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November 19, 2008

New Faculty Books: The Duality of Genius by Sir Basil Markesinis

Cover of the book, The Duality of Genius

Sir Basil Markesinis, holder of the Jamail Regents Chair at the Law School, Fellow of the British Academy, and Corresponding Fellow of the Academies of France, Rome, Athens, Belgium, and the Netherlands, has published his latest book, The Duality of Genius (Jan Sramek Verlag, 2008). The book is a wide-ranging and erudite examination of prominent thinkers, artists, and other great achievers and the “shades, blemishes, and vices” of their lives.

The book examines the lives and works of a diverse and compelling group—French diplomat and statesman Charles Maurice Talleyrand; painter Jacques-Louis David; baroque sculptor Gianlorenzo Bernini; composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; poet and writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe; jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes; Byzantine philosopher and politician Michael Psellos; and industrialist and art collector Henry Clay Frick—elucidating the beauty and importance of their work in the light of their struggles, troubled backgrounds, immoral behavior, and even crimes.

Sir Basil’s purpose is not to mine the lives of the great for scandal, gossip, or sensationalism, but to reveal the messy human complexity that exists in the lives of even the most exalted. He convincingly suggests that previous biographers have, for a variety of reasons, chosen to play down how this “darker side” is reflected in the work of his subjects, whether out of deliberate concealment, carelessness, or a misguided belief that it is not important to understanding their work. But rather than sully their work, Sir Basil suggests that learning about some of the more unpleasant aspects of these figures—their failures, self-deceptions, and frailties—instead brings us closer to them and to their work and helps us to see them as more fully human, more like us, and thus opens a new window into their work.

Sir Basil examines the way Mozart’s bawdy, perverse correspondence is sublimated into the strong, modern, and inspiring female characters of his operas, showing the composer to be well ahead of his time. Bernini’s religious fervor is shown as partner to the sculptor’s fiery temper and sexuality, which led him to sin and even commit crimes while becoming the greatest artist of the baroque. Goethe’s probable bisexuality is shown to be of a piece with his literary examination of the contradictory desires of the human soul. In the works and lives of all those he examines, Sir Basil shows that the surprising paradoxes of great works are often mirrored in the lives of their creators—and in us, which is why we respond to them so strongly.

The Duality of Genius draws on the work of historians, biographers, art historians, psychiatrists, and other scholars, and Sir Basil’s legal training is evident in the way he sorts through these many sources and perspectives to form a series of coherent portraits. Always, the accounts are informed by the author’s humanism and artistic sensitivity. The book is erudite, but accessible to the general educated reader and, indeed should appeal to anyone interested in history, art, and biography. It follows another book on art and law written by Sir Basil, Good and Evil in Art and Law, which serves as the basis of a very successful two-credit course he teaches at the Law School.

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Professor Basil Markesinis