Thursday, April 8, 2010

Geniuses and Morals: Across The Ages.

This is the week of Tiger Woods. Charles Krauthammer, a very sharp critic and columnist, once praised Tiger for having taught us how to measure genius. For an Afro-American prodigy to dominate an all-white sport in such a manner as to evoke only the superlatives when referring to him it was quite a fall from grace when his philandering tumbled into the open. The reactions were predictable he was told by all and sundry to apologize to all and sundry. He was treated with scorn like a fallen angel who did not deserve to be an angel in the first place. "Fans are disappointed", "children cannot look upto him", his sponsors dropped him, every body felt free to lecture him, some offered spiritual advice on national TV. I shall, towards the end come to this briefly but before that it would be instructive for us to look at other geniuses across the ages and the variety of reactions they evoked for their transgressions. By transgressions I refer only to that which concerns sexual morality.

When a married Mme du Chatelet took Voltaire as her lover, Will Durant notes drily, "the morals of the day permitted a lady to add a lover to menage, if it were done with a decent respect for the hypocrisies of manking; and when she chose not merely a lover but a genius, all the world forgave her". Apparently the Marquis Chatelet was a Lord Chatterley ahead of his times thanks to French customs. Poor Tiger Woods he has to contend with a conservative 21st century America.

Oh wait America is not all that puritan herself. Our good avuncular founding-father Benjamin Franklin with a paunch and a bald pate nevertheless scorched the salons of France with his peccadilloes. Ah its the French again. Thanks to Thomas Jefferson for practicing the egalitarianism that he enshrined in his immortal Declaration, not by freeing his slaves but taking to bed one of them. That reminds me of Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, an orthodox Brahmin, whose servant maid was more than a maid to him. This professor of philosophy, holder of a chair in Oxford later President of India once lectured on the virtues of monogamy with his mistress in the front row (not the maid, come on). Chutzpah, anyone. All that according to a biography by son. Nehru's amorousness had more class his list includes Padmaja Naidu (daughter of poet Sarojini Naidu) and of course the most famous Lady Mountbatten. Mountbatten's biographers note that he was a gentlemanly cuckold. Nehru used to go for swimming in the Viceroy's palace and when Lady Wavell joined him tongues wagged (mostly in admiration I think). Gandhi, with his own skeletons, certified "Jawahar is as pure as crystal the nation is safe in his hands". FDR is today revered for his leadership during Great Depression and WW-II. Being on a wheelchair struck by polio did not deter him from his dalliances with his secretary in his whose arms he breathed his last. JFK's recklessness with Marilyn MOnroe was only a tip of the iceberg, he was the proverbial "mustang" with a compulsive need to sow some wild oats with anybody wrapped in a skirt.

Einstein is thought of as the quintessential professor lost in thoughts pursuing truth but recent biographies have dispelled that idea and show what a hopeless romantic he was. Of course his romances, like other geniuses, was not within the confines of morality as defined in our still-Victorian-age.

If statesmen and scientists have frolicked can the artists be far behind. Tolstoy while calling himself "God's elder brother" felt free to practice socialism with the women working at Yasnaya Polyana. Henrik Ibsen, Bertrand Russell, Byron, Sartre even revolutionary Rousseau all had their share.

Ayn Rand the high priestess of reason and logic had the most ironic affair. She said it was rational for her to have an affair with her protege Nathaniel Branden. The best part was she convinced her husband and Branden's fiancee that this was logical. Finally Branden ditched both Ayn Rand and his fiancee for an attractive young girl Rand flew into a rage, called Branden to her home, slapped him and yelled that "even if she (Rand) was 80 and in a wheelchair she was the best he can have". Interestingly her heroines all have only 'affairs'. What prevented Hank Rearden from getting a divorce and marrying Dagny? Ah but then that would not be interesting, it would not serve the plot later in the book where Rearden gets blackmailed for his affair and Rearden gives up for love what nobody could take from him until then.

How about a businessman who is practically revered, not just for being the 2nd richest guy, but for also being a very down to earth humble person? Warren Buffet is revered as the "Oracle of Omaha", a syllable from him can move the markets of the world. He is admired for living very frugally with zero ostentatious display of wealth. Yet when his wife died and he married the woman he had been living with for decades on the side the press and America just made a muffled noise. If Gandhi indulged in Brahmacharya experiments his Ekalavya like protege Martin Luther King Jr did not disappoint when it came to being romantic outside the confines of his marriage.

Genius, irrespective of the field it operates on, has, shall we say, a compulsive need to defy conventional morals. Its unfortunate that most commentary sees their actions through the prism of conventional morals and says "we admire them yes, they were great yes but we do not condone this and we do not understand why they do this". I am no psychologist but I do not like cast away this complex impulse with simple explanations "ah well they get arrogant thinking the rules do not apply to them". The volcanic creativity of genius cannot be satiated easily and that is not restricted to just what they do in the public sphere.

It is worthwhile to note that most geniuses above did not have to contend with 24 hour news cycles or billion dollar deals on corporate endorsements. When corporations ditched Tiger Woods they did so not because they thought themselves to be custodians of morality it was sheer advertising sense. Who wants to be bracketed with a "in-the-news-for-the-wrong-reasons" guy?

The scale of achievements is also important. Bill Clinton, a compulsive philanderer, left office with a staggering 60% job approval rating well after the impeachment shenanigans. He was a two-term President, a gifted politician, considered the best in a generation (until Obama came), he completely redefined the democratic party, presided over the longest peace time economic expansion of USA and above all he sweated to rehabilitate himself post-impeachment. Elliot Spitzer, disgraced former Governor of New York was hoist on his petard when he was exposed as "client 9" using escort girls. The difference between Clinton and Spitzer was that Clinton became President after acknowledging that he had "caused pain in his marriage" and other factors helped a quick rehabilitation. Also how Bush got elected, the plummeting economy, the crazy Iraq war made many to think wistfully of the upbeat Clinton years. Spitzer blazed to office as a moral crusader against Wall Street captains and  then exposed himself as a cheap philanderer. A man who was thought of as "could be America's first Jewish President" is in the wilderness today.

Yesterday the chairman of Augusta National Club excoriated Tiger Woods publicly just before Woods started off to compete in this years Masters. Billy Payne said " It is the fact that he disappointed all of us, and more importantly, our kids and our grandkids. Our hero did not live up to the expectations of the role model we saw for our children."

It is despicable coming from somebody whose club still discriminates against women. This is classic 'teachable moment'. Tiger Woods did not disappoint anyone with his conduct he is still the greatest golf ever, period. Kids should learn that athletes and pop stars are NOT role models. If at all they should be looked upon ONLY for what they do on the field or on stage. What they do in their private lives is their business lets teach  our kids that and let us remember that too. A commentator talking about Tiger Woods rehabilitation said "America loves a winner, if he wins he will be cheered".

Geniuses torment the world around with not just philandering. There is another kind as Bobby Fischer showed us with his tragic conduct. See Krauthammer's excellent article in Time,9565,1054411,00.html

 After Shelley had died a friend visited the family and seeing his son, said "I am sure he will live to be an extraordinary man". Shelley's wife Mary replied "I hope to God he grows up to be an ordinary one". Such was Shelley's conduct in personal life.

We would do well to remember what Will Durant said of Voltaire, "all these qualities, good and bad, were secondary, not of the essence of Voltaire; the astounding and basic thing in him was the inexhaustible fertility and brilliance of his mind".Let us thank the Geniuses, let us marvel at them for what they give us and for how they enrich our world even with their abnormal lives.

References :

Billy Payne's speech,

"Intellectuals" --- Paul Johnson
Nehru  - M.J.Akbar
S.Radhakrishnan - S.Gopal
The Passion of Ayn Rand - Barbara Branden
My Years with Ayn Rand - Nathaniel Branden
Story of Philosophy - Will Durant
Freedom at Midnight - Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre
The Dark side of Camelot - Seymour Hersh.
Einstein - Walter Isaacson

1 comment:

Geethakrishnan said...

Exactly! You judge the athlete with his dominance in the game. His off-court relationships should not matter. I think I know why they all crib and bash him. Its because they couldn't afford to do the same like him. BTW, for me, I admire him more now than before. He had a squeaky clean image and was boring sometimes, if you ask me :)

There was a sports radio host who said, "Oh wait, he is not dividing his love. He is an addict! He has a good excuse :) ! If you see his mistresses photos, they all have a familiar face with Elin. He has some soft corner to such type of women. And it is really amazing to see how he kept all these affairs under the rug. Wow! BTW I hated the recent ad (voice of his dead father) from Nike. It's full of crap! I don't know why accepted to do that.

Go Tiger, go! Get your masters title. When he wins everything will be forgotten, forgiven and tossed out. Only winning matters. How many of us still remember Kobe Bryant's affair and diamond ring compensation to his wife ;)