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I posted a version of this as a comment on a Goodreads review, but it's more appropriate for an LJ post.

I really hate the notion that talent and genius excuse a person from appalling behavior. The trade-off that people seem to accept and be fascinated by goes like this: "On the one hand, the character is selfish, self-centered, heartless, demanding, you name it. On the other: they're a genius! Such art! [or: such science! or: such insights!]"

Stuff worth doing--art, science, whatever--takes time and concentration, and any time a person is putting into that is time not spent doing other stuff, so sure: a person dedicated to [fill in] is going to be less available for whatever the folks surrounding them want them to be available for, and this can seem selfish, and people can argue back and forth about where to draw the line. But even a person who's giving themselves pretty much 100 percent to whatever-it-is can still be kindly and considerate when they're interacting with people..... or they can be assholes.

But this goes for people who *aren't* 100 percent dedicated to [fill in]--just ordinary people living ordinary lives, trying to balance out all the demands they face. It's the same struggle, just less extreme. But we take the notion of dedication to [whatever], add in the fairy dust of "genius," and then, voilà, people [or at least, characters] are given a kind of carte blanche.

When you ramp it up to "genius," then you get to add in the notion that their contributions to overall society (their discovery of a cure for a horrible ailment, or their creation of a heartbreaking work of staggering beauty, etc.) are worth--or not worth! the novel or biography will be happy to delve into this--their flaws in other aspects of life.

Maybe it's that kindness, patience--all the things that the Sherlock Holmeses of the world are excused from engaging in--are undervalued. You can be a genius in mathematics or painting or philosophy or physics, but we don't talk much about geniuses in kindness. Those people get to be portrayed as lovable losers--"He spends all his time chatting affably with neighbors but can't finish the Big Project at work."

... The problem with expanding this rant is that I start seeing nuances and exceptions and arguments with my own position.

... Short-form summary: Life is full of conflicting demands, and there's interest in how people manage it, or fail to manage it. But the valorization of the selfish genius--I'm sick of it.



( 59 comments — Leave a comment )
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Mar. 17th, 2015 12:49 pm (UTC)

Charles Dickens was a genius, but we need to remember that he was also an abusive misogynist!

Gesualdo da Venosa was a genius, but he murdered his wife and her lover.

Richard Dadd was a genius, but he murdered his father (with perhaps some excuse due to being seriously and undiagnosedly mentally ill.)

Genius does not excuse selfish and evil deeds!
Mar. 17th, 2015 01:04 pm (UTC)

Everyone has shortcomings. We probably shouldn't be so quick to judge and condemn. But insofar as we *do* judge, then to say, "Oh, but so-and-so is a genius, so it's okay" seems like bullshit.

Then again, I guess people *do* criticize people, even geniuses, for their flaws: in fact, the reverse of the forgive-the-genius-everything reaction is the wicked glee people seem to have when they find dirt on some hitherto adored person.
(no subject) - cmcmck - Mar. 17th, 2015 01:08 pm (UTC) - Expand
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Mar. 17th, 2015 12:50 pm (UTC)
They have no excuse, because one of the most talented people I know is also very idealistic and very kind, and she really does want to make the world a better place through her art and music.

The worst people, in my experiences anyway, are those who have no talent but think they do. I won't name any names.
Mar. 17th, 2015 01:00 pm (UTC)
Yes: I think people can be like the one you're mentioning--both talented and kind and friendly.

(no subject) - yamamanama - Mar. 17th, 2015 01:41 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - asakiyume - Mar. 18th, 2015 11:32 am (UTC) - Expand
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Mar. 17th, 2015 12:52 pm (UTC)
I think nowhere do we see the truth that people are complicated than in people whose talents we admire. :,
Mar. 17th, 2015 12:59 pm (UTC)
Absolutely--both people whom we're close to and distant figures whom we only just admire (but don't know).
(no subject) - haikujaguar - Mar. 17th, 2015 01:02 pm (UTC) - Expand
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Mar. 17th, 2015 01:06 pm (UTC)
I agree with you...but it does seem to happen that extreme gifts seem to come, often, with a bloated ego, an amoral (not necessarily immoral) sense...and yes, appalling behaviour!
Mar. 17th, 2015 01:10 pm (UTC)
I suppose if you're going to accomplish something worthwhile, you're going to need to spend time doing it, and to allot yourself that time--when other demands are assailing you--requires a certain amount of self-confidence and sense of self worth... and probably it's not much of a step to get from there to egotistical.

Then again, how a person is judged (whether they're considered egotistical or not) depends a lot on who's doing the judging--especially if the judging person has some stake in the judgment.

PS: Yay! You were able to comment!
Mar. 17th, 2015 01:11 pm (UTC)
I agree completely. When I see people giving a pass to, or even defending, inexcusable behavior because someone is very talented at something, it makes me fume. It also changes how I feel about people when they do it.
Mar. 17th, 2015 01:16 pm (UTC)
*nodding* I guess it gets complicated, because everything has causes, including the people wanting to give others a pass.... I mean basically, real life is always a mess. It's more literature I'm complaining about: where writers create characters who are unpleasant geniuses and yet adored or forgiven.
Mar. 17th, 2015 01:18 pm (UTC)
Do you think that bad behavior goes along with the genius? Or do you think it's a product of the situations they're placed in and the way people treat them because they're genius?

I know a genius. He suffers from depression. Other than that, he's one of the kindest, most considerate men I know. But...he does have some bad "backstory" that, if he wasn't in a good situation now, might lead to some of that bad behavior you spoke of.
Mar. 17th, 2015 01:22 pm (UTC)
It real life I think it absolutely depends on the person and the circumstance. I definitely think that fawning and flattery and adoration are likely to turn a person into an insufferable jerk, though I guess it's not inevitable.

Mar. 17th, 2015 01:28 pm (UTC)
genius - Selfless vs Selfish
It is amazing that some venerated persons was such despicable humans.
I honor you comment that there should be some form of recognition for the genius of kindness - sainthood is one such, but finding many outside a religious setting seems difficult.

Mar. 17th, 2015 01:44 pm (UTC)
Re: genius - Selfless vs Selfish
Yeah, I was thinking that saint is our word, but yeah: it has the drawback of being limited to the religious sphere (though we have the term secular saint), and even with saints, a lot of times the focus is on material accomplishments--but not always.
Mar. 17th, 2015 01:29 pm (UTC)
I think insufferable genius is an old term that needs to be retired, because from everything I've read it was a term for aspie people who had poured everything they had into a single form of expression, whether math, science, or music, or art.
Mar. 17th, 2015 01:39 pm (UTC)

What I'm actually complaining about, though, is novels in which such a person--however you want to term them--is portrayed as so wonderful (because of their contribution) that any failings must be forgiven.

Forgiveness is a good thing! But I like to see it universally applied. To say that some people are uniquely entitled to it bugs me.
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(no subject) - mrissa - Mar. 17th, 2015 06:23 pm (UTC) - Expand
Mar. 17th, 2015 01:43 pm (UTC)
I couldn't agree more. And there's a selfish reason for not acting like a jerk: We have only one life to live, and if we treat people badly, it won't be a pleasant one. As much as I say I love Dickens, I only I love reading his novels. He really wasn't a great guy. More recently, Karl Ove Knausgaard's "novels" about his life work on me like "genius," but I am pretty sure from what he writes of himself that I wouldn't want to spend time with him.
Mar. 17th, 2015 01:48 pm (UTC)
And sometimes this is why I *don't* want to know too much about an author or artist or composer or [name field of endeavor]--because I want to be able to enjoy the product of their labor without the knowledge of how unpleasant they may have been as a person.

Mar. 17th, 2015 02:59 pm (UTC)
I jump wholly on this bandwagon alongside you. It's one of my pet peeves along with the tendency to attribute assholery to mental illness. I know plenty of people with various mental illnesses who still find it in themselves to be kind and considerate and are horrified when they accidentally offend someone.
Mar. 17th, 2015 05:44 pm (UTC)
Yeah! It's insulting to people who *do* try hard if you say, "Oh! Well, if you've got a mental health condition then of course you won't be able to be well socialized."

I do get that sometimes some things ARE impossible (or very, very hard), and I think that in general, people ought to be forgiving--just as a general principle, and giving strangers the benefit of the doubt, etc.--But everyone should be trying to treat others with respect, as best they can.
Mar. 17th, 2015 03:51 pm (UTC)
Hear hear!

I think there's a strong element of wish fulfillment in this sort of portrayal: "Oh, if only I was so good at something that I could be as much of a jerk as I wanted!" It's a fantasy of unconditional love - or at least, love that is unaffected by one's bad behavior, because it's actually totally conditional on being a genius. Geniuses are special people who deserve infinite compassion; other, non-special people don't deserve any reciprocation from the genius.

The more I think about it, the more the whole asshole genius who is allowed to be an asshole because he's a genius (it does usually seem to be a he, I think?) just seems completely toxic.
Mar. 17th, 2015 05:47 pm (UTC)
It *does* seem more often to be a he, though the review I left the comment on was of a book in which the character was a woman. I think it's more often men because women don't automatically have the requirement to be kind lifted for them. They are ***women*** after all. Women **have** to be kind, don't they???

Mar. 17th, 2015 04:30 pm (UTC)
I too agree. I'm not sure whether genius/talent and asshattey are entirely independent variables, but the former is not an excuse for the latter, in so far as the latter is under the person's control. I think it's important to put in that caveat, because Richard Dadd noted above; but also I suspect that, say, Paul Dirac might not have been able to come up with the Dirac equation and antimatter had he not been capable of a degree of concentration and "self-absorption" that emanated directly from his Asperger's (as it seems clearly to have been in his case). These are exceptional cases, though, and there are far too many artists and other people of talent who use that talent as an excuse for selfishness, having bought wholesale into Special Snowflake Principle. I suspect that this is one reason why some people can't stand the idea that Shakespeare was an ordinary bloke who retired to the country as soon as he could afford it to live the bourgeois dream, rather than a tortured genius.

The lowest circle of this particular hell belongs to those who (like one well known American novelist - was it Norman Mailer?) use their family and friends as test beds, behaving horribly to them so that they can get authentic dialogue for people in that situation.

Edited at 2015-03-17 04:30 pm (UTC)
Mar. 17th, 2015 05:57 pm (UTC)
I definitely think tormenting people so you can observe and then use their reactions is ... positively sociopathic.

As for the other, I think yes: doing something that takes a lot of concentration and effort IS going to mean you aren't as attentive to other things. How people allocate their time and how the people around them feel about it--and how History feels about it--depends on so many things. . . I'm frustrated mainly with the adulation of people who are jerks. I liked the novel Where Did You Go, Bernadette, but at one point a character says to the titular Bernadette something along the lines of "If we'd only known you were a genius, we wouldn't have been such gnats"--"gnats" being Bernadette's own demeaning word for the lesser mortals who interfere with her life. I mean, no one should have to regard themselves as gnats before another person's genius!
Mar. 17th, 2015 05:27 pm (UTC)
I met a guy whose family had done this to him. He was their sparkling genius son, and he didn't ever have to help with anything, because he was their brilliant boy, and human interaction and chores were above him. I met him when he was 20 and I was 18, and we were in a program for physics undergrads to do research. The thirteen of us did a cooking coop, and not only did this guy not have any idea how to make spaghetti with directions on the side of the box, he considered it appropriate for him to try to whine and manipulate the rest of us into doing all the cooking for him for an entire summer.

And one of the really pathetic things about this was that by the standards of the research group, he was not actually all that brilliant. He was probably in the bottom half of the group in terms of abilities and skills even in the lab. So for his family he was the inconsiderate genius, but interactions and chores were beneath him...but for us, he was the schmuck who needed someone (coughmecough) to stand over him to teach him to make a salad. Occasionally the designated brilliant kid in a family, a school, whatever, really is brilliant enough that people will always cut them slack. But it's not the way to bet.
Mar. 17th, 2015 06:01 pm (UTC)
Yeah; it's really a very necessary part of parenting to get a person ready to pull their weight around others. I feel sorry for that kid, annoying as he must have been.
(no subject) - mrissa - Mar. 17th, 2015 06:20 pm (UTC) - Expand
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Mar. 17th, 2015 06:43 pm (UTC)
I think my main problem with that trope is that people then turn it around and conclude that all it takes to be a genius is to act like an asshole. Having talent, making something new, changing the way the world thinks about a topic (which is to say, actually being a genius) become optional. It's all surface and no depth.
Mar. 18th, 2015 11:37 am (UTC)
I think people do this a lot: adopt the characteristics of the thing (as they understand them) in the hopes of somehow having the thing itself. It's like people who make demands on you as a way of proving/establishing what good friends you are--because only good friends would make demands. But the thing is, the friendship has to come first, then the demands. The demands don't establish the friendship.
Mar. 18th, 2015 01:41 am (UTC)
I don't care how intelligent, creative, or productive a person is; that person is a person first, and people need to be accountable for their own harmful-to-others behavior.

Edited at 2015-03-18 01:41 am (UTC)
Mar. 18th, 2015 11:40 am (UTC)
I totally agree.
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