Popular Science Monthly/Volume 69/October 1906/Genius
By Dr. ROBERT MORRIS OGDEN
UNIVERSITY OF TENNESSEE
CONSIDERED genetically, intellectual and physical functionings oppose one another. The business of organisms is to act. And action means primarily a direct response to stimuli. It is only as the organism grows complex and there is opportunity for more than one reaction to a given stimulus that there comes about a retardation involving an inhibition of action. And this retardation is filled out with weak reflections of the nerve paths which are being stimulated, i. e., with thought. Thought, then, comes at the expense of the organism's natural functionings. Thought brings bodily inertia. Were there no thought, we should be mere reflex organisms. Health is conditioned by physical acts and the healthful rest of the organism is accompanied by sleep.
Now all this means that we who think are in a sense artificial folk. We are transcending nature in a way—at least in comparison with the great mass of animal life which has a more or less reflex existence. Still we have our compensations. We are knowing beings, having two sides to our natures, a physical and an intellectual. We can react on a given presentation in two ways, either intuitively in accordance with our natural physical bias, or logically in accordance with our more artificially developed reason.
It is no mere matter of hyper-intellectualism which leads us in our genesis from the first to the second of these modes of reaction, but a matter of increasing complexity of the organism making simple intuitive reaction more and more impossible. Therefore, as a general proposition, this development is nothing we can or wish to strive for or against. We simply have to accept it as it is.
Yet, turning to the study of individual man, we find great diversity of mental bias and disposition. The happiest and healthiest of men is doubtless he who lives an active life out in the fresh air and amid pleasant natural surroundings. His physical bias is strongly developed and affords a ready and never-failing intuitive force for good and health. His mental outlook is clear if not profound. He takes things as they are and, unless accident befall him to disturb his habitual methods of functioning, he is able to meet the various situations of life with positive equanimity.
On the other hand, he who by reason of physical inefficiency or environmental conditions spends his life in inhibiting physical action, finds a substitute for action in thought.
The intellectual life has two main attitudes: active reasoning and esthetic contemplation. Though these two complement one another, we find them variously accented in different individuals. The scholar leads, in the main, an intellectual life, yet the esthetic complement to his nature may be very slightly developed. His reasoning processes have the aim of elucidating and, therefore, of bringing peace of mind with respect to some phase of life. But his pleasure is more largely in the business of thinking, in the solving of his concrete problem, than it is in the contemplation of a complete result such as characterizes the esthetic attitude. The true artist has his esthetic ideal always before him. His function is to express this ideal as a complete and conformable whole. Whether his work be of head or of hand, it is always informed by such an ideal and the artist's genius rests all in his ability to give adequate expression to this ideal.
Each of us has these esthetic ideals in some degree, but only a few of us attempt to express them. We seek, rather, an expression for them in the work of another and, finding it, we obtain esthetic pleasure in the contemplation. But he whose ideas become crystallized to such an extent that he can objectify them and give them expression in a picture, a drama or a symphony, he has a peculiar talent which the rest of us, however esthetically appreciative we may be, do not possess.
The genius must possess a certain technical skill to enable him to express himself objectively, and he must also be so imbued with the force of his ideas that he is, in a sense, impelled to give them such expression. This necessity of artistic expression is one of the factors of his esthetic nature. A demand is felt to realize a certain ideal, to give it a clear objective expression such as must always be lacking so long as it remains clothed only in the vague imagery of the mind. The hack author, painter or musician may make a mere business of his talent. In so far as he does this his work must be of low merit as art. It is forced rather than spontaneous. It caters to an audience instead of being a natural expression of his own ideas.
There is something very intimate about true art. It always expresses the man behind it and, in the last analysis, its merit is a token of the character and mental bigness of the artist. Those who have no clear and definite ideas, but busy themselves with vague intentions, only reflect in their works the unrest of hyper-sensitive natures. We, their audience, may recognize and sympathize with their unhappy states and, indeed, derive a certain esthetic enjoyment from their expression, but it remains for the man able to give a positive impetus to his work to be termed a genius; one possessing a certain sublimity of purpose and accent which brings his work into touch with the eternal.
As to the artist's technique or means of expression, it must always take a place subordinate to the idea. The idea is always the motive power, the dominant force. So soon as the artist's interest lapses into an active pleasure in his work as such, he loses sight of his aim. And this shows quite conclusively that no amount of skill and special training in expression ever makes an artist and, indeed, explains the artistic puerility of so much work produced by men of splendid technical equipment. The pernicious influence of the 'academic' training is due to just this, that the artist is led to see the value of his work in such beautiful lines and relationships of form and color as all can imitate, rather than in an individual idea clamoring for artistic expression. Thus it is that much of our greatest work is expressed in crude, unfinished form, at times by men who apparently knew not how to express themselves completely or, at least, would not; for example, Rodin, Michelangelo, Manet, Whitman and Richard Strauss. Yet the force and dominance of their esthetic ideas justify and lend a value to their work higher than that of any faultless academician faithful to his classic traditions.
The true genius never learns his art. It is intuitive with him. There is but one way of expressing a great thought adequately and that is naturally, therefore intuitively. So soon as the artist begins to reason as to how he shall express himself, he loses sight of that which he has to express. His process is no longer an esthetic one, but becomes a practical one. Except to introduce a person into the realm of art, to teach him some of its manifold possibilities, art training is a thing of doubtful value. In so far as it attempts to substitute rules and methods for one's natural intuitive ways it is positively detrimental. The artist must be first and foremost an individual; without individuality he certainly can never be termed a genius. Still, if he can not be taught as one is taught a trade, he can be taught clearness of thought and perception, and this should be the true function of his training.
When we interpret things too much in the light of our knowledge concerning their objective natures, we usually interpret them wrongly. It is only when we understand them subjectively as 'experience' as well as objectively that we know how to represent them adequately. The best means of expression is the intuitive and natural, but a true psychological knowledge may aid one's expression when too much experience and reasoning has interfered with one's natural intuitive bias.
We find, then, that our true artist is a person of esthetic ideas plus an ability to express them adequately. Now, what are the consequences of this mode of mentality on the life of the man?
We have noted the artificiality of intellectualism as compared with naturalism. There is something even more absorbingly intellectual in the artistic mode of life than in the scholarly, for in the latter one is occupied with a process more or less limited in scope, whereas the artist is always striving to represent a complete ideal. The effect of this on the artist's active life depends largely on his natural propensities. Esthetic contemplation has evolved genetically out of sensationalism, and it is doubtless the sensual factor in his nature which leads to most, if not all, his pathological tendencies.
Moral and utilitarian ideas can scarce be other than healthy when viewed either from an esthetic or a practical view-point. Sensualism, however, is decadence. The effort of the individual to give free expression to his senses is always met with failure. Having risen above our mere sense natures into the realm of intellect, it is now impossible to revert to them. The clear, happy, unaffected, hedonistic lives of the Greeks are no more possible in these days of modern artifice. Therefore, he who turns to the senses for a true expression of his nature finds his effort clogged with all manner of false and related concepts which his experience with society has thrust upon him. There is no way to live 'naturally' in our day.
What, then, is the fate of him who attempts it? Taking all things in life to be natural expressions and being interested more in the states of body and mind than in any particular results to body or mind, this person is led to seek peculiar complexes of sensation, peculiar situations, bizarre effects, all which it may be a pretty esthetic problem to justify and sublimate. But the taste thus cultivated always craves something new and the attitude ceases soon to be one of esthetic intent and becomes instead one of low sensual desire. Contemplation is supplanted by desire, which now becomes the dominant note. Habits of passion develop and grow until both body and mind are ravaged by their deleterious effects. This is the real significance of decadence and it demonstrates, too, how works of art produced under such influences must fail in their universal import.
There is no denying that the genius in art is peculiarly exposed to these affections. The very inertia of his type of mind produces a species of hyperesthesia which, unless properly subordinated by a strong and forceful physical and mental nature, often leads to his downfall. We have so many instances where drugs, alcohol and other harmful habits have destroyed both body and mind of a bright genius, the factor is certainly one which can not be overlooked. Yet a positive element in his character may suffice to save him from this fate. So long as the individual asserts himself sufficiently to justify all his acts in the light of all his knowledge, bringing everything into connection with everything else without losing himself in a mesh of particulars, there is not much danger of degeneracy. Even an occasional lapse may find adequate place and absolution in such a character.
But so soon as such lapses from the physical and social order become dominant notes in one's life, either as things which one constantly deplores, or as things which one vaunts and praises, then the individual is shocked and begins to lose his positive force in society.
The genius may be as healthy and normal as another man; yet many indeed there are who have produced true works of genius only to succumb afterwards before their ruling passions. As a mode of life that of the artist is hardly to be commended. It is an artifice, an excrescence. It leads to too much objectifying and too little practise. Few individuals can stand this.
On the other hand, the true artist in an ideal sense is at the same time the true man. For he should be strong both of body and of mind, with a wide experience and a deep insight, with an understanding so broad that nothing is foreign to him, yet in whom nothing dominates so as to protrude beyond its proper setting. Such a man is, indeed, inspired with intuitive insight, but he is rare, even impossible. Yet there have been those who possessed this attitude in all its completeness for a time, and while under its influence they have produced undying works. These are the men to whom we commonly attribute genius. The usual critical mistake in dealing with such personages is either to attempt to make their complete lives perfectly consistent with these higher moments, or else by pointing out their weaknesses to decry even their greatest works. Needless to say there is neither sense nor use in either method.
The strength of the genius is only the strength of the ordinary man slightly intensified; the weakness of the genius is just the weakness of the ordinary man, but more conspicuous by contrast. Psychologically it is not at all incomprehensible to conceive a man of alternate high and low moments, alternate strength and weakness. It would be well-nigh inconceivable that a man should be always the one or the other.
If consistency of character is less marked in the genius than in the ordinary man, it is this which constitutes his uniqueness among men and may even at times determine his genius. The genius is more than apt to be a poor citizen, yet we can tolerate him for his work and because his kind is exceptional and few in number. If we would understand his nature and his art we must study his life in detail, unbiased and with broad understanding, for we are dealing with one who runs the gamut of emotions in order that he may sublimate them all.