Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Ernest Schwiebert

Masters of the earthworm, or the generalist’s dilemma

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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.

The great teachers

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In his recent New Yorker review of William Deresiewicz’s Excellent Sheep, Nathan Heller offers up a piece of wisdom that I wish someone had shared with me fifteen years ago:

The best advice I ever got in college came from the freshman-year adviser to whom I had been assigned…I had come into her office with a dog-eared copy of the catalogue. I thought that maybe I would take a class on Keats? And physics? My adviser, who taught history, shook her head. “The topics aren’t important,” she said. “What you want to do is find the people who are the best teachers and the best writers and take whatever they teach.”

I’m not sure if I ever articulated this principle to myself as clearly as it’s stated here, but a fumbling version of it guided many—though not most—of my choices in college. I was able to audit courses from the likes of Cornel West and Stephen Jay Gould, and when it came time to select a major, I was guided primarily by the idea that I should spend my time in a department that was ranked among the best of its kind, which is how I ended up in classics. But if I have one regret about how I spent those four years, it’s that I didn’t follow this tip more systematically. There were a lot of great classes that I could have attended but didn’t, and I won’t have a chance again.

Fortunately, though, the scope of this advice isn’t confined to college. When I look at my own bookshelves, I get the sense that I’ve been unconsciously following this model all along, at least when it comes to the authors I read. There’s a wild array of titles and subjects here, and I picked up many of these books on little more than a lucky hunch. What unifies most of them, though, is the aura they radiate of lives spent in pursuit of difficult intellectual goals, and the ability to convey them in ways that shed light onto unexpected corners. It’s why Edward O. Wilson’s books on ants share space with the work of statistician and graphic designer Edward Tufte, and why I keep The Plan of St. Gall a few shelves away from books by or about Colin Fletcher, George Saintsbury, Pauline Kael, Roger Penrose, Kimon Nicolaides, and Saul Bass, along with such otherwise inexplicable titles as Chinese Calligraphy and Ship Models: How to Build Them. These books don’t have a lot in common except for the fact that they’re all the work of great teachers, and I’ve found that it’s best to follow them wherever they decide to go, without worrying too much about the subject.

Edward O. Wilson

Recently, for instance, I’ve become interested in the work of Ernest Schwiebert, a legendary author among fly fishermen who remains relatively unknown to the rest of the world. I’ve never been fishing in my life, but after encountering Schwiebert—thanks, as with so many other books that have changed my life, to a glowing mention in The Whole Earth Catalog—I’ve started to think of him as a mentor and kindred spirit. Angling is an appealing sport, even from the confines of an armchair, because of the multitude of skills and states of mind it requires, and there are times when I feel that Schwiebert, who was a Princeton-trained architect and author by trade, is really talking about something else:

Its 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. It also combines the primordial rhythms of the stalk with the chesslike puzzles of fly-hatches and fishing, echoing the blood rituals of the hunt without demanding the kill.

Take out the reference to physical dexterity and grace, and you have a pretty good description of how it feels to write a novel, which requires a constantly shifting balance between intellectual precision, brute force, intuition, and luck. And this is ultimately true of any craft, which goes a long way toward explaining why I find myself reading books on urban planning, coding, theater, animation, and other subjects that have only a tangential connection to what I do for a living. At one time, I thought I was looking for particular insights from other fields that would turn me into a better writer, but that isn’t necessarily true; the challenges that writing presents are so specific that approaches from other disciplines are useful primarily as metaphors. What really matters, I’ve found, is spending time in the company of great teachers and craftsmen. Those qualities of temperament—curiosity, diligence, an embrace of serendipity combined with ruthless pragmatism—remain constant across all forms of workmanship or expression. And even after college, we can find role models and examples in all the best teachers, regardless of their areas of expertise, as long as we’re willing to seek them out.

Written by nevalalee

September 17, 2014 at 9:40 am

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