Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Darrin M. McMahon's "Divine Fury"

Darrin M. McMahon is the Ben Weider Professor of History at Florida State University and the author of Enemies of the Enlightenment (2001) and Happiness: A History (2006).

McMahon applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Divine Fury: A History of Genius, and reported the following:
Page 99 opens with a couplet by Edmond Halley, the astronomer of comet fame, which he penned for a eulogy of Isaac Newton:
Newton, that reach’d the insuperable line

The nice barrier twixt human and divine
Halley was undoubtedly a better astronomer than poet, but his line articulates nicely a growing 18th-century sentiment about the kind of figure Newton came to embody: the genius.

The genius emerged as a new model of the highest human type in the eighteenth century, and geniuses, as I try to show, came to occupy a space that lay precisely on the border between the human and the divine. Geniuses, that is, served a religious function, supplanting in the social imaginary the higher beings—prophets, apostles, angels, saints—who had long served as intercessors between the human and the divine and who were now increasingly marginalized in a world experiencing the drama of disenchantment. Geniuses were seen as wondrous beings—prodigies of nature, entirely original and distinct—endowed with the capacity to see where ordinary mortals could not: into the fabric of the universe or the fabric of our souls.

“Does he eat, drink and sleep like other men?” a French mathematician reportedly asked of Newton, in a line I cite on page 99. “I cannot believe otherwise than that he is a genius, or a celestial intelligence entirely disengaged from matter.” The comment may well have been apocryphal—the sort of mythic tale once told of the lives of the saints—but it is revealing nonetheless of the awe that Newton inspired. How fitting that when Newton died in 1727, his body was received at Westminster Abbey, traditional resting place of the saints. For he and others like him were conceived as higher beings, who like the saints of old, embodied human yearnings and fears, straddling the barrier twixt the human and the divine.
Visit the Divine Fury website and Darrin McMahon's website.

The Page 69 Test: Darrin McMahon's Happiness: A History.

--Marshal Zeringue