Friday, June 6, 2014

Chapter 1 - "We Only Coagulate."

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.

“In the Institute [of General Semantics], we don’t die”—it was one of Korzybski’s serious ‘jokes’—“we only coagulate.”(1) 

He had persistently made a point of teaching his students to remember that their very own consciousness involved the operation of stuff—especially the three or so pounds of brain-stuff inside their skulls. Following Jacques Loeb, Jerome Alexander, and others, Korzybski liked to emphasize the colloidal nature of this stuff that not only dreams but all mentality, the best and the worst, mathematics and madness, are made on. 

In a colloidal system, like a living cell or organization of cells, nanometer-sized molecules such as fats, proteins, etc., are dynamically dispersed and in flowing motion in the liquid mediums inside and outside the cells. On a sub-microscopic level, these dispersed materials and their mediums form, change and move as energetic functions of surface tensions, electrical repulsions and attractions, interactions with other materials, etc. Eventually, under the ‘right’ or the ‘wrong’ conditions, the elements—as in eggs being heated—will come out of dispersion to clump together, i.e., coagulate. No more colloidal system. Fried eggs and mortality.

Several months short of his 71st birthday, Alfred Korzybski ‘coagulated’ around 3:00 a.m. on Wednesday, March 1, 1950. Until he collapsed at his desk in the early evening, his previous day at the Institute of General Semantics had not seemed entirely ‘untypical’. Here, in a sprawling house in the small Northwest Connecticut village of Lime Rock (so small that the postal address was in the nearby town of Lakeville), he had lived and worked for the previous four years along with a few of the Institute’s small staff and Daffodil, the cat of Charlotte Schuchardt, his confidential secretary and editorial assistant. (2)

For Korzybski, his not-untypical days had their routines but, of course, they were never exactly the same. Varying details might include Institute business, correspondence, writing and editing, counseling students and staff, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. One factor remained constant—the work never stopped.

Charlotte and the Institute’s Associate (and Education) Director, Marjorie Mercer Kendig (known in official correspondence as “M. Kendig” and to her friends and associates as just "Kendig") took care of most of the Institute business along with the small office staff. Korzybski received regular status reports which brought issues to his attention related to maintenance of the building and grounds, personnel problems, bills, fund-raising efforts, publicity, etc. He understood the need for delegating work, and did so. He had learned to trust Charlotte and Kendig, and depended on them. But he also understood the need—apparently eternal and sometimes infernal—for close supervision, checking to see jobs got done and done right. In turn, they also ‘supervised’ him—as best they could.

At his desk he also dealt with a mountainous correspondence from students and colleagues. As the Director of the Institute, Alfred had devised an elaborate system to deal with the mail. Important letters from close friends, etc., would go directly to him. His colleagues and office staff would read, mark, and respond first to other mail. This provided some selecting and filtering function to unburden his attention from 'trivial' correspondence. Nonetheless, he ended up with a constant backlog of letters awaiting response. If no one was available to take dictation, he would type his own letters, as he had done for most of his life. Because of his two-finger typing technique, he sometimes had to tape his fingertips to protect them when they started to get raw.

He welcomed getting reports from students who had used his methods to work on their personal difficulties. But in recent years “Poor Alfred”, as Kendig sometimes affectionately referred to him, had also been receiving irksome communications from colleagues, some of whom had watered down his work in ways Korzybski found objectionable. On his desk that Tuesday February 28, he had a notice from the International Society for General Semantics (ISGS) announcing the newest selection of their “Semantics Book Club”, S. I. Hayakawa’s Language in Thought and Action. Both the Society and Hayakawa had become thorns in his side, drawing the interested public and their funds away from Institute functions and at times, in his opinion, seriously misrepresenting his work in the name of popularization. Korzybski had worked at remaining cordial to Hayakawa and others at the Society while vigorously protesting their attempts to change his formulations to supposedly make his work more popularly accessible. Not only did these attempts seem unnecessary but he felt they also wore away at the foundations of the discipline he had started.

Emphasizing these foundations, he had begun to refocus on the notion of time-bindingOn his desk were notes and the latest draft for an introduction to the Second Edition—then in preparation—of his first book, Manhood of Humanity. In Manhood he had originally defined time-binding as the human capacity to build on the experience of ones’ fellow humans, including previous generations, with ever-accelerating results. (Before he decided on the title Science and Sanity for his second book, Korzybski had at one time planned to call it Time-Binding: The General Theory.)

Time-binding provided the basis of what Korzybski had envisioned as a natural science of man, a “General Anthropology” including all human activities, the best, e.g., science, mathematics, etc., and the worst, e.g., the behavior of seriously disturbed patients in “mental hospitals”. In its applied aspect, Korzybski came to call this study—much to his and others’ later regret—“general semantics”.

Perhaps Korzybski’s refocusing on time-binding and “general anthropology” might help correct some of the misinterpretations of the name “general semantics” by students and critics alike who had confused his theory with “semantics”, the narrower study of linguistic meanings. Indeed, general semantics or GS, as Korzybski abbreviated it, involved much more.

By “general semantics”, Korzybski had intended a general, applied theory for improving human evaluation—a term which for him combined ‘thinking’ and ‘feeling’, and was not necessarily limited to language. In his usage ‘semantic reaction’ was equivalent to evaluation. (The term ‘semantic' as a modifier was used in this context as equivalent to evaluational.) Thus general semantics, a general theory of evaluation, studied organism-as-a-whole-in-environment, ‘semantic’ (evaluational) reactions. Although Korzybski eschewed much traditional academic philosophy, at the very least GS was related to the area of philosophy—epistemology—having to do with the question, how do we know what we think we know? Korzybski saw GS as a scientifically-based, applied epistemology applicable to all fields and to everyday life. There was resistance enough to this program, even without misinterpreting its name. Nonetheless, the name “general semantics” had a history now. Korzybski and his colleagues and students seemed ‘stuck’ with it and would continue having to deal with the misunderstandings surrounding the term.

Other projects had crossed Korzybski’s desk in recent days. He, Kendig, and Charlotte had begun work on the first issue of General Semantics Bulletin, a journal/yearbook for inter-communication among co-workers in the field of general semantics, (This continued to be published annually until 2010.)

More pressing, he was still working on a manuscript for a paper he was scheduled to deliver in April for a Clinical Psychology Symposium on Perception at the University of Texas. Travel arrangements to Austin had been made. He had spent much of January and February writing and was presently in the stage of “delousing”, his term for the ‘painful’ process of editing a manuscript and removing typographical, grammatical, and formulational ‘vermin’. He took this analogy from his days on the Eastern Front of World War I Poland, where the actual vermin—lice—were numerous and took blood. The paper, eventually published under the title “The Role of Language in the Perceptual Processes”, offered an up-to-date (1950) summary of GS with connections to recent work in linguistics (Benjamin Lee Whorf), psychology, and the new science of cybernetics. (Charlotte Schuchardt, whom Korzybski had appointed as his literary executor, would complete the editing after his death and present the paper in Texas.)

Also on the schedule for April was a trip for Korzybski to visit Adelbert Ames’ Institute for Associated Research at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. Korzybski had recently learned of Ames’ visual demonstrations, such as his now famous “distorted room”, which jibed with Korzybski’s teachings about the constructed aspects of human perceptual processes. On his desk sat a reprint of a three-part article Ames had sent to him "with compliments" on "Psychology and Scientific Research". Korzybski had underlined it throughout with pencil. It seemed clear that Ames and his colleagues, who were also exploring the role of assumptions in human behavior and scientific inquiry, were moving along the road Korzybski had traveled. He was eager to see what he could learn from the whole array of Ames’ demos. (One of Ames’ graduate assistants, Thomas E. Nelson, had only recently learned of Korzybski’s work and would become an important member of the teaching staff at Institute of General Semantics seminar-workshops.) 

So Korzybski had a lot of work to do. Engaging, no doubt—also incessant. The pressing demands did not stop—whatever his accumulated fatigue from years of effort. Despite his commitment to his work, Korzybski’s pace was slowing. He was looking appreciably worn.

His last seminar, starting the day after Christmas and ending on January 3, his 12th annual Winter Intensive, had been held at the Sharon [Connecticut] Inn. Although his hours of lecturing had remained lively and stimulating, he mostly sat. Severe painful arthritis and sciatica—sequelae to his World War I injuries—appeared to be wearing him down at last. As Kendig observed, “He no longer tramped up and down the platform shaking his cane.”(3)

He was also set to teach at the Institute Summer Seminar-Workshop running from mid-August to the beginning of September. And another Winter Holiday Seminar was planned as usual at the end of the year—a relatively light schedule given his past teaching load (in the previous 15 years, Korzybski had given approximately 80 seminars, lectures, presentations, etc.).

After work, Korzybski would sometimes spend the evening listening to his recordings of classical music. Sometimes, like Wittgenstein, he read detective stories. These relaxations might be accompanied by his favorite rum. The evening of February 28, however, was not spent relaxing.

He spent his final moments at his desk conferring with young D. David Bourland, Jr., who at the time was living in Lime Rock, near the Institute. Bourland had attended several IGS seminars. From April to September, 1949, he had done volunteer staff work at the Institute (as a minor at the time he started, he did this with his parent’s permission—at Korzybski and Kendig’s insistence). In September 1949 he had been awarded a fellowship to study and work with Korzybski while on a hiatus from Harvard. Bourland brought with him the perennial adolescent problems of parents, romantic interests, school, etc. His friend Alfred—in loco parentis—felt some responsibility to David and to his parents and had been doing his best to help him.

This kind of coaching or consultation by Korzybski was not exceptional. He had designed general semantics “for the sake of solving human problems.”(4) He didn’t expect his students to be able to adequately tackle more 'impersonal' problems before—first and foremost—applying it to themselves. So throughout his teaching career, he asked any student wishing to work with him to write a brief autobiographical statement highlighting problems, dilemmas, ‘hang-ups’, etc. An optional personal interview—occasionally more than one—based on this material, could be scheduled with him after he completed his series of lectures. In the interview he would as usual “troubleshoot”, seeking—perhaps more than anything else—to help the student translate his or her story into a different, more fact-based form of language. (5)

The interview with Bourland turned out to be Korzybski’s last labor. Since Bourland had received the fellowship, Korzybski had found him increasingly distracted and inaccessible. During this time, Bourland—just turned 21—had become involved with Virginia McMullen, a radio-television producer around 17 years his senior. McMullen, whom Kendig described as “a pleasant, chatty person of the nervous high-powered sales type”,(6) had been known to Korzybski and Kendig for several years starting when the Institute had been in Chicago. In 1944, McMullen had tried to promote to Kendig a radio program on general semantics. After a number of meetings, Kendig did not feel McMullen’s understanding of the discipline sufficed by Institute standards for her to do an adequate job of popularizing. (Indeed, in Kendig’s opinion, “One has to know the discipline and feel it in one’s ‘guts’ very much more securely to popularize it correctly than to write so-called scholarly articles on the subject.”) (7) Miss McMullen attended the 1949-1950 Winter Intensive seminar (after a number of her phone calls to Kendig pleading for free tuition, Kendig had agreed to a reduced fee). As Kendig noted, “Bourland [who had met McMullen when she visited the Institute that summer] saw a great deal of her during the Seminar.”(8)

And he continued to see her afterwards. By the end of February, he and McMullen, then living in New York City, had wedding plans. Bourland must have told one or more of his friends on the Institute staff because sometime that Tuesday morning, February 28, Korzybski found out about the wedding, set for the following weekend. Korzybski asked Werner von Kuegelgen (the Institute accountant and sales manager), Kendig, and Charlotte to come to his office for a conference. They met at 12:45 p.m. Von Kuegelgen wrote on the following day that Alfred expressed deep concern about the marriage and emphasized his sense of responsibility for David and to his parents. With the three others advising him, Korzybski decided to talk with David, hoping to convince the young man to notify his parents himself.

After the meeting, Von Kuegelgen found Bourland who, with strong encouragement, agreed to request an interview with Korzybski. Dave wrote a note and gave it to Werner in a sealed envelope to place on Korzybski’s desk.(9) The note said:
Dear AK,
This week-end I shall be married.
May I discuss this briefly with you?
                                    Dave (10)
Around 5 o'clock in the afternoon Bourland went to Korzybski's office for the interview. At 5:15 he came out and called for help. Korzybski had collapsed at his desk while they were talking and was now unconscious. Bourland, Charlotte, Kendig, Lynn Gates (assistant and later the husband of Kendig), and von Kuegelgen carried Korzybski to his bed across the hall. In a memorandum written several weeks afterwards, Kendig recounted what happened next:
At 5:45 [Korzybski] regained consciousness, looked at Bourland standing at the foot of his bed, and said, ‘How can I convey anything to him!’ Then he asked Bourland, ‘Will you wait, etc.?’ Bourland said, ‘Yes, I will wait’. The Doctor arrived at about 6:15. I took Bourland with me to get prescriptions and to dinner. I talked with him very seriously about the recent trends I had observed in his evaluations...At the time Bourland evinced some insight and verbalized same. We returned to the Institute at 9:00 PM. A.K. was in intense pain. The Doctor was called again. Morphine did not kill the pain, and the Doctor said, ‘This is very serious.’ He said in sum, with A.K.’s general condition, an intense emotional strain would have produced a coronary thrombosis. 
At about one AM, March first, the Doctor decided that A.K. should go to Sharon Hospital for X-Rays to determine the reason for the intense pain in lower abdomen (a mesentery thrombosis as the autopsy showed). The ambulance was summoned and arrived at about 1:45 AM. Schuchardt and the Doctor accompanied A.K. At about 2:30, Schuchardt telephoned me to come at once. I telephoned Bourland, dressed, and he drove me to the Hospital. A.K. was dead when we arrived about 3:15 AM, March first. We all remained in the Hospital until morning. ...(11)
Regarding his promise to Korzybski, Bourland did wait—for one week. On March 10, the Friday following the Memorial Service for Korzybski, he had told one of his coworkers “If anyone wants to know, I am not marrying this weekend.” Kendig was informed he got married that night. Feeling some responsibility toward Bourland’s parents—who had not been informed of the wedding—Kendig did not consider Bourland’s operationally correct definition of 'waiting' as adequately honoring his death-bed promise to Korzybski.  To her, his behavior didn’t indicate the kind of mature evaluation which she expected from a Korzybski Fellow. On March 13 after further consultation with colleagues, Kendig—as Acting Director of the Institute—terminated Bourland’s Korzybski Fellowship at a staff meeting which he attended. For his part, Bourland felt deep regret about Kendig’s decision.(12)

Whatever bad feelings may have existed afterwards between Kendig and Bourland didn’t last. Neither did Bourland’s marriage to Virginia McMullen. In later years, Bourland became a professor of English and also worked in the field of operational research. He became well-known as the developer of E-Prime, his extension of general semantics which consists of English minus any form of the verb “to be”. He also renewed his relationship with Kendig, maintained a friendly collegial correspondence with her, and did work for the Institute including a stint as editor of the General Semantics Bulletin. Bourland, who died in 2000, remained devoted to Korzybski’s memory and work and later fondly recalled Korzybski’s statement to him during their last interview: “Dave, you’ll never have a better friend than me.”(13)

Alfred’s wife Mira, living in Chicago, incapacitated with arthritis, was notified at once, nigh undoubtedly by telephone. She wanted to come but later that morning, Charlotte received a telegram sent from Chicago at 8:12 a.m. from Mira’s physician:
I have heard from the Countess the death of her husband and her wish to go to Connecticut I made her aware that it would be unwise for her to attempt such a journey in her present crippled condition.(14)
Others who had been close to Alfred got telegrams like this one to David Levine, also in Chicago: “Alfred died suddenly this morning. Funeral Saturday 12:30 Institute Kendig Schuchardt”.(15) Levine “felt his death as a personal loss” and scrambled to get there.(16)

Notices to the media went out. The New York Times printed a same-day obituary. Arrangements were made for the Saturday memorial service, etc. And phone calls, telegrams, cards, letters and flowers came pouring into the Institute from those whose lives he had touched: the ‘well-known’ and ‘lesser known’. Bourland was not the only person on whom Korzybski had lavished his attention. Ralph C. Hamilton—his student, friend, and co-worker at the Institute—later compared his fabulous energy to that of a rodeo rider leaping from his horse to ‘bulldog’ a steer. With his attention to detail, it often seemed like Korzybski was leaping from his horse to ‘bulldog a mouse’, but for Korzybski—especially with his students—there were no small things or unimportant people.(17)

One of Alfred’s friends, Clarence B. Farrar, M.D., Editor of the American Journal of Psychiatry, wrote to Kendig on March 2:
Dear Miss Kendig, I can’t tell you how grieved I was to get your message that Count Alfred had died, and I wish that I could be with you on Saturday to pay in that way a tribute of affection and admiration for our great friend. You will know however, although I cannot be there, that no one shares more deeply with you all the sense of loss of a teacher and leader such as he. Over the years I have had [many] courtesies and kindnesses from Count Alfred and it is my great regret that our paths have not crossed oftener; but I have been proud to feel that he was my good friend. His work has been so fundamental that it is most gratifying to see its expanding application and usefulness. To you his closest associates, who will carry on this work I send my deep sympathy and most cordial good wishes. Sincerely yours                                              Clarence B. Farrar (18)
With little doubt, Farrar was responsible for the obituary comment in the May 1950 issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry which stated, “The death of this great teacher… deepens appreciation of his essential contribution to human understanding, on an individual, widely social, or international scale.”(19)

Korzybski’s old friends, famed botanical explorer David Fairchild and his wife Marian (daughter of Alexander Graham Bell)—whose home in Florida, “The Kampong”, later became the National Tropical Botanical Garden telegrammed to Kendig and Charlotte Schuchardt on March 2:
How vast a void his departure leaves in the thought world of our troubled times His ideas on the uses of words will make a saner more peaceful world He has not lived in vain (20)

Cultural historian and polymath Erich Kahler—friend of Einstein and Thomas Mann—had studied Korzybski’s work, and attended his April 1946 New York City Intensive Seminar (thirty hours of lecture over eight successive evenings) given at the New York Historical Society. On March 25, Kahler wrote to Kendig:
Only a few days ago I heard the news of Count Korzybski’s death, and I feel the urge to convey to you my sincere grief and sympathy. Korzybski was a great mind and his energy seemed indestructible. One would have expected him to last and grow into the ages like a grand old tree. His death is a frightful loss to our world. But I trust that you will find the courage and the strength to carry on his work which is badly needed in these times of utter confusion and peril.(21)
A lesser-known but just-as-valued friend, G. C. McKinney, a physician from Lake Charles, Louisiana, who had studied with Korzybski, got a telegram from the Institute notifying him of his mentor’s death. On March 5, McKinney wrote back to Kendig and Charlotte about his profound sense of loss:
My Dears, ...I have been formulating what I would say since the telegram came but that now the moment of saying has arrived it becomes very hazy. That I am concerned about both [of you] in a very personal way—to try to say that sounds rather silly since you both know it very well. That I regarded Alfred Korzybski as I have never regarded any one before, nor shall ever again, you also know. After all it is concern for whether any one is ‘big’ enough or whether one can be found so, to carry on, and personal concern for you that has cut so deep. Fact that I shall never see Alfred again, hear his beautiful voice, movement of his beautiful hands and (perhaps most of all) the expression of that mobile face, ranging all the way from heavy anger and sternness to almost-tears...can be laid to selfishness,  ego...No use. I can go no further.  Love and Love...Mac (22)
The March 3 telegram from Blanche and Harry Weinberg (Korzybski considered Harry one the most promising of his students) perhaps said best what could be said about what could not be said: “How inadequate is the verbal level now”.(23)

Korzybski's desk, March 1, 1950

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. 
1. Korzybski 1947, p. 412. 

2. The name of Charlotte’s cat and many other details of daily life at the Institute of General Semantics in Connecticut were initially supplied by Ralph C. Hamilton, who worked for a time as a personal assistant to Korzybski, and by David Linwood [Levine] who also worked at the Institute for a time assisting Korzybski. Institute office memos, letters, and scrapbooks from this period of time corroborated their information as well as providing many other personal details. 

3. Kendig 1950, General Semantics Bulletin 3, p. 9. 

4. Korzybski 1947, p. 40. 

5. Korzybski 1947, p. 23. 

6. M. Kendig to Robert U. Redpath, Jr., 3/27/1950, IGS Archives. 

7. Ibid. 

8. M. Kendig, “Memorandum Re D. David Bourland, Jr”, 3/27/1950, IGS Archives.

9. Von Kugelgen, Memorandum - “Conference with AK on February 28th, 1950,’ 3/1/1950, IGS Archives. 

10. D. David Bourland to Alfred Korzybski, 2/28/1950, IGS Archives. 

11. M. Kendig, Memorandum - “Circumstances of AK’s Death”, 3/27/1950, IGS Archives. 

12. D. David Bourland to M. Kendig, 3/13/1950. IGS Archives. 

13. D. David Bourland qtd. in Klein 2000, p. 344. 

14. Dr. Loren T. Dewind to Charlotte Schuchardt, 1 March 1950, IGS Archives. 

15. David Linwood [Levine], personal correspondence. 

16. Ibid. 

17. Ralph C. Hamilton, interview with author, November 2005. 

18. Clarence B. Farrar to M. Kendig, 3/2/1950. IGS Archives. 

19. “Comment: Alfred Korzybski”. 1950. The American Journal of Psychiatry 106 (11). Reproduced in General Semantics Bulletin 3, p. 32. 

20. David and Miriam Fairchild to Kendig and Schuchardt, 3/2/1950. IGS Archives 

21. Erich Kahler to M. Kendig, 3/25/1950. IGS Archives. 

22. G. C. McKinney to M. Kendig and C. Schuchardt, 3/5/1950. IGS Archives. 

23. Blanche and Harry Weinberg to M. Kendig and C. Schuchardt, 3/3/1950. IGS Archives.

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