"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Einstein, Ramanujan, Glenn Gould, And The Nature Of Solitary Genius–The Irrelevance Of Belonging

“As far as I know”, said Meredith Cobb, “Einstein was quite happy at his job as postal clerk, handing out stamps and money orders while contemplating time-space.”

Ramanujan, the self-taught mathematician from rural Tamil Nadu who derived sophisticated theorems with no academic training, no legendary tutors, nor even books of advanced mathematics.  He was perfectly happy alone with his father helping out in his sari shop or learning the puranas from his mother while constructing complex mathematical premises thanks to intuition and God-given genius.


                         www.thefamouspeople.com

Both men needed no one; and while Einstein at Princeton and Ramanujan at Cambridge interacted with their peers – the brilliant Hardy, perhaps the most respected mathematician of his age was an early supporter of Ramanujan; but some critics have suggested that Hardy should have left the innocent, homesick, and introverted Brahmin alone to solve universal riddles and derive his own solutions rather than to slavishly work on proofs, the sine qua non of academia and peer review.  Who knows what more brilliant, unexpected, and revolutionary ideas would have come out of his simple but marvelously unique brain if Ramanujan had not been bothered?

Most genius is solitary. Faulkner worked alone.  Absalom, Absalom perhaps the greatest American work of fiction ever, resulted from his sensitive and personal perceptions of the South as a place, race as a signifier, and family as the crucible of maturity. 

Faulkner was of course as influenced as any writer by family, friends, and circumstance.  He enlisted in the Canadian Royal Air Force during World War I, wrote for the school newspaper at the University of Mississippi, married, and became a father.   Although influenced by the myth of ‘The Colonel’, his paternal great grandfather,  an adventurous and shrewd man who worked as a railroad financier, politician, soldier, farmer, businessman, and lawyer, and author, Faulkner’s Thomas Sutpen, the ambitious, arrogant, determined, tragic character of Absalom bore an indirect reference to him.

Faulkner’s black mammy, Caroline Barr, raised him from birth and was a personal and moral force in his upbringing.  He credits her for his fascination with and understanding of the politics of race and sex, powerful themes in Absalom and his other works.


                        www.nobelprize.org

Yet Faulkner’s genius was solitary.  His characters may have been  figures borne out of the South, Mississippi, slavery and Jim Crow, the mulatto and octoroon culture of New Orleans, the Delta, and American idealism but were nevertheless his own.   The opening long paragraph of Absalom is Faulkner’s confection of all the above.  Atmosphere, drama, suspense, resentment, fear – all put together in one solitary work of  insight.  The voice of Rosa Coldfield is Faulkner’s and Faulkner’s alone:
From a little after two o’clock until almost sundown of the long still hot weary dead September afternoon they sat in what Miss Coldfield still called the office because her father had called it that – a dim hot airless room with the blinds all closed and fastened for forty-three summers because when she was a girl someone had believed that light and moving air carried heat and that dark was always cooler and which as the sun shone fuller and fuller on that side of the house became latticed with yellow slashes full of dust motes which Quentin thought of as being flecks of old dead dried paint itself blown inward from the scaling window blinds as wind might have blown them. 
There was a wisteria vine blooming for the second time that summer on a wooden trellis before one window, into which sparrows came no and then in random gusts, making a dry vivid dusty sound before going away; and opposite Quentin, Miss Coldfield in the eternal black which she had worn for forty-three years now, whether for sister, father, or nothusband none knew, sitting so bold upright in the straight hard chair that was so tall for her that her legs hung straight and rigid as if she had iron shinbones and ankles, clear of the floor with that air of impotent and static rage like children’s feet, and talking in that grim haggard amazed voice until at last listening would renege and hearing-sense self-confound and the long-dead object of her impotent yet indomitable frustration would appear, as though by outraged recapitulation evoked, quiet, inattentive, and harmless out of the biding and dreamy and victorious dust.
Glenn Gould was a prodigiously talented pianist and considered the best interpreter of Bach’s Goldberg Variations of any era.  Thanks to – or because of -his prolific, varied performances (concerts, radio, television, film) he became better known more for his on-stage idiosyncrasies than for his music. Nevertheless for those who knew and understood music, Gould was first and foremost a musical prodigy and a genius.


                        www.theguardian.com

Despite sell-out audiences in New York, Los Angeles, and London, Gould abruptly left the concert stage at 31 and turned his attention entirely to recording.

He felt that performing distorted his music.  No matter how hard he tried to block everything – the hall, the lighting, and most importantly the audience – he was unwillingly but irresistibly influenced by them.  His music was less his alone than a product of his environment.  A studio would allow him to control every aspect of his music.  He could play, replay, edit, and re-edit until he had gotten the phrasing, tonality, richness, and precision that he wanted.  The final product would be his and his alone.

Meredith Cobb was no Gould, Ramanujan, or Einstein; but within range.  As a little girl she could read, figure, and write long before any other children.  She showed an unusual sense of color, line, and dimension, and as soon as her physical dexterity caught up with her perception and as soon as she could hold a crayon, she drew perfect likenesses of birds, animals, and insects.   Not only did she capture their shape and form, but their attitude.  Her birds fidgeted and fussed together.  Her deer looked up.  Her cats tensed and halted before pouncing.

She did her remarkable drawings with no training, no help, and no suggestion.  She not only had an innate sense of the way things looked but the way they were.  She understood them; and because she understood them, she could paint them exactly.

As she got older, she did take lessons in drawing, shading, balance, composition, and perspective; but these abilities served only to help frame her own vision.  The architecture of her paintings was more understandable, but the substance of them was purely, originally, and uniquely hers.

In a way Meredith never advanced beyond that earliest stage of child development when a baby does not distinguish between itself and others; its fingers and what it touches.  Of course there was nothing infantile in her perceptions but a sophisticated phenomenology according to which her innate sensibilities, so attuned as they were to her environment, were indistinguishable from it. 

In other words she did not need the outside world because it was hers alone to perceive, manipulate, understand, and reproduce.

She never became a great artist.  In fact she continued painting in only a desultory way.  Drawing was only important to her as a child and adolescent as a means of validating what she had come to understand about herself – that only she and her own intimate, particular, and peculiar and particular observations mattered.  She became a fully mature, self-confident, strong, and able woman because of this particular insight.  She did not need other people.

Like Faulkner, she was agreeably social and enjoyed her college years, travels, lovers, and adventures as much as anyone.  Yet she was not dependent upon them; not tied to their social satisfactions. 
Tolstoy in his story, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, writes of a man who has no real use for anyone – neither wife, family, or colleagues – and constructs a well-ordered, controlled world of little risk, less adventure, and much comfort.  He was never a particularly philosophical man for whom this structure was like the Hindu prescription for dealing with the world of illusion; only an ignorant one.



He becomes mortally ill and cannot believe that his carefully-organized world is coming apart, and he with no real preparation for death or beyond.  In the few moments before his death, however, he has an epiphany.  “Death”, he says.  “Ah, that’s all?”

Meredith had only one thing in common with the Tolstoy character – she understood that we live and die alone.  Her vision, however, was far from Ivan’s cynical one.  Hers was epiphanic from the very beginning.  Anything of consequence happened within her mind; hers to decipher and understand.

A few weeks ago there was a Women’s March of feminist and progressive solidarity.  Women marched not to effect change nor to pressure for it.  They were there in communal solidarity.  They were with their sisters and united for a common if diffuse reason.  It felt good to march together to express good, compassion, right, and well-meaning purpose.  Only through such emotional commitment could the world progress.



It was not so much that Meredith dismissed the camaraderie of the women who marched; nor even that the potpourri of liberal causes was decorative; but that these millions of women were simply off course, sailing without a compass; not so much misguided but not guided at all.

Progressive women marching in Washington, New York, and other cities were defined by one principle and one common belief – that with a little good will, passion, and commitment wars can be stopped, governments reformed, and global issues resolved peaceably. 

Earlier progressives cut their teeth on civil rights and the war in Vietnam; but once those causes lost traction, they were quick to embrace new ones.  Race, gender, and ethnicity as part of ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusivity’ filled the moral void and gave progressives a renewed voice in the name of social justice and moral rectitude.  Global warming soon followed, and the most politically attuned progressives found ways to fold race, gender, and ethnicity under the climate change umbrella.  If any one issue were to luff, there would be many other to take up the slack.

The young women marchers of today are the inheritors of those progressives who constructed such a big tent.

Belonging, affiliation, and allegiance seem as hardwired in us as any other of human nature’s ineluctable traits.  No matter how much we may take pride in our individuality, our uniqueness, or our distinctiveness, we will always be members of some larger group.  It is only in how much importance we place on allegiance to that group which distinguishes us.

Meredith of course was having none of it.  Anything worth happening was happening between the ears, and although she was not indifferent to many of the issues raised by women marchers, she was basically uninterested in them.  Why, she wondered, would anyone spend even an hour on camaraderie, feelings of collective well-being, or youthful idealism when the lessons of history are so clear and indelibly recorded.  The expression of  will, said Nietzsche, is the only validation of the individual in a meaningless world; and while Meredith drew her existential line well before Ubermensch, she never doubted that the only human worth was the worth of genius – or at least brilliant personal insight.



Nietzsche divided humanity into Supermen – those amoral, willful individuals, who understood the nature and ultimately decisive power of will – and the Herd, the mass of those who live collectively, communally, and contentedly.

Conrad understood Nietzsche well, and Lord Jim and Kurtz (Lord Jim, Heart of Darkness) were more nuanced and complex characters that the German philosopher ever envisaged; but still played out dramas of will, ego, and defiance.

The March is over and already forgotten.  Meredith, as indefinably savvy and intellectually purposeful as ever never was aware that it had come and gone.


The world could use more Meredith Cobbs.

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