The death of Leonard Cohen, set alongside all the other great artists that have left us this year, has made me think a lot about the concept of Genius.
I don’t believe in geniuses but I do believe in Genius. I think that moments of exceptional clarity are available to us all, not just to a small subsection of natural prodigies. There are, however, clearly certain individuals who are more efficient conduits of genius than the rest of us.
The problem with the idea of geniuses versus that of Genius is that the latter is a shared pool we can all aspire to drink from, whereas the former is an exclusive club one can only enter as a result of mysterious forces influencing one’s birth, a divide as unassailable as that which separates wizard from muggle. Cohen was the humblest and wisest of all our great songwriters, I don’t believe he would subscribe to a belief predicated on such intrinsic division. Indeed he once said “I always considered myself a minor writer. My province is small, and I try to explore it very, very thoroughly.”
The problem with Genius is that we all have a different idea of what it means. In the sciences people like Newton and Einstein are safe bets simply because we cannot imagine our lives without the intellectual leaps they made. In the arts, however, the mantle of genius is bestowed rather more haphazardly, with the tendrils of fashion/fad/popularity/success unhelpfully stirring the pot to such a degree that one scarcely knows one’s own mind. And, of course, success in one’s lifetime affords one the leisure to focus on honing/directing one’s genius in a way that simply isn’t available to the struggling amateur genius (which is one of the things that makes Vincent Van Gogh so remarkable).
Surely it’s all just opinion anyway, there’s no formula for artistic genius. Plenty of people think Jim Morrison is a genius but I certainly don’t. I think he has a few good lines but mostly he relies on being cryptic and leaves his listeners to fill in the gaps (there’s nothing clever about that – it’s one of the reasons I love Cohen, he can be mysterious and open to interpretation but never willfully opaque). Dylan and Bowie are both guilty of tending towards the oblique (though they win their right to the genius title in other areas), it’s something the music industry does very well – using the listener’s own sense of inferiority/self-doubt to raise up one lucrative prophet after another. Hendrix was a genius on his instrument but if you surf through Youtube you’ll find plenty of equivalent guitar talent in the form of nine year old Japanese children. Of course he not only has the distinction of being a pioneer but also the privilege of death.
Perhaps the root of this mania for genius worship stems from the fact that our culture has been without a dependable God figure since Darwin returned from the Galapagos Islands. It’s no wonder we’ve been scrabbling at the feet of one temporary messiah after another, we’re utterly desperate to find someone better than us.
But isn’t calling someone a genius a bit of an insult? Doesn’t that imply that all their glories are in some way effortless? (“Well of course that song is amazing, the writer was a genius!”) Cohen’s most famous song Hallelujah took him years to write and had eighty draft verses. He worked very very hard on it and, as a result, the lyrics are beyond sublime. I think one can go a long way towards explaining Cohen’s incredible gift by simply acknowledging that he took his art seriously, read a lot, traveled a lot, soaked up the work of others and the politics around him and kept a very open mind.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful to forget about the idea of innate talent and instead lean towards a belief that everyone has it in them to reach greatness in whatever field is available to them? After all, one cannot help but notice most of the famous geniuses that readily spring to mind are white and male – the dice are clearly weighted in favour of the privileged. Too many people either don’t get a chance to show their talent or simply have a talent that isn’t as marketable or glamorous as music (I know a few people who are incredibly good at diffusing tension, a really valuable social skill – but are they geniuses at diffusing tension? And if not, why not?). The result would be an increase in general hope and self-respect energizing our immediate surroundings that would surely spread steadily outwards, with the happy byproduct being a decrease in tedious singer-songwriters staring off into the middle distance hoping to be called geniuses (rather than getting on with doing what they’re supposed to be doing: helping us make sense of what it is to be human, something Leonard Cohen did better than any other lyricist I can think of).
I’ll leave the last word to Leonard:
“Poetry is just the evidence of life. If your life is burning well, poetry is just the ash.”