Since this is the cricket season, let’s start things with a related story. A few years ago, the legspinner Laxman Sivaramakrishnan was on television commentating on a match. Sachin Tendulkar was batting and the commentators were discussing the word “genius”. Sivaramakrishnan called Tendulkar one, and the other individual, an Australian if I remember it right, said that while Tendulkar was a great player he may not be a genius.
Sivaramakrishnan responded by saying that his definition of genius was someone who “did things others cannot do or do with difficulty” or words to the effect. And that, by his definition, Sachin was a genius. If we examine that statement, it will actually not be easy to qualify Tendulkar as a genius.
On the list of players who have played at least 14 Test matches, Tendulkar ranks 22nd on averages.
His contemporaries, the South African all-rounder Jacques Kallis and Sri Lankan wicketkeeper batsman Kumara Sangakkara, rank above him. Donald Bradman is far and above, the leader here with an average of just under 100 runs per innings. The word genius for him is indisputable, particularly because he was outstanding not just in our times but also his: there is no batsman from his era who came close to his numbers. This shows that it wasn’t just an external factor, such as poor fielding or slower bowling, in his time, that made Bradman outstanding: it was the stuff inside him. But what was it?
We are told very often, and therefore we are likely to believe, that genius is one per cent inspiration and 99 per cent perspiration. Meaning that application and work and other such Protestant values are what separate the successful. This link of exceptional performance to consistency again brings in Bradman, but excludes Sachin as a genius.
Bradman scored 29 centuries in 49 matches, including 12 double centuries and two triple centuries. Meaning he was highly likely to succeed every time he played, and when he was set, he was very difficult to dismiss.
In contrast, Tendulkar scored 51 centuries in 200 matches with six double centuries and no triple and scoring at a little over half of Bradman’s average. It may hurt the Indian supporter, and I am a big fan of Tendulkar’s, but I think that Sivaramakrishnan was wrong in calling him a genius.
Let’s have another look at the meaning of the word, from another pursuit: music. The guitar player Steve Vai was once describing his association with the musician Frank Zappa. Vai was a prodigiously gifted teenager who auditioned for Zappa’s band and was selected to play with them when he was only 17. Zappa died in 1993 and is one of Western popular music’s most enigmatic, respected and unusual characters. Vai said about him that Zappa had “the ability to summon inspiration at will”. This, Vai said, was what genius was.
The interesting question is whether this is the product of work or genes or something else. As someone who has dabbled in music for many decades, including playing with bands, I have always found one aspect of it incredible and aweinspiring: perfect pitch. This is the ability to identify a note without any reference. Meaning that even if a car were to sound a horn, or one heard a bit of birdsong, the listener could identify the note, say C sharp.
Most professional musicians, even at the highest level, need a reference to identify a note. Readers who have attended or heard a concert of symphonic music may have observed the first violin — meaning the violinist seated closest to the audience, to the conductor’s left — stand and play a note. The other musicians tune their instruments based on this. Clearly the holder of perfect pitch doesn’t need this reference. Does this make him or her a genius?
Ian McEwan’s 1998 Booker Prizewinning novel Amsterdam has a character, Clive Linley, who is a composer. McEwan said Linley has
We are told very often, and therefore we are likely to believe, that genius is one per cent inspiration and 99 per cent perspiration
the gift of perfect pitch. I have often wondered how such people “see” music. Do they see it as colour, where each thing is very clearly different and easily distinguishable? This would be very different from the way the rest of us interact with music, which is in a more amorphous way.
Can this sense of perfect pitch be trained, or is it a gift, meaning that only a few will ever have it and the rest of us cannot no matter how hard we try?
The other thing to consider while we are examining the idea of genius is whether there are some gifts that are higher than others. Naipaul had a hierarchy of talent in art. He thought music the lowest, because it appealed to the crudest sense: the aural. It required no engagement of the intellect and the body responded to it in primal ways, through dance.
Naipaul’s observation was that while there were “geniuses” in music and sport and even mathematics, there was no prodigy in writing. One could not be a great writer at 17, though one could be considered a great musician and even a genius. Writing needed material and the experience: no matter how clever one was in youth, in the absence of this essential condition being met of accessing experience and therefore material, one could not produce great literature.
Music did not require any such thing and therefore was lower.
While this is an interesting perspective, it will, of course, be disputed strongly. W A Mozart died in his 30s over two centuries ago but his work (which was all written down) is today part of the canon of Western music. What he produced has longevity through an agreement among many European nations that it was of exceptional quality.
Clearly, it is difficult to agree on not only who a genius is but also what it is. My own definition is crude but effective. As a middle-aged man I have knowledge about my self and a certain modesty about what I can and cannot do. From that perspective it becomes easier to recognise the gifts of others. And so I do not reach for a specific meaning: I know genius when I see it.