Saturday, March 14, 2015

Chapter 53 - Question Marks: Part 4 - "To Transform Myself"

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.

During a large part of 1941, the question of what would happen with Mira remained another significant unanswered one for Korzybski—and for Mira too. He not only still considered her—probably unfairly—as a loose cannon in relation to his work, but he worried about her personally. However, he was too consumed by work to see her or talk to her much. He still didn’t appear to have forgiven her for her last ‘broadcast’ and seemed more likely to scold her than to ‘make nice’ whenever they saw each other or otherwise communicated. Not that they did that much. 

During this period Pearl and Charlotte may have had more direct contact with Mira than he did. As much as Mira liked them, she found that arrangement utterly inadequate. She felt lonely. She missed the intellectual stimulation of the years she had spent as Alfred’s main muse and audience, and sometime amanuensis. She still felt vitally interested in his work (perhaps even more so) and in the fate of the Institute. Indeed, the advancement of his work and the success of the Institute seemed as important to her—in her own way—as it did to him. She agreed with him that she would not be able to take the hothouse atmosphere and intense pressures of the day-to-day work there. Still she had hoped and continued to hope for some sense of “everydayishness” with Alfred: a sense that they could at least have some regular time together, however little, during which they didn’t necessarily have to deal with his students’ or the world’s neuroses—and, more importantly, where he wasn’t ruthlessly dissecting her ‘floppy thinker’. 

For Alfred, however, “everydayishness” had become a nasty word. He felt it would kill him faster than overwork. He would have his 62nd birthday in July and he didn’t know how long he had to live. (Despite the appearance of extraordinary energy that others saw, he could feel the diminishment of his vitality. The effects of his war injuries had worsened as he aged.) He felt he had to make the most of whatever time he had left by working as hard as he could. Mira could understand that to some extent. For her the greatest sin for anyone consisted of not making the fullest use of their potential. (She also didn’t consider it the wisest management of one’s energy to work to the point of sickness, which Alfred often seemed on the verge of doing.) Given that Alfred didn’t want Mira to involve herself with the Institute at all, his almost total involvement with work, and his still quite negative feelings toward her, what was she to do? 

Over the winter of 1940-41, her sister Amy had come up to stay with her. In early February, Amy had returned to Kansas City. As the end of the month drew near, Mira felt she needed some time to consider what she was going to do with the rest of her life. The studio lease ended in October and, if she wasn’t going to have much contact with Alfred, she felt no compelling reason to stay in Chicago. She had just had her 69th birthday. Her painting didn’t engage her. She wanted to get away from the “rotten rich”. She was looking for something—solace, connection. She had a few friends in Chicago. She had also made new contacts in a few of the Jewish synagogues near where she lived, and had gotten counsel from some of their rabbis. In spite of this, the city had begun to feel intolerable to her. On February 28, 1941, she wrote a note to Alfred to let him know she was going away for a few months and included a forwarding address of a friend in New York City. She then got on a Trailways bus for Washington, D.C. and other parts east. A young woman friend of hers, a doctor of engineering, would stay in her studio while she was away.(23) 

Mira spent March and probably most if not all of April in Washingon, where the Smithsonian Institute had taken one of her paintings, a portrait of Señora Helena Udaondo de Pareyra Iraola, a member of a prestigious Argentine family. She had gotten in touch with Ruel Tolman, the Acting Director of the Smithsonian’s National Collection of Fine Arts, and Charles Greeley Abbot, the Smithsonian Secretary, who were interested in the possibility of having an installment ceremony for the portrait in the fall. (This apparently never took place.) Mira also saw old friends from her times of living and working in the nation’s capitol. She kept Alfred and Pearl informed of her doings and they, or at least Pearl, wrote to her about what was going on at the Institute. 

At the end of April, Alfred finally found time to respond to a letter Mira had written to him in November 1940, in which she had summarized the ups and downs of their relationship from her point of view. Among other things she pointed out that his letters and other communications with her had come to take on “in their repetitious descriptions of your evaluation of me, a close resemblance to gramophone records.” 
For me, they are the antithesis of practicing what you preach in “S [&] S” pp. 328-9 – in being an extensionalized “impassive observer”, etc. It is our failure in being exemplars of Gen. Sem. that breaks my heart [and] disturbs me now. But one has only to read the life of a Galileo to learn what kind of citizen [and] husband some “geniuses” can be. (24)
In Alfred’s eight-page April 27, 1941 reply to Mira’s November letter, he still seemed full of anger. Mira had given her letter to Congdon (with permission for him to read it), instructing the psychiatrist to then deliver it to Alfred. Although Korzybski hadn’t hesitated about presenting his side of their dispute to Congdon, he seemed furious that Mira had sought to reveal her side of the story to him. Alfred considered this another of her ‘public’ broadcasts of their personal problems. Alfred went on to make a number of points about Mira’s misevaluating ways: for example, her inexact reference, “impassive observer”, which mixed the quoted passage’s mention of emotionally impassive with impartial observer. This constituted for him one more example of her ‘Albany-Buffalo’ disregard for facts, habitual map-territory confusions, etc. He may have been technically correct here, as he was perhaps about a lot of the behavior he complained about to her. Nonetheless, he comes across as doing the sort of petty picking he often found so distasteful in others. A great deal of his letter seems to exemplify what Mira had written about—his failure to apply his own work to himself and his relationship with Mira. To this observer, who at least aspires to impartiality, Mira was holding up a very accurate mirror to Alfred, as few if any others could do. 

By early May, Mira had gotten to New York City. She decided not to respond to the details of Alfred’s letter but simply reported to him on what she’d been doing. He wrote back with another copy of his letter asking her to respond in detail to its points. She replied that she didn’t want to continue contending with him. To her, a life like that was not worth living. She wanted more than anything to be of help to and at peace with him. If she couldn’t find a way to stay in Chicago to do that, then she would move to Washington, D.C., where the distance between them might make their unwanted estrangement more tolerable to her. She would be coming home shortly and they could discuss things then. 

While still in the East she went to see more old friends. On May 29, she wrote to Alfred from Cambridge where she was visiting the Huntingtons. She had experienced a revelation:
...Mrs. Huntington took me with her to exercise the dogs – on a farm on the top of Bellemount. We were reminiscing our relationship – from the first – the dinner Prof. H. gave you [at the end of 1923] – to demonstrate the anthropometer – to a chosen group. And of my coming “dancing in” with the anthropometer on my arm – playing with the strings of “our child” and Mrs. H. noticing the expression on your face. This is the first time in 21 years [I’ve had] that new angle of perspective – and if I had not found a new evaluation – I was going to arrange a plausible “accident.” As I saw it – the least of service I could be to you [and] your work was not to be a burden to you – by my existence. Whereas – the genuine service now – is to transform myself. (25)
This previously unknown and somewhat painful glimpse of herself, as Alfred must have seen her, struck her with a special force—perhaps because it came from a palpably kind and loving friend, her Coo-coon, as she called Mrs. Huntington. It helped her to realize—as she hadn’t before—that if she was going to have any success in getting along with Alfred, she would have to sublimate her tendencies toward pushing and dramatics that had helped her so much in obtaining her painting clientele and in working with them. (The pushing had also served as a major motivating force for Alfred in developing his work.) She wasn’t willing to assent to every one of Alfred’s complaints against her. He had some responsibility as well for the problems in their relationship. But she seemed even more willing now to make greater allowances for some of his points and more willing to bend (even if she considered him wrong) in order to make things work with him. She would find it a difficult balancing act. He could ‘be’ a stubborn “Donk”. 
Gift from Mira Edgerly Korzybska to Alfred Korzybski
Beyond that, she felt ready for a change. Her lack of formal education had bothered her for a long time before she met Alfred. Her years with him whet her appetite for learning. Living with Alfred had also given her a rather significant brush with many of the works he had studied. And she had studied everything he wrote. But the necessity of getting painting commissions had meant she usually had little time for sustained study on her own. Now she wanted to remedy what she considered her still significant lack of scientific and general knowledge and her ‘floppy thinker’. She yearned to read more deeply not only in mathematics and the sciences, but also in history, anthropology, psychiatry, literature, etc. The Huntingtons had seen that yearning. As going-away gifts they had given her copies of David Smith’s History of Mathematics and E.T. Bell’s Men of Mathematics. In the Bell book they wrote: “To Mira...who appreciates the exactitude of pure mathematics no less than the fundamentals of human relations.” The books became prized additions to her growing library. She would read them both, marking them carefully as she had learned to do from Alfred. Perhaps through her studies she could eventually become useful again to Alfred in his work, at least as another pair of eyes and ears able to bring his attention to some salient bit of knowledge from some book, article, or lecture he might otherwise not see or hear. 

With a renewed sense of purpose, she returned to Chicago in early June on another Trailways bus. She was still considering the possibility of either staying at the Institute or moving to Washington. In a somewhat blunt and negative-sounding letter that Alfred wrote to her on July 12, he quashed the idea of her staying at the Institute. If she wanted to go to Washington and hang around the parlors of the rotten rich, “masturbating salivary glands” with them, he wouldn’t stop her. That certainly wouldn’t have any appeal to her. 

But he had another suggestion, which did: 
...You could take a little one-room apartment somewhere close to the Institute and see me, say once a week, by appointment. You could even attend courses at the University where you would hear a lot of useless verbalism, read in the library and so on, provided you would not gossip about the Institute. (26)
Within a couple of months, she did exactly that. A small apartment across the street from the Institute became available in September. By the end of that month, she had moved in. By the end of the year, she had gotten a kitten, whom she called “Kitten-Kat”. She would reside in Apartment 7 at 5551 Kimbark Street, for the rest of her life, largely in pursuit of the learning that she hadn’t been able to get until then. Alfred would pay her rent and give her a monthly allowance with extra money for special expenses, books, courses, etc. He would say his main reason for continuing to work so hard was to support her education. 

"Mira's Heaven"  with Kitten-Kat 
drawing by Mira Edgerly Korzybska (27)

So at the end of the year, one important question for both Alfred and Mira seemed to have gotten answered—at least tentatively. Mira had gotten settled in a new home with a new purpose for herself and a fresh willingness to try to make her relationship with Alfred work. Her new situation seems to have provided some relief for Alfred as well. In his own way, he seemed to want to recover something positive from their relationship too. But resolution of their deeper problems would take quite a while longer. For one thing, Alfred wasn’t going to change the pace of his work. He therefore simply wouldn’t have much time to devote to normal domestic life. Mira would do what she could to adjust to that. To complicate things, he would continue for some time to remain hypercritical and distrustful of her. She would have to deal with that too. But at this point she seemed better able to stand up to him than ever before. In regard to their relationship, she also seemed more flexible than him. She loved him and wanted him to succeed. She hoped she could help him to soften some of his hard edges—for his sake as well as hers. 

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. 
23.MEK to AK, 2/28/1941. AK Archives, Box 22, Folder 6. 

24. MEK to AK, 11/21/1940. AK Archives, Box 22, Folder 6.

25. MEK to AK, 5/29/1941. AK Archives, Box 22, Folder 6. 

26. AK to MEK, 7/12/1941. AK Archives, Box 22, Folder 6. 

27. Drawing by MEK in 3/5/1942 letter to AK. AK Archives, Box 22, Folder 6. 

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