A few days ago, I finished Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver. It was what I call a slow-burner. It took a while to catch alight and inflame my interest, but once it did, the heat was intense. I read the second half in a blur.
Quicksilver is a historical novel. It features luminaries like Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, and a vast array of monarchs, dukes, generals, countesses and common folk. But here, I want to talk briefly about Isaac Newton.
Stephenson paints a picture of Isaac Newton as a member of a different species. Someone who is barely human. Someone who is so fascinated by and absorbed in his work and thought that he needs an assistant just to make sure he feeds himself. Whether that’s what he was actually like, I don’t know. But Stephenson’s portrait of Newton satisfies the expectation we have of a genius’ character and characteristics.
“Newton has thought things that no man before has ever thought… [He] makes his discoveries in geometrickal realms where our minds cannot go, he strolls in a walled garden filled with wonders, to which he has the only key.”
But the label of genius is something that is imposed on these individuals, by history or popular culture. They do not come forth and claim it for themselves. Why? Because genius, by it’s very nature, is incapable of recognising itself. The person who is a genius is so fascinated, so immersed, so absorbed in their work that they have no time for mere labels. In fact, labels to them are irrelevant. Unlike us normal people, they don’t care how they are perceived by others. Their only care is for the object of their fascination. And what fascinates them is never whether others see them in a particular way. Genius transcends such fickle self-consciousness.
So when a friend tells me about this guy called Brad Burton, and I search for him, only to see he has labelled himself a genius, I’m both annoyed and upset. See, in the same way that I don’t trust anyone who calls themselves a thought leader, or a visionary, I don’t trust anyone who proclaims themselves a genius. In some way, I pity them.
Brad Burton, I’m sorry, but you are not a fucking genius.
*Duck, verb. To search for a term using DuckDuckGo, a search engine.