Into The Open

Into The Open:

Reflections on Genius and Modernity

Into the Open is a philosophical and literary inquiry into the deeper meanings of genius. What precisely do we mean when we describe someone this way? What legacy do we invoke when we apply this term?

To address this question, Benjamin Taylor here explores how three great minds—Walter Pater, Paul Valéry, and Sigmund Freud—viewed a figure widely considered the first great modern genius, Leonardo da Vinci. For each of these great thinkers, Da Vinci is of central importance because for each the received idea of genius has ceased to be a romantic certitude or sacred truth and has become a problem.

Invoking Nietzsche’s drastic critique of genius, Taylor assesses the less programmatic and more anxious cases of Pater, Valéry, and Freud. Whereas Nietzsche sought for and found an escape from romantic humanism, Pater, Valéry, and Freud cannot relinquish the idea of genius and serve as troubled witnesses to the dilemma posed by the notion of genius. A myth of genius has been our way of making good the losses romantic modernity entails, Taylor writes, A myth of genius has existed to affirm that, among human lives, some have sacramental shape; that, among human lives, some put into abeyance the equation between life and loss. Such is the post-theological, post-metaphysical role into which we have compelled our geniuses. They make for us one last claim on the sublime.

A shift away from the special pleading that has lately plagued literary studies, Taylor’s unfazed humanism reasserts the timeless standards of substantiveness, clarity, and grace.


“A marvelously suggestive, thought-provoking book, intensely learned and yet playful in its capacity to question its subjects’ and its own premises. The magnificent chapter on Freud, especially, is bracing for its engagement of the least hopeful hypotheses with equanimity and judiciousness. Into the Open is an intellectual adventure.”
—Phillip Lopate

“I thought the book most interesting. For a wild moment it suggested to me that the next great critical revolution might entail the practice of good writing, for this is a subtle and elegant essay, and as such a possible precursor as well as a throwback. The chapters on Valéry and on Freud are sensitive and excellent.”
—Sir Frank Kermode

“Not a manual for graduate students, but a vade mecum for grownups …. Susan Sontag, about whose fiction Mr. Taylor has written (not here) a lively and exemplary essay, assorts writers into husbands or lovers-husbands reliable, intelligent, decent, lovers possessed of (and prized for) gifts of temperament rather than moral goodness. The responsible critic in Mr. Taylor provides us with all kinds of post-marital evidence: bibliography, citation, high learning, yet the author of this essay (it is all one-his studies in genius melt into a single utterance) cannot for long deceive us: he is a lover, offering the seductive locutions which, in criticism, are nowadays so far to seek … .Taylor’s book is euphoric, a text of pleasure with a readerly perspective entirely its own, genial, amatory, convincing.”
—Richard Howard