“Places of genius require a degree of uncertainty, and perhaps even chaos.”
Have any of you been through this? Before Christmas I began to descend into a state of profound fatigue. The moment eventually came when I was sitting in a chair with my head in my hands thinking, “I must be dying. That’s all I can figure.” And I was ready.
Maybe I was fighting off a bug, but I think the main cause was election burnout. Fortunately, I was able to shut down for a few days, and then I came back to me. This was due in part to a new book. The publishers had no way of knowing how timely it would prove to be, but it certainly is.
The Geography of Genius by Eric Weiner is a very entertaining inquiry into why creativity has flourished in certain times and places throughout history. He focuses on seven locations: Athens, Greece; Hangzhou, China; Edinburgh, Scotland; Calcutta, India; Vienna, Austria; and our own Silicon Valley. His conclusion is this: “Instability is one of the essential ingredients for a golden age.” Great. We’re on.
The reader accompanies Weiner as he studies tourist sites, walks countless miles just looking around, and consumes huge amounts of caffeine and varieties of alcohol in conversation with knowledgeable companions. At the back of the book is a bibliography that helped inform his conclusions, and it includes about 140 published sources. Weiner seems self-deprecating, very relaxed and accessible, but he is also a major brain.
In every case, the city studied had gone through a period of instability before it began to flourish. In some cases, instability was ramping up toward chaos. Factors included the collapse of old orders, plague, and radical exposure to other cultures through trade and immigration. In part, it was openness to new ideas, people, and products that caused genius to erupt in clusters, changing the course of humanity for the better.
There is no way I can do justice to the range of Weiner’s findings, but I’d like to share some details that caught my eye. The first is about how powerful the innovative use of enormous personal wealth can be. The Medici family of Florence had acquired “more money than God”, as a guide put it, through banking in a city of thriving merchants. Cosimo began to direct that wealth into the patronage of artists, most notably Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Donatello, and Sandro Botticelli. Free to work without worrying about money, they thrived as did many other artists, and art became a passion for Florentines in general. The result? It became the epicenter of the Italian Renaissance.
The enthusiasm of a community for something in particular also sparked creativity in Vienna. Florentines were art lovers; the Viennese were music lovers. In the latter case, this identity attracted audiences and musicians to Vienna from all over the world. These included Slavs, Hungarians, Spaniards, Italians, and the French. In many cases, music was a way of safely venting political sentiments. The ability to “harmonize” differences made the city very open–including to the unusual personalities of Mozart and Beethoven, who along with Haydn and Schubert were the four foremost geniuses of the era.
In the course of the book, Weiner makes the point that “simple observation can spark genius,” and Vienna provides an illustration of this as well. Like thousands of other marginalized Jews, Signmud Freud had been attracted to its intellectual and artistic energy. The city was also very attractive to the wealthy, many of whom ended up on Freud’s “overstuffed couch,” as Weiner put it. The city had become a “moral sewer” according to one journalist, everyone having sex and everyone lying about it. In what he saw and heard, Freud found inspiration for his new theories about the human psyche. As a result of Vienna’s openness, these theories were readily accepted, and the field of psychoanalysis was born. One genius attracted another, and Freud’s temporary collaboration with Carl Jung served further to expand the field.
I’ll follow with another example of the way the power of observation can spark a golden age. Ironically, the Scottish Enlightenment enshrined in Edinburgh dawned after the country had been invaded by England and forced to join the United Kingdom. Weiner attributes a rebound from conquest to the Scots’ tendency to look at something and think, “Surely, there must be a better way of doing this.” This led not only to the perfecting of the steam engine by James Watt but also to many other feats of engineering like the flush toilet, the refrigerator, and the bicycle. Over only 50 years there were also enormous achievements in chemistry, geology, economics, sociology, and especially medicine. In the case of medicine, it is amusing to learn how important a role grave robbers played in providing for the study of anatomy. Philosopher David Hume and economist Adam Smith were two greats of this era.
I will wrap up with Silicon Valley, which acquired that name only 45 years ago. On the subject of observation, a quote by Steve Jobs is illuminating: “When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty, because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something.” One wonders what the tech geniuses like Mark Zuckerberg are seeing at this moment in time. They have been inspired by the idea of transforming the world, which has certainly happened; but the political moment reveals how the digital age has in certain ways also made us newly vulnerable. How long, one wonders, will the golden age of Silicon Valley endure?
In conclusion, the exact combination of factors that will ignite a golden age in a particular city or region remains a mystery. It’s clear that instability, uncertainty, turmoil, and even chaos are not necessarily deterrents. What matters is how people, and especially people of genius, respond. That gives me hope in the moment, and I hope you will feel the same way. And finally, some additional points Eric Weiner gave us to ponder:
- Great civilizations collapse due to arrogance.
- Ethnic diversity can jump-start creativity.
- Group think is collective stupidity.
- It is the asking of new questions that distinguishes the genius.
- Tension, not necessity, is the mother of invention.