Two books that I’ve read in the past few weeks have prompted me to think about the nature of artistic genius. It struck me, after finishing Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife – about Ernest Hemingway’s first marriage to Hadley Richardson and Nancy Horan’s Loving Frank – about Frank Lloyd Wright’s extramarital love affair with Maymah Borthwick, that both Hemingway and Wright had immense self-confidence in their artistic vision. Almost to the point of being total assholes.
It was more than just self-assuredness. In the case of Frank Lloyd Wright, especially, it was a sense of being pre-ordained to better the human condition. According to Nancy Horan, Frank believed, for example, that stiffing the working man of his wages was okay in the grand scheme of things because the value of his design work to society as a whole was immeasurable. He left his wife and kids to live in Europe for a year with his muse and mistress, claiming that minds of his ilk cannot live “inauthentically.” He really thought he was a higher order of man than the average human being, and felt that certain things were his due because of it.
Maybe Hemingway was not quite as vain as Frankie. But he still believed enough in his gift to drop it all and move to Europe, surviving hand to mouth and on the generosity of others until his first real breakthrough came. And when his closest friends and mentors tried to warn him against publishing a piece he’d written openly mocking Sherwood Anderson (his first true mentor and champion), instead of considering their advice seriously, he accused them of being humorless and narrow-minded. When he was working, he completely shut out the whole world around him, going so far as to rent a separate garret room to write in even though at the time he lived alone with his wife, no children.
Hemingway and Wright “made it” not on the merit of their God-given talents alone. They believed their work deserved recognition and proceeded to act in a way that eventually accorded it.
Is that what it takes? The gift of talent coupled with a large dose of narcissism and a shot of bullheadedness?
The fame of Frank Lloyd Wright and Ernest Hemingway was not achieved without heavy human collateral – broken marriages, neglected children, the loss of lifelong friends. I wonder how many more people with a little bit of talent and a great deal of persistence could achieve “great things” if they could be more selfish. If they could convince themselves that the measure of their gifts to the world is greater than the grief it will cause their loved ones to bear.
Do the fruits of genius ever outweigh the human toll they reap? And what if you sacrifice your personal relationships for the sake of your art and die with nothing to show for it, anyway?
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