I’ve just finished a draft of a dissertation chapter that dredges up one of Richard Rorty’s few, all-too-few references to Philip Rieff. Rorty liked Rieff’s remark that “Freud democratized genius by giving everyone a creative unconscious.” Harold Bloom, no antagonist of Rorty’s, has something to say about this:

These days, we blink at so amiable illusion. Does President George W. Bush have a creative unconscious? I may be an antiquarian in urging us back to less generous ideas of genius, or again Freud, with his own aristocratic disdain for those less intellectually ambitious than himself, may have been more ironical than we yet have realized. ( Genius , 180).

Whatever you think about Bush’s endowments, Bloom is right that Freud’s own genius was so uncommon that it can hardly be chalked up to whatever it is he democratized — despite his long, unsatisfied desire to see lay psychoanalysis run free.

Enter David Brooks , whose newest column tells us the Romantic vision of genius is being shrugged off in a technological age. Nowadays, genius is “the ability to develop a deliberate, strenuous and boring practice routine. Coyle and Colvin describe dozens of experiments fleshing out this process. This research takes some of the magic out of great achievement. But it underlines a fact that is often neglected. Public discussion is smitten by genetics and what we’re ‘hard-wired’ to do. And it’s true that genes place a leash on our capacities. But the brain is also phenomenally plastic. We construct ourselves through behavior. As Coyle observes, it’s not who you are, it’s what you do.”

Take that, Freud — although Mozart is Brooks’s main example of the idea that what we call genius is often just the product of hard work and determination. Elsewhere in the column, Brooks says this disenchanting view fosters “a more prosaic, democratic, even puritanical view of the world.” And obviously, after a fashion, it does. But it raises the competetive stakes pertaining to genius even higher — not only by opening the field of genius to anyone willing to devote themselves entirely to a single pursuit, but by raising the raising the ceiling even as it lowers the bar, allowing geniuses to envision even higher levels of performance simply by better and more fully routinizing their effort.

In such a view, genius is less the cause of great works than the consequence of technologies of effort. The disenchantment of genius will intensify, I think, the zeal with which we direct our energies into the best-technologized or routinized fields — the ones most amenable to repetition, practice, precision, and quantitative appraisal: science and sports spring to mind. But it will also probably revolutionize the arts, too. You can already see this movement intimated, I think, in the explosive popularity of Guitar Hero. My point isn’t to rail against technology as some kind of culture-destroying menace — my enthusiasm for GarageBand is proof enough of that. I am troubled, however, by the prospect that we’ll increasingly correlate genius with extent to which human bodies and minds are technologized — and reward them accordingly. We really do impoverish ourself by obsessing over quantifying greatness at the expense of qualifying it — especially, I think, by downplaying varieties of genius that exhibit themselves much more qualitatively than quantitatively. Freud’s was one such genius. Freud is being replaced by the geniuses responsible for prescription drugs. What substantive vision of the genius at teaching is encouraged by the move Brooks is describing? Once it sets in, will an aristocratic disdain for that vision be able to reassert itself?

Articles by James Poulos

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