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Thursday, May 25, 2017


“The unexamined life is not worth living.” Plato, quoting Socrates at his trial.

A few years ago while I was trying a capital case in the Los Angeles, I spent lunchtimes in the 13th floor attorney lounge. A visitor there was Phil Spector, the legendary pop music producer who happened to be on trial for murder.  He was a strange looking elderly man, coiffed and dressed as if the 60’s were still in style, shoulder length brown hair (a wig?), frock coat, flared trousers, high-heeled boots. I knew that Spector was considered by many to be a “genius” who had revolutionized rock and roll by his imaginative recording innovations called “The Wall of Sound.” He had worked with many artists, including The Beatles and Frank Sinatra, who admired his talents and puzzled at his eccentricities.

Spector had been described as suffering from severe mood swings, impulsivity, bouts of rage, misogyny, feelings of inferiority. He was eventually convicted of murdering a woman who he had invited to his house. 

During the trial the most emotion he showed to me was when he told me that he was annoyed that the prosecutor had described him as a has-been. Spector asked me rhetorically, “Were Einstein or Mozart has-beens just because their most recognized success came when they were young?”

At the time I took it as a residue of his sturdy ego that he compared himself to those geniuses, but in his field, Spector was often dubbed with that overused title.

The Great vs The Good

Greatness and goodness often seem to be mutually exclusive qualities. Two recent dramas, both coincidentally titled “Genius” confirm the idea. The film with that title released in 2016, starred Jude Law as the novelist, Thomas Wolfe, and Colin Firth as master editor Maxwell Perkins. The movie is based on A. Scott Berg’s biography of Perkins, called “Editor of Genius.” (This is a double entendre, meaning Perkins was a genius of an editor and and editor of geniuses.) Featured characters in the movie are Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose lives also prove the point. Perkins is depicted as an exception to the rule: brilliant, intuitive as well as kind, gentle, loyal and selfless.

The other “Genius” is the currently airing (on the National Geographic Channel) ten-part biography of Albert Einstein, directed by Ron Howard. The drama focuses more on Einstein’s failings as a student, employee, professor, son, and especially as lover, husband, and father, than the intellectual products of his mind that revolutionized science. This yields soapy operatic episodes that expose the misery of his first wife, Mileva Maric, sure to be attractive to a wider audience than dry complex science can attract.  

Howard’s style is old-fashioned in its use of transparent devices. He is fond of teasing by foreshadowing, such as ending an episode when a colleague is shown a piece of paper by a pleased Einstein, and gasps, in admiration. The viewer is shown the famous formula (as if merely seeing the equation would be shocking). 

To underscore his theme of Einstein’s misogyny, he compares the minimizing of his wife’s contributions with Pierre Curie’s insistence that his wife, Marie, be given equal credit. In other scenes, the inspirations for Einstein’s discoveries are shown to be his infant son, a spider, a casual remark by a friend, a ride in an elevator. 

These scenes are overly simplified variations on anecdotes relating to Einstein’s “thought experiments” that he described in his writings but they come across as almost comical. It reminds me of  the old joke about Beethoven’s mother saying, “I inspire you? Don’t make me laugh! Ha-Ha-Ha Haaa!

Howard is used to “biographical drama,” and “based on true events” filmmaking that takes license with facts. In both “Cinderella Man” and “A Beautiful Mind,” the director omitted serious character flaws and actions of his heroes that would have detracted from their heroism. 

At least, “Genius,” is consistent with the book that was his source material in its focus on the prurient and perverse, rather than the dull science that shook the world.       

This series is based on Walter Isaacson’s book, “Einstein His Life And Universe.” Isaacson is no physicist and according to book reviews, it shows in his biography, which is light on the science and heavy on the cultural impact, politics, philosophy, and especially on his domestic life (i.e., sex life) with his wives and mistresses.

The historian benefits from the recent discovery of a cache of Einstein’s love letters. They expose his sentimental and romantic side (Einstein’s poetry skills show a lack of genius in that art). The letters also reveal a rather creepy side to his seduction techniques, exclaiming love and making extravagant promises and in the next breath (or letter) making demands for obedience and loyalty, detailing tasks she is to perform in order to satisfy him.

 Isaacson joins recent biographers to correct the perception that Mileva was not more than the great man’s sex partner, housekeeper, and nursemaid to his children. She was a brilliant physics student in her own right, who helped her husband to write his early papers. How much she contributed has been a matter of debate, but it was certainly more than Einstein himself was willing to admit. The correction of this record in a popular history is a worthy goal, even if it does pander to our modern sensibility in a blatant attempt to attract a female audience.  

The defect in the drama results from the self-conscious pandering to the target audience that the script and acting pound home with repetitive annoyance. In scene after scene, Albert takes advantage of Mileva’s trust – deflecting her nagging for r-e-s-p-e-c-t by disingenuous patronizing hugs and ardent assurances, after which he goes on to his singular quest for fame by solving the complex puzzles of nature.

The notion that a genius may comprehend the mysteries of the universe but lack any understanding of other people is not revolutionary – in biography or drama. In fact, it seems to be so common that it may be one of the essential ingredients of understanding genius.

The mind of the artist

Another observation may be related to this phenomenon. There seems to be a correlation between some forms of “mental problems” and artistic creativity. I put quotation marks around the phrase to underscore its admitted vagueness. Researchers agree that mental illness is neither necessary nor sufficient for creativity. However, there is research to suggest a link between mental illness and creativity.

While people suffering in the throes of serious mental illness are usually dysfunctional; i.e., unable to coherently create, other forms of mental distress seem to stimulate creativity.

An area of the brain called the precuneus affects personal memory and self-consciousness. Researchers find that it is more active in creative people even while they are performing other concentration intensive tasks. The inability to suppress the seemingly unnecessary cognitive activity aids the creative process by linking ideas that reside in disparate neural networks. The increased activity found in the precuneus also is seen in those with schizotypal personalities.

Schizotypy is not schizophrenia, a debilitating psychosis. It is a state that contains a constellation of symptoms, most of which exist in everyone in some degree. These include “unusual perceptual experiences, thin mental boundaries between self and other, impulsive nonconformity, and magical beliefs.” Negative schizotypal traits include “cognitive disorganization and physical and social anhedonia.” Such people may be introverted, emotionally flat, asocial. 

I can imagine a common sense reason for this. Creativity demands self-awareness.; ditto mental and emotional turmoil. Poets like Sylvia Plath and Robert Lowell have spent enormous energy analyzing their emotions, their perceptions, their relationships.

Of course, Ezra Pound,  T. S. Eliot’s friend [see below] who is also considered one of the greatest poets of the 20th Century, was a vocal anti-Semite, even making propaganda broadcasts from fascist Italy during World War II. Pound was clinically mentally ill, paranoid and eventually hospitalized, but whether his paranoia led him to the “Jewish conspiracy” or was a co-incidental presence in his mind along with his artistic talent is in doubt.

Risky Behavior

On the other end of the spectrum from schizotypy is the “Type T personality.” Originally described by Jung, these are risk takers. They tend to be extroverted and creative, crave new experiences and excitement. Sociopaths have some of these traits. So do some intellectuals, including Einstein and Galileo, as well as extreme athletes. Ernest Hemingway, self-described as bipolar, combined features of this type. Drawn to danger in war, sports and violent entertainments, his masculine self-image demanded risk while his creative mind wove imaginative novels.

The Rare Great AND Good:

Admittedly, the notion of "goodness" is subjective. I mean it in the moral sense and that is a slippery concept. 

“If I had written the greatest book, composed the greatest symphony, painted the most beautiful painting or carved the most exquisite figure I could not have felt the more exalted creator than I did when they placed my child in my arms.” Dorothy Day, Catholic social activist (1897-1980)   

It was not just as a mother that Dorothy Day exercised her faith. After living a self described selfish existence as a young liberated woman in the 1920’s, including affairs and an abortion, Day sought meaning to life and found it in Catholicism and radical activism during the Depression. 

Day was a sinner who found a cause in the Catholic Workers Movement, doing good works and writing about her faith. She was a prolific do-gooder who actually did a lot of good. She was a prolific writer, speaker, and organizer. As one who converted to her faith through ardent and serious reflection and then seriously tried to live up to its ideals, she influenced many Catholics and others by her example and her activism.

By that measure, Dorothy Day qualifies as “great” as well as “good.” (Within the Church that she often resented for its conservatism, she is now being considered for sainthood, along with another modern good and great woman, Mother Teresa.) 

But in general, it seems that most of those who strive to be great must sacrifice something that ordinary people enjoy, such as  . . .  a family.

Recently I have been reading Deborah Lipstadt’s book about the trial that formed the basis of the movie, “Denial”. Her lawyer (solicitor in British parlance) was Anthony Julius, who, in addition to being a terrific lawyer, also held a Ph.D. in history. His Ph.D. thesis had become a controversial best seller. 

It examined how T.S. Eliot’s anti-Semitism was expressed in some of his poems. Julius’s thesis conceded that Eliot was an exceptional poet, although he held a despicable personal view toward Jews, which he was not reluctant to reveal in his art.

So there it is, again. In my view, anti-Semites cannot be called “good” in any sense of the term; it is a disqualifying character flaw. I feel the same way about racists and sexists, as well as other forms of bigotry, although I do concede that there may be gradations of defects, and also acknowledge that some leeway is owed to the culture in which the person acted.  Wagner was a great composer of music, but a world-class hater of Jews.

This last point is sticky, because it should not be used to excuse one who adopts the view of his society when others in the same position shout against the notion. An example for me would be Edgar Degas, who spent much of his time with ballet dancers but took pains to urge the guilt of Dreyfus and blamed all French Jews.

I don’t mean to imply that anti-Semitism is the only character trait that detracts from goodness among great artists. In the fore-mentioned movie, “Genius”, Thomas Wolfe is shown to be a self-centered user and abuser of those who helped him, including his mistress as well as his editor. He discards both after he achieves fame. But Wolfe was not an anti-Semite. In fact, he spent enough time in Nazi Germany in 1936 to see what they were doing, and returned to write about the despicable treatment of Jews there.

Steve Jobs is another example of the high achiever, creative and imaginative innovator, who was driven to excellence to the detriment of his relationships with friends, co-workers, lovers, children. His example does not seem to be unique in the record. Great? Certainly. Good, not so much. Genius? By many definitions, yes. Mentally ill? Obsessive, neurotic? Well, he has been diagnosed by observers as cyclothymic.