Geoff Dyer has in recent weeks become something of a super-parallel. His Guardianpiece on Tarkovsky's Stalker ("the reason cinema was invented") more than convinces me of his taste, and this other Guardian piece on his life as a "literary and scholarly gatecrasher" sells me on his methods:
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?"
"I don't have any," I said. "Except I like listening to it."
[ ... ]
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.
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?)
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:
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.
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:
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.
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
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
"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?"
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.
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.