Update 2: ‘Genius’ In Contemporary America

America,Human Accomplishment,Intelligence,Logic,Music,Reason,The Zeitgeist


With the death of objective standards, the assessment of everything from cultural products to moral nature has become near impossible.

Consider: According to author Richard Reeves, classical liberal John Stuart Mill was “learning Greek at three, taking in Plato and Sophocles at ten, and turning, at eleven, to the mastery of Aristotle’s logic.” Indisputably a genius. Genial too, I believe—which goes against the romanticized notion whereby true genius involves eccentricities and crazy behavior. It seldom does.

The slow Morley Safer of “60 Minutes” has repeatedly provided examples of the difficulties fin de siècle America has in assessing genius.

Some time ago, Morely headed over to Julliard, if I recall, to feature a young man touted as a musical prodigy. The boy was full of affectation and acted eccentrically, as he obviously believed a young man of his “abilities” ought to.

Over the course of this most mundane hour, it became obvious that what you had here were pushy parents and their cocky, narcissistic son, who’d managed to eliminate along the way any opinion contrary to theirs with respect to their son’s designation as a musical genius.

One old school Russian master, who was of the opinion that the lad was not particularly good, was subject to complaints, and promptly dismissed. The rest at Julliard simply fell into compliance with the genius designation out of ignorance and pseudo-intellectualism.

Suffice it to say that to listen to the lad’s compositions was to know right away that he had very little to offer. Passion was remiss, other than for himself. Technique was non-existent. He had, however, watched a lot of Leonard Bernstein footage, as he emulated Lenny’s antics. Thing is, the prodigious Lenny, as repugnant a persona as he was, delivered. I myself am inspired to leap up in the air and land as did Lenny when listening to his recording of Stravinsky’s Firebird and Petrushka. Great fire and precision in that interpretation. (Actually I do leap in the air to Petrushka.)

Particularly amusing to this music lover—Bach, any Bach, and chamber music, in particular—was this goddamn-awful self-styled genius’ insistence that, like Bach, he never needed to erase the music he wrote down. I’m not sure this is fact or folklore, but it is said that Bach Senior wrote without having to erase.

Stupid Safer found this very convincing. I found this an example of the post hoc ergo propter hoc logical fallacy:

The moron had read that J. S. Bach never corrected the music he wrote. He concluded therefore that if he never erased the crap he transcribed he’d be in his right to lay claim to Bach-like genius.

Listening to this lad’s self-reverential, introspective, crappy, choppy compositions was all one needed to conclude that decades of tutoring with an exacting master would be required to produce a solid piece.

The revolting reality was that the pandering parents and pedagogues surrounding this lad partook in the charade.

Update 1 (April 6): Since it seems some readers have not understood what is meant by post hoc logic, let me try again. If A then B is correct in logic. In Bach’s case: his abilities (A) led to his not needing to rewrite what he wrote (B). The proof was in the pudding too, i.e., the music is heavenly; assessed by objective standards, Bach’s music epitomizes genius.

If B then A is wrong in logic. It is exactly the case of the stupid kid. He refuses to rewrite (B) and improve despite the opinion of people greater than he that this is indeed what is required of him if he is to improve. From the act of not rewriting (B), he and his accomplices have reasoned backwards and concluded that his abilities are Bach-like (A).

Reasoning backwards is an error, illogic, bogus. What this means it that there are many other reasons for his not rewriting. Hubris being one.

What had happened is that the lad had imbibed the story of Bach not rewriting, and concluded that if he did not rewrite (B), he indeed did not need to rewrite (A). That the music doesn’t approach reasonable standards in complexity and beauty certainly suggests that scrapping it and trying again is the first order of the day. That other fine—and thus so fired—teachers have suggested that a great deal of learning and rewriting is what’s required if an improvement is to be attained suggests that there are, if anything, good reasons to rewrite and rewrite a lot.

I’ve explained the post hoc error laboriously. If you fail to get this distinction, I can’t help much more that I already have.

Update 2: I’m delighted that Barely A Blog’s resident musician (settle down ye humorless; that was meant to sound pompous), Professor Ira Newborn, has dilated on the topic of the modern-day genius with his usual flare.

Ira is a well-known, highly-accomplished composer. He may be known more for his popular “motion picture soundtracks,” but I’ve heard some of his more serious compositions. Yeah, baby: those made me leap up in the air too, as does Lenny’s Fire Bird and Petrushka. I only wish the tracts where available to the public. How about it, Ira? How sad that the bad (Wonder Boy) pushes out the good (Ira).

Also, sample Sean Mercer for some of the hottest guitar playing you’ll hear with tight arrangements to match technical skill. The recording, which Sean engineered, is a little dated, but it holds up.

3 thoughts on “Update 2: ‘Genius’ In Contemporary America

  1. Ira Newborn

    Well, first I must start off with my traditional,”Ilana, you just KILL me.”
    O.K, now that that’s over with, let’s get down to business and say that the appellation “genius” has been so overused and cheapened that I can now say without scruples that my dog is a genius.
    He lets me know when he has to go out, wants to eat dinner and have his biscuits. Sometimes he even barks frantically to let me know that Timmy has fallen down the well and needs to be rescued. Amazing! That dog is a genius!
    If people only knew him the way I do, they would agree with my assessment of his brilliance without hesitation although I have to admit that it’s a bit of a disappointment to me that he has shown no interest in playing an instrument or in composition… but one can hope.
    Oh! One time he sculpted the face of George Gershwin in his food but he ate it before I could alert the media.
    On a slightly more serious note (Get it? Note?), most people could not recognize a “true genius” of almost anything because they wouldn’t know enough about whatever subject the “genius” is supposed to be a genius in to make a credible assessment of whether he/she is a transcendent genius or merely an exceptionally talented wight.
    Having played guitar for and even been fired by Leonard Bernstein (for an insignificant little soto voce comment), I would say that considering “West Side Story” and the quality of his conducting, he was probably some kind of musical genius. I had an amazing time working with Ray Charles who made the hair stand up on the back of my neck because he was certainly a musical genius. It’s a good bet that most of the great Western composers whose works have endured were musical geniuses. Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan are musical geniuses. Johann Sebastian Bach could eat most everyone else for breakfast and still write 2 cantatas before lunch. Of course a lot of this nonsense about who is or isn’t a “genius” is on the level of “My dad can beat up your dad” and is a waste of time for everyone except Ripley’s Believe It or Not, The Enquirer and today’s carneys on TV.
    A friend and I used to lament the fact that we had both been stuck with this loathsome status since we were very young and how it caused us nothing but misery as we could never live up to whatever it was that people thought we were capable of. And if we were geniuses, what the heck was Bach?
    I feel bad for the poor little arrogant sucker that you refer to. His parents are setting him up for a big fall and they are being aided by the bottom feeding sensationalists who are equally thrilled by a baby with two faces or a woman with three breasts.
    I’d love to ask this kid what he thinks about Bach.
    By the way, the reason Bach never erased is because the pencil hadn’t been invented yet but there are plenty of spots that he just crossed out.
    Deo soli gloria.

  2. Gumdrops

    The kid is exceptional in his natural ability. Whether he is able to channel that ability into “genius” is another thing. But there is no doubt that he is talented. Most people aren’t self-taught and writing symphonies by age 6. It’s something most people cannot do at any age. If Bach were alive today, he could very well fall prey to the same sensationalism and it could have muted his “genius”. Let’s face it, the “greats” of the past certainly had their moments of genius – but most of their work is passe and not something that most people are at all interested unless under tutelage.

    I wouldn’t put too much stock in the “death of objective standards”. These standards have always changed and always will. They come and go with the tide, for better or for worse.

    [This is not true, to put it mildly—contradicted by Charles Murray’s monumental, Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950. The study is the most scholarly account of human achievement to date. It makes it crystal clear that accomplishment in music in the past half century or so have not approached—not on any level—the accomplishment of the “greats” you baselessly dismiss.—IM]

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