Let me tell you that until the age of 29 I was a tortured genius.To help other people understand this, I lived in a squalid bedsit. I was also permanently unhealthy in that way typical of geniuses, and I spent my nights barking my tortured, misunderstood poetry into the smoky fug of doggerel-filled rooms.
Don’t let anyone tell you that being a tortured genius is easy. It’s not. It demands things of you, such as drinking lots, drug taking, and unsatisfactory relationships. It also creates a persistent idea that the world owes you a living because you are far too absorbed in your lofty contemplations to think about filthy lucre.
Of course I worried about money, but being permanently broke contributed to a vortex of hypochondria and depression. This led me to create more tortured poetry, which only confirmed my conclusion that I was a genius. Another thing about being a genius is that you end up talking about yourself incessantly. For a few months I had the good fortune to be the lodger of Dr Janet Summerton, who has remained a firm friend. I was talking to her about genius (over a glass of wine and a pate-smeared water biscuit) hoping that she would join the dots and reach the inevitable conclusion that I was one too.
Imagine my surprise when she asserted that there was no such thing as a genius. For how could this be? Did I not refute her assertion just by sitting there, drinking her wine and worrying about my pulse rate?
Janet told me that genius is a fairly modern notion. For me this was an eye-opener. I thought that geniuses had always existed. Surely, for example, when Shakespeare sprang up in the morning with the glorious filthy tang of London drains in his nostrils (and worrying if London was getting a bit too plague-ridden to stay) he was certain of his genius? Well… No actually. He wouldn’t have thought any such animal existed.
Janet pointed me towards Keywords by Raymond Williams. This told me that Genius entered English in the C14 from the Latin. It meant a guardian spirit. It was then extended to mean ‘a characteristic disposition or quality’. Only towards the end of the eighteenth century did it acquire its modern meaning of ‘an extraordinary ability’.
If you allow the idea that genius is an invention, then it follows that we do not live in a world populated by a race of demigods possessed by an otherworldly ability to which ordinary mortals cannot aspire. Don’t get me wrong, there’s no denying the fact that some people have extraordinary gifts, but to simply suggest that this is the result of divine inspiration, or being the winner of a genetic lottery, ignores the hard work that went into their achievements.
Secondly on a personal level, once you start to view genius as a social construct, you wonder why you or anyone else feels they need to conform to the ridiculous stereotypical behaviours associated with the idea of genius. For the troublesome idea that gifted people should behave in certain self-harming ways has claimed many lives. In poetry I think of Dylan Thomas who drank himself to death. And for what? He wrote most of his best work when he was young. It’s only when he started to be the very image of the Romantic tortured genius did he and the plot part company.
Of course there are numerous counter examples in poetry. T.S. Eliot working at the bank instantly comes to mind. Maybe not as exciting or “poetical” a life as Byron, who fought and womanised his way around Europe – but this doesn’t make Eliot’s poetry any less authentic than Byron’s.
I like this double-edged Oscar Wilde quote from The Picture of Dorian Gray, spoken by the character Lord Henry Wotton:
“A great poet, a really great poet, is the most unpoetical of all creatures. But inferior poets are absolutely fascinating. The worse their rhymes are, the more picturesque they look. The mere fact of having published a book of second-rate sonnets makes a man quite irresistible. He lives the poetry that he cannot write. The others write the poetry that they dare not realise.”
Pop music has a roll of honour of self-harming caricatures of genius – contributing to the dozens of suicides, overdoses and the rest. I never understood why self-destructive behaviour somehow equals authenticity. That these people are so overwhelmingly possessed by the spirit of their art that they are driven to do mad things seems absurd.
As onlookers, why exactly do we need to feed vicariously on the excesses of stars? To watch Amy Winehouse descend into a tragically early grave? Why does a sense of onrushing doom, lend authenticity?
Anyway thanks to my friend Janet I stopped being a genius. Gradually I moved out of the bedsit, and came to a series (of then) painful compromises that allowed me to take full time work and earn some cash.
After all Shakespeare, Michelangelo and Mozart all managed to keep the wolf from the door.
Not that they were geniuses mind you.