Why, Oh Why?
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Why, Oh Why?

In 1956, to mark the centenary of Freud's birth, Ernest Jones delivered a lecture to the New York Psychoanalytical Society entitled "The Nature of Genius." Surprisingly, Jones pays little attention to Freud's metapsychology, or indeed to any aspect of his theory or method; rather, the essay—which collates various opinions on the subject—offers an essentially Freudian interpretation of a brilliant personality driven by the power of an idea. Jones trots out the Encyclopedia Britannica's definition of genius—"the highest conceivable form of original ability, something altogether extraordinary and beyond even supreme educational prowess"—but, clearly unhappy with this conventionally watertight formulation, proceeds to pick away at it. Essentially, Jones takes up a certain kind of productive blindness that accompanies transcendent insight. Caught up in the spirals of repression or conflicting belief systems, genius can never be other than conflicted and pathological. Ostensibly, Jones gives short shrift to the popular, disparaging view of intellectual elitism—"that geniuses are psychopaths and mostly tainted with insanity"—but, introduced early in the argument, it leaves its residue. It haunts in particular the better cue that Jones takes from Pascal, who argued that "greatness is never at one extreme but consists of the union between two extremes, an idea with Sainte-Beuve later labeled the theory of the entre-deux." His case in point is that of "the greatest genius of all times, Sir Isaac Newton, in whom "the elements of skepticism and credulity" were combined in such a way that "throughout his life theology was much more important to him than science, and, moreover, theology of a peculiarly arid and bigoted order." Jones locates in Freud a somewhat different but nonetheless "curious credulity, a willingness to believe what he was told whether it was really likely or not"—a capacity, one would wish to remind Jones, that is essential for the analyst, given that 'belief' is a capacious word. In any case, Jones's valuable point is that of the "correlation between credulousness…and the characteristically receptive nature of genius. A credulous attitude betokens an uncritical, excessive open-mindedness towards environmental stimuli, and this must go hand in hand with a similarly uncritical open-mindedness to the ideals pressing forward from the preconscious and ultimately from the id."

Jones's model of the entre-deux personality—astonishingly creative in part because that ego is conditioned, in some obscure way, by a toxic blight that is endemic in his or her culture at a particular historical moment—offers some perspective on the life and achievements of Shirley Jackson, an American genius whose centenary went largely unmarked in 2016. Jackson, of course, has always been familiar as the author of "The Lottery"—her 1948 story about a New England town's venerable tradition of selecting one of its citizens to be stoned to death. Like the fiction of her contemporary, Flannery O'Connor, "The Lottery" insinuates itself into the reader's cultural memory because it represents violence as both ritualistic and inevitable in even the coziest corners of the republic. Horror, in Jackson's literary world, is on a continuum—and not at its far end—with the quotidian textures that she writes about in a posthumous collection, Just an Ordinary Day (1998). Jackson's fascination with (to borrow the title of her final story) "the possibility of evil"—evil that can be cast in images, in finely-tuned narrative sequence, but never explained, let alone explained away—qualifies her as the great successor of Hawthorne and James. In this case, genius is aligned not only with exceptional narrative poetics, but also with a distinctly American sensibility: Jackson's best fiction aligns itself with the thing that Douglas explains, in The Turn of the Screw (1898), as "beyond everything. Nothing at all that I know touches it. For general uncanny ugliness and horror and pain."

If Jackson was a successor, she was also—poetically, thematically, culturally, politically—an innovator. Like Alice Munro, but with a more finely honed gothic disposition, Jackson's great field was the lives of girls and women in mid-century—in particular, the psychological dimensions of the mother-daughter relation. Where O...