Saturday, January 3, 2015

Big, bold ideas

I am glad to see that the "history of ideas" lives on in several important new books, one of which I received for Christmas: Divine Fury, a study of genius by Darrin McMahon, whose book on happiness a few years ago I greatly enjoyed.

If happiness is an impossibly vast topic to explore, genius is a bit more limited in scope. McMahon shows, with his usual clarity and thoroughness, how the idea has widely had a religious meaning, now lost: for the ancients, one's genius was his or her personal life force, protector and connection to the divine; everyone had a genius. Only later, after the 18th century, did "genius" come to mean originality, brilliance, and rare creativity.  Even the origins of our birthday celebrations (cake and candles) can be traced to ancient ideas of "genius."

If academics have tended to shun the "history of ideas" approach to interdisciplinary studies in recent decades, McMahon and others have given this area new life.  I look forward to finishing his latest book.

The other book that caught my eye (from a review) is Peter Toohey's study of jealousy, which, like the same author's earlier book on boredom, opens up huge psychological areas that can't possibly be studied in a single book. Still, it is valuable to have a thinker explore what can be said about the roots and effects of jealousy and envy.

Toohey, according to a review by Diane Johnson, sees jealousy as an innate instinct, a normal part of human development based on fear of being excluded; but there's good news: fear of exclusion from the inner circle of acceptance can prompt us to cooperation and growth.  A positive side to jealousy?

"Jealousy" may be too limited a term to encompass the whole range of fears and disappointments people (and animals) feel when life becomes unfair--and the sometimes violent consequences that ensue. But I applaud writers like Toohey and McMahon not only because they allow the reader to examine classic works of literature and philosophy, from Aristotle and Shakespeare to Tolstoi, but because they boldly undertake what seems to be an impossible subject and carry it off with what the Italians call (thanks to Castiglione) sprezzatura (effortless ease).

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