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Feb 27, 2023Liked by Henry Oliver

You’ve been writing a play about them? Good subject for a play. I think she was the braver of the two.

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An audio play! And yes I hope so … I certainly find it interesting. It looks at the difference between the autobiography and the letters etc, to show some of what they didn’t say in the autobiog… the drama behind the narrative of you like. Yes she was brave and very individual. Their life definitely informs their belief and her personality is essential to that

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Don't believe the autobiographies and letters! Read Freud instead!

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I do believe them, but up to a point! Freud has a cameo appearance later this week, though I'm not sure he was entirely a good thing for biography.

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Oh god no not for biography but for casting a suspicious eye on letters and autobiographies. Diaries are a different animal, I should have said before. If there's a hint that they are written to be read by others, go straight to Freud.

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I think all diaries are written performatively, even if only for self-performance. I will have to look at Freud again. I am suspicious about his reliability!

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I never said he was reliable -- I said he is helpful for a fundamental suspicion of human capacity to present their own narrative reliably.

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Right, but if he's unreliable then does he encourage the wrong sort of suspicion? I think something like the bundle theory of the mind, for example, can give you a better starting point. Freudian suspicion encourages us to attach meaning to noise, I think, and to look for "the real self". But seeing that psychological noise without patterning it is in itself important to a truer view of a person.

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Not quite -- no "true" or "real" goal at all. Just exploration. Anyway great piece to provoke this much early discourse! Read Freud!

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This is great because I get to tell people about one of my favourite little random things, time use surveys - https://www.timeuse.org/mtus - and plenty others of its ilk

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I love those surveys too!

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Is being a genius a fact? Whether true or false? You judged Mill's usage to be an overstatement, and indeed I have had friends that used the term "genius" rather freely, as a hyperbole. Not unlike many people use the word "literally". But it seems to me that genius is more a matter of convention, not unlike the determination that pieces of silver are "money", a matter of judgment rather than a matter that could be settled clear cut like the length of an object, whether it rained at a certain place at a certain time, or somebody's place of birth. A person is a genius if everybody agrees that is the case. On Wikipedia's genius page, the side bar lists historical figures. In no caption does it state "a genius" but "widely regarded as/ often considered/ acknowledged as/ deemed as/ cited as a genius". John Stuart Mill simply put his two cents on the matter of Harriet Taylor.

Anyway, I find it curious you chose to touch, discussing the reliability of diaries and letters, the usage of a word. I'd think that a point where people err more often with regards to autobiography is in narrative. Constructing a story, whether when reproduced for the sake of another or in the simple process of making sense of one's life, one throws a retrospective glance on one's experience, pieces discrepant memories and searches for meaning. Memory is hardly infallible, and so events are innocently permutated in time, displaced in space, lacunas are pastiched, dialogues garbled, reasoning and motivation is extrapolated.

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The two points are closely related. Calling her a genius is a keystone of his narrative. Mill was claiming that Taylor was a great mind who had an equal part in his work. The autobiography was written with the aim of persuading people of the intellectual equality of men and women. It's not so much that memory is fallible as that they carefully created a story that fitted their theories. But that doesn't make them wrong, necessarily. There are some factual errors, but not many we can trace. Certainly they left a lot out, partly because of conventions, but also largely because of the aim of their book, which was to make an intellectual argument, not to reveal everything about their lives. My play, in fact, explores the gap between the autobiography and the other materials we have of their lives.

I don't take quite as subjective a view of genius as you do. Some people have extraordinary ability. Genius is a useful shorthand for that, while noting its limitations. There is a difference between J.S. Bach and the church organist. It's like the nature-nurture debate. To say it takes both isn't a refutation of the fact that genetic inheritance is essential to talent. Genius has a subjective element, but that redefines rather than refutes, I'd say.

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Regarding the first: fair enough. I haven't read it so I can't say much, but I do wonder how much of the book's project impinged on the question whether she was "a genius" or merely "very smart/ intellectually stimulating/ insightful and articulate."

As for the second, I absolutely agree with you that genius ––as a short-hand for possession of extraordinary and groundbreaking ability–– is a real phenomenon. I misstated. Nonetheless, it still seems to me that the recognition of a person as a genius relies on judgment in a manner in which many other phenomena are not. One might be personally familiar with Bach or Mozart (or pick your own genius) yet not know their work, might be even familiar with their work yet not grasp its greatness or that which made it so extraordinary in the context or medium in which it has been done. If you'd say this person is a boor or an idiot, that would be a verdict about their judgment. You wouldn't call them bonkers or deranged, which you might think of a person who claimed it was raining when it was in fact sunny, or that he was the Queen of England. No?

It at least obliquely relates to the point in the post about missing documents. Arguably Mozart would have been a genius even if none of his music survived. Say it was before they came up with scoring. Had a contemporary wrote about him that he was a "musical genius", we would have had to be at least somewhat skeptical. Or, to make a different scenario, scoring had been invented but nobody understood his genius so his music was not performed by others and the scores were not reproduced. Arguably that's what happened to van Gogh, only that his art was objective and not performative and has thus survived him either way. I can imagine that there were opposite cases, artists and thinkers who were regarded as revolutionary at their time but who have lost their appeal in subsequent generations. Geniuses? Not geniuses?

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The scepticism with Harriet Taylor is that lots of others knew her and we do have her work. The mute inglorious milton concept is real, for sure, but I don't think that changes much about this definition.

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