Darrin McMahon and the Question of Genius

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"What do we mean when we throw around the term 'genius'?"

Good question and one posed by Jonathan Judaken, who holds the Spence L. Wilson chair in humanities at Rhodes College.

"Once reserved for those who were thought to be touched by the gods or privy to the secrets of the universe or those who changed the course of history or culture, today anyone can be a genius for 15 minutes. How did this come about?"

Another good question, and Judaken was posing those questions in connection with an author who will be visiting Rhodes on Wednesday, November 13th, as part of the school's "Communities in Conversation" lecture series.

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That author is Darrin McMahon, professor of history at Florida State University and no stranger to sweeping historical studies. His Happiness: A History (2006) has been translated into more than a dozen languages. His new book, Divine Fury: A History of Genius (Basic Books), has been generating widespread interest since its publication in October. And it doesn't take a genius to locate some superlative blurbs for the book. Just scroll Amazon:

"Completely engaging" (Vanessa Bush, Booklist). "Prepare to be blown away" (Daniel Gilbert of Harvard). "You may never use the term 'genius' again" (Mark Lilla of Columbia).

But we do have to use it again. Others certainly are, and they include Andrew Sullivan, at his blog "The Dish," who recently directed readers to an excellent overview of McMahon's book by Maria Popova at brainpickings.org.

Judaken was instrumental in getting McMahon to Rhodes, and his Memphis appearance couldn't be better timed.

"I learned from McMahon on the academic circuit that the book was coming out, and I slotted his visit early so that we could get him here just as the tide of interest was cresting," Judaken wrote by email. "I think the book is generating a lot of interest, because its subject is inherently intriguing and because McMahon's method and style are compelling."

They are also appealing to general readers in addition to scholars.

"In showing how the ideas about genius have changed over time, McMahon creates wonderful portraits of those who embody genius," according to Judaken. "This means there's something for everyone. For philosophers, there's Socrates. For admirers of the Roman empire, Augustus. For Christians, the saints. For the Renaissance, towering artists like Michelangelo. For the Enlightenment, scientists like Newton. For the Romantics, Napoleon, who was deified. And into the 19th century, when the science for the discovery of genius was developed, including the IQ test — background likely to interest psychologists."

And what of the 20th century?

"McMahon also has an interesting take on how Hitler, later seen as the embodiment of the evil genius, was opposed by Einstein, the last of the towering figures of genius. McMahon's overall argument about the invention of the modern idea of genius in the 18th century is also intriguing. But I will leave that for McMahon's Rhodes lecture, a preview of which can be gleaned from my interview with the author."

Judaken's referring to his interview with McMahon broadcast last week on WKNO-FM — an interview that begins with birthday-cake candles in ancient Rome and ends with Einstein's brain as downloadable app.

But hear and see for yourself. McMahon will be discussing Divine Fury inside the McCallum Ballroom of the Bryan Campus Life Center at Rhodes on Wednesday, November 13th, and his book will be available for purchase and for signing. The event is free and open to the public and begins at 6 p.m. Any questions? Go here. Or Facebook.com/Communities.in.Conversation. Or on Twitter at @Rhodes_CiC. •

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