Origins and Birth
Edited by Dorottya Ágoston
The Search for Genius
‘The works and genius of André Aciman’
The world became familiar with André Aciman when Call me by Your Name made the news for its thorough, sensual and profound impact. Since then, hearing Aciman’s name elicits great joys amongst many, myself included. As a contemporary writer of fiction and non-fiction, Aciman is an academic who adores Marcel Proust, constantly exploring his identity, almost like a strict, opinionated psychologist. Diving into his Jewish and multi-cultural origins through various works, namely Out of Egypt or Harvard Square, Aciman combines fiction with memory and truth. His characters fit into the topos of the misunderstood intellectual who is lost in the maze of feelings and thoughts, inherently attached, yet detached from the world. Indeed, it is my belief that he is exploring his own self through his diverse, yet similarly constructed characters, circling around the underlying subject of the genius type. Whether he himself is conscious of his genius remains a mystery, though based on his constant self-doubt and self-inflicted criticism, I feel inclined to believe he is not. Therefore, while genius is a matter of subjectivity, I aim to show the reader to the best of my abilities, in what ways Aciman may most definitely be an imaginative, innovative and ingenious human being.
To be perfectly transparent, my relationship with contemporary literature is complex and usually leans towards a sentiment of dislike. Indeed, classical works seem to be so much more complex, deep and (r)evolutionary for me. However, to me, Aciman is an exception from this sentiment, if not the exception. His explorations and understandings of human nature give us a palpable, yet inherently abstract view of what the inner world of a human may look like. He aims to explore earthly life through the timeless search for God, or a higher entity that may explain our existence. Though we understand through his writing, that he either never actually wishes to reach this ideal, or that he doesn’t in fact consider it a reachable goal, rather, one that is possibly understandable to humans only in the afterlife. Indeed, one is inevitably provoked into the act of thinking through the beauty in his words’ truths: “Nature has cunning ways of finding our weakest spot” (Aciman, 2007, p. 156), and “So I waited. Then I got used to waiting. Eventually, waiting was more real than what we had.” (Aciman, 2017)
His references and resources – the greatest and the nichest of philosophers, artists and thinkers – have a way of inserting themselves within his paragraphs as visitors of a most illustrious kind; within two pages in Harvard Square, he mentions “Fellini, Renoir, and Visconti” in the context of courtship, while wooing a woman himself , to be followed by La Princesse de Clèves, Chaucer and Saint Augustine (Aciman, 2013, p. 138-139), two highbrows in love talking of their future plans, as you would. But it is his style that is most alluring: he writes with both certainty and uncertainty, belief and disbelief, faith and the greatest doubts, and the inherent presence of what I like to call “factual mystery.” What I mean by factual mystery is the way Aciman gives a historical fact, something that happened to his family or a fictional character, or a community, the reader urged to believe him with such undeniable certainty! Not because it is necessarily true, but because there’s always the intrinsic presence of a ‘there’s more’, or a ‘there is something he is not telling us and therefore he must know something important we don’t, but that we couldn’t possibly understand’. Take this as an example, Aciman talking about his deaf mother in Out of Egypt: “She could sniff out guile with the cunning of a fox, but she could not about the snares of sophistry. Arguments turned against her, because she knew how to shout, not how to argue, because, in the kingdom of words, she would always remain a stranger.” (Aciman, 1994, p. 141) Through these words, Aciman hints at frustration, conflict, and even the potential unhappiness of his mother, one that we don’t actually explicitly read about in the book, but one that is always implied. In fact, doesn’t mystery provoke the greatest desires in mankind? Isn’t mystery the impression that fuels our greatest curiosity? Isn’t it precisely the mystery of our existence that makes us want the answers to it?
Indeed, I believe Aciman’s genius lies in his ability to provoke both curiosity and understanding within us. At the same time as we question his own inquiries, we also already know and understand the answers to them: “form is the imposition of design. In the absence of God, in the absence of identity, in the absence of love, even, is design— perhaps even the illusion of design.” (Aciman, 2021, p. 112) Therefore, Aciman is not just a writer, but a philosopher too. Yet again, we are faced with another dilemma: for indeed, he doesn’t assure (us) a lot. He doesn’t say much, he refuses to answer his own questions. Sometimes, it is because he cannot and often because it appears he is afraid of the answers himself. Or maybe he merely wants each of us to ponder and answer them ourselves. Perhaps it is all of these things.
However, I wish to argue that more often than not, his questions are the answers themselves. In my opinion, the philosopher in Aciman understands that posing the right questions is more important than having the answers. With questions, one may inquire further. With answers, one indubitably comes to a halt, even if it isn’t completely final: “Is it better to speak or to die?” (Aciman, 2007) asks Elio’s mother famously in Call me by Your Name. Indeed, getting what we want is more final than always reaching towards the future, which is precisely what Aciman does. He never settles in the now. He goes back to the past, trying to understand his present, but always and inevitably ends up in the future, even if it is near.
Why? I strongly believe it is because uncertainty is surer than certainty. It gives you hope, faith, it never lets you down, for it is not real. Strongly connected to fantasies, the future is more assured than the present. The present is certainty. It is sure and unchangeable, constant. It gives you nothing but the sheer, harsh honesty of your reality, whereby you have to face everything, however uncouth it may be, but especially yourself. And this latter is perhaps the scariest experience for anyone, anywhere. In my view, Aciman finds this duller than he cares to admit. What makes it more alluring to him is his own mind, his own world, wherein he can get lost. His books and writings are an ideal result of his search for that ‘something more’, something special in the present, through reaching in the future and thereby half-avoiding his reality. For indeed, while living in it, he is constantly attempting to better it through harmless ignorance and illusions. So the question inevitably arises: is it only Aciman who is doing this, or is this willful ignorance one that we all share as humans?
If Aciman is a genius because he is consciously and conveniently avoiding his present, then aren’t we all? People so often and so carelessly live their days without really being there. Mankind has found great advances in trying to mitigate this phenomena (a strong contender being spirituality or in fact religion). But in this way, it is too easy for us to ignore Aciman’s reality only to claim him different, when truly and inherently, we are all going through the same human experience. Thus, to contradict myself briefly, we may infer that Aciman is not a genius: he simply has a special talent at expressing humanity’s great questions, experiences and sufferings in a way that touches us all. Not because the words are special, but because the experiences and sentiments are universal. Aciman manages to unite us all through his writing, effortlessly drawing us in, creating and coloring a world that appears to be more than it is and is more than it appears. Undeniably, even if we didn’t wonder about the big questions of humanity’s origins, after reading Aciman, we cannot ignore their pertinence, nor their urgency. Take this quote, as a meaningful observation about the great mystery of time: “Because no matter how crafty the ancient grammarians, we still don’t know how to think of time.” (Aciman, 2021) However, for my own peace of mind and faith in humanity —one that falters every once in a while— I wish to return to my initial argument, that of Aciman’s genius. For indeed, believing that there are special people in the world, people that have a mission other than fulfilling their own desires to instead help advance humanity, gives me hope that there is hope in humanity after all.
Hence, in the end, does Aciman’s genius lie in his own uncertainty and vision of the world? Is he as lost as we all are? And if he is, then does his greatest tragedy of not finding his place in the world (and thereby not finding peace), give the world his greatest gift? Is the tragedy of the genius type his own unhappiness in favor of that of others? And if yes, is that at all fair? Who chose him and why is he the one who was chosen? What karma is he repaying?
Inevitably, we may infer that in the end, this is all but a vicious circle. For it is through his writing that he wills to become less lonely, more alike with people, by positing himself in different worlds of uncertainty and into his irrealis mood. However, he thereby also strengthens his genius, which is also his source of loneliness. Aciman is therefore here and yet not; he is also there, though not entirely. He is between worlds and between people and between two ends of a spectrum he is invariably represented by. He is on one end, desiring to be on the other. Therefore, instead of becoming less lonely and finding himself and his source, he virtually strengthens his loneliness and provides himself with a tool that both weakens and strengthens his in-between state: writing about his origins, he inevitably ends up writing about life and about death. He is his own worst enemy without being conscious of it, or at least, without appearing as though trying to change it, which may be part of the genius blessing/curse. Therefore, to honor Aciman with a mise en abyme, the following questions become pertinent: was genius given to him or did he take it himself? Did he take it because he wanted to be less lonely and misunderstood or was he born a genius, thereby also born lonely and essentially, inevitably, intrinsically misunderstood? Is genius nothing more, but the sacrifice of one’s own happiness and the opportunity for a happy life in order to gift humanity something?
So where does genius come from? Is it assigned before birth, at birth or after birth? And if before birth, then who decides? Who is so cruel and yet so kind, as to curse an individual’s life, only to bless the lives of others? This spectrum of two radical ends, one being the state of genius and the other that of a full life, coincides with the idea that stupid and ignorant people live a more happy life, whereas smart people often don’t. So is ignorance truly bliss? And if it is, then what must a genius feel like? If average people feel lonely and misunderstood, then what do the geniuses feel? Do they realize their misfortune or are they so bound by their own mind and endeavors, that they fail to truly be conscious of the curse that has befallen onto them?
In the end, Aciman’s constant state of being, based on his tales, is the irrealis mood. And if it indeed is, then Aciman exists in a world that is neither reality, nor its opposite. He is between the material and the spiritual, between the present, the past and the future, but in neither entirely. Attempting to understand Aciman’s genius is a prolonged process of pertinent inquiries into the deepest corners of the mind and the heart. Aciman’s origins are humanity’s origins. Through desiring to understand himself, he is actually making us wonder about our own origins; by making us feel all connected, he not only reunites a community, but most faithfully, he reunites humanity by probing into its depths, fears and passions. In the end, we all seem to wonder about “the might-have-been that never happened but isn’t unreal for not happening and might still happen, though we fear it never will and sometimes wish it won’t happen or not quite yet.” (Aciman, 2021, p. 238)
Aciman, A. (2007), Call me By Your Name. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Aciman, A. (2017), Enigma Variations. London: Faber and Faber.
Aciman, A. (2013), Harvard Square. New York: W. W. Norton and Company.
Aciman, A. (2021), Homo Irrealis. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Aciman, A. (1994), Out of Egypt. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.