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    20. The Recipe For Genius

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    Chapter 21
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    Let us start fair by frankly admitting that the genius, like the poet,
    is born and not made. If you wish to apply the recipe for producing him,
    it is unfortunately necessary to set out by selecting beforehand his
    grandfathers and grandmothers, to the third and fourth generation of
    those that precede him. Nevertheless, there _is_ a recipe for the
    production of genius, and every actual concrete genius who ever yet
    adorned or disgraced this oblate spheroid of ours has been produced, I
    believe, in strict accordance with its unwritten rules and unknown
    regulations. In other words, geniuses don't crop up irregularly
    anywhere, 'quite promiscuous like'; they have their fixed laws and their
    adequate causes: they are the result and effect of certain fairly
    demonstrable concatenations of circumstance: they are, in short, a
    natural product, not a _lusus naturæ_. You get them only under sundry
    relatively definite and settled conditions; and though it isn't
    (unfortunately) quite true that the conditions will always infallibly
    bring forth the genius, it is quite true that the genius can never be
    brought forth at all without the conditions. Do men gather grapes of
    thorns, or figs of thistles? No more can you get a poet from a family of
    stockbrokers who have intermarried with the daughters of an eminent
    alderman, or make a philosopher out of a country grocer's eldest son
    whose amiable mother had no soul above the half-pounds of tea and

    In the first place, by way of clearing the decks for action, I am going
    to start even by getting rid once for all (so far as we are here
    concerned) of that famous but misleading old distinction between genius
    and talent. It is really a distinction without a difference. I suppose
    there is probably no subject under heaven on which so much high-flown
    stuff and nonsense has been talked and written as upon this well-known
    and much-debated hair-splitting discrimination. It is just like that
    other great distinction between fancy and imagination, about which poets
    and essayists discoursed so fluently at the beginning of the present
    century, until at last one fine day the world at large woke up suddenly
    to the unpleasant consciousness that it had been wasting its time over a
    non-existent difference, and that fancy and imagination were after all
    absolutely identical. Now, I won't dogmatically assert that talent and
    genius are exactly one and the same thing; but I do assert that genius
    is simply talent raised to a slightly higher power; it differs from it
    not in kind but merely in degree: it is talent at its best. There is no
    drawing a hard-and-fast line of demarcation between the two. You might
    just as well try to classify all mankind into tall men and short men,
    and then endeavour to prove that a real distinction existed in nature
    between your two artificial classes. As a matter of fact, men differ in
    height and in ability by infinitesimal gradations: some men are very
    short, others rather short, others medium-sized, others tall, and yet
    others again of portentous stature like Mr. Chang and Jacob Omnium. So,
    too, some men are idiots, some are next door to a fool, some are stupid,
    some are worthy people, some are intelligent, some are clever, and some
    geniuses. But genius is only the culminating point of ordinary
    cleverness, and if you were to try and draw up a list of all the real
    geniuses in the last hundred years, no two people could ever be found
    to agree among themselves as to which should be included and which
    excluded from the artificial catalogue. I have heard Kingsley and
    Charles Lamb described as geniuses, and I have heard them both
    absolutely denied every sort of literary merit. Carlyle thought Darwin a
    poor creature, and Comte regarded Hegel himself as an empty windbag.

    The fact is, most of the grandiose talk about the vast gulf which
    separates genius from mere talent has been published and set abroad by
    those fortunate persons who fell, or fancied themselves to fall, under
    the former highly satisfactory and agreeable category. Genius, in short,
    real or self-suspected, has always been at great pains to glorify itself
    at the expense of poor, commonplace, inferior talent. There is a
    certain type of great man in particular which is never tired of dilating
    upon the noble supremacy of its own greatness over the spurious
    imitation. It offers incense obliquely to itself in offering it
    generically to the class genius. It brings ghee to its own image. There
    are great men, for example, such as Lord Lytton, Disraeli, Victor Hugo,
    the Lion Comique, and Mr. Oscar Wilde, who pose perpetually as great
    men; they cry aloud to the poor silly public so far beneath them, 'I am
    a genius! Admire me! Worship me!' Against this Byronic self-elevation on
    an aërial pedestal, high above the heads of the blind and battling
    multitude, we poor common mortals, who are not unfortunately geniuses,
    are surely entitled to enter occasionally our humble protest. Our
    contention is that the genius only differs from the man of ability as
    the man of ability differs from the intelligent man, and the intelligent
    man from the worthy person of sound common sense. The sliding scale of
    brains has infinite gradations; and the gradations merge insensibly into
    one another. There is no gulf, no gap, no sudden jump of nature; here
    as elsewhere, throughout the whole range of her manifold productions,
    our common mother _saltum non facit_.

    The question before the house, then, narrows itself down finally to
    this; what are the conditions under which exceptional ability or high
    talent is likely to arise?

    Now, I suppose everybody is ready to admit that two complete born fools
    are not at all likely to become the proud father and happy mother of a
    Shakespeare or a Newton. I suppose everybody will unhesitatingly allow
    that a great mathematician could hardly by any conceivable chance arise
    among the South African Bushmen, who cannot understand the arduous
    arithmetical proposition that two and two make four. No amount of
    education or careful training, I take it, would suffice to elevate the
    most profoundly artistic among the Veddahs of Ceylon, who cannot even
    comprehend an English drawing of a dog or horse, into a respectable
    president of the Royal Academy. It is equally unlikely (as it seems to
    me) that a Mendelssohn or a Beethoven could be raised in the bosom of a
    family all of whose members on either side were incapable (like a
    distinguished modern English poet) of discriminating any one note in an
    octave from any other. Such leaps as these would be little short of pure
    miracles. They would be equivalent to the sudden creation, without
    antecedent cause, of a whole vast system of nerves and nerve-centres in
    the prodigious brain of some infant phenomenon.

    On the other hand, much of the commonplace, shallow fashionable talk
    about hereditary genius--I don't mean, of course, the talk of our
    Darwins and Galtons, but the cheap drawing-room philosophy of easy
    sciolists who can't understand them--is itself fully as absurd in its
    own way as the idea that something can come out of nothing. For it is no
    explanation of the existence of genius to say that it is hereditary.
    You only put the difficulty one place back. Granting that young Alastor
    Jones is a budding poet because his father, Percy Bysshe Jones, was a
    poet before him, why, pray, was Jones the elder a poet at all, to start
    with? This kind of explanation, in fact, explains nothing; it begins by
    positing the existence of one original genius, absolutely unaccounted
    for, and then proceeds blandly to point out that the other geniuses
    derive their characteristics from him, by virtue of descent, just as all
    the sons of a peer are born honourables. The elephant supports the
    earth, and the tortoise supports the elephant, but who, pray, supports
    the tortoise? If the first chicken came out of an egg, what was the
    origin of the hen that laid it?

    Besides, the allegation as it stands is not even a true one. Genius, as
    we actually know it, is by no means hereditary. The great man is not
    necessarily the son of a great man or the father of a great man: often
    enough, he stands quite isolated, a solitary golden link in a chain of
    baser metal on either side of him. Mr. John Shakespeare woolstapler, of
    Stratford-on-Avon, Warwickshire, was no doubt an eminently respectable
    person in his own trade, and he had sufficient intelligence to be mayor
    of his native town once upon a time: but, so far as is known, none of
    his literary remains are at all equal to _Macbeth_ or _Othello_. Parson
    Newton, of the Parish of Woolsthorpe, in Lincolnshire, may have preached
    a great many very excellent and convincing discourses, but there is no
    evidence of any sort that he ever attempted to write the _Principia_.
    _Per contra_ the Miss Miltons, good young ladies that they were (though
    of conflicting memory), do not appear to have differed conspicuously in
    ability from the other Priscillas and Patiences and Mercies amongst whom
    their lot was cast; while the Marlboroughs and the Wellingtons do not
    seem to bud out spontaneously into great commanders in the second
    generation. True, there are numerous cases such as that of the
    Herschels, father and son, or the two Scaligers, or the Caracci, or the
    Pitts, or the Scipios, and a dozen more, where the genius, once
    developed, has persisted for two or three, or even four lives: but these
    instances really cast no light at all upon our central problem, which is
    just this--How does the genius come in the first place to be developed
    at all from parents in whom individually no particular genius is
    ultimately to be seen?

    Suppose we take, to start with, a race of hunting savages in the
    earliest, lowest, and most undifferentiated stage, we shall get really
    next to no personal peculiarities or idiosyncrasies of any sort amongst
    them. Every one of them will be a good hunter, a good fisherman, a good
    scalper and a good manufacturer of bows and arrows. Division of labour,
    and the other troublesome technicalities of our modern political
    economy, are as unknown among such folk as the modern nuisance of
    dressing for dinner. Each man performs all the functions of a citizen on
    his own account, because there is nobody else to perform them for
    him--the medium of exchange known as hard cash has not, so far as he is
    concerned, yet been invented; and he performs them well, such as they
    are, because he inherits from all his ancestors aptitudes of brain and
    muscle in these directions, owing to the simple fact that those among
    his collateral predecessors who didn't know how to snare a bird, or were
    hopelessly stupid in the art of chipping flint arrowheads, died out of
    starvation, leaving no representatives. The beneficent institution of
    the poor law does not exist among savages, in order to enable the
    helpless and incompetent to bring up families in their own image. There,
    survival of the fittest still works out its own ultimately benevolent
    and useful end in its own directly cruel and relentless way, cutting
    off ruthlessly the stupid or the weak, and allowing only the strong and
    the cunning to become the parents of future generations.

    Hence every young savage, being descended on both sides from ancestors
    who in their own way perfectly fulfilled the ideal of complete
    savagery--were good hunters, good fishers, good fighters, good craftsmen
    of bow or boomerang--inherits from these his successful predecessors all
    those qualities of eye and hand and brain and nervous system which go to
    make up the abstractly Admirable Crichton of a savage. The qualities in
    question are ensured in him by two separate means. In the first place,
    survival of the fittest takes care that he and all his ancestors shall
    have duly possessed them to some extent to start with; in the second
    place, constant practice from boyhood upward increases and develops the
    original faculty. Thus savages, as a rule, display absolutely
    astonishing ability and cleverness in the few lines which they have made
    their own. Their cunning in hunting, their patience in fishing, their
    skill in trapping, their infinite dodges for deceiving and cajoling the
    animals or enemies that they need to outwit, have moved the wonder and
    admiration of innumerable travellers. The savage, in fact, is not
    stupid: in his own way his cleverness is extraordinary. But the way is a
    very narrow and restricted one, and all savages of the same race walk in
    it exactly alike. Cunning they have, skill they have, instinct they
    have, to a most marvellous degree; but of spontaneity, originality,
    initiative, variability, not a single spark. Know one savage of a tribe
    and you know them all. Their cleverness is not the cleverness of the
    individual man: it is the inherited and garnered intelligence or
    instinct of the entire race.

    How, then, do originality, diversity, individuality, genius, begin to
    come in? In this way, as it seems to me, looking at the matter both _à
    priori_ and by the light of actual experience.

    Suppose a country inhabited in its interior by a savage race of hunters
    and fighters, and on its seaboard by an equally savage race of pirates
    and fishermen, like the Dyaks of Borneo. Each of these races, if left to
    itself, will develop in time its own peculiar and special type of savage
    cleverness. Each (in the scientific slang of the day) will adapt itself
    to its particular environment. The people of the interior will acquire
    and inherit a wonderful facility in spearing monkeys and knocking down
    parrots; while the people of the sea-coast will become skilful managers
    of canoes upon the water, and merciless plunderers of one another's
    villages, after the universal fashion of all pirates. These original
    differences of position and function will necessarily entail a thousand
    minor differences of intelligence and skill in a thousand different
    ways. For example, the sea-coast people, having of pure need to make
    themselves canoes and paddles, will probably learn to decorate their
    handicraft with ornamental patterns; and the æsthetic taste thus aroused
    will, no doubt, finally lead them to adorn the façades of their wooden
    huts with the grinning skulls of slaughtered enemies, prettily disposed
    at measured distances. A thoughtless world may laugh, indeed, at these
    naïve expressions of the nascent artistic and decorative faculties in
    the savage breast, but the æsthetic philosopher knows how to appreciate
    them at their true worth, and to see in them the earliest ingenuous
    precursors of our own Salisbury, Lichfield, and Westminster.

    Now, so long as these two imaginary races of ours continue to remain
    distinct and separate, it is not likely that idiosyncrasies or varieties
    to any great extent will arise among them. But, as soon as you permit
    intermarriage to take place, the inherited and developed qualities of
    the one race will be liable to crop up in the next generation, diversely
    intermixed in every variety of degree with the inherited and developed
    qualities of the other. The children may take after either parent in any
    combination of qualities whatsoever. You have admitted an apparently
    capricious element of individuality: a power on the part of the
    half-breeds of differing from one another to an extent quite impossible
    in the two original homogeneous societies. In one word, you have made
    possible the future existence of diversity in character.

    If, now, we turn from these perfectly simple savage communities to our
    own very complex and heterogeneous world, what do we find? An endless
    variety of soldiers, sailors, tinkers, tailors, butchers, bakers,
    candlestick makers, and jolly undertakers, most of whom fall into a
    certain rough number of classes, each with its own developed and
    inherited traits and peculiarities. Our world is made up, like the world
    of ancient Egypt and of modern India, of an immense variety of separate
    castes--not, indeed, rigidly demarcated and strictly limited as in those
    extremely hierarchical societies, but still very fairly hereditary in
    character, and given on the average to a tolerably close system of
    intermarriage within the caste.

    For example, there is the agricultural labourer caste--the Hodge
    Chawbacon of urban humour, who in his military avatar also reappears as
    Tommy Atkins, a little transfigured, but at bottom identical--the
    alternative aspect of a single undivided central reality. Hodge for the
    most part lives and dies in his ancestral village: marries Mary, the
    daughter of Hodge Secundus of that parish, and begets assorted Hodges
    and Marys in vast quantities, all of the same pattern, to replenish the
    earth in the next generation. There you have a very well-marked
    hereditary caste, little given to intermixture with others, and from
    whose members, however recruited by fresh blood, the object of our
    quest, the Divine Genius, is very unlikely to find his point of origin.
    Then there is the town artisan caste, sprung originally, indeed, from
    the ranks of the Hodges, but naturally selected out of its most active,
    enterprising, and intelligent individuals, and often of many generations
    standing in various forms of handicraft. This is a far higher and more
    promising type of humanity, from the judicious intermixture of whose
    best elements we are apt to get our Stephensons, our Arkwrights, our
    Telfords, and our Edisons. In a rank of life just above the last, we
    find the fixed and immobile farmer caste, which only rarely blossoms
    out, under favourable circumstances on both sides, into a stray Cobbett
    or an almost miraculous miller Constable. The shopkeepers are a tribe of
    more varied interests and more diversified lives. An immense variety of
    brain elements are called into play by their diverse functions in
    diverse lines; and when we take them in conjunction with the upper
    mercantile grades, which are chiefly composed of their ablest and most
    successful members, we get considerable chances of those happy blendings
    of individual excellences in their casual marriages which go to make up
    talent, and, in their final outcome, genius. Last of all, in the
    professional and upper classes there is a freedom and play of faculty
    everywhere going on, which in the chances of intermarriage between
    lawyer-folk and doctor-folk, scientific people and artistic people,
    county families and bishops or law lords, and so forth _ad infinitum_,
    offers by far the best opportunities of any for the occasional
    development of that rare product of the highest humanity, the genuine

    But in every case it is, I believe, essentially intermixture of
    variously acquired hereditary characteristics that makes the best and
    truest geniuses. Left to itself, each separate line of caste ancestry
    would tend to produce a certain fixed Chinese or Japanese perfection of
    handicraft in a certain definite, restricted direction, but not probably
    anything worth calling real genius. For example, a family of artists,
    starting with some sort of manual dexterity in imitating natural forms
    and colours with paint and pencil, and strictly intermarrying always
    with other families possessing exactly the same inherited endowments,
    would probably go on getting more and more woodenly accurate in its
    drawing; more and more conventionally correct in its grouping; more and
    more technically perfect in its perspective and light-and-shade, and so
    forth, by pure dint of accumulated hereditary experience from generation
    to generation. It would pass from the Egyptian to the Chinese style of
    art by slow degrees and with infinite gradations. But suppose, instead
    of thus rigorously confining itself to its own caste, this family of
    handicraft artists were to intermarry freely with poetical, or
    seafaring, or candlestick-making stocks. What would be the consequence?
    Why, such an infiltration of other hereditary characteristics, otherwise
    acquired, as might make the young painters of future generations more
    wide minded, more diversified, more individualistic, more vivid and
    lifelike. Some divine spark of poetical imagination, some tenderness of
    sentiment, some play of fancy, unknown perhaps, to the hard, dry,
    matter-of-fact limners of the ancestral school, might thus be introduced
    into the original line of hereditary artists. In this way one can easily
    see how even intermarriage with non-artistic stocks might improve the
    breed of a family of painters. For while each caste, left to itself, is
    liable to harden down into a mere technical excellence after its own
    kind, a wooden facility for drawing faces, or casting up columns of
    figures, or hacking down enemies, or building steam-engines, a healthy
    cross with other castes is liable to bring in all kinds of new and
    valuable qualities, each of which, though acquired perhaps in a totally,
    different line of life, is apt to bear a new application in the new
    complex whereof it now forms a part.

    In our very varied modern societies, every man and every woman, in the
    upper and middle ranks of life at least, has an individuality and an
    idiosyncrasy so compounded of endless varying stocks and races. Here is
    one whose father was an Irishman and his mother a Scotchwoman; here is
    another whose paternal line were country parsons, while his maternal
    ancestors were city merchants or distinguished soldiers. Take almost
    anybody's 'sixteen quarters'--his great-great grandfathers and
    great-great grandmothers, of whom he has sixteen all told--and what do
    you often find? A peer, a cobbler, a barrister, a common sailor, a Welsh
    doctor, a Dutch merchant, a Huguenot pastor, a cornet of horse, an Irish
    heiress, a farmer's daughter, a housemaid, an actress, a Devonshire
    beauty, a rich young lady of sugar-broking extraction, a Lady Carolina,
    a London lodging-house keeper. This is not by any means an exaggerated
    case; it would be easy, indeed, from one's own knowledge of family
    histories to supply a great many real examples far more startling than
    this partially imaginary one. With such a variety of racial and
    professional antecedents behind us, what infinite possibilities are
    opened before us of children with ability, folly, stupidity, genius?

    Infinite numbers of intermixtures everywhere exist in civilised
    societies. Most of them are passable; many of them are execrable; a few
    of them are admirable; and here and there, one of them consists of that
    happy blending of individual characteristics which we all immediately
    recognise as genius--at least after somebody else has told us so.

    The ultimate recipe for genius, then, would appear to be somewhat after
    this fashion. Take a number of good, strong, powerful stocks, mentally
    or physically, endowed with something more than the average amount of
    energy and application. Let them be as varied as possible in
    characteristics; and, so far as convenient, try to include among them a
    considerable small-change of races, dispositions, professions, and
    temperaments. Mix, by marriage, to the proper consistency; educate the
    offspring, especially by circumstances and environment, as broadly,
    freely, and diversely as you can; let them all intermarry again with
    other similarly produced, but personally unlike, idiosyncrasies; and
    watch the result to find your genius in the fourth or fifth generation.
    If the experiment has been properly performed, and all the conditions
    have been decently favourable, you will get among the resultant five
    hundred persons a considerable sprinkling of average fools, a fair
    proportion of modest mediocrities, a small number of able people, and
    (in case you are exceptionally lucky and have shuffled your cards very
    carefully) perhaps among them all a single genius. But most probably the
    genius will have died young of scarlet fever, or missed fire through
    some tiny defect of internal brain structure. Nature herself is trying
    this experiment unaided every day all around us, and, though she makes a
    great many misses, occasionally she makes a stray hit and then we get a
    Shakespeare or a Grimaldi.

    'But you haven't proved all this: you have only suggested it.' Does one
    prove a thesis of deep-reaching importance in a ten-page essay? And if
    one proved it in a big book, with classified examples and detailed
    genealogies of all the geniuses, would anybody on earth except Mr.
    Francis Galton ever take the trouble to read it?
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