The Idolatry of Genius, part one

We’ve had some discussion recently on genius and the possibility for authentic art. Most recently, Lisa (using Woolf) called the term “genius” into question, suggesting that it does not adequately account for the extent to which those reckoned “great artists” are in debt to those who came before (teachers, colleagues, mentors) and to the social conditions that made possible their position as an artist. In this way, genius functions as a sort of privileged male illusion that allows the most indebted to consider themselves self-sufficient and authentically creative because of their self-sufficiency. I agree with Lisa’s critique and would like to push it further. I want to use Jean-Luc Marion’s analysis of the idol to suggest that much of what we consider the marks of “genius” indicates idolatry and illusion. Nevertheless, I would still like to claim that not all art is absolutely determined by a stifling immanence; in other words, that there is more to art than its context. To do this, in part two, I will draw on Marion’s understanding of the icon.

Perhaps the central point Marion makes about the idol is that it is nothing beyond the gaze that beholds it. This does not mean that idols do not exist, for one of their defining features is that they are seen. Indeed, they are idols because they are seen too much: they prevent truer sight by filling and dominating the gaze, becoming the entire world to the gaze. However, Marion argues that the idol only “fascinates and captivates the gaze” because “the gaze…desire[s] to satisfy itself in the idol.” It is the gaze that makes the idol “the privileged fixed point of its own consideration.” In the idol, the gaze finds its own limit and scope: that at which it is stuck or cannot see past, the hang-up, predisposition, or obsession that prevents a person from seeing clearly. “The idol thus acts as a mirror…that reflects the gaze’s image, or more exactly, the image of its aim and of the scope of that aim.” But, of course, as a mirror, the idol disguises itself as this function. Therefore, the gaze beholds its own limits and measurements, even while ravished by the idol, whether it be object, person, ideology, desire, concept, or art. In all cases, it is the gaze’s hidden conviction that the idol holds all truth and is the reference point to all meaning that creates and maintains the idol.

My suggestion is that this analysis tells us quite a bit about the spectre of genius. To argue this I do not want to consider whether or not certain recognized geniuses were “idolaters.” Instead, I want to look at all of us aspiring geniuses.

I suspect that most of those who strive to create (music, art, writings, ideas) face some temptation to aspire to genius. As Marion’s analysis of idolatry continues, he points out that in a polytheistic, post-Nietzschean, and nihilistic world we intentionally give ourselves idols in order to hide from the vanity of our lives, actions, and everything we consider important (which is why Marion so strongly recommends Ecclesiastes). This is simply to say that part of our condition is to evade our mortality and smallness. Avoiding idols and seeking truthfulness is exhausting, and we prefer an artificial busyness of vain pursuits. In our creative work we become tired or lazy: we find a solution and would rather not keep our eyes open for problems with it or for other solutions; we lack the discipline to cultivate what we consider our natural gifts or to pursue projects we have dreamed up; we forget that what we are making is not the entire world. With such moves we look for recourse in precisely the defensiveness, dishonesty, and hiding that Marion describes, not realizing that we are doing so.

This tiredness with being honest is a search and desire for independence and security. “In its funding, it is founded on itself, on its ‘works,’ and wants thus ‘to glorify itself before God’ (1 Cor. 1:29).” As such, it is made possible by a prior idolatry, closer to the surface. We become tired because we want the glory and (relative) fame of having contributed significantly to our discipline. Or we want that feeling of being purely creative. We want to proudly behold our finished work of art and marvel at our accomplishment. We want the self-assurance of knowing that, whatever others may say, we are authentic, with our original ideas and makings. And above all, even though we hardly admit it to itself, we desire the name of genius, so that we can be just like our heroes who so inspired us. Far from exemplars (saints) who give us glimpses of what it might mean to live truthfully, these heroes are an image held in front of us. They don’t point to a way of being, but simply are a perpetually achieved state of genius.

And this last desire points us to the idols of our geniuses. As in Marion’s analysis, the problem is not that the Gould’s interpretation of the Goldberg Variations are naturally idols. However, our gaze does have a tendency to seize the truth in such works of art, which makes them into objects rather than expressions and thereby destroys that very truth. The gaze creates an absolute and complete work of art and an absolute and complete creator, both of which are therefore unable to speak any longer. In the creation of geniuses we destroy the human who strove for an authentic expression and create the idol of a purely authentic expression. We remove flesh and blood from those who could be our exemplars – their struggles, their indebtments, their contexts, their influences as active conversation, and their ongoing activity as workers. Above all we forget how integral an ongoing receptivity was to their work, for without receptivity there is no inspiration and no material. Rather than humans again and again taking up the call to a new effort of expression in the midst of contingency, we instead see the work as already finished. We see a necessary thing simply presented by someone who possessed and then presented the truth.


4 thoughts on “The Idolatry of Genius, part one

  1. I’m a bit lost in this post. It would be nice to see one example threading your ideas together. Still, I’m convinced that tying Marion’s concept of the Idol to genius is fruitful. So I have some thoughts to try and further this work.

    In any case, to read this negatively, I think you are saying that trying to be a genius is symptomatic of being tired, lazy and unwilling to see problems. I can see fatigue as being away to continue on with one’s project, despite problems arising: “I’ve already come this far, I should finish. This way I will at least have this work to distance myself from.”
    (see my post on finishing one’s work)

    However, I don’t know of very many workers that are unable to see problems in their work — even works that they are pretty satisfied with. The kind of commitment to one’s project that gives the worker confidence in it’s value (despite the objections of others) is essential to any project, regardless of the “specter of genius”. Are you suggesting that the desire to be a genius is a rather new in history? Is this desire, which corresponds with a form of idolatry, a stubbornness in one’s ways that has never appeared in history until fairly recently?

    To read this in a positive light, I see you advocating a work ethic that is always questioning and always ready to re-work the project. But this, too, troubles me in some ways. For there will always be critics, and there will always be those who are great at condemning a work. For instance, Peter was not exactly excited about St. Paul’s work. And neither was Scheibe (a musician and philosopher trumpeting the Enlightenment ideals of music) excited about the work Bach was doing towards the end of his life (Alan Street suggests that the Goldberg Variations were a reply to Scheibe’s criticisms).

    Now, I also can’t help think that what this discussion of genius is parallel to is that of the contemporary discussion of the Event and its militants. Famously, Pascal pushed against the rationalism of his time and his own mathematical work in favor of a non-calculative faith. Or. take the Event of atonality with Schoenberg.

    It is, however, extremely difficult to try and account for how much the “specter of genius” debilitates or facilitates a work, regardless of trying to bring the value of the work into the picture. I almost liken it to the question: how much of what you do is selfish? and to what degree? (see the selfish beetle )

    There is a great quote by C.S. Lewis that goes like this: “Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.” I take this to mean that it is more important to focus one’s fidelity on the truthfulness on what is being said, rather than on focusing on it’s originality.

    I realize that the focus on truth goes against analyzing the Event or genius in some sense. Indeed, Badiou’s whole project is about trying to elucidate this relationship. It does seem like he thinks that if he does an exegesis on truth event being and subject, he will be able to aid in the new forms of each of these. I wonder if it is pointless to Events in general: Events will happen whether we like it or not, trying to create the conditions for an Event cannot work because an Event tends to come from nowhere and then we try and make sense of it from the past.

    (I hope these ramblings help)


  2. Let me begin by trying to re-state some of the idols that come up for those attempting to do creative work using some of the terms and categories you employ in your comment: The idol of genius often comes into play as a paralyzing force, making us believe that good work is produced easily, is defined by having no flaws, and must live up to some category of objective truth. At other times it has its deleterious impact from the opposite direction, providing us with an insular framework with which to proclaim truth from on high; this doesn’t necessarily mean that the artist does not see flaws in his or her own work, but perhaps that they are unaware of the historicity of their work or have a distorted sense of its scope and importance – perhaps they are convinced that the work they are doing, the direction they are pushing in, the niche they occupy is THE MOST IMPORTANT work being done (this is what I sense when I read the bios of many emerging composers, claiming to be breaking down the barriers that must be broken down in society, and putting the most important (and neglected!) voices of today into subversive dialogue with each other, and so on). In both of these cases, the worker assumes a privileged relationship with objective truth (even if it is not articulated this way), that the finished work is more of a completed object than an expressive movement, and a focus on the importance what one creates/contributes, as opposed to a desire for engagement, learning, expression, seeking to speak truthfully, and so forth. When we use the category of genius, I think that we almost always slip into the terms of the latter category; a desire to make something really valuable becomes the object we pursue. Lurking in the background here is a further idolatry of forgetting one’s own privileges and indebtments, as Lisa drew our attention to with her Woolf quote: we forget that our heroes were indebted to people and society in different ways and that to the extent that they also did not recognize this they made flawed work (e.g., C.S. Lewis would never have written something as terrible as The Problem of Pain if he had recognized even a tithe of his tremendous privilege). As we forget this, we forget the ways that our own work is bound to gifts and privileges we have received, e.g., we forget our teachers.

    Let me know if that helps to answer your questions and respond to your critiques. Perhaps I’m just repeating myself.

    I’ll go through and respond more specifically now.

    – I do think that fatigue is part of what I’m trying to get at. Marion would say that the gaze becomes tired and is trapped by the idol, which is so much easier to pursue and worship. I would say that an *inability* to finish one’s work is more often a sign of being haunted by the spectre of genius – because we need our work to say all things for all times eternally and when we finish it’s not going to do that. See Lisa’s great piece on some of this (

    – I lack the acumen to know or suggest whether what I’m identifying is a new or old phenomena (if it even exists at all)

    – I suspect that what I’m identifying as genius exists as a temptation for many who create, but I don’t think it’s a defining feature with nearly the same frequency (this is obviously all very anecdotal). So I’m not surprised to hear that most people that are creating things can see flaws in their own work. I also don’t think that being able to see flaws is mutually exclusively with being a worshipper of genius (as per my first paragraph in this comment).

    – I will try to be more clear about what I’m advocating in part two of this series.

    – There are ways of understanding my post that would fall into the private language fallacy, I agree. Do you think it still falls into this trap if I am talking moreso about ways to better pursue good work as opposed to ways of evaluating work? There’s also a difference between diagnosing someone as inherently selfish a priori and saying “this guy wouldn’t give go five minutes out of his way to drop me off. What a selfish asshole.” or “I thought he was being really generous by doing this work for me, but now I see how that act actually allowed him to take credit for my work, so I realize that it was selfish not generous.” Can we not make a similar diagnosis in regards to flaws in works of art?

    – I didn’t know the Lewis quote, but it is a good one. Right in line with what I’m trying to say.


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