This piece appears in the LARB Print Quarterly Journal: No. 18, Genius
There are acceptable favorites and unacceptable favorites. Having a favorite flower, for example, is a tacit indication of sophistication and taste, of knowing flowers well enough to pick one. Same thing with a scent, a brand of chocolate, a poet. The broader the category, however, the more juvenile the act of choosing. Favorite colors and animals are the jurisdiction of children, who pick to test their own authority. I’m not quite sure where having a favorite quote falls on this spectrum. But I have one. I fear that a grown woman — nay, a writer — with a favorite quote is not a great look. Still, my loyalty to the following sentiment trumps my embarrassment about picking it:
A genius is the one most like himself. — Thelonious Monk
I think about this quote constantly, almost like a blanky or one of those household products with multiple applications. Like baking soda or tinfoil. It works for when you’re feeling jealous or competitive or just idly comparing yourself with others. It faces simultaneously inward and outward. There’s a photonegative image within it of a group of people: a room or a dinner party or the whole world. It can be any number you choose, specific or faceless. Then there’s the idea that the quote was not originally meant for me, but for jazz musicians. This takes the fangs out of it, stops it from staring me directly in the eye like this classic, whose attribution to Hemingway is much debated:
There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.
The Monk quote on the other hand, strikes at the heart of what it is to be a genius. It humanizes genius but not at the expense of true intellect. You may be sitting across from a Fields Medal–winning, Pulitzer Prize–sporting Prix Goncourt finalist, but Monk’s measure of genius is less about titles than it is about efficiency. How much of your brain’s potential has made it outside of your brain? It’s a valve issue, not a reservoir issue. On the surface, it’s too accepting of an idea. There are a lot of stupid and ineffectual people in this world who are the most like themselves. One of them is our president. If we take Monk literally, our commander in chief is a genius. But if we assume he’s already referring to a group of curious people with talent and heart, then this quote becomes the perfect by-a-nose criterion. It’s useful socially as well, a means of separating the blowhards from the sages.
Every mental endeavor in the world, be it art or mathematics or science, exists to get closer to the truth. The closer you get to the truth of yourself, the closer you get to the truth of everyone else. You become the one most like yourself so that you can come out the other side.