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The importance of genius

Post #1257 • November 14, 2008, 8:36 AM • 15 Comments

John Stuart Mill, Of Originality, reprinted in The Libertarian Reader:

I insist thus emphatically on the importance of genius, and the necessity of allowing it to unfold itself freely both in thought and in practice, being well aware that no one will deny the position in theory, but knowing also that almost every one in reality, is totally indifferent to it. People think genius a fine thing if it enables a man to write an exciting poem, or paint a picture. But in its true sense, that of originality in thought and action, though no one says that it is not a thing to be admired, nearly all, at heart, think that they can do very well without it. Unhappily this is too natural to be wondered at. Originality is the one thing which unoriginal minds cannot feel the use of. They cannot see what it is to do for them: how should they? If they could see what it would do for them, it would not be originality. The first service which originality has to render then, is that of opening their eyes: which being once fully done, they would have a chance of being themselves original. Meanwhile, recollecting that nothing was ever yet done which someone was not the first to do, and that all good things which exist are the fruits of originality, let them be modest enough to believe that there is something still left for it to accomplish, and assure themselves that they are more in need of originality, the less they are conscious of the want.



Chris Rywalt

November 14, 2008, 9:58 AM

Man, you can't ever just quote one sentence from Mill. You need a whole paragraph to get the tangled thing across. And then it's really great.



November 14, 2008, 10:11 AM

There's a very good article called "Late Bloomers" in the Oct. 20th issue of the New Yorker that addresses precocity,genius and those of us(like myself)whose development happens slowly over time.



November 14, 2008, 11:10 AM

Late Bloomers



November 14, 2008, 2:29 PM

ahab: Llike most New Yorker articles, it was too long. But I found the remarks about Cezanne's cutting paintings interesting.



November 15, 2008, 12:14 AM

There's a very good critique of Gladwell's article in NYT over at The Abbeville Manual of Style, here:



November 15, 2008, 10:46 AM

Thanks for that, hysperia. I vaguely recall thinking that Gladwell stuff was bunkum, but I didn't want to re-read it to refresh my memory. This critique does good service.



November 15, 2008, 7:05 PM

perhaps, in its verbose, pretentious way...



November 15, 2008, 10:06 PM

In rhetorical support of this J.S.Mill quote, are there any two acknowledged geniuses whose genii are the same?



November 16, 2008, 12:23 AM

Well, I'm pissed. Yes, again. And no, this is not related to the topic of this post, but I feel like venting.

The enormously expensive and WAY over budget Performing Arts Center in Miami, which I finally visited, is seriously underwhelming considering what it cost. Either there was major-league incompetence or serious, uh, irregularity concerning how the money was spent. Unfortunately, this sort of thing is decidedly not original around here.

But of course, the proposed Museum Park complex will be a totally different story. I can hardly wait.


Chris Rywalt

November 16, 2008, 3:27 PM

I read an interesting article on Mill in the New Yorker recently, too. It was a review of a biography, most likely.

That's how I know you can never quote just one sentence of Mill.


Chris Rywalt

November 16, 2008, 3:36 PM

Hey, Jack, if you love boondoggles, you should come up to New Jersey some time. The landscape is fairly littered with them. A couple of weeks ago I had occasion to drop my wife off at the brand new train station only to find the drop-off zone is designed such that the passenger doors open into traffic, the driver's side is hemmed in by a wall, and dropped-off people have to sidle along this wall -- with no sidewalk -- until they find a gap in it, after which they still have to walk the length of a city block to get to the front door.

This would be acceptable, I guess, if the station were in the middle of an established metropolis, like New York or Newark, where there were many constraints on building. Too bad this was built in the middle of acres upon acres of undeveloped marshland where they could build anything they wanted.

The only excuse I can come up with for this was maybe it's intentionally designed to deter people from being dropped off by car. I suppose it's more effective than a sign reading "PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION: DO NOT USE".



November 16, 2008, 3:55 PM

Thanks, Chris, but no, thanks. My system is much too battered to deal with New Jersey. I have relatives there, so I've visited, but it's not exactly a favored destination.

This much-ballyhooed Miami PAC looks like maybe a third of the money spent on it went to the facility proper. Apart from what clearly appears to have been gross mismanagement of funds, if not actual idiocy, the design leaves much to be desired.

Just to give you an idea, one of the salient features of the main lobby is a remarkably close approximation of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington DC. I assume this was unintentional, but perhaps it was a really sick joke. Either way, we're talking out-to-lunch (with the public paying the tab, of course).



November 17, 2008, 5:26 PM

Hey Jack, this might make you feel better: in about less than two weeks the new Frost Art Museum at FIU will finally open to the public. I heard it is fantastic inside/ new great exhibitions in its six galleries...and it is free!



November 17, 2008, 7:28 PM

Well, the PAC is definitely not free. Parking alone was $15 (and I'm not talking valet). The cheapest tickets (and worst seats, obviously) were about $25. Without binoculars, it was like watching something on TV. If you want prime seats, better take out a loan, especially if you're going with someone else. And I can only imagine what drinks and munchies would cost. But hey, once you've been to this place, you don't need to go to DC to see the Vietnam Memorial. Great job.



November 18, 2008, 5:38 AM


I hate to say I expected the lackluster results with Miami's Performing Arts Center. Miami doesn't strike me as the best place to see an orchestra, let alone a place to expect responsible use of public funds. Thankfully performing arts are becoming a strength for Oregon (people are always looking for a reason to get out of the house but stay dry). I left Miami burned by the implications of such things on the greater culture of the city. Being one year removed from it I must admit I often find myself in a manic desire to return despite all it implies.

I suppose sleepy, little Portland is closer to my speed.

For solidarity's sake let me mention that the most recent public transit project is nearly two years behind schedule and millions over cost. Some things you can never leave behind.

As for the greater genius issue I only wish I could be so endowed.



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