A Natural History of Genius: Aesthetics, Ethics, and Totalitarianism
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The eighteenth-century concept of ‘genius’ evolved to strip ambivalent and communal qualities to prioritize the ‘man of genius’ over the merits of his work. A Natural History of Genius: Aesthetics, Ethics, and Totalitarianism shows how the resulting imitative quality of genius problematizes the political realm, as a charismatic figure in shaping the formation of the state induces an imitation of his ideologies. The focal texts, literary and philosophical, foreground the resulting tendencies toward totalitarianism. By shifting the emphasis to the intellectual work and away from the individual man, my argument enables a more supple and subtle critique of aesthetics and ethics in specific relation to totalitarianism. The introduction provides an overview of the historical, philological, and philosophical development of genius as a concept, paying close attention to the eighteenth-century debates around the function of genius. I trace how genius is stripped of its ambivalence in order to mark a chosen individual endowed with certain transcendental powers unknown and inaccessible to ordinary men. In other words, this introduction focuses on how genius becomes an embodiment of spirit and how this impacts our capacity for moral judgments. In the first chapter, “The Grotesque Genius: Moral Judgments and Normative Categories,” I provide an analysis of Thomas Mann’s Mario and the Magician (1929) in order to expand on themes of nationalism-cum-totalitarianism and the role of genius in creating totalitarian structures. This chapter is concerned with the imitative quality of genius and its influence on crowd psychology that limit freedom for making moral judgments. Furthermore, there is a correlation between genius and the grotesque which is discussed through the titular magician of Mann’s novella, Cipolla, for the purpose of thinking through what escapes normative categories. Michel Tournier’s The Ogre (1970) is the subject of the second chapter, “The Ambivalent Grotesque: Genius and the Problem of Signification.” This chapter emphasizes the importance of ambivalence in making moral judgments by drawing on the previous chapter’s argument relating genius and the grotesque. This chapter will thus consider how signs and symbols are read and misinterpreted; it focuses on the qualities we identify in order to make judgments as well as the ramifications of dismissing ambivalence in favor of singular (and easily digestible) meanings. The third chapter, “Acts of Responsibility: Not the Thought but Thinking Itself,” discusses Hannah Arendt’s work regarding moral judgments and personal responsibility. Much of this dissertation deals with the ethical and moral consequences of imitation (and more specifically, the imitation of the man of genius) and Arendt allows for such discussion in the context of political states. As suggested by the title of the chapter, Arendt’s concept of thinking is central to the ethical and moral questions around the imitation of a political leader’s will as an extension of the state’s will. Throughout this dissertation, I use the male pronoun to refer to genius. I would very much like to participate in using gender neutral pronouns in literary analysis so as to not contribute to the assumption of authorship as male. Unfortunately, however, the use of male pronouns is a deliberate choice that highlights a key aspect of genius. Genius is male.