 1940. Such seismic shifts in academic practices as the relentless expansion of universities, ever-narrowing fields of academic specialization, the impact of studies in gender, race, post-colonialism and literary criticism, and an overblown popular culture, have relegated the History of Ideas to the realm of the merely quaint.

Or so it would seem.

Darrin M. McMahon’s “Divine Fury: A History of Genius” is an exceptional work of accessibly written scholarship that seems poised to usher the history of ideas back into vogue; or perhaps not. Unlike the histories of knowledge or culture or ideas, genius is a unique and mysterious subject that fascinates and provokes. What produces genius? Is genius measurable? Why are the acknowledged geniuses in history almost entirely male? Why have so many geniuses suffered from mental torment? How is it that genius – once the provenance of Leonardo Da Vinci, Mozart, and Einstein – is now wantonly applied to NFL coaches, rock stars and Apple Store employees?

McMahon wrestles with these and many related questions in a history that proceeds from ancient Greece and Rome to the Middle Ages to modernity in three chapters followed by three thematic chapters within the modern era titled “The Romantic Genius,” “Geniology,” and “The Religion of Genius.” McMahon’s impressive command of literary, biblical, historical, philosophical and psychological resources defies condensation but rewards a persistent reader.

“Divine Fury” begins in ancient times where it was believed that exceptional people such as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle possessed a daimon, or personal guardian, that interceded between them and the gods. In the age of Christianity daimons were transformed into angels and in the Renaissance humanist thinkers like Ficino and Pico engineered the gradual shift from angels, saints and demi-gods to the proto-modern notion that genius comes from within the individual, Michelangelo being the ideal example.

As McMahon presses on into the Enlightenment the pace of the book accelerates, the cloak of religiosity falls away, scientific inquiry takes over, and the question of genius begins to be confronted more directly, facilitated by the proliferation of literacy and the wealth of printed records and resources that resulted from the invention of Gutenburg’s printing press. The 18th century abounded in scholarly debates that pitted the ancients against the moderns, the Greeks versus the Romans in architecture, and the painterly versus the classical in art.

In the genius debate, Kant, Diderot and Addison held that genius was a natural occurrence while Helvetius, John Locke and Thomas Hobbes believed genius to be imitative, a matter of achievement through learning. Such debates were a boon to scholarship.

On the threshold of the modern era McMahon inserts a brief intermezzo chapter titled “The Dawn of the Idols,” dedicated to the cult of genius that occurred in France just prior to the revolution of 1789. The moment is significant in that the church of Sainte-Geneviève was renamed the Panthéon and consecrated as a shrine not to gods, as in the Roman Pantheon, but to such French geniuses as Voltaire, Descartes and Rousseau. Clearly secularism had arrived.

“The Romantic Genius” of chapter four is personified by Napoleon, whose distinction was a combination of extraordinary charisma, tactical brilliance in war, a passion for science, a philosophical bent and irrepressible energy, and yet McMahon gives greater attention to Napoleon’s contemporary, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. The juxtaposition is telling: against Napoleon’s ferocious and ultimately destructive ambition Shelley is, according to McMahon, “Hegel’s world-historical individual who at once possesses and is possessed by the spirit of the times.”

McMahon’s resources intensify substantially as notions of genius based in theologies give way to scientific attempts to identify and quantify the sources of genius. Lavater’s and Gall’s laughable studies of physiognomy and cranioscopy in the 18th century are supplanted at the end of the 19th century by Lambroso’s investigations of the interrelatedness of genius, madness, and degenerative disease, Galton’s theory of hereditary genius, and Alfred Binet’s celebrated IQ test.

Continuing the scientific approach, in 1921 Lewis Terman of Stanford University, creator of the Stanford-Binet test, began a life-long attempt to identify and follow the careers of 1,000 exceptionally intelligent white children (known as “Termites”), none of whom ever proved to be a genius. Nevertheless, the work of Binet and Terman played a major role in shifting the locus of interest from genius to intelligence and its measures.

In “The Religion of Genius,” his sixth chapter, McMahon demonstrates that even as genius was being explored scientifically “genius was becoming a criterion of political authority, assuming the awe and aura once reserved for divinely conferred majesty.” Marshaling the writings of a diverse group of thinkers including Edgar Zilsel, Hermann Turck, Thomas Carlyle, John Stuart Mill, Frederich Nietzsche and Houston Stewart Chamberlain, McMahon delineates the development of a cult of genius wherein genius and divine authority were reunited primarily in the service of various nationalisms.

Adolf Hitler is presented as the epitome of the cult of genius that produced Mussolini, Franco, Tito, Peron and Stalin, but McMahon brilliantly juxtaposes Hitler to Albert Einstein, the evil to the good, the cult figure to self-effacing scientist. Today Einstein and genius have become virtually synonymous while Hitler is more often remembered as a raving madman.

In his concluding chapter McMahon attributes the demise of genius to many causes and circumstances ranging from the democratization and globalization of the concept of genius in the aftermath of World War II to the futile examination of Einstein’s brain by a team of neuroanatomists to the rampant attribution of genius to almost anyone who manages to gain the public spotlight.

The genius of this book lies in the ways that Darrin McMahon demonstrates that genius is a manifestation of the age in which it occurs; a genius may be a warrior, a composer, a poet, an artist, an inventor, a philosopher, and even a dictator. Geniuses are enormously gifted individuals who both make and are made by their times.

In his concluding acknowledgments McMahon modestly writes, “I have undoubtedly suffered from many delusions in my life … but being a genius is not one of them.” Maybe not, but he is a very high-functioning individual who has written a book that is bound to intrigue anyone interested in the concept of genius, especially today when it seems that anyone and everyone can be one.

Jack Quinan is the former curator of the Darwin Martin House.

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