Maverick: Genius and a Cap that Thinks
By Farzana Versey
Covert October 15-31, 2009
Look anywhere. There are ‘special’ people, a few being touted as prodigies only because they can do some stand-up comic act – “Boss, what a genius”. What surprises me is that the term genius is used so carelessly.
We live in a world where research is developing a thinking cap that will unlock the hidden brilliance it believes all of us possess. It’s a switch on and off device that allows parts of the brain to be calmed down or jump-started. The primary reason is to tap the extraordinary skills of those with severe mental disabilities, but it will also be beneficial to a society fed on predigested insight.
The problem here is not only that it equates the old theory of madness being related to genius, of which we have several examples, but that the supposedly normal too is not quite normal and can spark off feverish ‘heady’ activity.
This is reminiscent of John Travolta’s character in Phenomenon, a film about an ornery chap who, struck by a light (nice ecclesiastical touch), transforms into a genius. He potters around in his home lab, produces a hybrid variety of juicy tomatoes, breaks a top-secret intelligence code, reads three to four heavy-duty books a day and masters the Portuguese language in 20 minutes.
Yet we feel pity for him. Instead of examining it as a serious contrast between average and amazing, the poor guy is made to feel like he has dropped cutlery at a fancy sit-down dinner.
It is true that many geniuses are uncomfortable with their gilded brains, but that is because they have always been that way – outsiders who know more about insiders than the insiders themselves do. Marcel Proust explained: "The man of genius, to shelter himself from the ignorant contempt of the world, may say to himself that, since one's contemporaries are incapable of the necessary detachment, works written for posterity should be read by posterity alone, like certain pictures which one cannot appreciate when one stands too close to them."
There is scope to explore deep melancholia rather than the jealousy aspect. You don't need to be a genius for people to be jealous of you. In fact, fewer people are, relatively speaking, envious of geniuses simply because their edginess keeps them at a safe distance.
In a celluloid world peopled with men in black and Ramboesque caricatures, a phenomenon can only be a tragic figure. So, he gets ready to die. They are telling us something. That genius cannot survive, that the world is cruel towards it, that what is assumed to be superior has to prove itself again and again.
The fascination with them is not about the vibrations and magnetic abilities of the body and certainly not the normalcy. The very fact that a person of 'above normal IQ' is considered a genius proves that.
Take John Nash. He got a Nobel in Economics for his games theory in 1994. By then he had spent two decades in psychiatric treatment and was living in obscurity. There must have been some extra spark to his work that allowed for his resurrection.
Those who have experienced an unusual life, whether it is through an illness or any intense experience, would be more inclined towards original thinking. For, they have nothing to lose but their equilibrium, which has supposedly been lost anyway. Go through the roster: Dostoyevsky was an epileptic, Maupassant was deemed crazy, Sylvia Plath suffered from severe depression, Ayn Rand went mad, and Ghalib, on the basis of an analysis of his work, was later diagnosed as manic depressive.
Some people do well because of their sanity. Whereas insane people – and I use the term to include those with idiosyncrasies – succeed because they do not care whether they do or don’t.
Nabokov's perceptive dictum puts it in perspective, "I think like a genius, I write like a distinguished author and I speak like a child."
The ‘thinking cap’ scientists are aiming at giving a child’s peek into the world. This is the purest way of seeing. However, as a mass market product, it will be no different from an intellectual version of LSD. Just another mind-expanding experience for the thrill of it. Or as a designer label to flaunt.