I don’t know about the rest of you, but I was raised with the myth of genius. I think most of us were, right? Otherwise the reverence given people like Leonardo DaVinci would make no sense at all. Or for that matter, the reverence given great artists, writers and musicians.
This might be worse in science fiction and fantasy. I have heard from older authors that the best story to win awards is one of a misunderstood young genius. (In light of recent events maybe that was a thing of the past, but all the same.) Of course they also said to make double sure it should also have a cat. Never mind that.
In my family the myth of genius was odd, because I think I got it second hand. My parents were both if not smarter, more intellectually curious than most of their family (admittedly not my brilliant – and insane – maternal grandfather.) What this meant is that they reached further than their family culture would take them, and they were aware there were people who got there quicker, easier. Being generous people and rather devoid of envy, they attributed these people’s great strides to genius instead of attributing this to what we’d call “A more advantaged background” (What twaddle we talk these days, as though advantages existed midair, without being advantages towards SOMETHING. Running very fast is not an advantage towards being a pianist, for instance. Of course, what we mean by “advantaged” is rich, and that’s even sillier. Oh, sure, if you want to attend an ivy league college it helps to have the money and the contacts, but if you want to make your way in the world, it can be a disadvantage. Heinlein said something about not handicapping your children by making their lives too easy. And he was right.) So they both seemed to have this bizarre idea – incidentally fostered by the books they read and movies they watched – that true genius needs no teaching, it just is. You know, Samuel Clemmens sending in his very first piece over the transom, and suddenly Mark Twain stands there, fully formed (don’t ask me. This was literally how my father told me the story.) A young Mozart seeing a piano for the first time, and playing like… Mozart (yes, I know, but I actually watched the movie that gave them that idea.) Or the endless succession of twenty to ten year old Hollywood movies which were the fare in Portugal on Saturday afternoons where you know, the bumpkin from the country wonders in to the musical theater, opens her mouth and she IS the star.
I won’t go into how counterproductive this myth is, because that’s a whole article in itself, and I’ve talked about it before. Let’s just say that the first time I sent a story out and it came back rejected (even though it also came with a free magazine, so I could see why it didn’t fit, and a note asking me to submit again) I decided that I wasn’t cut out to be a writer. Or at least I wouldn’t be really good at it, so what was the point? It took me five years and an obsessive inability NOT to write to get over this and submit again.
I’d like to think that was my insanity, but in fact, I keep running into writers who feel that way, so it must be a cultural thing.
So… to return to the point – the myth and the truth of genius.
Last week, just before the stomach flu landed, we went to see the exhibit DaVinci Machines in Denver. It is fascinating, if you are near enough to go see it – or if it comes near you – but I strongly advise you NOT to follow the guide, because if you’re like me, in addition to wanting to strangle him about half a dozen times, you also will start having very odd ideas.
To begin with, let’s establish that Leonardo DaVinci was probably a genius. Probably even an unmatched genius, in painting and in mechanical contrivance.
Probably, Sarah, are you high?
Well, almost certainly in painting. At least I like his stuff (very generous of me, I’m sure.) I’m simply not qualified to tell you how much of a leap it was over what was being done before him.
And mechanical? Well… maybe. His machines are of course fascinating and one keeps thinking of the limits of invention, when not supported by materials and the right moment, but that’s something else.
One of the bizarre things the guide said was that no one knew why DaVinci made these sketches of machines. (Rolls eyes.) I do. It’s because at that time, part of the painter’s job was to create splendid artifacts for his patron. These artifacts were mostly created for parades and display – in other words, their purpose was awe and pomp, not actual utility and not changing everyday life.
DaVinci’s sketches – and to the extent they were built, his machines – were almost certainly for this purpose. And we simply don’t know what he was building on, because most other artists didn’t leave us such exacting sketches of the machines (which they might have considered the most important part of their work.) To this day we wouldn’t know of DaVinci’s bicycle, if an apprentice hadn’t sketched it.
But let’s even establish that DaVinci’s machines were an enormous leap over everything that was made before. They might have been.
If you look at genius square on, that would be the use of genius. Heinlein said (The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress) that this type of genius, who can come up with an idea that no one else would have and lead civilization up one wrung comes up every so often in human history; that looking back one can see an almost mathematical progression – but one can’t predict it.)
At an evolutionary level, that would be the advantage of genius for the species, then – the ability to make a big leap and a big difference in some field that changes the way the species lives and makes it easier to get on. Because, let’s face it, I’ve known geniuses. Real ones. (Though never one who could perform without learning, but never mind.)
Real genius – as opposed to simply being very bright – is by and large a handicap for the poor creature born with it. For one it doesn’t extend across every field of human endeavor, but is usually highly concentrated. Let’s say DaVinci’s ran to machines and painting, not unlikely, since engineering and visual intelligence are often co-existent. We don’t in fact know if he could tie his shoes (for some reason geniuses have issues with this. No, I don’t get it either) or cook his own breakfast, or if his singing voice made people flee the room with hands over their ears. But that would be the way to bet, from other geniuses we know. Also most true geniuses sit “crosswise in the world.” If you read the history of people who were identified as being on the top 0.01% of IQ (and leaving aside for the moment how IQ is measured and how it applies) it’s grim. Not only were most of them not successful, most of them are not functional. And while this might be merely my impression, when I researched the matter, I retained the impression that most of them end up as recluses in a tiny room filled with rubbish.
However it could be one of those traits that while it is bad for the individual is good for the species, because just once in a long while everything aligns and the genius meets his moment and pulls humanity up a wrung to more comfort or better survivability, and thus is himself successful in passing on his genes, which will in turn go on to spawn a million misfits, and one lucky, just in time guy.
In that sense, Leonardo DaVinci was, in fact, a failure. Oh, I have no idea if he passed on his genes. The biographies make is sound unlikely in the extreme, but both sexuality and the recording of such moments were far more fluid in his day than ours, particularly in the painting class which was considered a sort of not really respectable demi-monde. (Interesting to consider, for those who think Leonardo DaVinci was one the greatest genius humanity ever produced – he was an illegitimate child, born of the son-and-heir of the locality’s “important family” and the local slut. Both his father and mother went on to have other children who left no trace in history. Today, of course, he would almost certainly be aborted. In his case it made no difference – probably – in terms of leaving a genetic inheritance for humanity. But it makes one wonder. Also casts strong doubt on the weird idea we have that being “wanted” is the determinant of anyone’s worth or right to be in the world.)
But I mean he was a failure because other than beautiful art (and I’m not knocking down the art’s ability to elevate the world) he did precious little to improve or even change the way everyday man lived. Most of his inventions remained un-built, and might have been intended that way.
So, why was it, that I found the guide blathering on about Leonardo’s wisdom and his moral opinions?
It’s been a while since I’ve researched DaVinci (About ten years) so I don’t remember in fact whether his writings were seriously anti-war, (other than a reflexive “yes, yes, very sad” and the pity of a conventional man of the time for the suffering caused) or even if his machines and contrivances were designed to help make war briefer and less chaotic. (As my son pointed out a lot of the “war inventions” were in fact more suited to the sort of theatrical war that was part of pageants in those days. Say the moveable wood parapets built into the wall to prevent siege ladders from pushing against it. It would be a lovely contrivance in a quickly built wooden castle, say, love’s castle, being stormed by the knight’s of lust, or whatever – the sort of thing they did in that day. How the spectators would ooo and aaah. But put it in real war… It would work once. MAYBE. After that they would not put the ladders up against the wood parapets. And it might not work even once, because builders would be involved, and they’d talk, and in the city-states of Italy at the time, someone’s cousin would tell the other side.)
However, here was the guide telling us, with a sort of moral authority inherent in the fact that DaVinci was a genius, that he was anti-war. The very strong feeling is that all of us should be anti-war. (This is the moral equivalent of being anti-food. Yes, we’re all anti-war in principle. But it depends on the war, doesn’t it? And the civilization that wants to survive cannot be uniformly against war, just like the person who wants to survive can be anti-sugar or anti-fat or anti-processed-foods, but can’t declare himself anti-food.)
May I say this idea that even if Leonardo were anti-war we should therefore also be anti-war, because he was a genius and we aren’t is, of course, arrant nonsense?
Yes, the wars of the time were often arrant nonsense too – but then we’re not there and we can’t judge. And here’s the thing, even if DaVinci were as brilliant as everyone says he was, he couldn’t judge either.
His métier and his genius were confined to painting and machinery. How would this make him a genius in economics, psychology or that dangerous game of one-upmanship that guaranteed survival for leaders and their cities at the time? It wasn’t his job, and considering everything else he was doing, how could he know enough about it.
Take me – I’m no Leonardo DaVinci at any level, and my concerns are more pedestrian. However, I’m very busy writing in several fields, in addition to looking after a family and the other quotidian concerns of living. I draw and paint as a hobby, and I did study history of art way in pre-history, but at this point I can’t tell you how or why Leonardo was a genius in painting. I can just tell you my untutored eye believes so.
“But Sarah,” you’ll say. “He was a genius. So he could learn more in a shorter time.”
Maybe. My experience, again, is that geniuses are highly concentrated and motivated mostly by their interests. I don’t remember when I studied his biography coming across a time when DaVinci’s interests strayed to economics or politics, or the study of war. For one, if one were not of the right class, all of those could be lethal interests in his day.
So, why would we listen to what he has to say with rapt attention, or think he has some sort of moral pronouncements to make on things where his genius didn’t touch?
I think it’s something left from childhood. We’re raised with people around us knowing so much more than we do. That is, to an extent, the basis of our security. And as adults we want to believe the same. Let someone do wonderful things in one field, and we’re willing to assume they must be above us in all fields and capable of guiding us. It gives us security.
But it also leads to very silly things, like painters (or writers, or musicians, or actors, or for that matter economists or computer-company-founders) thinking they have some sort of universal wisdom to impart and other people thinking it’s sane to follow them.
Do I know how to stop this? Not a clue. But I do wish it would stop. It’s not only very silly – it is profoundly dangerous.
Mind is not morality. Genius is never universal.
Genius has its uses, but being our mother and our father is not one of them.
In the world of adults, each of us must always muddle on alone. There is no all-seeing, all-knowing superman to rescue us from having to think.