Is Brilliance Inversely Proportional to Modesty? Speak, David Mitchell

David Mitchell is the subject of the latest Paris Review Interview. He is charming. When asked, “Are you a storyteller outside of your writing?” he replies, “No. I botch jokes and bore my few friends if I do too much of the talking.” Whether or not this is true (we have no reason to believe it is not), why is it that the most interesting people are often those who attend almost religiously to a stance of humility? At the highest altitudes of deep thought, is there something in one’s wiring that reminds the mind that the greatest risk is in posing a threat to those around us? Not unlike sunscreen, is humility something that the best informed—and fair-skinned—apply to prevent unpleasant after-effects?


In the same Paris Review interview, there is this exchange:

INTERVIEWER

The epigraph to Number9Dream is from Don DeLillo: “It is so much simpler to bury reality than it is to dispose of dreams.”

MITCHELL

The best line in the book and it’s not even mine.

Again, Mitchell wins us over by showing specific respect to another fine mind, not his own (axiomatically). It was not always the case that writers felt the need to be humble; some of the most celebrated creative forces of the last generation—Norman Mailer and Susan Sontag come to mind, perhaps as first among equals—took no pains to self-deprecate. Why not be proud? Humility is a quality that artists are not known for, and so in an almost Chicken-Egg tradition, we neither expect it from them nor show shock when they fail to provide it.

Whether genetic, whether something “that comes with age,” whether even a lesson learned from parents and siblings, it is undeniable that humility is winning. Said another way, modesty—which is not to say false modesty (the latter being easy to identify) is charming. There is no reason not to possess it. Will the next generation of writers and artists take this to heart? Will David Mitchell’s temperament be the Mailer of our times? 

Mitchell has set a certain critical bar for “brilliance.” His work is at once magical and dense. Dave Eggers, reviewing the new Mitchell novel for the New York Times, noted that the book “confirms Mitchell as one of the more fascinating and fearless writers alive.” From one celebrated mind to another. Both of these writers are eloquent in their humility. A sign of our times? Or a sign that we learn from the past, before inevitably divined to repeat it.

LinkedIn meets Tinder in this mindful networking app

Swipe right to make the connections that could change your career.

Getty Images
Sponsored
Swipe right. Match. Meet over coffee or set up a call.

No, we aren't talking about Tinder. Introducing Shapr, a free app that helps people with synergistic professional goals and skill sets easily meet and collaborate.

Keep reading Show less

Love in a time of migrants: on rethinking arranged marriages

Arranged marriages and Western romantic practices have more in common than we might think.

Culture & Religion

In his book In Praise of Love (2009), the French communist philosopher Alain Badiou attacks the notion of 'risk-free love', which he sees written in the commercial language of dating services that promise their customers 'love, without falling in love'.

Keep reading Show less

A world map of Virgin Mary apparitions

She met mere mortals with and without the Vatican's approval.

Strange Maps
  • For centuries, the Virgin Mary has appeared to the faithful, requesting devotion and promising comfort.
  • These maps show the geography of Marian apparitions – the handful approved by the Vatican, and many others.
  • Historically, Europe is where most apparitions have been reported, but the U.S. is pretty fertile ground too.
Keep reading Show less

Extreme opponents of GM foods know the least science, but think they know the most

New research on the public's opinion about genetically modified foods illustrates an alarming cognitive bias.

(Photo: ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)
Mind & Brain
  • A recent study compared the public's scientific literacy with their attitudes on GM foods.
  • The results showed that "as the extremity of opposition increased, objective knowledge went down, but self-assessed knowledge went up."
  • The results also suggest that, in terms of policy efforts to boost scientific literacy, education about a given topic alone isn't going to be enough.
Keep reading Show less