The biological basis of genius.
I believe Thomas Edison famously said, “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.” While some of us may think that the truth value of this soundbite is limited, its memic power lasts because bringing an idea to fruition does require due diligence. In her discussion of art Langer presents the idea of the ‘commanding form’, the gestalt that comes into the artist’s mind that can then be expressed fully according to the artist’s talents. Picasso worked rapidly to paint out his ideas as he carried forth traditions, initiated new forms and then tried out different expressions of those new forms. From this we could think that genius requires both the visionary seeds and talented expression, including the assiduous effort to stay true to some intuitive commanding form, and I think we would be right. Actually this also applies to scientific endeavors; consider Einstein’s daydreams, Archimedes ‘eureka,’ Pythagoras vision of geometric relations and the musical scales, or Newton’s apple (oh sure, just another memic fantasy that one).
I recently re-read Virginia Woolf’s remarkable novel about artistic being, the complexity of human thought and relationships, and the passage of time, To the Lighthouse. Consider this passage thought out by Lily Briscoe, by all accounts, even her own, an amateur albeit thoughtful artist of small gifts.
“Where to begin?—that was the question at what point to make the first mark? One line placed on the canvas committed her to innumerable risks, to frequent and irrevocable decisions. All that in idea that seemed simple became in practice immediately complex; as the waves shape themselves symmetrically from the cliff top, but to the swimmer among them are divided by steep gulfs, and foaming crests. Still the risk must be run; the mark made.”
Much in this novel, as in most of Woolf’s mature writings, presents us with her understanding of the compositional process ongoing in the human mind and personality and how art is a parallel process with special purpose. Risk? Of course courage in pursuit of the full expression of the commanding form, be it artistic, scientific, or invention, is required if only for power it brings to one’s focused effort. And genius also seems to include the ability to live mentally in some self created virtual domain; indeed, I suspect much of the gratification and survival value of artistic effort is in just this moment of abstraction from life experience. One more passage from Woolf:
Before she exchanged the fluidity of life for the concentration of painting she had a few moments of nakedness, when she seemed like an unborn soul, a soul reft of body, hesitating on some windy pinnacle and exposed without protection to all the blasts of doubt.
So it would seem that artistic genius at its base helps each one of us to experience such a moment when our unborn soul stands in solitude before becoming embodied and life’s reality resumes its prominent passage even as we are changed by the artistic experience. Ah, but travel on.
Next up: Naomi Oreskes on seeing the difference between a charlatan and a visionary.