Monday, February 2, 2015

Chapter 44 - On The Road: Part 7 - The First American Congress for General Semantics

Korzybski: A Biography (Free Online Edition)
Copyright © 2014 (2011) by Bruce I. Kodish 
All rights reserved. Copyright material may be quoted verbatim without need for permission from or payment to the copyright holder, provided that attribution is clearly given and that the material quoted is reasonably brief in extent.

On February 16, Korzybski gave a presentation at a regional conference of the Progressive Education Association in Kansas City. Several days later, having finished his lectures at Barstow School, he left for Lawrence, Kansas, about 40 miles to the west, where he gave a presentation at the University of Kansas on “Language and Mental Hygiene”. From there he took a train to Seattle and thence 100 miles southeast to Ellensburg, arriving on February 28, a day before the start of the First American Congress for General Semantics. This gave him a little bit of time to meet Joseph Trainor and the other organizers, check out the environs of the Washington State Normal School, and have a look at the papers being presented—a number of them to be read by Trainor or others, since many of the authors were not attending in person. 

Korzybski, happy to at least have had his expenses paid, had minimum expectations about the Congress. Once there however, he felt pleasantly surprised at the place, the people, and the program. As he jokingly recalled years later, 
I expected an old barn and 2 [and] 1/2 members, the half being myself. That’s all I expected. Now I found a beautiful little college. Very well organized. A beautiful hall. Lecture hall, and something like 150 people, and they had a very nice program then.(24)
Trainor and Potts presented their papers on their classroom research. Selden Smyser, talked on “Subverbal, Verbal and Superverbal Logics”. Also present, Professor E. O. Sisson of Reed College spoke on “Basic Technique of Language”. Papers, read by others, included ones by W. Burridge, M.D. (Dean of the Medical Faculty and Professor of Physiology at King George’s Medical College in Lucknow, India); Cassius Keyser (an excerpt from his Scripta Mathematica review of Science and Sanity); geneticist Harry H. Laughlin; John Lynn (case reports on his two alcoholic patients); Roderick Macdonald (a Harvard biologist and friend of the Korzybskis who had just become director of the Philadelphia Zoo); William Malisoff (editor of the Philosophy of Science journal); social worker Sydney Maslon; businessman Charles Owen; Oliver Reiser; W. E. Ritter; University of California Education Professor C. E. Rugh; A. Ranger Tyler; penology researcher Miriam Van Waters; University of Kansas psychologist Raymond H. Wheeler; and Cora Williams. Korzybski gave three addresses pulled from his “Outline”—one to an audience of students and faculty on “The Significance of General Semantics” at the start of the Conference on Friday morning, March 1; one that evening to an audience of physicians on “The Relation of General Semantics to Medicine”; and the last, on “Education and General Semantics”, the following afternoon to an audience that included the Yakima Valley Schoolmasters Club. The variety of general-semantics applications and research presented at the Congress, and the interest engendered there—so soon after the appearance of Science and Sanity—seemed to him quite remarkable. (See Papers From The First American Congress For General Semantics )

Korzybski felt especially delighted to have Burridge’s contribution at the Congress, having encountered Burridge’s four books Excitability: A Cardiac Study, A New Physiology of Sensation, A New Physiological Psychology, and Alcohol and Anaesthesia, in the latter part of 1934. Since then he had been enthusiastically recommending them to ‘one and all’ as important for the electro-colloidal outlook which they presented and which he considered essential for a more process-oriented understanding of medicine and nervous system functioning. Korzybski continued to recommend the books in subsequent years. Burridge also had an invited paper at the 1941 General Semantics Congress. Korzybski’s enthusiasm notwithstanding, after 1935 the colloidal point of view (until then a quite lively focus of bio-medical research) suffered a severe decline in fashion from which it has not recovered.

The Congress received quite extensive press coverage—and not only from the Normal School’s Campus Crier and the Ellensburg Evening Record. In the first few days of March 1935, one could find stories on the Congress with headlines such as the following in local newspapers—nationwide and coast-to-coast: “Most People ‘Unsane,’ Polish Scientist Says”, “Average Man Beset by Fears, Semantic Congress Hears” (New York Herald-Tribune, March 2); “HAS AID TO HAPPINESS Polish Scientist Introduces New Light on Semantics. Alfred Korzybski Says Man Can Be Immunized Against Vicious Propaganda” (St. Joseph, Mo. News-Press, March 2); “SEMANTICS HELD ‘WAY TO GENIUS’ Polish Scientist Avers Present Tutoring “Manufactures Morons”—Lives by Inference” (Spokane, Washington Spokesman-Review, March 3). 
Robert McConnell (President of Washington State Normal School) on AK's right and Joseph Trainor on his left at the First American Congress for General Semantics,
March 1935 
After the Congress, Korzybski seemed to be flying high. From Ellensburg he returned to Seattle where he had two days of lectures and meetings at the University of Washington, organized by Dean Uhl of the School of Education. An article on his visit in the University of Washington Daily included the following, “Almost 60 years old, the Count, mathematical philosopher, author, lecturer and World War veteran,...explained that he had slept just nine hours during the last 10 days, but that he was used to hard work.”

The “Strolling Around the Town” section in the following week’s March 11 Seattle Times contained this snippet:
Aside from the astonishing subject matter of addresses by Count Alfred Korzybski, Polish mathematical philosopher, who was in Seattle last week, two things are notable in his speaking. One is the count’s fine grasp of blunt Anglo-Saxon terms, his fine sense for injecting them as punctuation. The second is his constant and energetic smoking, for which he uses—or abuses—an amber cigarette holder. 
Two friends spent a hectic two hours before one of Count Korzybski’s addresses, in escorting him on a frantic trip to a pipe hospital. The cigarette holder suffered a breakdown, and until an expert overhauled it, the count’s lecture itself was in jeopardy. 
The evening Count Korzybski left for San Francisco, the amber holder disappeared. The count was philosophical about it, naturally enough, but friends were happy to hear the next day that the holder had been found in the count’s suite at the Hotel Edmond Meany and had been rushed on its way to its owner. (25)

It took Korzybski another month to get home. From Berkeley, where he gave five lectures at the Williams Institute, he traveled to Los Angeles to spend a few days there and in Pasadena, where he met in person his friend R.B. Haseldon, curator of manuscripts at the Huntington Library, with whom he had been corresponding for several years. Haseldon, who had developed a considerable interest in Korzybski’s work, seemed full of fun. He had invented a cocktail which he called “The Korzybski” with the following formula, as reported third-hand later on in a newspaper snippet:
“...You take a large cocktail shaker and place therein: 3 parts gin, 2 parts applejack, 3 parts dry vermouth, 1 part sweet vermouth. Stand this in the refrigerator for one hour, then drink and note results. Better still, have someone note the results for you. You soon reach the nonverbal level, where one can point, but cannot utter.”(26) 

In addition to seeing friends in Southern California, Korzybski had wanted to get a paid lecture or two, but only managed an informal talk at Haseldon’s home, before returning east. After a stop in Kansas City, he went on to lecture in Chicago and at the University of Michigan–Ann Arbor, and finally at Olivet College in Olivet, Michigan (where his friend Joseph Brewer had recently become President) before getting back to Brooklyn by the second week of April. Mira had literally counted the days until his return. He felt very tired but considered the trip a great success.(27)

You may download a pdf of all of the book's reference notes (including a note on primary source material and abbreviations used) from the link labeled Notes on the Contents page. The pdf of the Bibliography, linked on the Contents page contains full information on referenced books and articles. 
24. Korzybski 1947, p. 284.

25. “Strolling Around the Town”. 3/11/1935, Seattle Times. AKDA 2.784. 

26. “Punk and Incense”. Trenton N.J. Advertiser, 3/27/1938. AKDA 2.833. 

27. AK to P. Graven, 4/13/1935. AKDA 30.58.

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