It takes brains to spot Ein­steins

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Barry Craig

THE great sci­en­tist Al­bert Einstein comes across in pho­tos as a di­shev­elled grand­fa­ther. His hair has just re­turned from shock ther­apy, his chest is drain­ing away in his waist­coat and his mous­tache des­per­ately needs weed­ing. In short, here’s a guy with an IQ well over 200 — dou­ble the av­er­age per­son’s — and, if you didn’t know who he was, you’d be search­ing the room for his nanny. Yet, in his school-mas­ter­ish book Di­vine Fury, a his­tory of ge­nius from an­cient times, in­tel­lec­tual his­to­rian Darrin McMa­hon of Florida State Univer­sity la­bels this de­ceased lit­tle man the “ge­nius of ge­niuses.” Which means, for most of us lunkheads, we can only spot the real thing when some­body in academia or au­thor­ity rightly or wrongly tells us they are, or — in the case of physi­cist Einstein — his­tory also de­clares it. Sadly, an eas­ier read than McMa­hon for Mr. and Ms. Av­er­age is prob­a­bly some­thing like The Pathol­ogy of Dengue Fever in the Repub­lic of Up­per Gabon. And for those who think Mensa is a male de­odor­ant, don’t even try. But Di­vine Fury (McMa­hon’s third book) is re­ward­ing if you’re will­ing to fre­quently stop and pon­der what you’ve just read. In an­cient times, McMa­hon ex­plains, ge­nius was a re­li­gious no­tion, bind­ing us to the di­vine, and it as­sumed su­per­hu­man abil­i­ties and god-like pow­ers. To­day, ge­nius is de­fined dif­fer­ently as an in­di­vid­ual of ex­cep­tional cre­ativ­ity and insight, a vi­sion­ary, helped along by a quan­ti­ta­tive sys­tem la­belled IQ. But McMa­hon writes that iden­ti­fy­ing ge­nius in terms of rea­son and sci­ence alone strips it of its mys­tique and ig­nores the re­li­gious-like piety con­sid­ered a prime char­ac­ter­is­tic of ge­nius for most of recorded his­tory. McMa­hon is most read­able when he’s talk­ing about spe­cific ge­niuses, es­pe­cially Hitler and Napoleon. He says there are very few (true) ge­niuses around any­more, al­though he sug­gests his­tory may prove him wrong. Any­way, he says the dis­tinc­tion doesn’t mean as much to­day thanks to overuse and in­flated claims. Ath­letes are called ge­niuses, as are rock stars, coaches, en­trepreneurs, sci­en­tists and com­puter geeks, whereas what they are is sim­ply good, some­times ex­cep­tional, at what they do, he says. McMa­hon ex­plains the dif­fer­ence by the work of the late mas­ter mar­keter and Ap­ple Com­put­ers founder Steve Jobs. He says a ge­nius is an orig­i­nal cre­ator, whereas Jobs wasn’t one be­cause, by his own ad­mis­sion, he adapted the ideas of oth­ers, al­beit bril­liantly. In the realm of the bizarre, says McMa­hon, there’s a pseudo-ed­u­ca­tional in­dus­try de­voted to turn­ing pre­co­cious tots into bud­ding Mozarts, as if a vi­sion­ary can be cre­ated, and cre­ated so eas­ily they make it sound like all it takes is to add some­thing to the lit­tle dar­lings’ ce­real. He con­cludes that be­cause of our strong so­cial de­mand for equal­ity, we no longer pros­trate be­fore in­tel­lec­tual great­ness. We are in­stead wary of it and have cut it down to size by now be­liev­ing there is a bit of it in all of us. So what we’ve got to­day is a para­dox — more ge­nius and fewer ge­niuses. But McMa­hon is undis­turbed. While he’s sure ge­nius is im­mor­tal, he seems to say that hu­man­ity — the act of be­ing hu­man — could be the great­est ge­nius of all. Who’d ar­gue with that? Re­tired Winnipeg jour­nal­ist Barry Craig’s favourite brains are Her­man Melville and

Dy­lan Thomas.

Di­vine Fury The His­tory of Ge­nius By Darrin M. McMa­hon Ba­sic Books, 352 pages,

$34.50

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