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The workplaces of geniuses
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When I was in college, I used to watch a lot of those videos of famous writers giving speeches/interviews/readings on YouTube. I wasn’t learning a whole hell of a lot about writing in college, so I figured I had to pick it up somewhere else. I read a lot and I watched a few of those videos regularly, like once-a-week. Off the top of my head, I can remember being obsessed with this interview of Joseph Heller, this John Irving speech, this Donna Tartt interview, this Truman Capote/Groucho Marx interview, this Jack Kerouac reading and about two dozen others.
And my favorite part (I suspect it’s probably a lot of people’s favorite part) of these segments is when the writer explains how he/she works. Like the actual process of how they work — of course, they’re writers so they tend to talk around the edge of thing. i.e. from Kerouac: “when I write my symbolistic, serious, impressionistic novels, I write them in pencil.” Or this from Donna Tartt: “I write big books but I’m painting a wall-sized mural the size of an eyelash. I work very small but in big forms.”
What I’m getting at here is that I have a fascination with the work habits and the workplaces of geniuses. And I’m building this on writers because those are my go-to brand of geniuses. I know, for example, that Maya Angelou and Truman Capote both wrote in bed. That Hemingway wrote standing up. And everybody knows that Dalton Trumbo wrote in a bathtub. This fascination is not unique or even quirky, a lot of people have it. That’s why I had to wait like twenty minutes to see Hemingway’s desk and writing studio in Key West — everybody wants to see that kind of thing. You want to see where the sausage gets made.
Unfortunately, the desk that the Key West house purports to be Hemingway’s probably isn’t his actual desk. But it is true that he wrote in that studio.1 It’s a little room with big windows that fill it with that wet Key West sunlight. And you can stand there and think about how this was where something happened. It’s a pretty wild feeling — the first word most people reach for is surreal. It’s a surreal feeling for a lot of us. Because lot of us have a fascination with the workplaces of geniuses.
I don’t know if you’re that sort of person but it’s the kind of thing you can answer with a question like this: what goes through your head when you walk into the Sistine Chapel and look up? Do you look at the outstretching fingertips of God and Adam and think something grand about [whispers] the universe? Are you simply stunned by the beauty of the ceiling? Or are you more stunned by where you’re standing and the fact that this is the physical place where genius laid on its back holding a paintbrush.
There’s a long-dead and still-famous German writer named Goethe who went to Rome and wrote a blog about it in the 1780s. But this Goethe guy was wildly famous. Like, he had to use a fake name to get around Italy. He’s arguably the best German writer ever. And still, when Goethe saw that ceiling, he wrote about it — and, more importantly, about Michelangelo — like this:
Then we entered the Sistine Chapel, which we found bright and cheerful, and with a good light for the pictures. "The Last Judgment" divided our admiration with the paintings on the roof by Michelangelo. I could only see and wonder. The mental confidence and boldness of the master, and his grandeur of conception, are beyond all expression …
And at this moment I am so taken with Michelangelo, that after him I have no taste even for nature herself, especially as I am unable to contemplate her with the same eye of genius that he did. Oh, that there were only some means of fixing such paintings in my soul!
That’s what we’re after, when we talk about genius and where it happened. At least creatively, we want the same thing as Goethe. We want the eye of genius. We want to fix the works of genius on our souls.
If possible, that means going to the place where genius happened. Somewhere like the Sistine Chapel or Hemingway’s studio. But, of course, genius is not limited strictly to the artists. If you were to visit any scene from the life of Albert Einstein, which would you pick? You’d probably go for his Patent Clerk days in Bern, Switzerland. You want to see him developing the Theory of Relativity. Just like you want to see Michael Jordan in the flu game.2
If you weren’t there for the performance of genius, you still want to see where it happened. Maybe you want to feel like you’ve touched it. It’s why there’s a line outside Hemingway’s studio in Key West and outside Einstein’s small apartment in Bern. It’s why somebody just paid $1.3 million for the shoes that Michael Jordan wore during the flu game.
It’s like we have — whether we admit it or not — this shared idea of our species and its history as a nearly infinite spiderweb with a few points of significance gathered within it. And we like the idea of getting close to those points of significance. I don’t know what that says about us. But I think it says something nice. I think it says that sometimes, we’re sentimental about the whole thing even without meaning to be.
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I should note that Hemingway never wrote particularly well in that studio. The only book he cranked out there was To Have and Have Not and, while I feel the Key West book is underrated, it’s obviously not one of his best books. And he was aware of that. But he did write The Snows of Kilimanjaro in that studio. And — aside from the knife aimed at Fitzgerald — that’s his best long short story.
Yes, I’m equating genius in athletics to genius in physics. I guess, for me they’re the same. And they have been ever since I read that wonderful bit of Musil that goes something like this “as the modern mind looked around, it found that the tricks and dodges of an inventive mind working on logical calculations do not really differ all that much from the fighting moves of a well-trained body. There is a general fighting ability that is made cold and calculating by obstacles and openings, whether one is trained to search out the vulnerable spot in a problem or in a bodily opponent.”