November 15th, 2018

storyteller doll

Mostly About Genius

Work is busy but frustrating.

I have been in sort of a swirl of trying to get caught up on the chaos that is my condo, but getting distracted by other things (mostly reading things on-line and catching up on crosswords) instead. I had particularly good intentions for Saturday, but spent much of the day in suspended animation, i.e. alternating between reading and napping.

Sunday, on the other hand, was a swirl of activity. The morning was One-Day University, with three presentations focused on the theme of Genius. I will write more about those below. I was supposed to rush from there to rehearsal for an upcoming storytelling show, but realized I had misremembered when One Day University ended, so opted to run my story (which is not a new one) over the phone on Monday instead. That gave me roughly an hour at home to get some housework done before heading to Arlington for dinner and trivia at Heavy Seas Alehouse with some Losers, i.e. devotees of the Style Invitational. I was clearly tired as I badly misinterpreted a cocktail I ordered. Any Port in the Storm turned out to have ginger syrup and golden ale, not ginger ale. I was thinking it would be sort of like a Dark and Stormy, but it was too sweet. We did, however, win at trivia, even though we were completely hopeless at a fill-in-the-blank lyrics component, which involved a rap song none of us had even heard of.

FDR: The first was by Jeffrey Engle of SMU on Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He started by pointing out that a lot of politicians – including George H.W. Bush, Osama Bin Laden, and Kim Davis – have claimed to be acting in the name of freedom, but that most never define what they mean by freedom. FDR, however, was very specific in his Four Freedoms speech, which he noted came 10 and a half months before Pearl Harbor. Those four freedoms are, of course, freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.

Anyway, his main point was that FDR’s success was due to his skill with rhetoric, his optimism, his pragmatism / flexibility, and his empathy. Regarding the latter, he believed that bad things can happen to people through no fault of their own, probably because of his own experience with polio. (By the way, Professor Engel noted that people actually did know FDR was paralyzed, even if they didn’t see photos of him in a wheelchair.) As for political ideology, FDR stated that he was: 1) a Democrat and 2) a Christian. He thought aerial bombing was immoral, but realized it was a valuable tactic. Similarly, he (and the Democratic party of the time) believed in a balanced budget, but was willing to experiment with government spending to end the Depression.

Overall, this was an entertaining talk, especially because of a lot of trivia Engel threw in. For example, he talked about how disliked William Jennings Bryan was as Secretary of State because he was a teetotaler who banned alcohol from diplomatic parties. And he noted that "Make America Great Again was Warren G. Harding’s campaign slogan.

Marie Curie: The second talk was on Marie Curie by Susan Lindee of the University of Pennsylvania. She started out by pointing out that genius is a social category. That is, just being great at what you do is not enough. You have to work to get the recognition, too.

Anyway, Maria Sklodowski and her sister, Bronislawa (who became a doctor) were encouraged by their father in their studies. Originally, Maria was supposed to work as a nanny to pay for Bronislawa’s education, but their father got a good job, enabling her to enroll in the Sorbonne instead. She got top grades in math and physics. Her need for lab space led to her introduction to Pierre Curie and she married him in 1895, a little over a year after they met. Fun trivia is that they spent their honeymoon on a bicycling trip, complete with fashionable biking outfits.

The Curies shared the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics with Henri Becquerel. Pierre insisted Marie (as she had modified her name from Polish to French) be included. In 1896, Pierre was killed in a cart accident after slipping on a wet road. (By the way, this was the day before the San Francisco earthquake and fire, so was a bit overshadowed in the news.) Marie went on to win the 1911 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. She also went on to a scandalous affair with Paul Langevin, who was married. The affair resulted in five duels, only one of which involved Langevin himself. Langevin eventually did go back to his wife, by the way.

Other notable things Marie did included creating x-ray wagons for use on World War I battlefields (and drive one herself, as well as teaching other women how to drive them and read the x-rays), writing a biography of Pierre, and persuaded an American journalist to raise money to buy her radium for her research. And she had two daughters, one of whom, Irene, shared a Nobel prize with her husband, Frederic Joliot-Curie, while the other (Eve) wrote a biography of Marie. Eve’s husband, Henry Richardson Labouisse, Jr., went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1965 on behalf of UNICEF. More fun trivia is that Irene’s daughter, Helene, married Michel Langevin, the grandson of Paul Langevin.

Final point was that Marie Curie never made any statements about the rights of women. However, she did hire a lot of women in her lab, which may be more practical feminism. And she was very good at promoting herself, which is why we know more about her than a lot of other women in science. That goes back to the idea of genius as a social construct. Self-promotion is, alas, an element of genius.

Mozart: The final lecture was on Mozart and was given by Craig Wright of Yale. He started with having us sing, which was a good way to make sure everyone is awake after a couple of lectures. Unlike the other lecturers, Professor Wright gave an actual definition of genius as involving a person whose creative works or insights change society in some significant way (for good or ill) across time and across cultures. He then went on to talk about two types of cognitive processes in music – 1) perceiving and replicating music and 2) creating music. I’m not sure he is completely correct about the first of those. I believe that I perceive music well, but I am not good at replicating it. That is, there are various tests I do well at, e.g. of the ability to perceive intervals But I am no good at the mechanics of reproducing those to sing or play an instrument by ear. Mozart was very good at both aspects of the former, reportedly having perfect pitch, which enabled him to hear a piece once and them play it. And his manuscripts are lacking in corrections.

Wright than discussed aspects of creativity, which he said is facilitated by opportunity, motivation and an active and vivid imagination. Some of the things he talked about as far as creative thinking are associative thinking (which also included verbal, as well as musical, sounds in Mozart’s case), combinative thinking / synthesis, homospatial thinking (which he defined as multiple strands of information superimposed in one temporal space), iconoclastic thinking (including scatological thinking), and dhildlike thinking. The latter two could be combined as a lack of barriers to imagination. He showed various examples of these aspects of Mozart’s work throughout, including clips from the movie Amadeus. One of the most interesting was an animated visualization of the Jupiter Symphony.

At the end, somebody asked what other composers Wright would consider geniuses. He cited Mahler, Beethoven, and Bach. I’ve been pondering that question all week. I think there’s an inherent difficulty in thinking about it because we can’t really hear a piece of music the way people heard it when it was first written. I value the revolutionary aspect of genius, which is why I’d put Balakirev on my list for his work fusing traditional (Russian) folk music with classical practice, leading to whole idea of nationalistic music. So, while I think Mussorgsky was the most musically talented of The Five (or would have been if he hadn’t fallen to drink), Balakirev is the more historically important.

I am not entirely consistent, however, because I’d list Gershwin above Berlin, even though the latter is the one who really emphasized jazz and ragtime as fundamentally American music. And, yes, Mozart and Bach belong on the list, too, because I am a product of Western culture.

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