at player colette robert mentioned to me a few weeks ago that she had been reading about genius--about how today we consider genius to be a constant state (i.e. a person is a genius), but how before (you know, back in the day) genius functioned much like our modern concept of inspiration--a person was visited by genius. as such there was less pressure for a person/artist to continually demonstrate his/her genius, because it was understood that it was outside of a person's realm of control.
i stumbled upon a similar notion while reading joan acocella's twenty-eight artists and two saints. in her essay entitled "blocked", which was originally published in the new yorker in 2004, acocella takes as her subject writer's block, which to me seems a not so distant cousin (topically at least) of genius.
"writer's block is a modern notion. writers have probably suffered over their work ever since they first started signing it, but it was not until the early nineteenth century that creative inhibition became an actual issue in literature, something people took into account when they talked about the art.
that was partly because, around this time, the conception of the art changed. before, writers regarded what they did as a rational, purposeful activity, which they controlled.
by contrast, the early romantics came to see poetry as something externally, and magically conferred. In shelley's words, "a man cannot say, 'i will compose poetry.'" poetry was the product of "some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind," which more or less blew the material into the poet, and he just had to wait for this to happen."
i find it interesting that writer's block and genius had almost completely opposite geneses.
writer's block (negative) became a recognized human condition, when writers ceased to believe that what they were doing was rational, that it had a purpose... while genius, which began as a kind of unexplainable phenomenon, became an identifiable human state.
i don't know about you, but doesn't that seem sort of... backwards?