The End of Genius (?)

Vienna is one of the most spectacular cities on earth.  I had a chance to visit there for the first time in my life a few weeks ago.  And one word came to mind.  History. Lots of it.  Giant statues of military men who fought off invasions of one kind or another (mostly Ottomans, according to my tour guide).  Buildings and parks and architecture and majestic Royal Lipizzaner horses that were straight out of a fairy tale.

Vienna has been a crossroads between Western and Eastern Europe for centuries, with occasional visits from the Middle East (as the edge of the Ottoman Empire) and even the Romans.  The culture here is notable, with extraordinary royal palaces and gardens, including Hofburg House and St. Stephen’s Cathedral, showcasing artistry from Gothic, Baroque, and Romantic styles.  Her history as a focal point of Europe is both rich and occasionally tragic (as a significant player in the first and second world wars).  Interestingly Vienna is also the birthplace of psycho-babble (oops, I mean psychotherapy- Freudian slip)  (pun intended).

But more than all of this, Vienna may best be known for its contributions to music.  Mozart did some of his best work in Vienna, as did Franz Shubert (numbers I and II). Falco (of 80’s new wave “Rock me Amadeus” fame) was also from there.  And Beethoven moved to Wien (German spelling of Vienna) when he was 21, living most of his life there.

During this recent trip I had the honor of giving a speech in the Palais Nieder Oesterreich, a charming old palace with the most elaborately ornate decorations in its grand hall.  If you were 19thcentury European Nobility, I’m sure it was “ho-hum, just another palace.”   But to me, it was extremely impressive.  I later learned that this very hall was also the same room where Beethoven first performed his 5thsymphony.  Wow!  Simply to be in the room where one of the world’s great masterpieces was unveiled, much less give a speech in it, really struck a chord.

Which led me to a profound thought about “genius.”  What exactly does it mean?  Who were the geniuses of centuries gone by?  And who will be the geniuses of tomorrow?  Perhaps most sobering of all- is “genius” dead?

Since the focus of this trip was Vienna, let’s take a look at some artists from Europe as a starting point to answer this question.  Monet, Manet, Renoir, Van Gogh- the late 19thcentury French impressionists are my favorite, though the list of artistic geniuses originating in Europe could be debated and expanded upon by much more qualified students of art than myself.

How about authors?  Well, any such list should begin with the bard himself, William Shakespeare. Beyond that you could fill several Charles Dickens run-on sentences with a list of remarkable European authors: Jane Austen, Orwell, CS Lewis, Tolkien, Moliere, Saint-Exupery, de La Fontaine, Hugo, Chekhov, Tolstoy, Pushkin, etc.  The genius of these authors has inspired and challenged human thought since the advent of the printing press.

Since this whole question originated in a music hall, let’s consider the impact of old world musicians.  Beethoven. Mozart.  Bach.  Vivaldi. Debussy.  Chopin.  Tchaikovsky. Wagner.  Puccini.  The list goes on.  There are so many melodies that we recognize immediately without necessarily knowing who the composer was.  The musical genius that flowed from this part of the world has informed and influenced across the centuries, and its impact will continue to be felt for centuries to come.

Being in such an historic place made me think of how differently we live our lives today compared to a half a century ago, much less two or three centuries ago.  Today, we spend our childhood playing video games and learning to use social media, we do our school work and studies online, our relationships are not always deep or stable, entertainment is in the form of YouTube, Instagram posts, and on-demand videos and movies.  We often live in a state of “continuous partial attention” thanks to smart phones, and we rarely, if ever, have periods of “being still” and meditating or focusing our attention for extended lengths of time.  Epistolary skills have fallen by the wayside and few of us write journals or meaningful letters.  Communication, even with those whom we would traditionally be most intimate with, is often abbreviated by texting acronyms and emojis, and not via actual human contact.

Let’s contrast this to the way someone like Beethoven, or Shakespeare, or Victor Hugo may have spent their days.  Childhood play occurred if and when the children were able to invent games themselves using their imagination, often outdoors, and rarely with any external toys. Of course, without iPads or video games or helicopter parents. Because parents didn’t know what helicopters were (except DaVinci….).  Any education was accomplished in person, with a tutor, using textbooks and paper and pens, which in itself required a level of discipline simply to read and concentrate.  Entertainment was by whatever means your family or friends knew; if dad played the fiddle or mom could sing or if your neighbors were talented you could be entertained on Saturday night.  But an evening at the theater in town was a rare privilege indeed.  And there was most certainly not entertainment every night.

Communicating with each other was done in person or via letter.  Both of these skills are critical for human development and necessary for thriving as an adult.  As modern humans we have much more limited experience in these realms than we did in ages past.  Without actually writing your thoughts and emotions in a coherent manner, more than simple texts, and without taking time to get to know people by looking them in the eye and learning mannerisms and how to work together as partners.  I think that sometimes a letter or person to person interaction does a lot for our humanity.

Which brings me to the whole point of this blog.  Musicians, artists, authors, and other creative geniuses in the past led very different lives than we do today.  And, though I am just a pilot and would never pretend to be an authority on psychology, I believe that the daily habits and disciplines from centuries ago are much different than today.  And I would also be shocked if the differences in these daily habits did not lead to actual physiological differences, wiring the neurons in our brains differently.  My guess is that “modern man” is much better at quickly processing large quantities of information and multi-tasking, but not as good at developing profound and deep thoughts.

Of course there is real talent today, but I do believe with differences. Modern genius is often focused more on the immediate, and less on the profound.  Hollywood cinematography is stunning and I personally love creating art with a camera, but it is different than the genius of a Monet.  The waves of oil that undulate and mix and rise from his canvas are things that I could never do myself.  But I sure do appreciate them!

Perhaps the greatest difference between the centuries has manifested itself not in the pure arts, but in the marketplace of ideas.  Compare the writings and ideas of Washington, Jefferson, Adams, and Lincoln to those of today’s soundbite politicians, and, well, you get my point.  We are not exactly swimming in world-class political or philosophical thought these days.

Though, to be fair, our tweets are much more entertaining than anything that King George or Louis XIV ever put out!

We have talent today.  But I believe it is different than the genius of centuries gone by.  I would never trade how tremendously far society has come in technology, compassion, and equality.  Maybe in some ways we are lucky, being able to experience the best of both worlds- past and present.  Mozart and U2.  Monet and Spielberg.

It almost makes me think that we are living in the best of times, but also the worst of times.  You know, that sounds familiar.  I should google that to see who wrote it….