Korzybski: A Biography (Free Online Edition)Copyright © 2014 (2011) by Bruce I. Kodish
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Another attendee at this 1945-46 Winter Holiday Seminar, Richard T. McClaughry, never became well known, but he left a record of his interview with Korzybski notable for its personal honesty, likely detail, and rarity. Although Korzybski’s individual work with his students constituted a major part of his efforts, few independent records exist of what happened in these interviews. The autobiographical statements of students and Korzybski’s follow-up correspondence with them were, as he had requested, returned to them or destroyed upon his death to protect their privacy. Only a few students’ letters—with their permission—remained in the archives, with their names cut out. McClaughry wrote an account of his interview with Korzybski in an article written for the Reader’s Digest—never published, but discovered by his son among his papers many years after his 1973 death. With his son’s permission, I present his story here. (4)
At the age of thirty, McClaughry had a successful marriage and a promising career when tragedy struck. Soon after his wife gave birth to their first child, a healthy boy, he received a fateful phone call at work. His wife had just died from a blood clot. With that call, his world began to fall apart. He became depressed. Though not very religious to start with, he became a militant atheist. Within a year, he was seeing a psychiatrist who advised him to get married in order “to face the future and provide a home for my infant son.” The marriage broke up six months later. He sent his son to live with relatives, fired his psychiatrist, quit his job as an advertising account executive, and had a heart attack (considered “psychosomatic”) in short order. While recovering, he read an article about Korzybski and his seminars and decided that he might learn something helpful.
Then living in Detroit, he attended the September intensive seminar in 1941. In his own words, here are his first impressions:
I’m not sure yet why I actually went. Largely, I think, because my physician had forbidden me even to think of work during the period, and time hung heavy on my hands. I didn’t expect much—in that length of time and for that price [$50]. (I had already spent thousands on psychiatry.) I was nine-tenths convinced in advance that Korzybski had to be an imposter and a fake. Perhaps, like most cynics, I had developed a morbid pleasure in exposing the “stupidities” of others, and went to Chicago to match my intellect against anyone who dared to believe in anything.
At any rate, I went. My first sight of the man I proposed to challenge somewhat jarred my preconceptions. I had expected either a “long-haired intellectual” or a suave and urbane Hollywood “faith healer” type. Instead I saw a man of sixty [sic] who looked more like a Polish wrestler than anything else. Head like a billiard ball—either completely bald or completely shaved, I never knew which. A round, flat, Slavic face. A short, squat, powerful body, with tremendous shoulders. A baffling accent, at times incomprehensible to my Mid-Western American ears. A tremendous grasp of a staggering range of academic subjects, including mathematics, the physical sciences, languages, history, philosophy, psychology and psychiatry. He was capable of Falstaffian humor and Jovian wrath. Though Bertrand Russell, who should know, once referred to his erudition as “extraordinary”, I have never, before or since, heard any lecturer or teacher answer so many questions with a simple and unequivocal “I don’t know”.
I am happy to say now that any ideas I may have had of pitting my “intellect” against Korzybski’s disappeared quickly. I attempted just one confrontation, only to feel ten seconds later as if I had been picked up by a giant and shaken like a child. From then on, I kept my mouth shut, and listened.
This ‘confrontation’ may have been the encounter that his son described to me in a letter:
I lived with my father during high school, 1950-1954. The only artifact I have from him is his cherished copy of S&S, carefully underlined by me when I read it 40 years ago.
Here’s the one anecdote [my father] told me back then about attending AK’s seminar...
At an early lecture AK mentioned “zat famuz Greek general who conquered z’vurld”.
My father, long used to being the brightest boy in the class, piped up “Alexander the Great.”
AK paused, looked quizzically at my father, and feigning deafness said “Vot?” [Korzybski was probably not feigning as he definitely had a hearing deficit – BIK]My father said, “ALEXANDER THE GREAT.”
AK, looking even more puzzled, said “VOT?”
My father, now getting very embarrassed, shouted “ALEXANDER THE GREAT!”
AK pondered this a moment, then said, “It duss not matter.”
That was the only time my father sought to supply AK with missing information. (5)
McClaughry found the seminar exhilarating and valuable. He convinced his estranged second wife to come to the upcoming 1941-42 Holiday Seminar with him. Perhaps they could find some means there to restore their marriage. But, as he wrote, “her reactions were different than mine, and the project failed.”
By this time, America was at war, so shortly after my divorce decree became final, I enlisted in the Army. Three and one-half years of military service, including two and one-half overseas, wiped out what progress I had made toward personal re-orientation. After demobilization, I decided to attend one more seminar at the Institute as a last resort, not so much because I thought a third series of lectures would reach me with anything new, as because I hoped contact with Korzybski might give me back the will to try again.
This was the 1945-46 Holiday Intensive—the last one he would ever attend. He came to believe that his interview there with Korzybski saved his life.
The seminar was as expected. But at the end of each seminar, it was Korzybski’s practice to grant a two-hour private interview to each student, based on a written, confidential autobiography submitted in advance. I had submitted autobiographies twice in the past, but I now realized that they had been less than candid. This time I determined, cost what it might, to be brutally honest about myself in my paper, in order to get from Korzybski the help I desperately needed.
I got more than I bargained for.
Korzybski’s face was like stone when I entered his office for my scheduled interview. The room was in darkness, except for a pool of light in the far corner of the room, where the man I had come to see sat at his desk, waiting. He motioned me to a chair, without greeting. As I sat down, he picked up and glanced briefly at the document I had mailed him, sentences in which, I could see from across the desk, had been heavily underlined.
|Alfred Korzybski in his Chicago office, 1944 (6)|
“Well”, he said finally, after what seemed an interminable silence, “you’re paying me to tell you what’s wrong with you. You are not paying me to make you like it.”“You are an alcoholic.”
I winced. Though I knew I had frequently drunk to excess, I worked in fields in which heavy drinking was laughed at. Neither my psychiatrist nor I had seen this as a basic problem. Furthermore, those were the days when the term “alcoholic” was still an insult, not a diagnosis. I reacted accordingly.
“That isn’t what my psychiatrist said,” I retorted belligerently. “He said. ...”
“I don’t care what your psychiatrist said”, Korzybski interrupted. “If anyone can read this revolting mess”—here he picked up and waved the document I had sent him through the mails—“and not see alcoholism in every line, I’d like to know how. You’re not a misunderstood genius. You’re not a pathetic victim of Fate. You’re an alcoholic, and the sooner you realize it, the better.”
I tried to protest again, but he talked right through me.
“How long do you think you’re going to last, the way you’re going?” he asked, again waving my paper.
I answered with what I thought was cynical bravado. “I don’t know”, I shrugged, “six months, maybe.”
He shook his head sadly. “No, not six months; thirty years, with each year more miserable than the one before. Most alcoholics don’t die young, though everyone wishes they would. They just keep on stumbling along, a nuisance to everyone else and a misery to themselves.”
“Now, I’m going to tell you what you can do about it”, he continued, “and you’re not going to like that, either.”
“From where you sit right now, you have only three choices. First, you can go on as you are; that’s probably what you will do. You think you’ve had a hard life so far. Let me tell you what you can expect, if you continue in your present direction.”
Korzybski prided himself on his ability to speak to the senses and the emotions as well as to the intellect. During the next thirty or forty minutes, he more than proved his point. It was not a temperance lecture. It was a detailed, statistically-based description of a typical case of alcoholic disintegration.
I didn’t just hear what he said. As he talked, I felt the things he talked about actually happening—and to me. As if in a motion picture, I saw myself fighting a hopeless battle against alcoholic odds...the progressively more severe and more prolonged drinking episodes and their aftermaths...the humiliation and degradation...the friends lost...the jobs thrown away...the lies and excuses used over and over again until finally worn out...and only finally the jail, the mental hospital and the dishonored grave. At times, in considering these possibilities in the past, I had managed to see myself in an heroic role: Man against Fate. There was nothing heroic in Korzybski’s picture. Instead of Prometheus defying the lightnings, I saw only an increasingly revolting parody of a human being condemned by his own stupidity to a revolting end. I felt this just couldn’t be a true picture of me and my future; yet, when I looked at myself through Korzybski’s eyes, that’s what I saw.
“Now”, he said at last, “that’s one choice you can make. Fortunately, a much better choice is available.”
I gasped. It was no time for jokes.
He wasn’t joking.
“That’s right,”he repeated. “Shoot yourself. I’m not sentimental about suicide. There are a lot of people moving around on the face of the earth who would be better off dead, and you’re one of them. Why drag out the misery and disgrace I’ve just told you about for thirty years, when you can get it all over in thirty seconds? Get a revolver...load it...put it to your temple...pull the trigger. In two or three days, you’ll be buried and forgotten, and the whole human race, including you, will be better off.”
He paused a moment, and then resumed in a more reflective tone. “There would be a third choice—for some people—but, on second thought, I don’t believe it’s worth mentioning to you. You have no religion. That’s out. You’ve tried psychiatry long enough to prove yourself untreatable. You’ve attended my seminars three times and are worse off now than when you started. Obviously, I can’t help you. Frankly, I don’t know anyone who can—or anything.”
He paused again. Then he said: “There is something called ‘Alcoholics Anonymous’. They seem to get results, in some cases. I don’t know how. I wish I did. Their number is in the phone book.” He thought again. “But, no—even they have to have something left to work with, and you’re too far gone. You can call them, if you want to, but I can tell you right now that if you do you’ll just be wasting their time and yours.”
I made one last attempt at self-defense. “But I have shown some ability in some things”, I protested.
He looked at me with heavy scorn. Then he said something which I have tried to remember, ever since.
“Oh, I admit you have ability,” he snorted. “But, will you kindly tell me: WHAT GOOD IS ABILITY WITHOUT CHARACTER?”
He left that thought trailing in the air. Then he suddenly looked at his watch and stood up.
“Well, old man, that’s it. I said in the beginning that you have three choices, but actually you have only two: continue on your present course or shoot yourself. Even you ought to be able to see which is better.”
...The man across the desk spoke with the cold, impersonal tones of a judge pronouncing sentence.
“I’m sorry, but that’s it”, he said. “The only thing you can do that makes any sense at all is: SHOOT YOURSELF”.
I tried to interrupt, but he continued remorselessly, with chilling pauses between each sentence.
“Now—your time is up.”
“There’s the door.”
“Walk out of it.”
“Don’t come back.”
“And don’t bother to let me know how you come out—because I don’t care.”...
...That...ended the interview.
Obviously, I didn’t shoot myself. I left Korzybski’s office feeling like a whipped cur, but in a few minutes my mood changed to towering rage. Whom was he calling an alcoholic? Maybe I had drunk too much, at times, in the past—but always for good reason. Now I would drink only with control, like a gentleman, and ultimately throw my detractor’s likes back in his teeth! Less than two months later, I awoke on the floor of a Chicago North Clark Street rooming house, completely unable to remember where I had been or what I had done for the past ten days!
My first thought was: “My God! Everything he said was true. The only thing I can do that makes any sense is shoot myself!”
Alcoholics with schizoid tendencies desperately avoid committing themselves to courses from which there is no withdrawal, as Korzybski well knew—and death is so final. On the heels of my first thought came a second. Even if Korzybski had said that AA wouldn’t work for me, I could always try that first, and then shoot myself afterwards, if AA didn’t work. At least it would postpone my awful decision.
So I phoned the local AA office for help, in what I thought was defiance of Korzybski’s advice. I couldn’t have called under better auspices. Much of the alcoholic’s characteristic arrogance and conceit had already been beaten out of me. I was intensely aware of the gravity of my situation. And it was my own idea, upon which hung my last chance to salvage some shred of self-respect as well as my life. It was my last chance to prove that, in this respect at least, I could be right and Korzybski wrong. If I was being manipulated by a superior mind—and I was—I didn’t realize it at the time.
Twenty-one years have passed since then. It would be nice to be able to report that an “instant miracle” occurred when I joined AA, and that my life since February, 1946, has been one of mounting triumph. It hasn’t. There has been progress, mixed with set-backs and reverses. After six years of uninterrupted sobriety in AA, I took a “refresher course” in drinking, after which it took me seven desperate years to get solidly back on the AA program. (I thought “just one drink” wouldn’t hurt!) Now an additional eight years of abstinence have ensued. I have not, during those twenty-three years, pitched a no-hit game nor become a Hollywood celebrity nor even a business tycoon. I have kept from becoming a public charge, I have stayed out of jails, mental hospitals, and gutters, I have helped raise my own son and two step-[children] and I have developed a quiet faith in “something” that gives [hope].
In retrospect, I cannot find adequate words with which to express my gratitude to Alcoholics Anonymous and its members for the help I have received from them. Yet, in my heart, my greatest gratitude goes to general semantics and Alfred Korzybski. Without the good fortune of exposure to general semantics and Korzybski before I attempted AA, I do not believe I could have accepted the religious over-tones and basic common sense of the AA program—though others have. In my personal approach to AA—and AA insists that each member must build his own “individual” program—I found a surprising correlation between the principles of general semantics and the practices of AA. For me, general semantics provided the theory, Korzybski the goad, and AA the way of life. I needed all three to stay alive.
I never saw Korzybski again after that day in 1946. I did write to him, after I thought I had become well-established in AA, telling him how things were going. From his prompt and encouraging reply, I learned that I had done and was doing exactly what he hoped I would do. I corresponded with him thereafter until he died.
I shall never forget my last two hours with him, painful as they were at the time. I particularly try to remember, not always successfully, his reference to the valuelessness of ability without character. My feelings about Korzybski, who had his faults as well as his virtues, is still: “There was a man. When comes such another, into my life, at least.” And I still believe that the man who told me to shoot myself saved my life.
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.4. Excerpts from R.T. McClaughry’s 1969 unpublished article, ‘“SHOOT YOURSELF,” He Said—and Saved My Life!’ Used with permission of John McClaughry.
5. John McClaughry to B. I. Kodish, Feb. 4, 2009.
6. The sign on the lower left corner of Korzybski’s blackboard had a Walter Winchell quote from the November 1942 issue of Reader’s Digest which read as follows:
When a private at Randolph Field comes to a noncom with a complaint, he is handed a mourning-bordered card which says: “Your trials and tribulations have broken my heart. They are unique. I have never heard of anything like them before. As proof of my sympathy, I give you this card which entitles you to one hour of condolence.”
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