Blog Post, Personal

The Death of Genius?

contentItem-6493112-52396551-zgw8xb4h1ypag-orI recently finished reading Virginia Woolf’s diaries (collected as A Writer’s Diary). It did more than just solidify Woolf’s permanent position on my “forever favorites” shelf, but perhaps there will be time to elaborate on that further another day.

The death of genius haunts me. I think of the wonderfully, terrifyingly talented souls who have left us recently (from Prince to Alan Rickman to Muhammad Ali) and fall down the rabbit hole, following that train of thought backwards in time to think about all of the greatness and wonder that has left this world, from Shakespeare to Woolf to Tennessee Williams. We’ve been graced with their lasting gifts, creations of art, cinema, music, thought. Still, I can’t help but feel that the best of the world and all it has to offer is not ahead of us, but behind.

Yes, this is a cynical thought from someone who typically tends toward the optimistic. But this feeling comes stronger and stronger as the days go by. We still have brilliance among us, of course. Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Bob Dylan, Stephen Hawking, and I suppose countless others, including my personal favorite genius who goes unnamed (because I’m selfish and possessive). I still don’t know what my generation will leave for the future, though, and why it is so difficult for genius to survive, thrive, shine, be acknowledged. Maybe that’s the way it has always been and maybe other people in other generations have sat and wondered the same thing, lamented the same concern.

I can’t shake it, though. To me, lately, the world seems to be growing colder, angrier, drearier as the days go by. We’re a disturbingly promising species, and yet we’re destroying ourselves and our planet. Why? As I said to Jane Goodall: Ego, I think. Our own “I am” and “I want” and “I need” comes before anything else. This could be a byproduct of being American in the Trump era; I do hope it is very different in other countries, but is it? What is human nature? Throw the dice and you’ll probably get an equal number saying “to strive for individual greatness” and “to make the world better for all.”

And which camp do I fall into? Is it possible to have it both ways?

Talk about anxiety. Self-consciousness. Fear of, what, being inconsequential? I sit here and think about genius, about my generation and my place in it, and I wonder: just what the hell am I supposed to be doing? Is it enough to, perhaps, make a small difference in one or two small lives every now and then? What do I – what can I – leave behind when I’m gone?  

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7 thoughts on “The Death of Genius?

  1. For me, it’s enough to make a difference in a handful of lives, even if it’s just passing along a smile on my way to and from work. At least, that’s how I feel most of the time. This election cycle has brought me down.

  2. I tend to think you’re right that the number of people who can be called geniuses in the arts are diminishing – every time I have one of my regular Virginia Woolf phases I am reminded of how no-one compares to her. All we can do is try to continue to fight ignorance with intelligence.

    • I wonder about all the distractions most of us deal with on a daily, even constant, basis, now, and how that might hinder a lot of creative potential. Cell phones, on demand television, video gaming, video chatting, and whatever else. There are of course brilliant people out there doing brilliant things, still. But, even as a teacher, I sometimes wonder how much more dedicated I could encourage my students (and myself) to be if there were no Netflix, no text messages, etc. I can’t get everyone in a class to go without checking their phones for just one class period… it’s crazy. Most will put their phones away, but there are always a few who simply have to take it out. And then of course there’s 24-hour “news” and on and on.

      • Quite right – all those distractions have reduced people’s attention spans so much that actually using their brains in a concentrated fashion for any length of time is just impossible. It’s very sad.

  3. I wouldn’t class your comments as cynical, depressing or pessimistic would be maybe more accurate 🤔 Can we recognise genius within the current time frame or is it so,ething that becomes apparent more in hindsight? Shakespeare may not have been co soldered a genius in his day, neither was Da Vinci who I think sold only one painting while he was alive.

  4. I think there’s every reason to be optimistic about the amount of genius in the world. Think of all the people alive today with opportunities to learn, write, and be heard that never would have had them 100 or even 50 years ago. There’s gotta be a few geniuses scattered around in there. 🙂

    Most of us will be lucky to be remembered by some few as having been kind, or inspiring, or something. Personally I’m OK with that, possibly because most literary geniuses seem also to have been real jerks. (But then I also believe in an afterlife where we all get to learn everything if we want, so why worry about whether I’ll be remembered?)

  5. ” To me, lately, the world seems to be growing colder, angrier, drearier as the days go by. We’re a disturbingly promising species, and yet we’re destroying ourselves and our planet.”

    Absolutely echoes my thoughts!

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