What's in it for the talent?

Author:Epstein, Joseph

Of the various kinds of snob I undoubtedly am, it is as a talent snob that I wish above all to be known and, I hope, remembered. People who have real ability, who can do dashingly what most people cannot do at all, have my number. The kinds of talent I am able to appreciate are not merely varied but appallingly varied. I love Vermeer and Blossom Dearie, Sugar Ray Robinson and Max Beerbohm, and with very little strain I could come up with much wilder juxtapositions. Talent--the real, the vital, the magical thing--turns me soft and atwitter. I sometimes lapse into thinking that talent is all that matters in the world, even though I know that there are many things--decency, loyalty, courage, good-heartedness--that matter much more. But then, of course, the over-valuing of talent is what makes me a talent snob in the first place.

Talent is a not a word that the dictionaries have served very well. Its origin seems to be in the ancient unit in which precious metals were measured. En most definitions, natural endowments are mentioned; so, too, special aptitudes; and sometimes--getting closer to the nub of the matter--the word gift comes into play. The fourteenth edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, which devotes an article to genius, says of talent only that it "refers to a native aptitude for some special kind of work [and] implies the relatively quick and easy acquisition of a particular skill." Valery, who said so many striking things, also said that we really need a word to cover the stretch that lies between talent and genius. Much as I like the ring of that, I find it a touch confusing because, though the one term is usually defined with reference to the other--with genius always given the higher place--neither has ever been properly locked up semantically.

My natural inclination is to prefer talent to genius. Genius is, as the English say, a bit of a muchness or, as we Americans say, too much. Geniuses have generally been more than a little sloppy. Aristotle claimed that "there is no great genius without a mixture of madness," and there is a good deal to it. Think of Picasso with his Communism, woman chasing, multiple small stupidities; Einstein, with his political naivete, silly hair, many minor cruelties; Shaw with his wish to reform English spelling, his utter vanity, his vegetarianism (imagine what the SOB would have been like had he eaten meat). Genius is so all-embracing, so all-round, yet I find I rarely wish to embrace it, let alone walk all the way round it.

I may have acquired this mild antipathy to genius from Max Beerbohm, who seems never to have met a genius he didn't dislike. (His distaste for George Bernard Shaw was considerable.) He wrote a brilliant little essay, "A Clergyman," that comes to the defense of an unknown cleric bullied, in the pages of Boswell's biography, by Dr. Johnson. When Max met W. B. Yeats, he felt that "the pleasure of meeting Yeats was not for me an unmixed one. I felt always rather uncomfortable, as though I had submitted myself to a mesmerist who somehow didn't mesmerise me." Yeats, in time, became his genius--that is, someone slightly other than himself. "His dignity and charm were as they had always been," writes Max. "But I found it less easy to draw caricatures of him. He seemed to have become subtly less like himself." The genius, I gather, had taken over, leaving the man behind.

Even Goethe, that universal genius of all geniuses, is not exempt from these Beerbohmian criticisms. In his essay "Quia Imperfectum," Max notes that Goethe has often been described as "the perfect man" and was "a personage on the great scale, in the grand manner, gloriously balanced, rounded"--"from no angle, as he went his long way, could it be plausibly hinted that he wasn't sublime." One waits, after such a buildup from the always measured Max, for the blade to fall, and now it does: "But a man whose career was glorious without intermission, decade after decade, does sorely try our patience."

Max goes on to show, through describing a minor incident in which Goethe was trapped into having his portrait painted by a failed German artist named Tischbein, the great genius's vanity, naivete, conceit. "Deep thinking and high imagining [such as geniuses go in for] blunt that trivial instinct by which you and I size people up," Max writes, and that, before he is done, ain't the half of it. The essay is ostensibly about Tischbein's failure to complete his portrait of Goethe. Max speculates that Tischbein may have abandoned him to court the beautiful future wife of the English ambassador to Naples. But "a likelier explanation is merely that Goethe . . . irked him." By the essay's end, Goethe comes out rather resembling that part of the horse that jumps the fence last.

The only modern genius whom I admire is Winston Churchill, and I wonder if this isn't so because, along with being a political genius, he was also an immensely talented man: an excellent writer, a brilliant talker, a not-half-bad painter. Churchill got so many things done, in different lines and fields. I also prefer my geniuses to die young, a la Mozart, Schubert, and Keats, and not stick around to grow as egomaniacal as Wagner, as grotesque as Ezra Pound, as mean as Robert Frost, or as bombastic as Frank Lloyd Wright.

I have met a small number of Nobel Prize winners, three or four men of astonishing erudition, and a few brilliant scientists of the first rank, but I've never met a true genius. A genius is someone who changes one's very conception of the possible, whose originality is such as to take him outside the traveled paths, there to create or explore things the world would probably not have come upon without him, or at least not as quickly. "What, indeed, is genius," asked Walter de la Mare, writing about Joseph Conrad, "but a power of receptiveness so individual that its revelation in the form of art is the revelation of a new universe."

A real distinction ought to be made between scientific and literary genius. The scientific geniuses, from Newton on, form a chain of sorts, one link building on the one before it; while literary genius--Dickens, Tolstoy, Joyce, Proust--is a one-shot deal, coming out of nowhere and often not leading to anything beyond itself. But perhaps you can sense me swimming out of my depth here, so I had better head back to shore.

I, who for most of my youth worried about my lack of talent, even now show a certain effrontery in talking about genius. Although I grew up Jewish and middle-class--in an atmosphere where people, stereotypically, worship cultural talent of all sorts--only two kinds of talent were really appreciated in my neighborhood: athletic talent among the young and the ability to earn a good living among our parents. (All those Jewish boys, and not a violin in sight--what a waste!) General intelligence, taste, and good manners seemed to count for little. In any case, I, as a boy, hadn't any of these talents or qualities in proportions significant enough to matter.

Small skills counted for less, but, I suppose, they did count for something. A nice hand-writing, a quick mathematical mind, a knack for drawing, an ability to sing on key, none of these would have changed my life--yet the fact is that I hadn't any of them. If someone had asked me, when I...

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