In 1831, Robert Schumann published his very first review, in the form of an imaginary conversation about a recent composition by Frédéric Chopin. Both Schumann and Chopin were scarcely out of their teens, and neither was yet widely known. Recognizing the exceptional qualities of Chopin’s music, Schumann had one of his fictitious characters introduce it by walking in the door and uttering the unforgettable words, “Hats off, gentlemen—a genius!”
According to musicologist Peter Schickele, the only possible response he could make upon hearing the music of P.D.Q Bach, the “only forgotten son” of Johann Sebastian Bach, was “Hats back on, gentlemen—an idiot!” Reading the lyrics to one of P.D.Q.’s compositions,
MONK’S ARIA FROM HANSEL AND GRETEL AND TED AND ALICE
Et expecto resurrecreation; Et in unum Dominos and checkers; Qui tollis peccate mundi morning.
Mea culpa kyrie elei-Sonny Tufts et Allah in Pompeii; Donna nobis pacem cum what mei
Agnus and her sister Doris Dei; Lord, have mercy on my solo.
Et in terra chicken pox romana; Sic transit gloria manana;
Sanctus estes Kefauviridiana; In flagrante delicto Svetlana; Lord, have mercy on my solo.
Credo in, at most, unum deum; Caveat nabisco mausoleum; Coitus interruptus bonus meum;
Kimo sabe watchum what you sayum; Lord, have mercy on my soul so low.
then listening to a couple of minutes of the “Prelude and Fugue in C Major” from P.D.Q’s immortal The Short-Tempered Clavier
should be sufficient for you to draw your own critical conclusions.
We all have heard that there is a fine line between genius and insanity; for most of us, it is more relevant that we spend our lives wandering the vast terrain between genius and idiocy. I have had moments of such pure inspiration that I wondered why the MacArthur Foundation and the Nobel Prize committee don’t just give me their respective “genius grant” and prize without bothering with the application and paperwork. I have had many more moments when my inner voice, observing what I am up to, yells “You Fucking Moron! What the hell do you think you are doing?” Socrates’ inner voice instructed him to do what he knew was right rather than obey the demands of the Athenian authorities. My inner voice usually tells me to stop acting like a fool and embarrassing myself.
I spent part of this past semester studying Albert Camus’ The Plague with a bunch of second semester sophomores. The Plague is one of my top five favorite novels ever, both to teach and just because it is a great novel. Of the many powerful characters in the story, my favorite is Grand (Camus’ characters generally don’t get a first name). Grand is a low-level bureaucrat, a paper pushing clerk acquaintance of Dr. Rieux, the narrator and central character of the novel. Grand is a simple but fundamentally decent man who eventually becomes fully committed to assisting Rieux in the impossible task of trying to act humanely and professionally in the face of increasingly inhuman circumstances. As his friendship with Rieux develops, weaving its way through the early outbreak and spread of plague throughout the city, Grand occasionally drops cryptic hints that he is secretly working on a “grand” project. One evening as they share a drink in Grand’s humble apartment, Grand reveals his secret: he is writing a novel. He has been working on it in his spare time for years and it seems to be no closer to completion than when he began it. But it consumes his life, and it is clear that Grand’s identity and self-image is tied up with the future success of his work of fiction. In response to Rieux’s wondering how much more Grand has to go before the novel is finished, Grand says
I don’t know. But that’s not the point . . . What I really want, Doctor, is this. On the day when the manuscript reaches the publisher, I want him to stand up—after he’s read it through, of course—and say to his staff, “Gentlemen, hats off!”
It doesn’t take long to realize that no one will ever be taking their hat off in honor of Grand’s novel. He’s been stuck on the first sentence—“One fine morning in the month of May an elegant young horsewoman might have been seen riding a handsome sorrel mare along the flowery avenues of the Bois de Boulogne”—for months. We revisit the sentence, with various modifications, throughout The Plague, and it never rises above its original bland mediocrity. But Grand’s dream is shared by most of us, the dream that sometime someone somewhere will recognize our latent genius and honor it appropriately.
Grand is one of the solid anchors of the “sanitary teams” organized by Dr. Rieux and others, groups of volunteers who do whatever is necessary—removing dead bodies, comforting those left behind, struggling with bureaucracy—as the plague runs unchecked for weeks, then months. Then it unaccountably begins to subside, fewer persons die each day. But Rieux notices that he has not seen Grand for a day or two. He finds Grand in bed at home with a raging fever and swollen glands, the clear early signs of plague. In yet another absurd twist of fate, a man who has exposed himself freely and willingly to contamination for months with apparent immunity is infected with the plague just when it seemed that it the disease was finished. Rieux is crushed but administers to Grand in the same way that he has hundreds of others. In a weak and raspy voice, Grand says “If I pull through Doctor—hats off!”
Sometimes mere survival is more worthy of praise and admiration than any other accomplishment. As it turns out, Grand does survive to the end of the novel—a small and rare piece of mercy in Camus’ relentless tale. But in a story both infused with agnosticism and largely lacking in hope—much like the world we live in—Grand strikes me as an embodiment of the prophet Micah’s simple explanation of what the divine expects of us: Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God. As I explored last week,
George Eliot’s Dorothea Brooke also embodies such a life, as described in the final lines of Middlemarch:
The effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.
Hats off to the Grands, to the Dorotheas, and to all who live lives of justice, mercy, and humility under the radar. As my good friend and colleague Christopher would say, “That’s genius.”