Sunday, November 16, 2014

Chapter 29 - A Quiet Place In The Country

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.

Just before he and Mira left for Toronto, Alfred had gotten an invitation to visit with Jesse Lee Bennett, a writer whom Alfred described as an “old Maryland aristocrat”, probably a few years younger than him. Bennett, formerly a journalist at the Baltimore Sun newspaper, lived with his mother in Arnold, Maryland, on a nonworking farm estate. This overlooked the Magothy River, about 25 miles south of Baltimore and 9 miles north of Annapolis on Maryland’s Western Chesapeake Shore (near the current location of the Anne Arundel Community College). Bennett had written a book earlier that year entitled What Books Can Do For You. Although Korzybski liked parts of it, he detected an anti-science component, which bothered him and he wrote Bennett a letter. Bennett replied and the two men developed a friendly correspondence. Bennett, visiting New York that spring, even came to see Korzybski at the Grenoble one evening. 

Bennett, known as “the philosopher on the Magothy”, had made his house there, near the water, into a meeting site for literary and artistic types from the Baltimore-Washington region.(1) He found Alfred a stimulating companion and was eager to get him (and Mira) to visit. By the end of August, after Alfred and Mira had returned from Toronto, Bennett thought that Alfred might be able to stay in the farmhouse of a neighbor. But money had become ‘tight’ again; Alfred considered the rent beyond their budget. Then it dawned on Bennett. He had an empty nine-room farmhouse on his property. Alfred could stay there rent-free. As soon as Bennett made the offer at the end of August, Alfred—eager for a peaceful, isolated, and cheap place to work outside of New York City—said yes.

Alfred took the train to Baltimore on September 13, bringing his and Mira’s baggage, while Mira stayed in New York to conduct some business with Macrae. From Baltimore, he took another train, which stopped at the Arnold station on the way to Annapolis. Jesse was waiting for him there with transportation to the farm about three miles away. The empty farmhouse where Alfred would be staying was a half mile (a 10 minute walk) from Jesse’s house by the water. It took Alfred a couple of weeks of hard physical labor to get the place into reasonable shape for Mira’s arrival at the end of the month.

The spartan living suited Alfred well enough. Compared to his living conditions during the war it seemed positively luxurious. It was going to be more of an adventure for Mira, who was used to living in hotels and in the mansions of wealthy clients. But it seemed to suit her too during her time there. (She also made several forays into Washington, Philadelphia, and New York City on various kinds of business during their eight months on the farm.)

Water had to be drawn from a well. An outhouse stood nearby. For heat, Jesse provided an old coal stove. Concerned that sparks from the stove could set fire to the chimney, which had wide cracks in it, Alfred separated the two and linked them with a series of metal exhaust pipes that he arranged along the ceiling.(2) For cooking, he bought a gasoline-fueled camp stove, which he placed alongside the house. For food, Alfred would go to an A & P grocery and a butcher shop in Annapolis. Once winter set in, he had supplies mailed to him special delivery and the mailman was kind enough to trudge the half mile to bring the packages to Korzybski’s place. Especially important were the weekly shipments of “dark sour rye bread” from Harry Gold’s Bakery in Baltimore. Jesse had beds, mattresses and pillows but Alfred and Mira brought their own sheets and blankets. There were a few cots, chairs, and a table and Alfred made more furniture out of old boxes. Jesse had a laundry he used where they sent their clothes to be cleaned. Jesse had a couple of men who worked on his property who were able to lend a hand with chores. And a man in Arnold with a truck for hire drove Alfred when he needed to go somewhere.

When Alfred first arrived, Jesse—who seemed rather extravorted—liked to see Alfred as much as possible. Once or twice a week he had what amounted to a salon with people coming down from Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, or from elsewhere, for intellectual gatherings. Korzybski certainly wasn’t a hermit and seemed to enjoy these get-togethers, but he was basically there for the quiet and solitude. When Jesse and his mother left for New York City for a few months sometime in December (Jesse was editing an anthology, The Essential American Tradition, and had publishing business to do in the city), Alfred did not feel distressed to be left alone—just him, Mira, and the few other people around the place. Occasionally, he and/or Mira went up to Baltimore to visit friends, such as Pearl, Jennings, Meyer, or Rainich. Occasionally he went to Annapolis to shop or to look around. But mostly he worked.

He was reading and taking notes by the light of an oil lamp. It was becoming more and more obvious that the book, which he saw as an expansion of the Toronto paper, was going to take more time than the few months he had anticipated when he first got to Arnold. To many people he’d encountered, the Anthropometer and the theory behind it (at least the parts they thought they understood), seemed simple, even platitudinous—and thereby dismissible. A much more extensive account of the scientific data from many fields which supported the theory would make it harder to dismiss. Also people might be more likely to take the Anthropometer seriously if he had more detail on how to use it to train people in consciousness of abstracting and on the necessity for doing so.

He had planned to give a talk and show the Anthropometer at the annual AAAS meeting in Washington, D.C. at the end of December. But at the last moment, he decided not to go, even though he had been given a place on the program. He decided that at this point, his time would be better spent working on the book than giving another superficial 20-minute talk. If he was going to produce and sell Anthropometers and make some kind of living through this work, he would need to make the training device’s usefulness much clearer by means of a definitive and exhaustive exposition. (Though Alfred stayed in Arnold, Mira did go to the AAAS meeting to confer with Carmichael and other friends of Alfred about the Library plans.)

After she returned from Washington, Mira went up to New York City in mid-January to confer with Macrae again and then went to Philadelphia for a portrait exhibition and commissions with some of Philadelphia’s super-rich. With Mira away so much of the time and Jesse gone for the winter, Alfred was alone. He cherished his snow-bound isolation. He must have seemed like an odd figure to the inhabitants of this still very rural part of Maryland. Robert P. Pula, who was teaching in the area in the 1970s, reported meeting, “an Arnold native who told me that he knew an old man from there who remembered Korzybski and who reported that the locals used to refer to that fellow in the abandoned farmhouse as “the Rooshin”.”(3 ) That would have amused the steadfast Pole.

Alfred had times when he felt dismay at the daunting task he had set for himself. But he was nothing if not persistent. The appearance of Polakov’s book Man and his Affairs in January 1925 seems likely to have stoked the fire under his ambition. Not that he appeared jealous. Walter had produced what was basically a popularization of Alfred’s latest work (with Walter’s own take on it—no question of plagiarism). But Alfred had yet to publish the book with his own account of his newest work (he didn’t count the Toronto booklet). He had to keep pushing.

Related factors fueled Alfred’s persistence. People with whom he had met and discussed issues were producing articles and books that led Alfred to at least wonder about his influence on them. For example, Jennings had published an article on “Heredity and Environment” in the September 1924 Scientific Monthly. The article and the subsequent book based on it entitled Prometheus, contained a sharp discussion of misleading language in biology. If Alfred’s discussions with Jennings had had an unconscious effect on Jennings’ formulating, he felt glad of it. But, if so, he wanted to make sure that his own work was sufficiently known that he would be more likely to be given credit for it. (He claimed that it wasn’t a matter of ego but rather of eventual income.) Besides, the analysis that Jennings provided in his article was focused on one specific area in biology. Korzybski’s theory provided a more general analysis of misleading factors in human knowledge with the potential to affect not only biology but all of the sciences—and more—with seemingly endless applications.(4) 

Further encouragement to carry on his work, despite the difficulties, came from his study of C. K. Ogden and I. A. Richard’s The Meaning of Meaning, which Alfred had first read soon after its publication in 1923. Unlike Korzybski, the two English authors came from literary—not scientific—backgrounds. But Korzybski could see that he and they had arrived, at the very least, at a similar general area of inquiry, as indicated by Ogden and Richard’s subtitle: A study of the influence of language upon thought and of the science of symbolism. Mira had met English playwright Halcott Glover, a friend of Ogden, in Chicago in the spring of 1924. Alfred became friendly with Glover who put him in touch with Ogden—with whom Alfred was soon corresponding. (Their correspondence would continue for at least 10 years.)

During the early part of their relationship, Alfred had some hope that he would be able to combine efforts with Ogden. This eventually didn’t work out, since by 1933 Ogden had pooh-poohed the importance of time-binding and considered Korzybski’s growing “non-Aristotelian emphasis as a side-issue.”(5) Indeed, Ogden’s mature appraisal of Korzybski’s work seems to have bordered on contempt. Korzybski genuinely admired much of Ogden’s work, especially his later efforts in Basic English—another auxiliary international language. However, eventually he gave up trying to get some cooperation from Ogden. He came to see Ogden as a “d…..f [damned fool]”—Korzybski didn’t spell it out—for not taking his work seriously. How could one have an adequate “science of symbolism”, as Ogden said he wanted, if the physico-mathematical and other factors that Korzybski brought to the fore were treated as side-issues?

The cold, quiet winter had passed. March 1925 rolled into April. The weather was warming. Mira was back. And Jesse and his mother were going to be returning home soon from New York. Alfred was nowhere close to where he wanted to be with the book. If he was going to produce what he considered necessary for a foundation of an adequate science of symbolism, a science of man, he would definitely need more time. If Polakov, Jennings, and Ogden served in various ways as positive touchstones for his efforts, Alfred also had a few negative touchstones, which inspired—no—required him to persist. These consisted of particular works and/or individuals embodying attitudes he sought to avoid. And his interest in avoiding these attitudes guaranteed that he would need more time.

One of these negative touchstones—sentimentality—was represented for him by George Santayana’s book Skepticism and Animal Faith. Almost a year before, at the beginning of May 1924, Alfred had gotten a review copy from the publisher. By the end of that month he had written a review and submitted it to The Monist. The review, entitled “The Modern Lucretius”, was never published. In Mathematical Philosophy, Keyser had written about Lucretius’ early discussion of infinity, which gave a good feel for infinity but nothing workable from a mathematical perspective (that would happen centuries later with the work of Cantor and others). Similarly, in Alfred’s opinion, Santayana’s book seemed unlikely to produce anything workable for human affairs. With its beautiful poetic style and fine feeling, the book expressed the kind of attitude that Alfred was trying to establish in more exact terms. But with its traditional philosophical language (which seemed to Alfred more and more crucial to avoid) and without a physico-mathematical approach, Alfred considered that the reader was likely to come away with noble sentiments but no change in behavior. Granted, Santayana didn’t seem interested in changing anyone’s behavior. But Alfred was interested. From the perspective of human engineering, he didn’t want humanity to have to wait until centuries later, if he could help it. Fine feelings and beautiful words were not enough. Santayana’s book represented for Alfred a submission to sentimentality that he wanted to avoid in his own work.

The second negative touchstone seems difficult to label with one word. It involved a foolish fixedness, an inflexible refusal to entertain anything outside of one’s habitual viewpoint with a concomitant failure to heed correction, that at its extreme could merge into serious maladjustment. Alfred had observed one aspect of such fixedness in the behavior of some scientists and mathematicians towards his own work. Alfred had no problem with those who didn’t see much in it but admitted that they might be missing something and needed to study more, even if they then put his work on the shelf. But there were ‘skeptics’ who never questioned their own initial evaluation and simply dismissed his work as some combination of trivia and nonsense. Such skepticism seemed to him utterly unscientific, at odds with a postulational spirit of inquiry which initially demanded granting a speaker or writer his or her premises and finding out what they led to. Alfred, who accepted that a genuine skepticism required doubting your doubt, had cultivated that attitude in himself: if he encountered someone whose work held an inkling of promise in relation to his own work, he would do his best to approach it with openness.

Alfred realized that if one could close oneself to new possibilities, one could also become fixed—go down the path of fools—in another way. His experiences over the last few years with Scudder Klyce provided a sterling example of this second side of formulational inflexibility. Klyce, a man of Korzybski’s age, had retired from the Navy and was living in Winchester, Massachusetts as an independent writer and scholar. Dealing with issues related to science, mathematics, language, and life in a way that mirrored Korzybski’s concerns, he had maintained long and extensive correspondence with many of the most important mathematicians, scientists, and philosophers of early 20th Century America, including John Dewey, R. D. Carmichael, and William Emerson Ritter, among others. Korzybski had learned about Klyce from Ritter and began corresponding with him in the fall of 1921, just before Klyce brought out his self-published book, Universe.

The two men exchanged books. Alfred found 
Universe an idiosyncratic work with a difficult style. As he wrote to Keyser “sometimes he seems sound sometimes not.”(6) But he deferred definite judgment about the book until further study. Still he felt some sympathy with what he thought Klyce might be aiming at: a critique of elementalistic science that sought to renew the sense of relationship, connection, and unity of the world that had become neglected over the last few centuries by many scientific researchers focusing on minute analysis. Whatever its faults, Alfred also saw some promise in Klyce’s quest for answers in people’s attitudes towards language. He double-underlined in red the following passage in his copy of Universe: “The human race took words, mere words, far too seriously—made idols of them. The race have been highbrows:—idolaters of words, the last species of a long line of idolaters of more tangible things. …”.(7) 

Unfortunately, Klyce “kicked” too much at mathematicians and scientists for Alfred’s liking. He felt that Klyce needed to read more, update his physico-mathematical knowledge, and root out illegitimate totalities in his formulating.(8) Alfred gave him reading and other suggestions, but Klyce didn’t seem sufficiently open. The two men’s correspondence, though for a time quite active and always civil, pretty much ceased after the 1925 publication of Klyces’s second book, Sins of Science, which Alfred didn’t like. Alfred gave up on trying to help him, less because of the eccentricity of his ideas, than because he didn’t seem amenable to correction.(9) Klyce died in 1933 and is now more or less forgotten as a formulator.

Alfred wanted to avoid the ‘sins’ of Klyce. As a theoretical explorer, he had begun to link topics that few—if any—people had connected before, i.e., mathematical method and psychiatry, science and sanity. There were times when he would wonder in letters to his friends whether he had not indeed gone down the path of fools himself.(10) The apparently vast implications and applications of his latest formulations could easily be interpreted as overblown. That appearance, he knew, did not invalidate his claims. But having begun to synthesize vast areas of mathematical and scientific material for his book, he knew he would need to check whatever he wrote with recognized experts in every field of knowledge he was going to deal with. He realized that it was possible to start with something legitimate and potentially useful and move into something unsound.

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. “Author Stricken Fighting A Fire”. New York Times, April 22, 1931. 

2. MEK, Unpublished Memoir, pp. 36-38. 

3. Pula 2003c, p. 72. 

4. AK to R. D. Carmichael, 10/24/1924. AKDA 15.614. 

5. C. K. Ogden to AK, 1/23/1933, in Gordon 1990a, p. 37. 

6. AK to C. J. Keyser, 12/29/21. AKDA 11.574. 

7. Klyce 1921, p. 6. 

8. AK to Scudder Klyce, 3/12/1922. AKDA 8.431. 

9. AK to P. W. Bridgman, 10/14/1928. AKDA 20.191. 

10. AK to C. J. Keyser, 11/10/1925. AKDA 15.40.

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