Commentary Magazine


Discriminating Genius

To the Editor:

Setting aside the vanity, the most crippling problem with Joseph Epstein’s September piece, “I Dream of Genius,” is that it’s easier to trace the history of an idea—in this case, the idea of genius—than it is to define it. Mr. Epstein calls genius the ability to make “people see the world very differently” in one place, adds the requisites of “subtlety” and appreciation for “the mysteries of life” in another, and concludes with the criteria of uttering truths. His vagueness betrays his uncertainty about what genius might entail and, indeed, misgivings about any ability to arrive at an acceptable definition. It’s no surprise, then, that Epstein supplies examples of genius without providing the least bit of justification for how their innovation differed in magnitude from the innovation of their peers.

Ben Dworkin
Address Withheld

To the Editor:

While reading Joseph Epstein’s immensely enjoyable meditations on genius, I was struck by the absence of female geniuses as well as any mention of why there is a lack of female geniuses noted throughout history. Additionally, the automatic use of the masculine pronoun in Mr. Epstein’s essay suggests, probably, something unintentional on this point. I certainly assign no blame to Mr. Epstein if no female geniuses exist, but still, it makes me wonder why the men who have studied this rare phenomenon leave out the case for women. What say Mr. Epstein?

Paul Medus
Opelousas, Louisiana

To the Editor:

Joseph Epstein has written a wonderful article on genius, and I’m sure there are many names missing, but I must mention Chaucer. In addition to his incredibly prolific writings, he was the manager of the king’s many estates and traveled widely at a time when it certainly wasn’t easy. Chaucer, more than anyone, propelled English to become the most commonly used language in the world, and his stories are as funny today as they were then.

Claire Stubbs
Johannesburg, South Africa

Joseph Epstein writes:

Many thanks to Claire Stubbs for her generous and thoughtful note on my essay. Chaucer is distinctly a candidate for genius. 

Ben Dworkin claims that I do not define genius; in fact, I do: Geniuses make us see, hear, or think about the world differently than we had done before they came along. I believe that is a definition, even if it is one that he does not agree with. 

Paul Medus is not the first reader to point out to me the want of women from my list of geniuses. In the Christian middle ages, many saintly women were thought to be geniuses; perhaps in France Joan of Arc might qualify. But part of the intention of my essay was to keep the standard for genius high. While there have been many first-rank women scientists (Madame Curie, Rosalind Franklin) and several great women writers (Emily Dickinson, George Eliot, Willa Cather), none seemed to me quite to qualify at the genius level. Genius, for better or worse, is not an equal-opportunity employer.




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.