Andrew Robinson's "Sudden Genius," on creative breakthroughs

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Thursday, December 16, 2010; 6:28 PM


The Gradual Path to Creative Breakthroughs

By Andrew Robinson

Oxford Univ.

371 pp. $34.95

What do Leonardo da Vinci, Mozart, Darwin, Einstein and Virginia Woolf have in common? They're said to be geniuses, supremely talented people who managed to achieve breakthroughs that other hard-working smart folks only dream about. Where do such breakthroughs, and the people capable of making them, come from? If we understood the essential ingredients of genius, would we be able to create conditions conducive to its cultivation? Andrew Robinson sets out to explore whether the idea of genius can be clearly articulated, or whether we are just left with the notion that "we know it when we see it." He explores as case studies the lives and works of 10 extraordinary people: Christopher Wren, Jean-Francois Champollion, Marie Curie, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Satyajit Ray, in addition to those mentioned above.

Robinson begins by examining previous attempts to identify the "ingredients of creativity" and finds most of them wanting. He is intrigued by the combination of focus and blindness that characterizes idiot savants, for example, but he drops the subject almost entirely after a review of some high-profile cases. Happily, he doesn't trust IQ tests to predict genius, nor does he buy the claim that there is any real correlation between mental illness and great creativity. He winds up with the rather banal conclusion that "unlike talent . . . genius is the result of a unique configuration of parental genes and personal circumstances."

At the center of "Sudden Genius?" are chapters devoted to 10 breakthroughs in the arts and sciences. One can appreciate the author's range of subjects, from Wren's work on St. Paul's Cathedral to Champollion's decoding of the Rosetta Stone to Ray's innovative work in film. But Robinson's discussion of the actual breakthroughs themselves is often pedestrian. We learn little about what has remained so exciting about these famous achievements, nor why he chose these particular exemplars. His use of the secondary literature is haphazard, which is perhaps to be forgiven in light of the variety of work considered. But the author's passion for these achievements is not always evident, and so the chapters have a tepid feel that undercuts the notion that these are supreme monuments to creativity. Robinson seems downright hostile to Virginia Woolf's work, and I couldn't help thinking he would have preferred to write about science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke, whom Robinson knew and whose name comes up at various points in the book.

After the case studies, Robinson turns back to the search for patterns, and once again what he offers is pretty thin gruel. He is rightly skeptical of generalizations about the hardships or the loving care that the exceptional individuals received: "it is truer to say there was a tension or conflict between deprivation and support for each . . . which seems to have proved creative for their work." Sure, but much the same could be said for many groups of 10 people working on almost anything at all. Do geniuses often rebel against their schooling? Of course, they do, and that's why we call their accomplishments "breakthroughs." After all, the people who have captured Robinson's interest produced work that undermined existing ways of doing things. High schools and universities teach the conventional, and geniuses, as Robinson has defined the term, must break with conventions. To paraphrase philosopher Richard Rorty and the poet Coleridge, geniuses create the taste by which they will be judged, and that often means destroying the old standards of evaluation.

"Sudden Genius?" emphasizes that the major breakthroughs in the arts and sciences look sudden only in retrospect. In fact, years of preparation seem to have been required to nourish the soil out of which the "eureka moment" emerged. As Pasteur said in regard to observation, "chance favors only the prepared mind." Robinson agrees with the several psychologists who have noted that at least 10 years of work in the field seem necessary before grand breakthroughs occur. He also makes the important point that although these heroes of art and science knew their stuff, none of them became overspecialized. In other words, they had cultural breadth, which to varying degrees helped them avoid the trap of mere expertise. The best ideas, he notes, come from versatility as well as focus. That's a central conviction for those of us working for broadly based liberal learning, and it is more important than ever to remember it as we defend this form of education from those who champion professional specialization and focus.

At the close of the book, Robinson opines that "talent appears to be on the increase, genius on the decrease." I have no idea how one might evaluate such a claim, but it does sound like the kind of thing people usually say after spending time with the conventional classics. Unlike "Sudden Genius?", the figures discussed in the book refused to settle for the conventional, and that's one of the key reasons we continue to ponder their achievements today.

Michael S. Roth is the president of Wesleyan University.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company

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