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.
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?
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.
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.