Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Masters of the earthworm, or the generalist’s dilemma

leave a comment »

Buckminster Fuller

Over the past year or so, I’ve scaled back on the number of books I buy each month, mostly for reasons of shelf space. Every now and then, though, my eye will be caught by a sale or special event I can’t resist, which is how I ended up receiving a big carton last week from Better World Books. (As I’ve noted before, this is the best site for used books around, and a fantastic resource for filling in the gaps in your library.) The box contained what looks, at first, like a random assortment of titles: Strong Opinions, the aptly named collection of interviews and essays by Vladimir Nabokov; Art and Illusion by E.H. Gombrich, which was named one of the hundred best nonfiction books of the century by Modern Library; Cosmic Fishing, a short memoir by E.J. Applewhite about his collaboration with Buckminster Fuller on the book Synergetics; and best of all, Ernest Schwiebert’s magisterial two-volume Trout, which I’ve coveted for years. If it seems like a grab bag, that’s no accident: I really had my eye on Trout, which I ended up getting for half the price it goes for elsewhere, and the others were mostly there to fill out the order. But my choices here also say a lot about me and the kind of books and authors I find most appealing.

The most obvious common thread between all these books is that they lie somewhere at the intersection of art and science. Nabokov, of course, was an accomplished lepidopterist, and Strong Opinions concludes with a sampling of his scientific papers on butterflies. Art and Illusion is a work on the psychology of perception written by an art historian, and the back cover makes its intentions clear: “This book is directed to all who seek for a meeting ground between science and the humanities.” Fuller always occupied a peculiar position between that of engineer, crackpot, and mystic, and this comes through strongly through the eyes of his literary collaborator, who strikingly argues that Fuller’s primary vocation is that of a poet, and reveals that he briefly considered rewriting all of Synergetics in blank verse. And in Schwiebert’s hands, the humble trout becomes a lens through which he considers nearly all of human experience: in the first volume, he wears the hats of historian, literary critic, biologist, ecologist, and entomologist, and that’s before he even gets to the intricacies of rods, flies, and waders. As Schwiebert writes: “[Angling’s] skills are a perfect equilibrium between tradition, physical dexterity and grace, strength, logic, esthetics, our powers of observation, problem solving, perception, and the character of our experience and knowledge.”

Hilaire Belloc

In short, these are all books by or about generalists, original thinkers who understand that the divisions between categories of knowledge are porous, if not outright fictional, and who can draw freely on a wide range of disciplines. Yet these authors also share another, more subtle quality: a relentless focus on a single subject as a window onto all of the rest. Nabokov was as obsessed by his butterflies as Fuller was by the tetrahedron. Gombrich returns repeatedly to “the riddle of style,” or what it means when we say that we draw what we see, and Schwiebert, of course, loved trout. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that any of them became generalists by accident; it takes a certain inborn temperament, and an inhuman degree of patience and curiosity, to even attempt such a comprehensive vision. But it’s no accident that all four of these men—and most of the generalists we know and remember—arrived at their expansive vistas through the narrowest of gates. Occasionally, a thinker with global ambitions will begin by deliberately constraining his or her focus, in a kind of apprenticeship or training ground: Darwin spent long eight years studying the cirripedes, a kind of barnacle, in what Thomas Henry Huxley called “a piece of critical self-discipline.” He knew that you need to go deep before you can go really wide.

And that hasn’t changed. The entomologist Edward O. Wilson recently published a book entitled The Meaning of Human Existence, which would seem insufferably grandiose if he hadn’t already proven himself with decades of laborious work on the ants and other social insects. When we think of the intellectuals we respect, nearly all are men and women who made fundamental contributions to a single, clearly defined field before moving on to others. That’s the generalist’s dilemma: it’s hard to think in an original way about everything until you know one thing well. Otherwise, you end up seeming like a dilettante or worse. I’m acutely aware of my own shortcomings here: I’ve spent all my life trying to be a generalist, to the point of becoming a writer so I had an excuse to poke into whatever subjects I like, but I’ve rarely had the patience to drill down deeply. And while I’m content with my choice, I’m not sure I’d recommend it to anyone else. Hilaire Belloc once said that the best way for a writer to become famous was to concentrate on one subject, like the earthworm, for forty years: “When he is sixty, pilgrims will make a hollow path with their feet to the door of the world’s great authority on the earthworm. They will knock at his door and humbly beg to be allowed to see the Master of the Earthworm.” Belloc pointedly failed to take his own advice, but he has a point. We need to become masters of the earthworm before we become masters of the earth.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: