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Beyond Einstein: Exhibit challenges scope of genius

August 17, 2014 at 1:27 PM EST
How common are geniuses? An exhibit on display at the Morgan Library in New York City features dozens of priceless manuscripts and artifacts -- all reflecting the idea of genius throughout world history. But experts say society may be returning to the idea that everyone has the capacity to be a genius. NewsHour Weekend's Zachary Green reports.
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ZACHARY GREEN: When we think of the word “genius”, we may think of towering figures like Shakespeare or Isaac Newton—or of seminal works of art, like Handel’s “Messiah” or the Indian epic, the Bhaghavad Gita. Now these works and dozens of others can all be seen in one room.

They’re part of a new exhibition called “Marks of Genius”, which is on display at the Morgan Library in New York City until September 28th. On loan from the Bodleian Library at Oxford University in England, the exhibit features priceless manuscripts and artifacts: a copy of the First Folio of Shakespeare. Fragments containing the work of the Greek poetess, Sappho. A 12th century Arabic manuscript on the constellations. Even a copy of the Magna Carta. All of them intended to reflect the idea of genius throughout world history.

JOHN MCQUILLEN: The sort of inspiration or genius of creation goes across all formats, all levels of human creativity. So you’re able to see that through putting a printed book from the 20th century next to a medieval manuscript from the 15th. Through something from Western Europe next to something from Persia.

ZACHARY GREEN: John McQuillen is the curator in charge of the “Marks of Genius” exhibition at the Morgan Library. An expert in medieval art history, McQuillen has also had to familiarize himself with the nearly 60 pieces from different time periods and from all over the world.

McQuillen says that one of the exhibition’s goals is to challenge some of the more modern ideas about what genius is and who possesses it.

JOHN MCQUILLEN: In Western civilization over the centuries– genius did become something that was– a divine gift given to only a few. But I think now we are sort of returning to an idea that– everyone is capable of this and that genius is something that we all possess, whether we– it comes to fruition and we show it or not.

And it now even could be getting a little bit overused. “This book is genius. This blog is genius. This Facebook post is genius.”

ZACHARY GREEN: I mean, a that’s kind of like a democratization of the–

JOHN MCQUILLEN: Yes–

ZACHARY GREEN: –word genius, this idea that it’s a quality that everybody possesses in one form or another. But you can also look at an exhibition like this and say, “Everyone might have a spark of genius within them, but these are the works that we’ve kind of chosen to, to set up on high as the–the truer works of genius.”

JOHN MCQUILLEN: I think some of it is completely by chance, what we decide is a work of genius and what is not. I think part of what genius is that there is an afterlife to it. You have created, or made something, written something that has an impact, that has influence even for ten years, 50 years– 500 years, 1,000 years. If it still speaks to generations later, they might consider it an act of genius.

ZACHARY GREEN: So genius in that sense isn’t necessarily linked to your IQ score or how well you do in school.

JOHN MCQUILLEN: Yeah. We tend now to sort of think of genius as– kind of a synonym for Einstein– as just someone who was brilliant usually in math or science. But you have aspects of artistic and literary genius, genius in problem solving, in fashion design–choices that are inspired somehow that you can equate to being a mark of genius.

ZACHARY GREEN: McQuillen says that one way of discovering how genius is inspired is by going back to an original source—such as the pieces in the exhibition. And one thing they show is that genius is not always created in a vacuum. Take this original handwritten manuscript of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein”.

McQuillen says that its backstory shows how genius is often the product of place and circumstance. The novel might not even exist, were it not for a vacation in Switzerland that Mary Shelley took in 1816 with her future husband, the poet, Percy Shelley, and their friend, Lord Byron.

JOHN MCQUILLEN: Lord Byron proposed that they have a competition to write the best ghost story, one evening, Byron and Shelley were having a conversation about the reanimation of people and if you can bring something or someone back to life.

And after that, she had a very sleepless night and this sort of waking dream, where she saw Dr. Frankenstein with this creation. And from this sort of vision, she, you know, had the idea for the novel, “Frankenstein”.

ZACHARY GREEN: Since the story’s conception, “Frankenstein” has been popularized in many different forms—including multiple film adaptations.

DR. FRANKENSTEIN: It’s alive! It’s alive! It’s alive!

ZACHARY GREEN: But what appeared on screen was not necessarily what Mary Shelley originally envisioned. In fact, her companions’ influence went beyond the inspiration for the story we all know today.

DR. FRANKENSTEIN: It’s alive!

ZACHARY GREEN: As the manuscript at the Morgan’s exhibition shows us, Mary’s lover, Percy Shelley, helped to edit her novel. One alteration he made, in particular, stands out.

JOHN MCQUILLEN: One of the main things that he did change was the last sentence of the work.

ZACHARY GREEN: The last sentence of “Frankenstein”—

JOHN MCQUILLEN: The last sentence. He—he had to get that in. The way Mary wrote it, the Creature—Dr. Frankenstein’s creation—leaps from a ship onto an ice flow and pushes away from the ship and sort of sails off into the distance. But you’re left with this idea that he is going on to live somewhere else.

In Percy Shelley’s revision of that, the Creature jumps off onto the ice flow and the ice flow takes him away, but you’re left really unsure whether the Creature is alive or dead, and he just falls off into the darkness. So that’s really one of the major changes in how that novel ends and what happens to the creature.

ZACHARY GREEN: McQuillen says that this story is indicative of the way that the Shelleys and many artists and thinkers throughout history have influenced each other.

ZACHARY GREEN: So, this idea of genius, sitting alone in a room, working furiously—not necessarily true in all cases—

JOHN MCQUILLEN: No, I think, uh, genius always needs a little bit of help.

ZACHARY GREEN: McQuillen says that details like this might make the process of genius more understandable—and help all the rest of us appreciate it.