When celebrated artist Sardar Sobha Singh, known for his alluring Sohni Mahiwal portrait, politely turned down the government’s offer of relocating his studio from the sleepy but picturesque mountain village in the Kangra valley to the country’s best-planned city of Chandigarh, not many could believe that his studio window overlooking the majestic Shivalik mountains could be the reason. That he believed in the power of a place, and drew inspiration from it, was left unsaid then.
The Geography of Genius has revoked the unsaid by provoking queries: Does a place nurture a genius? Do places, like humans, have dispositions, likes and dislikes? Are places alive? Was Socrates Athens’s making or Tagore Kolkata’s creation? Intriguing are such improbabilities, though without any conclusive answers. But for Eric Weiner, the study of a place and its unique circumstances can explain why certain places serve as a superpower of ideas for genius to flourish. Travelling to Athens, Hangzhou, Florence, Edinburgh, Kolkata, Vienna and Silicon Valley, the author exposes himself to a buffet of intellectual possibilities that offer interesting insights on how nature and nurture might have synergised genius.
Guided by an African proverb which propounds that it takes a village to raise a child but a city to raise a genius, Weiner conducted psychological autopsy on the entire society in cities that produced a bumper crop of brilliant minds and interesting ideas. If Athens produced the likes of Socrates and Aristotle, Florence nurtured Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. Called ‘the Athens of the North’, Edinburgh had once watched Arthur Conan Doyle, Adam Smith and David Hume walk down its odorous streets. And, the chaos of Kolkata produced a diverse crop of genius including Tagore, Vivekanand, and Jagadish Chandra Bose.
These cities may have little in common; however, Weiner applies historiometrics to pull out some noticeable trends. In each of these cities, life was publicly exposed to a variety of chaotic stimulations. The agora of Athens, the streets of Edinburgh, the piazzas of Florence, and the street life of Kolkata offered a certain roughness, and even ugliness, required for being creative. But what has ugliness and chaos got to do with genius? Creative people not only search for ways to contain chaos, but periodically crave for it too. The yearning for chaos is known to have a neurological basis, more evident among genius minds. Beethoven’s notoriously messy desk and Einstein’s messy love life are important examples. Whether chaos acts as a trigger, or is integral to genius socialisation remains obscure.
It goes without saying that creative genius flourish in specific places at specific times. Setting out to discover why this is so, Weiner recreates the past by delving into the lives of key characters and the cultural undulations they went through. Laced with wit and humor, the narrative is packed with deft field reporting and sound sociological analysis. Along the way, he learned that creativity is contagious, and genius begets more genius in a social space. No wonder, in Athens it was the symposia with its diluted wine; in Edinburgh, the club created a place for verbal jousting; and, in Vienna, the coffee shop served as the idea incubator.
The Geography of Genius is a curious mix of travelogue, history and anthropology that is suitably peppered with interesting tit-bits to enliven the narrative. Geniuses are known to spend a lot less time with furrowed brows like the rest of us. Mozart, for example, was quite ribald in his letter writing, complaining to a friend, “Oh, my ass burns like fire!” Aristotle believed that consuming too much wine made you fall on your face, and too much beer landed you on your back. So, the Greeks always dilute their wine — two parts wine to five parts water. While wine may somehow relate to Athenian genius, why Greeks wore no underwear remains a mischievous mystery.
Despite the rich tapestry of information on creative ecosystems, Weiner offers no clues on why and how geniuses are formed. It isn’t easy though, as there can be as many arguments to establish it as the counter-arguments to demolish it. Geniuses are not factory-made, after all, to have a common pattern, as creativity doesn’t happen “in here” or “out there” but in the spaces in between. It is a relationship, argues Weiner, which unfolds at the intersection of person and place. One needs to slow down at such intersection to pay attention.
Geniuses could be the fruits of culture that encourages ingenuity. What is honored in a country will be cultivated there. Athens honored wisdom and got Socrates; Vienna valued music and got Mozart. These are happy accidents in time and space, and any attempt to clone such things can be futile. But The Geography of Genius offers as much fun as insightful reading.
First published in BLink, weekend supplement of BusinessLine, on April 29, 2017.