Genius, and other essays/Genius
A WRITER nowadays hardly makes choice of such a topic as this, unless with due occasion. Even then he leniently recalls the feeling of his schoolboy days, when he sat before a theme—Virtue, Industry, or Ambition—justly out of sorts with his task, if not with his teacher, and much in doubt how to begin it. But I am moved to touch upon the present subject, and in a measure guided, by the striking declaration of one whose original works, no less than his present occupancy of an official chair of criticism, make him a conspicuous authority. No opinion, however striking and unexpected, can fail to receive attention when advanced by Mr. Howells with all his honesty and humor, and in a style so agreeable as to commend him to the favor of even those against whom his gentle shafts of satire are directed.
Not long since, then, our favorite novelist gave a hearing to those who have supported claims, of various parties, to the possession of Genius. He forthwith nonsuited them, on the ground that there was no cause of action. Instead of arguing for an apportionment of the estate indicated by the aforesaid designation, we have, as if claimants to some hypothetical Townley or Hyde inheritance, to face a judicial decision, based upon evidence satisfactory to the Court at least, that such a thing does not exist and never has existed. He finds that there is no such "puissant and admirable prodigy . . . created out of the common." It is as much of a superstition as the Maelstrom of MalteBrun; it is a mythical and fantastic device, kept up for the intimidation of modest and overcredulous people. Conformably to this decision, and in frequent supplementary references thereto, he places the word "genius" between quotation marks, very much as an old-time Romanist crossed himself when naming the Evil One or Oliver Cromwell; or as if it were an impostor consigned to the pillory, or a sentenced reprobate in charge of a brace of tipstaffs. Mr. Howells's opinion and practice are of no slight moment. It must be nothing short of conviction and a sense of duty that could move him to discredit that of which many would select himself as an exemplar. Something more than fair talents, and the aid of the industry which he celebrates and to which Hercules ever was an ally, had been required, we thought, to produce those works of his that give us pride. Should his judgment in time be reversed,—should the reality of genius be sustained, after all, then Literature will have reason to exclaim to him, as La belle Taincturière cried to her jealous spouse, in Les Contes Drolatiques: Arrète, malheureux, tu vas tuer le père de tes enfans!
Sincerity, however, is one of his acknowledged traits, and none will suspect for an instant that he would be a willing promulgator of sophistry. That his myth-theory can be, like Bishop Whateley's Napoleon and Mr. Lang's Gladstone, a lively and pleasant bit of by-play, is equally out of the question. Assuming, then, that the popular belief in genius is a superstition, we scarcely can do better than to look into its origin; to inquire whether, like the sun-myth, it is a genuine folk-lore common to all times and races, or something begotten in the romantic passion of the latter-day world. On the whole, I think its adherents may claim for it a respectable antiquity. There are reasons for belief that the Asiatics, with their notions of divination, inspiration, and incarnation, were the progenitors of this tradition, as of so many other fads and fables. But it will suffice to go back to Athens, the distributing reservoir out of which flowed our own stream of thought. From the prince of Grecian idealists we inherit teachings that in the end brought about the use and meaning of our word Genius. With his master, Socrates, he conceived distinctive greatness to be the result of superhuman guidance. To these heathen in their blindness the special power of certain men seemed inexplicable otherwise than as a gift, bestowed by the daimon. Plato gossips concerning the etymology of this word, saying that Hesiod uses the title "demons" to denote the "golden race of men who came first," and who, now that fate has closed over the race, are "holy daimones upon the earth,—beneficent, averters of ill, guardians of mortal men." In the primitive dialect the word means those who are knowing or wise, and the philosopher avers that the wise man who happens to be a good man is daimonion—i.e., more than human. The deduction finally resulting in our modern illusion was made by Plato himself, and in various lofty passages. "The gift," he says in Ion, "which you possess of speaking excellently about Homer, is not an art, but an inspiration: there is a divinity moving in you." Again, the poet is "a holy thing, and there is no invention in him until he has been inspired . . . For not by art does the poet sing, but by power divine." Professor Jowett's comment inferentially describes genius as something "unconscious, or spontaneous, or a gift of nature." Plainly, the Academe and its master should have a condign share of any criticism to which the early promoters of this fallacy may be subjected. For the case of the Jukes affords no plainer evidence of the spread of wrongful tendencies by multiplication in descent.
We should have to range through many literatures to show how this illusion of the Platonists and Neo-Platonists commended itself to the entire race of philosophers, poets, artists, and warriors, whose vanity is fed by the conceit that they are a sort of chosen people. Plutarch made it the final test of his heroes, and the circle of Augustan wits gave it ready credence. Cicero declared that all great men were inspired, and his furor poeticus is of a piece with Plato's "divine frenzy"—whose outcome both deemed far more precious than that of sober reflection. The idea survived the middle ages, sometimes recurring to its original and unsophisticated form; but the learned and powerful, who had outgrown the pious faith of their ancestors, thought Tasso mad (as indeed he may have been) when he claimed that he was indebted to communication with a familiar spirit for his noblest lyrical discourse, and for that heroic melancholy which, it was said, "raised and brightened his spirit, so far it was from depressing or rendering it obscure." Lord Bacon, certainly a judge of evidence, and one who subjected most things to scientific test, threw the great weight of his authority in favor of the belief that poets and other originators produce by a kind of exceptional gift, if not through direct inspiration. To be sure, he lived in a superstitious time, and put faith, despite his wisdom, in certain mysteries of the quacks and alchemists, in barbarous therapeutic concoctions, and was not wholly incredulous of witchcraft and astrology. He charges a man to set hours for his routine labors, but "whatsoever is agreeable to his nature, let him take no care for any set times; for his thoughts will fly to it of themselves." He conceived that a painter to "make a better face than ever was . . . must do it by a kind of felicity (as a musician that maketh an excellent air in music) and not by rule." Sidney had described poesy as that which "lifts the mind from the dungeon of the body to the enjoying its own divine essence;" and on like ground Bacon thought it partook of divineness, "because it doth raise and erect the mind, by submitting the shews of things to the desires of the mind; whereas reason doth buckle and bow the mind unto the nature of things."
Dryden was one of the earliest English writers to use the very word genius in the sense of that which is "the gift of Nature" and which "must be born, and never can be taught." Its most frequent use by the Latins was in the sense of a tutelar spirit, but sometimes, as in Juvenal and Martial, it denoted the fire of individual greatness. The idea of a divine admonisher was more or less current with the Latins as with the Greeks. They named this spirit the "inborn," and Genius thus came to mean the inspiration rather than the inspirer, agreeably to the feeling that the soul is itself divine and its own monitor. In modern times the word, very slightly inflected, has been more widely received into European languages, to express a meaning common to all, than almost any other Latin derivative; it is not only found in all Latin tongues,—Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, French,—but has been adopted by the Germans, Danes, Swedes, Norwegians, and other peoples who, like ourselves, have no indigenous word that conveys precisely the same idea. A universal word means a universal thought. Prophets, mystics, all direct-inspirationists, still cherish the germinal belief, so rapturously manifest in Jacob Böhme's avowal: "I say before God that I do not myself know how it happens to me that, without having the impelling will, I do not know what I should write. For when I write the Spirit dictates to me." But genius, in the derivative sense, is equally recognized, the world over, as a gift, something not quite attainable by labor, however promotive that may be of its bravest exercise, and a gift of types as various as are the different persons endowed with it.
That this view, however specious, has been captivating to the Teutonic mind, appears not alone from the language of German poets and artists, with their traditional pretensions to the gift, but even more from that of philosophers and critics, having the true father of German criticism at their head. Lessing, the most revolutionary and constructive of critics, the inspirer of creative intellect, reverenced by the youthful Goethe, the guide of Schiller, and accepted by the distrustful Heine within our own time as the paragon of all literary history, even the noble Lessing corporated this vagary into his system, and defends it with fine irony in the Dramaturgie:
"To the man of Genius (Genie) it is granted not to know a thousand things which every schoolboy knows, . . . He goes wrong, therefore, now from confidence, now from pride, sometimes intentionally, sometimes unintentionally,—so often, so grossly, that we cannot express our wonder enough to other good people. We stand in amazement, clap our hands, and exclaim: 'But how could so great a man be so ignorant? How is it possible it did not occur to him? Did he not reflect, then?' Oh! let us be silent; we think we humiliate him, and only make ourselves ridiculous in his eyes. Everything we know better than he only proves that we went more diligently to school than he; but, unfortunately, that was necessary if we were not to continue perfect blockheads."
He audaciously removes the world of a genius (dieWelt eines Genies) from the commonplace world at the service of every man. Its events,
"Although they are not of this world, might nevertheless belong to another world—. . . in short, to the world of a genius who (let it be allowed to me to indicate the Creator without name by his noblest creature!), imitating on a small scale the highest Genius (höchste Genie), places, exchanges, diminishes, enlarges the parts of the present world in order to make from it a whole of his own with which he connects his own aims."
Elsewhere, while insisting upon the independence of the gift-possessor, he cautions us against the blunder of mistaking pleasure and facility for genius. Lessing, be it observed, classed himself as outside the sacred circle; although his poems and dramas had some vogue, he thought them the outcome of taste and industry, but acknowledged that to criticism he "owed something which comes very near genius." "Otherwise," he wrote, "I do not feel in me the living fountain which works upward by its own force, shoots up by its own force in such rich, fresh, and pure streams. I must force everything out of me by the fly-press and pipes." Yet his biographer says that his insight as a critic was to a large extent "due to the study of his own intellectual processes as a poet." Goethe, a savant and usually possessed of the clearest sense, shared in Lessing's aberration and resisted even the conventional language that tends to rectify it. He would not have it said that Mozart had composed Don Juan, but thus assured Eckermann:
"It is a spiritual creation, in which the details, as well as the whole, are pervaded by one spirit, and by the truth of one life; so that the producer did not make experiments, and patch together, and follow his own caprice, but was altogether in the power of the dæmonic spirit of his genius, and acted according to its orders."
The great writers, mystics and iconoclasts alike, upon whose works our present generation fed in youth, have been subject to this hallucination. There is scarcely an exception in the group of English worthies just prior to our own period of the colored photograph, cast-iron architecture, law as a business, and of book-making as a staple, time-regulated, and surely productive trade. All strike the key of De Quincey's rhapsody on Shakespeare: "O mighty poet! Thy works are not as those of other men, simply and merely great works of art; but are also like the phenomena of nature, like the sun and the sea, the stars and the flowers." It is true that Carlyle, with his varying treatment of prerogative, once or twice made outbursts that have encouraged others to rise, like the poor wise man in the legend, and say: "I doubt!" As we read Mr. Howells's protest, it perforce calls to mind the highest authority citable in its support. Yes, Carlyle wrote that genius "means transcendent capacity of taking trouble, first of all." And he apostrophizes one of his heroes, enduring the discipline of youth:
"Daily return the quiet dull duties. . . . Patience, young man of genius, as the Newspapers would now call you; it is indispensably beneficial nevertheless! To swallow one's disgusts, and do faithfully the ugly commanded work, taking no counsel with flesh and blood: know that 'genius,' everywhere in Nature, means this first of all."
But Carlyle here reverts to the dogged apprenticeship of "slow, stubborn, broad-shouldered" Friedrich Wilhelm, and elsewhere he finds something else more needful than patience first of all: everywhere, one might say, since of latter-day Englishmen, this chief exorciser and cloud-dispeller seems from youth to age to have welcomed most unreservedly the chimera of genius and to account its exemplars as a select and consecrated race. To him they are ever the "chosen men of the world," in all fields of discovery, thought, action, creative art. In Goethe he salutes "the existence of a high and peculiar genius." His Mirabeau illustrates the difference "between an original man, of never such questionable sort, and the most dexterous cunningly-devised parliamentary mill." The deviations of Richter's star only assure him that "Genius has privileges of its own; it selects an orbit for itself; and be this never so eccentric, if it is indeed a celestial orbit, we mere star-gazers must at last compose ourselves, must cease to cavil at it, and begin to observe its laws."
Nevertheless, that outbreak of Carlyle's, reënforced by epigrams attributed to George Eliot and other contemporaries, and of which Mr. Howells gives us the latest paraphrase, was not lost upon our working-day and matter-of-fact generation. It was indeed as when some bold explorer sailed at last between Moskenaes and Mosken, sounding and heaving his log, and found a sturdy industrious current, but no Maelstrom supernatural or otherwise. Or it was the jet of cold water thrown into the boiling, bubbling cauldron and reducing in a jiffy its superfluous steam. The fire may still be underneath, and the steam-gauge yet rise high as ever, but safety and low pressure is the watchword of a popular engineer. Some of our most brilliant thinkers, to whom the public would not gainsay the attributes of genius, are quite disenchanted, and recognize it neither in themselves nor in others. The lack of self-consciousness, however, proves nothing. Carlyle, appropriating Richter's phrase, said that "genius is ever a secret to itself," and instanced Shakespeare, "who takes no airs for writing Hamlet or The Tempest, understands not that it is anything surprising." But the leader-loving masses have so long eaten of the insane root that at this moment, as throughout the centuries, they discern, or believe they discern, the exceptionally great as plainly as they can distinguish Sirius and Aldebaran from the multitude of points that twinkle about them.
I have refrained from looking chiefly among the poets for qualified judges in the present hearing, for we shall see that they would be objected to as interested parties, if not peremptorily appealed from, by the other side. Yet it may be noted that, at about the time when Mr. Howells rendered his decision, an American poet, of high critical jurisdiction, was accepting this traditional verity of genius as sound under the law. In the discourse upon Gray, with which Mr. Lowell favored the readers of the New Princeton, he said in his unrivalled way that Addison and Steele "together made a man of genius," and drew a fine distinction when he showed that only the vivid genius of Pope could so nearly persuade wit to become poetry. In speaking of the rare, yet occasional, union of genius and dilettantism in the same person, he sees that "genius implies always a certain fanaticism of temperament, which, if sometimes it seems fitful, is yet capable of intense energy on occasion." That which idealizes commonplace, he elsewhere looks upon as "a divine gift," for which to be thankful. If Lowell, too, be mad in this belief, he gives us a sane and luminous exposition of his reasons for it. But one might cite a cloud of other witnesses to prove how ancient, how continuous, how modern, is this instinctive and transmitted obliquity of the noblest minds. Of a truth the one universal foible of men born great—the most striking illustration, possibly, that could strengthen Disraeli's display of the Infirmities of Genius—is their faith in the entity, the actual existence, of a quality by which they still are classified.
That something does exist, something by which great and original things are done, Mr. Howells no less recognizes. Only it is not genius. There must be no titles in the democracies of art, invention, statesmanship, actions, and affairs. As the Terrorists changed St. Matthew's Day to the Fifth Sans-culot-tide, so genius shall be reduced after this fashion:
"There is no 'genius' there is only the mastery that comes to natural aptitude from the hardest study of any art or science." This is his dilution of, or proposed substitute for, the word he consigns to an Index Expurgatorius. The mooted difference between talent and genius should no longer distress "poor little authorlings." Genius is the Maelstrom of literary chartmongers. The Norwegian Maelstrom within the memory of middle-aged men "existed in the belief of the geographers, but we now get on perfectly well without it."
With the timidity of an old graduate who tries to quote Horace before those trained in the latest Roman pronunciation, I confess myself not wholly free from the superstition: the scales have not quite dropped from my own eyes. I have a certain respect for inherited, confirmed proverbs, phrases, and terms; and it is hard to rid one's self of the feeling that there must be something in an idea, a judgment, accepted by the many and the few and from generation to generation,—there must be some mission for a word which, although it be "soiled with all ignoble use," I find taken into service, and in a sense differing from talent, or mastery, or aptitude, by every English writer from Dryden to Messrs. Gosse and Courthope. I plead guilty to the charge of having employed it more than once in consideration of Browning and Tennyson and Swinburne, of Poe and Emerson, of other exceptional singers in our time. Indeed, I do not see how we can get on without it until some apter term is proffered to embody what seems a distinct idea. Mr. Howells's paraphrase may serve for a definition, if you give it a superlative and intense force, a moral ictus a hundred times more impressive than that which it conveys to the unprepared reader. Natural aptitude, of a truth—but aptitude so unique, so compelling, as to have seemed supernatural to the ancients, preternatural to the common folk of all times, prenatal and culminative to the scientific observer of heredity, evolution, environment. Having progressed from the "wit" of our English forefathers to this expressive "genius," shall we go back to "natural aptitude" forsooth? If we must have a paraphrase, let us resort to the essential and basic salt rather than to a triturated and hyper-reduced solution. I would rather seek for it, at the other extreme, in some extravagant gloria of Carlyle's Past and Present:
"Genius, Poet, do we know what these words mean? An inspired Soul once more vouchsafed to us, direct from Nature's own fire-heat, to see the Truth, and speak it and do it."
"Genius is the 'inspired gift of God.' It is the clearer presence of God Most High in a man. Dim, potential, in all men, in this man it has become actual. So says John Milton, who ought to be a judge; so answer him the Voices of all Ages and all Worlds."
I would not dispute about words, and am quite aware that Carlyle's other view may constitute a ground for appeal to Philip sober. And I am equally aware how far his "infinite capacity for taking trouble" has echoed and extended,—until it has become almost a cult with men less authoritative than its latest transmitter, and given what infinite comfort to steady plodders, men of system, industry, and—for once let us say—talent, to whom after all the world is diurnally indebted!
Yet even the avowed promoters of this reform at times betray an unconscious or subjective distrust of it. I once heard a master of the art preservative of arts, as he scouted the popular notion of genius. With good mental and bodily powers, he said, it needs no special gift, nothing but industry and a fair chance, to put one at the head of any art or science—to produce the exact results which the lazy and credulous attribute to distinctive faculty. The company present questioned this, suggesting that the test be applied to specific cases. The painter, who in childhood drew with ease the likenesses of his playmates, and afterwards rose to greatness, had he not an innate gift that no industry and training could rival? The musician, seemingly born with musical ear and voice, or with instinctive mastery of instruments,—the inventor, the romancer,—was there nothing unique and exceptional in their capabilities? No, our sturdy friend replied—he would not own that any man of general ability could not equally perfect his eye and hand, ear and voice, by thorough devotion and practice. To a man who so cheerfully disposed of these extreme illustrations there was really no reply. But within ten minutes, conversation having changed to the subject of typography and book-making, he gratified us with some account of his own experience while advancing an art in which he deservedly stands at the front. We expressed our admiration for his achievements, and for his natural taste; whereupon he modestly said that he believed he had a genius for printing, that he was born to be a printer,—not reflecting, until the phrases had slipped from him, that he inadvertently refuted his previous argument. We assured him that he was right—he had a genius for printing, and had not the art been in existence, his life would have been as imperfect as that of many a ne'er-do-well before the Civil War revealed that he was born to be a fighter and hero. Here we again reach the primal attribute of what the world, in its simplicity, denominates genius: it is inborn, not alone with respect to bodily dexterity and the fabric of the brain, but as appertaining to the power and bent of the soul itself. Channing went so far as to claim that Milton's command of harmony is not to be ascribed to his musical ear: "It belongs to the soul. It is a gift or exercise of genius, which has power to impress itself on whatever it touches, and finds or frames, in sounds, notions, and material forms, correspondences and harmonies with its own fervid thoughts and feelings." This does not conflict with a scientific diagnosis, as we shall presently see. Remove the investigation to the domain of psychology, and the law is still there; we declare to the most plain-spoken realist that there is nothing out of nature in it, although our psychology may as yet be too defective to formulate it. But as nothing can restrict the liberty of the soul, Channing recognized the freedom of genius to choose its own language and its own working-law.
A debate once arose, in my hearing, upon the question: Which of two virtuous men is the better, he whose virtue is ingrained and natural, or he who, born with evil traits, has educated and disciplined himself to virtue? A youth spoke up for the latter as having the higher order of goodness. But he was rebuked by an elderly man, who said that the latter in truth might be the more praiseworthy for self-control, but asked if it was to be supposed that man could excel the Creator in fashioning character? He added that a person made good at the outset by the Master Workman, and thus good by nature, is not liable to decline; that his goodness is a constant, self-dependent factor, while the goodness attained by effort is variable, and must be watched incessantly and maintained by fresh effort, and, as in the case of Doctor Dodd, whose over-acquisitiveness at last got the better of him, is liable to give way at any moment of relaxed vigilance. Thus it may be, I should think, that genius demands and gains an admiration not excited by mere aptness strengthened through "taking trouble" and "the hardest study." Like beauty, it is its own excuse for being. Its claim to special honor is all the more indisputable if Florus was sound in his maxim—Poeta nascitur, non fit.
It would seem, furthermore, that there is genius, and genius. First, the puissant union of divers forces that has made rare "excepted souls " great in various directions, foremost and creative in every work to which they set themselves. Names of these, the world's few, are ever repeated—such as Cæsar, Peter the Great, Michael Angelo, Bacon, Goethe—men of combined powers, and among them we always class Shakespeare—poet, manager, citizen—because his writings reflect mankind at large and we justly call him the myriad-minded. If our Franklin had possessed more ideality, he clearly, despite the counter-assumption of Mr. Howells, would rank with the second order of this class. The more limited kind of genius, and that most speedily and easily recognized by the world, is the specific. Its possessor is born with an irrepressible faculty for some distinctive labor, art, or science. It belongs to your poets, romancers, artists, inventors, etc.—Æschylus, Pheidias, Dante, Cervantes, Rabelais, Newton, Haller, Pitt, Hannibal, Nelson; to Keats and Burns and Byron, Thackeray and Dickens; to Kean, Rachel, Bernhardt; to the Ericssons and Edisons, even to the Zerah Colburns, Morphys, and other representatives of special and more or less abnormal powers. In one case a single point of light requires all the dynamic force of its displayer to sustain it; others reach a good average development in many ways. Again, the genius of each class has its subdivisions—this poet or painter is sublime—this other notable for beauty, or pathos, or delicacy. Thus the element of personality is to be considered; the product of special genius always having distinct and individual flavor. Nothing before or after exactly fills its place. De Quincey says, with regard to Milton, that "if the man had failed, the power would have failed. In that mode of power which he wielded, the function was exhausted in the man—species was identified with the individual—the poetry was incarnated in the poet." In high potencies of this specific genius, the function is as clearly differentiated as that which marks the greyhound for speed, the bloodhound for scent, the bull-dog for grip and combativeness.
Of course it is by an extreme instance that the existence of such a thing as innate and special genius can be most easily, yet no less fairly, illustrated. Take the case of that born musician—if there ever is one—of whom it has been said that "the whole of music created since Guido d'Arezzo, who invented the musical signs, up to the end of the last century, had only one aim—to create Mozart." From his letters, and from the collected anecdotes of his radiant career, a wealth of undisputable evidence is at hand, almost justifying this high-flown statement. It has a scientific countenance in certain facts—that his father was a musician; that Mozart was bred in the service of a cathedral choir; that he came just at the time when Gluck "had given impulse and reform to opera," and Handel and Bach had advanced music to the stage required for the fit exercise of his transcendent gift. But the gift itself! So transcendent, so inborn, that the child must have seemed a changeling, first cradled in the shell of Apollo's lyre. We are told that when Wolfgang was three years old he searched out thirds on the piano; when four, he began playing,—at five, composing,—at six, he was a celebrity. His Opus I., four sonatas for piano and violin, was produced when he was seven. A biographer, describing his fourth year, says that his faculty was intuitive, "for in learning to play he learned to compose at the same time, his own nature discovering to him some important secrets in melody, rhythm, and the art of setting a bass." When he heard discordant sounds, he turned pale and fell into convulsions,—like some modern realist chancing to overhear such words as romance, genius, poet. He was deemed a phenomenon; his aptitude was creative, his youthful mastery not the result of much practice. A man at the piano, organ, violin, harpsichord, he was a frolicsome child the moment his passion left him. The awakening of his heart, when he became a lover, intensified his musical work. Otherwise he remained, in certain respects, always a child; his gift did not imply greatness in many directions, it was his chief mode of expression—he used it because he must, even though it kept him in penury. In music he progressed steadily through life, despite his precocity, and to such effect that his compeers, lamenting his early death, also felt relieved, for while Mozart lived, well might Hasse exclaim: Questo ragasso ci farè dimanticar tutti! Here, then, was one personage equipped, apparently at birth, with the aural, manual, emotional, and creative genius for the expression of a human soul in music.
The case of Mozart leads to the final path of our inquiry, perhaps the only one that will be acknowledged as worth attention in this analytic and scrutinizing age. Thus far, referring to the dogmatic claims of idealists since Plato's time, we have been forced to bear in mind that this inherited conception of genius may be a prolonged illusion. But now the most penetrative of modern thinkers have subjected it to the test of a stern and ruthless philosophy, to the crucial processes of German ratiocination,—and with what result? They not only admit, but insist upon, its verity; they define it, and declare the method of its working. They enable us to maintain, with some show of courage, that the intuitionists, if not the inspirationists, are right, and that Mr. Howells is wrong. Without the slightest reserve they pronounce genius to be the activity and efflux of the Intellect freed from the domination of the Conscious Will.
No writers, in truth, have more dispassionately considered the natures of talent and genius than the pessimist Schopenhauer, and his great living successor, Eduard von Hartmann. In their philosophies, creative faculty and taste are discussed with a beautiful precision rarely displayed by the professed masters of æsthetics. Schopenhauer found talent to lie in the greater skill and acuteness of the discursive than of the intuitive cognition; while genius exhibits a development of the intuitive faculty greater than is needed for the service of the Will.
"What is called the stirrings of genius, the hour of consecration, the moment of inspiration, is nothing but the liberation of the intellect, when the latter, for the time exempt from service to the will. . . is active all alone, of its own accord. . . . Then the intellect is of the greatest purity, and becomes the true mirror of the world. . . . In such moments, as it were, the soul of immortal works is begotten."
Here we see why genius is a riddle to itself, conferring benefits unconsciously, even involuntarily. Ruskin declares "there are no laws by which we can write Iliads." Carlyle finds manufacture "intelligible but trivial; creation is great, and cannot be understood." He, too, says that "the Voluntary and Conscious bear a small proportion in all the departments of Life, to the Involuntary and Unconscious." But Hartmann has made the final and definitive exposition of this theorem. He perceives that "ordinary talent produces artificially by means of rational selection and combination, guided by its æsthetic judgment, . . . It may accomplish something excellent, but can never attain to anything great . . . nor produce an original work. . . . Everything is still done with conscious choice; there is wanting the divine frenzy, the vivifying breath of the Unconscious. . . . Conscious combination may, in course of time, be acquired by effort of the conscious will, by industry, endurance, and practice. The creations of genius are unwilled, passive conception; it does not come with the word, but quite unexpectedly, as if fallen from heaven, on journeys, in the theatre, in conversation, everywhere when it is least expected, always suddenly and instantaneously." He then goes on to show how the conscious combination (of talent) works out laboriously the smallest details, while the conception of genius receives the whole from one mould, as the gift of the gods, unearned by toil; that all this is confirmed by all true geniuses who have given us their self-observations, and that every one who ever has had a truly original thought can find it preserved in his own experience. In illustration of these truths, Hartmann also instances Mozart, quoting a most apt passage from a letter in Jahn's biography of the musician:
"What, you ask, is my method? . . . I do not myself know and can never find out. When I am in particularly good condition, perhaps riding in a carriage, or in a walk after a good meal, or in a sleepless night, then the thoughts come to me in a rush, and best of all. Whence and how—that I do not know and cannot learn. . . . All the finding and making only goes on in me as in a very vivid dream. . . . What now has thus come into being in this way, that I do not easily forget again, and it is perhaps the best gift which the Lord God has given me."
The last clause is a very profound observation, and one which only a true genius would make. All of us, in certain neurotic crises, hear music or see pictures or receive other striking and mysterious impressions. But the born musician, painter, idealist—these alone have the gift of vividly remembering such impressions and the power to convey them, each in his own way, to the approving world. As a literary counterpart to the experience of Mozart, I will refer to the testimony of Dickens, who certainly had genius, if there be such a gift. He was a seer of visions. "Amid silence and darkness. . . he heard voices and saw objects; of which the revived impressions to him had the vividness of sensations, and the images his mind created in explanation of them had the coercive force of realities." Lewes avers that Dickens once declared to him "that every word said by his characters was distinctly heard by him," and this the philosopher explains by a theory of hallucination. But Dickens himself, while suffering illness and sorrow in the darkest hour of his life, wrote to Forster:
"May I not be forgiven for thinking it a wonderful testimony to my being made for my art, that when, in the midst of this trouble and pain, I sit down to my book, some beneficent power shows it all to me, and tempts me to be interested, and I don't invent it—really do not—but see it, and write it down. . . . It's only when all fades away and is gone, that I begin to suspect that its momentary relief has cost me something."
Special examples of this kind must have brought Schopenhauer to avow that "Genius is a man who knows without learning, and teaches the world what he never learned." Lavater, observing its distinctive individuality, said: "Who can produce what none else can, has genius," and that its proportion to the vulgar is "like one to a million." I may summarize all these reflections by the statement that genius lies in the doing of one thing, or many things, through power resulting from the unconscious action of the free intellect, in a manner unattainable by the conscious effort of ordinary men.
So much for the stress of natural aptitude required to sustain these claims. That this inherent power can display its full capabilities only through industry, only by "taking trouble," the world, quite as well as Mr. Howells, has long been aware. We demand that the Will shall perfect its work, and know that the gift is checked, wasted, or quite thrown away, for want of such an ally. And since the will is conscious or unconscious, so also may be its active force as displayed in study, industry, and production. In youth the will to grow and gain through work is often unconscious, but after culture and experience it applies itself to the extreme utilization of the intuitional. Then the fortunate soul reflects on its own possession, and knows why its creations are good. Then it exclaims with Mozart—"People err if they think my art has cost me no trouble; I assure you, my dear friend, no one has taken such pains with the study of composition as I." And thus the critic justly says of Mozart that effects now hackneyed were, in his works, "the joint production of lofty genius and profound contrapuntal knowledge." Yes, genius will work; it is impelled "to scorn delights and live laborious days." It "cannot else." The fire must out or it will consume its inheritor. Mr. Churchill, in Kavanagh, just misses being a genius, because he is not driven to perform his work either at a heat or by rational stages. The story of unconscious self-training ever repeats itself; the childhood of Burns and Keats and Mrs. Browning, of James Watt, has a method of finding the precise nurture suited to it. Of course a poor soil, the absence of sunlight, will starve the plant or warp it to some morbid form. But how gloriously it thrives in its true habitat and at its proper season. Time and the man have fitted each other so happily that many ask—as Mr. Howells asks concerning Grant, Bismarck, Columbus, Darwin, Lincoln—who calls such an one a genius? Often, too, as in the cases of at least two of these men, the coincidents are so marked that the actors lose the sense of their own destiny, and imagine themselves chiefly suited to something quite otherwise from the work to which the very stars of heaven have impelled them. But fair aptitude, with ceaseless industry and aspiratioin, never can impose itself for genius upon the world. It will produce Southeys in a romantic period and Trollopes in a realistic one. We see the genius of Poe broken by lack of will, and that of Emily Brontë clouded by a fatal bodily disease; but, as against Wuthering Heights with its passionate incompleteness, Trollope's entire product stands for nothing more than an extensive illustration of mechanical work against that which reeks with individuality, and when set against the work of true genius reënforced by purpose, physical strength, and opportunity, as exhibited by Thackeray or Hugo or Dickens, comparison is simply out of thought. Not every mind catches fire with its own friction and emits flashes that surprise itself, as in dreams one is startled at things said to him, though he actually is both interlocutor and answerer. Thus Swift, reading his Tale of a Tub, exclaims "Good God! what a genius I had when I wrote that book!" Thackeray confessed his delight with the passage where Mrs. Crawley, for a moment, adores her stupid husband after his one heroic act. "There," cried the novelist, "is a stroke of genius!" It was one of the occasions when, like our Autocrat composing "The Chambered Nautilus," he had written "better than he could."
If genius has its fountain in the soul, its impulse must be toward Ideality. It seeks that ideal which is the truest truth, the absolute realism. The poet and novelist do not withdraw themselves from constant study of the world,—that is for the abstract philosopher, as in Phaedo:
"I thought as I had failed in the contemplation of true existence, I ought to be careful that I did not lose the eye of my soul. . . . I was afraid my soul might be blinded altogether if I looked at things with my eyes, or tried to apprehend them by the help of the senses. And I thought I had better have recourse to the world of mind and seek there the truth of existence."
Yet Hartmann is sound in his belief that genius always beholds a different world from the apparent, "though only by gazing deeper into the one lying before him as well, because the world is represented in his mind more objective, consequently, purer and clearer." True realism, then, is the basis of creative idealism, and it is narrowness to exclude either from an artist's method, which needs the one for its ground and the other for its glory. Bacon writes of "a more ample greatness, a more exact goodness, and a more absolute variety than can be found in the nature of things." He finds that to be "the best part of beauty which a picture cannot express." The picture or poem that expresses this most nearly is closest to the ideal, and conveys to us, I think, a vivid impression of the gift under discussion. Get down to popular instinct, and you will find a current belief that it is the privilege of genius to see the soul of things; not merely their externals, but to know, to feel, the secret meaning of all that makes up life. Observation, experience, industry, unaided by this highest sense, are of less worth than the service of Paul and Apollos without the heaven-given increase.
This ideal tendency, and the intuitive vision of what is ever real, are revealed both in choice of field and in treatment, however varied these may be by time, situation, and the workman's personality. Real life includes the commonplace—it never yet was confined to it. Creations of the first order, though out of common experience, seem usual and among the verities, and this because nature is what must be depicted, and not alone in its superficial, every-day guises. We find nothing improbable in the most fantastic or ethereal conceptions of Cervantes, Shakespeare, Spenser—the world of their imaginings is a real world. They do not conflict with the "sanity of true genius," of which Lamb says that, where it seems most to recede from humanity, it will be found the truest to it. "Herein," he adds, "the great and little wits are differenced, . . . if the latter wander ever so little from nature or actual existence, they lose themselves and their readers."
If this should by chance be true, if all these thinkers have not been quite distraught, then the difference between a vital realism and that which we outlive and outgrow is not, as Mr. Howells puts it with respect to genius, a difference "in degree." It is the difference between radical and superficial methods, between insight and outsight—between work by men who have the gift, and that by plodding yet complacent craftsmen with no intensity of "natural aptitude" and no "mastery" that can rank them with the masters. I do not think realism a modern discovery, whether French, English, or American; it has been manifest equally in romantic and common-sense periods, and just as true to nature in select and noble types as in those which are irreclaimably provincial or vulgar. The works of Thackeray, not excepting Henry Esmond, are as realistic as those of Trollope or of the most uncompromising Zolaites. They are more so, because more elevated, and more intense in their exquisite portrayal of life's varied forms. Even to convey instruction you must stir the soul—the lesson that was not felt is soon forgotten.
But to do this, two things are essential, traits which this so-called genius ever has been observed to possess in a notable degree. The higher realism depends upon Imagination for the genesis of its ideal. It is imagination that makes study of external things, and conceives of novel and more perfect and exciting uses and combinations that may be made of them—without transcending the limits of nature. The second thing required is Passion—resolving, annealing, sympathetic—that comprehends and can excite the strongest feeling of which our lives are capable. Genius is thought to be creative, because it imagines clearly, and to lay hold upon us by the passionate intensity from which the world gathers a responsive heat.
It is a natural inference that writers who labor to disenthrall us from the nympholepsy and illusions of the past, who deprecate any rehearsal of emotions keyed above the level every-day scale, who turn by choice to unheroic and matter-of-fact life, and believe that one theme or situation is as good as another, provided it be honestly elaborated—it is to be inferred, I say, that such writers must come to distrust the value of any intellectual power which tends to ideality, and makes choice instinctively of a stimulating treatment and an ideal theme. One may expect them to doubt even the existence of that high faculty which answers the heart's desire for what is imaginative, stirring—romantic, if you choose; which depicts forcibly because it feels intensely, and which moreover, as if through inspiration, masters its field without the painful study to which they devote themselves, and with the careless felicity of nature itself. Nor are they quite without justification. The photographic method has its use—no realism can be too faithful in the description of matters excellent and beautiful in themselves. But with discourse and materials that are essentially vulgar or distasteful, and not even picturesque in studies, the result is scarcely worth attaining. There is a qualitative meanness in the pantry-talk and key-hole disclosures of Lovell the Widower, Thackeray's nearest descent to this kind of work. Why should we be led of malice aforethought in creative art—of which poetry and the novel may be taken as types—to the persistent contemplation of boorish and motiveless weaklings, although they swarm about us, and add to the daily weariness of humdrum life? Even the knaves, proletarians, adventurers, that genius creates, interest us and are ideal in their way. But apply the detective's method to the movements and gabble of doughy nonentities, and a conviction soon arises in the public mind that an author's reliance upon the phonograph and pocket-camera may be carried too long and too far.
It is against the poets that our novelist-critic finally reveals a special and Junonian grudge. For, is it not that the poets, "having most of the say in this world, abuse it to shameless self-flattery"? Do they not set up this prerogative of "genius," and claim it chiefly as their own? Therefore our danger is not a famine, but a gross surfeit, of poets—all claiming to be great, unless the hot gridiron be ready for their broiling. If we are to have no more good bards, so much the better—there will be less ridiculous caracoling on the part of otherwise sensible persons, and less to blush and grieve for. Besides, haven't we still and always the great poets of the past, and haven't they given the world quite as much of the light and charm as is good for it?
To this effect, and more of the like, Mr. Howells; and, in these days of cheap postage for third-class matter, there are men of his profession, haplessly located in the publishing centres, who have even more cause than he to cry—bother the scribblers that bloom in all seasons. To represent the forty thousand post-offices of these reading and writing States there is an equal number of persons, old and young, male and female, versifiers and prosers, whose genius is of that sort which Mr. Bronson Howard has defined as "Talent, in the first person singular," These are they who distress their cockney brother with pleas and commissions such as no proud, self-respecting striver ever yet stooped to make. They spare him not in his luck or disaster, health or sickness, leisure or overwork. Often the scant time which he hopes to devote to his own vintage is wasted, even if he does no more than to acknowledge their demands that he shall market, or at least sample, their too often insipid and watered grape-juice. Yet the world has always got on after this fashion. The laureate's reflection on nature, that of fifty seeds she often brings but one to bear, is an under-statement. She summons a thousand talesmen to get even a petty juror. Doubtless an artist, orator, novelist, or poet, with never so little of the sang asur, belongs to the blood—a trying and unconscionable poor relation, but still not a commoner—most likely not so good as a commoner, but let the underlings flout at him, not the knights and nobles. If such considerations weigh not with the justly prosperous master of an Editor's Study, he nevertheless will forbear, on second thought, to wish out of existence this breed of ready subjects for his merry humor. What adequate relief to toil, what break to official monotony, if one cannot occasionally lay down the sword of argument and lance of fellowship, and throw clubs at the stock butts of one's profession! So thought the great Dean, in his discourse to prove that "The abolishing of Christianity" might be attended with inconveniences. "The gentlemen of wit," he wrote, who are offended by the sight of so many "draggled-tail parsons," do not consider "what an advantage and felicity it is for great wits to be always provided with objects of scorn and contempt, in order to exercise and improve their talents, and divert their spleen from falling on each other or on themselves; especially when all this may be done without the least imaginable danger to their own persons."
Our discourager of poetic fluency, then, will do well to hesitate before quite putting out the class whose writhings under "the question" may yield him further delectation. Nor are they so easily disposed of; minor organizations cling to life. The bardlings may derive much edification from Mr. Howells's little homily, but 'tis doubtful whether threats or Scripture will compel them to forego. St. Anthony preached a notable sermon to the fishes; they never had been so edified, but—
The sermon now ended,
Each turned and descended;
The pikes went on stealing,
The eels went on eeling;
Much delighted were they,
But preferred the old way.
Our pastoral pipers, moreover, are not unlikely to challenge their denouncer's consistency. What, they will cry, of your growing tribe of novelists? If the poets, poor and otherwise, are always with us, their ranks seem thin, confronting those of the tale-writers that spring up from the teeth sown by Mr. Howells and his brilliant compeers. "They say he cried out of sack," quoth Nym, discussing the pious end of doughty Sir John. We have mine hostess's word for it that he did not cry out upon that dearer foolishness to which he had also been devoted. We need not renew the question whether some who once took to "versing" now take to "noveling" as the fashion of the time—either practice is venial beside that of coining uncouth and felonious words. Mr. Howells remembers a small volume of early verse, and believes that almost any middle-aged literary man can think of another. The present writer, for his part, recalls a certain early novel; yet the fact that, unlike his friend's artistic poetry, it never merited and obtained publication, shall not warp him from his belief that there are good stories yet to be told. But, good as our best novelists are, fresh as is the promise of those arising in many sections, glad as we are of America's prowess in her new field—is her poetry solely white-weed and wild-carrot? Is the novel our only "good grass"? And have the novelists, great and little, all the modesty? We are told that "if we should have no more poets, we might be less glorious as a race, but we certainly should be more modest—or they would." We are asked, "If we are to have no more great poetry, haven't we the great poets of the past inalienably still?" Have there been, then, no great novelists in the past? To speak plainly, the little bard and the little tale-writer seem to me very much like two of a kind. All makers of verse and story of old were classed together, and, as "literary fellows" and encouragers of dreams and idleness, were banished from Plato's Republic. Nor do I see that one class of these workmen is more modest than another; the modesty of each is found among true artists of whom Mr. Howells is an enviable type, and whose best work seems to them still incomplete. The verse-maker has an innocent and traditional reverence for his "ideal," but a little ideality just now will do no harm. Grace will be given us to endure it. In fact, the two kinds of poiëtœ can be of mutual service. The poet can wisely borrow the novelist's lamp of truth, and put more reason in his rhymes, while the novelist emulates the color and passion of the poet,—so that verse will be something more than word-music, and the novel gain in feeling, movement, Life. For life is not insured by a refined adjustment of materials, even though they display the exact joinery and fitness of the American coat which a New York lawyer, of mellow wit and learning, proffered as a model to his Bond Street tailor. "There," said he, "can you, Shears, make anything like that in London?" "Upon my word, Mr. M——, I think we should hardly care to, if we could." "But why not, man? Does it not fit perfectly, is it not cut and sewed perfectly, and are not all the lines graceful and trim? What does it want? in what can you excel it? what does it lack?" "Quite so," mused the tailor, without a trace of assent in his face; "it does seem to lack something, you know." "Well, what?" "I beg your pardon, sir; 'tis very neat work,—a world of pains to it,—but we might say it lacks—Life!"
But as for our prime question of the reality of genius, and the legitimate force of a word common to so many literatures, I think that, if the general recognition of these be indeed the effect of an illusion, the Power which shapes human destiny is not yet ready to remove the film from our eyes. Should the world's faith be an ignorant one, I still am so content with this inspiring dream left us in a day of disenchantment as to esteem it folly to be wise. It seems that Mr. Courthope and Mr. Gosse also "talk from time to time" of this phantasmal "something." Do these writers, do I, asks our friendly reviewer, really believe in it? Can they, can I, severally lay hands upon our waistcoats and swear that we think there is any such thing? It would be taking an unfair advantage to interpret this seriously—to assume that he would expect these English gentlemen and scholars perforce to recant, "when upon oath," a declaration made out of court; and for myself, I hope to have grace to confess a change of opinion, and I have no fear that the omission of an oath would greatly lessen his belief in my honesty of statement. But when asked, "is a 'genius' at all different from other men of like gifts, except in degree?" I reply that this is begging the question. At present, I believe that the other men have not the "like gift," that the difference is one of quality, not of quantity or "degree." The unique gift, the individuality of the faculty or faculties, constitutes the genius.
Mr. Howells rightly lays stress upon the well-known danger, even to a candid mind, of nursing a pet theory. It is just as unwise for an inventive author, even in a mood of self-analysis, to toy with a theoretical paradox, for literary methods grow by what they feed on. It is not for this, as I have said, that his admirers (and none more than the present writer) are grateful to him; it is for the pleasure derived from very original works, the product of something more creative than even his indomitable labor, and conscientious study of the novelist's craft and properties. One is apt to set too little value upon the gift which is his alone—the faculty that makes so light to him that portion of his work which his fellows cannot master by praying or fasting. He is just as prone, moreover, to regard that as most essential which is hardest for himself, yet necessary to the perfect work, thus setting the labor, wherewith he procures and mixes components, above the one drop of an elixir solely his own, that adds the transmuting spirit to their mass. Our deft student and painter of New England life still has his fairy spectacles—they are not lost, but on his own forehead. Finally, it is a trait of genius, in its method of expression, to discover and avail itself of the spirit of its time. My avowal that Mr. Howells had done this betrayed no savor of the charge of time-serving. It seemed to me, on the contrary, that consciously or unconsciously he had obeyed the ancient oracle, and that the admonition Follow thy Genius had left its impress upon his whole career.
- The New Princeton Review, September, 1886.
- Philosophy of the Unconscious. See the chapter on "The Unconscious in the Æsthetic Judgment and in Artistic Production." English ed. Vol. I, pp. 269-292.