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Divine Fury: A History of Genius

by Darrin M. McMahon
Basic Books, NY, NY, 2013
360 pp. Trade, $39.99
ISBN: 978-0-465-00325-9.

Reviewed by Amy Ione
Director, The Diatrope Institute
Berkeley, CA


Divine Fury: A History of Genius by Darrin McMahon, the Ben Weider Professor of History at Florida State University, is an impressive, readable, and at times witty book. The author’s goal is to present “the profound religiosity associated with the idea of genius and genius figures from the ancient world through to the present day” (p. xii). As he explains, this kind of approach allows him to show connections and continuities, ruptures and lacunae, across disciplines, time and place, as he explores the genius concept’s intimate connection with the divine and religious notions.

The treatment of this expansive goal, however, is somewhat self-contained.  Because genius is a word of Western origin, McMahon looks at how the idea evolved in terms of Western history, beginning with Classical Greece, where genius was seen as a good or bad daimonion that accompanied illustrious men [sic]. Homer, Pythagoras, Socrates, Pindar, Plato and Aristotle are among the figures mentioned as he provides commentary on the concept of genius in that era in relation to innate talent, education, and what we would call the creativity today.  As he points out, the Greek emphasis on mimesis and recollection offer a stark contrast to the kind of originality esteemed today. The oldest literary reference to genius (by the playwright Plautus) and the first mention of a public or collective genius (by the historian Livy) are found in Roman times. The genius, or the individual instance of a general divine nature that is present in every individual person, place, or thing, was commonly depicted with wings and offering plate. Augustus’s conflation of his private genius with that of the Roman Empire expands the idea yet again, although the word is still is not ascribed to people in our modern form.  Christian theologians morphed the spiritual views of the pagans into the good angels that accompanied men or are assigned to protect churches and the states. [It is interesting that the Greek daimon already had angelic qualities. McMahon points out that Plato himself “dwelled at considerable length in a number of dialogues on the function and role of the daimones, describing them as angelic ‘messengers’ who ‘shuttle back and forth between the gods and men’” (p10)].

By the fifteenth century the word had also come to mean natural talent in the sense that one might have a disposition toward one thing and not another.  It was only toward the end of the seventeenth century that the idea included the concept that particular men [sic] are geniuses. “[O]bservers detected geniuses where previously they had only seen wise men or gifted souls” (p. 71).  Thus, by the eighteenth century the idea of genius in McMahon’s story referred to particular (white European) men, as the idea evolved from a spirit companion to the actual person of gifted people.

Once the narrative shifts to exceptional European men who have the power to create, the discussion becomes more compartmentalized, turning to how people began to distinguish the “genius” from those less endowed.

“For while the use of the term ‘genius’ to refer to those who possessed genius was in some sense a natural linguistic evolution . . . this evolution doesn’t explain why the figures who had it—men of genius—were so widely hailed in the eighteenth century, celebrated as new models of the highest human type.” (p. 71)

The chapter on Romanticism looks largely at the ideas that mediated the eighteenth and nineteenth century, with artists and thinkers receiving a large share of the space.  It is here that Napoleon is introduced as someone who could provide a working definition of the Romantic genius.  Much of discussion of artists centered around the relationship of genius with madness and/or a spiritual life force similar to that of the ancients. Geniology, a term that I believe McMahon created, follows next. In this chapter the author examines some of the ambivalence Romantic definitions of genius created. This includes the efforts of nineteenth century scientists to catalog characteristic traits and isolate the characteristics of genius through studies about brain size. He also explores how the efforts to objectively describe genius served as a vehicle to confirm existing prejudices against black and brown people, women, Jews, etc.

In the twentieth century, what McMahon calls the “religion of genius” (what some now call the “cult of personality”) emerges as individuals like Hitler and Einstein assume elevated positions, in effect serving as god-like substitutes in a world that no longer has a God to worship.  The book ends with this coupling, as the good genius of the Jewish Einstein triumphed over the evil genius of Hitler, whose Anti-Semitic ideas, with their roots in some of the prejudicial genius studies McMahon fully discusses, are defeated.

Although the Religion of Genius chapter is elegantly written with an uplifting conclusion, this ending nonetheless makes the story seem a bit dated.  The short discussion that follows the Hitler/Einstein pairing makes it clear that McMahon sees these contrasting figures as some kind of termination point of the genius model. This contrast fits within the context of his argument, but I think few would apply the word genius to Hitler today.  McMahon also claims that we have moved into an era where genius is not longer studied academically for, according to him, the word is currently more of a way to express individual talents.  He adds that this is a positive step, for it protects us from the kinds of idols associated with the genius in the past.  This view seems a bit overstated. In my experience many still distinguish the mental feats of a MacArthur Award genius from the talent of a sports figure.

As well done as the book is, I think McMahon’s expansive survey was nevertheless too limited in four ways.  First, I would have preferred a longer conclusion, one that updated some of the earlier threads and perhaps even another chapter before the conclusion. Much that is missing from the book could have been addressed head-on in an additional chapter.  I simply take issue with McMahon assertion that since the word genius is of Western origin, it makes sense to present its Western history through the men who are characterized as genius.  Doing so strikes me as a maneuver that goes against the grain the kind of expansive approach he said he wanted to use, one that allows him to show connections and continuities, ruptures and lacunae, across disciplines, time and place, as he explores the genius concept’s intimate connection with the divine and religious notions.

One of the reasons that such an extended history is appealing is that the goal isn’t to offer a model and/or definition of genius.  This leads to my second concern: Focusing on the intersection of genius and Western culture diffuses an important backstory of the book. This backstory is that the definitional and cultural adjustment to all that “genius” represents demonstrates how human minds were grappling with issues common to all cultures and societies. One debate that is reiterated in many sections of the book is what we would call the nature/nurture debate. A second, a related topic, is why people are endowed differently and how do we explain those who are different.  Are they mad? Do they have a “special” relationship to the divine?  Is this elusive quality within the body or from somewhere else?  What does it mean to be “normal”? How do we account for the tension between good and evil?  When is it acceptable to step outside the norms?  What is the relationship between talent and genius? Are geniuses born or made?  Because these kinds of questions kept re-surfacing and were repeatedly re-framed as the cultural story developed, it seems that the nature of genius is quite complex and its story is not simply one of describing  definitional changes.

The larger point here is that the conundrums are not just Western issues. Even cultures that acknowledge a strong spiritual component throughout their history have re-defined and refined their spiritual (or religious) assumptions over time in different places.  This is not the kind of Orientalism of Madame Blavatsky’s Theosophy, which he mentions, nor the expansion of the term genius into the vocabularies of other cultures, also mentioned (in the conclusion). The point I am making is that other cultures have grappled with the issues that are developed in this “genius” history, and I was sorry the book did not acknowledge the universal humanness of the grasping to understand these very human questions. For example, six predominant Hindu systems emerged out of the early Upanishadic tradition. They vary widely in their positions and, as a composite, show a dynamic culture engaging with life. Looking at the evolution shows that, as in the West, “reason” was added as the people continually clarified their basic and religious assumptions.  We can also identify figures, like the Buddha, who paved a revolutionary path when he rejected some of the indigenous assumptions of the early Hindus. Thus, just as Christ was born Jewish, the Buddha left Hinduism behind, and there is much more to both stories. While the nuances of this evolution in India do not match what transpired in the West, the two cultures nonetheless wrestled with many of the same ideas.  It is important to add that this isn’t an East/West division, for Chinese history and philosophy is centered assumptions and reactions that are quite different from those of India.

The larger point is that an important part of global communication is opening our research up so that cross-cultural commonalities can be added to the Western canon. The history of genius presented here seemed blind to other cultures. This said, I am glad to see McMahon including the religiosity within all of western history in his study. One of my own books, Nature Exposed to Our Method of Questioning [1], grew out of an interest as to how artists came to be seen as crazy and why the equation of art and spirituality frequently seemed off-key and even a bit offensive at times. As it turned out, the role of religion in shaping Western ideas played a big part in my research and expanded my thinking as to how the predispositions of the Western mind, as well as the traditional Western canon, came together.  I, too, was broadly surveying Western ideas, among other things, and the exercise left me convinced me that many of our biases come about when we grapple with philosophical conundrums that are more “human" than “Western.”

Third, I am not suggesting we open the Western container so that all of our histories become Cultural Studies dissertations. Rather, I am suggesting that since we cannot include everything in our books, a good practice is to address some of the exclusions head-on.  For example, McMahon frequently makes it clear that the reason his book has a male bias is that the history has a male bias.  One particularly amusing instance of this came after introducing some of Goethe’s work, where he notes that “genius seemed to have a fetish for the bodies of European men, born in advanced European states” (p. 149).

His decision to simply accept things as they “are” brings to mind Linda Nochlin’s classic essay: “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” [2]. She asks whether a masculine vantage point is our natural starting point since our sources are biased that way:

“If, as John Stuart Mill suggested, we tend to accept whatever is as natural, this is just as true in the realm of academic investigation as it is in our social arrangements. In the former, too, "natural" assumptions must be questioned and the mythic basis of much so-called fact brought to light. And it is here that the very position of woman as an acknowledged outsider, the maverick "she" instead of the presumably neutral "one"—in reality the white-male-position-accepted-as-natural, or the hidden "he" as the subject of all scholarly predicates—is a decided advantage, rather than merely a hindrance or a subjective distortion” (p. 145).

Nochlin also comments on what our natural assumptions tell us in terms of genius, noting:

“We can now approach our question from a more reasonable standpoint, since it seems probable that the answer to why there have been no great women artists lies not in the nature of individual genius or the lack of it, but in the nature of given social institutions and what they forbid or encourage in various classes or groups of individuals.” (p. 158)

Finally, I would have liked a conclusion that more specifically integrated information in the historical chapters with what has happened in the last sixty years.  Maybe he could have started the section with the question: “Was Einstein the Last Genius.” In any case, I think the history would have been stronger if he had re-visited some of the research he discussed in terms of where it stands today.  During the discussion of Gall’s craniology (phrenology), he mentions that Gall was prescient in terms of suggesting localization in the brain. Actually such localization goes back much further. The larger point here is that even though I don’t know of a “genius area” or even if someone is pursuing the possibility of “genius imaging,” I have seen articles about efforts to find a “genius gene.” Another thread I was sorry he didn’t update was the association between artists and degenerative disease.  While it is glib to say that life is a degenerative disease, the sections on artists, madness, and degenerative disease brought to mind many of the recent neurological case studies of artists (e.g., Mozart, Baudelaire, Nietzsche, etc.) that are typically seeking to learn more about how the brain functions. These neurologists study how a known medical ailment paralleled creative production, using the art as a counterpoint to the brain. Unlike the historical view that artists are mad, many of these researchers are careful to acknowledge that not all creative people have significant mental maladies and many mad people do nothing of note.

Although the above thoughts may seem critical, they are more a result of liking the book quite a bit and seeing the discussion as a stimulus to critical thinking.  I only have one real criticism—a major problem with the illustrations that I hope will be corrected in future editions.  Although I read a finished book, not an advance review copy, the illustrations were not at all integrated into the volume. One needs to be a genius to figure out how to find and use them as one reads!  My copy included two sections of fine black and white plates that were not mentioned at all in the text.  Once I realized the author had provided images, I looked unsuccessfully for some way to know about them as I read. I found neither in-text notations nor endnote pointers to them.  I didn’t even find a list of the plates in the book.

In summary, although I would have liked to see him do a few things differently, as noted above, McMahon’s careful research and breezy writing style make this book a wonderful read.  Specialists who relish comprehensive footnotes and extensive bibliographic information will not be disappointed.  The general public will be drawn in by the well-organized, clear and concise presentation. As for Leonardo readers, since art, science, and technology are not the focus of the book, I suspect most will respond based on their own background and inclinations.  The summaries of creative people and projects (Mozart, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, etc.) are engaging. While he mentions innovators (e.g., Edison), they are not nearly as much a focus as are political people like Augustus Caesar, Napoleon, and Hitler.  I would still highly recommend Divine Fury to any who is interested in ideas; it is a well-researched volume that encourages the reader to think about much more than genius.


[1] Ione, Amy. (2002). Nature Exposed to Our Method of Questioning. (Berkeley, CA: The Diatrope Press).

[2] Nochlin, Linda. (1988). “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” Women, Art, and Power: and other Essays. (New York: Harper & Row), pp 145-178.

[3] See Bogousslavsky, J. (Ed.). (2005). Neurological Disorders in Famous Artists. Basel: Karger; Bogousslavsky, J., & Hennerici, M. G. (Eds.). (2007). Neurological Disorders in Famous Artists (Part 2) (Vol. 22). Bogousslavsky, Julien: Karger; Bogousslavsky, J., Hennerici, M. G., & Bazner, H. (2010). Neurological Disorders in Famous Artists: Part 3 (1 ed.): S. Karger AG (Switzerland).

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