In an unguarded, light and carefree moment, lulled by sun, the scent of lavender and a large double latte in a big china cup, I recently told a friend of mine that I did not consider him a genius. What an error. Take a brilliant American writer and tell him you don't consider him a genius and he'll crumple like a California poppy at evening. I did my best to explain, but the damage was done. Again the semiotic interpretant reared its sleepy bed-head and stared dully at me through the tousled sheets of communication. Again I wondered that anyone is ever able to get anything across to anyone else.
Oddly, I had meant this observation as a compliment. To a Russian-American like me, being called "a genius" is not a particularly good thing. But of course, this writer is not Russian, did not grow up with Russians, and was using the American interpretation of what "genius" means.
To an American, being a genius is being Alexander Graham Bell. It's being a brisk inventor in a white coat and clean laboratory with some pretty colored liquids bubbling away in retorts in the background. It's the person thinking up and feeding equations into a gorgeous array of computer terminals in order to unlock a cure for Alzheimer's. In the US, a genius is the person who finds the cure, saves the day, figures out how to cap the oil spill-- gets the society out of a sticky wicket by using his brain. In the arts, American genius writers save the day by telling the reader what it is that needs to be saved, and often stand around looking craggy and stalwart. They all seem to have vertical creases in their tanned cheeks. Even the women.
But to a Russian, being labelled a genius is not being labelled the clean guy in the white lab coat. It's being labelled Grigory Perelman: Strange eyes, big bushy beard, tangled eyebrows, hair like an unclipped shrubbery. A recluse. Lives in small apartment with cat. Even the UPI syndicate couldn't track him down recently for comment when he turned down a million dollars won for solving a 99 year-old open mathematics problem called the Poincare Conjecture. Turned it down because of vague and unexplained dissatisfactions with the "international mathematics community." Now see: THIS is the Russian take on "genius." THIS is why, when a Russian says, "Your son is a genius," he tends to look down at the floor and wag his head slowly from side to side. The Chinese curse is, "May you live in interesting times." The Russian curse could be, "May you depend on a genius."
Brilliance, to the Russian, is the great thing. A brilliant composer is a contributor-- he is not a lunatic who writes wonderful stuff but decides for some reason to burn it and to only eat carrots from then on. A brilliant composer lives a rounded life: it may have its emotional upheavals, but it is not completely without one toe on the ground of reality. He shows up for the audience. A brilliant writer, to a Russian, is a writer who sums up human experience and at the same time describes the truth of individual existence in that universal experience.
But a Russian genius is different. He is a human that looks like an ordinary three-dimensional human but sports a brain connected to something other. Though finite in size, he lacks any boundary. The Russian writing genius tends to take a downward plunge. He may start as a brilliant writer, but then will wander into being a political conservative or an anarchistic nutball, finally packing up his possessions in a small sack and running away from home at the age of ninety, as Leo Tolstoy did. Tolstoy was a genius. Anna Ahkmatova was brilliant. She was three-dimensional, every poem she wrote tightened the loop of existence to a point. She manned the lariat.
Mama Perelman, should she still be with us, should she be the old pensioner I think she probably is, must have been ready to defenestrate her son for the unbelievable stupidity of not taking the prize money in Russia's current economy. (True, he felt that most of the work had been done by another mathematician, and this was truly honorable, if misguided from the standpoint of finances of day-to-day living.) "But what can you do," her pensioner friends at the vegetable stall probably said with a shrug after the call came through and the money was forever lost-- "What can you do? He's a genius."
Russian geniuses make life an absolute hell of absurdity and missed appointments for their wives, daughters, mothers, priests, Party Commissars, mechanics, landlords and co-workers. They routinely run their cars out of gas, forget to pick up whatever it was they were supposed to pick up, make ridiculous decisions and lousy judgements about everyday things like locking doors and feeding pets, assume that mathematical logic and life are related, say the wrong thing at the Party meeting, complain that they just "can't make you understand" the obvious logic and value of their most inane arguments.
They're at once child-like and childish, sometimes charming, always selfish, thoughtless and entitled. And though they might be terribly funny and be able to imitate people or improvise operas at the piano or figure out a conundrum or prove a theorum, in the end their lives usually turn out lonesome. The people who wanted to be close to them have finally had enough of them. Reality is a hair-shirt for a genius, a hair-shirt he only forgets when in his head or on his stage. How many die like Tolstoy, overcome in a train station on his final run from home, held in the arms of a woman he couldn't abide?
To the Russian mind, genius is a curse, not a blessing. "He was a genius," my grandmother used to say, and then, after a pause, she'd repeat, "He was a genius. He died."