Representing Genius, or SF asks another question about humanity (and further digressions!)

It is virtually a given that “showing” narration is better than “telling” narration.  One of my favorite examples of this takes place in Conan Doyle’s “Adventure of the Speckled Band” where the outraged Dr. Roylott comes to Holmes’ flat and bends a fireplace poker while making threats.  Upon his leave-taking, Holmes bends the poker back.  Instead of merely telling us that Roylott is strong (which his step-daughter has indicated by telling us that Roylott threw a blacksmith over a parapet), he shows us the strength–and then shows us Holmes’ strength.  So, when writing about genius–how does one show it as opposed to merely telling us that someone is a genius. This particular problem has been addressed in various ways in canonical literature and I regard two of the best novels about genius to be James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Chaim Potok’s My Name is Asher Lev. Since most readers are not geniuses the author has the doubly difficult task of  showing what genius is (difficult if you are not a genius yourself) and then making the genius, if not sympathetic to us, at least compelling to watch.  I suppose that this might be easier when the “genius” (Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs and Red Dragon–but not in the other incarnations) is evil. It is nearly a commonplace that evil is more interesting than good–in art if not in life Milton’s Satan and Tolstoy’s observation about happy families come immediately to mind.

Joyce and Potok both demonstrate the fundamental alterity or otherness of the genius and make us feel, even though we do not share the genius of Stephen or Asher Lev, that we exist on a continuum with them as we struggle against expectations of culture or of other people–perhaps particularly of those who love us.

I think that SF often addresses this issue and pushes it one step further by asking at what point intelligence is related to humanity.  One never doubts that Asher Lev or Stephen Daedalus is human–or Holmes for that matter–but what about Alan Glynn’s Eddie Spinola in Limitless (the original novel was called The Dark Fields), Charley Gordon in Daniel Keyes’ “Flowers for Algernon” or Leon Greco in Ted Chiang’s “Understand”?

Limitless is the least ambitious of these connected works.  Spinola takes a drug that renders him capable of learning at a remarkable rate and alters everything about him for the better (well except for his health!).  Spinola’s genius and ambition make trouble for him and in the novel cost him his life–a sort of cautionary tale about overreaching.  What Daniel Keyes does better than Glynn is ask questions about Charlie Gordon’s humanity at two levels–when his IQ is below 70 is Charlie fully human and when his IQ has more than tripled is he fully human (or has he gone beyond humanity).  I love Keyes’ delivery in diary form which forces him to adjust the intelligence of Charlie (though we don’t get to see the final report he writes–presumably it would be over our heads).  Glynn, too, has chosen first person narration though Eddie’s writing is a looking backwards at past events not an attempt to “show” the genius he was but more to tell us about the genius he was–with requisite accoutrements of financial genius such as money.

Keyes gives us the illusion of Charlie’s genius when he has Charlie tell us of his contempt for one of the Doctors who knows “only” Latin, Greek, and Hebrew and gets lost in the higher orders of calculus.  What Keyes seems to be offering us is a meditation on the great swath of humanity we call “normal” and the observation that to fall outside these boundaries–at either end–may make us not human; it certainly makes us exceptionally lonely.

Of all these stories, I admire Chiang’s “Understand” most of all because it does so much of what the others do–the first person narration helps us watch a character who has suffered a massive, coma-inducing fall through the ice that has rendered him a vegetable become a genius of super-human proportions (a la “Flowers”  or Limitless but with greater extremes) and Chiang does lots of “showing.” How would this “genius” manifest itself–in computer programming, in language acquisition, in observation, and biofeedback.

As Leon Greco–the narrator-genius of “Understand”–becomes increasingly inhuman/superhuman he begins to consider his obligations to humanity–if any.  This is brought sharply into focus when he finds another mind that has gone “super-critical” and is determined to inflict a utopia upon us. Reynolds, the other super-critical genius, is going to act in the best interests of humankind–and he does know what those are.  He tries to enlist Greco’s help but Greco’s obsession with intelligence is in pattern recognition and self-relfexivity and, in short, aesthetics.  Greco does not intend to interact with humans–partially he is selfish but partially he thinks we should be free to make all sorts of mistakes.  Reynolds, who has killed for his vision (“only a drug dealer” so my students are usually sympathetic) ends up at war with Greco and kills him.  The clumsiest part of the story, then, is how the first-person narrator handles his own death.  Poe, of course, faced a similar problem of a trapped first-person narrator in “Pit and the Pendulum” and solved it by a deus ex machina or Lafayette’s appearance.  Harlan Ellison never does solve the same problem in “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” and neither does Yevgeny Zamyatin in We.  Jack London (The Iron Heel) and Margaret Atwood (The Handmaid’s Tale) solve the problem through use of a “recovered text.”

Some more on detective stories and a response to the fascinating comment by Jesse Ritz regarding Calvin and Hobbes next week.



Filed under books and learning, popular culture, teaching

2 responses to “Representing Genius, or SF asks another question about humanity (and further digressions!)

  1. Jesse Ritz

    I’ve always viewed Jorge Luis Borge’s “Funes the Memorious” as a worthy addition to the canon of ‘Genius’ stories in western literature, and a particularly good companion to Chiang’s “Understand”. It’s an extremely short story that apes the basic conceit of ‘Flowers for Algernon’ whole allowing itself to be haunted by the inescapable conclusion that Funes, it’s titular super-intellect, is quite simply not very smart.

    I’ll now commit the cardinal sin of blog-commenting by quoting at length: ” [Funes] was, let us not forget, almost incapable of ideas of a general, Platonic sort. Not only was it difficult for him to comprehend that the generic symbol ‘dog’ embraces so many unlike individuals of diverse size and form, it bothered him that the dog at three fourteen (seen from the side) should have the same name as the dog at three fifteen (seen from the front). His own face in the mirror, his own hands surprised him every time he saw them.”

    It would be difficult to imagine an intellect more unlike that possessed by Leon Greco.

  2. Jesse, I do not know this story by Borges but will look it up by this weekend, thanks for the tip. I have greatly enjoyed your participation in this enterprise and next week will endeavor to address some of your observations regarding the Calvin and Hobbes entry. Dan

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