Shadowing Dickens

Beethoven, Bonamassa and DFW

I am drawn to genius.

It makes me hopeful. At a time when it easy to be ashamed of the terrible things we do to each other in the name of politics or religion or blind, stupid prejudice, genius can, if I slow down and let is wash over me, make me proud to be human.

A few year ago, I spent three days with William Eddins, who at the time was about to take over as conductor of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra. He was the most engaged and engaging man I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. He was exhausting and exhilarating, and I will never forget our time together. I was lucky to meet him and we are all lucky to have him.

Some months back, I interviewed a particle physicist and the University of Alberta named James Pinfold. He works on the Higgs boson project and thinks the most marvellous thoughts. I wrote a story about him. It was an honour to meet him and we are lucky to have him, too. I find it a bit humbling to spend time with people who are so damn smart. It’s good to be humbled. It puts me in my place and raises me up at the same time.

Genius is not simply a measure of a person’s IQ score. While it may be fine and quite useful to have a brain that functions at a high level, to be a quick and incisive thinker, to have intellectual gifts the rest of us can only dream of, it’s what you do with those gifts that makes them worth having. I believe that genius takes many forms, and does not reside merely in the mind but in the human heart.

Mozart was a genius; some scholars have suggested his IQ score may have been as high as 200. I love Mozart. I listen to his music often. But I prefer Beethoven. To me, so much of Mozart’s music is pretty, like a summer day, like a butterfly, like a Monet lily pond.

Beethoven is all about passion. His music challenges me, it touches me at a much deeper level. It makes me think. In his concertos and symphonies and piano sonatas, I hear anger, regret, frustration, love, bitterness, pride, all the emotions that humans share and struggle with.  Beethoven can make me laugh, or cry. That’s what I want from my geniuses. When I am in their presence, I want to feel more alive.

Consider this. When a young Beethoven arrived in Vienna, he was known mainly as a piano virtuoso. He played in salons and parlours around the city. Those who heard him never forgot the experience. Carl Czerny, a student who studied under Beethoven, recalled it this way: "In whatever company he might chance to be, he knew how to produce such an effect upon every hearer that frequently not an eye remained dry, while many would break out into loud sobs …"

That was Beethoven’s genius.

Last year at this time, I travelled to Vancouver to see blues guitarist Joe Bonamassa at the Orpheum Theatre. I took my brother-in-law, who lives on the coast and had never heard of Joe. Partway through the first song, Ian turned to me and grinned, a bewildered look on his face, as if to say, “Is this really happening?” That night, ten rows back from the stage, I wept when Joe played his amazing solo on the song Mountain Time, and I felt honoured to so close to someone who could, with a piece of wood and six steel strings and hands that look much like mine, make me feel such powerful emotions. There are guitarists who play faster, louder, perhaps with more technical skill. I’m not an expert. But I’ll take Joe, because his music touches my soul.

Which brings me to the final genius I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. His name was David Foster Wallace and he was the greatest writer of his generation, a brilliant, incisive, tormented and tragic man who struggled against mental illness for most of his life and finally, in despair, hung himself in his garage in 2008. He was 46.

DFW published two novels in his lifetime, including a gargantuan beast called Infinite Jest, along with three short story collections an several books of essays. His unfinished novel, The Pale King, was published last year, and another book of previously unpublished essays, Both Flesh and Not, came out earlier this month.

I confess that I find his fiction difficult. I’ve started Infinite Jest twice and never made it past halfway. There is simply too much going on, too many complicated thoughts, too many long, meandering, brilliant sentences, that I find myself, eventually, and it seems inevitably, lost in the fecund jungle of his prose. There are so many trees that I cannot stand back far enough to see the forest. Yet I will try again to read these books. Because on every page, in every paragraph, there are flashes of genius so bright they can blind.

And that, I think, brings me to my final thoughts on this subject. For now.

I guess what I want from my geniuses is that they challenge me, that they make me want to be better, smarter, kinder, more true to myself. Bill Eddins makes me want to pay closer attention to the the joys and wonders of the world; James Pinfold makes me want to better understand concepts as vast as the universe and as tiny as a single sub-atomic particle; Beethoven and Bonamassa remind me that emotions are universal and yet, in the end, perhaps unfathomable. It is enough, maybe, to remember this: I feel, therefore I am. It is something we all shall. David Foster Wallace makes me want to be a better writer, and a more attentive reader, and the tragedy of his suicide forces me to confront the darkness and despair that too often dwells inside me.

Genius makes me hopeful. And that’s enough.

  • 23 November 2012