My post on ‘The Fiction of Genius’ is available to read on the Ploughshares blog. Read an extract below, or find the full post HERE.
The “sexism of genius” has been well studied and widely reported. Male professors are more than three times as likely to be described as “geniuses” by their students than female professors, and, at the other end of the spectrum, parents are more than twice as likely to conduct an internet search for the phrase “is my son a genius” than “is my daughter a genius.” These gendered expectations surrounding genius underpin its social construction: we perceive genius based on particular biases rather than from a purely objective stance. Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai emphasizes this in the expectations it sets up surrounding a child genius, his mother, and his father/potential fathers.
Genius in The Last Samurai is presented as a kind of fiction. It is a social construct that rarely, if ever, stands up to reality. Brilliant minds with the potential for genius are crushed under the weight of social, familial, and financial responsibilities, even as mediocre contemporaries are given opportunities to excel. And where brilliance has perhaps been supported to flourish into something more, the aura of genius, as we have traditionally conceived it, collapses when confronted by the realities of individuals and their minds as necessarily imperfect. The social cost of the fiction of genius, which upholds the elite few as inherently more brilliant than everyone else, regardless of underlying biases and inequalities, is, like the extent of Sibylla’s lost potential, unknowable. DeWitt nevertheless captures a sense of this loss across her novel with equal parts fire, humor, and grief.