Book Review: Divine Fury
by Darrin M. McMahon
Basic Books, 2013
Darrin McMahon’s new book Divine Fury: A History of Genius manages to be sometimes scintillatingly thought-provoking despite having more holes in it than a prairie dog town. The holes are inevitable in mocked-up makework conceptual histories like this; books like A Cultural History of the Penis or The Fork Through the Ages or What We Mean When We Sigh – usually underdocumented and wrapped up in 250 pages in order to entice unlettered ‘common readers’ who wouldn’t recognize a genuine work of sociology if it walked up and slapped them in the face – are designed to skim where they should delve and to summarize where they should question. There are exceptions, of course (Evening’s Empire, Craig Koslofsky’s history of nighttime in early modern Europe, comes immediately to mind), but usually something subtitled “A History of Genius” is virtually guaranteed to disappoint both readers sincerely interested in history and readers sincerely interested in genius.
Usually! McMahon saves his enterprise through the muscular momentum he can build into the story he traces of genius’s evolution as a concept over the last 20 centuries, from its earliest incarnations as demonic possession (the literal version of ‘divine fury,’ with the poor human acting only as vessel for heavenly fire) to its more contemporary form as an exemplary realization of potentials that exist in everybody. He’s keen to spot the key shifting points the concept underwent, and those shifting-points are the most interesting parts of his book
Still, in their rumination on the angels and the demons, ingenium and the soul, melancholy and mind, Renaissance commentators did clear a space in which the modern genius could begin to assume form. Summoning the genii from the classical past, they shifted their shapes and transferred their powers to the souls of outstanding men, men who were moved by inspiration or endowed at birth with special gifts. And notwithstanding the rhetorical license, to describe a man of genius as “divine” was to say more than that he belonged in the company of the esteemed. As Vasari observed of Leonardo, another man whom posterity would call a genius before the time: “The greatest gifts often rain down upon human bodies through celestial influences as a natural process, and sometimes in a supernatural fashion a single body is lavishly supplied with such beauty, grace, and ability that wherever the individual turns, each of his actions is so divine that he leaves behind all other men, and clearly makes himself known as a thing endowed by God (which he is) rather than created by human artifice.”
Thus even as late as the age of Isaac Newton, genius could still be thought of as a quality coming from outside, a force that enters and elevates its possessor (hence Newton’s epitaph, Qui genus humanum ingenio superavit – by his genius he surpassed the human race). Although even on his firmest ground, McMahon can still come out with puzzlers, as when he writes:
To have explained in Newton’s presence that he was a higher order of human being – another species or a saint – might have piqued his self-love. But it would undoubtedly have invited scorn. To do so after his passing ran no such risk, and it spared the genius the burden of having to pull it off. Miracles could now appear uncontested, places of pilgrimage could make themselves known, and all those who told tales of the master’s inspiration and superhuman feats could benefit from the association. Newton assumed his sainthood only slowly, because geniuses too are canonized only when they are gone.
This is neatly phrased, as is all of Divine Fury, but it’s curious, to say the least. McMahon knows perfectly well (there’s at least one recent Newton biography in his book’s ample Endnotes) that Newton’s “canonization” was in full swing long before he died, and “the burden of having to pull it off” can’t have been very great to a man who could invent an entirely new calculus in order to solve one mathematical problem. This question of who knew what when bedevils the book from start to finish and considerably muddies what was never going to be a crystal-clear discussion. “Others” he writes, “from Homer and Shakespeare to Plato and Aristotle to Mozart in his pauper’s grave – were beatified posthumously in this way.” Lord only knows what Homer is doing in this discussion, since we have no idea who he was or what his contemporaries thought of him, and whether or not to call Plato or especially Aristotle geniuses at all is a trickier question than McMahon seems to allow (one mistake most people who’ve never personally known a genius tend to have in common is this conflating of the trait with simple high intelligence) – and regardless of where their earthly remains ended up, both Shakespeare and Mozart were plenty beatified in their own days.
The task of tracking the twists and turns of the concept becomes even harder in the modern age with the advent of standardized IQ testing (a fascinating subject in its own right, given somewhat cursory treatment here because our author has 3,500 years to cover) and the ‘official’ classification of genius-level as an IQ at or above roughly 140, thus limiting the pool of potential geniuses to a very small, almost completely insufferable fraction of humanity. And that scientific measurement has been stretched and altered in recent decades by the gaseous distortions of cultural relativism, which seeks to assert that cognitive genius is just one of an number of geniuses. Someone may test at well below IQ 140, this postmodern view asserts, and still be a genius of another sort, able to surpass the general run of humanity in their own special way. So the traditional genius will show himself through a standardized test, but there might be an entertaining genius (idiot tabloid antics make most contemporary candidates risky, but we could agree on, say, Carole Burnett? Steve Martin? Johnny Carson?) or a sports genius (Muhammed Ali, for example, was no Tolstoy scholar, but he could manage to be in three places at the same time in a boxing ring) or even an entrepreneurial genius (McMahon raises and then largely dismisses the example of Steve Jobs, but surely he’s the modern figure most people would nominate to the category, even after – or especially after – Walter Isaacson’s great biography?). The very ubiquity of the distinction seems to depress our author:
But if genius is everywhere, the genius is nowhere, or at least harder than ever to see. The same forces that have democratized and expanded genius’s kingdom have sent the genius into exile or to an early grave. That curious fact will become apparent if one tries to name a genius in the postwar world. Einstein comes immediately to mind, of course. But he is the exception who proves the rule. And though there are others – such as J. Robert Oppenheimer and Richard Feynman – they tend either to be holdovers from an earlier age or fail to command common and overwhelming assent. The truth is that we live at a time when there is genius in all of us, but very few geniuses to be found.
This genius sure ain’t what it used to be conclusion is a decided anticlimax after so much of McMahon’s energetic thinking on the subject, and he seems to do very little with the idea that ‘genius’ may in fact be a handy term for someone who makes better use of his surrounding support system (be it intellectual support or what have you) than his contemporaries – which, if true, would make geniuses harder to spot when the support system is very strong, as it is in the 21st century with its universal education and ample artistic encouragements. But then, the book is only 250 pages long and wants to reach a popular audience – omissions and blind spots probably couldn’t be helped. It would take a genius to pull it off completely, and very few geniuses are to be found, apparently.