WRITING THE LIFE of a genius can make someone feel like a fool. After being absorbed by Isaac Newton for twenty years, his biographer Richard S. Westfall confessed that he understood him less well than before he started. The problem was that he and Newton had almost nothing in common. Westfall could not measure himself against such a genius, “a man not finally reducible to the criteria by which we comprehend our fellow beings.” Newton was “wholly other”; he did not think the way most people do, nor did he leave a model to follow. Moreover, he knew he was different. People seldom mattered to Newton, and often he treated them as if he wished they had never existed. But when he cared about something, he saw it with incredible, unshakable clarity: the world became transparent to him. Such clarity can seem more than human—at once inspiring and monstrous. Meanwhile the biographer plods along in the cloudy world where most of us live.
As a type of genius, Bobby Fischer had much in common with Newton. Both grew into their gifts in a brown study of intense isolation, while they played games with themselves; and they liked to imagine that they could make their own rules. Both were ruthlessly competitive, so convinced of their superiority that they were reluctant to acknowledge that anyone could rival them except by cheating. And therefore a shadow of fear hung over each of them, the threat of losing a game or making a mistake and being exposed as mortal. Both shrank from the public eye and from publication, though they expected to be idolized and often were. They subscribed alike to outlandish conspiracy theories, and succumbed to the illusion that their genius at chess or mathematics extended to fields like politics and religion, whose secrets only they could decode. No one really knew either of them. Occasionally patrons and friends stepped in to shelter them from harm, but even benefactors had to be on guard lest they be suspected of taking advantage or cashing in on the acquaintance. Late in life, despite their self-sufficiency, Newton and Fischer each became attached to an attractive young person, and each was crushed when the relationship fell apart. And ultimately, though others cared for them at times (and Fischer found a wife), they lived and died alone.
On Saturday, South Sudan becomes a free and independent country. It is a well-deserved victory for its people. Under a 2005 American-backed political accord that ended two decades of civil war, the people of the mainly Christian territory voted overwhelmingly in January to secede from the Arab Muslim north.
Still, celebrations in the capital, Juba, cannot obscure a sobering truth: building a functional new country will take decades of hard work. Responsibility falls primarily on South Sudan, but also on the United States and the international community that shepherded it.
Africa’s 54th state is at the bottom of the developing world. Most people live on less than $1 a day. More than 10 percent of children do not reach the age of 5. Some 75 percent of adults cannot read.
Meanwhile, festering disputes between north and south are stoking chaos in a land already bloodied by two million deaths in civil war. Sudan on Friday became the first state to recognize South Sudan. Sudan’s president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, author of the murderous war in Darfur, said he would attend the festivities in Juba. But he also said he would continue the fight that erupted last month against forces loyal to the south in South Kordofan, an oil-rich region still under Khartoum’s control. Mr. Bashir’s decision to order the United Nations to withdraw peacekeepers from South Kordofan is deeply worrisome.
Major elements of the 2005 peace agreement are unresolved — such as which side will control the oil-rich region of Abyei, where fighting has also broken out; citizenship protections for minorities; where final borders will be set; how oil earnings will be shared (the south has 70 percent of the reserves).
The two sides are dependent on each other. South Sudan needs the north’s pipeline to get its oil to market. Sudan needs oil money to help pay its bills. Both need foreign investment and the north needs debt relief. They have a better chance of winning international support if they are at peace.
As an incentive, the United States and its partners have offered to convene an international conference in September for South Sudan. That will allow South Sudan’s leaders to present their plans for encouraging desperately needed private investment. Washington gave Juba $300 million for education and housing and is promising more. International assistance should go forward only if South Sudan works constructively with Khartoum to bring stability to both countries.
The Obama administration, correctly, is not taking Sudan off its terrorism list and normalizing relations until Khartoum fulfills the peace deal and ends the conflict in Darfur. China, Sudan’s main oil investor and arms supplier, should deliver a similar message to Mr. Bashir, who is under war crimes indictment, instead of receiving him with fanfare in Beijing and promising him new oil deals. The international community must persuade the two sides to avoid war and work to build a future for both Sudans.