Beauty and genius lost in context

I’m going to make up some statistics: Of all the wordsmiths alive today, 99.9 percent of them can’t crumble a house with stokes of imagination like Edgar Allen Poe could. Likewise, 99.9 percent of all ecologists alive today can’t figure finches into the greatest single scientific thought in history. And, exactly which one of us can sketch out the plans for a democracy that could reign more than 200 years?

When genius strikes in Baltimore, Maryland, the Down House, Kent, England, or Independence Hall, Philadelphia, humanity can’t afford to let ideas be watered down by a community of editors with conflicting interests.

“Man as an individual is genius. Men in the mass form a headless monster, a great, brutish idiot who goes where prodded.” Charlie Chaplin

And so, I am frightened by a world that doesn’t recognize the isolation of good leadership, the morals of the courageous, and the valor of the fight. I am frightened that passivity could leak into apathy about the truly beautiful things in our world. I don’t think that an idea as strong a peace can be forged by masses of ho-hums, or that:

“A treaty can be beaten out by members of that community that allows them to reach consensus and move forward.” Michael Nielsen

Ideas like this suggest that just because we are now online and not physically in the same place that the mob mentality disappears. But, 100 years ago great thinkers were understanding how people change philosophies as a crowd.

Still, though the wishes of crowds are frenzied they are not durable. Crowds are as incapable of willing as of thinking for any length of time. Gustave Le Bon

That is not to say that I don’t believe in imitation:

“Imitation, if noble and general, ensures the best hope of originality.” Edward Bulwer Lytton

And, certainly, I agree that building the body of knowledge leads to a more complete text:

“The idea of a purely linear text is a myth; readers stitch together meanings in much more complex ways than we have traditionally imagined; the true text is more of a network than a single, fixed document.” Stephen Berlin Johnson

That’s why I kept my own “commonplace book” of quotes as I worked through the mind-warping texts of Norton’s Anthology of Theory and Criticism with Dr. Grant Snyder.

But, let us not forget that the Declaration of Independence had to be defended with blood, that the Descent of Man cost Darwin his health, and that Poe’s work didn’t escape a “dull, dark, soundless autumn day” and make it into the incandescent light of our libraries until after the man died penniless.


“The nose of a mob is its imagination. By this, at any time, it can be quietly led.” Edgar Allen Poe.

  1. #2 by francescalyn on November 5, 2010 - 9:45 am

    Do too many cooks spoil the broth?

    This is an amazing post. It articulated a lot of thoughts I has with my own post where I applied democracy to visual art. I think a lot of creativity has to start with an individual, without outside influence at first so ideas can germinate. I think this is why a lot of mainstream movies and television shows are so terrible, they try to appeal to everyone and they hire too many different writers. Have any great novels been written by committee?

  2. #3 by Mindy McAdams on November 11, 2010 - 5:49 pm

    That should be Steven, not “Stephen.” 🙂

    This is a lovely post, very nicely built! And I couldn’t help but think, on rereading it, that it is complete. As short as it is, it needs nothing more. Brava!

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