Been reading the 1968 book Camp Concentration by Tomash M. Disch and have been enjoying it very much, more, in truth, than I expected to. It sat in my to-read pile for a long while before I actually got up the interest to crack it open. Perhaps it was the ‘72 cover illustration? The cracked spine? I don’t know. In any case, having never heard of Disch, I figured perhaps you had not either, and thought I’d share a few paragraphs to get you acquainted. The following is a snippet from a conversation between the protagonist, Louis Sacchetti (a poet, and conscientious objector to some conflict or other who has been sent, as an objective chronicler, to a military instillation where patients are injected with a modified strain of syphilis which makes them brilliant before eating away their brain and killing them) and Dr. Aimee Busk (an icey doctor at said military instillation.) Hope you enjoy.


“It is all a question, finally, of the nature of genius. The best explanation of genius that I know, the one that incorporates most of the facts we have, is Koestler’s — that the act of genius is simply the bringing together of two hitherto distinct spheres of reference, or matrices — a talent for juxtapositions. Archimedes’ bath is a small instance. Till him no one had associated measurements of mass with the commonplace observation of water displacement. The question is, for a modern investigator, what actually takes place in the brain at the moment that an Archimedes says, ‘Eureka!’ It seems clear, now, that it is a sort of breakdown — literally, the mind disintegrates, and the old, distinct categories are for a little while fluid and capable of re-formation.”

“But it’s just that,” I objected, “the re-formation of the disrupted categories, in which the act of genius consists. It’s not the breakdown that counts, but the new juxtapositions that follow. Madmen can break down just as spectacularly as geniuses.”

Dr. Busk smiled, enigmatic in her veil of cigarette smoke. “Perhaps that thin line that is said to separate genius from madness is only fortuitous. Perhaps the madman simply has the bad luck of being wrong. But your point is taken, and I can reply to it. You would suggest, I take it, that genius is only one per cent inspiration, that the process of preparing for the moment when the ‘Eureka!’ comes is what is crucial in the formation of genius. In short, his education, by which he becomes acquainted with reality.

“But doesn’t that just beg the question? Education, memory itself, is but the recapitulation of all the moments of genius in that culture. Education is always breaking down old categories and recombining them in better ways. And who has a better memory, strictly speaking, than the catatonic who resurrects some part of the past in all its completeness, annihilating the present moment utterly? I might go so far as to say that thought itself is a disease of the brain, a degenerative condition of matter.

“Why, if genius were a continuous process, instead of what it is — a fluke — it would be of no value to us whatsoever! Geniuses in a field like mathematics are usually played out by thirty, at the very latest. The mind defends itself against the disintegrative process of creativity. It begins to jell, notions solidify into inalterable systems, which simply refuse to be broken down and re-formed. Consider Owens, the great anatomist of the Victorian age, who simply wouldn’t understand Darwin. It’s self-preservation, pure and simple.

“And then think of what happens if genius doesn’t reign itself in but insists on plunging on ahead into the chaos of freest association. I’m thinking of that hero of you literateurs, James Joyce. I know any number of psychiatrists who could, in good conscience, have accepted Finnegan Wakes [sic] as the very imprimatur of madness and had its author hospitalized on its evidence alone. A genius? Oh yes. But all we common people have the common sense to realize that genius, like the clap, is a social disease, and we take action accordingly. We put all our geniuses in one kind or another of isolation ward, to escape being infected.”

-Thomas M. Disch, Camp Concentration, pg.62-64. 1968.


In related linkage How Stuff Works takes on (in less verbose and dramatic form) the subject of how genius works.

09.10. filed under: books. ideas. 3