Scholar vs. Genius


I think these two clips should illustrate my point quite well. I know that everyone always wants to play on the “Genius” team, but let’s face it, kids, not many of us are ever going to be really good at something (although many will think that they are).

So here’s a quick comparison between some dude teaching everyone how to play Bach (correctly, according to the original tempos) and some other dude who had bad vision and posture:

16 thoughts on “Scholar vs. Genius

    • Well, no, at least not alone.

      It can be fun to suck when all or at least some of your friends suck just as badly as yourself but alone with me I’m deadly serious and cannot stand to be bad at anything. There is no pardon. I like to checkout new things but only when I get the feeling of making fast progress. So yeah, I know people who are far better at sucking than me, and I do believe they are also happier but I’m myself and I would suck at being like them and with the character traits I just explained it is unlikely that this is going to change.

      This leads to another character trait which is a more positive one IMO: I’m stubborn when it comes to solving difficult problems. I can work for days and weeks on a hard problem in reclusive mode. It exhausts me [1] but I enjoy it a lot.

      [1] It sucks more energy out of me than an army of gray vampires. That’s the likely reason I’m not very scared about this particular species.

  1. I have bad vision and posture though I’m not quite as neurotic as Mr. Gould (probably a significant understatement there, at least on my good days and his bad days).

    Maybe I should have been practicing the Well Tempered Clavier during all those hours I read fantasy novels, played D & D, and watched professional wrestling? Actually, it would not have made much difference.

  2. Off the topic: Mikhail, I wonder if you would be interested in an article about a “Russian” “philosophical” “writer” (every one of those words being of uncertain application): “Ayn Rand: engineer of souls” by Anthony Daniels. Sample quotation: “The Russian tradition to which Rand belongs is not that of Gogol, Turgenev, and Chekhov but that of Dobrolyubov, Pisarev, and Chernyshevsky: that is to say, of angry literary and social critics, pamphleteers and ideologues. She was neither fully a philosopher, nor fully a novelist, but something in between the two—the characters in her novels are not creatures of flesh and blood but opinions on legs, and her expository prose has the quality of speechifying.” Another: “In some respects, Rand is almost Soviet. Her habit of remaking the past in accordance with her wishes or needs of the present is most striking.” Ouch!

    • That actually looks interesting – I’ll leave it to others to decide what really is this “Russian tradition” (doesn’t that quote itself sort of “remakes the past is accordance with its wishes or needs”? luckily for the author, there’s plenty of past for his use) – but Rand was a weird figure precisely in that it was so strangely non-capitalist (if we believe Marx’s analysis of capitalism and how its reliance of “free market” is contradictory etc etc), I wanted to read more about her, but then I would be jumping on this recent bandwagon on “rediscovering Rand” and I’d like to be all cool and non-conventional, you know?

  3. Allowing for the first clip’s purpose as a technical demonstration, it still looks and sounds to me like the difference between playing by rule and playing by feel. This is the difference between competence and virtuosity.

    I often enjoy doing things I suck at. I seldom enjoy witnessing others do so.

    • True, but you need to click on the link to the Bach Scholar’s website to get a sense of what he seems to be after – it’s not just competence, it’s some silly pursuit of mathematical precision in his argument that this is how Bach wanted us to play it etc etc, you know? It’s similar to any scholar writing thick tomes “reconstructing” the argument (“This is what Kant really wanted to say and this is how we must read him”) or a historical event.

      Here’s a taste:

      “In July of 1992, a graduate student in piano and musicology in the quaint college town of Lawrence, Kansas, USA, experienced a revelation in which Bach’s secret mathematical formulae were revealed to him.
      Working fervently with his tools of the trade—a metronome, calculator, and piano—and driven for two days in white heat without sleep by an inexorable cosmic force, this renegade theorist achieved something unprecedented in music history. He uncovered some of Bach’s most cryptic compositional secrets, which allowed him to “crack the Bach tempo code” and prove the tempos and architectural designs Bach intended for virtually all his works! This will soon culminate in his destined to be a cult-classic 350-page treatise, “Breaking the Bach Tempo Code”!

      The guy figured Bach out with a freaking calculator!

      Note that when you click on “destined to be a cult-classic treatise” it goes nowhere (literally and, let’s hope, metaphorically as well)…

      • I don’t see the analogy with philosophical interpretation or reconstruction. Someone undertakes the reconstruction of an argument when Kant or whoever offers us an argument that seems rife with inconsistencies, non-sequiturs, implausible assumptions, and the like. That can be undertaken in two sorts of spirit. One is to try to square Kant’s (or whoever’s) reasoning with the terms and assumptions du jour — what Jonathan Bennett does. The other is to try to figure out what Kant’s animating motives are in order to distinguish between the essential and the inessential, modifying the inessential where necessary to establish coherence. I don’t see how either of these corresponds to what the Bach guy is up to. He thinks that there is some mathematical “code” that determines a “correct” tempo for Bach’s compositions. I would say that this is simply unmusical. I don’t see how either variety of philosophical reconstruction is correspondingly unphilosophical. Nor do I see any justice in identifying the Bach guy as the type of the “scholar.” I have not investigated his Web site, but he seems to me to show all the marks of the autodidact and the crank rather than the scholar.

      • Agree with the first part, my conclusions were too hasty and probably based on some hunch rather than a thought out position. I suppose I was thinking of those who do think that there’s a definite position X to identify and present in any thinker Y – how else would one justify writing a book after a book on the philosophy of Y? – i.e. we say “it’s a matter of interpretation” often but what we really mean is “you’re not smart enough to see that you are wrong, because Y clearly meant to say X”…

        Disagree on the second part, he is a scholar in a sense of his position (not a crank, a professor) and his attitude (unmusical, you’re right, but very very thorough and scholarly in a sense of having found an “original” approach to Bach and promoting it as the best thing that happened to Bach scholarship – that’s very scholarly, I think, very academic)

    • I mean unless all of it is a kind of tongue-in-cheek mockery of scholarship, then it’s awesome, but I doubt it, especially since he seemed to be trademarked his label “Bach Scholar” and uses phrases like “A Unified Theory of Tempo Relativity”…

  4. As the Master would say, “if you are so smart and original, then where are your multiple publications on the subject matter?”

    [Publishing it on the website, of course, does not count. We need approval of the scientific community and various peers, because nothing guarantees quality like peer-review and editor’s decisions.]

  5. If you want to find a way to bum yourself out and squash yourself, there are lots of ways to do it and plenty of people to support you in the attempt.

    If you want to find a way to enjoy the crap out of life and pursue your interests with intensity and joy, you can do that too.

    Using the word ‘genius’ is pretty helpful for Path #1, pretty useless for Path #2.

    • This sounds very wise, but something’s not right – “enjoying the crap out of life” sounds very dandy indeed, but kind of shallow, don’t you think? It’s a sort of “whatever, man, it’s cool with me, as long as it makes you happy” attitude that usually covers over some real contradictions. And what about those of us who don’t have the time or the resources to “pursue our interests with intensity and joy”?

      • Huh? Hey, here’s a tip: if you’re going to criticize someone for being vague and superficial, don’t be vague and superficial while you’re doing it.

      • Why not? Are you in that “but you do that too!” school of criticism? So if I vaguely and superficially point out that you are vague and superficial (which I don’t, but whatever), then somehow it makes your point less vague and superficial? So if I was at a concert and opined that a piece of music was badly performed, I could be easily rebuked for saying so because I cannot play that particular piece of music at all.

        Spare me this idiotic move, please. I found your comment perplexing, that’s all. Don’t lecture me or do the whole “Oh, but you are no better, kind sir!” – it only works for kids (“But dad, Johnny has a beer – why can’t I?”). Enjoying the crap out of life and all that other stuff is great, but you can’t expect everyone to buy into that, do you? Pursuing your interests with intensity means you have enough leisure to explore your interests and not everyone has that luxury.

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