Wednesday, October 22, 2014

62nd Alfred Korzybski Memorial Lecture and GS Symposium- October 24-26, 2014

If you're in New York City or environs this weekend, the Institute of General Semantics is holding its annual Alfred Korzybski Memorial Lecture on Friday, October 24 featuring Jack El-Hai, author of a very interesting biography of one of Korzybski's students, psychiatrist Douglas M. Kelley, M. D. The lecture will be followed by a weekend symposium, Making Sense Through Time-Binding, which looks to have many thought-provoking presentations. Although I will not be going this year, many friends will attend, and if I lived closer I would definitely try to make it there.

Two of my friends from India will be honored with the J. Talbott Winchell Award for their work in promoting and teaching GS in India through the Balvant K. Parekh Centre for General Semantics and Other Human Sciences. Prafulla Kar, Director of the Centre, and Devkumar Trivedi will receive the award jointly. Professor Kar, the able administrator of the Centre's programs has developed a network of people and programs throughout India for teaching GS. Mr. Trivedi, a long time friend of the late Balvant K. Parekh—who introduced GS in modern times to India—is the lead Korzybskian-GS lecturer at the Centre's educational programs. My wife Susan and myself are among those who have previously received the prestigious Winchell Award and we both send our hearty congratulations to Prafulla and Dev for their well-deserved honor.

The Institute's 2014 Book Prize will go to 
Elizabeth Kolbert 

for her book The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, a current look at depredations to the natural environment perhaps significantly caused by human action. Will the so-called sixth extinction include us? William Vogt, an early environmentalist noted for his book, The Road to Survival, applied GS in his 1948 analysis of ecological damage already taking place and was an early pioneer of environmentalism, a subject close to Korzybski's heart. So this book prize certainly seems appropriate for anyone interested in long term time-binding. Her book, which I haven't yet read, looks excellent. Congratulations to Elizabeth Kolbert, from an earlier Book Prize winner.  

Mary Lahman, Professor of Communication Studies at Manchester University and author of the book Awareness & Action: A General Semantics Approach to Effective Language Behavior will receive The 2014 Sanford I. Berman Award for Excellence in Teaching General Semantics. Dr. Lahman, worked with Professor Greg Thompson and former IGS Director, Steve Stockdale to produce a highly successful, free web-based GS course for the Canvas Network. Congratulations to Professor Lahman for her great contribution. 

I'm sorry that I won't be there to meet Jack El-Hai 
and hear him discuss his book, The Nazi and the Psychiatrist: Hermann Göring, Dr. Douglas M. Kelley, and a Fatal Meeting of Minds at the End of WWII. Kelley studied with Korzybski, before the war, and as I wrote in Helping Soldiers and Veterans Readjust did important work during World War II applying GS to rehabilitate soldiers in the European Theatre of War suffering from PTSD, what was then referred to as "combat exhaustion". Immediately after the war, Kelley still in the U.S. Army was assigned to the prison at Nuremberg to interview high level Nazi prisoners, like Herman Göring, being held there. Presumably, Kelley's job was to help ensure that the German prisoners stayed healthy enough to be able to attend their trial. Kelley saw his job as a psychiatrist mainly to study the men in order to understand what led them to commit their crimes. Kelley left after the first month of the trial. His book 22 Cells in Nuremberg: A Psychiatrist Examines the Nazi Criminals, written soon afterwards, remains well worth reading. 

El-Hai covers Kelley's interesting family history (he was descended on his mother's side from the man who found the infamous Donner party), Kelley's early life, the story of his developing friendship with 
Göring (he and another physician weaned Göring from his addiction to heroin), and his later outwardly successful career as an academic psychiatrist and criminologist before his gradual descent into alcoholism and madness over the next ten years. (Kelley killed himself in front of his family in 1958 by swallowing cyanide—the method that Göring used at Nuremberg Prison.) I learned of Kelley's suicide years before, and, as others at the Institute then did, wondered at what could have happened to one of Korzybski's most promising students. El-Hai, given access to Kelley's papers and archives by Kelley's son, provides the story of Kelley's downfall—in dramatic and compelling detail.

But El-Hai did fall down in his limited, somewhat inaccurate treatment of Korzybski and of the role of GS in Kelley's life, thus missing some of the depth of tragedy of the psychiatrist, who could not apply the principles of sanity that he espoused to himself and his own personal quandaries. As El-Hai's book suggests, Kelley seemed burdened by difficult and disturbing questions about himself and others as a result of his encounter with the Nazi prisoners, especially Göring. Encounters with serious psychopaths/sociopaths can do that. (The study of psychopaths/sociopaths—still controversial, but highly relevant to the Nazis that Kelley met—had just gotten off the ground with the 1941 pioneering work, The Mask of Sanity, by another of Korzybski's seminar students, psychiatrist Hervey Cleckley.) I felt a slight sinking sensation when I read El-Hai's description of general semantics as 'the use of words and their meanings to shape behavior'. El-Hai's relative neglect of a study (Korzybski's GS) that was so important to Kelley, leaves a hole in his book for those familiar with Korzybski's work. Still, this book will remain important and useful for anyone interested in the history of GS. Kelley's troubles provide a tragic reminder that talking and writing eloquently about GS (which Korzybski called "a theory of sanity) is not enough. No amount of intellectual understanding will suffice. Applying it to others in therapy and research (as Kelley did) is not enough. Personal application remains a sine qua non, an essential condition, of the discipline. And sometimes even the best and brightest of us require help, sometimes a great deal of help—perhaps with medication too—to apply it to ourselves (a life-long endeavor). Kelley looked into an abyss when he met and befriended Göringthe abyss looked back at him. Eventually—without Kelley seeking the help he needed—it swallowed him whole.

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