What excuse genius?

The grammar of the title is shaky, but I am going for something vaguely like “of what responsibilities does the quality of genius absolve a person?”

"Really? THAT's your point?"

Nikolay Nekrasov famously wrote “Поэтом можешь ты не быть, но гражданином быть обязан” – my translation of that would be “You needn’t be a poet, but you must be a citizen.” That is, genius or no, you better be a decent person and have reasonable opinions. Maybe my previous posts on art as trial by combat and even the post on Tim Thomas kind of implicitly point it out so you’re probably not surprised, but I disagree. This dilemma is best personified by the Russian poet Mayakovsky. Because his ideals (an anti-Nature philosophy, a belief in the purposeful destruction of cultural heritage, Stalinism to name three) are completely against anything most people (including me) believe, and also because he put these ideals in his poetry, a lot of people dislike his poetry. But to me, his poetry is no less amazing because the ideas in some poems are wrong or bizarre, and no less amazing because of who he was as a person.

Anyway, I was planning an elaborate post on this, and then I read one sentence in a Tommaso Landolfi story that sort of made my opinion seem ludicrous much better than any argument could:

“It is true,” a great man once said, “that I also have to pee, but for quite different reasons.”

Totally skewers any point I was going to make. So, I don’t know. It’s a difficult question.

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6 Responses to What excuse genius?

  1. Zuuko says:

    second post in a row i don’t get cuz i haven’t read the literature. should i be reading these pieces? although i bet the translation sux0rs.

    • zolltan says:

      If it’s confusing, it’s that I’m writing in a confusing manner, not that you need to read stuff to get the post. What I tried to say here was that I have this pet idea that being really fantastic at something lets you legitimately get away with other things. Like, for instance, if you’re a racist, well, then that sucks and my opinion of you will be low. But if you’re an awesome writer who’s also a racist, well, then, it’s still shitty that you’re racist, but by far the more relevant fact to me is that you’re an awesome writer, so my opinion of you will not be low. There are arguments and counterarguments to this, and I was thinking of doing a post about it, but the Landolfi sentence is a much better counterargument than any argument I could make. Whoever the “great man” is that says “It is true that I also have to pee, but for quite different reasons” is very ridiculous because everyone has to pee for the same reason. This lampoons the speaker, who is made to appear a pompous ass (Henry Miller?), and thus also lampoons the opinion that the “great men” have some sort of special reason for their action or some sort of special faculty that absolves them of responsibility for it. Is that clearer?

      As to whether you should read Henry Miller (it’s not translation), well, does a highly entertaining book written in the first person by a terrible person about this terrible person having lots of sex seem like a good call? If it does, you should.

  2. Zont says:

    I’m likely just seeing Raskolnikov everywhere now but something tells me your opinion here follows pretty darn closely his ideas of how being a “great person” excuses everything. Seems like Dostoevsky would have a thing or two to tell you right about now. (Admittedly not nearly as succinctly as Landolfi it seems).

    • zolltan says:

      Seems that way, don’t it? I would say it’s actually slightly different than that: the people who are dealing with Raskolnikov on a personal basis ultimately have to judge him as a person. We don’t have to judge Mayakovsky as a person because he doesn’t hang out with us, or in fact with anyone else either, ’cause he’s long dead. What we have are his poems. His poems have terrible ideas in them and his sincere belief in them indicate the likelihood he was not a good person. But there is a large spectrum of how easy to pull apart great work from personality. On one end of the scale are those whose failing has nothing to do with their greatness (e.g. Swift’s anti-Semitism and Gulliver’s Travels), on the other are those with whom we have to deal personally (e.g. Raskolnikov for everyone in C&P). There’s a huge grey area in between that I don’t know how to navigate and have spent several posts here (this one, “why not ask for more”, “art as trial”) trying to get at what I really think and whether it’s justifiable.

  3. Zont says:

    My point is quite shaky… I’ll give you that.
    I suppose all I can actually say is, in response to your title “of what responsibilities does the quality of genius absolve a person?”,
    I would be greatly tempted to say, none.
    Where the difference is coming in, at least as I see it, is that Mayakovsky is likely not a good person, however his poetry is very good.
    I think all you’re hitting is that art, or any work for that matter should perhaps be judged completely seperately from the person who created it.
    We like to know a bit of the backstory so that we can perhaps better imagine the messages they’re trying to get across with their art (so museums always have large blurbs on the walls or small ones accompanying specific paintings, or to take it a step further… those audio guides), but perhaps these are used to create stronger impressions purely because we’re no longer judging the work alone, but the work PLUS the person?
    If you’re going to be judging art for art or intellect for intellect there should be no place for these things, nor should your ideas of the person creating the work be based on the work, past the extent that they choose to personify it/incorporate it into who they are? Unless you’re saying that the work that we’ve made, by definition, fundamentally (to some extent) changes who we are?

    • zolltan says:

      Yeah, even as we’d like for it to be so, a person and their work are never totally separate. For instance in Mayakovsky’s case, one of the things that makes his poetry powerful is the sincerity and power of his convictions and passions. You could claim that his tendency for headlong commitment was what led him to champion so many terrible ideas: he started believing in them wholeheartedly, without thinking it through. That was some weak-ass pop psychoanalisys right there by me, but hopefully you see the kind of thing I’m talking about. Of course it’s true that a piece of art and its creator, and the creator’s ideas interact in a way that they can never be totally separated (and yes, that includes the art changing the artist). But somehow that shouldn’t mean that criticism of the person invalidates the art, right?

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