by Mary Austin
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1. What Is Genius; 2. Racial Resources of Genius; 3. The Gifts of Experience; 4. Training Talent; 5. The Resources of Education; 6. Genius and the Subconscious; 7. The Creative Wish; 8. Genius and Mysticism; 9. The Technique of Intuition; 10. Genius and the Supernormal Faculties; 11. Fetish and Formula; 12. Genius and Temperament; 13. Acquiring Genius; 14. The Creative Process; 15. Genius and the Creative Life.
WHAT IS GENIUS?
EVEN THE people who have it do not definitely know what genius is. Nor has science so much as an inkling how they came by it. Common usage classes all individuals of more than ordinary achievement as geniuses, with special reference to the arts and intellectual pursuits. When the term is used for other types of achievement, it is generally understood to be merely a handsome compliment. Galton, in his studies of Hereditary Genius, makes it synonymous with exceptional ability, selecting his examples from the top lists in biographical encyclopedias. By this rating, the best evidence of the possession of genius is to attain to ten lines in the current dictionaries of notability, a thousand years after your death.
Of whatever type, the source of genius and its distribution among races and families has been supposed to be incalculable, striking as haphazardly as lightning, not subject to the ordinary laws of heredity. Probably I am the only person to be found who will insist that genius can be acquired, and very likely I shall not be able to make you agree with me. I shall begin by insisting first that genius be described not in terms of what has been accomplished by it, but by the way it works. Irrespective of the material in which it works, — paint, musical tone, mechanical processes, — genius is primarily a type of psychological activity.
All working artists, and such critics as are able to distinguish between a work of art and a method of artistry, know that in describing a particular book or statue or musical composition as a work of genius, they have merely described the process by which it was produced. Since any work of genius, as distinguished from works of invention or research, tends to be superior, we have fallen into the careless habit of using the term only in reference to works of standard excellence. But the creative worker himself knows that genius is indicated by the manner in which the work is conceived and produced. Because works of surpassing genius — works in which all the other qualities that may combine with genius are also of first rank — are rare, we get into the way of assuming that genius itself is rare; when, as a matter of fact, it is one of the most widely distributed human traits, no age and no tribe being without its notable examples.
Genius shows itself in the individual by the sudden appearance of ideas or concepts, often of the greatest complexity, seeming to come not by way of observation or cogitation, but from somewhere above or beyond him, with sourceless connotations of authority. It is this unexpectedness and this authoritativeness which led the Greeks to name the experience genius, conceiving it to be the whisper of a spirit, a genius, at the ear of the inner mind. Practically all peoples have had some such notion of the process, noted as going on in themselves, the savages attributing it to his totem animal, or to the spirits of his ancestors. Modern psychology admits the whisper, but names the source as the deep-self, the accumu-lated emotional and conceptual experience of the race, expressing itself through the individual as the "race mind."
It is this process, so universally witnessed to in the human race, that is to be studied here, as a way of the mind, studied in its operation rather than in its results. It is to be studied as a normal operation; all the earlier attempts to explain genius as a disease, as a phenomena of psychopathy, having fortunately fallen into discredit to the extent that makes it unnecessary to discuss them here. Geniuses occur normally in every race, in every period of history, in every department of human activity. Very many interesting problems, as posed by students of the subject, as to how genius occurs, why it appears to occur locally, and intermittently as to time, why it so seldom reproduces itself in the direct line, must be passed over until more data is collected. What is proposed here is to examine the way in which this most prized human attribute works.
In order to discuss the genius process in the individual it will be necessary to agree upon a terminology, which will hold, at least through-out this discussion. The first distinction in this field should be the distinc-tion between genius as a natural capacity of the individual to do work in a particular way, and other endowments of the individual, such as talent, intelligence or the racial index. To do this intelligently we must establish some sort of map or plan of individual make-up sufficiently broad to be of practical universal application. We begin by accepting the general trend of biological evolution, in which we find self-conscious-ness as the distinguishing characteristic of the higher types of creatures, and con-sciousness predicated as characteristic of all living creatures. There are not wanting orthodox scientists to allow some form of consciousness even in non-living matter, a kind of cosmic consciousness, which, if it is to be admitted as existing at all, must also be a part of man's material make-up. But at any rate, we can safely begin by postulating as the earliest level of living consciousness, an intuitive or inknowing con-sciousness, such as is characteristic of forms of life in which the senses are rudimentary and the intellect as yet unevolved. Every individual is aware of an intuitive or inknowing self, functioning at this early level, comprising the sum of his organic experience in such matters as digestion and assimilation of food, circulation of the blood, respiration, reproduction, and possibly as the determining factor in certain intuitional experiences to be discussed later. Next in the evolutionary sequence, man recognizes a deep-self, in which are comprised all the stages of self-consciousness lived through by his ancestral stem from its earliest differentiation to the date of his own birth. With that date, or possibly a little before it, begins another sum of experience, leading on to the present hour, or possibly a little beyond it, which comprises his immediate-self. The intuitive-self, the deep-self, the immediate-self, these three general distinctions are common to all men. Within any one of them there are still to be described and classified many subdivisions, layer upon layer; but these three constitute the capital upon which the individual lives. Within two of them — the deep-self which comprises the sum of racial experience, and the immediate-self, the sum of personal experience — most of his important psychological operations take place.
By the use of the terms deep-self for the repository of inheritance, and immediate-self for the repository of experience, we avoid the pitfalls of that vast vague term, the subconscious. It must be borne in mind that "the subconsciousness" is not a special faculty or attribute of the mind, as the memory, the imagination, the will. It is a term of relativity, used to describe the relation of some particular area of the individual con-sciousness to the bright spotlight of self-awareness. Items of racial experience remain almost wholly subconscious. Items of immediate experience may become temporarily involved in unconsciousness, or, as we say, forgotten. Or they may linger in the outer fringes of awareness, until, returning to the spotlight under emotional stress or in connection with some emotionalized hypothesis, such as spirit communication, they get credit with the uninformed as supernormal. This sort of thing often passes itself off for genius, deceiving not only the onlooker, but the individual to whom it occurs.
There is another type of pseudo-genius common among children who have lived rather exclusively among grown-ups; submerged memories of things heard, discussed or read aloud, reappearing years afterward as original. The profound wish of parents to have the child prove especially gifted, will often, even when not directly expressed, produce in a suggestible child, superficial traits of genius. Many of our infant prodigies are undoubtedly of this type.
It is in order to distinguish true genius — the kind that the student may with confidence encourage in himself as a means of livelihood and his personal contribution to society — from the hundred and one lapses from the various levels of consciousness common to all of us, that I have hit upon the terms intuitive-self, deep-self and immediate-self as descriptive of actual and naturally differentiated phases of psychological evolution. It was not until I had made this distinction in types of phenomena collected, that I was able to arrive at any definition of the genius process. As soon as I was able to refer phenomena of genius to one or another level of awareness, it began to appear that genius is simply the capacity of the immediate-self to make free and unpremeditated use of racial material stored up in the deep-self, as well as of material acquired in the course of individual experience, as will presently be shown.
We do not yet know very much about how the deep-self is constituted. We do not know just how experience becomes incorporated in the psychic inheritance, whether it passes with the germ plasm, the body cells, or in some way not yet determined. Intensity of the primary reaction has something to do with it, and motor habits. Long exposure to a given environment appears to produce an inheritable effect. But we know, as yet, no reason why one race should seem to profit by its own experience from generation to generation, and another race remain practically stationary for epochs. Perhaps all we are justified in saying is, that there is a progressive amelioration of type along the line of racial experience, and that in every race, individuals appear who are able to act on the sum of that experience, without having acquired it objectively. What breeding means in human beings, is inborn capacity to deal with situations peculiar to their racial inheritance. In other words, good breeding is a genius for societal relations, as one observes it among the English, as artistry is a genius for art expression, as it is found in Russian and Italian people; genius itself being an inborn capacity for utilizing racial experience in meeting immediate exigencies.
On this basis genius becomes the most natural thing in the world. Why should not man inherit accumulated capacity for telling stories, as well as accumulated capacity for digesting food? As a matter of fact, he does. The real wonder is not that one man should be a genius, but that every man should not be. Probably if we could get our minds away from the exclusive contemplation of preferred types of inheritance, we would discover that most men have genius of one sort or another. There can be a genius for chess-playing and for chemistry, for sex-provocation and for trimming hats. I have a friend who has a genius for cooking. She has had no training and does not know the difference between calories and calomel, but shut her up in an ordinarily equipped kitchen with a totally unfamiliar article of food, and in the course of the morning she will have arrived at the one perfect way of cooking it. This is the way genius, in the presence of its predestined material, works. The majority of instances given here are drawn from the experiences of literary geniuses, but in principle most of them will probably be found equally applicable to architecture, picking pockets, music, stock-brokering and the mechanical arts.
On this assumption, that genius is the normal capacity of the individual to distribute the energy of racial experience in particular directions, we shall find ourselves obligated to treat with equal respect, evidences of genius in every field of human activity. Also it will be necessary to discriminate between the genius process, and the other attributes of the individual which determine the direction in which a given genius works, or determine its rank in a scale of more or less importance. We must have clear distinctions between genius and talent, between genius and intellect. We must discard once for all the assumption that to have genius necessarily means that one is born to do work that will be called "great." Greatness in any field is measured finally by the length of time a given work maintains itself in the thought-stream. Thus the savage who in some lonely desert noon discovered that the changing shadow of his staff bore a constant ratio to its height, was as great, possibly a greater man than Newton or Einstein, and the author of the first lyric a more notable, if unremembered, genius than the author of the last. Genius may be for an hour or a thousand years; its indispensable quality is continuity with the life-push. For if genius is what I think it is, it is the growing tip of the race-life, having behind it the long unbroken stem of racial experience, using the individual as the instrument of new adventures and possible increments of growth. What is behind all genius, the "drive" that carries it past inhibitions of environment, social inertia and downright opposition, is this impulse to growth, deep life demanding more life, experience aching to add experience to itself.
Its appearance in the evolution of the individual is as natural as birth. This at least is the only explanation which accounts rationally for the authority the genius impulse has with its host; for the joy and the sense of at-one-ment with the universe which its fruitful operation affords the possessor; for the terrific struggles of genius to realize itself in a given medium; and for the agony of frustration.
Very much more work will have to be done at the point at which genius either shows itself, or fails to show itself, in the individual. All the studies so far made, indicate that the genius principle is at work in us in ways as yet unsuspected and not always desired. That criminal impulses may be normal examples of its operation, that many so-called criminal tendencies are but the survival of experiential gains in directions once important to racial survival, but now outlawed, is generally accepted by criminologists. Why, indeed, should there not be a genius for man-slaughter in a race which has devoted so large a part of its past activities to killing? Already we are beginning to see in military genius, especially when it occurs among the enemy, such undesirable survival.
Our present educational system completely ignores this view of genius as the irruption, into the immediate-self, of inherited capacity to deal with particular activity. So we have very little data as to the manner in which genius declares itself in the average person, and in respect to the minor activities such as black-smiting and dressmaking. Among the very great we have instances of genius showing itself painlessly and involun-tarily in childhood, as in young Mozart, composing musical themes at the age of five. The author's own studies among primitives go to show that as far back as the stone-age, the tendency is for genius to come through at adolescence, and to partake of the disturbances of that perilous passage. It is natural that the struggle of the deep-self to come into working partnership with its host, would occur at the time when the mechanism for handing on the racial inheritance is ripened. So natural that I have often suspected that many of the vagaries of adolescence usually ascribed to sex-adjustment, could be handled better on the assumption that they are incidental to the attempt of the deep-self to strike a balance between the inheritance and the individual capacity.
Here again we touch an area of psychological importance in which almost no work has been done. We do not know anything about the relation of genius, in its quality and scope, to the constitution of the immediate-self that entertains it. It is quite possible that certain types of psychic disorganization, especially that one which used to be called possession, may be the result of a failure of accommodation between the urge of the deep-self toward expression, and the instrumentation of the immediate-self. No one is able to say whether the individual has only a little genius because he has only a little cerebral or other physical capacity, or whether he has a little genius because his genius inheritance is small. Is the light dim because the lamp is of insufficient candle power, or is the current itself weak?
These questions are important because they bear directly on the practical, personal problem of making the most of your genius. They point the way for a working distinction between the genius impulse in the individual, and the resources of genius. Edgar Lee Masters insists that it is the resources that fix the distinction between great genius and small. At any rate they make the difference between the man who is a great genius and the genius who does great work. There does exist such a distinction; as in Walt Whitman, so much of whose work is clumsy and adolescent, but whose genius was transcendent, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, who bulks greatly and will undoubtedly occupy a more considerable space in the literary stream, but whose genius is neither so universal nor so shining as Whitman's.
For the purpose of this study, then, to discover how genius works, or may be made to work, we are pledged to a definition of genius as the capacity of the individual to make use of racial material. We are to think of this capacity as normal for all, varying in range and intensity, but liable to interruption and inhibition by mishandling, and strictly conditioned by the personal endowment of talent, intelligence, imagination, character. Thinking of genius as a psychic activity, we shall then have to think of this personal endowment as constituting the chief resource of genius.
The sum of such resources falls naturally into three groups, the racial inheritance, the talent-intelligence endowment, and the environmental endowment, such as education, social background, class and caste. In a long settled and racially unified country, all these resources can be thought of as presenting certain type relationships, which in their turn give rise to traditional ways of accommodation, producing a fairly unified effect, called the genius of the race. But in the United States no such unification either of the impulse or the effect is possible. We have no lack of American geniuses, but as yet no strongly characterized American genius. Even under democratized education, individual res-ources are so varied that much of our genius energy is lost in the uninstructed struggle toward homogeneous expression. It is in the hope that, by informing ourselves of the genius process and the relations of genius to its resources, a habit of rapid and successful coordination may be established, that these studies have been undertaken.