Genius is a Jerk

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?

This has been deep thoughts with Rima Tessman.

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5 thoughts on “Genius is a Jerk

  1. Audra

    Oh my how I love dishing on the idea of “genius.” In academia it gets this heroic, mythological respect and yet most of the people are just working their butts off and lucky. It isn’t some magical genius that gets them there, it is the right place at the right time, and determination (thanks Malcolm Gladwell). Also, often to the point of neglecting self, health and family. And the notion of weed-out courses in college that are looking for talent – puh-leez. There was a TED talk I watched recently that talked about how we are the first generation to no longer worship deities, but in their place, human beings (sports and music and movie stars) and how this can be dangerous. Now, I’m all for putting aside some jealous, petty god, but to put Tiger Woods in his place is no better.

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  2. amy

    What’s interesting about this, is that I see my brother, who is an artist, in this piece because he can be an a$$, when it comes to his art.
    It must be a trait of the genius artist, writer, etc

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  3. Kat

    I was just looking at The Paris Wife today and wondering if I should buy it.

    It seems that many successful artists are completely self centered. I tell myself that is why I could never have been one of the greats (in singing or dancing). hehe

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  4. San Diego Momma (Deb)

    I read Loving Frank and remember feeling irritated by it (while simultaneously liking it). I mean Mamah left her kids too, right? I reluctantly get putting the art in front of family thing in a way, because I know my own family has suffered for it in my case. BUT to completely deny family and pursue self-actualization in the name of art really bugs me. I just think: then don’t tie yourself to other people. If you feel the “call” to the point where you must abandon responsibility and loved ones, don’t surround yourself by either. Art is selfish. It has to be because it’s the innermost expression of a person that involves no one else. But does it justify assholery? I’m just not too sure.

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