Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Donald Trump is a Genius.

It must have been about a year ago that I decided that I was a genius. Boy, that was one of my worst ideas yet. Even though I pointed out that being a genius was a personality type rather than a guarantee of anything, like, getting done, it's not really the type of claim that makes me new friends. But I could add that the willingness to sound like an utter dick was exactly the kind of thing that a genius would do.

I feel less satisfied with my statement now that I have realised that Donald Trump probably also counts as a genius. See, it's not boasting. Does anyone really want to share a personality type with Donald Trump? 

Being a genius wasn't always a thing. Pascal was quite upset when he was called a genius by Queen Christina of Sweden. He thought that it meant he couldn't be humble, and worried about God being annoyed by his presumption. Then he got tangled up when he realised that by trying to be humble, he was being arrogant about his humility. I guess he eventually tossed a coin to decide whether swanking about the place was okay. 

Pascal, in around 1651, was one of the first people to be called a genius: according to Ray McDermott (Materials for a Confrontation with Genius as a Personal Identity, 2004), he is the first name trotted out by scholars who want to write a history of 'the genius'. Mainly because he lived on the cusp of a moment when the idea was becoming fashionable: during the 1700s, theorists displayed their descriptions of 'genius' like a hipster's sleeve tattoo. Diderot goes into detail about the nature of the genius (that's where I got my idea from that I'm a genius). Addison chatted about it in his magazine The Spectator, and Forkel's 1802 biography of Bach transformed Johann Seb from jobbing composer to Mighty Man of Music Magic. 

Pascal comes out of it quite well: by the time of Wagner, being a genius was cool enough to be the subject of an opera. Die Meistersinger contrasts the genius with the mere craftsman (Edward E. Lowinsky, Musical Genius -Evolution and Origins of a Concept). There's no prize for guessing which character Wagner identifies with himself. But Pascal was a man of a modest age: God was still a big deal, and the official line was that the past was better than the present, art was an act of imitation and being 'original' was more likely to result in a visit to a dungeon than an honorary degree from Glasgow University. 

As always, it's The Enlightenment's fault. Starting with Addison, going through Diderot and this bishop called Douglas, who defended Milton's Paradise Lost from charges of plagiarism in 1751, up to Goethe in German and beyond him into the Romantic Era, the word 'genius' changed its meaning. In Latin, It had referred to the guardian spirit of the individual, before alluding to a moment of creativity up until the time of Pascal. But Diderot did (as he always does) a great job of defining it to his needs. Realising that he wasn't all that in the creative stakes - although he could churn out a perfectly acceptable article or two - he imagined a personality that could be both sensitive to nature but rational enough to express it coolly. 

George J. Buelow - who dug up Bishop Douglas from the depth of literary history - has plenty to say about how the genius became a thing, even giving a four step description of genius. Step one - something that Diderot and my secret love Lessing confirm - is that the genius doesn't need to pay attention to the rules. In fact, actually knowing stuff is a bit of an impediment to genius. Edward Young (1759) was like yeah, a genius is much cooler if they are also a bit thick. Or, as McDermott puts it when he talks about Adam Smith's notion of genius: if less goes in than comes out, it's the capitalist's wet-dream of a factory, only in the brain.

McDermott also mentions that the idea of genius is a bit of a problem. It ignores the way that ideas are often developed in a collective, and it heads up a hierarchy of intelligence. It's not like Einstein wasn't smart, but the cult of his personality (or that applied to anyone these days who isn't a drooling fool) ignores the necessarily collaborative progress of scientific thought. History becomes a litany of Great (usually) White (usually) Males. So it's got that going against it, too. 

It's not like the time before 'The Age of The Genius' was much better in that regard: they tended to say that the classics provided the model of excellence: fortunately, Quintilian and Aristotle justified this attitude by pointing back to the epic poems and tragedies as examples (while being classical texts themselves). So it has been pretty much a canon of DWM right the way down. But they didn't mind imitation or, to dress it in its Sunday Best, mimesis. The thing about the genius would be originality. 

Now, this isn't going to get me back to Donald Trump any faster, but it might be worth noting that the genius, originality, plagiarism and copyright claims all became a thing in the eighteenth century. Lessing, for example, got really pissed off when pirates sold cheap copies of his Dramaturgy. You know, with a bit of thought, I bet I could get Walter Benjamin's notion of the 'authentic aura' of an artwork into this, somewhere. 

The 'genius' creates more than previously existed - an original object - which is special because it was made by a genius - and copying it is bad because that removes the specialness - which makes it less original - and worth less money - and it's a plot of words to assign financial worth to specific objects and create a market - for ideas as well - and the genius...

Anyway, Donald Trump is a genius. Donald Trump knows he is a genius. And that is a problem. I am just too bored to prove it now. Maybe tomorrow, if anyone actually reads this far.

Materials for a Confrontation with Genius as a Personal Identity
Ray McDermott 
Vol. 32, No. 2, Theme Issue: Ethnographic Studies of Positioning and Subjectivity: Narcotraffickers, Taiwanese Brides, Angry Loggers, School Troublemakers (Jun., 2004), pp. 278-288

Musical Genius--Evolution and Origins of a Concept
Edward E. Lowinsky
The Musical Quarterly
Vol. 50, No. 3 (Jul., 1964), pp. 321-340

Originality, Genius, Plagiarism in English Criticism of the Eighteenth Century
George J. Buelow
International Review of the Aesthetics and Sociology of Music
Vol. 21, No. 2 (Dec., 1990), pp. 117-128

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