Magnified into a miracle

Leonard Bernstein’s introduction to Heinrich Gebhard’s The Art of Pedaling (1963):

Reading this beautiful book has been in the nature of a recaptured experience for me—the tenderly nostalgic re-experiencing of an old set of emotions. So clearly does the essence of the Gebhard personality emerge in his writing that it transported me almost physically back into his gracious studio in Brookline, Massachusetts, absorbing again the gentle urging, the massive charm, the malice-free wit, and the overwhelming love for music (romantic as a young lover is romantic) that stamped each piano lesson I had with him as a major event. We would sit at two fine old Mason and Hamlins, abreast: I would play, he would play: he would leap up, with that light, deer-like energy, and over my shoulder coax my Mason and Hamlin to sigh and sing like his. Anything I did that pleased him was magnified into a miracle by his enthusiasms: my failures were minimized and lovingly corrected. And all was bathed in the glow of wonder, of constant astonishment at the golden streams of Chopin, the subtle might of Beethoven, the fevered imaginings of Schumann, and the cooler images of Debussy. But nothing ever became really cool. Sound, in itself, was passion; the disposition of sound into constellations for the piano was life itself. I never once left that studio on my own two feet: I floated out.

During my last year of study with this Delphic fountain, I came upon, and was infatuated with, the Variations by Aaron Copland. A new world of music had opened to me in this work—extreme, prophetic, clangorous, fiercely dissonant, intoxicating. The work was unknown to Heinrich. “Teach it to me,” he said, “and then, by Jove, I’ll teach it back to you.” And that is precisely what happened. Obviously Gebhard’s greatness as a teacher resided mainly in his greatness as a student. Not long before his death he wrote me that he was in the midst of “reviewing” the works of Bach and The Ring of the Nibelungen. By Jove, that was a great man.

The rewards of creative activity

the second paragraph of Allan Forte’s Tonal Harmony in Concept and Practice (1962):

We hold the conviction that the primary aim of serious music study is to illuminate the subject, not to surround it with trivia and bury it beneath detail. At the same time one must realize that a technical approach to music, like a technical approach to any subject, involves specific tasks which are often detailed. These include the learning of a new terminology, the memorizing of certain facts, and the intelligent working out of exercises in order to achieve basic skills. Without these one cannot hope to approach the general concepts essential to the art, nor can one a ain that level of minimal ability which will enable him to enjoy the rewards of creative activity.

In praise of the antilibrary

from Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (2007):

The writer Umberto Eco belongs to that small class of scholars who are encyclopedic, insightful, and nondull. He is the owner of a large personal library (containing thirty thousand books), and separates visitors into two categories: those who react with “Wow! Signore professore dottore Eco, what a library you have! How many of these books have you read?” and the others—a very small minority—who get the point that a private library is not an ego-boosting appendage but a research tool. Read books are far less valuable than unread ones. The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight real-estate market allows you to put there. You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menacingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books. Let us call this collection of unread books an antilibrary.

[…]

We tend to treat our knowledge as personal property to be protected and defended. It is an ornament that allows us to rise in the pecking order. So this tendency to offend Eco’s library sensibility by focusing on the known is a human bias that extends to our mental operations. People don’t walk around with anti-résumés telling you what they have not studied or experienced (it’s the job of their competitors to do that), but it would be nice if they did. Just as we need to stand library logic on its head, we will work on standing knowledge itself on its head.

Why would you know that?

Arthur Krystal’s profile of Jacques Barzun in The New Yorker, on the occasion of his hundredth birthday:

Sooner or later, all of Barzun’s acquaintances experience their own “just Jacques” moment. Two years ago, while working on a piece for this magazine, I called Barzun to find out whether Lord Edward Grey, the British Foreign Secretary during the First World War, had said that the lights were going out all over Europe before hostilities had actually begun. Barzun asked if I was referring to him in my article as “Lord Grey.” I said I was, since the attribution was always the same. Barzun cleared his throat. “Well, you know, he wasn’t a lord when he said it. He didn’t become Viscount of Fallodon until 1916.” For the first time in thirty-odd years of conversation, I exclaimed, “Why would you know that?” He replied, mildly, “It’s my business to know such things.”

Energies and perseverances

Thomas Jefferson to Dr. John P. Emmet, May 2, 1826, discovered in Nathaniel Grossman, The Sheer Joy of Celestial Mechanics:

[…] consider that we do not expect our schools to turn out their alumni already on the pinnacles of their respective sciences; but only so far advanced in each as to be able to pursue them by themselves, and to become Newtons and Laplaces by energies and perseverances to be continued throughout life.

Weigh and consider

Francis Bacon, “Of Studies,” originally 1597, enlarged 1625:

Studies serve for delight, for ornament, and for ability. Their chief use for delight, is in privateness and retiring; for ornament, is in discourse; and for ability, is in the judgment, and disposition of business. For expert men can execute, and perhaps judge of particulars, one by one; but the general counsels, and the plots and marshalling of affairs, come best, from those that are learned. To spend too much time in studies is sloth; to use them too much for ornament, is affectation; to make judgment wholly by their rules, is the humor of a scholar. They perfect nature, and are perfected by experience: for natural abilities are like natural plants, that need proyning, by study; and studies themselves, do give forth directions too much at large, except they be bounded in by experience. Crafty men contemn studies, simple men admire them, and wise men use them; for they teach not their own use; but that is a wisdom without them, and above them, won by observation. Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider. Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention. Some books also may be read by deputy, and extracts made of them by others; but that would be only in the less important arguments, and the meaner sort of books, else distilled books are like common distilled waters, flashy things. Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man. And therefore, if a man write little, he had need have a great memory; if he confer little, he had need have a present wit: and if he read little, he had need have much cunning, to seem to know, that he doth not. Histories make men wise; poets witty; the mathematics subtile; natural philosophy deep; moral grave; logic and rhetoric able to contend. Abeunt studia in mores. Nay, there is no stond or impediment in the wit, but may be wrought out by fit studies; like as diseases of the body, may have appropriate exercises. Bowling is good for the stone and reins; shooting for the lungs and breast; gentle walking for the stomach; riding for the head; and the like. So if a man’s wit be wandering, let him study the mathematics; for in demonstrations, if his wit be called away never so little, he must begin again. If his wit be not apt to distinguish or find differences, let him study the Schoolmen; for they are cymini sectores. If he be not apt to beat over matters, and to call up one thing to prove and illustrate another, let him study the lawyers’ cases. So every defect of the mind, may have a special receipt.

The shadow of lost knowledge

William Johnson Cory in Eton Reform II as adapted by George Lyttleton in writing to Rupert Hart-Davis, discovered in a piece by David Bromwich on free speech and the university:

At school you are engaged not so much in acquiring knowledge as in making mental efforts under criticism. A certain amount of knowledge you can indeed with average faculties acquire so as to retain; nor need you regret the hours you spent on much that is forgotten, for the shadow of lost knowledge at least protects you from many illusions. But you go to a great school not so much for knowledge as for arts and habits; for the habit of attention, for the art of expression, for the art of assuming at a moment’s notice a new intellectual position, for the art of entering quickly into another person’s thoughts, for the habit of submitting to censure and refutation, for the art of indicating assent or dissent in graduated terms, for the habit of regarding minute points of accuracy, for the art of working out what is possible in a given time, for taste, for discrimination, for mental courage, and for mental soberness.

Not to take root

Cioran, amidst admiration for Borges, Anathemas and Admirations, 1976:

I have never been attracted to minds confined to a single form of culture. “Not to take root, not to belong to any community”: such has been and such is my motto. Oriented toward other horizons, I have always wanted to know what was happening elsewhere; by the time I was twenty, the Balkan skyline had nothing more to offer me. This is the drama, and also the advantage, of being born in a minor “cultural” space. The foreign had become my god—whence that thirst to travel through literatures and philosophies, to devour them with a morbid ardor.

A total devotion to hedgehoggism

Richard Powers in conversation with Jeffrey Williams, Cultural Logic, spring 1999:

RP: I was the kind of kid who really didn’t make great distinctions between different fields and who took huge amounts of pleasure in being able to solve problems in very different intellectual disciplines. If anything, I would say my problem-solving abilities in math and science were always a good deal stronger than my verbal skills. I always thought that I would end up becoming one kind of scientist or another. It wasn’t always physics. For a while it was oceanography. For a while it was paleontology.

JW: Unusual for a novelist . . .

RP: Well, I’m not sure what the usual novelist trajectory is! But my orientation was definitely empirical, a real bias toward the “non-subjective” disciplines. I guess the difficulty for me growing up was this constant sensation that every decision to commit myself more deeply to any of these fields meant closing several doors. Specializing involved almost perpetual leave-taking from other pursuits that I loved and that gave me great pleasure. I really resisted the process, as long as I could. I just wanted to arrive somewhere where I could be the last generalist and do that in good faith. I thought for a long time that physics might be that place.

We have this notion of physics—especially cosmology, I guess—as representing a fundamental kind of knowledge, and that it’s a great field to be in if you want the aerial view of how things work. In fact, in some ways, almost the opposite may be true. The enormous success of the reductionist program depends upon absolute applications of Occam’s razor on every level. You have to make yourself expert in a field that’s too small even to be called a specialization. The whole overwhelming success of physics as a discipline depends upon dividing and conquering, on separating fields of research into ever smaller domains. And so it became clear to me pretty quickly, to use Isaiah Berlin’s hedgehog and fox distinction, that rather than becoming a fox, I had in fact landed in a place that demanded of me a total devotion to hedgehoggism. I got pretty claustrophobic pretty quickly, and it made me look for other fields where I could preserve that sense of multiplicity, of generalism.

JW: So that induced your turn to literature?

RP: That’s right. Initially, I thought that in the study of literature, I’d really found that aerial view again.

JW: So you thought that you’d be a literary critic and a professor?

RP: Right, or at least that that’s how I would make my living. Since literature seemed to be about everything that there is—about the human condition—I figured that a good literary critic would have to make himself expert at that big picture. It didn’t take me long to realize that the professionalization of literary criticism has taken reductionism as its model, and that it too can lead to learning more and more about less and less until you’re in danger of knowing everything there is to know about nothing.