‘The Mystery of Genius’ by Amanda Foreman – The Wall Street Journal

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

“Genius,” a new National Geographic miniseries on Albert Einstein starring Geoffrey Rush, tries to peel back the great physicist’s eccentric public persona and examine the human being underneath, warts and all. But even if we could discover everything about Einstein’s life and character, would that tell us anything about the nature of genius?

People have been puzzling over the concept for more than 2,000 years, as Darrin M. McMahon points out in his comprehensive history of genius, “Divine Fury.” In classical antiquity, genius wasn’t considered a talent or the result of effort but a divine spirit. The ancient Greeks believed that every individual was born with a daimon, an innate spiritual power bestowed by the gods that guided a person’s actions and ultimately decided his fate. The Romans shared this basic belief in a heavenly spirit that resides in us. Continue reading…

‘The Tragic Side of Weddings’ – The Wall Street Journal

Weddings are happy affairs. What could possibly go wrong? From left, Christian Bale, Calista Flockhart, Dominic West, Anna Friel in 1999’s ‘A Midsummer Night's Dream.’ PHOTO: FOX SEARCHLIGHT/EVERETT COLLECTION

Weddings are happy affairs. What could possibly go wrong? From left, Christian Bale, Calista Flockhart, Dominic West, Anna Friel in 1999’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’ PHOTO: FOX SEARCHLIGHT/EVERETT COLLECTION

If April is the cruelest month, then June is the happiest—at least for those hoping to say “I do.” Surveys show that in America, about 16% of all weddings occur in June, making it the most popular wedding month. In many parts of the country, flowers are at their peak and the weather is perfect. What could go wrong?

A great deal, it turns out. With so much riding on the day, weddings occupy a curious place in the human psyche, wedged somewhere between the heights of ecstasy and the depths of despair. The notorious “Red Wedding” episode a few years back in HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” in which the host Lord Frey massacres his helpless guests, may have pushed the envelope in terms of good taste, but its bloody denouement came as no surprise to lovers of tragic opera—or the classics.

The ancient Greeks regarded weddings as potentially very dangerous. Too much happiness was thought to incur the wrath of the gods. Only a prodigious number of sacrifices could stave off disaster, and even then the slightest mistake could upset all the careful preparations. A wedding day transformed into a funeral was a stock theme in Greek mythology and poetry. In one version of the Trojan War narrative, Iphigenia, the daughter of King Agamemnon, walks to the altar dressed as a bride, unaware that she is about to be killed to appease the goddess Artemis, who had held up the warriors’ voyage to Troy. Continue reading…

‘A Valentine to the Bad Boys of Literature’ – The Wall Street Journal

Among the ancient Greeks, the greatest ‘bad boy’ of them all was Zeus. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

Among the ancient Greeks, the greatest ‘bad boy’ of them all was Zeus. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

In “Pride and Prejudice” Jane Austen highlighted a truth not universally acknowledged when she made Elizabeth Bennett fall for the dark and brooding Mr. Darcy rather than for a sweet-tempered suitor like her sister Jane’s Mr. Bingley.

Readers just love the bad boys. As Lady Caroline Lamb once said about her lover Lord Byron, it’s the men who are “mad, bad and dangerous to know” who set the heart racing.

Among the ancient Greeks, the greatest “bad boy” of them all was Zeus, who had his wicked way with innumerable nymphs and princesses, though his Olympian brothers were little better. For sheer priapic energy, however, the prize goes to Gilgamesh, god and hero of the Sumerian epic that bears his name. His lust, we’re told, left “no virgin to her lover, neither the warrior’s daughter nor the wife of the noble.” Continue reading…

‘Dreams That Created Literary Masterpieces’ – The Wall Street Journal

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, the British writer best known for 'Frankenstein,’ and second wife of poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. PHOTO: HULTON ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, the British writer best known for ‘Frankenstein,’ and second wife of poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. PHOTO: HULTON ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES

Dreams have been the stuff of divine inspiration ever since Jacob, in the Book of Genesis, dreamed of a ladder that connected heaven and earth.

In the “Divine Comedy” (completed in 1320), Dante Alighieri wrote of the three dreams that beset him while traveling through Purgatory. In 1678, John Bunyan claimed that “The Pilgrim’s Progress” had come to him while sleeping: “I layed me down in the place to sleep: and as I slept, I dreamed a dream.”

The Romantics, because of their obsession with the sublime, were particularly sensitive to dreaming. The poet William Blake inhabited a twilight of visions and dreams. “O, what land,” he wrote, “is the land of Dreams?” It was a place so real and vivid to him that Blake claimed his method for relief etching—which he used to combine text and color images in “illuminated printing”—was the gift of his late younger brother, Robert, who explained it in a dream. Continue reading…

‘A History of Star-Crossed Lovers’ – The Wall Street Journal

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

Breaking up, as Lord Byron wrote in “When We Two Parted,” is devastating: “If I should meet thee/ After long years, / How should I greet thee?— / With silence and tears.” But there is something uniquely tragic about lovers separated by cruel circumstance. Their stories reappear in literature as a warning about fate, a celebration of idealism or a lament for lost love.

One of the oldest examples to come down to us is the thwarted union between the Roman emperor Titus (A.D. 40-81) and Berenice, princess of Judea and queen of Chalcis (A.D. 28-sometime after 81). Like Romeo and Juliet, their relationship was doomed from the outset. Berenice risked her life trying to preserve the peace between Romans and Jews in the period leading up to the First Jewish-Roman War, A.D. 66-73. Titus was the Roman general whose army was besieging Jerusalem. Nevertheless, the two fell passionately in love.

Their relationship survived Titus’ destruction of the Second Temple in 70 and the subsequent Roman slaughter of almost a million Jews. But when he inherited the throne in 79, Rome balked at the idea of a Jewish empress. Forced to choose between love and duty, Titus reluctantly chose duty, establishing a tradition of royal self-sacrifice that would continue untilEdward VIII abdicated in order to marry Wallis Simpson. Titus died—killed, possibly—two years into his reign. Berenice disappeared around the same time, her fate unknown.

Continue reading…