On Genius, Intellect, and Obsession

Genius, as an intellectual quality, is the ability to come into contact with the transcendent; to go beyond the boundary of merely existing human thought and strike out into the vast quicksilver territory that lies beyond, to catch hold of a shimmering sliver of that place.

Genius is often depicted as innate and general intellectual ability; someone is born a genius or they aren’t. I think this depiction is wrong - genius doesn’t arise of its own accord, and is in fact a consequence of a lifelong process predicated on other in-born characteristics. I once said (elsewhere) that genius is about caring about something more than a reasonable person cares about anything; actualized genius is the product of obsessive patterns of thought, coupled with raw intellectual power, carried through a lifetime.

Geniuses are typically already identifiable at a young age, though not all child prodigies come into adult genius. In fact it’s a cliche that raw intellect without sustained effort is never sufficient for the sort of high achievement which is recognizably the product of genius. Why do some child prodigies eventually become geniuses, while most regress to the mean? The quality (or curse) of being regularly in possession of and by the idée fixe allows the so gifted child to push through just about any obstacle; intellectual, spiritual, physical. ****

Similarly, most obsession doesn’t produce any work of great genius. The number of people obsessed with mundane minutiae is several orders of magnitude greater than those whose obsession would bring them to the edge of the quicksilver sea. It would seem that obsessive fixation is more common than raw intellectual horsepower, but having no means to measure either (IQ being a nonsense measure for идейно отсталых дурачков), we cannot know for sure. Without raw intellect for obsession to harness, the wheel is spinning but the hamster is quite dead.

The product of both is therefore exceedingly rare, and hence so are geniuses.

In the case where the product exists, the path toward genius is auto-catalyzing. In pursuit of some idea, presented with some great vision, unable to let go of the galloping horse, someone on the path to genius will do what they must, learn what they must; their intellect will be honed and further generalized as a result, and in response they will reach still further, and the horse gallops onward, ever onward. In this light it’s not surprising that many great intellectuals have sincere religious belief; the desire to touch the transcendent, and pulled there as if by an external-internal, irresistible force, can be conflated with the presence of the divine.

In this way the path to genius is also incredibly dangerous. The horse gallops whether the rider wills it or not. Basic functions of the human body are overriden; in full flight one does not eat, nor sleep. Often one cannot look away, even when one wants to; the possibility of normal conversation or even the expression of one’s own feelings or mental state becomes impossible. It is possible to feel terror. It is possible to be overwhelmed. It is possible to be forsaken by one’s god after being allowed to see a glimpse of his light.

Obsession is ultimately the result of a disordered emotional response to the object of fixation; pushing toward the idea gives joy, until it is the only thing which gives joy. In the ultimate case it becomes a desperate gamble. Real progress brings joy, but it isn’t guaranteed, or worse, the goal is reached, the target hit, the result disappointing, and the mind has been consumed as if by wildfire. One can find oneself standing on a barren burned-out plain, the grandness of the object of pursuit a mirage.

To some extent the obsession that drives genius need not be entirely intrinsic. Historically, there are many cases of men driven by external factors, often recognition and fame, national prestige, and others. These factors appear to be sustaining forces, catalysts rather than participants in the intelligence-obsession reaction, but which can also compound failure, and in some cases, poison and deform the reaction altogether.

These additional factors create room for things not within the realm of pure genius itself, but are cargo cult effigies which attempt to signal the kind of status genius often affords, without any of the ingredients or dangers necessary; only the ability to convince others. Entire rackets grow out of this kind of poisoned ground.

An ordinary person is unlikely to recognize genius, and must be told that such and such a work is a ‘work of genius’, or that a particular man is a genius in a particular field (that the average person has at best, heard of in passing). The human instinct when presented with extremes outside of our own experience is to approximate them as if they were multiples of something we commonly encounter (this is also the source of seventy percent of all drivers considering themselves above-average), and a person may believe genius simply resembles more output of fundamentally the same kind of work.

Most people will simply never experience the same kind of obsession, or if they do (for, again, I suspect that the incidence of at least passing obsession is far more common than the requisite intellectual power), will be unable to associate it with an obsession for an idea. As a consequence, most people will not only never see the quicksilver sea, they will not even be able to imagine its existence.

Greatness is never simply a multiplier of the ordinary; it has other qualities entirely, and this holds for the intellect as it does for everything else.