When Genius Bombs (1995)

Bill Shakespeare: Will turn phrase for food
Bill Shakespeare: Will turn phrase for food

(I posted about half of this piece some years ago on this blog, and will now paste in the whole thing. Titled “When Genius Bombs,” the story originally ran 4/16/1995 in the Sunday Arts section, which at that time was under the stewardship of Von Drehle. Though the references to Bill Clinton date the piece a little, and I wouldn’t write it exactly the same way today — it’s painfully glib, and where are the footnotes??? — I think in general it holds up well and has the redeeming quality of being essentially right about the nature of genius.)

By Joel Achenbach

Scene IV. Another part of the forest.

Enter DEMETRIUS and CHIRON, with LAVINIA, ravished; her hands cut off, and her tongue cut out.

Dem. So, now go tell, an if thy tongue can speak,

Who ’twas that cut thy tongue and revish’d thee.

Chi. Write down thy mind, bewray thy meaning so,

An if thy stumps will let thee play the scribe.

Dem. See, how with signs and tokens she can scrowl.

Chi. Go home, call for sweet water, wash thy hands.

Dem. She hath no tongue to call, nor hands to wash;

And so let’s leave her to her silent walks . . .

That’s “Titus Andronicus.” It’s by Shakespeare, early in his career, in his “Pulp Fiction” phase.

The basic plot is, everyone stabs and rapes and mutilates everyone else while speaking in verse, and then they all die. Lavinia’s may be the worst speaking role in the history of the stage. Character development is not the play’s strength. At the beginning of the play Titus Andronicus is a cruel warmonger; by the end, he’s exactly the same, a cruel warmonger.

Die, die Lavinia, and thy shame with thee;

{Kills Lavinia}.

And, with thy shame, thy father’s sorrow die!

For centuries, Shakespearean scholars have been stumped by the play. It’s so . . . awful. Mention “Titus Andronicus” to Harold Bloom, English professor at Yale and policeman of the Western canon, and he immediately says, “Boy, is that bad. It’s just a bloodbath. There’s not a memorable line in it.”

The Bard, bad? How’s that possible? Isn’t Shakespeare the greatest writer in the history of the English language, pulling away from the pack like Secretariat at the Belmont? How could the same guy write “King Lear” and this crappy thing?

Here’s the best explanation: Geniuses mess up too. This is a phenomenon that permeates the creative world.

There is bad Beethoven. There are failed Picassos. There are incorrect theories by Albert Einstein. Duke Ellington would be the first to say that some riffs worked better than others. In the 1940s Orson Welles made both the instant classic “Citizen Kane” and the instant trivia answer “The Lady From Shanghai.”

Just because you are a great composer named Wagner doesn’t mean that everything you do will be Wagnerian. Leon Botstein, a composer and president of Bard College, says of Richard Wagner’s “Centennial March,” “It’s a dog. He did it for the money.”

The Beatles: geniuses, right? Explain, then, “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.” Explain “Run for Your Life.”

You’d better run for your life if you can, little girl.

Hide your head in the sand, little girl.

If I catch you with another man, that’s the end-ah, little girl.

“Even outstanding people have phenomenal failures. That’s why so many people don’t achieve success, because the first time they fail they think they can’t be successful,” says Dean Keith Simonton, a psychologist at the University of California at Davis and author of “Greatness: Who Makes History and Why.” In his book he writes, “Creative geniuses stumble; they trip; they make horrible mistakes. Their highest and most acclaimed successes are constructed on the low rubble of humiliating failures.”

Genius is a romanticized form of intelligence and talent. We like to imagine that genius emerges from the artist like perspiration, dripping all over the place. When the reputation of a creative genius reaches a certain point — the super-genius status of a Leonardo or a Shakespeare or a Beethoven — there is a natural tendency among scholars to save every sketch, note, letter, scribble, coffee stain and discarded hankie from the hand of the Great One. John Lennon wrote some short stories; they were promptly labeled “Joycean” by admiring critics.

Over time the master artist takes on the character of a superbeing, a cartoon genius. A piano is to Lizst as a hammer is to Thor, God of Thunder. We can imagine Beethoven composing by day and solving baffling murders by night.

The problem here is not that geniuses are overrated. If anything, the intellectual fashion is anti-genius, anti-masterpiece. There are academic circles in which it is considered daft to believe that some individuals are smarter and better and more talented than others. Suggest such a thing and people will look at you like you’re an imbecile.

The problem with “genius” is that it doesn’t give the great talents their due for working hard and plodding through difficult problems and taking chances and knowing which ideas to dump and which to deliver. Geniuses create the same way total ding-dongs create. Geniuses still have to put on their paint one stroke at a time.

Picasso would paint something, look at it — at this point it would fetch a staggering price simply because it was a Picasso — and then just paint over it, start again, because it wasn’t good enough.

W.H. Auden once said, “The chances are that, in the course of his lifetime, the major poet will write more bad poems than the minor.”

Herein lies the lesson for everyone, the pros, the amateurs, the dumb-dumbs, anyone who has ever tried to think creatively. Humans are by nature a creative species, but we have to learn to manage our creativity, feed it, weed it, prune it, whack it back if necessary. We have to forgive our mistakes. No one is always brilliant.

Children instinctively know this. It is only as they grow up that society drums into their little noggins the fact that they’re without real talent and ought to put down the crayons and the finger paint and learn to watch television like everyone else.

But if geniuses can fail, then perhaps there is hope that the converse is true: That the mediocre minds of the world, due to luck, courage, or the random distribution of quality, are not immune to spasms of greatness.

Picasso’s Fakes

There’s an anecdote about Picasso, possibly apocryphal, that illustrates the phenomenon. An art dealer was trying to sell a painting by Picasso to a potential buyer. The buyer said he wasn’t sure of its authenticity, and wanted the artist himself to vouch for it. Picasso was summoned. He looked at the painting and said it was a fake. The buyer left. The dealer was perplexed. He turned to Picasso and said, “Didn’t you tell me yourself that you painted it?” “I did,” said Picasso. “I often paint fakes.”

That’s the standard response of many scholars when faced with something lousy by a great master. Can’t be real, they say. Gotta be by someone else. Often the only reason to doubt the authenticity of the work is simply that it’s not so hot. It’s just unacceptably mediocre.

For example, desperate scholars have occasionally argued that Shakespeare didn’t write “Titus Andronicus,” or that he had a collaborator. Shakespeare himself never put his name on any published version — he surely knew it was dreck. His contemporaries gave him authorial credit, but that did not squelch the theory that it was, at the very least, a collaboration, and the “bad parts” have been blamed on some knucklehead named George Peele. But in 1943 the scholar Hereward T. Price, after poring over all the evidence and theories, wrote, “We must conclude, however regretfully, that Shakespeare was the author of Titus Andronicus.’ ”

Mistakes and errors are integral to the process of creation. As the poet James Fenton said in a recent lecture at Oxford, the text of which was reprinted in the New York Review of Books, “For a productive life, and a happy one, each failure must be felt and worked through. It must form part of the dynamic of your creativity.”

George Bernard Shaw talked about the “field theory” of creativity, borrowing a term from physics. Good ideas do not exist alone but in a larger field of imagination. As a young man Shaw wrote five novels. Can you name one? Shaw had to work through his novelist phase before he could arrive, in his late thirties, as a playwright.

Shaw believed in productivity — just keep writing, was his advice to everyone. Norma Jenckes, a Shaw scholar at the University of Cincinnati, says Shaw’s attitude was that “you had to write yourself through all sorts of things, and then something might become your masterpiece.”

Geniuses work hard. They’re prodigious. They can’t stop themselves from churning out work. Thomas Edison couldn’t stop inventing. Joyce Carol Oates can’t stop writing. Shaw published 55 plays. Milton Avery spewed paintings by the museum-load; when asked how he got inspiration, he said by going to the studio every day.

The academics who study creativity have concluded that geniuses come up with ideas and analyze situations pretty much like everyone else. “Nobody is a genius simply because of the shape of their head and their brain,” says Howard Gardner, a professor of education at Harvard. “People get ideas. Nobody knows where ideas come from. And they try to work them out. And people who are the best artists are very good working out the implications of those ideas. But it’s not the case that every idea is a good idea.”

Here’s a bad idea: “Wellington’s Victory.”

Beethoven composed it to celebrate a British victory over an army commanded by Joseph Bonaparte, Napoleon’s brother. It is often compared unfavorably to another piece of bombast, the “1812 Overture” by Tchaikovsky. Jim Svejda, in “The Record Shelf Guide to the Classical Repertoire,” says, “As if it weren’t bad enough losing most of his army to the Russian winter and then getting mauled at Waterloo, poor Napoleon . . . also had to have his nose rubbed in it by two of history’s supreme masterpieces of musical schlock: Tchaikovsky’s refined and tasteful 1812 Overture and this embarrassing garbage by Beethoven.”

One need not buy it to listen to it. You can go to the Library of Congress, to the Music Division.

” Wellington’s Victory’ doesn’t quite work at the gut level,” concedes Sam Brylawski, a recorded-sound specialist, as he fills out the request slip. “But it’s not like listening to someone in the basement on an out-of-tune guitar.”

The request slip goes to a person at a desk. Somewhere, unseen, a record album is pulled and dusted. After about 10 minutes the album jacket, minus the album, appears, enclosed in plastic, on a dumbwaiter. The person at the desk says into a telephone, “The listener is ready.” From the other end of the line, someone decrees that you go into listening booth No. 9.

In the booth you punch a button labeled “Talk.” A voice says hello. You say you’re ready to listen. A moment later, “Wellington’s Victory” has begun.

You hear drums in the distance, faint.

They get louder. Faster. Then they get much louder and much faster. The army is approaching.

Trumpets! Or maybe bugles. They are bugling with great fanfare.

Then: Flutes, gentle, chirpy, happy, a Yankee Doodle sort of thing, like what you’d imagine a fife-and-drum outfit playing, and then some loud strings, and then an army approaches from another direction, with more drums and trumpets and a little fussy-personage music with a triangle tinkling in the background, and finally the battle royal explodes, with cannon noises and gunshots, the drums pounding, trumpets blaring, the room almost shaking with banging and whanging and thudding and thumping. If they could play it in Sensurround, you’d get injured.

Someone had the temerity to write a bad review of the piece as soon as it came out. Beethoven was incensed. He wrote a note in the margin of the review:

“You wretched scoundrel! What I excrete is better than anything you could ever think up!”

(Of course he didn’t really write “excrete.” He wrote in German. And he used a word that made the point much more graphically.)

Crossing Genres

Leonardo da Vinci notwithstanding, genius usually doesn’t carry over from one genre to another. Harold Bloom says, “Cervantes was a disaster on the stage. He wrote very bad stage plays, like the Siege of Numancia.’ It’s his most famous play. It failed. Badly.”

Within a field such as math, someone can be good at one thing and inept at another. The mathematician Henri Poincare could not add. He wrote, “I must confess I am absolutely incapable of doing an addition sum without a mistake.”

Even within a masterpiece there can be a flub — “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” may be the greatest American novel ever written, but in the final few chapters Tom Sawyer suddenly reappears, and there’s a tortured sequence where Tom tries to engineer the liberation of the slave Jim even though Jim isn’t locked up and they could all just walk away. Tom thinks it must be a dramatic liberation. Huck sort of tags along. Unfortunately it’s too late to edit that part out.

Brilliant minds screw up for all sorts of extra-artistic reasons. Maybe they are doing something just for the money. Maybe they’re sick. Maybe they’re no longer sick — some scholars think Edvard Munch (“The Scream”) lost his edge after he had psychiatric treatment, says J. Carter Brown, former director of the National Gallery of Art.

Another problem is overreaching. That’s what happened to Einstein. He was a very smart man. Indeed he may have been the smartest human being on the planet in his day. But he could also be, relatively speaking, a moron.

In the first two decades of the century Einstein was on a roll like the scientific world hadn’t seen since Isaac Newton. Einstein discerned, through thought experiments, that the universe obeyed fantastic principles of relativity, and that Newtonian physics, while valid, was still only an approximation of reality. He enveloped Newtonian physics in his new theory of relativity, which we would explain here if we knew anything about it other than clocks move slowly in really fast spaceships.

He followed the special theory of relativity with something even more intellectually astonishing: The general theory. Special, then general.

Then he tried to do something bigger. He wanted a unified field theory. This would be a theory that somehow linked gravitation with electromagnetism. That was the bridge too far. Eight decades later it still hasn’t been done. In his mad quest Einstein refused to accept many of the new orthodoxies of quantum mechanics. He thought the universe was fundamentally deterministic — that one thing followed another in a predictable fashion. His colleagues said nuh-uh. The universe is probabilistic, they said. Can’t be sure of anything.

“He was very uncomfortable with the Uncertainty Principle,” says Frank Wilczek, a professor of natural science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., where Einstein worked for several decades. Wilczek has frequent reason to think of Einstein — he lives in Einstein’s house on Mercer Street. “It is a pity that he might have made further great discoveries if he had taken quantum mechanics to heart. As great as he was, he certainly could have done better in those last 35 years.”

One can understand Einstein’s instinct, though. He believed in himself. He did the special, he did the general, why not the unified? He knew there was something more out there, a mystery at the fundament of creation, and it would have been unnatural not to seek to solve it.

You start reconfiguring the universe, it’s hard to stop.

One Chair

Mark Rosenthal, a curator at the National Gallery, applies the rule to artists: “The really good ones are trying extremely hard every time out. They’re always trying to make a masterpiece, they’re always trying to do something wonderful.”

Rosenthal sits surrounded by Rothkos. They are big, bold canvases, abstract, a visual language not everyone can understand, but which Rosenthal finds profoundly moving, like listening to magnificent music.

He says that being creative is a lonely job. Every artist’s studio is the same. There is one chair. The artist paints half the day, and sits in the chair the other half of the day, looking critically at the art. “There’s only one chair because artists work alone. And they sit there. I’m sure if we could be transported back to Rembrandt’s time, it’d be the same thing. There’d be one chair.”

Robert Sternberg, a Yale psychologist and co-author of “Defying the Crowd: Cultivating Creativity in a Culture of Conformity,” says creativity has three aspects:

1. Synthetic. You have to generate ideas. Geniuses come up with a lot more ideas than everyone else. “In most fields, the people who really are well known are prodigious. They’re large-volume producers. But you don’t even realize that in their repertoire is a lot of junk. You just don’t hear about the junk,” says Sternberg.

Creative ideas can be applied in unlikely places. Sternberg cites the example of a 3M engineer who was trying to make a strong adhesive. He screwed up and made a weak adhesive. So then he asked himself: Of what use might a weak adhesive be? This led him to invent Post-It notes.

2. Analytic. You have to know which ideas are the good ones. J. Carter Brown recalls the prayer that the esteemed art critic Bernard Berenson used to say: “Our Father, who art in Heaven, give us this day our daily idea, and forgive us the one we had yesterday.”

3. Practical. You need to know how to market the idea. How to pitch it. This is the part of creative genius where someone like Madonna excels.

Sternberg mentions Bill Clinton as a political genius who hasn’t mastered all three of these steps. Clinton is most adept at steps 1 and 3. He synthesizes boatloads of ideas, and in the right forum he’s a smooth salesman, bordering on slick. But he doesn’t self-select very well. “His good ideas get lost in the klunkers,” says Sternberg. They Can’t Help It

Leon Botstein, the composer, says you can’t plan your breakthroughs. You just have to keep plugging away, and wait, and hope.

“Breakthrough is not when you want it, it’s not when you expect it. It’s a function of the constant activity. It is only the constant activity that generates the breakthrough.”

And what causes the constant activity? It’s not money. It’s not glory. It’s an “inner necessity,” he says. Unless you have this inner necessity to create, you’ll probably never do anything of brilliance, Botstein believes.

“Without constant, almost irrational, obsessive engagement, you’ll never make the breakthrough,” he says. “The difference between you and the person you consider great is not raw ability. It’s the inner obsessiveness. The inability to stop thinking about it. It’s a form of madness.”

So this is what separates the great ones from the rest of the world. It is not simply that they are smarter, savvier, more brilliant. They are geniuses because they can’t stand to be anything else.

Shakespeare wrote 24 masterpieces, by Harold Bloom’s count. Almost his entire output appeared in a 20-year period. At his peak he managed 13 plays in seven years. They weren’t too shabby: “Much Ado About Nothing,” “Henry V,” “Julius Caesar,” “As You Like It,” “Twelfth Night,” “Hamlet,” “Merry Wives of Windsor,” “Troilus and Cressida,” “All’s Well That Ends Well,” “Measure for Measure,” “Othello,” “King Lear,” and “Macbeth.” As a general rule, when a creator creates most, the creator creates best.

F. Scott Fitzgerald experienced the flip side of that rule. His first novel, “This Side of Paradise,” established him as a popular, promising novelist. He soon wrote another novel and then a couple of years later came his masterpiece, “The Great Gatsby.” Then he began to struggle. “Gatsby” was hard to follow. He began a book called “Tender Is the Night” but couldn’t finish it. Years passed. He drank a lot. He dithered. He partied with his expatriate friends in France. Still he didn’t finish the book. His wife had a nervous breakdown. Finally after eight years of labor he completed it. The novel has some terrific parts. It also has some parts that are cringe-inducing.

Linda Patterson Miller, a professor of English at Penn State, says, “I keep going back to that book, Tender Is the Night,’ thinking it’s got to be better than it is.”

She cites one passage as particularly horrible. It’s when Dick Diver returns to his hotel with the young starlet Rosemary Hoyt. Diver is married. His wife, Nicole, is sleeping nearby. But he and Hoyt are infatuated with each other. They go into Hoyt’s room.

“When you smile — ” He had recovered his paternal attitude, perhaps because of Nicole’s silent proximity, “I always think I’ll see a gap where you’ve lost some baby teeth.”

But he was too late — she came up close against him with a forlorn whisper.

“Take me.”

“Take you where?”

Astonishment froze him rigid.

“Go on,” she whispered. “Oh, please go on, whatever they do. I don’t care if I don’t like it — I never expected to — I’ve always hated to think about it but now I don’t. I want you to.”

Prof. Miller says, “It’s absolutely childish and embarrassing to read.”

Fitzgerald wound up going to Hollywood to write screenplays — artistic death. Meanwhile he cranked out short stories for magazines. Did it for the money. Drank. Drank some more. Died young.

It’s a sad story. But the most creative minds know better than anyone else the difference between a “Gatsby” and a “Tender Is the Night,” between a “Titus Andronicus” and an “Othello.” Genius recognizes itself, and its counterfeit.

In his notebook, Fitzgerald jotted down his thoughts on seeing his brilliance dissolve into mediocrity:

I have asked a lot of my emotions — one hundred and twenty stories. The price was high . . . because there was one little drop of something — not blood, not a tear, not my seed, but me more intimately than these, in every story, it was the extra I had. Now it has gone and I am just like you now.

Once the phial was full — here is the bottle it came in . . .

April evening spreads over everything, the purple blur left by a child who has used the whole paintbox.

 

 

 

 

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."
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Joel Achenbach · January 23, 2013