JOURNAL OF GENIUS AND EMINENCE, 5 (2) 2022 Article 6 | pages 80-96
Issue Copyright © 2022 Tinkr
Article Copyright © 2022 Amar Annus
ISSN: 2334-1149 online
The Child Prodigy, Poet, and Scholar Uku Masing
University of Tartu, Estonia
The poet and scholar of Estonian origin Uku Masing (1909-1985) possessed prodigious level skills in multiple domains and superior eidetic memory. A body of recently published texts and documents, especially the personal letters from the age of 18 to 25 years, allows an analysis of Masing’s autistic traits and various forms of synaesthesia. The combination of these two conditions has been demonstrated to promote the potential talents of a given individual to the exceptional levels of savant syndrome. In retrospect, Masing can be shown to have been a child prodigy and prodigious savant who was capable of very fine artistic expression in poetry. He had a wide array of special interests that formed a unique assemblage. He displayed unusual ways of self-expression and language peculiarities that can be partly explained with his autistic traits. The scope of Masing’s special interests, his literary and scholarly activities and achievements are analysed as well as various aspects of his everyday life difficulties, such as coping with the social world, anxiety and depression.Drawing on social information-processing theory and the status-and-engagement perspective, a field study investigated the pathways through which team leader humility leads to employee creativity. Using a sample of 347 high-tech workers nested in 95 teams and their supervisors, this research theorized a multilevel model with data from multiple waves and sources. The results indicated that, at the individual level, leader humility perceived by individual employees boosted the employees’ self-perceived status, which then promoted employee creativity. At the team level, leader humility created a team voice safety climate, which then had a positive cross- level impact on team members’ creativity. This bridges the creativity and the leader humility literature by extending the social information-processing perspective of leader humility to integrate this perspective with research on individuals’ desire to develop and maintain a status and positive identity. Theoretical implications of these results and practical implications for management practices were discussed.
Amar Annus | University of Tartu, Estonia | School of Theology and Religious Studies
Correspondence: firstname.lastname@example.org | ORCID id – 0000-0002-8844-6597
Correspondence address: Ülikooli 18-310, Tartu 50090
Note: The author attests that there are no conflicts of interest, that the data reported here are not used in any other publications and there are no infringements on previous copyrights.
Uku Masing was born in a farmer family of Rapla County, Estonia in 1909. During the interwar independence period of Estonia (1918-1940), he studied at secondary school in Tallinn and completed the academic curriculum in theology at the University of Tartu, 1921-1930. Uku Masing was academically very talented. He entered the university at the age of 17 and finished it with master’s degree four years later. He pursued his academic career in the Hebrew Bible and Semitic languages with a government stipend in the German universities of Berlin and Tübingen in 1932-1933. He chose the study of ancient Ethiopic manuscripts and the Ge’ez language as his areas of specialization. In Germany his prodigious talent was recognized among others by the Tübingen professor Enno Littmann (1875-1958), who wished to collaborate with him and with whom he remained in contact through letters (Trüper, 2018). In 1935 he published his first collection of poetry Promontories into the Gulf of Rains. Throughout his life, he assembled 24 collections of poetry, some of which were published abroad during his lifetime or posthumously in Estonia. Due to censorship he could not publish any books in the Soviet Estonia. He was also the author of one fantasy novel that employed romantic themes related to the South Pacific islands that were popular in the global culture of the 20th century (Masing, 1989).
Uku Masing was capable of very fine artistic expression in poetry and remained a prodigious scholar throughout his life. The manuscript of his dissertation on the book of the prophet Obadiah was almost completed in 1933 but was eventually defended in 1947 (Masing, 2006). Masing had hyperlexia and superior eidetic memory, which enabled him to memorize several hundred book pages in a day. He possessed reading skills in ca. 60 languages (Paul, 1989). During the Soviet period, Masing became a persona non grata due to his academic affinity to theology, experienced restrictions to his self-expression, and was never academically promoted during the last 40 years of his life. He could publish papers only in academic journals. During 1964 to 1974 he was unemployed and could continue his work thanks to the support of his wife and friends. He was married to Eha Masing (1912-1998) since 1939, but they had no children. His prodigious learning always attracted a small circle of devoted students with whom he maintained a regular contact. In his scholarly writings, the bigger part of which was published posthumously, Masing revealed his massive knowledge in many domains of cultural history and theories. He was also a prolific translator with “brilliant linguistic originality” (Ross, 1988). His new version of the Hebrew Bible in 1939 surprised its readers with novel translation equivalents. The field in which his excellence became well acknowledged was folklore studies – besides many other papers he published 14 articles for the international handbook of fairy tales, Enzyklopädie des Märchens during the last decade of his life. As an example of the level of expertise he achieved it can be mentioned that the popular edition of Armenian fairy tales in West Germany was primarily based on Masing’s work (Levin & Masing, 1982). Masing had a lifelong interest in fairy tales and possessed enormous expertise in this field.
In this paper Masing’s neurological condition of a prodigious savant will be discussed. Recent studies in neurosciences have established that the savant syndrome may arise in individuals with autism who also happen to have synaesthesia (Hughes et al., 2017). It will be demonstrated that Masing had both conditions. Synaesthesia is the phenomenon of “pairing of senses” in which a stimulus in one perceptive domain automatically triggers a sensation in another, e.g. music as an “inducer” would bring about a colour as “concurrent” (Simner, 2019). The connection of autism with special abilities and creativity has been demonstrated in recent decades (Fitzgerald, 2004; White & Shah, 2020). Baron-Cohen et al. (2007) hypothesized that combination of autism spectrum with synaesthesia may increase the likelihood of savantism, which Hughes et al. (2017) later supported. Synaesthesia was specifically found in individuals with autism, who also reported having savant skills (Hughes et al., 2017). People with synaesthesia can have perceptual and cognitive enhancements e.g. in processing speed (Simner & Bain, 2018), memory (Rothen et al., 2012), time-and-space mappings (Simner et al., 2009), and artistic creativity in general (Simner, 2019). When these advantages are coupled with autism, the latter may confer additional enhancements, which together can promote the talents of synaesthesia to the exceptional levels of savant syndrome (Simner, 2019). Synaesthesia can also increase motivation for learning, because the objects of special interest such as numbers, letters etc. acquire cross- sensory qualities that are emotionally appealing (Tammet, 2010).
According to Gruber (1989) the case studies of creative persons give account how knowable processes bring about unique outcomes and help to grasp the complexity of each individual. The student of creative work can make the understanding of that uniqueness the central goal of the investigation by focussing attention how the person is organized as a complex system at work. Serious study of the creative work requires careful and prolonged attention to the moving target of changing individual, which should be accompanied by the research into psychometric variables (Gruber, 1989). Although Uku Masing’s abilities were never scientifically studied during his lifetime there is sufficient evidence about his personality traits. Masing should be counted among the people with mild autism and synaesthesia who possessed prodigious level skills in multiple domains. The development of his character traits can be analysed using self-reports that are found in his personal letters, especially those written when he was 18-25 years old (Masing, 2006; 2012) and in his autobiography Botanical Recollections (Masing, 1996). The latter book represents an encyclopaedic account of all herbs of interest to Masing as well as his reminiscences about different people and life episodes. These publications contain honest self-descriptions about his everyday sensory experiences and difficulties, anxiety, depression, and problems in social domain, which demonstrate the other side of his personality and reveal a form of broader autism phenotype (Fitzgerald, 2018). As recent research has demonstrated the persons with synaesthesia are also at risk with mental health issues such as anxiety disorder (Carmichael et al., 2019).
The child prodigy: Masing’s special interests
Masing was a child prodigy who grew up in a peasant milieu where his talent was not well understood. According to M. Fitzgerald (2011), for creativity of genius proportions an IQ score over 120 is mandatory as well as an autism spectrum condition. Masing fulfils these two criteria and additionally had synaesthesia that enhanced his cognitive abilities. Recent research in child prodigies has confirmed their connection with autism (Ruthsatz & Urbach, 2012; Ruthsatz et al., 2017). There is a consistent positive genetic correlation between autism and different measures of cognition, which stands in contrast to other psychiatric conditions (Warrier, 2018). Autism has been called the disorder of high intelligence, especially of “fluid” versus “crystallized” intelligence (Crespi, 2016). Another recent account connects autism to enhanced mechanistic and diminished mentalistic intelligence (Badcock, 2019). According to Fitzgerald (2005, p. 21) the notions “Asperger savant” and “Asperger genius” describe high-functioning persons with autism who are also creative geniuses (Walker & Fitzgerald, 2006). Both general and more specific forms of intelligence jointly contribute to the appearance of prodigies and savants (Feldman & Morelock, 2011). According to D. Treffert’s evaluation,
“Savant skills range over a spectrum of abilities from splinter skill to talented to prodigious levels. Prodigious level skills represent a very high threshold and are exceedingly rare, persons with skills at this level, absent a disability, would be classified as prodigy or genius” (Treffert, 2012, p. 48).
The child prodigy is someone who achieves a professional level of performance by the age of ten years or during adolescence – primarily in the fields related to rule-based systems of music, art, chess, or mathematics (Feldman & Morelock, 2011). None of these fields was Masing’s area of specialization, but he achieved maturity e.g. in translating poetry during his adolescence (Kasemaa, 2020). According to a recently explored cognitive model the characteristic features of young prodigies are elevated general intelligence, exceptional working memory and attention to detail (Ruthsatz & Urbach, 2012). A child prodigy does not need extensive time for deliberate practice. The investigation into connections between childhood prodigy and autism has provided evidence that the two phenomena share a common genetic etiology as well as numerous cognitive and behavioural traits such as high IQ and excellent working memory, elevated attention to detail, and passionate interests (Ruthsatz et al., 2017). The child prodigies tend to have autistic relatives with whom they share a genetic linkage for which the locus on chromosome 1p31-q21 has been proposed (Ruthsatz et al., 2015). There are numerous examples of children who were diagnosed with autism and later became highly prodigious. Historical cases of some famous individuals follow a similar pattern (Ruthsatz et al., 2017).
Although Uku Masing lived at the time when autism diagnosis was not possible his self-reports support the hypothesis that he was both a prodigy and on the spectrum (Annus, 2015). Moreover, he remained a remarkable savant for the rest of his life. He started to write literature at the age of 10, his early poems contained either science fiction stories or abstract astronomical data. In childhood he much adored Rabindranath Tagore’s poetry and imitated his style when 13-17 years old (Masing, 1998). He translated Tagore’s English collection The Gardener into Estonian at the age of 13, which was later published as a book in 1936 (Kasemaa, 2020). In his adolescence he could play classical pieces on piano, produce realistic paintings and sculpt wooden objects (Masing, 2006; 2012). He was interested in mathematics, geology, botany, and ancient Oriental studies. He mastered four languages besides his mother tongue at the level of reading skills at the age of twelve and throughout his life he enjoyed reading and memorizing dictionaries (Paul,
1989). According to a self-report he had extensive knowledge of astronomy at the age of 8 years and in his adolescent years he posed insolent questions to the cosmography teacher at school that the latter was unable to answer. He considered a career in astronomy as an academic option for himself but understood that his eyesight was too poor to make astronomical observations. He wrote in a letter on February 15th, 1930:
“But I would have become an astronomer in a philosophical style if I had been a seer. And sometimes that interest re-emerges again, because in my knowledge of astronomy I surpassed my surroundings and tortured the cosmography teacher (in school) with what he said was “superfluous knowledge”, but his knowledge was what I had when I was eight years old. But having more knowledge than an older person has never been useful to the younger one” (Masing, 2012, p. 180).
Reading books was the activity of enormous interest throughout Masing’s life. In his childhood he started his passionate interest in herbs and botany by memorizing verbatim the few books that were available at home, even in foreign languages (Masing, 1996). Uku Masing had prodigious eidetic memory – in later times he rarely took notes when reading scholarly books and quoted them from memory when writing his own research (Paul, 1989). Masing had an intense passion for his areas of interest that is characteristic for both autism and prodigy (Ruthsatz et al., 2017). Masing grew up in a devout family and read many kinds of religious literature in childhood. When in university, he began his life-long study of the Hebrew Bible, Semitic languages, history of religions, mythology and folklore in which fields he became proficient. He was interested in history, literature, poetry, science fiction, art – in all these fields he possessed a remarkable body of expert knowledge and strong opinions. At the age of 19 he wrote to a friend about his passion of reading books about ancient history, which was characterized by a youthful rage to learn:
“Right now I have a terrible longing for Tartu, I put together book lists for reading, I study catalogues and think about time when I can get these books somehow – to know the ruins of Tiahuanaco or the results of the Nippur excavations are more important to me than anything else on earth. The wolf’s appetite is right now for the books” (Masing, 2006, p. 14).
However, the full account about Masing’s passionate interests should also include its quirkier side. He retrospectively explains this part of his personality in an essay he wrote in ca. 1950, “On the misery of normal thinking” (Masing, 1995). He writes that according to his understanding there is a fundamental flaw in the life course of human beings in which a certain innate ability that can still be seen in children gradually disappears when they grow up, because something in everyday life hinders its use. According to his words, this dormant ability can be kept alive and stimulated by pursuing unusual interests. Masing enumerated his passions that he had maintained in order not to let this inborn ability to die out. Masing mentioned his interests in unusual people, fantasy- utopian literature, poisons, pornography, and of learning languages that are strange in their analytical principles (Masing, 1995, p. 170).
The scope of Masing’s special interests was very wide, unusual, and original. Hans Asperger has emphasised the natural bias of autistic intelligence to do everything with originality, which can be both its strength and weakness (Asperger, 1944). According to a fellow student at the university and later colleague during 1930ies, Masing was extremely talented, but “somewhat quixotic” and everything he wrote “suffered from excessive individual originality” (Salumaa 2010, p. 309). This characterization was believed to be true also by some other university colleagues. Masing himself wrote about his trait of originality twenty years later as follows:
“Indeed, I am similar to other people only when I force myself to something that I do not want to.AssoonasIdowhatIwant,whenIamhow is natural to me – these moments are now very rare – there is nothing common between me and others” (Masing, 1996, p. 98).
His teaching and research activities at the Theological Faculty of Tartu University were regarded with growing concern among some of his colleagues and within the circles of Estonian Lutheran Church because his scholarly attitudes were not far from liberalism. It was feared that Masing’s promotion to professorship would make the teaching of Old Testament studies too one-sided. According to his colleague’s opinion, Masing was a very talented Orientalist, artist and poet, but his personal views on theology were too original to be understood by others – these consisted of a mixture from the Christian elements of thought and an extremely pessimistic life philosophy, in which certain Oriental views played a dominating role. The works that he wrote after the World War II contained less pessimistic philosophy and were influenced by Buddhism and L. Wittgenstein. However, the students often found his lectures difficult to understand and Masing was reluctant to change his style of teaching (Salumaa, 2010).
Masing’s special interest in explicit nude art was exercised privately but nevertheless brought to him adverse consequences. After Nazis had occupied Tartu in autumn 1941 the German military authorities broke into Masing’s apartment and searched through his home when he was away. Their primary motivation was apparently Masing’s engagement with the Hebrew Bible and other Jewish materials. However, the Nazi authorities also searched through Masing’s personal belongings and found a large collection of photographs which depicted “people in nudity and in different arousing conditions” (Salumaa, 2010, p. 569). These photographs were released into circulation in Tartu and the owner of the collection was often recognized. When colleagues at the university asked for an explanation, Masing said that he conducted certain “psychoanalytic experiments” using these images (Salumaa, 2010, p. 570).
As the consequence of these events, Masing was temporarily banned from entering Tartu and the university could not employ him during the Nazi occupation (Salumaa, 2010). He also wrote about his leaving the university to Enno Littmann on December 9th, 1941 with these words: “The moral character that I unfortunately have, does not fit into this office” (Trüper, 2018, p. 576). However, after the Soviet occupation resumed in 1945 the theology department was closed again, and Masing’s lack of employment at the university during the Nazi regime was a benefit in the new political situation that helped to save him from more severe Soviet repressions. After the war he was employed as lecturer in the newly grounded Institute of Theology in Tallinn 1949-1963 but was forced to leave this institution due to negative attitudes towards him among some members of the church leadership (Kasemaa, 2020).
Uku Masing’s Synaesthesia
At the age of seventy-two Uku Masing wrote the essay How I write poetry in which he described his poems as spontaneously emerging from visual images perceived in his mind (Masing, 1998). Masing had poor eyesight since childhood, but his thinking and learning style was characterised by excessive visualization. Thinking in pictures is a feature often found in autistic cognition (Kunda & Goel, 2011). Seeing was the most important perceptual domain for him and in his essay Masing wrote that he saw music “in flowing pictures” while listening to it when he was young (Masing, 1998, p. 380). This indicates a form of cross-sensory perception that can be called sound-colour, sound-image, or music-colour synaesthesia (Simner, 2019). In later life Masing had lost this ability, which is consistent with the finding that synaesthesia appears to decline in older people (Simner et al., 2017). Masing seems not to be aware about the concept of synaesthesia as he never uses
this word when describing his experiences. However, he appears to have been a genuine synesthete, who possessed various forms of it. Throughout his life Masing had a special interest in the study of plants that found its fullest expression in his book Botanical Recollections, which often speculates about sound-like and person-like qualities of herbs (Masing, 1996). The next quote from this book is written at the age of ca. 47 years in which Masing compares the differences of colour shades in the flower of amaryllis as seen in the daylight and darkness using terms related to sounds, smells and letters:
“If only one interval in a chord is changed so that it will sound a little more cavernous, as if somebody were opening a seemingly empty hand and thence would start to seep over some slippery smelling palm vodka or rum. Something dark, glowing, intoxicating, something with U and M, but no sound by itself can express its coloration and change. Music can, but neither music can be verbalised nor the variability of colour shades” (Masing, 1996, p. 157).
This passage exemplifies Masing’s perceptual ability for mixing the domains of hearing, vision and smelling. These synaesthetic perceptions occurred in connection with the objects of his special interest, the plants and their appearances. Moreover, Masing often described the plants as mindful animate beings, e.g. when writing about the characteristics of heath speedwell (Veronica officinalis): “it has two pollen so scattered as if it were a tiny wonderful butterfly who in addition to its heaven-blue appearance is even happy in mood” (Masing, 1996, p. 91).
This and very many other examples testify to Masing’s sequence-personality synaesthesia in regard to herbs. This phenomenon is also called ordinal linguistic personification (Simner & Holenstein, 2007). In this form of synaesthesia there is no pairing of senses but it is triggered by thinking about sequences (Simner, 2019). For sequence-personality synesthetes their favourite objects (e.g. numbers, letters) trigger personalities or gendered objects and can form a complex cast of characters that have clear and detailed in-depth descriptions, which by itself is a key feature of synaesthesia (Simner, 2019). The sequence-personality synaesthesia mirrors the social surroundings of the given person. This is in accordance with Masing’s view that plants are much more worth of attention and serious study than human beings (Masing, 1996). The following excerpt is the example from Masing’s text where the herbs from the smartweed family (Polygonaceae) form a cast of human characters:
“Redshank is very crude and with silly appearance like a half-educated person, who is fully convinced that he will live forever and therefore behaves arrogantly. The water smartweed is dirty and slippery like a young girl, who terribly wants to marry a man and is sloppy, forgetting everything else because of this beautiful plan. Snakeroot is quite beautiful in the first sight, but when seen a third or fourth time I cannot shake off the feeling that it is terribly sour like a young girl who has become an old maiden without being able to understand why boys have left someone like her with unique value unreaped” (Masing, 1996, p. 90).