Superficially Wise (But Actually Foolish) Sayings of Smart People - 2

Our first foray into the realm of pseudo-wisdom has to be rated an unqualified success. I received more than 100 comments and another thirty or so e-mails directly. Most of these were entries into the Contest-Without-A-Prize, and most quite good.  (There were a few who damned me as some sort of moral relativist and anti-intellectual - quite a come-uppins for a strict Kantian and committed theist - but if the shoe fits, wear it, I say. Even if it pinches about the toes.) But I am not quite ready to close the books just yet -- I think one more go-around is justified, before age withers and custom stales the extremely finite variety of this formula.

For those taking this thing as a contest seriously, I will tell you that the current front runner is Charles Cammock, and his suggestion of a well-known phrase of Nietzsche's (here, in the version I prefer), 'That which does not destroy me, makes me stronger.' This one was also very high on my list, since this utter nonsense has become a staple of American conventional wisdom, particularly with athletic coaches. However, the contest remains open, and someone may yet trump Mr. Cammock's ace.

With that, once more unto the breach. The quotation of George Santayana I used in the first essay was actually not even in the my top five. I picked it because it was easy to write about. Since there is only so much of this the traffic will bear, today I will go to my all time number one, a bit off the beaten path, but quoted often enough to make the cut. It is not only fatally flawed, but subtly and frighteningly pernicious. It is this beauty from Jame Joyce (in Ulysses).

A man of genius makes no mistakes. His errors are volitional and the portals to discovery. 

We owe Joyce the benefit of context here, since this is a dramatic utterance, made by a character in a work of fiction, and not a stand-alone quote. For those readers not intimately acquainted with Joyce's masterpiece, this pronouncement is made by Stephen Daedalus, in the course of a discussion about Shakespeare that takes place in the Dublin Public Library. (Daedalus is one of the great insufferable prigs in all literature, made tolerable only by the fact that he is a merciless self-caricature of Joyce himself.) The 'man of genius' referenced is thus William Shakespeare. But it requires no great intuitive leap to infer that Daedalus considers himself included in the ambit of genius, and also inevitably Joyce the author.

What can be overlooked in the glow of admiration for the conciseness and precision of Joyce's marvelously elegant diction is that this gem misstates almost everything that it is possible to misstate about talent, achievement, and human nature itself. Throw in a bow towards the excessive categorization that mars so much of Scholastic philosophy and you have the ranking inanity (in my humble opinion) ever uttered or authored by an otherwise renowned man.

Where do we begin? The first is that there is some clear, absolute, distinction between 'mere' talent and genius. See how the fates their gifts allot. A, the dear lad, is talented, but only so much, while B, lucky fellow, is a genius. A is in one pigeon hole, B in another one. Consign A to the plebes and think no more of him -- while B is mounts to Olympus. Please.  Leaving aside the mundane fact that the experience of art is maddeningly relative, that something that I think is profound might leave you yawning and bored, the crushing burden of self-consciousness that this view of art and achievement generates is one of the great deadeners for any one striving to do anything.

I wonder how many good writers are frozen into impotence by the need to meet the over praise of critics for earlier work, how many painters can't face their palette? Joyce himself fell victim to his own misconception -- he rendered himself speechless with self consciousness. (You are all welcome to Finnegan's Wake. I'll meet you at the bar when you're done, laddie, and stand drinks for the house.) Charlie Chaplin came to world fame making slight comedies with terrific gags and a central character at once quirky, indomitable, endearing, and trivial. From the 1920's, when he was discovered by the intelligentsia, to the 1950's, his movies became steadily more self-conscious and morally sentimental -- finally so far from the roots of his comedy that they became a type of self-parody. Buster Keaton, who never gave a damn about anything but the next gag, is more the people's choice these days. Something of the same can be said about Woody Allen, or Alfred Hitchcock after the book by Francois Truffaut. There are innumerable other examples.

The actor Andy Garcia tells a story on himself about an incident that occurred during the filming of the movie 'The Untouchables'. He was having trouble with some scene, which he could not do to his satisfaction. Sean Connery, also in the case, finally moved over and whispered to him, 'Just say the line, kid. It's not f***ing Hamlet'.

Which is my humble, bottom-line advice to one and all -- the talented, the untalented, the geniuses, the wannabe's. Don't worry too much about it. There is no Joycean distinction between genius and talent -- only a universe of triers and achievements in large and small part, some great, some not so great, all with flaws of one kind or another. So don't worry about whether it's Great or American or even a Novel. Just write the paragraph, daub the paint, focus the lens, kid. It's not f***ing Hamlet.

So Joyce's thought is pretty demoralizing for all those young men portraying themselves as artists.  But it is in the larger arena of politics that the pernicious implications come into play. The  notion that genius is immune from genuine error, that even apparent error leads to the 'portals of discovery', contains within it the implication that genius is beyond good and evil, that the moral universe has no claim on it. Conventional wrongdoing is, after all, only a species of error.  Joyce's elegant assertion of the attributes of genius is actually elegant formulation of the rights of the superman, the ubermensch -- that much-misunderstood concept of the even more misunderstood Nietzsche.

No mistakes? Volitional error? The Führer beckons from just down the corridor, as do the leaders of the proletarian vanguard, as do all the others who claim to possess a wisdom -- genius, in a word -- far above and beyond that vouchsafed us ordinary members of the common herd. Claims of this type, and seizure of power on that basis, are the blight of human history.

The subject of the claims of political 'genius', alas, has become topical again. Not a little of the hysterical adulation of the recently elected President is tinged with these hues. It's Obama's followers who scare me. Over the last two years, I've witnessed a number of persons whose thoughtfulness I respected, morph into True Believers. There is a core of Obama's constituency that would be quick to grant him the status of Joyce's genius, making only volitional errors, which errors themselves lead to 'portals of discovery' of the greater good. I will not be surprised if a grass roots movement begins to repeal the Twenty-Third Amendment -- and before his first term is half up. When a country is blessed with a genius like Obama, why look for anyone else? The fact that much of this constituency is elitist and anti-democratic in the first place is not helpful in this context.

Not good. There is no 'genius' of the type Joyce described, not in the form of an artist, definitely not in the form of a statesman. We will not be saved by a hero-leader, no matter how gifted. Whatever he may achieve, Barack Obama will also make his share (and maybe then some) of colossal mistakes -- and they will be just that -- mistakes. Our only hope lies, as it always has, with ourselves. The Great Blind Beast, as I call the amazing American public, possessed of zero intelligence and infinite wisdom, can give anyone fits with its inconsistencies, its meanderings, its bouts of indifference and impatience -- but the only genuine power, the only true moral authority, lies with it and in it.

And thus endeth the sermon.

As noted, the contest remains open. If you have a candidate saying, please remember (a) it has to appear at first reading to be fairly sensible -- obviously inane sayings don't get to the starter's line;  and (b) it has to be attributed -- common sayings and folk wisdom are also disqualified. Mr. Commack's contribution meets both tests. The polls remain open. All contributions are welcome. Submit them here as comments, or to me directly at

Frank Dudley Berry, Jr. blogs at WordPlay and is also the author of of 'Thursday's Child', an epic romance written under the name 'Wurtenbaugh'. He can be followed on Twitter as 'fdberry'.