Popular Science Monthly/Volume 59/August 1901/A Study of British Genius VII

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A STUDY OF BRITISH GENIUS.

By HAVELOCK ELLIS.

IX.—PERSONAL CHARACTERISTICS.

BEFORE summarizing the results of this study and noting a few of the conclusions to which it seems to point, there are still some aspects of British men of genius that the 'Dictionary' serves to make visible. And as these aspects enable us at once both to complete our picture and to confirm some of the impressions we have already obtained, we cannot afford to pass them by. They concern more especially personal appearance and emotional disposition.

As regards stature we have some information in 281 eases; in 218 cases the information is indefinite, in the remaining 63 cases definite. Of the first and largest group, 91 are said to be tall, 53 of average or medium height, while 74 are short. In the smaller group, composed entirely of males, 4 are 5 feet and under;[1] 5 are from 5 feet 1 to 5 feet 4; 14 are from 5 feet 5 to 5 feet 8; 26 are from 5 feet 9 to 6 feet; 14 are over 6 feet. The height of the average Englishman at the present day is 5 feet 8. It may be added that among the general population of the British Islands 68 per cent, are between 5 feet 4 inches and 5 feet 9 inches in height. But the average height of men of the well to-do classes, to which our subjects mainly belong, is somewhat above this. If we say that it is 5 feet 9, we shall probably be near the mark. This is confirmed by Galton, who found that the average height of the fathers of his men of science was 5 feet 912. But if this is so, it would appear that it is the tendency of our men of genius not only to vary widely, but to be tall more frequently than short,[2] The center of the group is really occupied by the individuals who are 5 feet 10, since 29 are below this height and 27 above it.

It must, of course, be recognized that various fallacies would be involved were we to take our data as strictly corresponding to the real facts. The exceptional people are more likely to be mentioned, and the medium-sized to be passed over, while there is always a tendency to describe a person as short or tall, rather than as of average size. It may be noted, however, that the group for which we have definite figures harmonizes fairly with the group for which we have no definite figures, and that both alike show that the number of medium-sized persons is vastly below what we ought to expect. Moreover, the group with definitely ascertained heights shows very wide range of variation. When we note that among some 850 men there are 14 who are definitely known to have been over 6 feet in height, and many others who are known to have been 'gigantic' or 'colossal,' we may be fairly certain that more definite knowledge would only show more clearly that the relations that rule here are not exactly the same as those that rule among the general population, and that men of intellectual ability show in this respect a greater tendency to variation than is observed among the general population.[3]

It is interesting to note that although among the general population the well-to-do classes are decidedly taller than the lower social classes, no such tendency is clearly marked in our groups. Confining ourselves to the group with definitely known height, we find that none belong to our 'good family' class, while two belong to our lowest social class, springing from unskilled workers. The extremely small persons belong to the middle or lower middle social classes. This seems to indicate that height is here not a mere social phenomenon, but a real expression of the organic vitality and nervous make of the man.

It would be of much interest if we could speak definitely concerning the most important of all anthropological criteria, the cephalic index or length-breadth index of the head. The 'Dictionary' here, however, is of no assistance. We are told, indeed, of Faraday (the writer of the article being Tyndall) that he had an abnormally long head, so that his hats had to be specially made for him, and we are told of Tyndall himself (the writer here being his widow) that in this respect Tyndall resembled Faraday. This scrap of evidence, so far as it goes, would confirm the proverbial belief in favor of the intelligence of long-headed persons. It is, however, believed by many, who can bring forward good evidence on their side, that intellectual ability goes with broad-headedness. It may well be that in this matter, as in that of stature, the range of variation is great, and that both extremes tend to prevail to an undue extent. This has been found to be the case in another abnormal group—that of criminals.

If we turn to a further anthropological character, pigmentation, or the color of the hair and eyes, we are able to bring forward a much larger body of evidence, and it is not difficult to supplement the data furnished by the 'Dictionary' by the help of portraits, more especially those in the National Portrait Gallery. I have information on this point concerning 334 of the eminent persons on our list. In classifying by pigmentation I have relied in the first place on the eye-color, but have allowed hair-color a certain influence in modifying the class in those cases in which there was marked divergence between the two in lightness or darkness. I have sorted the eminent persons into three classes, according as their eyes were unpigmented (blue), highly pigmented (brown), or occupying an intermediate position (combinations of blue with yellow, orange or brown). This intermediate class has necessarily been large, and I have comprised within it three subdivisions: a fair medium, a dark medium, and, between these two, a doubtful medium. Then the question arose as to how the results thus obtained might be conveniently formulated, so as to enable us to compare the different groups of eminent persons. I finally decided to proceed with each of these groups as follows: The doubtful medium persons in each of these classes were divided equally between the fair medium and the dark medium; then two-thirds of the fair-medium persons were added to the fair class, the remaining third to the dark class, and, likewise, two-thirds of the dark medium were added to the dark class, the remaining third to the fair class; the five classes were thus reduced to two, and, on multiplying the fair by 100 and dividing by the dark, we obtain what may be called an index of pigmentation. This method of notation is really simple, and is quite sufficiently accurate for the nature of the data dealt with; it will be seen that by its use an index of 100 means that fair and dark people are equally numerous in a group, while indices over 100 mean an excess of fair persons, and indices under 100 an excess of dark persons. I have been able to obtain the index of pigmentation in the cases of ten groups, the remaining groups being too small to permit of assured results. I present them, with their index of pigmentation, in the order of decreasing fairness: Men of science, 150; Artists, 108; Lawyers, 100; Sailors, 100; Soldiers, 83; Statesmen, 83; Poets, 78; Men of letters, 67; Divines, 43; Actors, 20.

It will be seen that the range is considerable; but I believe we may have considerable confidence in the results, and the more so since they are not altogether unexpected, for (although I do not wish to assume that these phenomena are entirely explicable by race) it is certainly true that men of science and artists tend largely to come from fair districts of the country, divines and actors from dark districts. The fact that allied classes tend to fall together—soldiers and sailors, poets and men of letters—also gives confidence in the reality of the relationship thus brought out. It may be noted, as a fact probably not without significance, that the more active and unemotional classes tend to be fair, while the more reflective and emotional classes tend to be dark,[4]

There is another physical characteristic to which the national biographers frequently allude, though I do not propose to attempt to give it any numerical values, and that is personal beauty or the absence of it. A very large proportion of persons are referred to as notably handsome, comely, imposing; a very considerable, but smaller, proportion are spoken of as showing some disproportion or asymmetry of feature, body or limbs, as notably peculiar or even ludicrous in appearance. A not uncommon type is that of the stunted giant, with massive head and robust body, but very short legs.

There is one feature, however, which is noted as striking and beautiful in a very large number of cases, even in persons who are otherwise wholly without physical attractions. That is the eyes. It is nearly always found that descriptions of the personal appearance of men of genius, however widely they may differ in other respects, agree in finding an unusual brilliancy of the eyes. Thus the eyes of Burns were said by one observer to be like coals of living fire,' and Scott writes that they 'literally glowed'; while of Chatterton's eyes it was said that there was 'fire rolling at the bottom of them.' It is significant that both of these instances, chosen almost at random, were poets. While, however, the phenomenon seems to be noted more frequently and with more emphasis in poets, it is found among men of genius of all classes. One can only suppose it to be connected with an unusual degree of activity of the cerebral circulation.

In regard to the mental and emotional disposition of British persons of genius, the national biographers enable us to trace the prevalence of one or two tendencies. One of these is shyness, bashfulness or timidity. This is noted in thirty-four cases, while thirty-two others are described as very sensitive, nervous or emotional, and, although this is not equivalent to a large percentage, it must of course be remembered that the real number of such cases is certainly very much larger, and also that the characteristic is in many cases extremely well marked. Some had to abandon the profession they had chosen on account of their nervous shyness at appearing in public; others were too bashful to declare their love to the women they were attracted to; Sir Thomas Browne, one of the greatest masters of English prose, was so modest that he was always blushing causelessly; Hooker, one of the chief luminaries of the English Church, could never look any one in the face; Dry den, the recognized prince of the literary men of his time, was, said Congreve, the most easily put out of countenance of any man he had ever met. It is not difficult to see why the timid temperament—which is very far from involving lack of courage[5]—should be especially associated with intellectual aptitudes. It causes a distaste for social contact and so favors those forms of activity which may be exerted in solitude, these latter, again, reacting to produce increased awkwardness in social relations. Moreover, the mental state of timidity, which may be regarded as a mild form of folie du doute, a perpetual self-questioning and uncertainty, however unpleasant it may be from the social point of view, is by no means an unsatisfactory attitude in the face of intellectual problems, for it involves that unceasing self-criticism which is an essential element of all good intellectual work, and has marked more or less clearly the greatest men of scientific genius. Fundamentally, no doubt, timidity is a minor congenital defect of the nervous mechanism, fairly comparable to stammering. It may be noted that the opposite characteristic of over self-confidence, with more or less tendency to arrogance and insolence, is also noted, but with much less frequency, and usually in men whose eminence is not due to purely intellectual qualities. In some cases, it would seem, the two opposite tendencies are combined, the timid man seeking refuge from his own timidity in the assumption of arrogance.

In a certain number of cases information is given as to the general emotional disposition, whether to melancholy and depression, or of a gay, cheerful and genial character. In sixty-two cases the disposition is noted as melancholy, in twenty-nine as cheerful or jovial; in eight cases both dispositions are noted as occurring, in varying association, in the same person. This marked tendency to melancholy among persons of intellectual aptitude is no new observation, but was indeed one of the very earliest points noted concerning men of genius. It was remarked by Aristotle, and Reveillé-Parise, one of the earliest and still one of the most sagacious of the modern writers on genius, devoted a chapter to the point. It is not altogether difficult to account for this phenomenon. Melancholy children, as Marro found, are in large proportion the offspring of elderly fathers, as we have also found our persons of intellectual eminence to be. A tendency to melancholy, again, even though it may always fall short of insane melancholia, is allied to those neurotic and abnormal conditions which we have found to be not infrequent. Moreover, it certainly has a stimulating influence on intellectual work. The more normal man of cheerful disposition instinctively seeks the consolations of society. The melancholy man, like the shy man, is ill-adapted to society, and more naturally seeks his consolations in a non-social field, such as that of the intellect, often plunging more deeply into intellectual work the more profound his melancholy becomes. Wagner said that his best work was done at times of melancholy, and among the eminent men on our list several writers are mentioned who turned to authorship as a relief to personal depression. It may also be said that not only is melancholy a favorable condition for intellectual work, but that the sedentary and nerve-exhausting nature of nearly all forms of intellectual work in turn reacts to emphasize or produce moods of depression.

There is another cause which serves to explain or to accentuate the tendency of men of genius to melancholy. I refer to the attitude of the world towards them. Every original worker in intellectual fields, every man who makes some new thing, is certain to arouse hostility where he does not meet with indifference. He sets out in his chosen path, ignorant of men, but moved by high ideals, content to work in laborious solitude and to wait, and when at last he turns to his fellows, saying, 'See what I have done for you!' he finds that he has to meet only the sneering prejudices of the few who might have comprehended, and the absolute indifference of the many who are too absorbed in the daily struggle for bread to comprehend any intellectual achievement. The wise worker knows this and arms himself with contempt, as a protection alike against the few and the many;[6] but it has to be remembered that the prevailing temperament of men of genius is one of great nervous sensitiveness and irritability—so that, as Reveillé-Parise puts it, they are apt to 'roar at a pin-prick'—and even when they are well aware what the opinion of the world is worth, they still cannot help being profoundly affected by that opinion. Hence a fruitful source of melancholy.

The attitude of the world towards the man of original intellect is, however, by no means one merely of disdain or indifference. It constantly tends to become more aggressive. It is practically impossible to estimate the amount of persecution to which this group of preeminent British persons has been subjected, for it has shown itself in innumerable forms, and varies between a mere passive refusal to have anything whatever to do with them or their work and the active infliction of physical torture and death. There is, however, at least one form of persecution, very definite in character, which it is easy to estimate, since the national biographers have probably in few cases passed it over. I refer to imprisonment. I find that over 14 per cent, of these 902 eminent persons were imprisoned, once or oftener, for periods of varying length, while many others only escaped imprisonment by voluntary exile. It is true that the causes of imprisonment were various, but even imprisonment for debt may usually be taken to indicate an anomalous lack of adjustment to the social environment. The man of genius is an abnormal being, thus arousing the instinctive hostility of society, which by every means seeks to put him out of the way.

It will be seen that the various personal traits noted in this section, while completing our picture of British persons of genius, may be linked on at various points to other traits we have previously noted. It only remains to gather together the various threads we have traced and to ascertain how far they may be harmoniously woven into a complete whole.

  1. Pope, 4 feet 6, is excluded, as his excessively low stature was the result of deformity.
  2. I may remark that among the ordinary population there is some reason to suppose that superior intellectual capacity tends to be associated with superior stature; Porter found such an association among school children at St. Louis and Christopher at Chicago.
  3. This conclusion harmonizes with an inquiry into this matter, and into its significance—not, however, confined to persons of British race—which I published elsewhere a few years ago ('Genius and Stature,' 'Nineteenth Century,' July, 1897).
  4. I may remark concerning this index of pigmentation that, while it yields results which are strictly comparable among themselves in the hands of a single observer, proceeding in a uniform manner, it is doubtful whether two observers would carry it out in a strictly identical manner. Beddoe's index of nigrescence, founded on hair-color and applied directly to living subjects, is a convenient formula for indicating the degree of pigmentation. But in my observations, largely made on portraits (in which the hair was often whitened by age, absent, concealed beneath a wig, or obscured by the darkening of the paint), it was necessary to accept eye-color as the primary basis of classification.
  5. "None are so bold as the timid when they are fairly roused," wrote Mrs. Browning in her 'Letters.' The same point has been brought out by Dugas in his essay on timidity.
  6. Thus of one of the great men of science on our list, Stephen Hales, it was said that he could look "even upon those who did him unkind offices without any emotion of particular indignation, not from want of discernment or sensibility; but he used to consider them only like those experiments which, upon trial, he found could never be applied to any useful purpose, and which he therefore calmly and dispassionately laid aside."