Different shades of genius – the insufferable variety across literature (Column: Bookends)

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They can have a fair claim to be the most misunderstood minority, despite all their contributions — solving mysteries, helping all sorts of people out of tight spots and otherwise enhancing human knowledge in myriad ways. As Jonathan Swift put it, “… when a great genius appears in the world, the dunces are all in confederacy against him.” But are geniuses to blame for the way they are treated?

And then why should we be interested in them? Well, the main reason that this sort make some rather complex, intriguing — and annoying — characters in a wide swathe of literature from crime detection to espionage to urban fantasy.

As far as the first question is concerned, it will have to be a yes. This is not only because geniuses outspan most people around them with their knowledge, outrace them in understanding concepts, identifying patterns and finding solutions, and seem to have a totally different outlook on various issues, but as the most easily identifiable variety is what can be termed the “Insufferable Genius”.

These may initially seem to be destined for a much-needed lesson on consequences of pride. For they are intensely intelligent, know that they are intensely intelligent and don’t refrain from proclaiming that they are intensely intelligent to all, making them seem rather arrogant and condescending. Intellectual snobs, as one dear friend put it.

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On the other hand, they run the risk of humiliation for even the smallest, simplest mistake, which can have severe consequences — for them and others.

It would be easy to pass them off as highly vain egotists as their skills and knowledge are freely given (though along with this fact being pointed out regularly), and — most infuriatingly for some people — their aid and advice turns out to most useful, though some only realise it much later. The benefits may excuse much — their social skills, or rather, the lack thereof, and their their sense of superiority in their expertise.

And if we probe deeper, we will find that the reason for their predominant ego is that it serves as defence mechanism to cover their insecurities and shortcomings, real or perceived, or a dark, soul-scathing incident which underpins why they seek to project themselves above others, at least as far as intellectual ability is concerned.

As noted, the annals of popular literature are full of this kind of character, and while some of them are the principal protagonists, others are in supporting roles but end up getting a higher fan rating.

Let us see some of these insufferable geniuses from various genres.

One of the most famous is Sherlock Holmes, who doesn’t often tell us how smart is he is, but can be downright sarcastic to those who cannot keep up with his speedy and agile brain — his close friend and biographer John Watson, and the clutch of Scotland Yard detectives (Lestrade, Tobias Gregson and Athelney Jones, et al) he works with.

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And while Watson deserves commendation for his patience to his partner’s quips like “You mean well, Watson. Shall I demonstrate your own ignorance?”, Holmes also is quick to acknowledge those above him — his elder brother Mycroft for one. It is as bad to underestimate yourself as to overestimate and Holmes is just as hard on himself as on anyone else when he comes up short.

Other detectives from the Golden Age are the same — be it Hercule Poirot, who never lets go a chance to say how mentally sharp he is and is consequently seen as arrogant, Jacques Futrelle’s Professor Augustus Van Dusen or “The Thinking Machine”, who solves crime by relentless logic, or Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe.

Crime fiction is not the only place where we find insufferable geniuses. They can be found in comedies of manners, like Professor Henry Higgins from George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion” or rather its stage and screen adaptation of “My Fair Lady”, is a superb example. Superlatively intelligent and comprehensively knowledgeable in linguistics, he is also arrogant and misogynistic — and even his mother rejoices when he is brought down several notches by his protege Eliza Doolittle.

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Then there is David Audley from Anthony Price’s espionage series and in a non-human example, Marvin the Paranoid Android from Douglas Adam’s “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”, and Terry Pratchett’s Susan Sto Helit, the granddaughter of the anthropomorphic personification of Death.

But a prime place is the Harry Potter series, where many prominent characters are insufferable geniuses — Hermione Granger, Lord Voldemort himself (but reckless too, which leads to his eventual downfall), the young Albus Dumbledore, James Potter and Sirius Black, Percy Weasley, but topping them is the formidable Severus Snape, who not only improved his textbook, but invented his own spells and displays many powers few other wizards are capable of. But then while solving many problems, he is also responsible for many tragedies.

So do insufferable geniuses have any purpose than to stoke interest in a compelling story? Well, it depends on you — and the diametrical opposite Gentleman Scholars who are showing intelligence is not synonymous with arrogance.

(Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at [email protected])

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