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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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  1. The Last Samurai: Chance, Blocked Geniuses, and Irregular Grammar Based on the evidence of the first section we're reading of The Last Samurai, I think it's fair to say that Helen DeWitt likes to...
  2. The Last Samurai: The Author as Woman Inevitably, we've already had a couple of references to Helen DeWitt's gender in the comments to the first week of The Last Samurai discussion, so...
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6 comments to The Last Samurai: The Burden of Genius

  • This is fairly tangential to the post topic, but…

    You just blogged about Emma Donoghue’s ROOM, along with everyone else in the book blogosphere. Over at The Millions, Edan Lepucki’s review includes this line: “[The narrator's mother] must keep Jack safe, but also entertained. And it’s not easy keeping a five-year-old entertained!” Sound like any other characters we know?

    I bought a copy of ROOM, haven’t started reading it yet, but I opened to the first page and read: “Today I’m five. I was four last night going to sleep in Wardrobe, but when I wake up in Bed in the dark I’m changed to five, abracadabra. Before that I was three, then two, then one, then zero. ‘Was I minus numbers?’” It’s going to be interesting to read about this very different situation with Ludo and Sibylla in the back of my mind.

  • Dan

    Lisa hints at something that has been in the back of my mind as well: I’m often unsure in this novel where the line is between problems of parenting in general and problems of parenting a genius. The problem of when to say no, the wandering child, the child shouting and singing on the tube: none of these are especially unique situations (although I grant most kids probably would not make it home from the theater alone at age five!).

  • Rashomon

    Sib’s nicknames tell me she, and Ludo, and this book, are bent on getting past the weaknesses of the English language to say anything real anymore, thanks to PR advertising and propaganada. Can’t get the Seven Samurai without the Japanese, Njal’s Sagas are hobbled in the Penguin translation… even Liberace (the pianist) does to music what Ludo’s father does with English: kitsch, surface muzak. This business of the fallacy of translation, I’m still trying to work it out but even the minor characters HC and RD (or is it HD and RC?) solve problems of language by translating them into chess problems. There’s a story here about the inability to communicate when your tools are broken, between boy and world and father and son and only Sib and Ludo are finding a way around it. Too late for Ludo’s father’s other kids: they’ve learned everything they know from Sesame Street.

  • David Caruso

    I thought it was interesting that the pianist Yamamoto performed Brahms Op. 10 No. 1 fifty-nine times, surpassing Sibylla’s mother’s impressive forty-one consecutive renderings of Chopin’s Prelude No. 24 in D minor in defiance of her father. Although later she does play it 217 times in a single week. Not bad.

    And as far as naming goes, Ludo isn’t really Ludo–he’s David or Steven. Steve or Dave. Sibylla isn’t sure which and it doesn’t seem to matter. Strange that something so important to her as language and names becomes suddenly unimportant. Perhaps she doesn’t want to “give” his name to the nurses but hold onto it herself–at least for the time being.

  • tom

    These comments are helpful in more ways than one! Before reading them, the word and image of burden (thanks to Scott for his vivid, striking picture) bore down on Sib; it was her single motherhood that was a burden. Now there is a possibility that Ludo feels the brunt of his genius.

    From the getgo, there has been, here, a constantly repeated gesture of psychologizing and essentializing genius. Making it into a theme. This is unavoidable, I suppose, but there’s a lot of text going in the other direction, and we’ve all, at one time or another, pointed this out. Dan here says (not for the first time) that there’s a shuttle movement from genius to ordinary parenting. That displaces the weight of burden. The quotes from J.S. Mill all move in this direction also: he keeps saying how ordinary and slow he was. And that the secret of his “genius” was in the quite ordinary acception of the importance of mindless repetition.

    David and Steven and Ludo. There may be cause for diagnostics, but I would resist until the (bitter) end of the story. For the moment, Ludo appears as a luminous Apollonian being who will forge his own singular path back home, after a happenstance exil in a single-parent home. Much of his resourcefulness is an inheritance from the maternal side of his family tree. Steven and David are jewgreek and greekjew, and this is weighty, but perhaps not a burden, since it never appears on stage except in the guise of pure chance. If I could, if I were Zeus or Solomon, I would forbide all psychological speculation about this re-incarnation of Mifune.

    What’s wrong with medleys? There is no point to them. Yamamoto’s repetitions are very close to medleys, except for the one sound that you differently while being able to recognize that it’s the same. Don’t you feel that is fascinating, even if we all want to stick up for our taste in pointless medleys?

    It hurts to read that perhaps Sib is a whackjob. Joyce had to put up with that throughout his life with respect to his daughter, and he refused to stop the shuttle from functioning. Problem child, yes, but such a magnificent problem, so unique and so crucial! (See Lucia Joyce, by Carol Loeb Shloss) It’s true that Sib loses it on occasion. And that Ludo is quick to pick this up. She has a default, something that will more and more resemble attention deficit disorder. Cognitive overcharge. Whatever. Ludo seems to think that she can be rescued. I hope you all do too.

    The passages on suicide as reasonable choice seem to me to point toward Japan, and not toward the interdicts of the monotheistic religions. An approach to life as death: less an opposition than a composition, with the tragic death of children as spurs to cleaner, clearer takes on what is best for me, you, and everyday right now, in hopeless straits on a bright sunshiny day.

  • tom

    On the most romantic passage in the entire novel and the burden imposed by such an experience, be it in a tribe or in a concert hall, or in our democratic environments!

    The most romantic passage, in the most precise sense of the term. As redemption, accompanied during its exposition by the events that allow it to be sustained as rational or traditional expectation.

    Kenzo goes to Africa, after having put in a stint as a modern samurai in the field of music. That is, after having imposed on the myriad dimensions of his trajectory, if not on those of his public, the relative superiority of percussion to voice. This is exactly the same trajectory and the same choice, that leads the elite of Japanese samurai to prefer the perfection of their art by using bamboo instead of steel so as to weild blows from which survival is humbling but educational.

    Kenzo finally manages to get to Chad, where the description of a fictive book (“Drums Over Africa” — what a disappointment that this be a fictive title. Can anyone help here to identify a source?)restages the Wordsworth of “The Boy of Wilander.” (I’ll copy this poem out later today) Just as in Wordsworth, the experience undergone and studied and meditated by Kenzo is one split in half, split asunder, tragically so. The first half is replete with the seven necessary drums, and the sounds are confidentelly sent out over water and into mountainsides, while the tribe and especially the women who are mourning the death of a child, await the especial benediction that will keep this death within the bounds of sense. This occurs as echo and as validation that what one believes is what is there. In the second half of Kenzo’s experience, everything goes wrong. This is when he becomes quintessentially romantic, i.e., when the romantic “hero” is confronted with a crime and a death, and must consequently (but nothing here is consequent) plunge into his “own” self to figure out what the next blow will have to be, and how to parry the blow he has just undergone. The drums now are basket-cases, riddled with the negative attributes of transcience, and the sound of a single blow on the surviving drum does not return in any kind of acknowledgment. Only resignation. Kenzo persists in this mind-set to the point of using the drum to save the day, to save something and someone of that day. He fails. At this point, the seeds are sown for him to become the huge and unacknowledged artist he was destined to become from the moment he seized the role of percussion in the evolution of violent humanity.

    All — I said all – the references to music in this novdel point to the development, interruption and redemption of Kenzo’s art. The second part of the novel is chuck-full of blows to drums that end up resonating in distant removed places, and there is someone to pick them up. Someone not dead yet. Someone taught with the reasonable expectation and chance that unless something is done, a loved-one will once again bite the dust. But there is no place here for a song like “another one bites the dust.” That’s for medleys. It’s not the kind of repetition the novel exemplifies, except when it’s making fun of all the nincumpoops and knuckleheads that make up our days, and never make the day for any of us. The burden is exclusively that of a person’s growing sense of responsibility for the care of those he loves.

    (Something tells me this is not the requisite style for a discussion. I don’t think these affirmations are open for discussion. Only to confirmation and refutation. Kenzo is a central figure, and he will bite the dust of course (sorry for the violation of the spoiler rule: it’s valid onto on the Circle Line). And the burden he carries has nothing to do with his genius, but only with the life he’s chosen to lead. One life among many, where the attributes of genius go the way of the drums.)

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