Flattening the Mountains of Genius

Egalitarianism and its relentless pursuit of mediocrity.

The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.

Those are the first sentences in Kurt Vonnegut’s 1961 short story, “Harrison Bergeron.” It is a fine thing when a frank and intelligent man who does not share your politics agrees with you nevertheless about some matter of great importance in human life. Vonnegut, an atheist, a self-styled humanist, and an admirer of the bloody euthanasia doctor, Jack Kevorkian, had no patience for egalitarianism as the great project of the day.

In “Harrison Bergeron,” the government official in charge of keeping everyone distracted, feeble, homely, and stupid, Diana Moon Glampers—what a delightfully revealing name that is, combining Greek mythology and feminine beauty with a flatfoot clodhopper finale—determines how much lead weight you have to carry in your sack if you are too big and strong; how sharp, frequent, and unpleasant are the noises drilled into your ear if you are too smart and thoughtful; what kind of ugly mask you must wear if you are too beautiful, and so forth. Equality is the one thing needful. And since it is impossible to make everyone into a Bach, a Michelangelo, a Milton, or even a Babe Ruth or a Max Schmeling, the only alternative is to flatten and make sure that you get nothing that threatens by its excellence. You equalize by stunting, blunting, and smothering.

The story is a simple one. Harrison Bergeron is a 14-year-old boy who is seven feet tall, even smarter than he is strong, and as manly in his beauty as a young god Thor. He outstrips all the handicaps the government tries to saddle on him, and he seeks to free other people, too, especially the beautiful, the talented, and the intelligent. There he is on television, having broken into a broadcast of a ballet, whose best dancer is handicapped with two hundred pounds of lead and whose musicians play badly, on purpose. Harrison snaps off the dancer’s physical and mental fetters and orders the musicians to play their best, promising to make them barons and dukes and earls.

“The music began. It was normal at first,” Vonnegut wrote, “cheap, silly, false.” Then the boy snatches up two of the musicians and waves them like batons, till the musicians rise to something approaching beauty. He and the ballerina dance together, the “Emperor” and the “Empress,” till Diana Moon Glampers arrives on the scene, in person, with a double-barreled 10-gauge shotgun—not even a weapon requiring any marksmanship to use. She shoots them dead and cows the musicians and the other ballerinas, and all returns to normal—stupid, equal, normal.

The boy’s parents, George and Hazel Bergeron, are at home watching television. George is too intelligent, so he has to have the noise-machine strapped to his ear, and though he notices his son Harrison on the screen, he is not given a half-minute’s leisure to think about it. Hazel is a bovine average and can hardly keep a thought in her mind, though she is sweet and endowed with a kindly will. She sees her son’s death on the screen, but she does not recognize the boy without all the handicaps. Then the television burns out, and George goes to the kitchen for a beer. When he comes back, their world too has returned to normal— stupid, equal, and normal.

“You been crying,” he said to Hazel.
“Yup,” she said.
“What about?” he said.
“I forget,” she said. “Something real sad on television.”
“What was it?” he said.
“It’s all kind of mixed up in my mind,” said Hazel.
“Forget sad things,” said George.
“I always do,” said Hazel.
“That’s my girl,” said George. He winced. There was the sound of a rivetting gun in his head.
“Gee—I could tell that one was a doozy,” said Hazel.
“You can say that again,” said George.
“Gee—” said Hazel, “I could tell that one was a doozy.”

And that’s how the story ends. Rather, that is not how it ends, because the world of “Harrison Bergeron” is still with us, more relentless and unforgiving than ever.

Long ago, Alexis de Tocqueville noted that democratic man is suspicious of excellence, and so he will sell even his vaunted liberty if he can purchase by it the calm blandness of equality. His characteristic sin is not the pride of the aristocrat, but the envy of the leveler. Then we should not be surprised that his schools inculcate sameness: the mechanical model of the assembly line relieves him of the pressure, the threat, of the two most obvious and productive forms of human diversity.

One is the difference between male and female, and it is interesting that Vonnegut should have seen that too, for Harrison is strong and the best of the ballerinas is graceful and beautiful, and they are dancing together, as only a boy and girl can dance, when they are murdered. But our schools have determined to make boys into cheap imitation girls, and girls into cheap imitation boys, and absolutely nothing in their academic or moral instruction acknowledges the reality that boys and girls are meant for one another. Sexual action is set free, with all the evil and imprisoning consequences of license, even while the notion of genuine sexual being is thwarted.

The Amish man, not encumbered by egalitarianism or sexual license, can enjoy in full the goodness of being a man and receiving his woman as a gift, just as his wife can enjoy the goodness of being a woman and receiving her man as a gift. It is no surprise that Amish children are many and physically strong, and Amish divorces exceedingly rare, while among the rest of us, divorces are as common as yawning and children are few, often bored, spindly or overweight, and alone.

The other fundamental diversity is that between the ordinary and the exceptional, between the average man and the genius, the typical soldier and the hero, the usual sinner and the saint. In all these cases, the further you diverge from the ordinary, the more distinct you become. Dante’s sinners in hell are often indistinguishable from one another, as they are covered in sludge or encased in ice, or as their minds have sunk beneath individuality, so that even their names are lost. But saints are sharply individual. The Curé of Ars, Saint John Vianney, somewhat slow of speech, of no great learning and not an intellectual, was one of the keenest-sighted readers of souls the world has ever known. How different he was from the gregarious acrobat Saint John Bosco, ministering to the street-boys of Turin; or from the gentle and cerebral Saint John Henry Newman; or from the young French girl Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, with her immense and characteristically feminine capacity for love!

Just as the saint—by his example and his presence, and sometimes also by his leadership and his appeal—raises the moral sights of the people around him so that they take fire from him according to their capacities, so does the genius kindle the intelligence of the ordinary person.

Ordinary poets are much of a muchness. But the farther you climb up Parnassus, the more it appears that each poet is his own species. When I say that no dramatist is comparable to Shakespeare, I mean more than that he was the greatest playwright of all time. I mean that he is sui generis, as was Molière, in his very different way, and as Aeschylus was, and Sophocles. Plenty of poets have been influenced by Spenser and Milton, but nobody ever really wrote like either one of them. Herman Melville never wrote a page without having Milton or Shakespeare or Scripture in mind—common influences upon many an author of his day—but no one ever wrote as Melville did; he was sui generis, as was his friend and admirer Nathaniel Hawthorne. Read Faulkner, all you young novelists; read him and learn, but give up all nonsensical hope of becoming like him.

Michelangelo had plenty of imitators, and that was to their harm, because they could not rise to his height. Bartolomeo Ammannati was one such, and when he set his colossal nude sculpture of Neptune in the Piazza della Signoria, in Florence, the old man he tried to imitate scoffed at him in a jingle, “Ammannati, Ammannato, che bel marmo hai rovinato!” (“What a lovely hunk of marble you have spoiled!”) Gianlorenzo Bernini did not make that mistake, but he learned from Michelangelo what he could do that was like the master and what he could not do, and he let his own genius seek its mode, and soar, so that we can say that no one ever sculpted as either Michelangelo or Bernini did.

I am sure here that others more expert in one or another of the various fields of human genius can come up with comparable evidence, that the higher you rise in the world of genius, the more diverse the persons are, and their works. Among composers, Bach is not Palestrina, Handel is not Bach, Mozart is not Handel, Beethoven is not Mozart, Brahms is not Beethoven. In mathematics, the precise and patient German Weierstrass is not like the brilliantly intuitive Indian Ramanujan. Albert Einstein and Kurt Gödel used to have lunch together at Princeton; I will leave it at that.

So it happens that the calls for equality and diversity are incompatible. Indeed I have long believed that all our declared love of diversity is a sham. The last thing that the international bureaucrats and technocrats among us want is that a society somewhere—or a school, or a religious faith—should resist assimilation and say, “We shall do things our way,” whether that means that they divide labor among men and women along traditional and biologically suggested lines or that they do not believe that drag queens should be heads of state (or of anything else) or that they teach their children according to their own lights and not those of Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg, the true tyrants of our time. The past is the human race’s great storehouse of cultural diversity, but that past is not egalitarian anywhere. For the people of the past were not sufficiently wealthy and sheltered from war and disease and the exigencies of nature to play egalitarian house and survive a single winter.

Therefore, the past is scorned. If we study it at all, we do so to show up the mistakes of our benighted fathers or to invent fantasies of mothers who were really feminists, just like us, whether they knew it or not.

No, every land must be “diverse,” and all in the same ways, differing only in a seasoning for noodles here, or a style of soccer there. And that will require the frustration or the smothering of genius. Since, as human history and biology show, you are far more likely to get rare genius from the males than from the females (for genius is a risky business, and males are expendable, while females are not), you can achieve the ends of feminism and egalitarianism at once—by starving, distracting, punishing, and browbeating the boys.

If we ask why we do not have a Bach in our midst (and we do not), or a Milton, or a Michelangelo, we might ask how in the hell a Bach, a Milton, or a Michelangelo could make it through our schools (or through the ubiquitous trivial distractions of television and the internet, or through the unremitting contempt to which his sex is subject) with his talent intact and his drive untrammeled.

I make the assumption here that we ought to promote genius, and that the best education will not be democratic. Yet I do not believe that most Americans now will agree with me—neither the bureaucratic tyrants who call themselves liberal, nor the egalitarian liberals who sometimes call themselves conservative. It will be said that a genius-stifling education is better for us, because while it dampens and encumbers genius considerably, it does not snuff it out altogether, and instead, it raises the level of the great average. The few mountains are flattened, but the great plains are lifted up.

I would not make that trade, even if you could have it on those terms. But that is not what really happens.
Tocqueville himself noticed, in the democratic America of that time, that you could hardly find a pioneer anywhere without a copy of Shakespeare and that he had himself read one of the Henry plays in a log cabin. We seem to think that genius is for oneself, just as we have bought the atomist view of sex—the absurd notion that a man’s physical strength is for himself and not for the woman he marries and their children, and that a woman’s gentle care for the weak and needy is for herself and not for her husband and their children. But that is simply not true.

Mozart is for everyone, and not just because everyone can listen to Mozart. His genius is a gift in itself and is a source of nourishment for other, and perhaps lesser, gifts—lesser, but more broadly and commonly distributed. From Mozart and from other great composers of that place and time, the people of Vienna and Austria, and then Germany and the rest of the Western world, learned the wondrous things that music can do. People who listen to The Marriage of Figaro are not the same as people who enjoy the Muzak they hear on an elevator. Milton is for everyone, and not just because anyone can buy a copy of Paradise Lost. From Milton, the schoolboy in Iowa, with the verses ringing in his ears as he walks the couple of miles back home through the fields, learns what poetry can do. People for whom poetry means Milton or Pope or Wordsworth are not the same as people for whom it means nothing or, worse, some silly political ravings in free verse or puerile rhyme.

Folk art is the country cousin of high art, and sometimes they dance together in the barn or the rich man’s hall or the piazza in front of the church on a holiday, and you get Giotto, or Johann Strauss, or Robert Burns, or Mark Twain. The country where the boy is set free to play Chopin without distraction and interruption is also the country where people without sheet music play age-old love songs on the mandolin. Just as the saint—by his example and his presence, and sometimes also by his leadership and his appeal—raises the moral sights of the people around him so that they take fire from him according to their capacities, so does the genius kindle the intelligence of the ordinary person. How many nameless men followed in the footsteps of Giotto and covered their village churches with painted beauty they would not otherwise have been able to attain! And thus it is true that an essentially aristocratic and inegalitarian education can do and has, in fact, often done what the democratic and egalitarian education has not done and probably cannot do.

Must we be sentenced to mediocrity forever? Ah, but I fear that even the mediocre is unstable when excellence is traduced or proscribed. For if people cannot make themselves stand out in holiness or artistic or intellectual genius, they will strive to make themselves stand out in some other way, and the most readily available ways are to be found in the garish, the venal, the brutish, and the perverse. A mediocre public building erected in 1880 strikes us, correctly, as handsome and beautiful now. Any folk melody from anywhere will now, by comparison with the sub-melodic anger of rap, strike us as the music of the spheres. In a depraved age, what was once seen as a mediocre man will seem like a pillar of dependability, and a mediocre woman, a haven of comfort.

May God help us and send us the saints we do not deserve to show us the more excellent way! Perhaps the geniuses shall be added thereunto.

Image: Victims of the “Handicapper General” (art by Gary Varvel)

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