There's the literal definition of course. The Oxford English Dictionary defines genius as "exceptional intellectual or creative power or other natural ability". However I would qualify this with: "unprecedented amongst the subject's peers". Because if you are a genius within a group of geniuses do you remain a genius?
Simone de Beauvoir said: "One is not born a genius, one becomes a genius", and I agree that nurture rather than nature plays a role in creating a genius; but that also society dictates what is considered to be genius. What might be astounding for some, will often pass others by - and this doesn't just apply to individuals but to stages of history. So the following represent my definition of genius. And because I'm more attuned to the arts over science (or anything else) my pick of geniuses will be restricted to those working within that medium.
There are those who get The Fall and those who just don't understand music. Mark E Smith understands both. This is one instance where it's almost impossible for me to describe why I think Smith is a genius, because for me he just is. It's not sycophancy on my part. The Fall are not my favourite band; their music can be difficult and alienating. Yet I do consider alienation to be an essential part of what makes a genius, because a genius within the arts tends to be someone who doesn't fit with an established norm. My definition of genius would also include someone who remains true to themselves in the face of opposition. Smith clearly fits that role.
As a runner in the music category I would choose Howard Devoto. Lyrically and stylistically brilliant, he would also consider himself a genius.
Dali, of course, was a self-proclaimed genius. And he was right. Having seen many of his paintings close up the detail and perfection is incredible. For those who don't understand his work or are critical of his intent, I would argue that this is a trait that dogs geniuses within the art world: misunderstanding by the ignorant. Additionally, I consider genius is a trait which reflects in the mind of the recipient: genius is recognised by an almost religious glow of appreciation and the sensation that you have come home. This is certainly the case for me with Dali's work, but also why I find it difficult to explain why genius is genius to someone whose connection to the artist isn't as strong.
I don't get the same buzz from other artists, but whilst Gunther von Hagens doesn't consider his plastinations of human bodies to be art they also speak to me in a way that shouts of genius.
Bernard Miles described Spike Milligan as "a man of quite extraordinary talents...a visionary who is out there alone, denied the usual contacts simply because he is so different he can't always communicate with his own species..." I would suggest this statement often applies to genius in the arts - someone who is not actually before their time, but at odds with it. Milligan, like Dali, knew he was a genius but retrospectively whilst he is acknowledged as such, the lack of his material currently available commercially is criminal. Whilst programmes laud him as the godfather of modern comedy there are few examples actually available for modern audiences to view. This is shameful, because the surrealistic delight his TV shows exhibited are true indications of genius. Milligan took comedy to pieces and rebuilt it in his own image. Similar to Tex Avery's cartoons, Milligan exposed the artifice around a sketch and brought it into the audience.
The runner-up for me is Stewart Lee. Lee is most certainly a genius who understands comedy, who constantly berates his audience, and is superbly clever in the (de)construction of his act. And like Milligan, he has no contemporaries who are even close to doing what he does.
Another maverick with a singular, persistent vision: film director Jean-Luc Godard. One of the father's of French New Wave cinema and latterly a chronicler of cinematic history, whose movies are always thought-provoking, often difficult, are peppered with breathtaking audacity, and who sparkles with genius. As with the other examples he has sometimes had great commercial and critical success but resolutely remains outside the mainstream and adamantly exists to persist in his own goals. As an innovative, controversial, fiercely intelligent filmmaker with a career spanning five decades Godard is incomparable.
I was going to include Buñuel as runner-up but on reflection whilst I think much of his work is genius I don't think it elevates him in the same way as it does Godard. Instead, I'm plumping for an equally controversial filmmaker who works by his own rules: Lars Von Trier. Justifiably, I believe he is a genius in the making.
I've found choosing a genius for literature harder than the other categories, despite fiction being my personal preference over the other arts. This is because it's less easy to evaluate an author's body of work in one fell swoop: your eyes can scan a series of paintings or quickly evaluate comedy or film, but reading the back catalogue of a writer can take time. I've found I love the work of Paul Auster, but I can't call him a genius from reading two books (although I suspect that he is). Murakami also appeals, but some of his works are duds. Tom Robbins is a favourite of mine, but a genius? - it would be a hard case to argue. And what of those authors who might only have written one book - no matter how brilliant it was - can they be judged on a sole work? I've therefore decided that for me there are no runner's-up here, but for his achievement sustained over many books, there's one clear winner: Vladimir Nabokov.
"I knew I had fallen in love with Lolita forever; but I also knew she would not be forever Lolita."
Nabokov understood the beauty of words and his adoration of them sustains the genius in his writing. His works aren't consistent, but where he hits the nail on the head he totally hammers it home: "Pale Fire," "Bend Sinister", and of course, "Lolita". Sometimes you have to pause, gasp a breath, and re-read before moving on. Nabokov's intellect can outweigh the reader, but persistence quickly reveals the genius through the words. He's fun, playful, deadly serious and committed.
If anything, writing this blog has confirmed how certain I am about the genius of these individuals; yet I'm also aware that aesthetics are subjective and for some people Mark E Smith's rants and often unintelligible lyrics, Milligan's sheer nonsense, Nabokov's imposing intellect, Godard's perceptive vision and Dali's masturbatory landscapes would not only be considered negatively but also as an affront to popularity. Good. Because it's also said that it takes a genius to know one. Do you know one?