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“The” “age” “of” “genius”
In a recent Slate article, Ron Rosenbaum explores uses and abuses of the word “genius,” suggesting:
Maybe genius has been, if not democratized, more widely and thinly distributed, rather than concentrated in the hands of a precious few…. Maybe we no longer live in the kind of romantic age that created Byron, the template of genius.
Or maybe we do.
Following the announcement of the 2009 MacArthur fellowships (which honored poet Heather McHugh, among others, with $500,000), the media have continued the tradition of calling the grants “genius” awards — “creating” genius where the MacArthur Foundation planned merely to give money. It turns out the Foundation abstains from the nebulous business of christening genius (or so it thinks):
We avoid using the term “genius” to describe MacArthur Fellows because the term connotes a singular characteristic of intellectual prowess. The people we seek to support express many other important qualities: ability to transcend traditional boundaries, willingness to take risks, persistence in the face of personal and conceptual obstacles, capacity to synthesize disparate ideas and approaches.
I find this paragraph most thoughtful for its use of “connotes,” which allows that “genius” holds no obvious meaning (some would disagree that genius’s chief connotation is intellectual rather than creative or otherwise). I find it most comical for its effect on headlines. The caveat prompts publications to frame the word “genius” within quotation marks, lending the label a vaguely sarcastic ring: “4 Mass. residents awarded ‘genius’ grants,” “Poet’s Wordplay Leads To MacArthur ‘Genius’ Award.” Ouch.
Why such loyalty to this disavowed, difficult term?
One answer is, I suggest, the same that explains high attendance at county fairs: our enthusiasm for enthusiasm — our joy in finding things extraordinary, and saying so (whether or not we know what we’re talking about). If the protean label “genius” tends to simplify, maybe we sometimes like to simplify, to say complexity doesn’t matter, or that certain work surpasses the need for nuanced evaluation: we just know what it is. It’s genius. And if we can’t, in turn, define “genius,” well…pass the corndogs!
But the quotation marks jerk us backward by our sun-faded, hay-permeated collars. “Don’t want to make any big claims, do we?” the quotation marks mutter in our ears. “Don’t want to say anything indefensible, am I right? Always need to be careful? Cynical age, this, isn’t it?” (For some reason the quotation marks, like most killjoys, speak in a British accent.)
Which is why the eschewal of quotation marks on the New Yorker‘s Book Bench blog feels so refreshing. Two adjacent headlines announce “Heather McHugh, Poetic Genius” and “Edwidge Danticat, Genius.” Granted, the blog’s authors may have intended to highlight the absurdity of trafficking in grandiose judgments. But the magazine’s appreciation of McHugh and Danticat can’t be denied, and so I prefer to see these phrases as unpunctuated, unadulterated statements of adoration.
Thanks also to that blog for providing McHugh’s response to the use of “genius,” as compact and mysterious as a poem: “How do I feel about the word ‘genius’? Bottled.”