THE ASSERTED WEAKNESS OF GENIUS.
IN a volume of essays by the late James Hinton, which has just appeared,* there is a remarkable one upon Genius, in which Mr. Hinton maintains that the affinities of genius are rather with weakness than with strength. " Genius," he says, " has been confounded with simple greatness ; every man of re-
markable power being called a man of genius, merely to indicate his eminence. This error, though it is accounted for by the fact that the work which is done through men of genius is incomparably the greatest that is done at all, involves, notwithstanding, the very utmost falsity. So far from genius being greatness, and in- dicating power, it is precisely the reverse. The men of talent are the men of power ; they are the strong. The affinities of genius are with weakness." And of course there is a great deal that will suggest itself at once to the reader as superficially confirmatory of the view here given ;—the common notion, for instance, that men of genius are to be made all sorts of allowances for in all the ordinary business of life,—the great want of self-restraint in many of them,—the tendency of men of genius to busy them- selves with subjects alien to their genius, and to value them- selves especially on what they achieve in relation to such sub- jects, and indeed to expect everybody else to value them for this, the least valuable part of their work, too ; but more than all, Mr. Hinton's notion that the affinities of genius are rather with weakness than with strength, is supported by what men of genius have written of themselves. Wordsworth, for instance, in describing the nature and temperament which he certainly regarded as his own, expressly claims for it the weak- ness to which Mr. Hinton refers :—
" But he is weak ;—both man and boy,— Hath been an idlor in the land,
Contented, if he might enjoy The things which others understand."
And then he goes on to describe the very strength of the poet as consisting in a kind of weakness :-
" Come hither in thine hour of strength, Come, u-eak as is a breaking wave."
So, too, Coleridge used to maintain that there was something feminine to be discovered in the characteristic expression of the countenance of all men of genius, a view which apparently corre- sponds to Mr. Hinton's, that the affinities of true genius are with weakness, not with power.
Yet what Mr. Hinton means by weakness is evidently not real weakness, but receptiveness ; for he says that it is the great good-fortune of the man of genius that " he opposes no obstacles ; that his strength is taken out of the way, and Nature operates through him." But receptiveness of mind to the right sort of influence, is just the opposite of weakness. Mr. Hinton,
as is evident from his book, was very fond of making the absence of a quality do duty for a positive quality. He had a high opinion of the meritoriousness of a moral vacuum, and more than once in his essays finds in it the solution of some great mental or moral puzzle. He not only explains genius as weakness rather than power, but explains free-will as the
* Published by 0. Kagan Paul and Co.
absence of any consciousness of constraint ; whereas the con- sciousness of free-will really arises in the presence of constraint, and in that expending of free effort to overcome constraint which is one of the most positive and significant experiences of the moral
life. And in this case of genius, it is obvious that when Mr. Hinton declares that its affinities are with weakness, not with power, he only means with receptiveness, rather than with a restless, volun-
tary activity. He means just what Wordsworth meant when he said :—
" The eye it cannot choose but see, We cannot bid the ear be still; Oar bodies fool, where'er they be, Against or with our will.
Nor less I deem that there are Powers Which of themselves our minds impress, That we can feed this mind of ours
By a wise passiveness.
Think you amidst this mighty sum Of things for ever speaking, That nothing of itself will come, But we must still be seeking ?
Then ask not wherefore thus alone Conversing as I may,
I sit upon this old grey stone, And dream my time away."
But receptiveness is not weakness. John Willet, in " Barnaby Budge," gazing at the boiler for sheer vacuity of mind, is as different from Wordsworth's poet sitting on the old grey stone to catch some echoes of " the mighty sum of things for ever speaking," as an empty ear-trumpet is from the human ear. It is not the weakness, but the re- ceptiveness of genius which gives it its faculty of detecting truth, or beauty, or power, where they remain invisible to the restless investigations of all the talents. The proof of this lies in the very words Mr. Hinton uses to describe the function of genius. He says indeed, " What distinguishes a man of genius is rather the absence of certain tendencies and powers, than the presence of peculiar ones." But con- fining himself to genius of the strictly intellectual or specu- lative kind, he goes on, " He is without that strong power of sensuous perception, and that consequent rule and control of the sense-faculty, which is so common among men, and thus his more properly intellectual faculties can work freely and assert their full prerogative. Thus he is the first to see or do that which all men can easily see or do after him ; the difficulty being not in the doing, but in being the first. For which prerogative there is demanded not a stronger power, but a weaker impression from accustomed views, a loosening of the grasp which appear- ances lay upon the soul. As colour-blind men (it is said) make the best engravers, because to them, being non-percipient of colour, the relations of light and shade are unobscured, so it is with the ' insight' of genius. There is a special vision, by reason of a special blindness." And it may be admitted certainly that any defect of ordinary faculty which happens to conduce to a greater concentration of special faculty, is really service- able to the man of genius, just as blindness has often heightened a musician's or a poet's power ; and deaf- ness and the solitude to which deafness leads, have some- times enlarged a great painter's power. But this accidental heightening of the vividness of any great receptive faculty, which may be due to the absence of other interfering faculties, is not, of course, of its essence. Without that peculiar relation between the mind itself and the region of truth, or beauty, or feeling, to which it is specially adapted, which in men we call receptiveness,—a re- lation as peculiar as that relation between the organisation of any of the most ingenious animals and the outward world, which in them we call instinot,—the absence of what Mr. Hinton regards as disturbing talents, would be of no use at/ all. Take from an ordinary Englishman his common-sense and knowledge of the world, and habit of appreciating truly the superficial meaning at least of the passing incidents of life, and you would leave him not a man of genius, but a fool. Before the deficiency of ordi- nary talent, can in any sense be an advantage, there must be some extraordinary receptiveness which may be heightened and stimulated by the quiescence of these perturbing causes. Mr. Hinton seems to think that Copernicus reached his great astro- nomical discovery, not by the superior grasp and depth of his intellect, but by some deficiency in the impressibility of his mere senses. " If a moving body had been pointed out to him," he remarks, " and it had been said, ' See how fast it moves,' we can imagine him replying, 'It seems so." That is possible, but if Coper- nicus had so replied, it would have been rather from his clear mastery of the facts of relative motion, his firm grasp of the fact that a body may seem to be moving very fast indeed, when it is the observer who is moving, and not the thing observed, than from any blindness or dullness of sense. It was clearly the force with which the mind of Copernicus grasped the true _drift of astronomical phenomena, not the feebleness with which he was impressed by the apparent motions of the heavenly bodies, that led him to his discovery. In cases of that kind there is no reason to suppose that it is any deficiency at all,—except, it may be, a deficiency in those restless, social passions and interests which dis- turb all continuous intellectual study,—which conduces to genius ; and certainly it cannot be a deficiency which constitutes it. Newton said that his mathematical genius was only an unusual power of paying attention. Possibly; but such attention as Newton paid to the subject of his "Principia " cannot be paid at all by ordinary men, simply because there is not the same natural correspondence between their minds and the subjects on which Newton fixed his attention. Such receptiveness as Newton's is as rare as the receptiveness of Shakespeare for the "bloom of the world," or the receptiveness of Beethoven for its harmonies.
No doubt the real reason why genius appears to have a certain connection with weakness is, first, its necessary receptiveness,— which always suggests a feminine temperament, though not one which has any but a superficial connection with weakness ; and next, its frequent one-sidedness, and tendency, in the case of such one-sidedness, to shut out a multitude of useful energies which are really serviceable to man, and which are found in most strong men. But the proof that there is no necessary weakness in genius, is that in the case of genius which is not one-aided,—in the case of such genius as Shakespeare's, or even Goethe's or Scott's, —there is hardly a sign of weakness. The reason why smaller genius suggests weakness, is that smaller genius needs exclusive- ness, needs to abstract itself from many important aspects.of life, in order to do its work at all. Of course, a poet like Shelley could not give his mind up as completely as he did, to the vibra- tions of the finest chords of emotion, without averting it from many regions of observation and effort which are most essential to ordinary men ; and so his wonder- fully receptive genius had a real flavour of moral weakness. Of course, there was weakness, and no doubt for a reason which on the moral side was very similar,—in the scorn of Heine, and the voluptuous cynicism of Byron. But take any genius that is not of this one-sided character,—genius such as Chaucer's, or Shake- speare's, or Goethe's, or Scott's, or Michael Angelo's, or Titian's,— and no phase of weakness is discoverable. For they had minds so highly receptive in their own sphere, that it did not need even an exclusive concentration of them on that sphere, to lead them to their highest achievements. On the contrary, without any such exclusion of other interests, they worked at their full power, and therefore their other faculties fed their special faculty with new and richer thoughts, instead of disturbing its action or dividing it against itself. Hazlitt hit the mark far more nearly than Mr. Hinton, when he defined genius as " some strong quality in the mind, aiming at and bringing out some new and striking quality in nature." Receptiveness is, indeed, as positive a quality as any in the world. For receptiveness is adaptation of an elaborate kind, and corresponds in men to the most elaborate instincts in the sphere of animal life.