Genius Burns, or Some Rational Thoughts on The Last Samurai

My son is a genius. He’s got two pink blocks in his hands that he is trying to fit in his mouth. One day he will be a great architect, or a renowned city planner. Although, he’s at a bit of an impasse right now. He jabbers encouragingly at the right block and then the left, but neither will give way to the other. If he gets them both to fit, he will be a famous magician; if the left cedes to the right, a diplomat, if the left breaks in two, a mercenary.

He has moved on from the blocks to the bookshelf. His paw swipes at Ideals and Realities of Islam, dislodges The History of the Communist Party in Russia. The cover of The History of the Communist Party in Russia falls off. Instead of ripping it into enough pieces for everyone, he puts the whole thing in his mouth.

I’ve just finished Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai, and I’ve been thinking about child rearing, and selfishness versus selflessness, and the bits of ourselves we do or do not impart (or imprint). Nature versus nurture — that time immemorial saw. And I’ve been thinking of how genius changes the equation, because Ludo, the child narrator of The Last Samurai, is, and if his mother did not play a direct hand in the fact of genius, she did in the form. And it is a form that speaks to me: polylingualism!


My son has found my bunion guard from underneath the bed, and is sucking on it vigorously. His lips are speckled royal blue. I try to take the bunion guard away but he howls, indignant. He is an effective howler; I return the guard. (But my method, if something is taken from me, is to wait until the thief has turned away and snatch it back. Altogether less effective — and more precarious — than howling.)

New York called The Last Samurai the best book of this century. I have not read every book published this century, but I have read The Corrections, their second pick, and The Flamethrowers, their fifth. Both are very nearly perfect books, but The Last Samurai is better, even though it is imperfect.

The Last Samurai is, as I mentioned, the story of a young genius, and his mother, Sibylla, who is something of a genius herself. A thwarted genius — and the book is about that, too: the manifest destiny of genius, or lack of it, and whether other obligations, eg family, should primarily be there to support and further it, and IF NOT THEN WHAT?


I thought my son had eaten all of the banana bread I had given him, but in reality, he has just transferred it into the well of his bib. When I point this out, he offers some to me. Another trait we don’t share. (Few phrases instill more dread in me than “small plates.”)

As far as precocious narrators go, Ludo is absolutely tops in my book. Yes, he can rapidly extract meaning from a language with few to no semblances to his mother tongue, but he is still very much a child. His interest in reading Njal’s Saja in Icelandic is not so different from my son’s interest in opening the plastic box of drill bits. That is: to know what is inside, and to catalogue it. And while the quest he undertakes in the story’s latter half — a quest whose true parameters I didn’t even realize until the third, er, marker? — is (spoiler alert) successful because of the intelligence with which it is constructed, it is also incredibly naive, with an ending whose matter-of-fact brutality completely gutted me.

My son is wreathed in Christmas tree lights, like a very large swallow. His mouth glows pink. I take a picture before I realize the glow is from a tiny glass light.


But back to Sibylla. Here is a prodigious mind incapable of not creating Rosetta Stones for every single bit of knowledge she encounters. Like her son, she is polylingual, but in her case, the rapaciousness has an objective beyond “Sidis spoke ten languages at four.” For her, it’s about a) understanding where one permutation of art and culture and beliefs fit in the totality, and b) determining whether a different permutation might be able to do the first one better justice.

This is a very grand ambition, and one without a diminutive fallback. Unlike her son, Sibylla is not predisposed towards ensuring her own success. Which is to say, she gets pregnant from a fairly chance encounter with a famous travel writer she holds in very low esteem, pops out a genius, and occupies him with the Iliad while she digitizes niche print magazines for pence on the pound.

Sometimes, Ludo is enough for Sibylla, but other times, he is not quite enough to keep at peace the roiling beasts of doubt and bitter defeat. On the one hand: a genius. On the other, how to feed him? (And below that, largely unacknowledged: how to feed herself?) The more she teaches Ludo, the more he wants to know. The more he wants to know, the less time she has to type The Poodle Breeder, 1972. When she enrolls him, late, in school, it is an utter disaster and soon enough he is back under her tutelage. They haunt museums and ride the Circle Line for warmth while he reads The Odyssey in the original Greek and she reads The Reader of Handwritten Japanese and fellow riders scoff and marvel and poke and prod.

And then, of course, comes the day when she can’t feed him literally or mentally. Off he goes in search of fathers while she watches, for the hundredth time, Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai. She has based her parenting philosophy on this movie, only to be informed by Ludo that the dubbing in a crucial scene is wrong. (A continuum of sorts, for it was Sibylla’s own discovery, at Oxford, of the hollow logic of a little-known German philosopher that caused her to leave the school in search of another truth, which turned out to be Ludo.)

My son, in his high chair, is gazing at his outstretched hand as if he might soon compare it to a summer’s day. “Guh,” he says.

I read The Last Samurai with my newish working mom lenses on (impossible to take off, the beasts), and the question I came away with at the book’s end was: was it necessary it for Sibylla to sacrifice the fruition of her own brilliance to ensure that of her son’s? Wouldn’t he have turned out just as well if he’d been put in nursery school or at the very least primary school with everyone else?

It was the wrong question, and sacrifice is the wrong word. Sibylla chose to homeschool Ludo; she chose to pour her brilliance into him, and she chose to take a job that allowed her to do these things. Looked at that way, there is a magic to her and Ludo’s lives, and a purity of purpose. I think of all the nights I’ve come home just in time to give my son a bedtime bottle and kiss him goodnight, and of the nights I’ve come home too late even for that, of the hurried mornings where I put on NPR and bang out a few paragraphs while he scrutinizes the raspberries I’ve laid out on his tray. When I was pregnant, I imagined the walks we would go on together, talking of heady things, of shoes–and ships–and sealing-wax–of cabbages–and kings. Now, I speak to him quietly outdoors. See the doggie? See the garbage truck?

“Buh,” he says, and squeezes my hand.

Anyways. Go read The Last Samurai. It’s expansive and prickly and uncompromising and sure to make you think, regardless of lenses.

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