Short Stories
All Titles

In Association with Amazon.com

Home > Authors Index > Browse all available works of Richard Le Gallienne > Text of 'Genius' Superstition

An essay by Richard Le Gallienne

The 'Genius' Superstition

Title:     The 'Genius' Superstition
Author: Richard Le Gallienne [More Titles by Le Gallienne]

It must be very painful to the sentimentalist to notice what common sense is beginning to prevail on one of his pet subjects: that of the ancient immunities of 'genius.' Of course, to a great many good people genius continues still to be accepted as payment in full for every species of obligation, and if a man were a great poet he might probably still ruin a woman's life, and some, in secret at least, would deem that he did God service. There are perhaps even more women than ever nowadays who would, as Keats put it, like to be married to an epic, and given away by a three-volume novel. Such an attitude, however, is more and more taking its place among the superstitions, and the divine right of genius to ride rough-shod over us is at a discount.

At the same time, our national capacity for reaching right conclusions by the wrong course is in this matter once more exemplified. In the main, as usual, our reasoning seems to have been quite astray. We have argued as though for ourselves, and that on those lines we should have reached the sane conclusion is somewhat surprising. Because, indeed, it does pay _the world_ to allow genius to do its pleasure: its victims even have little to complain of; they wear the martyr's crown, and if a few tradesmen or a few women are the worse, it has been deemed just, time out of mind, that such should suffer for the people. But the one whom it does not pay, either in this world or the next, is emphatically the man of genius himself. It is really on his behalf that the protest against his ancient immunities should be made, for

'Whether a man serve God or his own whim
Matters not much in the end to any one but Him.'

To take the threadbare instance, the world suffered nothing from the suicide of Harriet Westbrook: rather it gained by one more story of tragic pathos. Harriet herself was no loser, for she had lived her dream, and the stern joy of a great sorrow was granted her to die with: it was only the selfish heart that could leave her thus to suffer and die that was the loser. Not in its relations with the world, fair or ill--such, like all external things, are important only as we take them: but in its diminished capacity to feel greatly and tenderly, in its added numbness, in its less noble beat. It was thus that the _cor cordium_ lost what no lyric passion, no triumphant exultation of success, could give to it again.

However, Shelley and his story belong more or less to the tragic muse, and this subject is, perhaps, rather more the property of the comic: for great poets are rare, and really it is the smaller genius we have always with us that is likely to suffer most from those 'immunities'; still more the talent that would fain bear the greater name, and most of all the misguided industry which is neither the one nor the other.

In this lower sphere, it is not murder and sudden death, and other such volcanic aberrations, that call for condonation; but those offences against that code of daily intercourse which some faulty observer of human life has characterised as 'the minor morals.'

The type of 'genius' I am thinking of probably began life by a misapplication, to himself, of Emerson's essay on Self-Reliance: a great and beautiful essay, but Oh! how much has it to answer for in the survival of the unfittest. Alas! that the wheat and tares must grow together till the harvest. It is the syrup of phosphorus by which weakly mediocrity develops into sturdiness, a sturdy coarseness that else might have died down and been spared us. But, thanks to that or some other artificial fertiliser, it grows up with the idea that the duty which lies nearest to it is to write weary books, paint monotonous pictures, persevere in 'd----d bad acting'; and it fulfils that duty with an energy known only to mediocrity. The literary variety, probably, has the characteristics of the type most fully developed. No one takes himself with more touching seriousness. Day by day he grows in conceit, neglects his temper, especially at home, with a wife who is worth ten of him and all his 'works,' and generally behaves, as the phrase goes, 'as if anything becomes him.' If you visit him _en famille_, you will find him especially characteristic at meals, during which he is wont to sit absorbed, with an air of 'I cannot shake off the god'; and when they are over he goes off, moodily chewing a toothpick, to his den, where, maybe, the genius finds vent in a dissertation on 'Peg-Tops,' for _The Boy's Own_, or 'The Noses of Great Men,' for _Chambers' Journal_.

But if such genius as this be chiefly comic, its work cannot but awaken in one a deep sense of the pathetic. To stand before the poor little picture that has been so much to its painter, and yet holds no spark of vitality or touch of distinction; to take up the poor little book into which all the toil of so many wasted days could breathe no breath of life, formless, uninspired, unnecessary. Think of the pathos of the illusion that has waved 'its purple wings' around these lifeless products, endowing with sensitive expression the wooden lineaments that have really been dead and unexpressive all the time, never glowed at all save to the wistful yearning eye of their befooled creator. Yet if nature be thus cruel to afflict, she is no less kind to console: for the victim of this species of hallucination seldom wakens from the dream. That essay on Self-Reliance is with him to the end.

Yet no less pathetic is it to reflect how his whole development has suffered for this mistake, all his life-blood gone to feed this abortive thing. The gentler charities of life have been neglected, fine qualities atrophied, the man has grown narrow and selfish, all the real things have been lost for this shadow: that he might become, what nature never meant him to be--an artist. All along, when he has made any excuse, it has been 'art.' But, more likely, he has not been asked for excuse, he has lived under the shelter of the 'genius' superstition. He has worn the air of making great sacrifices for the goddess, and in these his intimates have felt a proud sense of awful participation, as of a family whom the gods love. They have never understood that art is a particular form of self-indulgence, by no means confined to artists; that it often becomes no less a vice than opium-eating, and that the same question has to be asked of both--whether the dreams are worth the cost. This might occasionally be asked of the world's famous: not only of those whose art has been the evilly exquisite outcome of spiritual disease, but even of the great sane successful reputations.

There is, too, especially about the latter, perhaps, a touch of comic suggestiveness in the sublime preoccupation to which we owe their great legacies, that look of Atlas which is always pathetic, when it is not foolish, on the face of a mortal: the grand air of a Goethe, the colossal absorption of a Balzac. Their attitude offends one's sense of the relation of things, and we feel that, after all, we could have spared half their works for a larger share of that delicate instinct for proportion, which is one of the most precious attributes of what we call a gentleman. But the demi-god has always much of the _nouveau riche_ about him, and a gentleman is, after all, an exquisite product. Indeed, the world has, one may think, quite enough genius to go on with. It could well do with a few more gentlemen.

[The end]
Richard Le Gallienne's essay: 'Genius' Superstition