by Theodore Dalrymple (July 2012)
When I am in England I am fortunate enough to live in a pleasant little town which holds the only annual Haydn festival in the country. At lunchtime during the festival I can walk to either of two nearby churches to listen to a chamber concert. The better church, acoustically, was built by Thomas Telford, the great engineer who invented the suspension bridge. His architectural style was cool, classical and rational rather than Gothic or decorated, not at all suited to religious zealotry and more adapted to a tepid deism than to transports of pietism. more>>>
Posted on 06/30/2012 7:36 AM by NER
2 Jul 2012
The Pushkin comment your friend refers to is from his short play Mozart and Salieri, upon which the play and movie Amadeus was based. After a discussion whether or not Beaumarchais really poisoned someone, Mozart comments "Genius and villainy are two things incompatible, aren’t they?"
Like several other places in the play, Mozart insults Salieri without realizing it and Salieri ponders the question after Mozart leaves.The question highlights the drive behind Salieri's reasons for wanting to murder Mozart--he seeks to save art from someone he views as all too human and monstrous (using a "higher reason" to justify his actions). While Mozart wallows in his humanness (something no one would describe as evil except Salieri, although he was definitely not in the same "good man" league as Hayden), he achieves something divine. I apologize for going on so, but the source of the quote proves to be an interesting fit with Hayden's example.
4 Jul 2012
G. Murphy Donovan
It has been said of Koestler that he never adopted a cause that he was not willing to betray. His treatment of women and his death seem to be of a piece. And yes, history judges achievement not character; an indulgence that Koestler might have embraced. Suicide is not heroic, it's tragic; alas, a vain attempt to romanticize cowardice. Death is not just easy; it's also inevitable. Living requires courage.
And Haydn is indeed the better model of genuis, a kind of Erasmus in the world of music.
6 Jul 2012
Haydn said something like, "As God has given me a cheerful heart, he will forgive me for serving Him cheerfully."
I am working on a translation of The Creation and have therefore given the piece thought. Haydn's cheerful disposition led him to dispose of the snake, the tempting of Eve, the sin, the expulsion from Eden, and the punishments of pangs of childbirth and the burden of work. He ends the work with a love duet between Adam and Eve, happy before the Fall, and finishes off with another choral praise to God. "I was never so devout as when I was writing The Creation," he said.
But his devotion did not encompass the Seventh Day. Yes, Haydn had wonderful personal traits, but he lacked a certain gravitas. How can life be serious if it is all happy arias? If there is no Seventh Day, which must be seen not as punishment but as rest from creative labors? I think Haydn wanted to end the piece, already quite long, on an upbeat. But to write The Creation and leave out the Seventh Day seems at the very least a strange oversight.
6 Jul 2012
From A Breath of Air by Clarice Lispector, translated 2012 by Johnny Lorenz (p132):
... Everything she touches is frivolous. But when I tell her that, she answers with a text she copied from Reader's Digest: "Joseph Haydn, criticized for the lightness of his music, smiled: I cannot make it otherwise; I write according to the thoughts I feel. When I think upon God, my heart is so full of joy that the notes dance and leap, as it were, from my pen; and since God has given me a cheerful heart, it will be pardoned me that I serve Him with a cheerful spirit."
7 Jul 2012
Something else that can be said about Haydn contra the Romantic Era: the Romantics tended to believe that true art can only be achieved if it is separated from commerce - that is to say, the true "artist" can only create if he is half-starved and living in a garret in the worst part of town (hence the cliche of the "starving artist"). True art can only arise from pain, privation, and suffering.
Haydn, and other composers of his generation would have had none of that. Haydn, for example, created music of the highest artistic worth and sought to profit from it financially to the greatest extent possible. (Indeed, he was even said to be something of a sharper at business.) He experienced a certain level of poverty as a young man (it is thought that he tended to exaggerate even that) and was determined never to have to repeat the experience. At the height of his fame (from the late 1780s on), he lived in physically and financially comfortable circumstances, while still creating music, as I said above, of the highest artistic worth.
Contra the Romantic Era (many of the attitudes of which survived well into the 20th century), it is possible to be an artistic genius and be rich.
7 Jul 2012
There is a difference between 18C and 19-20C artists in two senses: 1) in terms of patronage and 2) in terms of individualism. 1) When artists freed themselves from official patronage of nobility and church, they had to compete in an open market which is economically much more difficult. 2) More individualism (necessary to distinguish oneself from competitors) means greater difficulties to find recognition because it also means greater deviation from aesthetic consensus. These are the causes of sometimes 'bad behavior' of great artists; they are confronted with more unfair situations than artists of lower calibre, and have nonetheless to get through the barriers, with hook or with crook. In a way, they sometimes had to sacrifice their moral scruples in the service of their work and that left scars on their soul. It seems that being a genius is sometimes a condemnation to have to give-up being 'a good person'. In the post-feudal world, a 'good person' of genius has not only the burden of creativity but also the burden of his 'goodness' creating extra barriers all the time. Haydn would not have survived today as an artist.
7 Jul 2012
I remember the life of Dostosevsky .He was genius but thereare many rumour about his evil deeds.He was crazy gambler,he borrow money from acquainted people and never returned.There are otherlot of rumour against him but he wrote immmortal novels till people read himand praise him
7 Jul 2012
L:yndon Johnson wasn't simply a worshipper of power.When he had power he used it well, in particular steering radical civil rights legislation through a tough congress, even though he knew that the South would largely abandon the Democrats.
He couldn't handle Viet Nam but he left a good record of progressive legislation.
7 Jul 2012
I am an admirerer of the work of Theodore Darylmple but he is certainly wrong here about the 'evil genius' phenomema. Great geniuses tend to be wholly absorbed in their work and therefore probably on the whole are less considerate of others than most. Most were not truly Evil but there have been Geniuses of creation who were truly evil. Consider Wagner and Celine for instance.
7 Jul 2012
It matters whether the great person is, in their work, propounding a theory of human nature which is, or is meant to be, a guideline for the behaviour of others.
I mean, it matters to us in assessing the usefulness of their advice. Being urged to the practice of benevolence by a rotter should make us wonder whether his failure is intrinsic to the nature of his own prescription or a simple failure to follow it.
7 Jul 2012
I enjoyed this piece. Thank you. Evil genius? Think of Shelley and those like him. He wrote more than few great poems, but was a serial abuser of women. A thoroughly nasty narcissist. My estimation of Hadyn the man soared when I read eveything I could about Nelson and Emma Hamilton. Only a true gentleman--magnanimous, tolerant and generous--could have behaved as he did to Hamilton, a truly unique and amazingly beautiful eccentric. "Emma's relationship with Haydn was very warm," according to the composer's biographer, Griesinger. 'In My lady Hamilton Haydn found a great admirer...for two days she never left Haydn's side'." And for that, Haydn gave her "two manuscripts of two of his songs, set Cornelia Knight's lines on the battle of the Nile to music, presented the music to Nelson, and accompanied Emma when she sang it."
8 Jul 2012
Honestly, the talented behave neither better nor worse than the average and never have. That is the flaw in our so-called meritocracy. How to pick those who combine virtue with talent -- that is the mystery challenge.
8 Jul 2012
A C Munro
Another way of looking at a hypocrite is as one who fails in his behaviour, but knowing it to be wrong does not profess its virtue. I understand Hazlitt as being concerned that we should not profess to be right that which is wrong, even if we are too weak to live up to the better standard.
9 Jul 2012
Great artists are often rotten shits. A roster of names would take up too much space because it would be much longer than those who were/are benign, sunny, kind, thoughtful, and generous.
9 Jul 2012
Allowing oneself to be “convinced” of the link between genius and bad character without determining the relative truth of such a link systematically is a questionable procedure. Dalyrmple assays no such test, indicating only its possibility and inevitable, attempt-dooming problematicity. Instead, he sites Haydn and Chekov to back up his “relief” that not all geniuses are moral idiots. It would be silly to expect anything more stringent from a feuilletonist.
Unfortunately, relief based on anecdote is easily turned into depressing confirmation by equally salient examples of the opposite tendency. Thus for every Goethe there is a Hölderlin, Byron, Leopardi, Beethoven, Wagner, Nietzsche, Proust, Kafka, Verlaine, Bertolt Brecht, etc. But at least arbitrary examples and counter-examples don’t presume to objective truth, that really would be gauche.
Haydn was a kept man, brow-beaten by his wife and a virtual prisoner of his royal sponsor. He was in fact one of the last of generations of artists dependent upon royal patronage, and therewith doomed to a life of tutelage, regular commissions, and the necessity of flattering his benefactor. That Haydn ate with the help tells us all we need to know about the parameters within which he was allowed to unfold his personality. But at least he wasn’t conceited...
Considering that charm and “unpleasantness” are cited as examples of bad character, the suggestion is that the latter equates to boorishness; a lack of social graces. On such a definition a genius is the sort of individual you wouldn’t invite to a cocktail party.
The idea of evil genius errs in the opposite direction. If the boor is too conventionally defined, the evil genius seems closer to a caricature. What is an evil man? An adulterer? a tax-cheat? an ungrateful man? I say better to leave bourgeois notions of upstanding character at the door when discussing genius. Creativity happens in the pre-moral realm [“beyond good and evil”] of the “inner child” and its unbound imagination. Artists deserve the special exemptions they claim. It has nothing to do with hydraulics, but with the possibilities of imagination.
The leeway that the artist enjoys is simply that of his work or craftsmanship, which, as a source of self-esteem independent of relationships, confers upon him a very real autonomy. As a result, most creative types don’t much care about winning popularity contests, so long as the muses don’t withhold their inspiration.
12 Jul 2012
I have a strong suspicion that the journalist referred to in the article is Christopher Hitchens. My suspicion is based on Katah Politt's obituary in The Nation. Dr Dalrymple does say his source was a female journalist.
13 Jul 2012
How clever of Herr Doctor to hint at the name of his ‘journalist’ early in the piece, while performing surgery on the unnamed straw man. However, based only on what he writes about the departed 'journalist', the writer is the gentle doctor as opposed to the cruel poet. Herr Doctor may not entirely believe the dictum ‘De mortuis nil nisi bonum’, but surely he comes close. I too, am irritated at the arrogant self-righteousness of ‘journalists’ of the socialist ilk; particularly the ones that make their career in the socialist heaven of the United States of America. Egalitarianism is a fine goal indeed – but surely it so much nicer with higher pay, and lower taxes!
14 Jul 2012
Surely it is not just in your imagined scientific survey that we need a definition of genius, but rather - if we are to use the word - for any such writing. Does such talk imply that some are, and some are not, geniuses? And if this is so, does this mean that whatever Geniuses do will be Great and Immortal? But non-Geniuses will only ever, can only, produce the second-rate? Another internet journalist I often read keeps referring to Great Writers, as though everything they write must be Great (and others, I suppose, not so). I know of a (modern) piece of church music which is utterly beautiful, strangley powerful, and filled with an almost disturbing mystical quality, that effortlessly lifts one out of this world ... I know of nothing that may be said to be "greater", by anyone. Is it by Elgar? Vaughan-Williams? Sibelius? Stravinsky? No, I refer to And I Saw A New Heaven by Edgar Bainton. Who? Edgar Bainton. How many of your readers have heard of the man? How many music lovers? A genius? Well, probably not. I suggest that the ultimate source of great art is what really is "genius", not the actual people who bring it to earth ...
16 Jul 2012
... And further: I think the myth of the Great Artist (started first, perhaps, by Vasari, using such excellent material as Michelangelo?) led to the Tortured Great Artist (Romantic movement, sturm + drang, etc.), and finally we have the wretched Celebrity culture: pop gurus are the heirs to such as Shelley (though he had talent; today that is unneccessary, today they just have to be able to behave badly). Indeed (as a contributor suggests, I fancy), artists are no better nor worse (and no more wonderful, or shocking) than anyone else.
(I don't know Haydn's quartets, but will definitely try them, on the strength of TD's words. A Telford Classical church? There's a very good one at Bridgnorth, near me, but no doubt others; however, Google tells me that Bridnorth has a Haydn festival; I didn't know that). I drew that Telford church as a schoolboy, 1960s).
17 Jul 2012
I say, Ted, what a lovely confection you've made -- if only I knew where to stick my finger into it . . .
18 Jul 2012
A group of friends were singing madrigals together last week and were discussing life over our lunch. I had just finished the Steve Jobs book and was agonizing over his rotten behavior of the humans around him and his genius in technology. The Dalrymple article is helpful in the analysis. Two hundred years from now Steve Jobs will be remembered for his work and not for has piss poor treatment of others.
27 Jul 2012
10 Aug 2012
K. Rothlind's list (7/14) of morally defective geniuses seems arbitrary and unfair.
For example, what did Kafka do to justify your libel? By almost all accounts left behind, he seems to have been a gentle and courteous man, odd in his habits and indecisive and unsuccessful in love, but that can hardly be held too hard against him.
Or Nietzsche...he went mad, as we all know, but after his health broke down at a young age, he lived a withdrawn and solitary existence. I can't think of much in his biography to justify your listing him.
I think you may have been plucking names out of the air.