Divine Fury: A book review by Bob Morris

Divine FuryDivine Fury: A History of Genius
Darrin McMahon
Basic Books (2014)

A brilliant analysis of “the emergence of the genius as a figure of extraordinary privilege and power”

Before reading this book for the first time, I checked out the etymology for the word “genius” and is what I found: “late 14c., “tutelary god (classical or pagan),” from Latin genius “guardian deity or spirit which watches over each person from birth; spirit, incarnation, wit, talent;” also “prophetic skill,” originally “generative power,” from root of gignere “beget, produce” (see kin), from PIE root *gen- “produce.” Sense of “characteristic disposition” is from 1580s. Meaning “person of natural intelligence or talent” and that of “natural ability” are first recorded 1640s.” Note the range from “guardian deity or spirit” to “natural ability.”

Darrin McMahon observes, “For genius, from its earliest origins, was a religious notion, and as such was bound up not only with the superhuman and transcendent, but also with the capacity for violence, destruction, and evil that all religions must confront.” He traces the genius figure from the ancient world to the present day, or at least to the 20th century. He chose a long range history in ideas because it is “particularly well-suited to teasing out genius’ intimate connection to the divine, a connection that few serious analysts of the subject have explored.

These are among the “fascinating individuals who brought the ideas of genius to life”: Socrates, Aristotle, Augustus Caesar, Johan Sebastian Bach, Napoleon Bonaparte, René Descartes, Johan Wolfgang Goethe, Adolph Hitler, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Isaac Newton, and Friedrich Nietzsche. During his discussion of these and others, he also explains what the designation or assumption of identity as a genius reveals about the age and culture within which it occurs. The qualities that the ancient Greeks would have described as hubris (e.g. creativity, imagination, originality, and “invention”) would become, centuries later, defining characteristics of a genius in the sciences and mathematics, in the creative and performing arts, in the military and government.

Throughout his lively and eloquent narrative, McMahon explains why and how “genius is in part a social creation — what historians like to call a ‘construction’ — and, as such, of service to those who build. That fact reminds us further that for all their originality (and originality is itself a defining feature of genius in the modern form) extraordinary human beings not only define their images but embody them, stepping into molds prepared by the social imaginary who came before. Even outliers are remarkable, as deviants, as Einstein and Hitler are no exception to this rule: however inimitable, — however unique — their genius was partly prepared for them, worked our over the course of generations.”

In his superb review of Divine Fury for the Wall Street Journal (Tuesday, January 7, 2014), Eric Felton notes that in a recent “special” edition of Time magazine called “Secrets of Genius: Discovering the Nature of Brilliance,” the magazine tells us that not only was Einstein an Einstein so too were such luminaries as Kim Kardashian, Angelina Jolie, and Lady Gaga. “Time devotes some six pages to the staggering genius of the comedian Steven Colbert. Mozart gets a paragraph.”

When concluding his book, Darrin McMahon recalls an observation by Ralph Waldo Emerson: “We feed on genius, we need it to survive,” then adds, “In an age as suspicious of ‘greatness,’ as our own, it is worth recalling that truth, and recalling that, although those who prostrate themselves before idols make themselves small, those who fail to take the measure of true stature are similarly diminished. Great men and great women still have their uses,” in large part I presume to add, because in every human community throughout the world there has always been and will always be a compelling need for those who are “worthy of true stature.”

Long ago, when informed that the Oracle at Delphi had called him “most wise among all men,” Socrates replied that all he knew was that he knew nothing. Obviously an exaggeration to make a point but it is a very important point insofar as the idea of genius is concerned. Of all that I learned from this remarkable book, most valuable to me is the need for a belief that “the genius of humanity continues to be the right point of view of history.”

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