Watching a screener copy of A Beautiful Mind a bit of dialogue leapt out at me:

You have no respect for cognitive reverie you know that?

Yes, but pizza, now pizza I have enormous respect for— and of course beer.

I have respect for beer!

I empathize with Nash, for his ineptitude with women, and his grappling with the concept of an original idea. Yesterday, I had a flash of insight regarding the difficulties facing rhetoric. It seems to me that classical rhetoric is a rhetoric of one direction— missives are launched like missiles, crafted to persuade. Though the needs of an audience are valued, they are valued only in that they allow the missile to be smarter in reaching its target. Once a text leaves the hands of a rhetor, it’s a one way trip.

Modern rhetoric faces the challenge of being a kinder and gentler rhetoric, a rhetoric of dialogue, of conversational interchange. It is bi-directional, dialectic, and not martial in its intent. It is supposed to change both the rhetor, and the audience, in a mutually beneficial way. How is this possible? Just as the unidirectional World Wide Web is not what Tim Berners-Lee envisioned, modern rhetoric falls short of the concept, and still follows the classical assumptions. Two way communication is great to talk about, but nearly impossible to practice. Blog conversations work that way too. Each person launches their viewpoint, tentatively, into an ocean of others. Others seldom comment, and the basic text does not become modified, it only moves on to new texts.

How is it possible, outside the realm of theoretical speculation, to have a text that is both coherent, and subject to revision from both sides? Just after I formulated this question yesterday afternoon, I found that Dr. Kleine had just had an article accepted for publication on the very same topic. So much for my original idea.

Of course I could still work on it— but it just isn’t the same. My answer would probably be different and Dr. Kleine, in his usual self-deprecating way, didn’t seem very confident with his answer to the problem. I get to read his article next week, but it seems weird that every time I think of something, someone else has been there first.

I’ve met a lot of truly brilliant people since I came to Arkansas. Each one has their own specialty, and modes of invention. I spoke to Dr. Levernier, an instrumental figure in reconfiguring the canon of American literature today, on my way to class this morning. He reads things in a truly unique way, offering perspectives that I would never dream of. I was amazed when I taught class today that nearly everyone read a text I gave them in the same way. It was a narrow reading, which missed the entire substance of the article. It dawned on me that finding that one original way to approach things is a defining character of genius. Genius seems to truly be “a table for one, with the eagle circling Prometheus chained to his rock.”

The first two articles I had my classes read were on this topic. There were several definitions offered. Plato saw genius as a character of being possessed by a spirit, as did William Blake. Longinus saw genius as the character of being in possession of the time in which it lives. Mary MacLane’s perception of genius was much like the Platonic version, but she added the attribute of being able to see far inward; geniuses are people who truly know themselves. Must this come at the expense of relationships with others? Sometimes, this really seems to be the case.

The price paid for that “one original idea” is isolation. This isn’t a very comforting thought. At least it’s something I don’t have to worry about— I haven’t had an original idea yet.

Last night, Dr. Kleine added a new wrinkle to my thinking about it. He noted that there are two types of genius, genius that works through an outpouring of uncontrolled thought like Beethoven, and genius that sees things in pictures, pictures which only must be committed to the page after conception, like Mozart. I suppose I fit more with Mozart, but I’m hardly on the same planet. I think in pictures. So why did I ever end up in the word business? That’s something I still haven’t figured out.

I have long tried to come to terms with the isolation that results from seeing the world in a different way. If I were a genius, I suppose that might be some small comfort. But I’m not, perhaps that’s why I think about it so much. At least I have a respect for cognitive reverie and beer.

1 thought on “Genius”

  1. Not to sully your scholarly web site with pop drivel, but I had to give a Home Simpson quote*raising his glass* “To beer! The cause of and the solution to most of life’s problems”

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