Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Genius and Perspective

You can’t read any genuine history – as that of Herodotus or the Venerable Bede – without perceiving that our interest depends not on the subject but on the man – on the manner in which he treats the subject and the importance he gives it. A feeble writer and without genius must have what he thinks a great theme, which we are already interested in through the accounts of others, but a genius – a Shakespeare, for instance – would make the history of his parish more interesting than another’s history of the world.” – Thoreau, March 18, 1861

Somewhat later, Oscar Wilde noted that "Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter."

Both Thoreau and Wilde seem to be supporting my earlier claim that observation is as important as creation. (If they aren't, well, what’re they going to do about it?) You can’t be creative without appreciating (in the sense of noticing) your corner of the world, whether it consists of you and a cat in two rooms or you on a concert tour. But you need time and space to appreciate things, and that would seem to make a more hermetic existence richer in detail than that of “normal people,” since you’d have to zoom in on your subject instead of seeing it from far away. The globetrotter would see things from a different vantage point than the near-hermit. The astronauts who gave us pictures of an earthrise gave us a sense of ourselves in a different way, and Michael Collins (the American astronaut, not the Irishman) had a then-unique perspective: when he was orbiting the moon while Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong were on the lunar surface, half the time he was on the dark side of the moon, making him further removed from the earth than anyone had ever been. Either way, though, we realize that there is another world – either a microcosm or a macrocosm – that should humble us from our egocentric universes. I’m not sure I’m capable of extracting myself from my self-centered universe, but at least reading others’ accounts of their world makes me aware of them. Perhaps genius requires observation. Or is it the other way around?

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