History of Genius

In today’s selection — from Divine Fury by Darrin M. McMahoon. Only relatively recently have genius and intelligence and invention been closely coupled. In ancient times, genius was viewed as the gift of uncovering that which was previously known, as is evident from the etymology of the words “discover” and “invent.” Inventing and creating new things, the very act of creation itself, was viewed as the exclusive province of God, and those who tried to create were — like Satan — dangerous usurpers:

 “[Ancient] wise men and sages [such as Socrates and Homer] provide a perfect foil for the modern creative genius, for in every instance the embodied ideal is one of recollection and retrieval, a preservation and calling to mind of what was first revealed long before. Mental prowess, in this understanding, is essentially an act of recovery, a rearticulation of words earlier spoken, of thoughts previously known. The same is true in art, where imitation and mimesis long structured the human gaze. To reproduce the eternal forms, to render in its ready perfection the world revealed to us, was the great goal of the artisans whom we now describe as ‘artists,’ those skilled craftsmen who for centuries confined themselves to tracing the patterns and following the lines inscribed in the world by the ancestors and the ancients, by nature, the gods, or God. To create originally, without precedent, pattern, or model, was never the ideal of the ancient artist or sage, and indeed the ancients frequently denied the very prospect. As early as the third millennium BCE, the Egyptian scribe Kakheperresenb could comment on the impossibility of writing phrases that ‘are not already known,’ ‘in language that has not been used,’ with ‘words which men of old have not spoken.’ …

“The moral of the story is that ‘there is nothing new under the sun,’ a sentiment that will be familiar to readers of Jewish and Christian scripture, but is in fact common to virtually every ancient account in which God or the gods are held to have created the universe and all that it contains, or in which the universe is understood to have always existed. In either instance, genuine originality is, strictly speaking, impossible, for mere mortals must confine themselves to recovering and reproducing what already exists. And insofar as the defining characteristic of modern genius is original creation, it follows that the ancient sage cannot a modern genius be. Rather than look to the horizon of the original and new, the ancient’s gaze is focused instead on the eternal recurrence of perennial forms, or on a ‘time of origins’ in a mythic past that demands constant vigilance. For there in the ‘absolute past’ lies the key to all understanding in the present and future, which will but be an eternal return, as it was in the beginning in a world without end. In the past lie the answers to all questions. In the past lie the solutions to all riddles. In the past lies the map of our fortune and fate. …

 

Shelly by Simon Brett

“Much of this book will be devoted to explaining the emergence of that ideal and to developing its implications, but the basic point may be grasped quickly enough simply by considering the etymology of the words ‘discovery,’ ‘invention’ and ‘creation.’ Into the eighteenth century, the first two of these terms retained in the various Indo-European tongues their root meanings of ‘uncovering’ or ‘finding.’ To ‘dis-cover’ was to pull away the covering cloth, disclosing what may have been hidden, overlooked, or lost, but that was in any case already there. To ‘invent,’ similarly, was to access that inventory of knowledge long ago assembled and put into place: an invention was just a dis-covery, a recovery of an object forgotten, now an objet trouvé. The word ‘creation’ provides an even more striking illustration of the point. ‘To create’ was long deemed impossible for mortal human beings; creation — the supreme act — was reserved for the gods. Solus deus creat, the medieval theologian Saint Thomas Aquinas affirms in a typical refrain. ‘God alone creates,’ for God as the creator omnium was the creator of all. As late as the eighteenth century, French jurists drew on that principle to justify the king’s authority over copyright on all books and ideas. Seeing that God was the author of everything in the universe, it was only just that his representative on earth should oversee how royalties were collected and dispersed on behalf of their true creator. Human ideas were but imperfect imitations of the divine original. …

“The consequences of usurping creation were no less severe in Judeo-Christian myth. … Christian legend elaborates on … how Lucifer, the ‘bringer of light’ and wisest of the angels, became Satan, ‘the enemy,’ by daring to usurp the function of creation, which is prohibited even to the angels. In John Milton’s Paradise Lost, in fact, Satan is depicted famously as a kind of Prometheus himself, a dangerous source of innovation and imagination, justly punished, to be sure, but not without a tragic heroism in his doomed attempt to aspire to godhood. Indeed, the message in these mythic examples is often mixed — for though aspiring to creative prowess is dangerous, hubristic, redolent of sin, it is also heroic. Those who challenge the gods may be monsters and giants, but they tower above ordinary men. And yet those who are raised to great heights have a tremendous way to fall.”  

 

Divine Fury: A History of Genius

Author: Darrin M. McMahon 
Publisher: Basic Books
Date: Copyright 2013 by Darrin M. McMahon
Pages: 2-5
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