Lit by lightning

Peter Paul Rubens’ “Prometheus Bound” (1618, oil), Philadelphia Museum of Art. It’s one of the works used to illustrate Darrin M. McMahon’s new “Divine Fury: A History of Genius.”

Peter Paul Rubens’ “Prometheus Bound” (1618, oil), Philadelphia Museum of Art. It’s one of the works used to illustrate Darrin M. McMahon’s new “Divine Fury: A History of Genius.”

I’m reading “Divine Fury: A History of Genius” (Basic Books, $29.99, 312 pages), which is just the kind of  book I like – one in which the author takes the intellectual ball and runs with it. Darrin M. McMahon must be good at it. He also wrote “Happiness: A History.”

Genius, as he notes in his introduction, has meant many things to many different times. The word comes from the Latin, but the Romans, who cannibalized Greek culture, were really borrowing from the Greek “daimon.” Your daimon was – is – your guiding spirit, the link to the divine. Indeed, “Daimon” is the title of my unpublished novel about Alexander the Great, who like the Emperor Augustus and a host of ancient luminaries saw his daimon – his genius – as proof of his divinity. It wasn’t until the 18th century that we got the modern definition of genius as extraordinary creativity and accomplishment and not until the 20th century that we got the IQ tests that sought to quantify it. 

McMahon rounds up the usual suspects – your Alexanders, your Leonardos, your Shakespeares, your Mozarts and, of course, your Einsteins – the last being synonymous with genius as in the sentence “Whoever perpetrated Bridgegate was certainly no Einstein.” (That’s not in the book.  I just love writing about my Chief Pretend Boyfriend – for the moment – Gov. Krispy Kreme and his bridge over troubled water.)

Controversially, McMahon goes where angels fear to tread to note that Hitler was a genius, genius having the potential to be good or evil. I think Hitler was evil and just plain nuts, but then I’m no genius.

More predictably, McMahon notes that today everyone seems to have his 15-minutes of genius as the word is right up there with “awesome” in the overworked department. And yet genius remains elusive: “Genius was a flash of light, but its brilliance served to illuminate the dark mystery that surrounded and set it apart.”

So what is genius? I’ve always imagined that it was a left brain-right brain thing metaphorically speaking, the marriage of the analytical and the intuitive, the temperal and the spatial, the verbal and the visual. Alexander could see a battle like a chessboard. Mozart could see a whole score in his mind. Van Gogh wrote as well as he could paint. For them, time was spatial, as it became for Einstein when he conceived of the Theory of Relativity. It was Einstein’s great insight – his genius, if you will – to understand that if you could travel at the speed of light, time would stand still.

Think of Einstein’s brain – which was actually stolen, giving the end of the book the quality of a detective story – as a tennis match. The left brain is volleying analysis after analysis and the right brain is batting them back as intuitions, but it’s all happening so fast that what we see are flashes, as if the court were lit by lightning. That’s genius.

And it’s a field that belongs to men. Though McMahon quotes the 18th-century woman of letters Mme. Germaine de Staël as saying that “Genius knows no sex,” the cast of characters here has an X and Y for its 23rd pair of chromosomes. Perhaps this is more about an historical lack of opportunity and coverage than it is about biology, particularly as women have higher IQs than men. (I personally have never met a woman who didn’t think she was smarter than a man.)

I’m sure there are female geniuses waiting to be discovered. I’ve always thought Emily Brontë was a genius. Her sister Charlotte’s “Jane Eyre” is a perfectly conventional (though enjoyable) romance, particularly when Mr. Rochester is played by Timothy Dalton or Michael Fassbender. But Emily’s “Wuthering Heights” is a work of inspired imagination. There’s no one like Cathy and Heathcliff, and they meet in a space – the Heights – that exists out of time. 

I’m sure Einstein would’ve approved.