‘In more exalted fields of human endeavour, it is difficult to think of geniuses who were truly evil: that is to say, to think of evil composers, painters, writers, scientists and so forth’
July 10, 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.
It is a perfect place in which to listen to Haydn string quartets, which I love; and this year’s quartet was very good. It was formed in 1993 and I was much moved by the evident affection of the players for one another after so many years of ceaseless and unrelenting work in close association together. They were specialists in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century repertoire, and surely the inexhaustible depth and beauty of this repertoire was not unconnected to their capacity to survive constant close association with such good feeling. I am not by nature envious, at least by comparison with many other people I have known, but I confess that I envied them.
Haydn is an interesting figure, for he refutes in his own person the romantic notion that a creative person must either be tormented or a swine. (Haydn was tormented, but only by his wife who was a shrew, and that is not the kind of torment that the romantics mean. They mean inner torment.) Haydn is universally acknowledged to have been a delightful man with the most equable temperament; but the virtual inventor of the string quartet, and masterly composer for it, can hardly be denied the title of genius. Mozart deeply and sincerely revered him; there could hardly be a better testimonial than that.
Another undoubted genius of the most attractive character who comes to mind is Chekhov, probably the greatest writer of short-stories who ever lived. No doubt there has been a deal of hagiography in the way that he has been memorialised; but not even the late Christopher Hitchens could have debunked him in even a minimally convincing way. Few men have ever had such an inextinguishable if evasive charm; even Tolstoy, who was not easy to please, least of all by people who were not contented to be his uncritical acolytes and were his equals, loved him.
Personally, I have never been convinced of the supposed link between genius, or even great talent, and bad character. Perhaps I have been unusually fortunate, but the people of real distinction whom I have met, some of the greatest men or women in their fields, have mostly been delightful people into the bargain (though not quite all, but I will not reveal the exceptions). In my experience, it is the moderately talented, those with some talent but enough self-knowledge to wish it were more and worry themselves that it is not, who have a tendency to unpleasantness, for they are disappointed and often bitter that their reach exceeded their grasp.
A friend of mine once told me that a famous Russian writer – Pushkin, I think it was – once said that no real genius could be an evil man, that evil was incompatible with genius. I have thought about this question on and off ever since. To decide the question properly, according to the current canons of science, one should have an operational definition of both genius and evil, then select a number of geniuses at random and see whether any of them displayed evil. (The number of geniuses you would have to select for examination of their character would rather depend on the number of evil people you expected in a random sample of ordinary people. The smaller the proportion, the large the number of geniuses necessary. And even then there would remain the black swan problem: because 1000 geniuses had no evil characters among them would not mean that the 1001st genius would not be evil.)
What Pushkin – if indeed it was Pushkin – meant was that there was and is an intrinsic incompatibility between genius and evil. Of course, it is not very difficult to think of geniuses with profound flaws of character: Sir Isaac Newton, for example, was inclined to paranoia, could be cruel, and was not much fun. But no one would call him evil, and quite apart from his brilliance as a scientist he was as capable of great wisdom as of great foolishness.
The term ‘evil genius’ suggests that people do apply the term ‘genius’ to the doers of destructive or evil deeds when they reach a certain level of intensity, beyond the capacity of the vast majority of men to commit. The evil genius is not merely wicked, and does not confine his evil deeds to his personal sphere, say an exceptionally cruel murder or two; he is Mephistophelian in his cunning to procure evil on the largest possible scale. The first man that comes to mind of this type is, of course, Hitler, though the last century was exceptionally rich in such men: Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Abimael Guzmán (the founder of Sendero Luminoso in Peru) and several, perhaps many, others. In his biography of Lyndon B Johnson, Robert Caro presents his subject almost in such a light, a worshipper of power for its own sake and without scruple in achieving it.
In more exalted fields of human endeavour, it is difficult to think of geniuses who were truly evil: that is to say, to think of evil composers, painters, writers, scientists and so forth…