Our culture loves the myth of the tortured, solitary genius – the man scribbling or painting or composing in a threadbare European garret, crafting a visionary, legendary work while he fights a valiant but losing battle against consumption, alcoholism, or syphilis. We gobble up stories of tragic Mozart, misanthropic Michelangelo, misunderstood Van Gogh, all lonely, brilliant men, monoliths in an uncaring world.
This lonely genius trope is propagated not only by stories but also by science, both in the 19th century when figures such as Francis Galton insisted that genius is hereditary, and by modern psychologists who assert that genius results from spending ten thousand hours of solitary practice to develop mastery over a creative discipline.
But in his new book The Geography of Genius, journalist and author Eric Weiner asserts that this conception of the lone wolf genius is largely nonsense.
Weiner, who searched for geographical centers of happiness in his 2008 book "The Geography of Bliss," takes a similar approach towards finding genius. In "The Geography of Genius," Weiner explores a series of so-called genius clusters – cities that have produced an inordinate number of scientific, artistic, philosophical, literary, or musical breakthroughs at some point in history. The result is an entertaining and thought-provoking book, a combination of history and travelogue that chronicles Weiner's wry search for the commonalities among these fecund urban areas.
Weiner chose seven diverse cities for his project, some of them well-known bastions of Western civilization, others places that are more obscure in the United States. Weiner's journey takes him to Athens, the birthplace of democracy and other philosophical ideals that still shape our society today; Hangzhou, in China, which for several centuries during Europe's Dark Ages flourished as a center of science and poetry; Florence, which spawned great art during the Renaissance under the Medicis; Edinburgh, where the Scottish Enlightenment spurred many early modern medical advances; Calcutta, where Indians and British colonizers collaborated on scientific achievements in the 19th century; Vienna, a center of music in the age of Mozart and a center of art and psychology in the age of Freud; and Silicon Valley, our modern answer to these past centers of genius. In each city, Weiner visited historic sites and interviewed intellectuals, historians, and locals, attempting to recapture the past conditions that led to each city's golden age of genius.
Part of the book's charm stems from the pure joy of experiencing these places alongside a narrator like Weiner. His wry wit shines through as he drinks sublime tea in China and contemplates a coffin collar in an Edinburgh museum; as he interviews figures such as Jack Ma, a Hangzhou native who founded multibillion dollar company Alibaba; and as he wanders the Ringstrasse of Vienna and the strip malls of Silicon Valley, pondering the conditions that lead to genius.
It turns out there are several. Weiner discovers that genius tends to spring up not in sunny complacent paradises, but rather in cities that have recently suffered hardship: for example, Athens in the wake of the Persian Wars, and Florence on the heels of the Black Death. All of these centers of genius offered public forums to gather and exchange ideas, such as the Viennese coffeehouses in the days of Sigmund Freud, and the adda, a freeform conversation popular in Calcutta. A certain amount of money played a role: Artists and architects in Renaissance Florence would have gotten nowhere without their wealthy benefactors. There's also something to be said for the interplay between different cultures, such as between the British and the Indians in Calcutta in the 19th century.
But perhaps most importantly, the essential ingredients in the ineffable search for genius seem to be chaos, uncertainty, a certain level of hardship, dirt, and grit. In the course of his book, Weiner finds that adversity breeds creativity and inspiration, both in the sciences and the arts.
Although Weiner's book functions as an intriguing history and travelogue, it also includes deeper sociological and psychological implications. Throughout the book, Weiner invokes studies that demonstrate that certain conditions, such as disruption of norms or unexpected events, encourage creativity in a human brain. He asserts that although you can't always predict a place of genius and thus can't manufacture one, you can still create conditions to increase the likelihood that a place of genius will spring up. Weiner concludes that societies get the geniuses they support and ask for, and that if a society wants to see more genius, that society needs to promote the kinds of conditions likely to create it.
And the first thing we have to do before that happens, Weiner says, is to dismiss our foolish notion that genius only comes from within, and acknowledge that many of the discoveries, innovations, and artistic achievements that have shaped our civilization have sprung from a messy melting pot of influences, and not from a lonely man toiling away in an attic.