Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Genius of the Season

So much is contained in a single word—a single letter. Thus, “Celebrating the birth of God” carries a different connotation from “Celebrating the birth of a god.” Maybe the phrase “Celebrating birth” says it all.

My Greek is a little rusty after all these years, but as I recall, the prefix “gen-” carries a range of inference that spans race, kind, line of descent, origin, creation, sexual relations, and reproduction. Just think of the modern equivalents: generation, genius, generator, genuine, and genesis. But we must also include such words as genus, genealogy, and general.

Clearly that simple prefix can take us in two different directions. On the one hand, it calls up a series of concepts having to do with novelty, creativity, authenticity, and uniqueness. One the other hand, it refers to concepts that lump things together into groups on the basis of their type or ancestry. We hold no one in higher esteem than the “genius,” yet reserve our most withering derision for the merely “generic.”

These two aspects of the expression will never be fully reconciled, but it would be a mistake to imagine that they’re altogether opposed to one another. We meet up with both at every family gathering: the idiosyncrasies, the differences between family members that stimulate and nourish us (though they can sometimes annoy us, too) and the veins of affection that run ever-deeper, and constitute the reality (rather than merely the pedigree) of the clan.

Praise be to whoever cooked up a universe replete with affinities, both elective and congenital. May we become ever more generous and genial in our efforts to expand the reach of such ties.

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