Fantastic Creatures: Genius/Genii

[Rembrandt: Aristotle contemplating bust of Homer]

I never liked the fact that the title Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? could exist. It seemed quite wrong to me that one artist could appropriate another artist so completely. Sort of the way Archduke Franz Ferdinand will forever by the secondary recollection for anyone ~age 18 or younger who hears that name. That said, Mrs. Woolf has been haunting me.

She is a friendly ghost, and not unwelcome at all, but she exasperates me. Mrs. Woolf represents much of what I find Important in literature, and without getting pedantic here, that includes: originality, readability, experimentation, familiarity, and the crystal-clear perfection of a moment.

But she makes me feel guilty about not being able to create or express so fluidly. She also makes me feel guilty about the work that I am doing because it isn't immediately creative or expressive (which is silly because it is good work and I enjoy it).

Mrs. Woolf also makes me aware of Genius, a concept that makes me itch because it seems so powerfully lacking and so horribly unthinkable. (When I think of Genius, I inevitably reduce it to the standards of what has been done and stamped "Genius" and shuffled off to the vault of "Important Movements in History." I do not invest it with transcendent meaning like Kant or hope for it with the fortunate anticipation that must have been felt in the early 20th century when movements were blooming left and right).

I have a very soft spot for artistic inspiration and the two characters who embody its divine flights of perfection: the Muse and the Genius. I wrote a long essay once on the role of the muse in Surrealist art and entertain the vain dream of someday being one. The Ernst images peppered throughout this entry captivated me when I first wrote this paper (although I unfortunately could not find my favorite anywhere online). But the Genius is what I am concerned with here.

The Brontes, always present in my thoughts (and Mrs. Woolf's as well, her first published piece was a teeny article on Haworth, one of the top literary pilgrimage sites), identified themselves in their juvenilia as "Little Kings and Queens," or as Genii. Here's a passage from one of the early stories:

Sir--it is well known that the Genii have decreed that unless they perform certain arduous duties every year, of mysterious nature, all the world in firmament will be burnt up and gathered together in one mighty globe, which will roll in lonely grandeur through the vast wilderness of space, inhabited only by the four Princes of the Genii, till time should be succeeded by eternity.

A bit fantastic, but still these are the personae chosen by the young writers to represent their authorial power within the texts they were creating. Complete and absolute power.

Kant's idea of genius is much less fantastic on the surface, but incredibly mysterious:

Genius is the talent (natural endowment) that gives the rule to art. Since talent is an innate productive ability of the artist and as such belongs itself to nature, we could also put it this way: Genius is the innate mental predisposition (ingenium) through which nature gives the rule to art.

If we think of the words art and nature in the Aristotelian sense (art meaning artifice and nature meaning something having an internal source of motion and generation), a Genius owes all thanks to nature, not to art. A Genius is not molded or taught or acquired, but rather is, a natural being-at-work. We might call it a talent for novelty, for the introduction of the bits and pieces which make up originality. I wonder how much effort goes into a being-at-work like Genius...