A friend and fellow author took me to a brilliant exhibition at the Bodleian Library in Oxford called Marks of Genius. It explores different understandings of and attitudes to genius through time.
We marveled. Illuminated manuscripts painstakingly embellished, elegant botanical paintings and anatomical drawings that illustrate what was then new scientific knowledge, finely detailed maps made without the technical apparatus that enable accuracy today but that reflect a world as its human inhabitants perceived it…. These are visual delights. You cannot help but be moved at humanity’s willingness to engage in painstaking, lengthy and meticulous work – frequently for no great reward, but for its own sake – in order to record aspects of the world and our experience of it. I felt profound gratitude for the talent and patient labour that produced these works.
The word genius once meant the profound character or spirit of a person. A handwritten page brings that character to our attention. It transcends time and connects us, imaginatively, to the moment of writing. A page of Frankenstein in Mary Shelley’s own hand, a chummy letter by Gandhi, a song by Mendelssohn copied out and embellished with his own illustration for a friend – items like these carry a powerful and very intimate charge.
Genius is not always recognized. The exhibition has an early edition of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. It was purchased by and for members of the Diss Book Society. (For non-UK readers, Diss is a pretty market town in the county of Norfolk.) The book is displayed open at the flyleaf where a member has written:
‘More absolute trash was never written than in the present work.’
We laughed, and were put in mind of the one-line, one-star reviews we have both experienced. What, we wondered, was the anonymous writer’s motivation, back then? Was she or he trying to be helpful to fellow readers in the society? Why not identify himself in that case? Perhaps he was angry at being disappointed in his reading. Or was she vexed at recognizing herself in a character subtly demolished by the genius Jane? Anyway, in that room of glories where every other mark on paper was creative, made at the cost of effort and requiring time, thought, skill, and a generosity of spirit, the laziness of these eleven Diss-ing words struck a dissonant note.
The exhibition continues till 20th September 2015, so you’ve time to go and see for yourself. I will definitely be going again.