Sunday, March 21, 2010

"Early" chapter post

I was reading "The Artist is Born" Friday before last before family chaos overtook my evening, and there was a very important paragraph (to me) that I wanted to push out.

It's an area that perplexes me, and one that is, I think, a fundamental topic.
The sheer number of Renaissance treatises tells us something about the nature of a cultural movement. One tends to think of what goes by that name as comprising a handful of geniuses with a group of admirers, patrons, and articulate supporters whose names appear (so to speak) as footnotes in smaller type. Actually, it is a large crowd of highly gifted people--the mass is indispensable. This is a generality. And these many co-workers must be great talents, not duffers. They may be incomplete or unlucky as creators, their names may remain or turn dim, but in retrospect we see that this one or that contributed an original idea, was the first to make use of a device. Together, by what they do and say, they help to keep stirred up the productive excitement, they stimulate the genius in their midst; they are the necessary mulch for the period's exceptional growths.
I've had this thought over and over again. It is at the foundation of my views on society.

I believe in Einstein. I believe in Newton. I believe in Grigoriy Perelman.

These people made quantum leaps. Newton spent seventeen years working on Calculus and physics in isolation. Einstein spent three years in isolation solving general relativity, and hyperbolic calculus. And Dr. Perelman spent his life living with his mother, solving the Poincare Conjecture and rejecting the million dollar prize for solving it.

These are my icons. These are the shining examples of people confronted with the unimaginable imagining it. At present, I'm unaware of any current idea that invalidates Einstein's equations, for instance.

On the other hand, I wonder what would have happened if Einstein had been born a (genetically short) million years ago. What could an Einstein have done then? The introspection required would have left him vulnerable, or any of the above, to say the least. The society plays a role: it has to allow these imaginative people to exist, and their insights to flourish. How many paths are unexplored? Who is to say? And who is to say which of these unexplored paths are inferior? It makes my head swim.

Insofar as the idea that there are many involved in a cultural movement, supporting it, perhaps that is true for fuzzy things like whether the trinity is one or multiple instances of the same thing. I'll leave that to Barzun.

The reason this is interesting to me is the question of wealth. I believe in our current society wealth accumulation is a factor of society, and geniuses marshaling the forces of luck, social mores, and people to obtain tremendous hereditary power from one social genre to the next. I'm firmly opposed to that, and to the extent that Barzun supports that idea, is the extent to which I'm willing to yield to Barzun's notion that "It takes a society."

Of course, none of the people I mentioned hold that hereditary power. They all sought something else, something internal, and I hope that light never goes away.

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