» N.S. Books
December 21, 1997.
Classic words on the subject of Genius.
- "He has a conception of beauty which the sculptor cannot embody. Picture, statue, temple, railroad, steam-engine, existed first in an artist's mind, without flaw, mistake, or friction, which impair the executed models. So did the church, the state, college, court, social circle, and all the institutions. It is not strange that these men, remembering what they have seen and hoped of ideas, should affirm disdainfully the superiority of ideas. Having at some time seen that the happy soul will carry all the arts in power, they say, Why cumber ourselves with superfluous realizations? and like dreaming beggars they assume to speak and act as if these values were already substantiated. ... On the other part, the men of toil and trade and luxury, the animal world, including the animal in the philosopher and poet also, - and the practical world including the painful drudgeries which are never excused to philosopher or poet any more than to the rest, weight heavily on the other side. The trade in our streets believes in no metaphysical causes, thinks nothing of the force which necessitated traders and a trading planet to exist; no, but sticks to cotton, sugar, wool, and salt. The ward-meetings on election days are not softened by any misgiving of the value of these ballotings. Hot life is streaming in a single direction. To the men of this world, to the animal strength and spirits, to the men of practical power whilst immersed in it, the man of ideas appears out of his reason. They alone have reason. [Emerson was of the view that the larger group, -- outside of men of genius -- broke down again into two sub-groups which might be identified as those who jump to conclusions and those that take the world as they find it.] Thus the men of senses revenge themselves on the professors, and repay scorn for scorn. The first had leaped to conclusions not yet ripe, and say more than is true; the others make themselves merry with the philosopher, and weigh man by the pound. They believe that mustard bites the tongue, that pepper is hot, friction-matches are incendiary, revolvers to be avoided, and suspenders hold up pantaloons; that there is much sentiment in a chest of tea; and a man will be eloquent if you give him good wine." (Ralph Waldo Emerson's, "Montaigne.")
- "Persons of the greatest capacity are often those who for this reason do the least; for surveying themselves from the highest point of view, amidst the infinite variety of the universe, their own share in it seems trifling, and scarce worth a thought; and they prefer the contemplation of all that is, or has been, or can be, to the making a coil about doing what, when done, is no better than vanity. ... It is not merely that the mind is not capable of the effort; it does not think the effort worth making." (William Hazlitt [1778-1830], Political Essays, 1819.)
- "The world is always ready to receive talent with open arms. Very often it does not know what to do with genius. Talent is a docile creature. It bows its head meekly while the world slips the collar over it. It backs into the shafts like a lamb. It draws its load cheerfully, and is patient of the bit and of the whip. But genius is always impatient of its harness; its wild blood makes it hard to train.
"Talent seems, at first, in one sense, higher than genius - namely, that is it is more uniformly and absolutely submitted to the will, and therefore more distinctly human in its character. Genius, on the other hand, is much more like those instincts which govern the admirable movements of the lower creatures, and therefore seems to have something of the lower or animal character. A goose flies by a chart which the Royal Geographical Society could not mend. A poet, like the goose, sails without visible landmarks to unexplored regions of truth, which philosophy has yet to lay down on its atlas. The philosopher gets his track by observation; the poet trusts to his inner sense, and makes the straighter and swifter line. ... Talent is a very common family trait; genius belongs rather to individuals; - just as you find one giant or one dwarf in a family, but rarely a whole brood of either. Talent is often to be envied, and genius very commonly to be pitied. It stands twice the chance of the other of dying in a hospital, in jail, in debt, in bad repute. It is a perpetual insult to mediocrity; its every word is a trespass against somebody's vested ideas ....
"You know twenty men of talent, who are making their way in the world; you may, perhaps, know one man of genius, and very likely do not want to know any more. For a divine instinct, such as drives the goose southward and the poet heaven ward, is a hard thing to manage, and proves too strong for many whom it possesses." (Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-94), The Professor at the Breakfast Table.)
- "When a true Genius appears in the World, you may know him by this infallible Sign, that the Dunces are all in Confederacy against him." (Jonathan Swift, Thoughts on Various Subjects, 1706.)
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December, 1997 (2011)