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How To Restore A More Vibrant Meaning To The Concept Of ‘Genius’


“God” has become an interjection. “Love” can be used to describe your relation towards your soulmate or a bag of Cheetos. “Genius” is something we ironically call a total idiot, or casually apply to the creator of a meme or a witty tweet.

Given the marked devaluation of verbal coinage, it is regrettable but not surprising that some members of the commentariat have suggested doing away with the concept of genius entirely. It is a term more frequently used to argue about Kanye West than to hail the advent of a new novelist or painter.

Hannah Giorgis’ recent article on artist Lauryn Hill argued that genius is applied unevenly along sex lines, but never bothers to define genius or explain why Hill is one. Aditi Natasha Kini says genius “enhances access—sexual, social, economic, political. It is a collective agreement—or, in many cases, a collective lie—that grants boundless latitude to those we anoint with the title.”

This, however, sidesteps the problem of genius by essentially denying its existence. Also, it fails to address geniuses like Emily Dickinson, whose power was entirely spiritual and intellectual and manifested itself solely in the creation of poetry, all while she lived an otherwise quiet and unobtrusive life.

If you are suggesting abolishing the notion of genius or are arguing that it should be applied differently, but have not bothered to define what genius is or has meant since ancient times (beyond polemically calling it a “collective lie”), you are guilty of having no idea of what you are saying. Jayson Greene’s article on Kanye and genius from Pitchfork makes vague gestures towards genius’s associations with madness and bad behavior, which crop up in Giorgis’ article as well. But these writers are taking for granted that we know what genius is.

Presumably they think it’s someone who is extremely talented and productive, to the point of insanity. But is that an adequate summation of the idea? The poet Wallace Stevens was a genius who led a relatively uneventful life as an insurance lawyer. T.S. Eliot was a bank clerk. Shakespeare was apparently so balanced and normal that we consequently know very little about him.

Clearly, madness is not an essential attribute of genius, although genius necessarily delves into the unknown and the strange. In fact, too much insanity likely limits genius’ full flourishing. Let’s appeal to the meaning of the word itself for a little guidance, instead of relying on the ghostly, flickering illumination of contemporary journalism, which has nothing but adding to your own confusion or engaging in ideological cheerleading at heart.

What ‘Genius’ Really Means

In Ancient Rome, one’s “genius” referred to one’s own presiding spirit, similar to a guardian angel, a source of inspiration and wisdom. Like the Greek “daemon,” it was a higher mind, as it were, a connection to a transcendent realm of being that provided inspiration. (“Inspiration” is another debased word we will define momentarily).

Not only people, but places had geniuses as well. As Harold Bloom observed in his book “Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds,” lighting the candles on a birthday cake ultimately derives from a Roman tradition for honoring one’s genius. This goes to show that we float on an ocean of symbolism we fail to comprehend.

Genius is not just intelligence. It is intelligence that has been divinely inspired, in-breathed with spirit. That influx of breath is, after all, the root of the word “inspiration.” Ancient cultures conceived of the vital essence of a person or deity as being contained within the breath. When God breathes into Adam after forming his body out of clay in the biblical book of Genesis, for example, God enlivens his creature with his own spirit.

The word for “self” in Sanskrit, “atman,” is closely related to the word for breath (which, in modern German, is the related “atmen”). The ancients saw a world in which spirits competed to inspire us, to breathe into us and invest us with their own selves, their own essence. These spirits could be benevolent, malign, or something in between. Thus, our genius is the source of inspiration peculiar to ourselves.

‘A Spiritual Thing that We Don’t Know’

Of all the recent appraisals of genius, the one that resonates most with the word’s original sense comes from the jazz musician Wynton Marsalis, who recently told “CBS Sunday Morning”: “It’s a spiritual thing that we don’t know […] I think it’s something you interpret that passes through you, like an understanding. ‘Cause you can get into a state and you don’t even remember what it was. It just comes to you.”

Socrates experienced similar modes of ecstatic transport. He spoke of his daemon, which guided him and warned him whenever he was at risk of straying from the correct path. According to Socrates, love itself was a daemon, one that led us up from the world of humans to the world of the gods, home of the Good, the Beautiful, and the True. The jazz musician, no less than the philosopher, can be led towards the same realization through the genius or daemon.

To provide another example of the archaic idea of genius’s persistence in the modern world: today, Jesuits still practice “discernment of spirits” to identify which of their thoughts and feelings are of divine origin and which are demonic. They quite sensibly retain the ancient perspective of seeing the human psyche as the playground of higher and lower forces.

Our minds are the stages of a drama, a meeting place for varied influences from above and below, locked in competition and combat. Our genius introduces our best thoughts and feelings into this drama, and we can ignore its promptings or heed them.

A genius imparts its breath in a way that allows us to partake of the genius’s mode of consciousness, since self and breath were considered the same thing in ancient times. This is what Marsalis means when he talks about being taken over by another mode of being, entering into a different way of understanding reality.

That’s what we experience when we read “Moby Dick” or see a production of an Henrik Ibsen play with full attention. We breathe the same atmosphere as genius. A genius shows us ourselves and our world in a way we couldn’t have seen them before, as Bloom has frequently observed.

Inspiration Means God-Breathed

Genius elevates perception, making us conscious of our interior world, of the conversations we have with ourselves, and of the ways we relate to other people. By its association with drugs and hippies, the expression “expanding consciousness” has perhaps been corrupted, but it is a perfect description of what genius does, be it scientific or literary genius. It makes us more aware of our cosmos and our place in it. It lets us see ourselves the way a god or goddess might.

Instead of having small, limited perspectives on the human race, genius suddenly shocks us into receiving Artemis or Odin’s perspective. Sometimes, if the lore is to be believed, we even receive the Holy Spirit’s perspective.

Authentic geniuses like John Milton and William Blake believed their work was literally inspired by angels, while, in more recent times, Bob Dylan spoke of feeling like “angels were communicating with different parts of my psyche.” The uncanny sense of higher powers, of an intellect illuminated by something beyond the intellect, intrudes in all the greatest American literature, from Emily Dickinson to Cormac McCarthy.

As Bloom rightly stresses, genius confronts us continually with the strange and uncanny. We see ourselves through the eyes of a wiser self. We see the familiar in a new, transfigured form.

The Difference Between a Genius and a Saint

Of course, we should be cautious of idolizing geniuses. As Yeats put it, the mess of contradictions who sits down to eat breakfast is not the same as the illuminated imagination that authors a poem. Just because a genius has seen farther does not necessarily mean that the genius has lived farther.

That is the difference between a genius and a saint. A genius expands consciousness and sees beyond the given realm of typical perceptions. He or she comprehends a greater portion of the truth than the average bear usually does.

A saint, however, lives and embodies the truth. This a crucial difference to keep in mind, and it explains how geniuses can act in ways that do not quite mesh with their insights. As the poet Arthur Rimbaud put it, “If a piece of brass wakes up as a trumpet, it is not its fault.” We pay a proper tribute to genius by letting it transform us and enhance our own consciousness, not by slavishly worshipping those who bear it.

Of all ideas lacking in the United States right now, our lack of a proper comprehension of genius is perhaps the most damaging. We think of genius in terms of productivity rather than of creativity, of mechanical generation rather than inspiration.

When we use a word like “inspiration,” we have no idea where that inspiring breath comes from. Heaven? Hell? One’s own psyche? We are at a loss. We parrot words that have been scraped clean of definite meaning.

That’s Why We’re Attacking the Idea of Genius

None of the recent attacks on genius come close to hitting the cognitive target. None assault the reality of genius. They merely attack what they take to be a capitalist cultural construct, a gendered narrative, or what have you. But genius goes beyond cultural and social constructs and is itself that which constructs. The word is related to the Latin term, “genui,” which refers to that which creates or originates. It is a power belonging to divinities and even to the more savvy demons.

Greene’s article in Pitchfork, on the “myth of genius” as it relates to Kanye West, describes genius as being merely productive and a concept unique to capitalism, a way of selling more albums or promoting certain brands. He also refers to inspiration as “communal” and somehow opposed to genius.

No doubt, inspiration can strike groups of people at the same time, as was true for The Beatles or any number of rock bands. But to deny its individual manifestations is utterly unwarranted. Greene’s article is hazy on this point, dodging any confrontation with the reality of genius, and it is doubtful that any of the people his article mentions—from Kanye to Steve Jobs to Michael Jordan—is a genius in the sense in which we have discussed it, with the exception of Einstein and Walt Disney.

Today’s Greatest Literary Exemplar of Genius

Genius isn’t necessarily “productive,” but it is creative. Even a slim volume like Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” can fully manifest genius, since it expands our awareness of our desires, our yearnings for life and the catastrophes that attend this quest.

The greatest literary exemplar of genius in the United States today, then, is probably Cormac McCarthy. No other living writer has struggled so intensely to see into the underlying matrix of existence, heightening our consciousness of human depravity at its worst and human heroism at its most exalted, as in “The Road,” another volume of moderate length and immense power. You couldn’t accuse McCarthy of being a capitalist cultural construct. His work’s enhancements to our consciousness are too direct and shocking to deny.

To revitalize our idea of genius, we need to reacquaint ourselves with the source of inspiration, with the mysterious wellhead from which creativity erupts. Every human being has the birthright to associate with the divine, take that how you will. This means opening ourselves to the reality of the transcendent, the uncanny, and the strange, however we conceive it.

We need to admit that we have no idea where our own thoughts and feelings come from. They spring from the Deep. To court our own genius, we need to read deeply, listen closely, and let inspiration work on us, however it chooses to strike. It worked for the ancients, and it will work for us.