|CONVERSATION WITH LEE CULLUM|
March 31 , 2000
TERENCE SMITH: The nature of genius, creativity, and invention are
explored in the new book, "Genius Came Early: Creativity in the
20th century," by NewsHour regular and "Dallas Morning News"
columnist Lee Cullum.
LEE CULLUM: It's lovely to be here. Thank you.
TERENCE SMITH: How did you come to write this book?
LEE CULLUM: Well, Terry, I gave a speech some years ago about the 20th century. It was called "The Terrible, Wonderful 20th Century," then, in that incarnation, and a woman came up to me afterwards and said, "you know, that speech could be a course." And I thought, "well, if it could be a course, maybe it could be a book." So I set about writing it, having no idea what I was getting into, and it took me six years to get it done.
TERENCE SMITH: Well, I'm not surprised, because you encompass not only a century, but a huge cast of characters, of geniuses.
LEE CULLUM: Well, I kept adding things, you see. I finally realized that I couldn't leave out film, because that was a great invention of the 20th century. I couldn't leave out musical theater-- that, too, was a wonderful American invention of the 20th century. So each thing I would add would take another year.
TERENCE SMITH: How did you do your research for this? I mean, there are so many fields: The arts, science, statecraft, et cetera. How did you gather it all?
LEE CULLUM: Well, a great deal of reading, of course; some interviews. The most fun was researching film, and I found a wonderful person to help me at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, a man named Charles Silver, who's with the film studies department there. He was enormously kind. Not only did he open the archive of the museum to me, which is extraordinary, he told me what to see. He explained what I was seeing. He put it in context. He gave me a film education. He sent me some of his own films on tape to watch at home in Dallas, and I would send them back to him. And he even read and corrected the chapter. He could not have been kinder.
TERENCE SMITH: In your research, did you discover what makes a genius?
LEE CULLUM: I think a genius is born, Terry. I don't think geniuses are made; I think they are born. Now, sometimes genius doesn't have a chance to bloom. Maybe there are circumstances, maybe it's a very oppressive family, or a terrible political situation that simply prevents genius from expressing itself, and so perhaps it expresses itself in illness or alcoholism or other kinds of unfortunate circumstances.
TERENCE SMITH: Is it affected? Is genius affected by the individual's time and place?
LEE CULLUM: Oh, yes. In fact, I think that's what a genius is, is someone who really expresses his or her time and place to the fullest.
TERENCE SMITH: Mm-hmm, you have a theory, in fact, that the work of some of these people laid the groundwork for the work of others. Tell me about that.
LEE CULLUM: Yes, well, for example, I feel that the work of the cubists-- Picasso, Braque, Juan Gris-- would have been impossible without Freud. Freud took the human personality apart and put it back together again, and that's what they did. They took people and objects apart and put them back together as cones and spheres and cubes.
TERENCE SMITH: They did that, and yet of course they did it in the plastic arts.
LEE CULLUM: That's right.
TERENCE SMITH: And here's psychiatry over here.
LEE CULLUM: Yes.
TERENCE SMITH: But you see them as related.
LEE CULLUM: Oh, I do see them as related. Yeah, I think certain ideas get aborne in the air, and they're catching.
TERENCE SMITH: Tell me when, in terms of creativity, the century, when you looked at it, you write that it seemed to peak rather early in the 1920's and 1930's. What do you mean?
LEE CULLUM: Well, the 1920's was by far the most creative decade, I feel. We had Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury group in London. We had Picasso and Matisse in Paris, the Bauhaus in Germany, the Russian Avant Garde in Moscow. But I think the century ran out of steam in the 1960's, and we've been in limbo ever since.
TERENCE SMITH: Yes, in fact you describe the later years of the 20th century as sort of a postmodern limbo.
LEE CULLUM: I think so, yeah. The century just got exhausted. It was exhausted by the Great Depression, two world wars, especially by the Holocaust, and in this country, Vietnam was just the last straw.
TERENCE SMITH: I mean, why does one epoch arise and another decline? Did you find any key to that?
LEE CULLUM: Well, of course, the 19th century was fertile all the way through to the very end. It did have conflict. It had the Crimean War in the 1850's, the American Civil War, of course, in the 1860's. Franco-Russian War, 1870, 1871. But I don't think there was the terrible, terrible conflagration that we saw. You know, Jean Renoir, in his film "The Grand Illusion" talks about World War I as really definitive. He said that, well, Erich Von Stroheim plays a German officer who's visiting with a French officer whom he has taken captive, and as they... it's all okay because they're both members of the officer class, they could have this fraternization. But as they talk, they begin to understand that once World War I is over, the officer class will be over with it, and so will gentlemen's warfare. And it certainly was. And then followed on an even more terrible war, in world war ii. So it was too much conflict. It was too much adversity.
TERENCE SMITH: And just exhausted the human potential?
LEE CULLUM: I feel so, yes. Now, there are those who will say that we had great technological advances at the end of the century, but remember, the microchip was invented in 1958 in Dallas, Texas by Jack Kilby at Texas instruments, and Robert Noyes out in California, '58. So we've had brilliant applications of technology since then.
TERENCE SMITH: You mentioned Virginia Woolf, and you have a chapter, a fascinating chapter in here, about the rise of the woman writer, the woman novelist in the 20th century. Tell me about that.
LEE CULLUM: Well, I think that the novel really-- Virginia Woolf says this, too, I don't really think it's original to me-- that the novel lends itself to women writers. It deals with very personal and domestic relations, which are certainly the purview of women. It doesn't require money for a production like the theater does. It wasn't yet dominated by men as poetry was. So it really lent itself to the woman writer working very privately. And we had great women writers. We had Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton, Isak Dinesen, Natalie Gordimer, Toni Morrison-- one of the most wonderful writers of them all.
TERENCE SMITH: As you did the research on them, was there a favorite, for you that struck you as the genius that really typified her period?
LEE CULLUM: Oh, yeah. Oh, yes-- Virginia Woolf.
TERENCE SMITH: Why?
LEE CULLUM: It just is an incredible command of language, beautiful language, but also command of idea. You know, Proust had beautiful language, but he didn't have her elegance of idea.
TERENCE SMITH: Can you imagine... Now we're in the 21st century. Can you imagine this century producing the kind of geniuses and the brilliance that the 20th century did?
LEE CULLUM: Oh, yes, oh, yes. In fact, I look for great renewal. You have to remember, 1901 gave us Teddy Roosevelt. And Picasso was painting his pictures of the blue period in 1901. 1905, Einstein was hard at work on the theory of special relativity, Edith Wharton wrote "The House of Mirth." Surely very soon we'll see significant renewal.
TERENCE SMITH: Well, I guess it goes to the question of whether we are out of this postmodern limbo...
LEE CULLUM: Not yet.
TERENCE SMITH: ...Which you discuss.
LEE CULLUM: Not yet. I was just at the Whitney Biennial in New York, and it's a very good art show. I don't agree with the critics who pan it. I'm glad they didn't take some of the outrageous risks they'd taken before. It's a good show, but there is no great work there. Not yet.
TERENCE SMITH: No genius.
LEE CULLUM: Not yet.
TERENCE SMITH: Okay. Lee Cullum, thank you very much.
LEE CULLUM: Thank you, Terry.