Wispy statements on genius, etc.

[Caravaggio's Conversion on the Way to Damascus (from Web Gallery of Art)]


Genius--it's a concept that terrifies me, as well as inspiring in me the most wistful, starry-eyed longing. It seems to have a similar effect on others, when it has any effect at all. I imagine that terror and longing are not the stuff genius is actually made of, and so I smile an inward smile whenever I find it discussed or mentioned or admired. It's sort of a private joke with myself-- that the thing I revere most of all is no more than the phantom occasionally found on the tip of some stranger's tongue.

(I should mention that I often find skepticism and pessimism to be the preferred methods for coping with the frustration one feels for one's own lethargy/superficiality/defeat -- more painless than any real effort or challenge)

With that preamble, imagine my inward smile when I read the following passage in Musil's The Man Without Qualities

So what has been lost?

Something imponderable. An omen.
An illusion. As when a magnet releases iron filings and they fall in confusion again. As when a ball of string comes undone. As when a tension slackens. As when an orchestra begins to play out of tune. No details could be adduced that would not also have been possible before, but all the relationships had shifted a little. Ideas whose currency had once been lean grew fat. Persons who would never before have been taken seriously became famous. Harshness mellowed, separations fused, intransigents made concessions to popularity, tastes already formed relapsed into uncertainties. Sharp boundaries everywhere became blurred and some new, indefinable ability to form alliances brought new people and new ideas to the top. Not that these people and ideas were bad, not at all; it was only that a little too much of the bad was mixed with the good, of error with truth, of accommodation with meaning. There even seemed to be a privileged proportion of this mixture that got furthest on in the world; just the right pinch of makeshift to bring out the genius in genius and make talent look like a white hope, as a pinch of chicory, according to some people, brings out the right coffee flavor in coffee. Suddenly all the prominent and important positions in the intellectual world were filled by such people, and all decisions went their way. There is nothing one can hold responsible for this, nor can one say how it all came about. There are no persons or ideas or specific phenomena that one can fight against. There is no lack of talent or goodwill or even of strong personalities. There is just something missing in everything, though you can't put your finger on it, as if there had been a change in the blood or in the air; a mysterious disease had eaten away the previous period's seeds of genius, but everything sparkles with novelty, and finally one has no way of knowing whether the world has really grown worse or oneself merely older. At this point a new era has definitively arrived.

A long passage, but if you read with me to the end of it, you may be thinking a thought similar to the one I'm thinking: "why, then we must be arriving at a new era!"

Because I am most certainly disillusioned by the admixture I find around me, and within my own self--to put it in Musil's terms, it seems as though things taste more of chicory than coffee.

Strangely enough, I have recently been offered a few answers to the problematic situation described above.
One is a sort of half-brewed concoction of fable, romanticism, Phantastes, and my own observations of the rise of myth and fancy in popular culture. I've been wondering if it's easier to deal with a disappointing world by indulging in the creation of other, fantastic worlds (this is a huge, massy question which I cannot even stretch my mind around).

A second comes from watching A Man For All Seasons last night. Is that sort of unwavering devotion to God and Truth even possible anymore? How many of us would feel uncomfortable if asked to talk about personal conscience?

And a third answer, or at least angle from which to approach the problematic situation is an ultimatum posed firstly to Baudelaire, and secondly to Huysmans, by Barbey d'Aurevilly: "You have only to choose between the muzzle of a pistol and the foot of the cross." Baudelaire chose the cross, as did Huysmans.

So, we probe the folds of man's conscious and his conscience. We study his actions, behaviors, tendencies. We find darkness and confusion, some shining spots of light, and we move on. We write and paint and sing and talk. We talk and talk and talk--figuring things out, establishing concepts, communities, precepts, politics. And then what? It tumbles down. The individual voices who were so content to talk each fall silent at some point, look inward, and feel something massive and bleak.

These are grounds that have been explored before, I know this, but I don't really know the explorations that happened, nor do I know their results. In fact, I'm finally starting to come to terms with how little I actually know--and I'm talking in terms of what are called facts, nothing larger. So if you were to ask me, a small voice in a great wilderness of cacophony, what I thought about steadfastness, or truth, or reality, or endurance, I should probably feel uncomfortable, and then respond with some wispy statement about trees and fog and connections and the knowledge of something infinitely greater than me. I just hope that one day I'll have the words to express the belief that lies behind that wispy statement, and the courage to say it loudly and fully.