Friday, March 7, 2008

...and the vermin were humans...and the streetcar was a caterpillar

Alfred Korzybski, a battle-scarred veteran, had somehow survived the Great War (WW I) and sometime in 1919 or early 1920 found himself with his new wife, Mira, looking down on the streets of New York City from the top of the Woolworth Building, then the tallest skyscraper building in the world.

He had wondered for a large part of his life about two questions. First, what makes humans human? In other words, what makes us different from animals? Second, why do we make progress in some areas, like building bridges or skyscrapers, yet fail so miserably in others, like in how we build our societies, how we get along with one another, etc. Bridges and buildings (built by engineers applying science and mathematics) usually stand up reliably well. As for our societies, history seemed like a succession of war, revolution, war, revolution, war, revolution.... Somehow he felt that his questions were related and that answering them might help to change the quality of human life for the better.

As he looked down at the streets of Manhattan he pondered and, although his answers didn't come then, he experienced a kind of crystalized moment that brought him close to what would become the core insight of his life work—time-binding. As he said later:
...I was looking over New York. That enormous city, steaming, boiling with life...And I asked myself the question, how it happens, the physical side of it looking at the street, at Broadway. You saw vermin crawling, and the vermin were humans. They were so small because the height was so great, and a streetcar was a caterpillar. …Looking at that, I was much intrigued. I was fully aware that everyone of those little bits of humans there, everyone was full of joy, sorrows, and what not. And who did that tremendous thing called New York? That vermin did it. I didn’t get my answer there, but I was asking how humans, little things like that with such a wealth of personal life, how in the dickens can they do such a thing as New York, London, Paris, wars, revolutions, and what not?

The 1921 movie short Manhatta by Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler from YouTube will give you a feel of what Korzybski saw from the top of the Woolworth Building. You'll see the city, steaming and boiling with life. Near the end of the movie you will see the little bits of vermin crawling...and the streetcars like caterpillars. And you may also ask yourself how in the dickens did those little bits of humans do New York...etc.?


Anonymous said...

Is the music an original part of the moving picture presentation, or has that been added on at a later date?

David Linwood

Bruce Kodish said...

I don't know what music accompanied the film when it was shown originally.

That particular music sounds modern.

In any case the music you hear would have had to have been added by whomever put together the youtube video. When Strand produced the film (1921), films had no sound and any accompanying music was made by someone playing it in the theatre.

Anonymous said...

Bruce, the issue that others have brought up with regard to the music is tangential, since it, the music, has nothing to do, exept as an emotional highlighter, with the point that Korzybski was impressed with: the realization that all that, down there in the city, had been built in just 55 short years since the end of the Civil War. This video that you chose to highlight Korzybski's amazement is nothing but a piece of art.

Great job!