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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

genius

Our word genius has an interesting background. In Latin it means "that which is just born". To the ancient Romans it meant the collection of traits and potentials that came into being or manifested at the birth of a person or anything else. They deified the concept as an entity that accompanied a man from birth to death (a woman was accompanied by a corresponding being called iuno--the same as the goddess Juno).

The genius was visualized in the form of a bearded snake that had its locus at the forehead. So it was an active, living principle, not the same as one's ego, but representing one's powers and one's destiny. The psychologist James Hillman has made use of this principle in his thinking, seeing in it a correspondence with other ideas, such as that of the guardian angel.

The image that just sprang to my mind was that of the strand of DNA that we regard as encoding our uniqueness as living beings. Being materialists, we tend to imagine this as a dumb thing, a record like a strip of magnetic tape that passively undergoes chemical operations in the course of our biological functioning.

But to me this is a silly way of looking at it. Our DNA is not dumb and inert; everything about it and its functioning suggests purpose and unbelievably brilliant design--a work of, yes, genius. Every one of us has a unique set of DNA, and its operation is purposeful, even relentless. This combination of uniqueness and forward-pushing purpose would be recognized by the Romans as one's genius.

We tend to reserve the word genius for exceptional people whose talents and achievements set them far apart from the norm. But even those who are closer to the norm are still unique, even if they are not famous.

Our task is to tune in to our uniqueness, and get out of its way. The serpent of our genius is always dragging us forward, and we spend much of our time, perhaps, fighting it mulishly, digging in our heels, perhaps out of a desire to be hitched to someone else's genius--to be doing things their way.

Possibly the people we call geniuses are simply those who don't do that. They have stopped fighting their genius--or they never started. Where their genius tugs them, they go. And when you run with your genius, you can run fast and far. It sees farther and knows more than we do. Why not just give in and enjoy the trip?


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