Before we call them genius, we call them strange.
For some individuals, their immediate environment is insufficient to supply them with the intangible things they desire. The conversations and ideas they wish to engage with are absent from the voices around them. While most of these few will conform to normalcy, the strange ones will pursue means by which they express these unspoken, often disruptive, parts of themselves.
In the poem “The Strongest of the Strange,” Charles Bukowski writes, “you won’t see them often/for wherever the crowd is/they/are not./those odd ones, not/many/but from them/come/the few/good paintings/the few/good symphonies/the few/good books/and other/works.” Bukowski never mentions the word “genius,” but rather, alludes to the artists whose art has transcended their time and place. I find it quite paradoxical that “those odd ones,” who are often separate from crowds in their lifetimes, are also the creators of the pieces that are later praised by millions. The strange create out of a necessity to express what is missing around them, but it turns out that once shared, the idea or emotion is often relatable to many.
In The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger mentions a similar concept of the “strange” and the generational passing down of knowledge. As the narrator and main character, Holden Caulfield falls deeper into the isolation of his mind; Mr. Antolini tells him, “Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles. You’ll learn from them — if you want to. Just as some day, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It’s a beautiful reciprocal arrangement. And it isn’t education. It’s history. It’s poetry.” It’s unclear if this advice gets through to Holden. For myself, Salinger’s words encapsulate a long-awaited feeling of validation. He assures us that we are not unique in our troubles, but instead part of a long history of individuals who have found a way to transform their discomfort into expression.
While Bukowski acknowledges the existence of the strange, Salinger tells of the community they form through art. The “records of their troubles” — writing, painting and music — form an invisible string of connection between the creators and the audience. Literature provides a haven for the ugly, unacceptable, disquieting ideas that people feel. Hidden between the lines of sprawling texts, crossing languages and time periods, people have found a place to disguise the unspeakable ideas that demand to be expressed.
What Salinger’s and Bukowski’s words have in common is the idea of creating some sort of “art” out of necessity. The strange are not creating for an audience’s approval, but to articulate a feeling or frustration that consumes them whole. And the “beautiful reciprocal arrangement” is exactly that, with readers finding their own fears in the words of others — one day, a small group of them will go on to write of their own troubles. It is a recycling of our human experience, in the hope that with each generation, something of value can be shared.
In “Self-Reliance,” Ralph Waldo Emerson writes, “In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts.” What we dismiss and never attempt to express are the same thoughts that the strange cannot let go of. When those thoughts are presented in a manner that resonates with the public, we deem them genius. But I wonder how many revolutionary works never made it into public view. How many were a few years or centuries too early or too late, and were forgotten as a result? How many of the strange never receive their golden title of “genius?”
Later on in Bukowski’s poem, he writes, “and from the/best of the/strange ones/perhaps/nothing./they are/their own/paintings/their/own/books/their own/music/their own/work.” Bukowski argues that the greatest artists do not need an audience to praise them; they themselves are enough. I find this idea so contrary to how we view genius or success in the modern day. At times, greatness appears to be measured by how many people we can convince to follow us. Yet, Bukowski tells of the artists who have found an internal peace; regardless of whether they create or share their art, the magnitude of their ideas never goes beyond themselves. The greatest works are never meant to be fully understood, for their creators have found fulfillment, and do not need an audience to tell them their art’s worth.
Bukowski ends the poem by reflecting upon his youth, writing, “facing dreaming/against the/walls of/the world/where/did I/go?” To fit into society, he shed the parts of himself that seemed too bold, too strange, for the world. For some, that is what is needed. But the artists who, “wherever the crowd is/they/are not,” who make works that reach beyond our rational minds and strike a hunger for us to know more, it is their rejection of ordinariness that allows them to express the ideas that most of us hold within. They accept that on the journey to genius, not all will make it past the title of “the Strange.”
Luke Dennis is a freshman in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected].