Al-Mutanabbi, Mozart, Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci, Ibn Khaldun, Shakespeare: genius is the word to describe them all. Genius means scarcely imaginable gifts of invention, computation, insight; gifts that are unending in their richness, miraculous, close to divine, certainly more than human. All of these attributes have to do with speed, blinding force, shattering newness and originality. And they also have to do with lives that are so mysterious and inscrutable, so out of the ordinary in what they tell us of the genius’s powers that when the full biography is approached in all its everyday detail — the marital problems, the bad teeth and rascally dentists, the difficulties with money, etc. a disappointingly humdrum portrait emerges instead. Mozart was a fawning courtier and jealous husband. Einstein was a mediocre amateur violinist and uninspiring academic. Even Goethe, whose universality of gifts extended the whole range from science to poetry, didn’t seem to mind remaining in a boring administrative position for 50 years in the little state of Weimar. The disparity between sheer genius and everyday life is so great that the tremendous achievements of the former are even more dramatically underlined by the banality of the latter.
Still, the achievements of genius have a millennial enduring power. At the same time they defy attempts to explain them, even though we need some general notion of a genius in order to imagine attributes that are super-human. Yet the essential thing about the actual works of genius is that they hide or eliminate all the traces of the labor that went into them. Rather than trying to retrace the massive effort that went into the work’s making, we ascribe everything to “genius,” as if genius was a magic wand, or a secret chemical formula. The Muqaddima is so overwhelming a work, so impressive in its power, that we prefer to say “genius” than to analyze it back into the hours and hours of work that produced it.
This rather lazy idea of genius as something both final and beyond normal comprehension sentimentalizes, obscures, venerates what it should instead be studying with profit to everyone: namely, the fact that genius is more a remarkable devotion to work, to patience, to slogging away at a problem or a task than it is simply a matter of having a devastating flash of divine inspiration. There’s no way of doing without the inspiration, of course. But that’s less important than what the genius makes of it, through exhaustive work and an obsessive attention to detail, going on for years and years. Patience is as important a virtue as ingenuity, perhaps even more so.
Every genius works hard, though not everyone who perspires is a genius. The qualities that a genius has include a certain incomparable elegance and inevitability: these take one’s breath away immediately. The solution to a difficult maths problem is often referred to as elegant when a genius produces it; and even Pierre Boulez’s difficult musical compositions are powerfully beautiful. So too in the genius do we find a unique blend of complexity and simplicity, as in Joyce’s Ulysses, a family story that is downright common but elevated, like Homer’s Odyssey or Sophocles’s Oedipus, to the most transcendent complexity. Yet all these gifts must be deployed through the expenditure of hard work, that fulfilling of a task which requires unique concentration and obsessive concern. “I look so tired,” Oscar Wilde once said, “because I spent the whole morning putting in a comma, and the whole afternoon taking it out.”
The clearest examples of this usually overlooked aspect of genius are musical. Johann Sebastian Bach, surely the towering figure in the whole history of Western classical music, had an astonishingly rich capacity for working more out of a theme or melody than anyone. This did not at all mean that he was the greatest melodist of his time, or even the most perfect professional in terms of how well he wrote parts for the voice, organ, violin, and so on. But it did mean, as his contemporaries noted, that he had this amazing power for invention, which in its original Latin meaning (inventio) means “finding again,” forcing out of a given scrap of melody all the possible permutations and combinations of which it was possible in terms of harmony, melody, counterpoint and rhythm. This is hard work, so much so that the average composer wouldn’t have bothered to look so hard. Bach, however, would sit there working and reworking a handful of notes until a gigantic composition would emerge out of what was originally an unpromising little tune. One can hear this readily in the great St Anne Prelude and Fugue for organ, a monumental 30-minute composition entirely constructed out of the opening seven notes of a Lutheran hymn. The tune wasn’t Bach’s to begin with, but his patient reworking, which is like someone using a nondescript piece of string to fashion dozens of different shapes, transforms it entirely, creates or rather re-creates the work.
Or there is Beethoven, surely the most laborious of all musical geniuses, the one who worked the hardest and took the longest time with his works. Since his death in 1827 scholars and musicians have pored over his compositional sketchbooks with much interest and excitement. These little musical copybooks he carried with him, and in which he recorded his jottings when he went on walks or as he sat at dinner, testify to the limitless perspiration of a fearsomely driven man, someone who labored over simple, often beautiful but rarely exceptional fragments of music and put them through developments that actually embody effort, intensity, struggle. A little waltz tune by the minor composer Diabelli evolves into 33 variations of incredible variety and complexity, each of them testifying to Beethoven’s unwillingness to stop working on the wretched thing, from which he wrings every possible change until it is totally transfigured. The best word for this is elaboration since it too, in its original Latin form, perfectly tells the story of perspiration over inspiration: e-laborare, to work out, to draw and pull out, by laboring to do so. In other words, a great expenditure of time and effort which in a strange way has little to do with what Beethoven or Bach begin from. It’s something that totally changes the original little spark into a raging furnace whose flames crowd everything else out. And it happens only because the genius takes all the time that is necessary in order patiently to nurture the big structure into existence.
It is not always the case, however, that the genius has time to write and re-write until the work is perfect. Walter Scott and Dickens, for instance, simply wrote all the time — novels, stories, journalism, drama, histories, pamphlets. It’s the sheer busyness, the apparently unyielding need to produce at such a high level of quality that also marks the genius. This is eminently true of Naguib Mahfouz, and of someone like Rembrandt or Picasso, whose sketches, models, revisions, repetitions fill one with awe at such an unstinting power to be prolific, exorbitant, inhumanly expansive.
God is in the details, said Spinoza. An infinite capacity for taking pains. This is hardly drudgery: it isn’t just a matter of slaving away, or staying late at the office. What impresses one about these vast achievements of genius is that the gift involves knowing how much work is necessary, and then knowing when to stop. We will never know what books or musical compositions, theorems, sketches and models were labored over and then discarded, although it is certain, I think, that the genius’s willingness to expend a great deal of effort is usually tied both to an uncanny gift for seeming to judge in advance how much effort is needed, and knowing also when no more is needed. It’s as if a prior shape for the work exists in the creator’s mind, and that can only be realized by labor-intensive work that allows no shortcuts or quick fixes. Rodin’s statue the Burghers of Calais seems to be there in all of its early versions, requiring only that final bit of polish before iultimate clarity is achieved. Bernini’s equestrian statue of Louis XIV and his magnificent “Truth” are the prefigured result of many trials and models. Genius may require plodding, but the work isn’t at all like that of Sisyphus, rolling the rock uphill only to have it fall back down before the summit is reached. Genius is productive. What is specially moving about Marcel Proust is his withdrawal from the world in order to complete his great novel, to live in isolation and silence, and even while literally taking his last breath to be correcting, adding to, and crossing out words in his publisher’s proofs. Only death seems to have stopped his prodigious labors.
Rather than thinking of genius as the triumph of divine will power over fate and average gifts, we would be more accurate in seeing it poignantly as an everlasting effort to get the work right, always leaving room for the nagging doubt that it never was right, never actually made it, didn’t in the end succeed. This is as true of a modern restless genius like Bertrand Russell, philosopher, mathematician, visionary, peripatetic rebel, as it was of Beethoven. I know two contemporary prodigies, the awesomely gifted musician Daniel Barenboim, the brilliant linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky: they could not be more different in their gifts, yet the hallmark of their careers is their unstinting, virtually unstoppable capacity for work. The English poet Alexander Pope rather glibly said that genius is to madness “close allied,” whereas an equally strong, perhaps better case can be made for genius as forced labor, a sort of convict-like return, again and again, to the workbench, studio, desk, easel to try to finish a work whose early inspiration recedes further and further back, and requires almost desperate attempts to give it realization and permanence. That point is finally arrived at only after much uncertainty and unremitting effort: all along a real doubt gnaws away at one’s confidence, threatening to undermine the work completely. The products of genius are precarious, by no means guaranteed in their outcome, and, alas, derive from often-thankless effort. It’s far too much work for most people to be a genius