How do you measure genius?

Last week I taught Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia (1993) to my Freshman-level Global Lit class. There’s this hilarious back-and-forth in Act 2, Scene 5 between Valentine and Bernard. Valentine is trying (and mostly succeeding) to get under Bernard’s skin by teasing Bernard about his “scholarly” essay on why Byron left England in 1809 (Bernard claims he killed a minor nobleman in a duel; in reality, Byron was just going on the Grand Tour—a standard rite of passage for aristocratic sons). Valentine has his own motivations; he is conducting research on the grouse population of the country manor using computer models.

Exasperated, Bernard cries, “Parameters! You can’t stick Byron’s head in your laptop! Genius isn’t like your average grouse.”

Stoppard’s play is hysterical. Don’t take my word for it—my undergrads loved the scene where Bernard reaches through Chloe’s legs to grab a book of the shelf. But the line on genius made me laugh out loud. It’s ridiculous to think that you could quantify poetic genius, and yet we try to do it all the time. I asked my students what they thought calling someone a genius meant. Many of them mentioned Einstein, one student mentioned himself (ever the humble jokester), but many of them hadn’t thought before about how we characterize literary genius.

Later in the play, Hannah and Valentine debate whether genius simply means discovering something before anyone else:

V. But let’s say you’re right, in 18-whatever nobody knew more about heat than this scribbling nutter living in a hovel in Derbyshire.

H. He was at Cambridge—a scientist.

V. Say he was. I’m not arguing. And the girl was his pupil, she had a genius for her tutor.

H. Or the other way round.

V. Anything you like. But not this! Whatever he thought he was doing to save the world with good English algebra it wasn’t this!

H. Why? Because they didn’t have calculators?

V. No. Yes. Because there’s an order things can’t happen in. You can’t open a door till there’s a house.

H. I thought that’s what genius was.

V. Only for lunatics and poets.

 Hannah goes on to quote from Byron’s “Darkness”: “I had a dream which was not all a dream. / The bright sun was extinguished, and the stars / Did wander darkling in the eternal space …”A funny passage, but the message seems to be all the more important for all the banter. Who is the genius—pupil or teacher? Does genius mean being the first to discover something, even if it seems anachronistic—or does that only work for “lunatics and poets”? And why must a poet be forever linked to a lunatic? Surely they’re not the same thing …?

There’s been a lot of talk of late about geniuses, specifically Apple’s Steve Jobs. Certainly he was an innovator, but was he a genius? And Apple stores, if you recall, have a table set up in the back called the “Genius Bar” where techie gurus will troubleshoot your problems away. Are they geniuses? Is the word subjective? Does it depend on certain contexts for it to hold cachet?

My questions on the nature of genius keep multiplying. And so I pose the question to you, fellow writers—how do you define genius, particularly of the literary or creative kind? do you ever feel like a misunderstood genius, or can the title “Genius” only be bestowed after completion of some influential task of magnitude?

And for your enjoyment, a brief clip of Arcadia, Act 2: