655: Genius Cannot Popularize Itself.

While, in order to win popularity and immediate success, it appears to be a necessity to write to a probable public, it is no less true that the greatest minds — those which have influenced the thought, not of individuals, but of the race — have simply written out what was in them; written not for popularity nor fame, nor even for money, but for posterity, for all time.

Primarily, though, I am inclined to think they wrote for themselves, because they could not help it, absolute necessity for expression being one of the laws of genius. A poet sings as does the bird, and a brain that is bursting with thought must give itself vent. Herein lies the difference. The magazinist writes to his public, the genius must form his public; the first must please his audience, and if he succeeds, he has his reward in applause and bouquets. But genius toils during long and apparently fruitless years; he cannot get before the footlights. He is unheard, unappreciated by the public, while too often misunderstood, taunted, and scorned by his private critic. To many people print is the criterion of excellence, and they would not estimate Shakespeare himself in manuscript.

No less than other men would our genius enjoy fame, success, and the ease of wealth, but not for these will he exchange his soul. Genius cannot popularize itself; it must wait for the thought of the times to catch up with it, for it is the very essence of genius that it is before and far away beyond its generation. The greater the genius, the longer the waiting. Remember Hawthorne, the hermit, secluding himself in a bleak New England chamber for seventeen years before his marvellous witchery began to win recognition; Carlyle at Craigan-Puttoch, and again at Cheyne Row tearing his hair over the “French Revolution,” and bitterly reviling in his heart the pigmy public which could “eat; drink, and be merry” on the edge of a no less terrible social abyss. Emerson never won riches, and grand old Walt Whitman has lived in poverty all these years. Shelley, the exile, was banished from Oxford, scorned by his own, robbed of his children, and yet to-day the Clarendon Press is bringing out his “Adonais” in an edition de luxe. Browning lived to realize fame and a sufficiency of success; but read his “Men and Women” to learn if he knew or not the depths of sorrowing disheartenment.

“Given the conditions, who would be a genius?” cries one, and the answer comes swift: “Surely, not he who asks the question and flaunts the doubt.”

(Jeanie Porter Rudd, “Writing to a Public,” The Writer, Vol. V, 1891, p. 117).

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655: Genius Cannot Popularize Itself.

572: A Bizarre Story.

John Stuart Mill had the worst personal life of any libertarian philosopher, a competitive category for bad personal lives. Marriage in particular has a record of making libertarian philosophers behave discreditably — that is, in a way that brings discredit not just on their character but on their ideas.

Bertrand Russell famously divorced the first of his four wives after a bicycle trip: “suddenly, as I was riding along a country road, realized that I no longer loved Alys.” Thus reasoned the most rational man in England. Ayn Rand forced her husband to endure loud and lofty protestations that forgoing an affair with Nathaniel Branden would be a sin against objectivism. William Godwin, England’s first anarcho-libertarian, wrecked two marriages on his individualism: first to Mary Wollstonecraft, whom he set up in a separate apartment and communicated with by letter, and then to a harridan of no redeeming qualities apart from her ability to keep house whom he, in his solipsism, permitted to torment Mary’s children.

Even in this company, John Stuart Mill is on another plane. Under the influence of his wife, Harriet Taylor, he drove his youngest brother George to suicide. His doting sisters were banished from his life over the flimsiest imagined slights to his wife’s honor. He gave up his former friends and became a recluse, retiring to a cottage in Blackheath Park where he entertained virtually no one while Mrs. Mill lived. After her death, he made himself a national laughingstock by declaring in his Autobiography that his wife had been more poetic than Shelley and a greater thinker than himself, and that he had “acquired more from her teaching than from all other sources taken together” — phrases written not when Mill was a grieving widower but during Harriet’s lifetime, in drafts which she read and approved for publication evidently without embarrassment.

And that’s only what she did to him after they wed. Their marriage was preceded by twenty years of brazen and self-righteous infidelity. When Mill met Harriet she was married to a good-natured pharmacist of enlightened political opinions, if no great intelligence, named John Taylor. After three years of growing mutual obsession, they bullied him into giving Harriet her own household, where she lived with their three children and entertained Mill on weekends. No one, not even his family, was permitted to mention Harriet’s name in Mill’s presence, much less to allude to the scandal their conduct had raised. His oldest friend, John Arthur Roebuck, was the only one who ever dared; Mill never spoke to him again. The couple withdrew into their private ménage, reassuring each other that it was only society’s “baby morality” (her phrase) that cast shame on their exalted passion. A bizarre story — and until the 1950s, an unknown one.

(Helen Andrews, “Romance and Socialism in J.S. Mill,” American Affairs, Vol. I, No. 2, Summer 2017).

572: A Bizarre Story.