Wednesday, August 19, 2009

What's in Bloom?

“What Youth deemed crystal, Age finds out was dew.”
Robert Browning

Last fall Malcolm Gladwell wrote a piece in The Annals of Culture section of The New Yorker describing “Late Bloomers.” The gist of the article suggests that we humans seem to associate genius with precocity. Gladwell does a good job of arguing case and point that in many artistic fields: film, writing, painting this is not always the case. Picasso is the young genius whereas Cezanne is a late bloomer. Orson Wells hits it big before he’s twenty-five while Hitchcock, like a great First growth Bordeaux, improves with age.

If there appear to be just as many geniuses on both sides of the chronological spectrum then why are we so hung up on precocity? It seems to be beside the point. Genius is genius. The body of work, the oeuvre should hold more weight than any one in particular. If the breakthrough happens early on great, if it comes later fine.

I think it all boils down to our inherent preoccupation with youth— and perhaps a fear of our own mortality. If you make it young, at least you’ve done something with your life.

Our ubber youth-driven culture gets worse and worse each year and seems to push the old cliché “Live fast, die young and have a good-looking corpse” which of course, usually is misappropriated to be the words of Jimmy Dean— though his actions certainly personified it. The line actually comes from the 1949 film “Knock on Any Door” starring Humphrey Bogart and first-timer John Derrick. The real quote said by Pretty Boy Romano (Derek) was “I wanna live fast, die young and leave a beautiful corpse.”

Does any of this have anything to do with genius? Nope. I’m just pouncing on the absurdity of the proposition that precocity implies genius. Returning to Picasso for moment, he often lamented that the trouble with adults is that they don’t explore their inner child. I couldn’t agree more. To that, I add youth is wasted on the young. Youth also waste their youths— that’s a parental faux pas.

There’s a rush for babies to speak their first words, bat their first tee balls, complete their first sonatas, squeeze quiddity out of a table-top science project. But, every kid doesn’t grow up to be Jean Paul Sartre, Ken Griffey Jr., Glenn Gould, or Osamu Shimomura.

In terms of development, in terms of education, a child moves at his own pace. Reading, math, and cognitive test scores are marked on the percentile level. We constantly rank peer groups. Competitive sports rank by age categories. Competition is so fierce in Little Leagues these days that younger and younger kids are going through all kinds of arthroscopic surgery hoping to make it to the Majors. That’s the price paid for precocity.

If no names, faces, were attached to our talent pool we’d have an indubitably different view. We’d judge based on the work itself. Check out Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron” in which the Handicapper General pulls the plug on aesthetics. Mellifluous sounds are squelched by clamorous horns, bags are literally dropped over pretty faces. There’s a limit to this, but Old Wise Man Kurt hammered home a marvelous point on society, aesthetics, and the true essence of things.

Naturally, we all shouldn’t be equal in our respective talents, but there needs to be a spot set aside for timeless greatness.

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