Divine Fury: A History of Genius
Darrin M. McMahon
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As acclaimed historian Darrin M. McMahon explains, the concept of genius has roots in antiquity, when men of prodigious insight were thought to possess—or to be possessed by—demons and gods. Adapted in the centuries that followed and applied to a variety of religious figures, including prophets, apostles, sorcerers, and saints, abiding notions of transcendent human power were invoked at the time of the Renaissance to explain the miraculous creativity of men like Leonardo and Michelangelo.
Yet it was only in the eighteenth century that the genius was truly born, idolized as a new model of the highest human type. Assuming prominence in figures as varied as Newton and Napoleon, the modern genius emerged in tension with a growing belief in human equality. Contesting the notion that all are created equal, geniuses served to dramatize the exception of extraordinary individuals not governed by ordinary laws. The phenomenon of genius drew scientific scrutiny and extensive public commentary into the 20th century, but it also drew religious and political longings that could be abused. In the genius cult of the Nazis and the outpouring of reverence for the redemptive figure of Einstein, genius achieved both its apotheosis and its Armageddon.
The first comprehensive history of this elusive concept, Divine Fury follows the fortunes of genius and geniuses through the ages down to the present day, showing how—despite its many permutations and recent democratization—genius remains a potent force in our lives, reflecting modern needs, hopes, and fears.
should be poured out at every meal in the fatherland in honor of the emperor’s genius—a sacrifice to be conducted alike in the humblest private 9780465003259-text.indd 28 8/13/13 1:35 PM The Genius of the Ancients 29 dwelling and at the most lavish public banquet. Not long after, coins were struck bearing the image of Augustus’s genius, and over the course of his long reign, various other measures and practices were put into place. In 12 BCE—the year in which Augustus assumed the title of
cardinals, commanders, and kings was evidence of innovation in itself. But the terms in which they were described were truly without precedent since the coming of Christ. The humanist critic Julius Caesar Scaliger could hail the poet as an alter Deus, like another God, whereas the great sixteenth-century poet Torquato Tasso maintained that “there are two creators, God and the poet.” Vasari, similarly, begins his Lives by drawing an explicit comparison between the artist and God, a comparison he
prophet of the new. But for these same reasons, he was a threat to the old. All creators, in effect, are destroyers, too. Diderot himself saw nothing inherently evil in the example of Socrates, a man he greatly admired. Yet his theory explained why so many 9780465003259-text.indd 102 8/13/13 1:35 PM The Genius of the Moderns 103 of the Athenian’s contemporaries regarded him as a monster, and it suggested that the many need not always be wrong. There was no guarantee of righteousness, that
more felicitous phrase. Blake’s use of “genius” echoed such precedents. But his linking of the individual poetic genius to the Poetic Genius writ large is characteristic of what would prove a widespread Romantic contention: namely, that true individuality reveals the universal, and that the universal is itself composed of a rich and diverse array of individual forms. Genuine originality, in other words, provided an authentic glimpse of something larger, a particular revelation of the whole.28
itself in the flesh. The face of genius would be marked by signs.3 Of course, it took a special eye to read the revelations, a “physiognomic genius” most subtle.4 Lavater quoted Rousseau to suggest, nonetoo-subtly, that he himself had what it took to know. When in possession of such a gift, cultivated by the appropriate training, a physiognomist of genius such as Lavater could readily single out the features and discern the signs. He focused, fittingly, on the lamp of the soul. “Geniuses have