In the most recent issue of The New York Review of Books, Tamsin Shaw reviews Toynbee Prize Foundation Vice-President Darrin McMahon’s most recent work, Divine Fury: A History of Genius (New York: Basic Books, 2013).
“Darrin McMahon’s Divine Fury,” writes Shaw:does not shy away from the preposterous and the ridiculous, or from the disturbing and dangerous. Many of us now use the term “genius” as a simple expression of wonder, referring to a person or an achievement that we find inexplicably brilliant. But as McMahon’s rich narrative shows, across its long history the term has accrued connotations that go far beyond this commonsense core, leading us into the realms of superstition, bad science, and subservience to questionable forms of authority. And yet his book ends on an unexpected note of regret that “genius” in the most extravagant sense of the term has given way to more trivial uses, to a culture in which everyone has a genius for something and where even infants might be “baby Einsteins.” The cult of the “great exception,” the unfathomably and inimitably great human being, he tells us, has justifiably waned. Nevertheless, McMahon’s closing words are elegiac, hinting that its loss might somehow diminish us. In his intriguing story not only is the age of genius dead; the seeds of its destruction were sown very early on. The term “genius” in its modern sense was first adopted in the eighteenth century and it involved a conflation of two Latin terms: genius, which for the Romans was the god of our conception, imbuing us with particular personality traits but nevertheless a supernatural force external to us, and ingenium, a related noun referring to our internal dispositions and talents, our inborn nature. McMahon also details the associations that these ideas had derived from the Greek world, particularly from speculation about the Socratic daimonion, the Platonic idea that poetry is the product of a “divine madness,” and the Aristotelian view that there are fundamental differences between minds.