Great Genius & Profound Stupidity

Great Genius & Profound Stupidity

The topic of the half hour documentary Great Genius & Profound Stupidity is quite interesting, but the style was only mildly appealing to me.

The film is about genius and intelligence and related concepts. But there is little rhyme or reason to its organization. There are no sustained, developed arguments. Instead it is a series of random musings, reflections, aphorisms, etc. from various academics and other learned folks, along with anecdotes about historical figures that are supposed to illustrate certain aspects of the phenomena in question (though to me the connection was rarely very clear). Helen Keller and the mathematician Paul Erdos are referenced repeatedly in this way, though various other people such as Einstein and Joan of Arc are mentioned at least once as examples of one thing or another.

The accompanying visuals, and the music, are interesting and spooky and at times surreal, rather than directly relevant or illustrative of anything. You never, for instance, see any of the people speaking. For that matter, you rarely see the historical figures talked about, except in some kind of animation.

So both verbally and visually the film is very impressionistic. That gives it an interesting feel, and certainly I’m impressed if not overwhelmed contemplating how much time and difficulty and creativity must have gone into putting it together, but substantively there’s just not much there.

Like I say, no ideas are really developed or argued for; they’re just kind of tossed out there in a dreamy, stream-of-consciousness manner.

Still, it is thought-provoking. Though the participants aren’t given an opportunity to properly explain and defend the positions they espouse, or even to make clear and explicit how the historical anecdotes relate to those positions, the content and style of the film encourage the viewer to reflect on these things for him or herself.

I’m not inclined to go along with those who seem to be denying that some people are more intelligent than others (one of the sillier versions being that the very concept of “genius” is inherently illegitimate because it’s a “masculinist” term). Though, again, if I had the whole argument in front of me instead of just the conclusion, I’d be more than happy to consider it.

I’m a “genius,” by some measures. More so early in my life than now. I wasn’t quite at the level of the most precocious savants—e.g., John Stuart Mill learning Latin and Greek when he was 3 or 4 and all that—but at my peak I was almost certainly in the top 1% in terms of raw intelligence, probably top 0.1%. My grades were more like top 5%, because I almost never gave anywhere close to full effort. But my teachers uniformly regarded me as one of the most intelligent students they’d encountered, and I got perfect or near perfect scores on standardized tests like the SAT, ACT, GRE, LSAT, etc.

I probably came a little closer to living up to my potential in college. My philosophy professor identified me as having the greatest purely logical mind of anyone he had known, including world famous academics he’d studied with. On average I was more engaged than I’d been prior to college, though it went up and down. I don’t know if it’s some form of ADD or what, but it took a major, major act of will to kick things up to a higher gear closer to my maximum ability, and I rarely managed to do that. Just a few times out of necessity, like an end-of-semester crunch where I had numerous lengthy and complicated essays due. And it was kind of exhilarating in a way when I was “in a zone” like that, but also exhausting and unsustainable.

Since then it’s all faded, in some areas a lot. I think it’s very analogous to being out of shape physically. I got out of the habit of using my mind in certain ways, and when on rare occasions I’d try to kick things up to that higher gear I just couldn’t.

I remember when I took some freshman level science courses in my 30s (just filling in gaps in my education), I was struck by how much of a struggle they were in certain respects. I was probably still as good as ever or close to it at things like following logical arguments, but just about everything else intellectually that makes for a successful student—like memorizing facts and such—I had lost.

I think it used to be that even when I didn’t feel like I was engaged, I was to a decent extent, so I could still do moderately well even when coasting. But as a grown-up, when something doesn’t really grab my interest and inspire me, I’m really not engaged. Trying to work through some chemistry problem, the number one thing on my mind was invariably “Yeah, but when you get right down to it, I just don’t care about this.”

I figured surely I could just force it, that I had more than enough brain power to fall back on to where that freshman level subject matter should be a breeze if I just tried. But I did try, and far from being a genius, I was probably about a B student on average in those classes.

I think because I wasn’t trying. I was trying to try, and mostly failing.

What I learned about myself is that whereas I used to have some limited ability to turn it on and off, I mostly don’t any more. My mind goes where it goes (mostly toward normative matters, just so I can frustrate myself contemplating the divide between how things are—in life in general and in my life in particular—and how they should be), and I mostly can’t shift it to focus on something where it isn’t, at least not so as to grasp that something at more than a mediocre level.

So I’m more the occasional genius now, the fellow who those who knew me in childhood probably assume is the head of a mathematics department somewhere or whatever, but who in fact never came close to living up to whatever potential is associated with a high childhood IQ. I’d say in some ways intellectually I’ve dropped off across the board from my peak, but in other ways it’s been a matter of redistribution. I’m woefully out of shape in almost all intellectual ways that relate to things like academic and monetary success, but I may be equally or more insightful than ever about certain other things that are arguably more important—ethical things, emotional things, human things, things that even insofar as I have made some progress in understanding I don’t think I could properly articulate anyway.

In any case, Great Genius & Profound Stupidity got me thinking a lot about my own case and a lot of other things related to its subject matter. So I appreciate it for having that effect, even if it’s not structured in a way that best connects with me and is most valuable to me.

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