1953 - ON GENIUS

The Mystique of Genius

      In 1953, Francoise Sagan published her first novel, Bonjour Tristesse [SAGAN]. It sold 2 million copies in 20 languages. She was 18. Most of us were struggling with grammar in High School. What enabled her to write such a sophisticated novel at such an early age? We expect prodigies in music, in mathematics, and in chess. Since those domains emphasise structure over content, perhaps the young have an advantage over the old. They are not cluttered with content. They can see structure clearly. However, the writing of a novel requires some experience of the world. What do most of us know of human nature at 18? Yet somehow Francoise Sagan had learned enough at that tender age to impress the critics with her wisdom.

      However, perhaps there is no great mystery. She read voraciously and passionately wanted to emulate the authors she was reading. She wrote about what she knew. She was an upper-class, convent-raised girl of 17 writing about the coming-of-age of an upper-class, convent-raised girl of 17. She was experiencing what she was describing as she described it. Re-experiencing the coming-of-age of a Mennonite teenage girl - as Miriam Toews did in A Complicated Kindness when she was full-grown - is probably more remarkable [TOEWS]. Sagan had also stumbled on another important principle of writing. We don't know what we think until we read what we write. All she had in mind when she started writing was the principle character, who was essentially herself. She just started writing and the story unfolded as she was writing it. The character grew from the inside out as she wrote her. The remarkable thing, then, is not so much that she wrote the novel at 17 but that she published it at 18. What 18-year-old girls have the contacts to get a novel published? Her upper-class parents had the contacts.

      Sagan continued, throughout her life, to write about her experiences as they unfolded. She documented her life and loves. One basic theme was, as she famously said, "Every little girl knows about love. It is only her capacity to suffer because of it that increases." Another theme is summarised in another famous quote: "A dress makes no sense unless it inspires men to take it off of you." The fame and fortune she acquired from her first book enabled her to indulge her writing habit. Alas, it also financed her drink and drug habits. She could buy all the booze and cocaine she wanted - and she wanted a lot. She died somewhat infamous and heavily in debt for back taxes. She would have been homeless if not for the help of indulgent friends. Once again, premature fame and fortune turned out to be a mixed blessing.

      The Sagan story provides one more anecdote to contribute to the mystique around genius. A few of us have it (whatever it is) but most of us can't even aspire to it. Geniuses are just lucky to have been born with it. Prodigies are cited as evidence that it must be inborn. However, as argued above, such prodigies tend to be in music, mathematics and chess, where structure is important. The young are not yet cluttered with content and thus can see structure more clearly. (Later we'll talk about strategies of subcontracting clutter to the computer so that we can see structure more clearly again.)

      Other anecdotes about serendipity contribute to the mystique of genius. The most famous, though apocryphal, is the story of Isaac Newton inspired to write the universal law of gravitation on seeing an apple fall. Many of us have seen apples fall, but none of us had written the universal law of gravitation. Newton had shed the preliminary 99% of perspiration in order to benefit from the 1% inspiration. As one of my 1935ers said: "The harder I work, the luckier I get." The other factor considered in studies of creativity is the zeitgeist - the sprit of the times. Newton and Liebnitz both discovered the calculus at about the same time. All the elements were present at that time and thus it required only some creative genius to integrate them - if not Newton, then Liebnitz, if not Liebnitz, then someone else. However, that "someone else" will not be Joe Blowhard, sitting under apple trees drinking cider waiting for inspiration to strike. Newton and Liebnitz had drunk in the spirit of the times. To benefit from the spirit of the times, you have to be intoxicated from drinking in that spirit.

      The mystique has largely gone from physics. No one recently has argued that only a few super-geniuses could understand Einstein's theory of relativity, that we could not only not create the theory we could not even understand it. The mystique has shifted to mathematics. The theory of relativity has been subsumed under string theory, essentially mathematics, which, according to the myth-makers, even Einstein could not understand.

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