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by William H. Benson

February 8, 2007

     A week ago on Sixty Minutes, Morley Safer interviewed Daniel Tammet, a twenty-eight-year old autistic savant living in Kent, England.  Daniel holds the European record for memorizing pi, all 22,514 digits, both forwards and backwards.  He then recited them over the course of five hours on March 14, 2004 at a museum in Oxford, UK, as part of a public charity challenge.

     Daniel has suffered from epilepsy since the age of three, and somehow this handicap gave him a special affinity for numbers.  He said, “When I looked at the numbers I ‘saw’ images.  It felt like a place I could go where I really belonged.  I would sit on the floor in my bedroom and just count.  I did notice that time was passing.”

     He claims now that he experiences numbers as colors or sensations and that they have textures.  Each number has its own unique shape and feel, and he can “sense” whether a number is prime or composite and “see” results of calculations as landscapes in his mind.  To him the number 289 is ugly, but the number 333 is beautiful.  He actually drew a watercolor of pi.

     Daniel’s skill with numbers is matched with that in languages.  In addition to English, he speaks French, German, Spanish, Lithuanian, and Esperanto.  When challenged to learn Icelandic in a week, he did, and was then interviewed on Iceland’s television news.  He now is creating his own language, Manti, which his own personal exploration of the power of words and sounds and their inter-relationship.

     For all of his gifts, he suffers from certain disabilities: he cannot drive a car, tell his left hand from his right, or remember people’s faces.  What he will remember are the details of a person, such as the number of stitches in Morley Safer’s shirt, the color of his shirt and jacket, the date and day of the week of his birth, what day they met, etc.

     Daniel recently met Kim Peek, the savant whom Dustin Hoffman recreated for his character Rainman.  What they share in common is their love for books.  Daniel’s favorite book is the dictionary, and Peek’s is the phone book.  Where Daniel memorizes definitions, Peek memorizes names, addresses, and phone numbers.

     Genius is an overworked term today.  It is difficult to determine where simply “talented” leaves off and true “genius” begins.  It is more precise where genius ends and savant begins.  The literary critic Harold Bloom wrote, “Our confusions about standards for genius are now institutionalized confusions, so that all judgments as to the distinction between talent and genius are at the mercy of the media.”  In other words, we defer to the journalists to separate the two.

     According to Harold Bloom, the literary geniuses, those authors of our western canon, possess that uncanny ability to make “the reader identify with what she or he feels is a greatness that can be joined to the self, without violating the self’s integrity.  It is hard to go on living without some hope of encountering the extraordinary.”  Truly, we read to discover the extraordinary, or as Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “I read for the lustres.”

     Our nation’s literary geniuses are few in number: Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Herman Melville, Thoreau, and Emerson.  Franklin’s genius was his marketing skill—first his newspaper, then himself, and finally his nation.  In the formulation of political theory, none have exceeded Adams, Jefferson, and Madison, and  Jonathan Edwards is our nation’s sole theological thinker.

     Monday, February 12 is Abraham Lincoln’s birthday.  A savant he was not; a savvy politician he was.  His literary talent with a pen equaled and surpassed the other Presidents, even Jefferson’s.  If he approached the level of genius at any point, it was on the subject of morality, especially on the issue of slavery.

     His fellow lawyers on the legal circuit often remarked upon Lincoln’s brooding silences when astride his horse, and they wondered what had consumed Lincoln.  Like Daniel Tammet of today, Lincoln had gone to a place where he belonged, and he did not notice that time was passing.