The Last Samurai: The Burden of Genius

I don’t know how everyone else feels, but from this week’s section I got the distinct feeling that being a genius really sucks.

For instance, the section starts out with the piano-playing dreams of the narrator’s mother (and I like how each of our sections has begun by narrating the life history of each of the narrator’s parents). It turns out that when her mother goes for an audition at Julliard, she’s essentially told that though she is a pianist of talent, she is nowhere near prepared to explore that talent. So she is instructed to perform a set of exercises ever day for two hours for a year, after which she may be prepared to begin.

That’s hard. It’s hard in terms of being incredibly difficult to manage that kind of a regimen (particularly if you have life responsibilities to attend to), as well as hard in terms of being forced to flush huge personal resources down the drain with no promise that they will ever pay off in any substantive way.

Throughout this section we see the burden of genius in a very different way: Ludo. Am I the only one who was frequently reminded of Rosemary’s Baby by this child? Not that he doesn’t seem generally cute and sweet, but there is something definitely disturbing about the work ethic this 5-year-old exhibits, not to mention how he frequently takes to expressing his higher intelligence by screaming out things (like counting up from negative 262) that demonstrate his genius and make his frightening, or maybe uncanny, to be with.

In this section I am getting the distinct impression that DeWitt wants to interrogate our ideas of genius and cast them into a negative light–or, at the least, to reveal the darker, quotidian side of genius to go along with more lurid popularizations of what genius is like.

A related theme here is the idea that genius takes a hell of a lot of work to flesh out. Much as I hate to say this, reading about all the work that Ludo and the narrator’s mother had to put in to exploring their genius, I’m reminded of something that Malcolm Gladwell once wrote about–an idea (which I don’t believe he was the first to expound) that genius takes roughly 10,000 hours of repetition, practice, etc to “unearth.” We would seem to be seeing something of this drudge work of genius in this section.

And lastly, I can recall at least one place in this section where genius was a distinct liability: that would be when the narrator chooses to compose a mock Rosetta Stone to leave as a “Dear John” letter by the bedside of Ludo’s father post-conception, rather than some innocuous note. She spends approximately two hours in the wee hours of the morning putting this together, and I can only imagine (or perhaps we will be told the effects later) that “Liberace” did not get the radically convoluted and bizarre message that the narrator imagines he will. Clearly in this instance she would have done better to have taken off the genius hat for a moment and not made things so ridiculously complex. This is perhaps ironic, as we frequently see Ludo’s mother attempting to ameliorate the ways in which Ludo’s genius already makes him a cultural outcast, as well as her frequent attempted to give him the cultural literacy necessary for him to fit in as a “normal” 5-year-old boy. (Indeed, the struggle between her desires for him to see his genius through and her desires for him to just be “normal” seem to be evolving as one of the book’s main psychological tensions.)

A couple more questions/observations to toss out there:

I find it noteworthy that in settling in Britain to escape something from her past, the narrator is effectively reversing the immigrant narrative set up by her grandparents. Generally, the first generation of an immigrant family must subsume its personal dreams in order to make a life for its children, who then have more opportunity to prosper as they see fit. Yet in moving to Britain, the narrator is effectively starting this process over from the beginning.

Did anyone else notice how the narrator loves to invent names for virtually everyone she comes into contact with? Did this seem noteworthy to anyone? And is it possibly related to the fact that her and Ludo’s form of genius is in the realm of language? (And, as a related question, why language? Why choose that particular form of genius, and how does it fit into the thematic and narrative structures DeWitt is creating so far?)

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