Thursday, December 25, 2014

Chapter 36 - A Short Trip To Poland: Part 3 - More Bad News

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.

Mira was waiting for him at the dock when his ship arrived in New York Harbor on Sunday, October 20, 1929.(18) He had been away for two months but, as he told one friend, it seemed as if the trip to Poland had taken 10 years off of his life. And other than Mira—whom he had missed a lot and felt happy to hug once again—what he found greeting him was an abundance of bad news. 

On his desk, among the pieces of accumulated mail, was a letter from Sergei A. Vasiliev (who lived in New York City) telling of the death of his father, A. V. Vasiliev on October 6 in Moscow. Alfred felt deeply perturbed by the news. He had never met the older Vasiliev in person. But during the time of their five-year correspondence, he had developed a feeling of closeness to the Russian mathematician, who encouraged his work and inspired him with his broad, humanistic outlook. Korzybski, who had served as a conduit of communication between Vasiliev and U.S. mathematicians, informed friends who knew of or who had met Vasiliev, such as Cajori, Karpinski, and Rainich, among others. James McKeen Cattell, editor of Science, asked Korzybski to write Vasiliev's obituary, which was published in the December 20, 1929 issue.The opening of that piece indicates some of the main values Vasiliev exemplified for Korzybski—values that Korzybski aspired to for himself:
In the passing of A. V. Vasiliev in Moscow, Russia, the world has lost one of its great scientists, great teachers, great men. To be a great scientist is one thing; to be a great scientist and a great teacher is quite another. A great teacher must ingest, digest and evaluate the works of others in many lines in order to give broad, judicial and interesting selections to students. To be at once a great scientist, a great teacher and a great man is still different—it is all too rare a combination. Besides the requisites for the first two, individual synthesis, a broad human vision and interest, effective and energetic enough to be an inspiration and guide for living and acting, are essential. A unique combination of these characteristics made the life of Vasiliev a memorable and most useful one....(19) 

Another loss had occurred four days before Alfred’s arrival. On October 16, Alfred and Mira’s friend Edwin E. Slosson, first editor of Science News and first director of the Science Service, died suddenly of a heart attack. He too had become a supporter of Korzybski’s work. And he had been charmed by Mira. He would be missed by both of them.

Four days after Alfred arrived home came more bad news—the stock market ‘crashed’ on October 24. The day became known in history as “Black Thursday.” Five days later—on what became known as “Black Tuesday”—economic panic ensued throughout the United States. The Great Depression had arrived—not the most propitious of times to publish the kind of book Alfred and Mira were producing.

As for the book—Mira and Russell Maddren had been very busy with it. More unwelcome news, since both of them—unquestionably strong supporters of his work—had various complaints. Maddren, now back in Europe, had left notes and was also writing letters with what Alfred considered facetious and not very helpful comments, more or less picking at words. At least Mira’s criticism seemed more serious. She had taken an extra copy of the manuscript and worked it over—cutting it up, rearranging and rewriting it. Alfred felt glad she had spent the time getting familiar with it but he felt frustrated by her criticism too.

She considered it “rotten”, “unclear”, “muddled”; he “was not true” to himself. Both Mira and Maddren seemed to have misunderstood or missed key points in his writing. As he told David Fairchild more than a year later:
I was in a very peculiar situation, I was urged dramatically by Mira to rewrite the book, which I knew I could not do, and yet I had full evidence that if my book is misunderstood to such an extent, there must be something wrong with the presentation. Under such whipping I began to think hard and struggle with ideas, formulations and myself. To save my neck I could not see how I can improve it. (20) 

Alfred brooded. In mid-November, he wrote to Sally Avery:
Mira expects to go to Florida in January and so we are working both like hell on the revision of the MS. which means having it spread all over the place, all card tables (3) boxes shelves etc spread and no place to move or write. The main problem is the rearrangement of material, which is a messy thing and requires space and extremely close attention. I really have no head for anything now neither do I go out for a week at a time. (21) 

He spent the next few months ‘delousing’ the manuscript, i.e., rearranging it, cutting some repetitions, and polishing the English. He also wrote the new chapters he had planned on Pavlov’s conditional reflexes and on colloids. He saw these as addenda, which however necessary didn’t supply anything fundamental to his non-aristotelian system. With the new year and new decade, he was still looking for some quality of underlying importance—he didn’t know what—that could supply the continuity he felt but that Mira and Maddren hadn’t seen.

Given his preference for a quiet setting, in December he had an unwelcome new set of distractions to make his work more difficult. His sister-in-law Amy drove from Kansas City to stay with them in their studio apartment. The two sisters soon got very busy with a major sewing project (probably to help Mira re-do her wardrobe since she had remained rather thin since her illness). Mira found comfort in Amy’s presence. Though Alfred much preferred being alone with his wife he had to make the best of things. So he chivalrously slept on the sofa under the skylight while Amy slept with Mira in their bed. To reduce his getting disturbed by the two women during the day, he put up a curtain to separate his corner desk from the rest of the apartment.

The three of them would soon have to get busy preparing for a two-week exhibition Mira was giving at the Junior League starting January 6. He described what they did to Sally Avery:
We had a hell of work at hand with Mira’s exhibition, we had to redowel the frames, do a lot of carpentering and finally the packing, transportation and hanging up is always a very tiresome procedure. We finished all of that yesterday were tired to death and today my sister in law and I rest and poor Mira has to be polite at the Junior League. Imagine being polite for two weeks, that’s a terrible job. (22) 

Though business had been poor lately there was an outside chance she might get some local commissions and stay in Brooklyn to work. Otherwise, she and Amy would drive down to Palm Beach, Florida where she might have better luck getting portrait commissions amongst the wealthy, wintering, northern sun-seekers there.

The year had ended with more bad news when Alfred and Mira learned—probably from an article in the December 27 New York Times—of their friend Tennessee Anderson’s unexpected death. They had visited her only months before. Another intimation of mortality. He was now on the far side of 50. Korzybski knew—if anyone did— that “all flesh is grass.” The draft was done but the book was far from ready. If he was going to get it out before he died, he had to grind on. On the next to last day of 1929, Alfred wrote to Keyser:
We as usually have little news besides working very hard. The d…d book is supposedly finished but I still have some revisions and rearrangements to make. Mira read it several times and criticized a lot, wanting it to be ‘perfect’ and satisfy everybody. It was hard on me, as she asked the impossible. By now she begins to see that. I am already compiling the bibliography and an index in the rough without giving the pages of my book. (23)

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. 
18. AK to the Gravens, 9/29/1929. AKDA 22.314; AK to Sally Avery, 10/23/1929. AKDA 22.372. 

19. “Alexander Vasilievitch Vasiliev (July 2, 1853–October 6, 1929)”. Science, December 20, 1929, Vol. LXX, No. 1825, pp. 599–600. Reprinted in Alfred Korzybski Collected Writings, p. 157–158. 

20. AK to David Fairchild, 10/28/1931. AKDA 23.449. 

21. AK to Sally Avery, 11/15/1929. AKDA 22.392. 

22. AK to Sally Avery, 1/6/1930. AKDA 22.448. 

23. AK to C. J. Keyser, 12/30/1929. AKDA 22.443

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