Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Big Data on Genius

In my single class for this semester, we just finished a unit on Ulysses, one of the great confounders of the 20th century. We did not read the whole book, just portions of it, and it was the second time I'd been through it. I was sort of surprised at how well I remembered the material. I think I've read at least a hundred other books since October of 2013.

Anyway, studying Ulysses reminded me that Joyce's output was actually not that large, comparatively. I mean, Updike and Roth kept/keep cranking out book after book, dozens of them across decades, but the towering talent of Joyce only expressed itself in three novels (one of them largely incomprehensible), a book of short stories, a play, and a smattering of poetry.

I connected this with DFW (because really, what doesn't connect to DFW?), whose stack of books is similarly not-very-tall. Three novels (one unfinished), three books of short stories, three books of essays (one posthumous), two brief nonfiction books that a reader like me, for instance, has no interest in whatsoever, and miscellaneous other work that one day will be collected into an overpriced volume, I guarantee it. This is not a very very small oeuvre (and it's dense as hell, like Joyce's), but again - Philip Roth has written twenty-seven novels. Updike wrote twenty-one, and eighteen books of short stories.

I decided to go exclusively with pictures of Kanye for this post, because, for a post of this theme, who else?

Neither Joyce nor DFW was particularly long-lived, and Updike and Roth were/are certainly that. So that might have something to do with it. But the word that kept appearing in my head as I considered this is genius. Because one of the other guys on my mind was Wagner, who did live a fairly long life but wrote only 13 operas, not nearly as many as Verdi (25+) or Rossini (39). What he did write was the Ring Cycle, which does not need my endorsement to be associated with the word "genius".

In the course of thinking about this, I had a conversation with Matt (get out your Fictator bingo card), and I wish I could remember his exact words, but he said something like: Next Level-genius cannot be sustained; it flares out quickly after giving what it has to give. Look at Mozart, he said. Yeah. Exactly. Large oeuvre in that case, but what a paltry set of years he was granted. Yet even figures like Wagner who lived longer lives evidently only have so much of their genius to give before they've given it all.

I've tried before to set up an argument about the category of genius vs. the everybody-else category, for which I never had a name, and failed. Because there are touches of genius in plenty of art that is not wrought by geniuses. My favorite opera is Les Contes d'Hoffman, which has some genius in it, but isn't Götterdämmerung. The score for Star Wars is a remarkable piece of music, a stirring and spectacular object of art, but is John Williams a genius? I mean, no, I don't think so. He's not Wagner. No one is. No one is James Joyce but James Joyce, and no one ever shall be.

This other category, people who create often-glorious art that makes the world a more profound and fascinating place - but is not Next Level - Matt finally put a name to: craftsmen. Alice Munro is a craftsman. Hitchcock was a craftsman. Verdi was an amazing craftsman. These people don't come and go in too short a season; they crank out work year upon year, melodies you'll hum for the rest of your life, books you’ll buy for half the people you know. There's an enormous spectrum of craftsmen, from the extremely good to the wholly mediocre, but there's only a tiny handful of figures, a one-tenth of one percent, who qualify as geniuses.

At least, that’s my conclusion. The more I think about artists and try to decide whether they fit into one category or the other, the more murky things get. Virginia Woolf? Dave Chappelle? Terrence Malick? I'm not qualified to make these decisions. But what's helpful about what Joyce and DFW and Wagner definitely have in common is the data associated with them - the small output, the unlimited unpacking that can be done to their art, the difficulty in creating with which they coped.

One of the beloved books of my library is The Secret Language of Birthdays, a very silly horoscopey book that offers a two-page spread of insights on each of the 366 possible days to be born. The way the book's writers determined what your personality is like per your birthday is by aggregating the traits of famous people born on each of the days and looking for trends, and then writing a personality profile based on those trends. Like I said, silly. But eerily accurate, most of the time that I've looked people up in it.

This region of mumbo-jumbo is about where I arrive at the genius conclusion. If all these figures have in common is the few vague things I mentioned above - small output, etc. - that's...kinda bullshit. But it nevertheless made sense to me as I was thinking about it last month.

To be clear, it is honorable and fine to be a craftsman. And, I suspect, a lot less risky and unfulfilling. As I said, my favorite opera is Hoffman, not the Ring Cycle. The latter is too much an undertaking, spiritual, emotional, physical, to count as a favorite. The Ring Cycle and Infinite Jest sit outside that category for me, in a special place where I acknowledge the stunning experience of consuming this art, but it just doesn't fit into my conception of "favorite". I think that's part of how I arrived at this genius thing - in making a top ten list of my favorite operas, where do I put the Ring? It doesn't belong in that list. It's somewhere else. It's Next Level.


Marc Criley said...

I agree with your recognition of this distinction. I'd termed it "artists" and "craftsmen". Absolutely nothing wrong with being a craftsman, especially since I'm aspiring just to get my fiction writing to that level :-)

I like to visit art shows and art centers (like Lowe Mill Arts in Huntsville, AL) to enjoy the creativity and talent of artists. I see those "who can paint" or "who can draw", but then there are the "artists", whose work is a quantum step beyond crafting a painting or illustration or sculpture or ...

China Mieville did this for me as well with "Perdido Street Station". Most stuff I read I think "I could've thought of that--not written it, but at least thought of it." Perdido blew me out of the water, opened my mind to whole new ideas and images. That's what encountering genius does, stops me dead in my tracks, and gives me whole new ways of thinking and seeing.

So.... Thanks for posting this!

Katharine Coldiron said...

Thanks in return for stopping by, Marc! And thanks for your thoughtful comment. The word "quantum" is a perfect adjective for the distinction between one category and the other, and I wish I'd thought of it.

Perdido has been on my list for a while, but the copy I have is this dense, newsprinty mass market paperback of 500+ pages, so I'm just not enthused about the physical experience of reading it. Your comment has made me prioritize it for 2015, though. So thanks!