Roll over Beethoven
How I stopped being a genius

Until the age of 29 I was a tortured genius.

To help other people recognise this fact I lived in a squalid bedsit. I was also permanently unhealthy in that way typical of geniuses. And I barked my tortured and misunderstood poetry into the smoky fug of doggerel-filled rooms.

Don't let anyone tell you that being a tortured genius is easy.  It's not.  It demands things of you like drinking and drug taking, and unsatisfactory relationships.  It also creates a persistent idea that the world owes you a living because you are far too absorbed in your lofty contemplations to think about filthy lucre. Of course I worried about money, but being permanently broke contributed to a vortex of hypochondria and depression -- states that led me to create more tortured poetry.

I'd better warn you that another thing about being a genius is that you end up talking about yourself incessantly.

I met Dr Janet Summerton by luck. For a few months I was her lodger. At first I suspected that she thought I was a genius. So imagine my surprise when one day (over a glass of wine and a pate-smeared water biscuit) she told me that there was no such thing as a genius.

How could this be? Did I not refute her assertion just by sitting there drinking her wine and worrying about my pulse rate?
It turns out, Janet told me, that genius is a fairly modern notion. For me this was an eye-opener.  I had thought that geniuses had always existed. 

Surely, for example, when Shakespeare sprang up in the morning with the glorious filthy tang of London drains in his nostrils (and worrying if London was getting a bit too plauge-ridden to stay) he was certain of his genius?

Well... No actually.  He wouldn't have thought any such animal existed.

Janet pointed me towards Keywords by Raymond Williams. This told me that Genius entered English in the C14 from the Latin.  It meant a guardian spirit. It was then extended to mean 'a characteristic disposition or quality'.  Only towards the end of the eighteenth century did it acquire its modern meaning of 'an extraordinary ability'.

If you allow the idea that Genius is an invention, then it allows for all kinds of new things to happen. 

First it allows you to consider a world in which there is not a race of demigods possessed by an otherworldly ability to which ordinary mortals cannot aspire.  Don't get me wrong, there's no denying the fact that some people have extraordinary gifts, but to simply suggest that this is the result of divine inspiration actually downgrades the sheer hard work that went into their achievements.

Secondly on a personal level, once you start to view genius as a social construct, you wonder why you or anyone else feels they need to conform to such a ridiculous and damaging image.

The poet T.S. Eliot working away at the bank comes to mind straight away.  Maybe not as exciting or "poetical" a life as Byron who fought and womanised his way around Europe. This doesn't make Eliot's poetry any more real or less brilliant than Byron. 

The idea that there gifted people should behave in certain ways has claimed many lives.  In poetry I think of Dylan Thomas who drank himself to death. And for what? He wrote most of his best work when he was very young.  It's only when he started to be the very image of a tortured genius did he lose the plot completely. 

As for rock and pop music it is full of bizarre caricatures of genius --  informing the dozens of suicides, overdoses and the rest.  It seems to me strange now that appallingly self-destructive behaviour somehow equals authenticity in the eyes of the world.  Why exactly do we need rock stars, for example to choke on their own vomit?  Why do we think Van Gough is the archetypal painter? 

Actually his lack of success during his own time was the exception rather than the rule..  

Anyway thanks to my pal Janet  I stopped being a genius. To be honest I was crap at it anyway. Gradually I moved out of the bedsit, and came to a series of (then) painful compromises that allowed me to take full time work and earn some cash.

After all Shakespeare, Michaelangelo and Mozart all managed to keep the wolf from the door. 

Not that they were geniuses mind you.

Peter Kenny
Peter Kenny