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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Thursday, March 29, 2007

an everything? or a nothing?

Let's just open up the office blinds to see what sort of day we have out there... Ah, a mild-looking, still morning. The little square patch of sky I can see is not gray, but a pale pale blue, not bright, but suggesting a sun veiled in cold morning cloud.

Yesterday, in talking about reading that chapter on reasoning in James's The Principles of Psychology, volume 2, I was moving toward his discussion of genius. He distinguishes two separate orders or types of genius. Here is a compressed extract:

For the lowest men, there is a whole world of analogies which they can appreciate when imparted to them by their betters, but which they could never excogitate alone. Genius is identical with the possession of similar association to an extreme degree. In the arts, in literature, in practical affairs, and in science, association by similarity is the prime condition of success.

But as there are two stages in reasoned thought, one where similarity merely operates to call up cognate thoughts, and another farther stage, where the bond of identity between the cognate thoughts is noticed; so minds of genius may be divided into two main sorts, those who notice the bond and those where merely obey it. The first are the abstract reasoners, the men of science, and philosophers--the analysts, in a word; the latter are the poets, the critics--the artists, in a word, the men of intuitions. These judge rightly, classify cases, characterize them by the most striking analogic epithets, but go no further. Professor Bain has said that a man’s advance to the scientific stage (the stage of noticing and abstracting the bond of similarity) may often be due to an absence of certain emotional sensibilities. There must be a penury in one's interest in the details of particular forms in order to permit the forces of the intellect to be concentrated on what is common to many forms. A certain richness of the aesthetic nature may, therefore, easily keep one in the intuitive stage. All the poets are examples of this.

By way of illustration, James then supplies this passage from Homer:

Ulysses, too, spied round the house to see if any man were still alive and hiding, trying to get away from gloomy death. He found them all fallen in the blood and dirt, and in such number as the fish which the fishermen to the low shore, out of the foaming sea, drag with their meshy nets. These all, sick for the ocean water, are strewn around the sands, while the blazing sun takes their life from them. So there the suitors lay strewn round on one another.

The image is striking and powerful. James's point is that Homer, in visualizing the plight of the suitors in this way, had no need to isolate and identify the exact abstract characters of the beached fish and the wounded suitors to state precisely wherein the analogy between them lay. In Homer's imagination, he saw the suitors in a vivid way that reminded him of beached fish, and proceeded to form the image in words. That was all that his purpose as a poet required. Indeed, if he had gone on to express the exact abstract particulars of the correspondence between the suitors and the fish, he would be a much worse poet; he would in fact be an academic of some kind.

James says that a scientist or philosopher must go further; his job is to identify and name the exact character that the two seemingly dissimilar things share. In going this extra step he leaves behind the emotional and aesthetic power of the comparison, and in fact, as Bain says in the above extract, his very ability to do this isolating may mean that he is relatively insensitive to the emotional and aesthetic aspects of ideas. James then notes:

Rarely are both sorts of intellect, the splendid and the analytic, found in conjunction. Plato among philosophers, and M. Taine are exceptions whose strangeness proves the rule.

Reading all this got me thinking: leaving aside the question of whether I might actually possess anything that could be called genius in any sense, to which of these types do I belong? Am I an artist, or a philosopher? Poet, or scientist?

I believe I have traits of both. No: I do have traits of both. As a creator I'm concerned with the emotional and aesthetic aspect of experience and of ideas; but as a thinker I'm concerned with their purely abstract structure, and I want to become conscious of this in an explicit way. And thinking along one line here, using one set of values, means temporarily putting the other set away. That's how it seems to me. And the great danger, or one great danger anyway, of being both is that one winds up being neither. Not an everything, but a nothing.

I don't think I'm a nothing--I hope not. I'm no Plato, that's for sure.


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