clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The misery of genius: Kanye, Serena, and the curse of greatness

Both in terms of sheer dominance and otherworldly self-absorption, there aren't many humans alive who can keep up with Serena Williams. Kanye West is the one who comes closest, which is less strange than it sounds.


The closest most of us will get is a few moments at the edge of the full-body grace in which genius athletes exist when they're at work and at their best.

This can be a brief and blissful portion of a pick-up game in which things go spacious and slow, and shots rise and fall. It could be a fleeting chilly calm of still and absolute certainty that visits you in a batter's box, or on a soccer field or tennis court or golf course or even with a video game controller in your hand.

It doesn't need to have anything to do with sports, and the feeling itself doesn't really have anything to do with sports — you can get this feeling playing music, or in conversation and maybe even at work or anywhere you suddenly find yourself being simply and inexplicably awesome.

Sports is where we see this sort of thing most frequently and maybe most appealingly, though. It looks like otherworldly force when we see it: all that moving through and floating above and violence judiciously exerted. But in those moments when we get to feel it ourselves, it feels mostly like command, a sort of dreamlike control: we leave ourselves, or the heavier things in us vanish for a moment and we're alight.

A little bit of this will get you high as hell, but it's good for you. Those of us with jobs and limitations and workaday stressors don't get to feel like this very often; it's nice to be reminded that there is something transcendent in us, even if it just came out for a few seconds on a basketball court.

But it's good, too — if invariably a little bit of a comedown — to return to ourselves. It would be exhausting and addictive and corrosive to feel so close to perfect all the time, if only because we're not built to be perfect or even all that close to it. We get to touch it, but we don't get to keep it.

To believe that you belong in that state of ungovernable, unceilinged grace — every utterance a blameless little transcendence, every movement beautiful and true — is to make yourself into sort of a monster and sort of a joke. You wind up smug and strange and somehow off, a little pouting god imperiously issuing non-apologies for what you can't quite believe are mistakes. You wind up weird, in other words, and not necessarily happy.

You wind up like Serena Williams, or Kanye West.


Which is maybe an overdramatic way of putting this. It might be simpler to say that most of us will never quite understand the thing that Serena Williams and Kanye and very few others walk around in, and with. We know how it makes them act, and it looks sort of silly: the 24/7 sunglasses and high-definition grandiosity and oddly prickly self-confidence, the outsized lordliness and restless peevish grievance-farming.

We know a little bit about where it comes from, too, or can guess at it. My guess would be that it's not just the result of being built differently and being more generously gifted than other people, but instead a complicated, compound thing that's a result of both that basic superhuman difference and a powerful awareness of that difference. Both have all that and nothing but a human mind and human insecurities to bring to bear in making sense of it. Both also have the alienating circumstances of having an implausible, unspendable amount of money and a great deal of attention over an extended period of time. These are all guesses.

They're guesses because it's effectively impossible to know what it's like to be Serena Williams or Kanye West. This is despite the fact that both of them have recently been the subject of extended print profiles — Williams in a long profile in Rolling Stone, West in a furious interview with Jon Caramanica of the New York Times — and despite the fact that both only really seem engaged when talking about themselves, and do so often.

Kanye, for his part, just made a raging, fascinating and ultimately kind of claustrophobic album that, for all its various themes — mad-faced porn-y revenge sex and luxury goods, mostly, but also race and bias and power — finally just winds up reflecting Kanye's own creative process, a search-and-destroy affair built around various deeply held grievances. If you find Kanye West entertaining, you will be entertained by how artfully he exorcises and obliterates. If you don't, you will have the sensation of being held hostage in a modern and extravagantly air-conditioned luxury mall by a very talented person who won't let you leave until he has 1) made certain that you know he doesn't give a f*** about a single thing and 2) identified all the ways in which he, personally, has been slighted and disrespected and misunderstood. And also the mall has no exits. Either way, it's difficult to mistake that the album's subject is itself, and that its creator's primary concern is himself.

By contrast, the profile of Serena Williams is comparatively sunny in its grandiosity. It's unsurprisingly a lot shorter on sexualized violence and ice-cold synthesizers and Bon Iver cameos, but it, too, finds a champion at the top of her game in an expansive and offhandedly foul mood. Williams inhabits a mostly un-furnished Florida mansion and trains with an oddly relatable grumpiness. She blithely tosses off judgment and shit-talk — about rape victims and their parents, for which Williams issued a qualified and ambiguous non-apology, and about her thoroughly overmatched rival Maria Sharapova — and generally evinces the heroic self-regard for which she's long been renowned. There's a decent amount of fuming at real or perceived affront here, too — why hasn't Serena been asked to host Saturday Night Live? — and if Serena's a little more circumspect or cheerful in addressing all that than Kanye is, that's also a pretty low standard. There is here, too, more hunger — for interpersonal beef, for dominance, for recognition of that dominance — than there is delight, or even comfort.

And that is fine! Neither Kanye nor Serena is under any obligation to be any way but the way they want to be. There's no rule dictating that geniuses need to smile more or be happier to be geniuses, and there shouldn't be. Both Kanye and Serena do their jobs in public, but neither has to do them for any of the people watching, or any reason of our choosing, or for any reason but the one they choose.

And there are also, for all their success and wealth and everything else, some bedrock truths, here: that their lives aren't easy, that notable black people are scrutinized and judged in a way that famous white people generally aren't, and that fame is very heavy and very bad for you. Yet there's something sad about seeing this towering greatness all narrowed and curdled and shrunk — all that work and so little joy in it, all those haters fumingly smashed and smashed and smashed by rote, all that wild genius disfigured and eroded by all that acidic pettiness.

That's their business, but here's genius we wouldn't really want for ourselves. What's so transporting about the moments in which we briefly experience greatness' automatic grace is the ease — the way that things suddenly unfold and brighten and take comprehensible shape, and how we can then move through things in a way we ordinarily can't.

And this transcendence is thrilling, this is about the best part of being alive, but it is also brief, just a glimpse of something very vast and strange. We should want more of it, but we shouldn't imagine that people with more access to it — people like Kanye and Serena, for whom genius is not an intermittent thing — are necessarily happier for it, or grateful for it.

It is an ocean, and we — you and me and Kanye and Serena — are just us. Think of the feeling of standing in the surf, past the break and out near where it gets deep, but with your feet still on the sand. There's that little cold curling under the surface that intimates what's out there, and how far out it goes, and how deep, and how powerful is the current that pulls out, away from everyone else and out towards something else we don't know much about either.