Being a genius or having a genius?

September 9th, 2009 by james

If you’re not already aware of the excellent TED conferences and talks, I would strongly recommend going to their site and having a poke around. There are some fascinating people and ideas featured but be prepared to spend a bit of time: most of the content consists of 18 minute video talks.

One of the best ones I’ve seen recently is this talk by Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of a “journey of self-discovery” type novel which is being made into a movie with Julia Roberts. To be honest, from that description, I probably would have skipped it but I’m glad I did watch it: it’s thought-provoking and in places very funny.

She discusses the idea of “genius” and how the pre-Enlightenment concept of attributing outstanding works of art to divine inspiration/intervention (literally, “having” a genius) contrasts with the modern notion that such works come from within the individual (“being” a genius). “Having” a genius helps the artist maintain distance between themselves and their work, deflecting blame from the self when things don’t go so well and keeping one modest when work is well-received. As she says, it helps avoid the depressive thoughts that make one want “to start drinking gin at 9 o’clock in the morning” and generally helps promote creativity.

What do you think? Sounds pretty reasonable to me and a useful construct for digging one’s self out of rut.

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3 Responses to “Being a genius or having a genius?”

  1. NelsNo Gravatar Says:

    Thanks for the tip. I teach her book all the time. By the way, it’s a memoir, not a novel. In my class we compare it to a novel and discuss genre expectations and limitations. I can’t wait for her nect book out in January.

  2. Jinyoung KimNo Gravatar Says:

    While I agree with you on that keeping a distance from one’s talent is useful for going through with bad times, such attitude may promote the misconception that it cannot be cultivated through focused efforts, since it is given from outside. What do you think?

  3. jamesNo Gravatar Says:

    Oops – yes memoir, not novel.

    , I guess everything in moderation: practice and conscientious improvement clearly do play a big role in shaping one’s prospects. In her talk, Elizabeth mentions all of her years as a magazine writer which obviously gave her the skills to a) get the advance that let her do the travel on which the story’s based and b) write an entertaining account of her adventure. It wasn’t purely the result of third party supernatural help.

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