Being brilliant

Watched a great show on the ABC the other night. Brilliant Creatures was a doco on the great Australian expats of the 1960’s – Clive James, Barry Humphries, Germaine Greer, and Robert Hughes. All but Hughes are still going around, but are getting on, and James is terminally ill.

These are a bunch of clever people who have left a deep impression upon the world. Hughes was one of the best art critics ever, and a fine writer. Greer was a seminal, if not the seminal figure in the feminist movement. Barry Humphries is a comic genius. And James is a wonderful avuncular character whose geniality hides his diverse brilliance – writer, TV commentator, essayist and poet.

This was a fond program looking back over the journey of the last 50 years, hosted by Howard Jacobsen, the Booker prizewinner. This was a great generation of Aussies, and these great figures in the Australian culture, shared with the world. That’s my view, but not everyone agrees. There remain many who see their expatriation as an insult to the land of their birth, despite the fact that all are deeply informed by their native culture, and each in their way are very Australian (which Jacobsen refers to as being integral to their appeal), and all retain a very strong relationship with Australia. You can go away it seems, but you can’t leave.

I know their stories well. I’m a great admirer of James, and Barry Humphries is part of the furniture. Hughes was occasionally a curmudgeonly character, but a soaring intellect and with passions that overlapped mine – I met him once years ago at a Republican party meeting in Melbourne. Even Greer, often a pain in the arse, is impossible not to know. The history was fascinating, but not news.

All the same I found myself deeply moved. As a patriotic Australian I was thrilled that we gave birth to such people, and sad that the supply of such people seems to have dried up. There are dark days in Oz right now, and I reckon that sort of self-belief is officially frowned upon now. All the same I wondered if they were a unique product of their time – post-war Australia – and if the long journey by sea from Australia to England, where they landed, was something that can no longer be replicated. These days you can be there in 24 hours, back then it took real commitment, and a journey of weeks in which they marinated in their own ambitions.

As much as I was moved I felt also motivated. These genuinely are brilliant creatures. I felt inspired by their unashamed ambition to expand beyond their boundaries. It may not have come all at once, but they believed in themselves and in so doing expressed every corner of what they were. They blossomed and became the brilliant virtuosos we laud today.

It was the nature of brilliance that curled in me. Brilliance is something that now seems frowned upon. Perhaps it ever was. Today there’s too much risk of being called a clever wanker. Or else thought arrogant, or ‘up yourself’. There’s the perception that you must be a tosser when you think you can be more, or have something more to offer. It annoys people as if it is a direct affront upon their more modest ideas and ambitions.

I’m reluctant to write this for fear of being called a clever wanker myself, but…I’ve experienced that myself. I’m certainly not comparing myself to that lot, but for as long as I remember I’ve aspired to being more. For the most part I’ve not been sure what ‘more’ represented. I knew I want to live deeply and fully, wanted to experience the full range of possibilities in so doing feel it enrich me. I didn’t want to hide my light, I wanted to shine brightly, and why not? It seemed a natural desire given how my head is so often full of ideas. There’s been a sense sometimes of being near full to bursting, my mind fertile and abundant and hungry. That mental energy manifests itself in so many ways, and while it occasionally produces garbage, sometimes it creates something worthwhile. Regardless, that’s who I’ve wanted to be. I’ve wanted to be the person in which that abundance of mental activity actually meant something. I wanted to loosed from my shackles.

I’m less affected than most by adverse comment. I don’t really care much what most people think. In actual fact it often acts as a spur. Still, what I realised the other night is because of the prevailing culture much of these aspects are driven underground. I want to be brilliant, but am wary of showing it. I bite my tongue because that is not the conversation, and revealed is but a fraction of what I am.

I’m not saying I’m brilliant – I cannot be in this condition – but I’ve always felt the capability. I think I am of the brilliant personality type, if it is to mean someone capable of unexpected insight, or moments of unearthly clarity (these are things different from hard earned intelligence). I’ve always believed in the concept of brilliance.  At critical moments I would tell myself, “be brilliant H”, and believed that I would too. In patches I knew the exhiliration of knowing or figuring out things or gaining an insight that no-one else can. There’s a sense of surprise – often at how simple it was, and is sort of thrilling, and seemingly magic in a savant-like way. Sometimes you know things without knowing why. I’ve had those moments when people have stepped back and looked at me as if seeing me in a new way.

That’s a type of brilliance, shiny and unexpected, but it is not the truer form of brilliance, which is hard worked and the result of following through with purpose. That’s the sort of brilliance these people have become known for – capable of the blinding insight, but using as the starting point of a substantial and lifelong body of work.

Brilliance though takes faith. The faith to be brilliant, and unashamedly so. The faith to believe in what you know or have is regardless of opposition. Watching this program Tuesday I felt for all the kids out there who might be brilliant in themselves but never grow up to be that person – because that is the world today.

Brilliance makes the world a better place. It enriches those of us who witness it. It asks questions that need to be asked. It drives society forward because it reaches beyond the accepted limits. Brilliance is a good thing, not bad, and we should not be afraid of it.

After the program finished I felt so roused I just wanted to take to the dark streets and contemplate all that was buzzing in my head. This is about all that you can be, and why should you be anything less?



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