Adroitly pointed out by csn.
Adroitly pointed out by csn.
In the autumn of 1989 I did some time in the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University in New Jersey. I'd gone to New York to write a book about jazz and was having a browse through the institute's archives. One of the librarians was more than a little curious about my unsystematic rummaging. He wanted to know if the book I was writing was a history. No, I said. A biography? No. Well, what kind of book was it going to be? I told him I had no idea. Having made little progress with this line of inquiry, he turned his attention from the book to its author. Was I a musician? No. A jazz critic? No. Was I this? Was I that? No, I was neither this, that, nor anything else. Becoming a little frustrated, he asked: "So what are your credentials for writing a book about jazz?"But read the whole thing. (And speaking of Cioran, he's becoming quite a parallel too. I wonder how to start with his work — penning a book about the man, perhaps?)
"I don't have any," I said. "Except I like listening to it."
[ ... ]
If the answer I gave the librarian was modest because I was in this haven of specialist expertise, it was slyly confident for exactly the same reason. When I meet specialists I am always conscious of all the things they don't know and are not interested in, all the things that lie beyond their particular area of expertise. So I was pretty sure that this jazz buff would not have read Roland Barthes's book about photography, Camera Lucida, would not have known that Barthes constructed his great book around a bunch of snaps of his mum, a few pictures that he liked looking at. EM Cioran's excellent suggestion - that "we are enriched only by frequenting disciplines remote from our own" - is ignored by the very people who would gain most by heeding it.
I happen to be in an Eno-heavy stage right now.
The inclination is to make it all sound like [my work followed] a 'grand plan'; and it wasn't like that actually, but there was always this thing with me of 'leading by instinct', and then saying 'How does that connect up with everything else that I'm interested in at the moment in movies or books or science?' I always assume, and always have done, that my enthusiasms have a common root; and, I mean all of my enthusiasms, be they sexual, intellectual, aesthetic or emotional. I always assume that if I start to get interested in something or other that I haven't been interested in before, I can check it across the spectrum of my interests and see what it would imply in different areas. So, if I suddenly find that I'm liking things that are more jagged and dissonant in music, so I start to think 'So who's painting like that?, Who's making films like that? or what would a comedy show like that be like?'
This is actually an issue I think about often. When one of my interest zigs or zags off in a certain direction, I try to get the others to follow it. Identifying, building or pretending to a coherence between my pursuits used to be quite a worry, but in recent years I've realized that it doesn't matter if I combine activities or interests in ways nobody prominent has done before. Even what approximate examples there are, after all, had to do what they do without direct examples of their own. (Indeed, anyone doing anything interesting couldn't have worked from a direct example, though they may well have synthesized a bunch of 'em.) As long as I maintain a high standard of honesty — with others, but more importantly with myself — I suspect a reasonable baseline level of consistency will exist and reveal itself. I'll assume, as Eno put it, a "common route"; the trick is discovering it, not creating it. (One might say that discovering the "common route" of "all of my enthusiasms, be they sexual, intellectual, aesthetic or emotional" has been my great preoccupation in recent years.)
You’re probably familiar with C.P. Snow and his conception of “The Two Cultures”, one of the “scientific” intellectual and the other of the “literary” intellectual. I think about the chasm between those fraternal twins -- and the conflicts about which Snow worried -- quite often, as well as what they might have to offer one another. In his lecture, New Statesman article and book on the subject, Snow puts forth a cogent argument for playing matchmaker between the Cultures. He had this and more to say in the Cambridge speech, which is available online:
There seems then to be no place where the cultures meet. I am not going to waste time saying that this is a pity. It is much worse than that. Soon I shall come to some practical consequences. But at the heart of thought and creation we are letting some of our best chances go by default. The clashing point of two subjects, two disciplines, two cultures -- of two galaxies, so far as that goes -- ought to produce creative chances. In the history of mental activity that has been where some of the breakthroughs came. The chances are there now. But they are there, as it were, in a vacuum, because those in the two cultures can't talk to each other. It is bizarre how very little of twentieth-century science has been assimilated into twentieth-century art. Now and then one used to find poets conscientiously using scientific expressions, and getting them wrong -- there was a time when 'refraction' kept cropping up in verse in a mystifying fashion, and when 'polarised light' was used as though writers were under the illusion that it was a specially admirable kind of light.
Of course, that isn't the way that science could be any good to art. It has got to be assimilated along with, and as part and parcel of, the whole of our mental experience, and used as naturally as the rest. I said earlier that this cultural divide is not just an English phenomenon: it exists all over the western world. But it probably seems at its sharpest in England, for two reasons. One is our fanatical belief in educational specialisation, which is much more deeply ingrained in us than in any country in the world, west or east. The other is our tendency to let our social forms crystallise. This tendency appears to get stronger, not weaker, the more we iron out economic inequalities: and this is specially true in education. It means that once anything like a cultural divide gets established, all the social forces operate to make it not less rigid, but more so.
At one time, I disliked Isaac Asimov’s work. My flirtation with the genre of science fiction was on the brief side -- I feared winding up like those emaciated kids with coke-bottle glasses and wildlife t-shirts who hung out in the cafeteria's darkest, moldiest corner -- and it seemed to me that I shouldn’t waste time on a writer with what I considered to be a nonexistent prose style.
That judgment was wrong. As I’ve grown older and my clarity-in-writing fetish has ballooned to grotesque proportions, I’ve come to appreciate Asimov’s spare sentences. Now that I’ve proven to myself that I can attract a girl if need be, I no longer perceive any danger from sci-fi novels. (Never mind that the first ones I had any success with turned out to be “speculative fiction” fans themselves. D’oh.) Plus, anyone who writes a book called The Sensuous Dirty Old Man is okay by me.
In addition to his crisp, austere writing, it turns out the guy was plenty perceptive as well. Here’s an all-too-appropriate piece of 1983’s The Roving Mind:
Knowledge is indivisible. When people grow wise in one direction, they are sure to make it easier for themselves to grow wise in other directions as well. On the other hand, when they split up knowledge, concentrate on their own field, and scorn and ignore other fields, they grow less wise — even in their own field.
Well put, Asimov. Well put.
Novelist Uzodinma Iweala, of Beasts of No Nation fame, gets literature in his medicine — or maybe medicine in his literature:
"I don't think the two are mutually exclusive," Iweala said of writing books and attending medical school as he sat in a coffee shop the day after he returned from an African writers' conference in Italy. "Will it be hard to do the two together? Oh, yeah, it will be very hard. I'm not kidding myself."
[ ... ]
As he entered Harvard, his parents "strongly suggested" he focus on premed but he insists they weren't dictatorial. He also majored in English, American Literature and Language. He'd planned to go to medical school right out of Harvard. But that was before the unexpected publication and success of "Beasts."
Writers, to a degree, exist in a bubble, Iweala said, because they are removed from other people. As a doctor -- a doctor with extraordinary writing abilities -- he believes he can have greater impact.
"Who says that's the absolute rule: that you can't do the two together, that you can't do the two together well and that it won't enrich your life to have both?"
Who says indeed.
From Herzog on Herzog:
Maybe the most important piece of advice I can give to those of you heading into the world of film is that as long as you are able-bodied, as long as you can make money yourself, don't go out looking for office jobs just to pay the rent. I would also be very wary of bottom-rung jobs in film production companies. Go out to where the real world is, go work as a bouncer in a night-club, a warden in a lunatic asylum or in a slaughterhouse. Real life, this is what's vital. Work on your feet, learn languages, learn a craft or trade that has nothing to do with cinema.
More extracts here.
Berkshire Hathaway vice-chair Charlie Munger gave a commencement speech at USC’s law school, and it’s, well, I guess the term is pure gold. A sorta-transcription is available here, but these are the money blocks:
Nothing has served me better in my long life than continuous learning. I went through life constantly practicing -- because if you don’t practice it, you lose it -- the multi-disciplinary approach and I can’t tell you what that’s done for me. It’s made life more fun, it’s made me more constructive, it’s made me more helpful to others, it’s made me enormously rich. You name it, that attitude really helps.
Now, there are dangers in it because it works so well that if you do it, you will frequently find you’re sitting in the presence of some other expert, maybe even an expert superior to you, supervising you, and you’ll know more than he does about his own specialty. A lot more. You’ll see the correct answer and he’s missed it.
[ … ]
Marcus Cicero is famous for saying that the man who doesn’t know what happened before he was born goes through life like a child. That is a very correct idea. If you generalize Cicero, as I think one should, there are all these other things that you should know in addition to history. And those other things are the big ideas in all the other disciplines.
It doesn’t help just to know them enough so you can [repeat] them back on an exam and get an A. You have to learn these things in such a way that they’re in a mental latticework in your head and you automatically use them for the rest of your life. If you do that, I solemnly promise you that one day you’ll be walking down the street and you’ll look to your right and left and you’ll think, “my heavenly days, I’m now one of the of the few most competent people in my whole age cohort.” If you don’t do it, many of the brightest of you will live in the middle ranks or in the shallows.
Though not apropos renaissancemandom, this bit also triggered vigorous head-nodding:
Another thing I think should be avoided is extremely intense ideology because it cabbages up one’s mind. You see it a lot with T.V. preachers -- many have minds made of cabbage -- but it can also happen with political ideology. When you’re young it’s easy to drift into loyalties and when you announce that you’re a loyal member and you start shouting the orthodox ideology out, what you’re doing is pounding it in, pounding it in, and you’re gradually ruining your mind. So you want to be very, very careful of this ideology. It’s a big danger.
In my mind, I have a little example I use whenever I think about ideology. The example is these Scandinavia canoeists who succeeded in taming all the rapids of Scandinavia and they thought they would tackle the whirlpools of the Aron [sp.] Rapids here in the United States. The death rate was 100%. A big whirlpool is not something you want to go into, and I think the same is true about a really deep ideology.
I have what I call an iron prescription that helps me keep sane when I naturally drift toward preferring one ideology over another and that is: I say that I’m not entitled to have an opinion on this subject unless I can state the arguments against my position better than the people who support it. I think only when I’ve reached that state am I qualified to speak. This business of not drifting into extreme ideology is a very, very important thing in life.
But, as noted before, I’m a man who hates ideologies.
On On Growth and Form by D’Arcy Thompson, “a classicist of sufficient distinction to have become President of the Classical Associations of England and Wales and Scotland; a mathematician good enough to have an entirely mathematical paper accepted for publication by the Royal Society; and a naturalist who held important chairs for sixty-four years:”
D’Arcy Thompson had not merely the makings but the actual accomplishments of three scholars. All three were eminent, even if, judged by the standards which he himself would have applied to them, none could strictly be called great. If the three scholars had merely been added together in D’Arcy Thompson, each working independently of the others, then I think we should find it hard to repudiate the idea that he was an amateur, though a patrician among amateurs; we should say, perhaps that great as were his accomplishments, he lacked that deep sense of engagement that marks the professional scholar of the present day.
But they were not merely added together; they were integrally -- Clifford Dobell said chemically -- combined. I am trying to say that he was not one of those who have made two or more separate and somewhat incongruous reputations, like a composer-chemist or politician-novelist, or like the one man who has both ridden in the Grand National and become a Fellow of the Royal Society, the world’s oldest and most famous society of scientists; but that he was a man who comprehended many things with an undivided mind.
I looked into my concerns and activities, and one thing I did was to resign my full-time, tenured professorship. I created what I call 'a portfolio life', setting aside 100 days a year for making money, 100 days for writing, 50 days for what I consider good works, and 100 days for spending time with my wife.
I mark these days out in my diary. When people phone and ask me to do something, I can then say, 'I'm terribly sorry, that's my day with my wife'. It is a freeing way of life. 100 days a year for me is enough for making money, there is no point in making more; and I find I do as much work in 100 days as I used to in a year.
I go to a lot of management courses and try to turn these managers into portfolio people - 'don't just be a systems manager for IBM, don't be a one-dimensional character, become a portfolio person now'. I am trying to make such a lifestyle respectable for career people. If somebody asks what you do, and you can reply in one sentence, you're a failure. You should need half an hour.
(Money quote bolded.)
Handy's one of the two "management gurus" whose work I don't actively dislike; since the other is Peter Drucker, Handy takes the price for Colin's favorite living management guru. I only discovered his ideas about living the "portfolio life" recently, though I'd already unknowingly put a few of its concepts into action. The number of areas of life I don't live portfolio-style has been diminishing sharply with time. Either I'm a management genius, or this is a manifestation of my driving, absolute fear of putting too many eggs in one basket.