Those late Victorians seemed quite engaged with the idea of “the genius,” and intrigued by people who seemed to warrant the label – thanks partly to what Francis Galton had to say in his Hereditary Genius. So here’s one opposing response to the notion of genius, à la Galton, and especially about whether reputation is a fair means of determining it. It’s by George Bernard Shaw, writing in late 1894. And it’s called “How to Become a Man of Genius.”
“The secret at the bottom of the whole business is simply this: there is no such thing as a man of genius. I am a man of genius myself, and ought to know. What there is, is a conspiracy to pretend that there are such persons, and a selection of suitable individuals to assume the imaginary character. The whole difficulty is to get selected.”
Shaw then says that “genius” is one of those projected desires, something we want for ourselves (like honesty, braveness, and, of course, intelligence generally). That’s why we read novels or go to the theatre (OK, go to the movies, and play online games): to identify with a character more steeped in the virtues we admire but lack. Because, depending on when we are taking the inventory, we may possess them only briefly or lack them completely. As he writes,
“Our experience does, then, provide us with material for a concept of a superhuman person. You have only to imagine someone always as good as you were in the loftiest ten seconds of your life, always as a brave as you felt when you read The Three Musketeers, always as wise at a moment’s notice as the books into which philosophers have garnered the corrected errors of their lifetime, always as selfless as you have felt in your hour of utmost satiety, always as beautiful and noble as your wife or husband appeared to you at the climax of the infatuation which led you to the matrimonial experiment which you may or may not have regretted ever since, and there you have your poet, your hero, your Cleopatra or whatever else you may require in the superhuman line, by a simple rearrangement of your own experience…”
So genius is what people want to perceive. Then it is up to the man of genius himself to perform the role. Says Shaw,
“It is now plain how to proceed in order to become a man of genius. You must strike the public imagination in such a fashion that they will select you as the incarnation of their ideal of a man of genius. To do this no doubt demands some extraordinary qualities, and sufficient professional industry; but it is by no means necessary to be what the public will pretend that you are.”
So there we go. According to Shaw, we see genius because it is something we want to believe in. And I can’t help but believe that Shaw's own genius make-up is enhanced considerably by wearing a big bushy beard and a Jaeger suit.
Finally, on the matter of his genius, as represented by media/arts phenom G.B.S., Shaw tells this anecdote:
"Very recently the production of a play of mine [Arms and the Man] in New York led to the appearance in the New York papers of a host of critical and biographical studies of a remarkable person called Bernard Shaw. I am supposed to be that person; but I am not. There is no such person; there never was any such person; there never will or can be any such person. You may take my word for this, because I invented him, floated him, advertised him, impersonated him, and am now sitting here in my dingy second floor lodging in a decaying London Square, breakfasting off twopenn’orth porridge and giving this additional touch to his makeup with my typewriter."