What Genius and Anxiety is about

What Genius and Anxiety is about


norman lebrecht

October 10, 2019

The UK edition of my new book is published today.

Here’s what it’s about – in one minute.




  • Nijinsky says:

    I actually remember the beginning of it all. Maybe before we were given a name. Despite what people make of time. From wherever they came, those thousands of years ago, the caravan: like gypsies would become. I just got up one frisk morning and left. As memory goes, because he was environed with it, by some time warp, one man was there dutifully playing on a shahme: He’s now a Catholic priest who wouldn’t believe when a feather was moved by more than the wind could have (or anything “finite”) and perched in a bush, (a feather! What are they supposed to do just lay there) a feather like Elijah’s wheel. I had just gotten the beginning of Emily’s poem in the mail (Hope is the thing with feather, that perches in the soul https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/%22Hope%22_is_the_thing_with_feathers_%E2%80%94 ), I had gotten it from Save the Children (a card, a simple card they gave out for those who cared), whose energy I could feel crystallized good intentions. “Feathers in the dirt creep sideways,” I had written for some reason as a phrase (who knows why when it doesn’t matter), and seeing a feather laying there in the dirt, having read such things might have mites I didn’t pick it up, at least not with my hands or fingers, but I kicked it into action, had set it in motion. It twirled up in the air, and then anyone not hampered by sanity could see the action of God on it, as it twirled madly back down and perched in a bush (the soul, Elijah’s space ship, the burning bush where someone that was being cornered again, pointed out it’s so far in Heaven there’s no need for marriage there, since there’s no illusion of separation anymore). It was so happy, I tried to share it, what it had done. A wild fling. But no, the Catholic priest that wouldn’t believe it, back then that had played the shahme, https://www.biblicalcyclopedia.com/S/shawm.html , the instrument was another thing that enticed me to run away from home with them, that became the Jews. Along the way (not in the church: along the way). In an area having “something” to do with those “churches,” and “time,” I also popped into a donut shop to find right where the whole architecture of certain harmony: the place where the right side of the left thumb’s tip balances on the piano keyboard, that there was a drop of something so beautiful and red, I could see the whole Universe and the love that transcended it (its time, its space) there, by encompassing it (the Universe: One-Song), right in that spot, and then I knew, it was a drop of Jesus blood (also Jewish) http://www.mysticsofthechurch.com/2018/09/jesus-blood-type.html . I still have that, but they wouldn’t believe that much either.

    JUST a drop, not a deadly wound. You know, like blood brothers?

    Feathers come in handy…

    All of us were different, not at all normal.

    It’s like trying to convince whoever of something and all they say is that you’re a dreamer, and they think it’s unrealistic.

    Play close attention to the harp and the color red, someone once named Anna had….

    “If even you can make any sense out of it,” the stupid medium had remarked about it.

    Crazy enough?


  • Myrtar says:

    What about all the other people who, during the same period, changed the world and weren’t Jews? Could it be that people’s achievements have nothing to do with their religion? Just a thought.

    • CA says:

      Perhaps this is just book one. Or, perhaps, he has a right to write on any subject he desires.

    • Kyle says:

      Myrtar, I think it could be that people’s achievements have [very little] to do with their religion. However, I don’t think the same argument holds up in regard to people’s cultural milieu. Jewish culture has certainly played a significant role in world history.

    • bb Ray says:

      You may be correct. I think that to a point, you are, but this book is clearly asking this question that includes religion at the moment. These people were not just Jewish, they were living in times that were extremely tough to be a Jew and maybe that is part of the story too. It would have been enough to survive and exist, but somehow they changed the world.
      In the meantime, why not reel off a bunch of non Jewish names that immediately spring to mind/are in most people’s semi immediate psyche and add them in here to provide your point.

  • John Borstlap says:

    A very interesting subject, not only for ‘Jews’, but for the light it throws upon society and its instinctive collective processes. It seems to me that people, taking on one hand full part in society but on the other hand, always meet – overtly or covertly – rejection, are forced to have, in their mind, some distance towards ‘normal’, conventional thinking: they feel standing somewhat apart from the ‘crowd’ and this position inspires independent thinking, which can lead to seeing things in a different light and thus, can lead to discoveries and explorations which are not so obvious for the more conventional, conformist mind. Add to that the opportunities for ‘making it in life’ in fields which are less ethnically defined like science and culture, and it is clear that Jews turned a social disadvantage into a professional advantage.

    From this it follows that there have been also very independent minds in science and culture which happen to be not Jewish at all but achieved comparable things, like Jung, Debussy, Niels Bohr, R Strauss, Gide, Picasso, Stravinsky, Valery, Mallarmé, etc. The crucial factor seems to me the independence of mind, not cultural or ethnic background as such.

    Leon Botstein has already explored such process in his description of Wagnerism in Vienna around 1900 which – ironically – was endemic among Jewish middle-class communities, because such cultural modernity offered the opportunity to show that one, as a ‘Jew’, had left ‘Jewishness’ behind and was thus ‘fully integrated’. At the time, Jewishness was seen as a cultural or mental condition, not so much as an ethnic fact.

    There may be many different reasons why people meet rejection in society, one may be ‘Jewishness’ but other reasons may be an already inborn independence of mind, the ‘chicken-and-egg’ problem. Conventional people fear the one person saying ‘no’ to the group, because that may threaten the ‘safe’ condition of group thinking. Hence the usual instinctive reaction of scapegoating.

    Inventing the atomic bomb however, cannot possibly be counted as an achievement contributing to society or civilisation.

    • Petros Linardos says:

      Side note: J R Oppenheimer did not “invent” or “create” the atomic bomb. He was the director of the Los Alamos Alamos laboratory, part of the Manhattan Project, where the first atomic bombs were designed and created. This a collective effort by top US based physicists. Oppenheimer’s work was critical, and required a very rare combination of intellectual and leadership qualities. To call Oppenheimer a genius may not be an overstatement, but he was not an inventor or creator.

      • John Borstlap says:

        OK, so the responsibility of devising one of the most contemptable evils of humanity was spread over more than one mind. May they all burn in a radioactive hell.

        • Bruce says:

          Actually there’s a book I’ve been meaning to read called “The Making of the Atomic Bomb” by Richard Rhodes. Apparently it’s the story — or at least this is what stood out to my sister, who recommended it — of how all the scientists who eventually developed the atomic bomb were chased or driven from their homes in Europe and had to come to the US for reasons of survival. (They weren’t all Jews, I guess, but they were all trying to escape the Nazis.) (Also, surely the US had an eye on some of them, as in “we could use that guy in our research program,” but again the Nazis were the ones who made sure that America’s invitations would be accepted.)

          Again, I haven’t read the book; this is just what I’ve been told about it. My “books to read” list piles up faster than I can read. But this discussion, as well as your comment, makes me want to get to it sooner rather than later.

        • Tamino says:

          It’s a bit more complicated than that. Arguably the bomb gave us the longest and most prosperous time of peace on this planet. Because of it making direct war impossible without self extinction. It’s the dialectics of the doomsday bomb.

          • John Borstlap says:

            So, what does that tell us about humanity? That prehistoric destructive instincts have not as yet been overcome in terms of majorities, and have been helped by ‘morally-neutral’ technology.

          • John Borstlap says:


            If not fully understood: the Bomb has been specially designed to burn in one moment entire populated cities, with thousands of entirely innocent people, including children, etc., which has no single military justification: it is pure evil. The absence of war cannot be considered a ‘peace’ if it is only more or less ‘secured’ by the threat of total annihilation. Such ‘peace’ is evidently demonstrating a total defeat of ethics and common sense. It is stone age primitivism with the means of modern technology, helped by dedicated scientists.

      • JamesM says:

        Greatly involved with Oppenheimer was Dr. Lewis Slotin, a Canadian who lost his life through radiation poisoning. Also Jewish.

    • From this it follows that there have been also very independent minds in science and culture which happen to be not Jewish at all but achieved comparable things, like Jung, Debussy, Niels Bohr, R Strauss, Gide, Picasso, Stravinsky, Valery, Mallarmé, etc

      And of course the great Nazi VII rocket developer Wehrner von Braun, who later became a great American contributor to the race to reach outerspace, closely befriended by JFK

  • Esther Cavett says:

    ==The crucial factor seems to me the independence of mind, not cultural or ethnic background as such.

    Yes, well said. And I feel that in terms of musical quality both Berg and Webern were streets ahead of their old teacher Schoenberg

    • John Borstlap says:

      Michael Haas has suggested that antisemitism may have stimulated Mahler’s and Schoenberg’s explorations away from the classical tradition: if it is never good enough when you write in the classical tradition because of being Jewish, why bother? So maybe they felt more free to go beyond the usual boundaries.

      • Alphonse says:

        What a load of hogwash, Borstlap.

      • Saxon Broken says:

        Mendelssohn would be the key counter-example (someone with a genuine talent for making friends). But then he had a very different personality to either Mahler of Schoenberg. It is more than his Jewishness that caused Mahler to antagonize people.

        • John Borstlap says:

          That seems obvious to me. Probably it was his authoritarian way of dealing with players that invited antisemitism, against which he defended himself with authoritarian behavior.

  • Gustavo says:


  • pageturner says:

    Thanks Norman, this looks like a very interesting volume. I look forward to reading it. Are you promoting it / reading from / discussing it at any events soon?

  • Petros Linardos says:

    Mr. Lebrecht, good luck with your book. Whether we agree or not with your reasoning, it seems very thought provoking – and that’s a more important quality.

    I can’t resist this request: can you please spell out how you pronounce the second syllable of your last name?

    • Bruce says:

      He says his name at the beginning of the video.

      In case you can’t play it, he pronounces the “ch” soft, like an “sh” in English. The second syllable is like “brushed,” but with the U changed to a short E (as in egg).

  • Esther Cavett says:

    Let’s have a reality check here

    Mozart was greater than Mendelssohn
    Shakespeare was greater than Kafka
    And Thomas Edison did more for the world than Einstein with his dumb-ass formula which brought about atomic power

    • John Borstlap says:

      I also think that bananas are better than strawberries and that planes are better for fast travelling than cars.

      Value assessments cannot be effectively made without context.