“Genius is nothing more nor less than childhood recovered at will.”
“Children … are the most attentive, curious, eager, observant, sensitive, quick, and generally congenial readers on earth,” E.B. White asserted in his counsel on how to write for children. This supremacy of sensibility is no doubt due to the child’s voracious and indiscriminate curiosity, which furnishes a mastery at the art of observation superior to the adult’s by immeasurable orders of magnitude. This seer’s superpower is what glimmers in the personal histories of geniuses, in their recollections of those memorable moments in which they first glimpsed their artistic sense of purpose — Pablo Neruda’s childhood memory of the hand through the fence, Patti Smith’s childhood memory of the swan, Albert Einstein’s childhood memory of the compass. That, perhaps, is what the great screenwriter, novelist, and civil rights champion Ben Hecht meant in asserting that people endowed with any kind of greatness are those who have managed to stay in touch with “the soul of their childhood.”
A century earlier, the French poet-philosopher Charles Baudelaire (April 9, 1821–August 31, 1867) examined the seeing genius of childhood with unparalleled insightfulness in The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays (public library).
The child sees everything in a state of newness; he is always drunk. Nothing more resembles what we call inspiration than the delight with which a small child absorbs form and colour.
In a sentiment that calls to mind Virginia Woolf’s enlivening meditation on the shock-receiving capacity necessary for being an artist, Baudelaire goes even further in illustrating how the revelatory stimulus-receptivity of the child parallels that of the artist:
Inspiration has something in common with a convulsion, and that every sublime thought is accompanied by a more or less violent nervous shock which has its repercussion in the very core of the brain. The man of genius has sound nerves, while those of a child are weak. With the one, Reason has taken up a considerable position; with the other, Sensibility is almost the whole being. But genius is nothing more nor less than childhood recovered at will — a childhood now equipped for self-expression with manhood’s capacities and a power of analysis which enables it to order the mass of raw material which it has involuntarily accumulated.
Out of this Baudelaire wrests the defining feature of creative genius:
[The great artist is one] who is never for a moment without the genius of childhood — a genius for which no aspect of life has become stale… master of that only too difficult art — sensitive spirits will understand me — of being sincere without being absurd.
Complement The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays with Baudelaire on beauty and strangeness and his timeless open letter to the privileged and powerful about the political and humanitarian power of art, then revisit Schopenhauer on what makes a genius.