Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

So what exactly is genius?

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Napoleon Bonaparte

I throw around the word “genius” a lot on this blog. Over the last few years alone, I’ve written posts with titles like “The neurotic genius of Dan Harmon,” “Vince Gilligan and the dark genius of Breaking Bad,” and even “The lost genius of Family Circus.” I’ve applied the term to individuals as diverse in their fields as Charles Schulz, Ferran Adrià, Matthew Weiner, Umberto Eco, Shigeru Miyamoto, and Dr. Seuss. The more I look at the word, though, the less satisfactory it seems. When I think of genius, isolated from any particular case or example, I tend to picture something inexplicable, maybe even a little sinister, as Goethe says about the career of one incomparable genius of the world:

The story of Napoleon produces on me an impression like that produced by the Revelation of Saint John the Divine. We all feel there must be something more in it, but we do not know what.

That sense of something unknown that we haven’t yet been able to grasp is central to the traditional spirit of genius, but at a time when most of our geniuses are so open to interviews, profiles, and commentary tracks, it’s hard not to feel that its meaning needs to be reappraised.

Originally, “genius” was a term with a touch of the supernatural, describing a guiding spirit or deity. Even now, we often think of genius as something other than ordinary consciousness, and it feels this way even to those who seem to possess it. This fits reasonably well with what we know about the brain: impulses and ideas do appear to filter up from lower strata to be sifted or processed on a more conscious level, and they range from the decision to brush one’s teeth to the melody for “Yesterday.” In The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, Julian Jaynes hypothesizes that this division between inspiration and action used to be even more stark: messages would originate in the right hemisphere of the brain and wander into the left, where they were interpreted as the voice of a god or inner daimon. And one of the implications of modern neurological research is that this division still exists, and we’ve simply become better at attributing these impulses to our sense of self.

Stanley Kubrick

In short, there’s something occult and mysterious about the process of genius, at least as it’s traditionally understood. These days, however, much of it seems to unfold in public. Many of the individuals I mentioned above are geniuses in areas that don’t reward solitary visionaries so much as superb organizers: a television showrunner or film director may well follow a voice from his unconscious, but he also needs to be good at dealing with actors, coordinating the work of various creative departments, and deciding on the color of the wallpaper. As the case of Dan Harmon indicates, a strong creative vision may even be a liability if it makes it hard to work with others. And even a deeply original genius may find that inspiration is less important than methodical, systematic attention to detail. Kubrick, for instance, was as close to an intellectual genius as the movies have seen, but it manifested itself as much in his care and patience as in the conceptions of his films themselves. Genius is the engine that drives the project, but diligence brings it home.

And this deserves to be respected, even if it doesn’t fit the standard conception of genius—unless, of course, we use the alternative definition, as famously enunciated by Thomas Carlyle, that genius is a “transcendent capacity of taking trouble.” Napoleon, not surprisingly, embodied both qualities in one career, with a nearly supernatural level of intuition and decisiveness united to a bottomless appetite for facts, figures, and the daily bureaucratic grind of running an empire. (It’s no wonder that Kubrick was so obsessed by him.) A while back, I noted that the solitary geniuses of science, like Darwin or Freud, have largely been replaced by geniuses of collaboration, as science becomes an endeavor that requires increasing specialization and coordination. It’s likely that we’re seeing something similar taking place in the arts. The most visible art forms of our time—film, television, even music—are the work of little Napoleons, where the shadowy side of genius is enabled by the gifts of great producers and administrators. It’s the age of left-brained genius. And now it’s the right brain that seems to be taken along for the ride.

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  1. Interesting article! If you like history, please visit and follow my recently created blog at (I’ll follow you back!) It contains history articles on a variety of subjects written by myself and friends from university! I’ve also written an article about the fascinating character of Napoleon, and his rise to power in particular. I would welcome your feedback :)


    August 8, 2013 at 12:23 pm

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