It was claimed of the Danish footballer Michael Laudrup that good luck cost him greatness. With a “ghetto instinct”, said Johan Cruyff, not the ease of a Frederiksberg childhood behind him, he might have pushed himself beyond the merely sublime.
There is some vulgar determinism here. There is also the reputational fleecing of a man who enriched both Real Madrid and Barcelona. But the jibe would be easier to forget if it did not contain trace elements of plausibility. Why did such a lavish talent not make a deeper mark on the game?
What great lives tend to share, says Matthew Parris, after 14 years as host of a radio show about them, is early trauma. His new book Fracture cites bereavement, poverty, abuse and illness as the mud from which genius flowers.
The thesis is not new: the motherlessness of John Lennon and Paul McCartney is a pop-psych trope of some vintage. Nor is it scientific: greats with benign childhoods just catch the eye less. But it holds often enough. And it implies that rich parents, those ogres of the day, are in some way self-defeating.
The scholar Richard Reeves calls them “dream-hoarders”. The college admissions scandal led to the tarring and feathering of several. Private education not being advantage enough, they fortify their young with internships and housing deposits (or houses).
If the outcome were a super-caste of dazzling people, honed generation to generation, the inequity of it all might be pardoned. Society would profit from their governmental skill and artistic flair, as per the Bloomsbury dream. But with exceptions, the outcome is more often an innocuous sort of rich kid. Learned but unoriginal, diligent but not consumed with ambition, successful without ever troubling the historians: having known none growing up, I have not been able to move for them in 15 years. The British ones have the manners to feign guilt but they are much of a muchness everywhere.
If the parental aim is to screen their children from downward mobility, it is an unanswerable triumph. But if they also wish to produce remarkable people, and some plainly do, their indulgence is counter-productive. It is exactly the floor-to-ceiling privilege, the eradication of all stressors, that turns out such specimens of polished banality.
Parris does not take this logic to its terminal point, and nor do I. No parent can inflict pain in the hope of lucking out on a Noel Gallagher (“My old fella beat the talent into me”) or a Ludwig Wittgenstein. Scholastic hothousing of the kind that gets you John Stuart Mill is as rough as a decent guardian might ever get. But this does suggest that a measure of frustration will always be the lot of the self-dealing rich. What ensures their children a high-end life is what militates against their outright genius. Their faith in their offspring’s specialness is undone by their own largesse.
Sensing a causal link between distress and greatness is easy enough. Explaining the nature of this alchemic process is the nightmare. The pat line is that a tough start in life rather concentrates the mind. I know of no energy source that equals the desire to get out of somewhere. It was Laudrup’s dilettante streak that had Cruyff wishing he had known a banlieue or barrio.
But if a seething work ethic can make the most out of one’s talent, it does not account for the talent itself. A subtler theory is that distress makes an outsider of its victim. And it is there, in the wound-licking margins, where the world is perceived from a slight angle, that originality stirs. Parris is good on gay greats, though he might have made more of the young Keynes.
Such is the self-reinforcing nature of privilege, the next batch of dream-hoarders will be all but untouchable. Averting the ossification of this sect would entail state action of unpopular and perhaps even unethical invasiveness. Their appeals to nature (“I’d go to the wall for my boy!”) will always win out. The one case for an over-class is that its brilliance helps us all as a benign externality. Growing up, I assumed that was the deal. But I got to know them.
Email Janan at firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow @FTLifeArts on Twitter to find out about our latest stories first
Letters in response to this column:
Get alerts on Life & Arts when a new story is published