Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Dean Simonton

The memory of persistence

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In Origins of Genius, which is one of my favorite books on creativity, the psychologist Dean Simonton makes an argument that I’ve tried to bear in mind ever since I first read it. While discussing the problem of creative productivity, Simonton states emphatically: “If the number of influential works is directly proportional to the total number of works produced, then the creators with the most masterpieces will be those with the most ignored and neglected products! Even the most supreme creative genius must have their careers punctuated with wasted efforts.” After quoting W.H. Auden, who observes that a major poet will tend to write more bad poems than a minor one, he continues:

If the creative genius is generating failures as well as successes, this seems to support the assumption that the creative process is to a certain extent blind. Even the greatest creators possess no direct and secure path to truth or beauty. They cannot guarantee that every published idea will survive further evaluation and testing at the hands of audiences or colleagues. The best the creative genius can do is to be as prolific as possible in generating products in the hope that at least some subset will survive the test of time.

This still ranks as one of the most significant insights into the creative process that I’ve ever seen, and Simonton sums it up elsewhere, like a true poet, in a form that can be easily remembered: “Quality is a probabilistic function of quantity.”

Simonton has a new book out this week, The Genius Checklist, with a long excerpt available on Nautilus. In the article, he focuses on the problem of intelligence tests, and in particular on two cases that point to the limitations of defining genius simply as the possession of a high IQ. One revolves around Lewis M. Terman, the creator of the modern intelligence scale, who had the notion of testing thousands of students and tracking the top performers over time. The result was an ongoing study of about 1,500 men and women, known as the “Termites,” some of whom are still alive today. As Simonton notes, the results didn’t exactly support Terman’s implicit assumptions:

None of [the Termites] grew up to become what many people would consider unambiguous exemplars of genius. Their extraordinary intelligence was channeled into somewhat more ordinary endeavors as professors, doctors, lawyers, scientists, engineers, and other professionals…Furthermore, many Termites failed to become highly successful in any intellectual capacity. These comparative failures were far less likely to graduate from college or to attain professional or graduate degrees, and far more likely to enter occupations that required no higher education whatsoever…Whatever their differences, intelligence was not a determining factor in those who made it and those who didn’t.

Terman also tested two future Nobel laureates—Luis Alvarez and William Shockley—who were rejected because they didn’t score highly enough. And Simonton notes that neither James Watson nor Richard Feynman, whose biography is actually called Genius, did well enough on such tests to qualify for Mensa.

Even if you’re a fan of Marilyn vos Savant, this isn’t particularly surprising. But I was even more interested in Simonton’s account of the work of Catharine Cox, Terman’s colleague, who decided to tackle the problem from the opposite direction—by starting with a list of known luminaries in all fields and trying to figure out what their tested IQs would have been, based solely on biographical information. This approach has obvious problems as well, of course, but her conclusion, which appears in her book The Early Mental Traits of Three Hundred Geniuses, seems reasonable enough: “High but not the highest intelligence, combined with the greatest degree of persistence, will achieve greater eminence than the highest degree of intelligence with somewhat less persistence.” And in her discussion of qualities that seem predictive of success, persistence is prominently mentioned:

We may conclude that the following traits and trait elements appearing in childhood and youth are diagnostic of future achievement: an unusual degree of persistence—tendency not to be changeable, tenacity of purpose, and perseverance in the face of obstacles—combined with intellective energy—mental work bestowed on special interests, profoundness of apprehension, and originality of ideas—and the vigorous ambition expressed by the possession to the highest degree of desire to excel.

Cox concludes: “Achievements…are not the accidents of a day. They are the natural outgrowth in individuals of superior general powers of persistent interest and great zeal combined with rare special talents.”

If we really want to identify the geniuses of the future, it seems, we should look for persistence as well as intelligence, and we might even be tempted to develop a test that would gauge a student’s “tenacity of purpose.” The ability to remain focused in the face of failures and setbacks is clearly related to Simonton’s rule about quality and quantity, which implies that a genius, to borrow John Gardner’s definition of the true writer, is someone who doesn’t quit. But there’s an even more important point to be made here. As I noted just the other day, it’s easier to fail repeatedly when you occupy a social position that protects you to some extent from the consequences. It can be hard to be “as prolific as possible in generating products” when even one mistake might end your creative journey forever. And our culture has been far more forgiving of some categories of people than of others. (In discussing Terman’s results, Simonton makes the hard decision to omit women from the group entirely: “We’re talking only of the males here, too. It would be unfair to consider the females who were born at a time in which all women were expected to become homemakers, no matter how bright.” And he might also have cited the cultural pressures that discourage a woman from taking risks that are granted to a man.) When you look at lists of canonical geniuses, like the authors of the great books, they can start to seem maddeningly alike—and if we define privilege in part as the freedom to make repeated mistakes, it’s no wonder. Over time, this also reduces the diversity of the ideas that are available for cultural selection, which can lead to a crisis in itself. The only solution is to increase the range of voices, and it isn’t easy. In the absence of such advantages, even the individuals who beat the odds must have been confronted at every turn by excellent reasons to give up. But nevertheless, they persisted.

The monotonous periodicity of genius

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Yesterday, I read a passage from the book Music and Life by the critic and poet W.J. Turner that has been on my mind ever since. He begins with a sentence from the historian Charles Sanford Terry, who says of Bach’s cantatas: “There are few phenomena in the record of art more extraordinary than this unflagging cataract of inspiration in which masterpiece followed masterpiece with the monotonous periodicity of a Sunday sermon.” Turner objects to this:

In my enthusiasm for Bach I swallowed this statement when I first met it, but if Dr. Terry will excuse the expression, it is arrant nonsense. Creative genius does not work in this way. Masterpieces are not produced with the monotonous periodicity of a Sunday sermon. In fact, if we stop to think we shall understand that this “monotonous periodicity ” was exactly what was wrong with a great deal of Bach’s music. Bach, through a combination of natural ability and quite unparalleled concentration on his art, had arrived at the point of being able to sit down at any minute of any day and compose what had all the superficial appearance of being a masterpiece. It is possible that even Bach himself did not know which was a masterpiece and which was not, and it is abundantly clear to me that in all his large-sized works there are huge chunks of stuff to which inspiration is the last word that one could apply.

All too often, Turner implies, Bach leaned on his technical facility when inspiration failed or he simply felt indifferent to the material: “The music shows no sign of Bach’s imagination having been fired at all; the old Leipzig Cantor simply took up his pen and reeled off this chorus as any master craftsman might polish off a ticklish job in the course of a day’s work.”

I first encountered the Turner quotation in The New Listener’s Companion and Record Guide by B.H. Haggin, who cites his fellow critic approvingly and adds: “This seems to me an excellent description of the essential fact about Bach—that one hears always the operation of prodigious powers of invention and construction, but frequently an operation that is not as expressive as it is accomplished.” Haggin continues:

Listening to the six sonatas or partitas for unaccompanied violin, the six sonatas or suites for unaccompanied piano, one is aware of Bach’s success with the difficult problem he set himself, of contriving for the instrument a melody that would imply its underlying harmonic progressions between the occasional chords. But one is aware also that solving this problem was not equivalent to writing great or even enjoyable music…I hear only Bach’s craftsmanship going through the motions of creation and producing the external appearances of expressiveness. And I suspect that it is the name of Bach that awes listeners into accepting the appearance as reality, into hearing an expressive content which isn’t there, and into believing that if the content is difficult to hear, this is only because it is especially profound—because it is “the passionate, yet untroubled meditation of a great mind” that lies beyond “the composition’s formidable technical frontiers.”

Haggins confesses that he regards many pieces in The Goldberg Variations or The Well-Tempered Clavier as “examples of competent construction that are, for me, not interesting pieces of music.” And he sums up: “Bach’s way of exercising the spirit was to exercise his craftsmanship; and some of the results offer more to delight an interest in the skillful use of technique than to delight the spirit.”

As I read this, I was inevitably reminded of Christopher Orr’s recent article in The Atlantic, “The Remarkable Laziness of Woody Allen,” which I discussed here last week. Part of Orr’s case against Allen involves “his frenetic pace of one feature film a year,” which can only be described as monotonous periodicity. This isn’t laziness, of course—it’s the opposite—but Orr implies that the director’s obsession with productivity has led him to cut corners in the films themselves: “Ambition simply isn’t on the agenda.” Yet the funny thing is that this approach to making art, while extreme, is perfectly rational. Allen writes, directs, and releases three movies in the time it would take most directors to finish one, and when you look at his box office and awards history, you see that about one in three breaks through to become a financial success, an Oscar winner, or both. And Orr’s criticism of this process, like Turner’s, could only have been made by a professional critic. If you’re obliged to see every Woody Allen movie or have an opinion on every Bach cantata, it’s easy to feel annoyed by the lesser efforts, and you might even wish that that the artist had only released the works in which his inspiration was at its height. For the rest of us, though, this really isn’t an issue. We get to skip Whatever Works or Irrational Man in favor of the occasional Match Point or Midnight in Paris, and most of us are happy if we can even recognize the cantata that has “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.” If you’re a fan, but not a completist, a skilled craftsman who produces a lot of technically proficient work in hopes that some of it will stick is following a reasonable strategy. As Malcolm Gladwell writes of Bach:

The difference between Bach and his forgotten peers isn’t necessarily that he had a better ratio of hits to misses. The difference is that the mediocre might have a dozen ideas, while Bach, in his lifetime, created more than a thousand full-fledged musical compositions. A genius is a genius, [Dean] Simonton maintains, because he can put together such a staggering number of insights, ideas, theories, random observations, and unexpected connections that he almost inevitably ends up with something great.

As Simonton puts it: “Quality is a probabilistic function of quantity.” But if there’s a risk involved, it’s that an artist will become so used to producing technically proficient material on a regular basis that he or she will fall short when the circumstances demand it. Which brings us back to Bach. Turner’s remarks appear in a chapter on the Mass in B minor, which was hardly a throwaway—it’s generally considered to be one of Bach’s major works. For Turner, however, the virtuosity expressed in the cantatas allowed Bach to take refuge in cleverness even when there was more at stake: “I say that the pretty trumpet work in the four-part chorus of the Gloria, for example, is a proof that Bach was being consciously clever and brightening up his stuff, and that he was not at that moment writing with the spontaneity of those really creative moments which are popularly called inspired.” And he writes of the Kyrie, which he calls “monotonous”:

It is still impressive, and no doubt to an academic musician, with the score in his hands and his soul long ago defunct, this charge of monotony would appear incredible, but then his interest is almost entirely if not absolutely technical. It is a source of everlasting amazement to him to contemplate Bach’s prodigious skill and fertility of invention. But what do I care for Bach’s prodigious skill? Even such virtuosity as Bach’s is valueless unless it expresses some ulterior beauty or, to put it more succinctly, unless it is as expressive as it is accomplished.

And I’m not sure that he’s even wrong. It might seem remarkable to make this accusation of Bach, who is our culture’s embodiment of technical skill as an embodiment of spiritual expression, but if the charge is going to have any weight at all, it has to hold at the highest level. William Blake once wrote: “Mechanical excellence is the only vehicle of genius.” He was right. But it can also be a vehicle, by definition, for literally everything else. And sometimes the real genius lies in being able to tell the difference.

The secret of creativity

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On Tuesday, in an article in The Daily Beast, I sampled some of the recent wave of books on consciousness and creativity, including Imagine by Jonah Lehrer and The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, and concluded that while such books might make us feel smarter, they aren’t likely to make us more creative or rational than we already were. As far as creativity is concerned, I note, there are no easy answers: even the greatest creative geniuses, like Bach, tend to have the same ratio of hits to misses as their forgotten contemporaries, which means that the best way to have a good idea is simply to have as many ideas, good or bad, as possible. And I close my essay with some genuinely useful advice from Dean Simonton, whom I’ve quoted on this blog before: “The best a creative genius can do is to be as prolific as possible in generating products in hope that at least some subset will survive the test of time.”

So does that mean that all other advice on creativity is worthless? I hope not, because otherwise, I’ve been wasting a lot of time on this blog. I’ve devoted countless posts to discussing creativity tools like intentional randomness and mind maps, talking about various methods of increasing serendipity, and arguing for the importance of thinking in odd moments, like washing the dishes or shaving. For my own part, I still have superstitious habits about creativity that I follow every day. I never write a chapter or essay without doing a mind map, for instance—I did the one below before writing the article in the Beast—and I still generate a random quote from Shakespeare whenever I’m stuck on a problem. And these tricks seem to work, at least for me: I always end up with something that would have occurred to me if I hadn’t taken the time.

Yet the crucial word is that last one. Because the more I think about it, the more convinced I am that every useful creativity tool really boils down to just one thing—increasing the amount of time, and the kinds of time, I spend thinking about a problem. When I do a mind map, for instance, I follow a fixed, almost ritualistic set of steps: I take out a pad of paper, write a keyword or two at the center in marker, and let my pen wander across the page. All these steps take time. Which means that making a mind map generates a blank space of forty minutes or so in which I’m just thinking about the problem at hand. And it’s become increasingly clear to me that it isn’t the mind map that matters; it’s the forty minutes. The mind map is just an excuse for me to sit at my desk and think. (This is one reason why I still make my mind maps by hand, rather than with a software program—it extends the length of the process.)

In the end, the only thing that can generate ideas is time spent thinking about them. (Even apparently random moments of insight are the result of long conscious preparation.) I’ve addressed this topic before in my post about Blinn’s Law, in which I speculate that every work of art—a novel, a movie, a work of nonfiction—requires a certain amount of time to be fully realized, no matter how far technology advances, and that much of what we do as artists consists of finding excuses to sit alone at our desks for the necessary year or so. Nearly every creativity tool amounts to a way of tricking my brain into spending time on a problem, either by giving it a pleasant and relatively undemanding task, like drawing a mind map, or seducing it with a novel image or idea that makes its train of thought momentarily more interesting. But the magic isn’t in the trick itself; it’s in the time that follows. And that’s the secret of creativity.

Written by nevalalee

June 7, 2012 at 9:52 am

Thinking in groups, thinking alone

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Where do good ideas come from? A recent issue of the New Yorker offers up a few answers, in a fascinating article on the science of groupthink by Jonah Lehrer, who debunks some widely cherished notions about creative collaboration. Lehrer suggests that brainstorming—narrowly defined as a group activity in which a roomful of people generates as many ideas as possible without pausing to evaluate or criticize—is essentially useless, or at least less effective than spirited group debate or working alone. The best kind of collaboration, he says, occurs when people from diverse backgrounds are thrown together in an environment where they can argue, share ideas, or simply meet by chance, and he backs this up with an impressive array of data, ranging from studies of the genesis of Broadway musicals to the legendary Building 20 at MIT, where individuals as different as Amar Bose and Noam Chomsky thrived in an environment in which the walls between disciplines could literally be torn down.

What I love about Lehrer’s article is that its vision of productive group thinking isn’t that far removed from my sense of what writers and other creative artists need to do on their own. The idea of subjecting the ideas in brainstorming sessions to a rigorous winnowing process has close parallels to Dean Simonton’s Darwinian model of creativity: quality, he notes, is a probabilistic function of quantity, so the more ideas you have, the better—but only if they’re subjected to the discipline of natural selection. This selection can occur in the writer’s mind, in a group, or in the larger marketplace, but the crucial thing is that it take place at all. Free association or productivity isn’t enough without that extra step of revision, or rendering, which in most cases requires a strong external point of view. Hence the importance of outside readers and editors to every writer, no matter how successful.

The premise that creativity flowers most readily from interactions between people from different backgrounds has parallels in one’s inner life as well. In The Act of Creation, Arthur Koestler concludes that bisociation, or the intersection of two unrelated areas of knowledge in unexpected ways, is the ultimate source of creativity. On the highest plane, the most profound innovations in science and the arts often occur when an individual of genius changes fields. On a more personal level, nearly every good story idea I’ve ever had came from the juxtaposition of two previously unrelated concepts, either done on purpose—as in my focused daydreaming with science magazines, which led to stories like “Kawataro,” “The Boneless One,” and “Ernesto”—or by accident. Even accidents, however, can benefit from careful planning, as in the design of the Pixar campus, as conceived by Steve Jobs, in which members of different departments have no choice but to cross paths on their way to the bathroom or cafeteria.

Every creative artist needs to find ways of maximizing this sort of serendipity in his or her own life. My favorite personal example is my own home library: partially out of laziness, my bookshelves have always been a wild jumble of volumes in no particular order, an arrangement that sometimes makes it hard to find a specific book when I need it, but also leads to serendipitous arrangements of ideas. I’ll often be looking for one book when another catches my eye, even if I haven’t read it in years, which takes me, in turn, in unexpected directions. Even more relevant to Lehrer’s article is the importance of talking to people from different fields: writers benefit enormously from working around people who aren’t writers, which is why college tends to be a more creatively fertile period than graduate school. “It is the human friction,” Lehrer concludes, “that makes the sparks.” And we should all arrange our lives accordingly.

Written by nevalalee

February 1, 2012 at 10:26 am

Thinking in pictures

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Last weekend, at the Printers Row Lit Fest in Chicago, I picked up a copy of Life: A User’s Manual by Georges Perec, a novel I’d been meaning to read for a long time. I’d been interested in Perec ever since reading about his work in Douglas Hofstadter’s Le Ton Beau de Marot, and while I’ve only begun dipping into Life, I’m already intrigued by the riches on display. As described in greater detail here, Life is an ambitious experimental novel, centered on a fictional apartment block in Paris, that Perec constructed using a system designed to generate a random list of items (an activity, a position of the body, a writer, even the number of pages) for each chapter, which he then had to incorporate into the narrative. The result, as Perec put it, is a “machine for inspiring stories.” Even apart from the merits of the novel itself, I find this premise tremendously exciting.

Regular readers of this blog know that one of my ongoing obsessions is finding new ways to insert randomness and constraints into the writing process. Writing a novel, at least as I tend to approach it, is such a left-brained activity that it’s necessary to create opportunities for the right brain to participate. Sometimes this happens by accident—while shaving, for example. But there are also ways of approaching randomness more deliberately. I’ve published stories based on juxtapositions of two unrelated articles from science magazines, used random selections from Shakespeare and the I Ching to guide chapters (although I’ve mostly dropped the latter, despite the fun of throwing the coins), and used mind maps to bind all these elements together. And I’m looking forward to applying some of Perec’s techniques to my own work, although probably in a much more limited sense.

Recently, I’ve also discovered another approach that might prove useful. In Origins of Genius (which, in case you haven’t noticed already, is one of the most stimulating books on creativity I’ve read in a long time), Dean Simonton describes a fascinating experiment by psychiatrist Albert Rothenberg:

[Rothenberg] and a colleague began by making up a set of visual stimuli that involved the superimposition of visual images. For example, one contained a photograph of an empty French four-poster bed placed in a period room superimposed over a group of soldiers in combat who were taking cover behind a tank. These highly incongruous homospatial images were then shown to writers and to artists, the latter including individuals selected in a national competition by faculty at the Yale School of Art. The writers were instructed to create new metaphors inspired by the stimuli, while the artists were instructed to make pastel drawings. In comparison with the control group (e.g., subjects who saw the images only separately), individuals exposed to these visual juxtapositions of unrelated images generated more creative products, as judged by independent raters.

In other words, juxtapositions of two unrelated concepts often result in ideas that would not have arisen from considering the two concepts separately, which only confirms one of my most basic convictions about the creative process.

What I find particularly interesting about Rothenberg’s experiment, though, is that the stimuli consisted of images, rather than words, which seems like an especially promising way of encouraging nonverbal, creative thought. With that in mind, I’ve started to incorporate a similar method into my own work, using images randomly chosen from three books that seem ideally suited for such an approach: Phaidon’s chaming little volumes The Art Book, The Photo Book, and The 20th Century Art Book. Each book consists of representative works by five hundred artists, one work to a page, arranged in alphabetical order—an arbitrary system that already lends itself to startling juxtapositions. For instance, in The Photo Book, by an accident of the alphabet, “A Sea of Steps” by Frederick H. Evans appears across from “Washroom in the Dog Run” by Walker Evans, exposing their haunting visual similarities. Two images, taken together, yielding a meaning that neither would have apart—that’s what art is all about, and why I’m looking forward to thinking more with pictures.

Should a writer go to college?

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A few years ago, I woke up with the startling realization that of all my friends from college, I was by far the least educated. I don’t mean that in any kind of absolute sense, but simply as a matter of numbers: most of my college friends went on to get master’s or professional degrees, and many of them have gone much further. By contrast, I, who loved college and would happily have spent the rest of my life in Widener Library, took my bachelor’s degree and went looking for a job, with the idea that I’d go back to school at some point after seeing something of the larger world. The reality, of course, was very different. And while I don’t regret any of the choices I’ve made, I do sometimes wonder if I might have benefited from, or at least enjoyed, some sort of postgraduate education.

Of course, it’s also possible that even my bachelor’s degree was a bad investment, a sentiment that seems increasingly common these days. College seniors, we’re frequently reminded, are graduating into a lousy job market. As Louis Menand points out in this week’s New Yorker, it’s unclear whether the American college system is doing the job it’s intended to do, whether you think of it primarily as a winnowing system or as a means of student enrichment. And then we have the controversial Thiel Fellowship, which is designed to encourage gifted entrepreneurs to drop out of college altogether. One of the fellowship’s first recipients recently argued that “higher education is broken,” a position that might be easier to credit if he wasn’t nineteen years old and hadn’t just received a $100,000 check to drop out of school. Which doesn’t necessarily make him wrong.

More interesting, perhaps, is the position of David Mamet, whose new book The Secret Knowledge includes a remarkable jeremiad against the whole idea of a liberal education. “Though much has been made of the necessity of a college education,” Mamet writes, “the extended study of the Liberal Arts actually trains one for nothing.” Mamet has said this before, most notably two years ago in a speech at Stanford University, where he compared the process of higher education to that of a laboratory rat pulling a lever to get a pellet. Of course, he’s been saying the same thing for a long time with respect to the uselessness of education for playwrights (not to mention ping-pong players). And as far as playwrights are concerned, I suspect he may be right, although he gets into trouble when he tries to expand the argument to everyone else.

So is college useful? In particular, is it useful for aspiring members of the creative class? Anecdotal information cuts both ways: for every Tom Stoppard, who didn’t go to college at all, there’s an Umberto Eco, who became a famous novelist after—and because of—a lifetime of academic achievement. Considered objectively, though, the answer seems to lie somewhere in the middle. In Origins of Genius, Dean Simonton writes:

Indeed, empirical research has often found that achieved eminence as a creator is a curvilinear, inverted-U function of the level of formal education. That is, formal education first increases the probability of attaining creative success, but after an optimum point, additional formal education may actually lower the odds. The location of this peak varies according to the specific type of creativity. In particular, for creators in the arts and humanities, the optimum is reached in the last two years of undergraduate instruction, whereas for scientific creators the optimum may be delayed until the first couple of years of graduate school. [Italics mine.]

Which implies that a few years of higher education is useful for artists, since it exposes them to interesting people and gives them a basic level of necessary knowledge, but that too much is unhelpful, or even damaging, if it encourages greater conformity. The bottom line, not surprisingly, is that if you want to be a writer, yes, you should probably go to college. But that doesn’t mean you need to stay there.

Let us now forget famous men

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“More books have been written about [Lincoln] than any figure in human history, with the possible exception of Jesus Christ.”

The photo above was taken three years ago by my then girlfriend, now wife, at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois. I didn’t get to go, alas—I was living in New York at the time—but the museum, as I was endlessly informed over the next few days, is tons of fun, with elaborate dioramas of the White House, Ford’s Theater, and other family-friendly attractions, including life-size figures of the entire Lincoln clan. When I saw the text of the plaque above, though, I was outraged, for reasons that might seem hard to understand at first. Here’s my verbatim response, at least as well as I can remember: “What about Napoleon?” I demanded. “What about Napoleon?”

You see, I like Napoleon. I like him a lot. Twenty or so books about Napoleon line my shelves, and I’m always on the lookout for more, the older and more adulatory, the better. Why? Emerson’s essay from Representative Men provides a decent starting point, but the short answer is that Napoleon is the most fascinating person I know in world history—”among the most perceptive, penetrating, retentive, and logical minds ever seen in one who was predominantly a man of action,” as Will Durant nicely puts it. He’s the foremost figure of Western history, a man who, for all his flaws, embodies more than any other individual the limits of human energy, intelligence, and ambition. And I was pretty sure that more books had been written about him than anyone else, including Lincoln.

And yet here’s the thing. Napoleon came from almost nothing, and became emperor of Europe. At his coronation, he took the crown out of the Pope’s hands and placed it on his own head. He was, by almost any measure, the most purely productive human being who ever lived. But these days, all that most people could say about Napoleon, if they recognized the name at all, was that he was a short little guy with a funny hat. (Not that short, by the way: he was 5 feet, 7 inches, or roughly the height of Tom Cruise.) That’s what time does: it reduces even the most monumental figures into caricatures of themselves. Two centuries is all it took to turn the leading light of Western civilization to Ian Holm in Time Bandits. It will happen to Lincoln, too, if it hasn’t already happened.

Napoleon, of course, isn’t alone. I was recently reminded of this whole kerfuffle while reading Dean Simonton’s Origins of Genius, inspired by the Malcolm Gladwell article I mentioned last week. Simonton mentions the work of the psychologist James McKeen Cattell, who, back in 1903, made one of the first systematic attempts to rank the thousand most eminent men in history—there were hardly any women on his list—by toting up mentions in major biographical dictionaries and tabulating the results. Here’s his top hundred:

Napoleon, Shakespeare, Mohammed, Voltaire, Bacon, Aristotle, Goethe, Julius Caesar, Luther, Plato, Napoleon III, Burke, Homer, Newton, Cicero, Milton, Alexander the Great, Pitt, Washington, Augustus, Wellington, Raphael, Descartes, Columbus, Confucius, Penn, Scott, Michelangelo, Socrates, Byron, Cromwell, Gautama, Kant, Leibnitz, Locke, Demosthenes, Mary Stuart [the only woman on the list], Calvin, Moliere, Lincoln, Louis Philippe, Dante, Rousseau, Nero, Franklin, Galileo, Johnson, Robespierre, Frederick the Great, Aurelius, Hegel, Petrarch, Horace, Charles V (Germany), Mirabeau, Erasmus, Virgil, Hume, Guizot, Gibbon, Pascal, Bossuet, Hobbes, Swift, Thiers, Louis XIV, Wordsworth, Louis XVI, Nelson, Henry VIII, Addison, Thucydides, Fox, Racine, Schiller, Henry IV (France), W. Herschel, Tasso, Jefferson, Ptolemy, Claudius, Augustine, Pope, Machiavelli, Swedenborg, Philip II, Leonardo da Vinci, George III, Julian, Pythagoras, Macaulay, Rubens, Burns, Mozart, Humboldt, Comte, Cousin, Cuvier, Justinian, Euripides, Camoens.

Now, much of this list remains unimpeachable. The top ten, in particular, would presumably be very similar today, though Bacon would probably give place to Newton, and we’d need to find room for Einstein and, yes, Lincoln. (Also, hopefully, for some women. The only other women, besides Mary Queen of Scots, to make Cattell’s top two hundred were Elizabeth and Joan of Arc, although, at this rate, it’s only a matter of time before we see Sarah Palin.) But with all due respect to my French readers, when I see names like Guizot, Bossuet, Thiers, Comte, and Cousin, among others, my only response is a blank stare. And this is coming from someone who loves Napoleon.

All in all, though, Cattell’s list reminds us how quickly even major reputations can fade. (For an even more sobering reminder, look no further than the bottom of his top thousand. Fauriel, Enfantin, Babeuf, anyone?) And I have no doubt that a contemporary list of the top hundred figures in history, like this one, will look equally strange to a reader a century from now. Just because you made the list once, it seems, doesn’t mean you’ll stay there.

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