The year 1993 was one of the most memorable in my
life, and not for the conventional reasons. That year, which was my 21st on earth, and my second at college, I did not lose my virginity. That happened three years before, when I was 17. There were no wild spring breaks in Mexico (though I did go after graduation in 1995, with my friend with benefits, Paloma) or Lake Havasu (where I went the following summer, with a couple buddies).
No, 1993 was special for different reasons. Shortly after my birthday in February I quit my job waiting tables at the local trattoria, freeing up two weekday nights as well as my weekends. Suddenly I had time on my hands, and I could date. But I didn't date. I just worked out more at Gold's Gym and spent a lot of time in my room, reading, thinking and masturbating. Though more of the former, or so my selective memory likes to remember. And the self-reflective process paid dividends which though immaterial were nonetheless very influential as far as my future was concerned.
Instead of serving pasta and ravioli I spent more time with my brothers, with George at Gold's and with Justin doing all manner of recreational drugs. Marijuana mostly, but mushrooms and LSD as well. But it was the summer of 1993, during a short trip up north to Mount Shasta, where I had arguably the year's most profound experience. And it didn't come courtesy of the mountain itself, which is hailed as a "power spot" and which I hiked up and down every day for a weekend, or of the mescaline I ingested during these treks. Instead it came courtesy of an issue of Newsweek magazine I happened to pick up in the living room of the bed and breakfast where I was staying.
The issue, dated June 27, 1993, contained an article entitled "The Puzzle of Genius," written by Sharon Begley. The article attempted to unravel the mystery of intelligence and creativity by identifying the hallmark traits. Which judging by the preponderance of recently-released material on the subject, we are still trying to unravel. The article asked the question, why are the persons of genius so few? First, the characteristics. Intelligence and expertise fuel genius, of course. And creativity is certainly necessary. But geniuses do not merely solve existing problems, like curing disease or getting to the moon. They identify new ones. In so doing they transcend the solution of problems already posed by toppling existing paradigms and discovering bold new ones.
Geniuses form more novel combinations than the merely talented. They "entertain permutations of images and memories that more mundane thinkers toss out as too loopy." Geniuses take intellectual risks by merging divergent ideas and discarding accepted notions in favor of the road less traveled. They have interests in fields unrelated to their work, as is the case with physicists who also paint. They tolerate ambiguity and are steadfast in the face of unpredictable avenues of thought. Whereby the person of brilliance can bring side by side what others had never thought to connect, making juxtapositions that elude mere mortals. These individuals, among whom are Shakespeare, Dickens, Curie and Darwin as well as Copernicus, Descartes, Galileo, Newton, Einstein and Freud, are undaunted by hard work. They toil obsessively. Rather than wait for inspiration to strike, like Freud they "go halfway to meet it." They create prolifically and avidly seek out risk.
There are circumstances associated with genius, which though few include celibacy and being born to older parents. Their fathers are usually older than 30, and their mothers rarely under 25. They are less religious than spiritual, and sometimes lose one parent early in life. Also, their genius peaks well before middle age. The greatest accomplishments in the realms of math, physics and poetry occur in a person's 20s; and in the 30s for other sciences, music, art and fiction. The article culminates by asking where are the geniuses of today? Apparently there are few, and the extreme specialization of today's science may be at fault. It seems where brilliance is concerned, it helps to be a jack of all trades rather than a master of one, though both would be best. Of course many geniuses are not recognized in their lifetimes, so to look around for living beacons of brilliance is probably futile.
The author laments the very modern tendency to worship the ability to shock more than the possession of true insight and talent, and indicts our age as one characterized by what she refers to as "greatness eclipsed by outrageousness." Are many of today's famous individuals genuinely talented or merely masters of self-promotion? Also, the egalitarianism of today rejects the mystique of genius. As any parent of a preschooler knows, the legacy left by "no child left behind" seems to be that "my child too has it in her to be a virtuoso." This may be true. Or it may simply bar the successor to the geniuses of old from taking the throne. Because solitary thinkers don't like crowds.
I put the article down and right there in my hotel room determined to become a genius. Standardized tests had already told me I was bright. My parents were the required age when I was conceived. I didn't have a girlfriend at the time, and I was an irregular churchgoer just like the greats of old. I just needed to find my creative outlet. So I took up writing. And 22 years later, having dabbled in virtually every genre of fiction and non, I can proudly announce that I have failed triumphantly. Despite the fact that in my books I have made new connections - like cancer not as seed of death but key to immortality, and using taxation on fast food to finance health care. And life is really just elaborate dream. Okay I'm not the first person to have this realization. The rishis of ancient India wrote extensively about surreal experiences, and people still read their books. But nobody seemed to notice mine. And now that I'm 43, I may be over the hill. Well, it has been fun. And I am proud because failure builds character. I'm not convinced of this but it is a cliche so it must be true.
Along the way I learned of another type of genius, which the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer lays out succinctly in his masterpiece, The World as Will and Representation. Schopenhauer, a member himself of this curious stock, writes: "Genius consists in this, that the knowing faculty has received a considerably greater development than the service of will demands." This breed of brilliance is characterized by an "abnormal predominance of sensibility and irritability over reproductive power." So like the article's genius, Schopenhauer's was also more or less celibate, as was the philosopher himself. And the great pessimist was nothing if not irritable, which he came by honestly. If the copies of your best work were sold as waste paper, you'd be pretty pissed off too.
Genius is the completest objectivity. A person of this stamp is able to leave his own interests, wishes and aims entirely out of sight, renouncing his own personality to remain "pure knowing subject, clear vision of the world." Most people exist to assert their will, to have their way and accumulate wealth, power, property and kids along the way. For these, knowledge comes into action only in the service of the ego, and is directed by motives of personal interest and advantage. But once the individual is freed of serving his own petty interests, the intellect can see an object not as he wishes it to be but how it really is. "Genius holds up to us the magic glass in which all that is essential and significant appears to us collected and placed in the clearest light, and what is accidental and foreign is left out." Thus, in the words of historian Will Durant, "thought pierces through passion as sunlight pours through a cloud, and reveals the heart of things."
In contrast to the conventional genius of Einstein and Freud, whose brilliance seems to be largely their birthright, it may be possible to see through to the heart of things and be persons of genius ourselves. Through meditation, being mindful of every moment, watching yourself as though you are another. By being rather than doing, acting rather than reacting, you can transcend the individual mind and connect with what is universal in your nature to access what is ageless and timeless. There doesn't seem to be much glory in this breed of excellence, my 20-year-old self would say. Back then all I wanted was to be the next Michael Crichton and write best-selling books that became movies, some of which I could also direct, and maybe date the leading lady who would have my babies before we cheated and the marriage crumbled and I ate our babies and after having at the missus with a hatchet I buried her beneath the garden shed. Because isn't that how all fantasies end?
When I think back on the more traditional view of genius, as experts focused on creating, I now see glaring pitfalls associated with their line of work. Einstein's formulas were used to create weapons of mass destruction. Freud, who required copious amounts of tobacco to work so tirelessly on developing his theories, was denounced as a drug addict and sex fiend, many of his theories roundly denounced (though in some circles his notions on dreams are making a resurgence.) Even Crichton's novels spawned sequels that stink, like Jurassic whatever. Although they do make gargantuan sums of money. Which the author, now dead, will never see.
Yes Schopenhauer's genius is maladapted in the world of ego-gratification through practical, personal activity. Seeing so far he doesn't always see what is near. He is viewed as queer, and often quite unsociable. He stands aloof from others. For while his contemporaries have the temporary and specific in mind, his view is the eternal, universal, immutable. Sound like somebody you've read about?
These geniuses are necessarily few not by some frugality on the part of nature, but because such a temperament, if shared by the world at large, would be a hindrance in the normal pursuits of life. How can one concentrate on the task at hand when his mind is fixed on infinity? Who would build our roads or mow our lawns? "Nature really intended even learned men to be tillers of the soil," which is why playing in the dirt can do even the most absent-minded professor a world of good.
And so I find after living another lifetime since reading about genius for the first time, that the drive to know and to create may be a lesser form of this elusive pearl, inferior to the incisiveness and perspicacity that characterizes the saviors of the world, from Buddha to Christ and Muhammad. These men were celibates who existed for the upliftment of others. They wandered through remote crags, often alone, their mind fixed on eternal truth, which we like to think of as God, though each person means something different by the term. And these lanterns of the eternal, whose job was our salvation, were also unemployed. After all these years of trying to find my calling, my calling has finally found me. Don't you just love a happy ending?