One of the most frustrating limitations is my inability to read more than one book at a time. Regardless of whether the subject matter of the two books are dramatically different, I prefer to consume myself with one, allowing for singular focus of prose, style, and content. In turn, the treacherous, David Foster Wallace penned Infinite Jest has all but consumed the past 2 months of my life. As I continue to surmount the weighty opus, I have begun reflecting on the nature of genius. Genius is a word that’s either used too seldom or too often, as I’m sure many capable, hard-working students are all too aware. I want to reflect on the type of genius that isn’t thrown around every day: the virtuosos, experts, and prodigies of their respective fields.

Long before I picked up my 2.2 inches thick, 3.2 lbs (according to’s shipping weight) novel, David Foster Wallace has been extolled by my friends, professors, and the media alike. In fact, I was hard pressed to have a conversation about the part novelist/part essayist without murmurs of his “genius”. Reading Infinite Jest has been compared to climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro or getting past the kill screen in Donkey Kong. Before I even began the foreword, I was prepared for greatness. My preconception led me right to a singular conclusion: I was about to embark on a strenuous, exhausting experience. However, somewhere within those 1100 odd pages and 4 month time span (approx.), I was going to come across genius in its purest form.

And from there, I began to ponder: What is a genius? There is certainly no qualifications or prerequisites that determine genius [1]. There are certainly no universally agreed upon geniuses. Who goes to the trouble to coin these individuals geniuses in the first place?

I began research the matter, and quickly came across the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. In a nutshell, The MacArthur Grant, which more often than not is expressed via the synecdoche [2] “Genius Grant,” provides $500,000 to “geniuses” to pursue projects void of economic concern. The MacArthur Foundation markedly goes lengths to avoid using the “g” word, explains the grant as:

“unrestricted fellowships to talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.”

The website continues

“The Foundation awards fellowships directly to individuals rather than through institutions. Recipients may be writers, scientists, artists, social scientists, humanists, teachers, entrepreneurs, or those in other fields, with or without institutional affiliations. They may use their fellowship to advance their expertise, engage in bold new work, or, if they wish, to change fields or alter the direction of their careers.”

The selection process is done entirely anonymously by the Foundation’s committee, and hundreds of recipients, aged 18 to 81, have been selected since 1981 [3].

In the MacArthur Grant, I thought I had come across my answer, or at least the closest resemblance to an answer I was gong to find. If I truly wanted to gauge the frequency and output of geniuses (at least since 1981), the MacArthur Foundation could point me in the right direction. David Foster Wallace, our aforementioned scribe, received one of these very grants in 1997, the year after completing Infinite Jest. Clearly my friends weren’t entirely spouting hot air.

I perused the list of “geniuses.” As I expected, I wasn’t familiar was 90% of the names. Today’s most distinguished mathematicians, biochemists, and astro physicists don’t exactly grace the walls of my apartment bedroom. But as I began to come across familiar individuals, I started to scratch my head. With the exception of Cormac McCarthy, none of these individuals have incurred any sort of commercial success or notoriety. The utterly complex arraigner and saxophonist John Zorn stands as an example of this, as well as Thomas Pynchon, who is taglined in the first sentence of his Wikipedia page as being “noted for his dense and complex works of fiction.” The more research I performed on MacArthur’s geniuses, the more I began to realize that MacArthur’s Fellowships are created because more often than not, the intended output would never come to fruition without the financial freedom that the MacArthur Foundation creates. In turn, the MacArthur Foundation has fashioned themselves as a modern day Medici Family, who are vehemently praised for their financial support and nurturing of the Arts during their reign.

David Foster Wallace committed suicide this past year at the age of 46. Like other tortured geniuses, Wallace died entirely too young, and at his own hand. Unfortunately, Wallace’s notoriously dark prose extended past the page, leading to a lifelong struggle with depression and prescription medications.

As I continue to work my way through DFW’s “gargantuan comedy,” I continue to marvel at his accomplishment. As Wallace stated in an essay in 1996, his intended goal as an author is to create “morally passionate, passionately moral fiction.” I can unequivocally state that Wallace suceeded in this individual goal. However, the fact remains: his talent is undeniable, but is it genius?

[1] I certainly do not profess to be of any scientific ability. For a more scientific approach to genius, HowStuffWorks tries their hand.
[2] Ironically enough, the main character of the Charlie Kaufman penned and directed Synedoche, New York recieves a MacArthur Fellowship after his portrayal of Death of a Salesmen casted young adults in the lead roles of Willy & Linda Loman
[3] Time Magazine

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