From the Whistler

The Genius Handicap

When the cocktail party chatter turns to the topic of great writers, the word `genius' is usually waiting in the wings. Yet most of our pantheon of authors were not geniuses, in terms of sheer intelligence. And most geniuses are not particularly talented writers. Marilyn vos Savant, whose IQ made the Guinness Book of World Records, pens a lively column for Parade magazine but has yet to publish an earthshattering novel or play. When it comes to literature, another mental attribute is of much higher import: creativity. Cognitive scientists have found little or no correlation between the two, genius and creativity, except that highly creative individuals tend to have IQs above a certain baseline (120 or so). Creativity is much more closely linked with mental illnesses, such as fantasy proneness and manic depression. As Socrates is quoted as saying: "If a man comes to the door of poetry untouched by the madness of the muses, believing that technique alone will make him a good poet, he and his sane compositions never reach perfection, but are utterly eclipsed by the inspired madman."

Geniuses are rarely mad, but often lonely. Child prodigies tend to withdraw from other children, with whom they cannot share their interests and challenges. Even as adults, many geniuses are socially challenged; according to some psychologists, individuals tend to become ostracized if their IQs differ by 30 points or more from those around them. Writers like Anton Chekhov and F. Scott Fitzgerald are wonderful to read because of their intuitive understanding of the human situation-had they been geniuses, they would not have known us half so well or been our everyman representatives on the printed page.

Yet a few great writers are thought to have had exceptional intelligence, including Goethe, Byron, and James Joyce. As far as I know, Joyce never took an IQ exam, but his prodigal mental abilities can hardly be doubted by anyone familiar with Ulysses or Finnegans Wake. Not long ago I read Dubliners, his literary debut, and couldn't help noticing the young author's genius at work-as a handicap, perhaps, more than anything. James Joyce is, to be sure, a wonderful stylist in the tradition of Flaubert. In only a paragraph or two he can capture just the right details to paint a scene or sketch a character. Yet strangely lacking in these stories-and in his later works as well-is creativity. The boarding house owner trying to marry her daughter off to one of her tenants, the office worker who is bullied by his boss and in turn beats his son, the drunkard brought by his friends to a church revival-they are all stereotypes, and their problems seem to be simply variables in some abstract equation of life. They are also emotionally cold (in brief moments when Joyce's characters do feel emotion, it seems overwhelming, and they swoon in an almost Victorian fashion). In his famous story "The Dead", Gabriel Conroy attends a dance hosted by his aunts and gives a speech. Amid the trivialities of polite society, he is suddenly transfixed at the sight of his wife, Gretta, on the stairs, listening to a piano air from a further room. Later, at the hotel, his feelings of rapture are deflated when she informs him that she was thinking sadly of a boy who had loved her in her youth and died. "The Dead" turns upon this lack of understanding of another's emotions, and perhaps it mirrors the frustrations Joyce felt trying to fathom ordinary souls.

Joyce's fellow countryman Frank O'Connor wrote more intuitive and, to my taste, better stories. His characters are flesh-and-blood creations, who think and feel as we do, and he was able to create fascinating narratives for them out of the odds and ends of everyday living. The three bottle corks popping in Joyce's "Ivy Day in the Committee Room" may indeed symbolize the three gun salute at Parnell's funeral, and endowing every chapter in Ulysses with its own symbol, art or science, color and even bodily organ is no doubt a stroke of genius. I'm sure the Finnegans Wake societies that try to decrypt his last novel as though it were Linear A are quite devoted to the man. But for the rest of us, James Joyce is destined to be admired rather than loved—a solitary genius, scanning us from his lonely tower.

- Joel Van Valin