Moral Insight   Leave a comment

Mozart wrote some of his most famous music at the age of five. Music has a long history of child prodigies – Mozart, of course, like Handel before him, as well as Beethoven, all fall into this category. There are other fields that have produced stunning early talent, from chess to mathematics to computer science.

There is a distinct common element to all child prodigies. They arise in fields where the emphasis is on technical and mechanical precision. That is not to say, of course, that there is no art involved in chess or mathematics or music – indeed, one might say that it is the introduction of a newly arrived-at artistic insight into these technical fields that often creates the work of genius. But the fundamental groundwork is technical.

It is instructive to contemplate the lack of child prodigies in the field of literature. There are, I acknowledge, many writers who began, early on in their lives, to pen stories and poems. That is not what I am talking about here. Such works count only as juvenilia, for the criterion must surely be whether a work could today be considered for canonical status. The music that Mozart composed at the age of five is still being played. No one, by contrast, is reading the stories that H.P. Lovecraft wrote at that age. So what is it about literature that bars the possibility of a child prodigy?

The answer, I believe, is contained in a single phrase from Honoré de Balzac’s short story “The Atheist’s Mass,” in a passage where the narrator is contemplating the qualities that separate a great man from a merely talented one. “Genius,” observes Balzac, “always presupposes moral insight.” Such an observation not only establishes Balzac, by that same measure, as a great man, but it also gives a clear rationale as to why children cannot be geniuses in the field of literature. Moral insight is something that comes from experience, from loss and failure, from realizing the fallibility of the human condition. Such wisdom is rarely gained early on in life, never in childhood.

Consider the case of Thomas Chatterton, an eighteenth-century English poet who from childhood was fixated on books and literature. He started writing his own pieces at the age of 11, finding success a year later with a series of dialogues and poems in the medieval style he admired. Taking on the pseudonym of “Thomas Rowley,” he successfully fooled – albeit temporarily – Horace Walpole with his Rowley’s History of England. Chatterton’s great gift was as a mimic. He could imitate medieval poetry with as much skill as he could the styles of contemporary writers like Alexander Pope or Tobias Smollett. As a teenager, Chatterton had clearly mastered the technical side of literature, but his writing is not read today because it lacks that crucial ingredient: moral insight. Chatterton could echo others, but he never found his own voice. He never had the chance to, dying from arsenic poisoning at the age of seventeen.

So why do we remember Chatterton still, if he was little more than a talented mimic? Because Chatterton was subsequently venerated by the English romantics, who turned his tragically short life into a symbol of unfulfilled genius. William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Shelley, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and John Keats – in his “Sonnet to Chatterton” (1815) – all immortalized Chatterton as a “natural” genius cut down by a cruel and unforgiving world. Perhaps the most influential of all these tributes is Henry Wallis’s painting The Death of Chatterton (1856), a work that sentimentalizes the poet’s death, accentuating its tragedy by juxtaposing the beauty and youth of the model (a young George Meredith, who went on to become a famous Victorian writer) with the torn, scattered remnants of the poetry he has destroyed, as though his life and work were inextricably connected.

While the romantic prism remains the dominant perspective through which we look back at Chatterton, there is an emerging counterpoint to that view. It can be found, for instance, in the following rant from Henry MacAlpine, protagonist of Iain Pears’s novel The Portrait (2005):

“D’you remember that appalling painting by Wallis in the Tate, The Death of Chatterton? Pretty young poet lies sprawled in an elegant pose across the bed after taking arsenic. Ha! That’s not what you look like if you swallow arsenic! You’re covered in filth, you stink, you lie crouched on the floor from the agony, your face screwed up, hideously disfigured as the poison eats away your intestines. You don’t look as though you’ve just dropped off for a nap after too many cucumber sandwiches. But he couldn’t paint that. That wouldn’t have made people think sentimental tripe about doomed artists dying before their time. That’s what I wanted to get away from, and not by painting landscapes or the poor enjoying themselves at the music hall. Real death—which is the stuff of life, after all.” (pp.48-49)

While MacAlpine is a notoriously unreliable narrator, I think there is more than a grain of truth in this particular observation. The romantic idealization of childhood as the locus of genius, at least in the field of literature, is simply not borne out by the evidence. Chatterton, it seems to me, was chosen by the romantics for the convenient fact that death imposed silence on him, leaving us to speculate endlessly about what a genius he might have become.

That there will someday be a child prodigy in the field of literature – that is to say, someone capable of possessing the moral insight required to write a great work, as opposed to merely mastering the necessary technical proficiencies – is impossible. Certainly, there have been writers who have gained this moral insight at an exceptionally early age, from Arthur Rimbaud to Lautréamont to John Keats, but never, ever in childhood.

It is William Blake who, in his dissection of the qualitative shift from innocence to experience, illustrates this point best. The division between these two states is not symmetrical: true innocence is not aware even of its own innocence, so that only its loss, the entry into experience, makes it possible to write and think about the meaning of innocence. Experience, in other words, is the entry-point into moral insight, a shift that comes only with the advent of adulthood. Blake makes the quest for moral insight into the centerpiece of his poetry – and that, of course, is why he is a genius.

© 2012 Peter Mathews. All rights reserved.

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