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“The” “age” “of” “genius”

By Abigail Deutsch


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.”

Comments (9)

  • On September 26, 2009 at 12:45 pm Terreson wrote:

    Good response indeed.


  • On September 26, 2009 at 12:53 pm lanny quarles wrote:

    [a. L. genius, f. *gen- root of gi-gn-Sre to beget, Gr. c¬cmerhai to be born, come into being.
    In Lat. the word has mainly the sense 1 below (the extended sense 2 occurs post-classically), and a fig. sense approaching 3. As a word of learned origin it is found in the Rom. langs.: F. génie (whence Ger. genie), It., Sp., Pg. genio, which have approximately the same senses as in Eng. To some extent the sense-development in Rom. has been affected by confusion with ingenium (see engine): cf. for example F. génie civil ‘civil engineering’.]
    1. With reference to classical pagan belief: The tutelary god or attendant spirit allotted to every person at his birth, to govern his fortunes and determine his character, and finally to conduct him out of the world; also, the tutelary and controlling spirit similarly connected with a place, an institution, etc. (Now only in sing.)
    In the first two quots. Genius is the proper name of an allegorical person who in the Rom. de la Rose represents the native moral instincts of mankind as setting bounds to the range of sexual passion.

  • On September 26, 2009 at 2:34 pm Terreson wrote:

    Good post, Lanny Quarles. It encourgaes me to say what I really think about the word. When I think of genius I think of possesssion as in being possessed, being in the possession of genius, however briefly, as usually is the case. I also think of one’s daemon in the sense that both Goethe and Socrates thought of it. A kind of spirit that leads and with which one often fights. Then I think of flameco’s duende which Lorca characterized as an earth spirit and with which the artist (and matador) conducts the ultimate fight, gets possessed by, must learn not so much to dominate but still master. It goes without saying the artist must have duende in the first place, which is probably rare. I’ve always loved that Lorca cited Saint Teresa as an examplar of duende. “Think of the case of Saint Teresa, that supremely ‘flamenco’ woman who was so filled with duende.”

    Pretty primitive, huh? Possibly just mythopoeic. But I think closer to the word’s origins.


  • On September 26, 2009 at 7:09 pm Jeffrey Side wrote:

    If genius is an inappropriate word, presumably because there is no such thing as authorship, according to the underlying theory underlying this blog topic, then surely all “works” found/borrowed/stolen by “authors” such as Kenny Goldsmith etc. should be published anonymously. But they are not. Why is this?

  • On September 27, 2009 at 12:50 am Margo Berdeshevsky wrote:

    See recent pop heroine, Elizabeth Gilbert, on the subject:


    One of her points in this equally pop “TED” discourse is that anciently the notion of genius was that as a disembodied assisting spirit, the genius helped to counter the narcissism and an artistic person – if the work was good, he/she had to give credit to an element outside the self – and if the work bombed, they might say, well, not entirely my fault, see, I had my disembodied genius working on it. …and all this prevailed until the renaissance when the notion was altered to putting the creative person at the center of the universe and in a rational humanism, people began to believe that creativity came completely from the self.

    But a bottle of genius, like a bottle of time–weigh preciously on the scale of the heart or its feather. Whatever one calls it, or mumbles her prayers to.


  • On September 27, 2009 at 11:09 am John Oliver Simon wrote:

    Kenny Goldsmith is ambitious. He cops to this. Ambition should be made of sterner stuff.

  • On September 27, 2009 at 3:30 pm Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

    On ‘Genius’…

    I am a flat puddle made easily empty
    by a careless splash,
    a shallow depression filled mostly with mud.
    I’m wild crushing waves, deep seas and vast,
    too large to explore.

    I’m a sparkling lake, bright and happy,
    sun on the ripples,
    birds floating carefree on the breeze.
    I am cold and dark and damp, a persistent
    downpour, hard and unrelenting.

    I am just a zig-zag trickle snaking slowly
    down the sidewalk.
    I’m the river that broke down the door.

    Copyright 2008 – HARDWOOD-77 Poems, Gary B. Fitzgerald

  • On September 27, 2009 at 5:08 pm Terreson wrote:

    Having spent some time chewing on Abigail Deutch’s blog article I could so riff on the theme. Probably at too much length. Especially on Lanny Quarles’s, Margo B’s, and GBF’s takes. In all three of which cases I get the sense of poets looking to get inside, or behind and to, the word’s original meaning. And maybe at their best that is what poets are about: getting the language back to when it was young, even primitive, less guarded, not so rationated. So when did genius become a property and a noun, and not a verb? The question is rhetorical. Margo B. already supplied the answer of when.


  • On September 28, 2009 at 4:46 pm Chad Parmenter wrote:

    Maybe the gummy clinging of the term to current conversations suggests the same about Romanticism?

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Posted in Poetry News on Friday, September 25th, 2009 by Abigail Deutsch.