The Genius Trade-Off

Being a genius isn’t easy. According to both conventional wisdom and scholarly hagiography, geniuses tend to be socially maladjusted freaks terrorized by personal demons that normal people can’t understand. Many geniuses die young. They endure lives that aren’t happy. Darkness shrouds their light.

On the other hand, they’re geniuses.

Being a regular person, it seems, affords one a greater chance at contentment and joy than a genius has. We who are not Newton, Leonardo, Mozart, et. al., will never have an epiphany that alters the course of civilization. But we probably won’t suffer from mental illness or sociopathic tendencies.

We don’t take the genius’s journey, so we’re not compelled to carry the baggage. We’re blessed with averageness. But given the choice, would someone unremarkable except for his unremarkableness volunteer for genius duty? If you knew you could impact lives to come, touching tens of millions of people for generations to come, would you sacrifice years from your life? Would you trade half of your years in exchange for Einstein’s brain, Picasso’s eye, Schubert’s ear?

I was listening to Charlie Parker recently. Fifty years after his death — at 38 — he’s still influencing countless musicians, still being imitated, still being studied. (So are Coltrane and Bill Evans, and a handful of other tortured geniuses, many of whom found solace in heroin and alcohol.) History tells us Bird had a miserable life, and the art he made and left was the product of obsessive, joyless monomania. He blew his horn to the detriment of everything else, including his health.

But listen to what he left!

King Pleasure (Clarence Beeks) the great vocalese innovator wrote lyrics to Bird’s take on the slow blues, “Parker’s Mood.” The climactic line, referring to lying in state: “Look at the smile on my face, and you’ll know I’m really free.” Ain’t it the truth?

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