Story type: Literature
Let us start fair by frankly admitting that the genius, like the poet, is born and not made. If you wish to apply the recipe for producing him, it is unfortunately necessary to set out by selecting beforehand his grandfathers and grandmothers, to the third and fourth generation of those that precede him. Nevertheless, there is a recipe for the production of genius, and every actual concrete genius who ever yet adorned or disgraced this oblate spheroid of ours has been produced, I believe, in strict accordance with its unwritten rules and unknown regulations. In other words, geniuses don’t crop up irregularly anywhere, ‘quite promiscuous like’; they have their fixed laws and their adequate causes: they are the result and effect of certain fairly demonstrable concatenations of circumstance: they are, in short, a natural product, not a lusus naturae. You get them only under sundry relatively definite and settled conditions; and though it isn’t (unfortunately) quite true that the conditions will always infallibly bring forth the genius, it is quite true that the genius can never be brought forth at all without the conditions. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? No more can you get a poet from a family of stockbrokers who have intermarried with the daughters of an eminent alderman, or make a philosopher out of a country grocer’s eldest son whose amiable mother had no soul above the half-pounds of tea and sugar.
In the first place, by way of clearing the decks for action, I am going to start even by getting rid once for all (so far as we are here concerned) of that famous but misleading old distinction between genius and talent. It is really a distinction without a difference. I suppose there is probably no subject under heaven on which so much high-flown stuff and nonsense has been talked and written as upon this well-known and much-debated hair-splitting discrimination. It is just like that other great distinction between fancy and imagination, about which poets and essayists discoursed so fluently at the beginning of the present century, until at last one fine day the world at large woke up suddenly to the unpleasant consciousness that it had been wasting its time over a non-existent difference, and that fancy and imagination were after all absolutely identical. Now, I won’t dogmatically assert that talent and genius are exactly one and the same thing; but I do assert that genius is simply talent raised to a slightly higher power; it differs from it not in kind but merely in degree: it is talent at its best. There is no drawing a hard-and-fast line of demarcation between the two. You might just as well try to classify all mankind into tall men and short men, and then endeavour to prove that a real distinction existed in nature between your two artificial classes. As a matter of fact, men differ in height and in ability by infinitesimal gradations: some men are very short, others rather short, others medium-sized, others tall, and yet others again of portentous stature like Mr. Chang and Jacob Omnium. So, too, some men are idiots, some are next door to a fool, some are stupid, some are worthy people, some are intelligent, some are clever, and some geniuses. But genius is only the culminating point of ordinary cleverness, and if you were to try and draw up a list of all the real geniuses in the last hundred years, no two people could ever be found to agree among themselves as to which should be included and which excluded from the artificial catalogue. I have heard Kingsley and Charles Lamb described as geniuses, and I have heard them both absolutely denied every sort of literary merit. Carlyle thought Darwin a poor creature, and Comte regarded Hegel himself as an empty windbag.
The fact is, most of the grandiose talk about the vast gulf which separates genius from mere talent has been published and set abroad by those fortunate persons who fell, or fancied themselves to fall, under the former highly satisfactory and agreeable category. Genius, in short, real or self-suspected, has always been at great pains to glorify itself at the expense of poor, commonplace, inferior talent. There is a certain type of great man in particular which is never tired of dilating upon the noble supremacy of its own greatness over the spurious imitation. It offers incense obliquely to itself in offering it generically to the class genius. It brings ghee to its own image. There are great men, for example, such as Lord Lytton, Disraeli, Victor Hugo, the Lion Comique, and Mr. Oscar Wilde, who pose perpetually as great men; they cry aloud to the poor silly public so far beneath them, ‘I am a genius! Admire me! Worship me!’ Against this Byronic self-elevation on an aerial pedestal, high above the heads of the blind and battling multitude, we poor common mortals, who are not unfortunately geniuses, are surely entitled to enter occasionally our humble protest. Our contention is that the genius only differs from the man of ability as the man of ability differs from the intelligent man, and the intelligent man from the worthy person of sound common sense. The sliding scale of brains has infinite gradations; and the gradations merge insensibly into one another. There is no gulf, no gap, no sudden jump of nature; here as elsewhere, throughout the whole range of her manifold productions, our common mother saltum non facit.
The question before the house, then, narrows itself down finally to this; what are the conditions under which exceptional ability or high talent is likely to arise?
Now, I suppose everybody is ready to admit that two complete born fools are not at all likely to become the proud father and happy mother of a Shakespeare or a Newton. I suppose everybody will unhesitatingly allow that a great mathematician could hardly by any conceivable chance arise among the South African Bushmen, who cannot understand the arduous arithmetical proposition that two and two make four. No amount of education or careful training, I take it, would suffice to elevate the most profoundly artistic among the Veddahs of Ceylon, who cannot even comprehend an English drawing of a dog or horse, into a respectable president of the Royal Academy. It is equally unlikely (as it seems to me) that a Mendelssohn or a Beethoven could be raised in the bosom of a family all of whose members on either side were incapable (like a distinguished modern English poet) of discriminating any one note in an octave from any other. Such leaps as these would be little short of pure miracles. They would be equivalent to the sudden creation, without antecedent cause, of a whole vast system of nerves and nerve-centres in the prodigious brain of some infant phenomenon.
On the other hand, much of the commonplace, shallow fashionable talk about hereditary genius–I don’t mean, of course, the talk of our Darwins and Galtons, but the cheap drawing-room philosophy of easy sciolists who can’t understand them–is itself fully as absurd in its own way as the idea that something can come out of nothing. For it is no explanation of the existence of genius to say that it is hereditary. You only put the difficulty one place back. Granting that young Alastor Jones is a budding poet because his father, Percy Bysshe Jones, was a poet before him, why, pray, was Jones the elder a poet at all, to start with? This kind of explanation, in fact, explains nothing; it begins by positing the existence of one original genius, absolutely unaccounted for, and then proceeds blandly to point out that the other geniuses derive their characteristics from him, by virtue of descent, just as all the sons of a peer are born honourables. The elephant supports the earth, and the tortoise supports the elephant, but who, pray, supports the tortoise? If the first chicken came out of an egg, what was the origin of the hen that laid it?
Besides, the allegation as it stands is not even a true one. Genius, as we actually know it, is by no means hereditary. The great man is not necessarily the son of a great man or the father of a great man: often enough, he stands quite isolated, a solitary golden link in a chain of baser metal on either side of him. Mr. John Shakespeare woolstapler, of Stratford-on-Avon, Warwickshire, was no doubt an eminently respectable person in his own trade, and he had sufficient intelligence to be mayor of his native town once upon a time: but, so far as is known, none of his literary remains are at all equal to Macbeth or Othello. Parson Newton, of the Parish of Woolsthorpe, in Lincolnshire, may have preached a great many very excellent and convincing discourses, but there is no evidence of any sort that he ever attempted to write the Principia. Per contra the Miss Miltons, good young ladies that they were (though of conflicting memory), do not appear to have differed conspicuously in ability from the other Priscillas and Patiences and Mercies amongst whom their lot was cast; while the Marlboroughs and the Wellingtons do not seem to bud out spontaneously into great commanders in the second generation. True, there are numerous cases such as that of the Herschels, father and son, or the two Scaligers, or the Caracci, or the Pitts, or the Scipios, and a dozen more, where the genius, once developed, has persisted for two or three, or even four lives: but these instances really cast no light at all upon our central problem, which is just this–How does the genius come in the first place to be developed at all from parents in whom individually no particular genius is ultimately to be seen?
Suppose we take, to start with, a race of hunting savages in the earliest, lowest, and most undifferentiated stage, we shall get really next to no personal peculiarities or idiosyncrasies of any sort amongst them. Every one of them will be a good hunter, a good fisherman, a good scalper and a good manufacturer of bows and arrows. Division of labour, and the other troublesome technicalities of our modern political economy, are as unknown among such folk as the modern nuisance of dressing for dinner. Each man performs all the functions of a citizen on his own account, because there is nobody else to perform them for him–the medium of exchange known as hard cash has not, so far as he is concerned, yet been invented; and he performs them well, such as they are, because he inherits from all his ancestors aptitudes of brain and muscle in these directions, owing to the simple fact that those among his collateral predecessors who didn’t know how to snare a bird, or were hopelessly stupid in the art of chipping flint arrowheads, died out of starvation, leaving no representatives. The beneficent institution of the poor law does not exist among savages, in order to enable the helpless and incompetent to bring up families in their own image. There, survival of the fittest still works out its own ultimately benevolent and useful end in its own directly cruel and relentless way, cutting off ruthlessly the stupid or the weak, and allowing only the strong and the cunning to become the parents of future generations.
Hence every young savage, being descended on both sides from ancestors who in their own way perfectly fulfilled the ideal of complete savagery–were good hunters, good fishers, good fighters, good craftsmen of bow or boomerang–inherits from these his successful predecessors all those qualities of eye and hand and brain and nervous system which go to make up the abstractly Admirable Crichton of a savage. The qualities in question are ensured in him by two separate means. In the first place, survival of the fittest takes care that he and all his ancestors shall have duly possessed them to some extent to start with; in the second place, constant practice from boyhood upward increases and develops the original faculty. Thus savages, as a rule, display absolutely astonishing ability and cleverness in the few lines which they have made their own. Their cunning in hunting, their patience in fishing, their skill in trapping, their infinite dodges for deceiving and cajoling the animals or enemies that they need to outwit, have moved the wonder and admiration of innumerable travellers. The savage, in fact, is not stupid: in his own way his cleverness is extraordinary. But the way is a very narrow and restricted one, and all savages of the same race walk in it exactly alike. Cunning they have, skill they have, instinct they have, to a most marvellous degree; but of spontaneity, originality, initiative, variability, not a single spark. Know one savage of a tribe and you know them all. Their cleverness is not the cleverness of the individual man: it is the inherited and garnered intelligence or instinct of the entire race.
How, then, do originality, diversity, individuality, genius, begin to come in? In this way, as it seems to me, looking at the matter both a priori and by the light of actual experience.
Suppose a country inhabited in its interior by a savage race of hunters and fighters, and on its seaboard by an equally savage race of pirates and fishermen, like the Dyaks of Borneo. Each of these races, if left to itself, will develop in time its own peculiar and special type of savage cleverness. Each (in the scientific slang of the day) will adapt itself to its particular environment. The people of the interior will acquire and inherit a wonderful facility in spearing monkeys and knocking down parrots; while the people of the sea-coast will become skilful managers of canoes upon the water, and merciless plunderers of one another’s villages, after the universal fashion of all pirates. These original differences of position and function will necessarily entail a thousand minor differences of intelligence and skill in a thousand different ways. For example, the sea-coast people, having of pure need to make themselves canoes and paddles, will probably learn to decorate their handicraft with ornamental patterns; and the aesthetic taste thus aroused will, no doubt, finally lead them to adorn the facades of their wooden huts with the grinning skulls of slaughtered enemies, prettily disposed at measured distances. A thoughtless world may laugh, indeed, at these naive expressions of the nascent artistic and decorative faculties in the savage breast, but the aesthetic philosopher knows how to appreciate them at their true worth, and to see in them the earliest ingenuous precursors of our own Salisbury, Lichfield, and Westminster.
Now, so long as these two imaginary races of ours continue to remain distinct and separate, it is not likely that idiosyncrasies or varieties to any great extent will arise among them. But, as soon as you permit intermarriage to take place, the inherited and developed qualities of the one race will be liable to crop up in the next generation, diversely intermixed in every variety of degree with the inherited and developed qualities of the other. The children may take after either parent in any combination of qualities whatsoever. You have admitted an apparently capricious element of individuality: a power on the part of the half-breeds of differing from one another to an extent quite impossible in the two original homogeneous societies. In one word, you have made possible the future existence of diversity in character.
If, now, we turn from these perfectly simple savage communities to our own very complex and heterogeneous world, what do we find? An endless variety of soldiers, sailors, tinkers, tailors, butchers, bakers, candlestick makers, and jolly undertakers, most of whom fall into a certain rough number of classes, each with its own developed and inherited traits and peculiarities. Our world is made up, like the world of ancient Egypt and of modern India, of an immense variety of separate castes–not, indeed, rigidly demarcated and strictly limited as in those extremely hierarchical societies, but still very fairly hereditary in character, and given on the average to a tolerably close system of intermarriage within the caste.
For example, there is the agricultural labourer caste–the Hodge Chawbacon of urban humour, who in his military avatar also reappears as Tommy Atkins, a little transfigured, but at bottom identical–the alternative aspect of a single undivided central reality. Hodge for the most part lives and dies in his ancestral village: marries Mary, the daughter of Hodge Secundus of that parish, and begets assorted Hodges and Marys in vast quantities, all of the same pattern, to replenish the earth in the next generation. There you have a very well-marked hereditary caste, little given to intermixture with others, and from whose members, however recruited by fresh blood, the object of our quest, the Divine Genius, is very unlikely to find his point of origin. Then there is the town artisan caste, sprung originally, indeed, from the ranks of the Hodges, but naturally selected out of its most active, enterprising, and intelligent individuals, and often of many generations standing in various forms of handicraft. This is a far higher and more promising type of humanity, from the judicious intermixture of whose best elements we are apt to get our Stephensons, our Arkwrights, our Telfords, and our Edisons. In a rank of life just above the last, we find the fixed and immobile farmer caste, which only rarely blossoms out, under favourable circumstances on both sides, into a stray Cobbett or an almost miraculous miller Constable. The shopkeepers are a tribe of more varied interests and more diversified lives. An immense variety of brain elements are called into play by their diverse functions in diverse lines; and when we take them in conjunction with the upper mercantile grades, which are chiefly composed of their ablest and most successful members, we get considerable chances of those happy blendings of individual excellences in their casual marriages which go to make up talent, and, in their final outcome, genius. Last of all, in the professional and upper classes there is a freedom and play of faculty everywhere going on, which in the chances of intermarriage between lawyer-folk and doctor-folk, scientific people and artistic people, county families and bishops or law lords, and so forth ad infinitum, offers by far the best opportunities of any for the occasional development of that rare product of the highest humanity, the genuine genius.
But in every case it is, I believe, essentially intermixture of variously acquired hereditary characteristics that makes the best and truest geniuses. Left to itself, each separate line of caste ancestry would tend to produce a certain fixed Chinese or Japanese perfection of handicraft in a certain definite, restricted direction, but not probably anything worth calling real genius. For example, a family of artists, starting with some sort of manual dexterity in imitating natural forms and colours with paint and pencil, and strictly intermarrying always with other families possessing exactly the same inherited endowments, would probably go on getting more and more woodenly accurate in its drawing; more and more conventionally correct in its grouping; more and more technically perfect in its perspective and light-and-shade, and so forth, by pure dint of accumulated hereditary experience from generation to generation. It would pass from the Egyptian to the Chinese style of art by slow degrees and with infinite gradations. But suppose, instead of thus rigorously confining itself to its own caste, this family of handicraft artists were to intermarry freely with poetical, or seafaring, or candlestick-making stocks. What would be the consequence? Why, such an infiltration of other hereditary characteristics, otherwise acquired, as might make the young painters of future generations more wide minded, more diversified, more individualistic, more vivid and lifelike. Some divine spark of poetical imagination, some tenderness of sentiment, some play of fancy, unknown perhaps, to the hard, dry, matter-of-fact limners of the ancestral school, might thus be introduced into the original line of hereditary artists. In this way one can easily see how even intermarriage with non-artistic stocks might improve the breed of a family of painters. For while each caste, left to itself, is liable to harden down into a mere technical excellence after its own kind, a wooden facility for drawing faces, or casting up columns of figures, or hacking down enemies, or building steam-engines, a healthy cross with other castes is liable to bring in all kinds of new and valuable qualities, each of which, though acquired perhaps in a totally, different line of life, is apt to bear a new application in the new complex whereof it now forms a part.
In our very varied modern societies, every man and every woman, in the upper and middle ranks of life at least, has an individuality and an idiosyncrasy so compounded of endless varying stocks and races. Here is one whose father was an Irishman and his mother a Scotchwoman; here is another whose paternal line were country parsons, while his maternal ancestors were city merchants or distinguished soldiers. Take almost anybody’s ‘sixteen quarters’–his great-great grandfathers and great-great grandmothers, of whom he has sixteen all told–and what do you often find? A peer, a cobbler, a barrister, a common sailor, a Welsh doctor, a Dutch merchant, a Huguenot pastor, a cornet of horse, an Irish heiress, a farmer’s daughter, a housemaid, an actress, a Devonshire beauty, a rich young lady of sugar-broking extraction, a Lady Carolina, a London lodging-house keeper. This is not by any means an exaggerated case; it would be easy, indeed, from one’s own knowledge of family histories to supply a great many real examples far more startling than this partially imaginary one. With such a variety of racial and professional antecedents behind us, what infinite possibilities are opened before us of children with ability, folly, stupidity, genius?
Infinite numbers of intermixtures everywhere exist in civilised societies. Most of them are passable; many of them are execrable; a few of them are admirable; and here and there, one of them consists of that happy blending of individual characteristics which we all immediately recognise as genius–at least after somebody else has told us so.
The ultimate recipe for genius, then, would appear to be somewhat after this fashion. Take a number of good, strong, powerful stocks, mentally or physically, endowed with something more than the average amount of energy and application. Let them be as varied as possible in characteristics; and, so far as convenient, try to include among them a considerable small-change of races, dispositions, professions, and temperaments. Mix, by marriage, to the proper consistency; educate the offspring, especially by circumstances and environment, as broadly, freely, and diversely as you can; let them all intermarry again with other similarly produced, but personally unlike, idiosyncrasies; and watch the result to find your genius in the fourth or fifth generation. If the experiment has been properly performed, and all the conditions have been decently favourable, you will get among the resultant five hundred persons a considerable sprinkling of average fools, a fair proportion of modest mediocrities, a small number of able people, and (in case you are exceptionally lucky and have shuffled your cards very carefully) perhaps among them all a single genius. But most probably the genius will have died young of scarlet fever, or missed fire through some tiny defect of internal brain structure. Nature herself is trying this experiment unaided every day all around us, and, though she makes a great many misses, occasionally she makes a stray hit and then we get a Shakespeare or a Grimaldi.
‘But you haven’t proved all this: you have only suggested it.’ Does one prove a thesis of deep-reaching importance in a ten-page essay? And if one proved it in a big book, with classified examples and detailed genealogies of all the geniuses, would anybody on earth except Mr. Francis Galton ever take the trouble to read it?