Saturday, August 31, 2013

"Geniuses perceive the world in a different way, and as a result have trouble interacting with other people" (Ian Welsh)


"Perhaps the storyteller," suggests The New Yorker's James Woods, "is especially ill suited for happy family life." Foremost among his subjects is Saul Bellow (above).

"True genius, and I've known a few, is alienating. Geniuses perceive the world in a different way than other people do, and as a result they have trouble interacting with other people. . . . In the old days, geniuses were tolerated, even coddled. . . . Geniuses were surrounded with other geniuses, their eccentricities tolerated, and allowed to run. Today it's 'if you don't play well with others, even if you can do things they can't, you're out.' . . . This is the symptom of a society that doesn't really care about progress."
-- Ian Welsh, in a new post, "The intolerance of genius"

by Ken

Ian Welsh has written an important new post on his blog,, focusing on the singular quality of "actual genius" and its frequent incompatibility with social graces ("Geniuses perceive the world in a different way than other people do, and as a result they have trouble interacting with other people") and the price we pay for the sharp decline in society's willingness to tolerate genius and even, indeed, to cultivate it.
The intolerance of genius

by Ian Welsh

One of the reasons, today, that we have such mediocre progress on important issues, is the unwillingness to put up with geniuses who don't have "soft skills", aka. who don't play well with others. (Obligatory note, this isn't a post about me.) There is this odd belief that 10 very smart people can do what one genius can. They can't. There are thresholds of ability (not intelligence, ability) and if you're below them, you just can't do the things that people at that level can do. Period.

Related, but not the same: in terms of intelligence, there are levels at which you can learn everything, but not anything (ie. you can't be a real polymath) and without that knowledge, in one person, not spread out through a team, many connections cannot be made and when they can, the process is vastly slower. (Aka. no, you can't look it up.)

True genius, and I've known a few, is alienating. Geniuses perceive the world in a different way than other people do, and as a result they have trouble interacting with other people. One acquaintance told me that it takes him six months to tool down from high level work to the point where he can talk to bright normals and have them understand him. Genius is also about obsession, about living with a subject till you breath it, till it's obvious to you. Even on a pure IQ level (and again, genius is not always about IQ) once you move more than 2 standard deviations in either direction, communication becomes very hard.

In the old days, geniuses were tolerated, even coddled. If it was necessary for GE to hire a secretary to act as interface between a genius and the rest of the world, that was done. Geniuses were surrounded with other geniuses, their eccentricities tolerated, and allowed to run. Today it's "if you don't play well with others, even if you can do things they can't, you're out."

This is the symptom of a society that doesn't really care about progress. We live in a courtier's society, where ability is secondary to social skills, where who you know and who you blow (as the cynical saying at one of my ex-employers ran) is far more important than how good a job you do, because your job isn't to actually solve problems or get things done, it's to manage your superiors and get along with your peers.

One might say "it has ever been thus", but this is only partially true. The brilliant mavericks were far more tolerated in the war era and cold war period, because they were needed. The possibility of losing a war, or of there even being a war which was an actual risk to the western powers, kept us honest.

Now those people are sidelined. Socially skilled mediocrities fail to the top, our society shudders from crisis to crisis, out actual scientific and technological process has slowed to a crawl, and deployment of what technological progress we do have is slow and uneven and often happens faster in other nations.

Genius, actual genius, is uncomfortable. They do things for reasons they often can't explain to people who aren't geniuses. They're obsessive, and they're often alienated from other people who simply can't or won't understand what they're doing and why. If you want to benefit from society's geniuses, you have to tolerate much of this.

I will add that not only do we not tolerate geniuses any more, we largely don't even cultivate genius. The people who go to the "best" colleges in the US these days are not geniuses, not in any creative sense. They are exactly chosen to be conformists who have done exactly what they were supposed to do for their entire lives. They are courtiers in training, the senior servants to the oligarchy. Again, in the old days (we're talking all of 25 years ago), while those people made up most of the Ivy League, broad exceptions were carved out for the truly brilliant, whether intellectually, artistically, or otherwise. Some of those exceptions still exist, or slip through, but they are the exception now.

And this, this is another reason why the future does not happen, and when it does happen, it mostly does not happen in the US any more.


In the July 22 New Yorker, critic James Woods offered an intriguing consideration, "Sins of the Father" (only an abstract available free online), of the difficulty, even improbability, of great fiction writers having either the inclination or the capacity for involved parenting. Woods is jumping off from memoirs by Susan Cheever (Home Before Dark, 1984), Janna Malamud Smith (My Father Is a Book, 2006), and Alexandra Styron (Reading My Father, 2011), daughters of John Cheever, Bernard Malamud, and William Styron, and contrasting them with Greg Bellow's Saul Bellow's Heart: A Son's Memoir, which Woods describes as "less a memoir than a speaking wound."

The three daughters, Woods writes,
write movingly about the holy centrality of writing in their fathers' lives. Styron is devastatingly honest about it: "But if each creation is, in effect, an artist's offspring, I think Daddy put his nonfiction in the category with his four living, breathing children. There was affection for what he'd made and, frequently, pride. But the Novel owned his heart."

The great scandal, you could say, is not that these men were writers first and husbands and fathers second but that they arranged their lives in such conventional ways that they kept on choosing, and ceaselessly inflicted that choosing on their familial audiences. How, really, could the drama of paternity have competed with the drama of creativity? For a man, creating a child -- though certainly not raising one -- is almost accidental, whereas writing a book takes years of though and effort.
One obvious biographical difference, Woods suggests, separates the experience of Alexndra Styron, Susan Cheever, and Janna Malamud Smith from that of Greg Bellow. The ladies "wrote books about complicated, sometimes monstrously selfish fathers who stuck around." As Cheever puts it, her parents "stayed married for more than forty years - a constancy that seemed alternately noble and ludicrous." Bellow, by contrast, "has written a book about a complicated father who left, and the difference is indeed wounding."
The children whose fathers remained married to their mothers have learned, paradoxically, how to let go of their dead fathers; they understand that their fathers had literary existences that were religiously absorbing, selfishly independent. To bestow on one's parents their independence is also to announce one's own independence from them. . . .
By contrast, Greg Bellow, a psychotherapist,
is still clutching his father, and clutching for his father. He seems to struggle with resentment at the very idea of Saul Bellow's having an independent literary existence; which is to say that he finds it hard to credit that his father was a writer at all. Terribly, he appears not to know this about himself.
"Perhaps," Woods has suggested, "the storyteller is especially ill suited for happy family life. For even as the fiction writer tells humane stories about behavior and motive and family relations -- what one might think of as a sympathetic skill -- so he or she is also a little like the proverbial choirboy at the funeral: coldly observing, carefully pillaging, rearranging, impersonating, and re-voicing the very material that constitutes "family."

Woods doesn't make a point of what I think we all know: that while all four of the fathers in question were talented, accomplished, and genuinely and lastingly important writers, Saul Bellow looms above them. What Woods does make clear is Bellow's awareness of the primacy of the novelist's relationship with the reader, quoting "these beautiful words" written in 1990:
When you open a novel -- and I mean of course the real thing -- you enter into a state of intimacy with its writer. You hear a voice or, more significantly, an individual tone under the words. This tone you, the reader, will identify not so much by a name, the name of the author, as by a distinct and unique human quality. It seems to issue from the bosom, from a place beneath the breast bone. It is more musical than verbal, and it is the characteristic signature of a person, of a soul.
Bellow, Woods stresses, also had a strong feeling for the difficulty, bordering on impossibility, of someone destined for this kind of creative production doing so in modern capitalist America. The keenness of this awareness, Woods suggests, may be connected to the "lifelong battle" between Bellow and his father, "who appears to have held his son's vocation in contempt."

Woods writes so feelingly about the struggle required to establish and nurture a genuine independent creative voice that I, perhaps perversely, found myself thinking about the zillions of Bellow wannabes who have fought lifelong fights, perhaps just as fiercely, without succeeding -- or, more to the point, having any real hope of succeeding, because there's no test to tell either them or us who has the makings of such an artist. To stick to the immediate subject of the piece, family relations, how many spouses and offspring are doomed to suffer the same emotional absence at the hands of parents who aren't John Cheever, or Bernard Malamud, or William Styron, or Saul Bellow?

And sure enough, I found myself thinking about the same sort of thing in reading Ian Welsh's post. It takes a leap of faith to identify those geniuses worth "coddling." We do in fact anoint a whole bunch of self-styled geniuses who don't correspond well to what Ian is describing. I don't have an answer for this; I'm just saying.


At 1:04 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'd suggest that the true genius can take care of her/him self precisely because they "have trouble interacting with other people," and, presumably, are able to find ways to carry on with ingenuity anyway.

The actual problem is the general society's apparent growing intolerance to rationality and independence of though, both being overrun by religious superstition and subservience to non-sectarian authority regardless of how irrational and baseless it might be.

John Puma

At 12:21 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sadly, no. Of the geniuses I have known, over half were dead before 45. Geniuses are often very, very bad at taking care of themselves. The work, the obsession, calls, and they are often alienated from the support from other people they need. Geniuses are, even more than the stereotpyical type "A" very good at working themselves, or neglecting themselves, to death.


At 1:38 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Apparently those I once considered geniuses were only so in comparison!

Is there a book in the works on this, too? That's only a fraction sarcasm, as the actual stories of the geniuses you've known might be more interesting to many than a treatise on economics.

John Puma

At 3:37 PM, Blogger KenInNY said...

Thanks as always for engaging, John, and thanks, Ian, for chiming in with that useful amplification of your terrific presentation on the subject.


At 10:31 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Genius quickly becomes despondent unless it is put in exceptionally cossetted, hermetical, circumstances (a 100% loyal and equal romantic relationship, a university, a mental institution, a world tour where it need never think too much about it never truly feels settled. And when the party is over, people who were not geniuses never really let them forget. They did it on their own. No-one helped them relatively speaking).


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