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Articles > Unacknowledged Geniuses Do Not Exist

Unacknowledged Geniuses Do Not Exist

Javier Gomá Lanzón

It is a fascinating question:  Could a 19th century author suddenly appear, an author who had been previously unknown despite having a literary acumen similar to Flaubert, Balzac or Stendhal? Or would it be possible for a masterpiece worthy of comparison with the likes of Manet or Matisse to come out of nowhere in an auction?  The title of Javier Gomá's article makes his answer to this question obvious: no hidden geniuses who have gone unnoticed for their whole lives exist. This is at odds with the current romantic preference for the hidden and marvellous. At least this is the case when comparing an ordinary citizen's perception of reality. What is worse, in Javier Gomá's opinion, there is no clear evidence that unforgiveable slips have occurred or that the slips have deprived us of geniuses that would continue to illuminate our existence today.

I ask this without beating around the bush, do you think it's possible that we'll discover, in the next few years, a French novelist from the nineteenth century, unpublished until now, who has the same type of talent as, say, Flaubert, Balzac, or Stendhal? At a future art auction will we be surprised by a canvas painted by an undiscovered master with the same level of genius as Manet, Van Gogh, or Matisse? Rummaging about in second hand bookshops, searching library shelves, will we find a dusty treatise ─by an unjustly ignored philosopher─ containing an innovative vision of the world, as penetrating and worthy of universal knowledge as that of Nietzsche, Heidegger, or Wittgenstein?  In a trunk, yellowing away, are there scores of music by a composer as inspired as Mozart or Beethoven, just waiting for a lucky treasure hunter to find them?

I think most of us would agree on answering "no" to the questions mentioned above and, nevertheless, the romantic image of an undiscovered genius is firmly rooted in collective consciousness.  Romanticism created an insurmountable antagonism between the normality of life, as lived by the immense majority of the working and general population, and the sublime, eccentric artist, only fed by himself and his world. This antagonism crystallized in a crossroads of reproaches: mundane respectability scorned the shabbily dressed artist who did not know how to behave in the sitting room ─though sometimes the artist was decoratively admitted there and his creations were celebrated─, and the artist despised the social conventions in the bourgeois and philistine world dedicated to vulgar commerce. Ultimately, the world spurned him and in this circumstance the artist found a motive for self-affirmation: the true genius is unacknowledged; they ignore me, therefore ─concluding with a paralogism─ I am a genius. This image of an ignored genius became more widespread throughout the nineteenth century until it turned into common currency as a way of self- understanding for the common man. This is how Italo Svevo, in his novel Emilio's Carnival (Senelità) presents his protagonist, Emilio Brentani, ─an average soul without prominence, the author of uninspired literary writing─ as someone who "did believe, in life as in art, that he was still in a preparatory stage, that the deepest recesses of his being harbored an ingenious mechanism of great power, not yet functioning but still under construction. He continually lived in impatient anticipation of something his brain was sure to produce: artistry of some kind that would come to him from some source, wealth, success ─as though the age of youthful creativity had not already passed him by."[1]

And so the Brentanis of today console themselves for their lack of impact by envisaging themselves as unacknowledged geniuses with elusive, delayed and posthumous fame.

So then, it is my duty to inform you, after having carried out extensive historical and comparative research into the subject, that according to the results of this investigation the unacknowledged genius does not exist and has never existed. While creators who have achieved popular success are certainly in no way all at the level of genius, those who are truly geniuses always end up enjoying a widespread reception among their contemporaries. It's natural: if there is any scarce commodity in the world, this is the rare gift of genius. And, we already know that scarce commodities are the most in demand. True art is the promise of happiness and throughout time man has longingly pursued this, open-armed, like someone in the desert, thirsty, running towards the mirage of an oasis. Therefore, though resistance and obstacles can happen that delay it, every era inexorably applauds its glories and not one is left without laurels. It's only a question of a certain lapse of time.

How much time? My working hypothesis is the following: the long life of a genius -seventy years, eighty years- always bears witness to his own success. Or, in other words: if a creator has reached this advanced age and has still not deserved the attention of his contemporaries, there is the extremely high probability that his works do not go beyond the most respectable mediocrity. Or there is even another way to put it: the long-lived creator must not count on posthumous fame. I challenge him to review the history of culture in order to confirm the truth of this law.

And now come the cautions with respect to this law. The first refers to what should be understood as the success of a genius: not necessarily the elevation of his name to universal history, but rather the most limited general approval from the community to which he belongs. The overlaps between cultures or hegemonies with some over others launch some creators to planetary recognition and others not, or some before and others after, yet this universal extension of fame obeys accidents that escape the law of genius stated above. Second: the esteem for a creator and his works experiences oscillations, not only after his death but also during his lifetime, so that the long life of a genius can likewise bear witness to his momentarily being forgotten by the same people who had previously applauded him.

And, lastly, if there is something to be learned from Svevo's novel it is how difficult, how ingeniously difficult, it is to lead a dignified life as an ordinary person. The end of Emilio's Carnival (Senelità) describes how Brentani, exhausted by an impossible love affair, begins the stage of life indicated in the title of the novel with melancholy: "That emptiness, nevertheless, was finally stretched to its limit. Reborn in him was the taste for security, for a tranquil life, and his preoccupation about himself took the place of any other desire." The reader imagines that in the end the protagonist renounces his ache for genius and, already free from the adventitious hypostasis that led him to premature old age, he could now take care of himself and start living a true life.

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[1] Italo Svevo, Emilio's Circus (Senelità),  trans. Beth Archer Brombert, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001.)

El País, ‘Babelia’, April 10, 2010

Translated by Jennifer Brooke Hoge

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