Sunday, June 14, 2015

Chapter 64 - Hardly A Day Off: Part 2 - Home At Work

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.

Ralph C. Hamilton, living at the Institute for most of the time from September 1947 until January 1949, working as a personal assistant to Korzybski, gained a unique view of his mentor. Ralph, a veteran of World War II in his late twenties, had enough background and maturity to meet Korzybski as more of an equal than either of two younger men, Dave Levine and Dave Bourland, who filled similar roles for shorter periods after him. For its intimate feel of Korzybski’s daily life, I’ll quote extensively from Ralph’s recollections (2): 
I lived at the Institute. My room was on the third floor. It was a room-and-board arrangement. Charlotte did the cooking. I washed the dishes – often fixed my own breakfast, sometimes lunch. Dinner was usually in AK’s office en famille – AK, Kendig, Charlotte, me... I had some minor chores about the house – keeping the kitchen kerosene water heater fueled, some snow shoveling in winter, going shopping weekly with Charlotte, etc. I ran off mailings and related material on the third-floor mimeo machine, took care of the library, read and wrote reviews on books—mostly scientific—sent to AK for review, had “consultations” and “junior seminars” with AK in his office when he had some issue he wanted to get off his chest, typed his letters (he dictated directly to the typewriter), provided technical or scientific comments, if asked, on matters he was interested in—in fact saw him daily or twice daily.

He kept a police whistle on his desk. One blast, Charlotte. Two blasts, me. He used to say, “I hate that whistle. But I have to use it.”

Occasionally, some oddball, weirdo, or interested person found the Institute and wanted to talk. When any showed up on the front walk or at the door, I was summoned by Kendig or Charlotte and he was handed to me for interview. I was usually able to spot, in something he was concerned about, an aspect where GS could be applied. And he generally went away happy. This happened perhaps three or four times during my stay there.

During the ’48 winter seminar, I think it was, Douglas Kelley remarked to me, “You’re keeping him alive. He needs someone to talk to.” And he explained that in contrast to the Chicago scene, there were no scientifically trained people around Lakeville AK could talk to, except me. I have doubts that the matter was that vital.

Anyway, I became a sort of technical assistant and commentator. He would give me a scientific article, have me read it, and then talk to me about it, partly for my benefit, partly to get his notions about it formulated and clarified. My main duty during seminars, was to take full notes of AK’s lectures. He would review the notes each night to see if he’d said the necessary and if anything more was needed; this was an education in itself.

During this time I was not otherwise employed; did have some time to work on my own stuff. I was not paid by IGS. We had agreed that being steeped in a GS environment, including daily “lectures” from AK, plus room and board, were fair exchange for my services. And Kendig and Charlotte, because I was a singer, encouraged me to further community relations by joining the Lakeville Methodist Church choir and taking part in other musical choruses, oratorios and such. I was a soloist at the church.

Korzybski had gotten somewhat overweight by this time, though not markedly so. Still, except for an occasional cold, he seemed generally healthy and vigorous.

Regarding his mobility, Ralph didn’t see any marked change since 1946, but he had probably become less active. Limited by his war-damaged left leg, Korzybski stayed mainly on the second floor, only occasionally coming down to the ground floor for a party or other event. Using his cane, he seemed to have little trouble crossing between his room and office.

He seemed to enjoy his food. For their dinners in his office, Charlotte would run up and down the stairs with the Eastern European food she had cooked that Alfred liked—kasha, potato pancakes, sausage, etc. Ralph recalled Korzybski patting his stomach at the end of such a meal saying, “I et too much but it was good”, then looking over to Ralph and saying “Skinny, you must eat.” A fairly constant smoker, who knew it wasn’t good for him, Korzybski at least wasn’t one of those people Ralph had known who would light up the next cigarette with the embers of the previous one. He used a cigarette holder and lit up about once every hour or so. Ralph, not a smoker himself, didn’t recall the brand. (Dave Bourland recalled it as Lucky Strike.) Alfred normally kept a glass of rum-and-water on his desk (he liked Ronrico), sipping from it occasionally, the frequency of refill depending on his mood of the day. Once in a while, he would appear to get a bit clouded toward day’s end with a slight slurring of speech, but Ralph recalled “no change in interests, values, concerns.” Ralph recalled Guthrie Janssen once joking that when Korzybski said ‘I speak of cases...,’ Ronrico was what he had in ‘mind’. (But Korzybski was not the only person at the Institute—as he put it—‘not a non-drinker’.)
Korzybski & Kendig tête-à-tête at a party gathering, circa 1949

Regarding Korzybski’s daily routine and working habits, Ralph noted:
AK was usually at work in his office by 0900 or earlier, and kept at it, often until well after dinner. He worked slowly, taking pains that everything was just right; pausing now and then to hold forth to me on the meaning and implications of whatever it was; sometimes with applications to me personally—sort of “counseling.” His work consisted of correspondence; study of some scientific development with respect to its own field and to GS; preparation and editing of articles, etc., etc. He was not much involved in day-to-day business such as administrative details (Charlotte), membership, relations with trustees, planning programs, overall finances (Kendig), etc.; but was kept briefed. Routine, business, promotional and other correspondence was mostly handled by Kendig, Charlotte, and their assistants according to responsibilities listed above. AK took care of correspondence with his friends, scientific connections, media, etc. 

Korzybski still did some of his own two-fingered typing, sometimes having to bandage his fingers to protect them when they got raw. But he had Ralph type his letters (except for personal ones to Mira or more confidential ones to students, which Charlotte continued to type). Ralph would sit at the typing table in front of Alfred’s desk and sometimes they might get done 6 to 10 letters per day if they contained brief responses to something. With other ‘heavy’ letters to E.T. Bell or to Kelley for example, they might do one or two per day. Alfred might dictate for a while, then at some point stop and give Ralph a ‘junior seminar’, before saying “Continuity” so that Ralph would read back what he had written so far and they could go on.

Korzybski saw educating Ralph as an important part of their work together. When Ralph first arrived at the Institute, Alfred arranged with Doctor Overholser, an Honorary Trustee of the Institute and the Superintendant of St. Elizabeths Hospital, to have Ralph go down there for a few days for a supervised tour of the place. Alfred told Ralph, “You will find yourself” among the psychiatric patients there. After Ralph returned, he reported he had actually done so. Later, when Ralph would abstract an article or book for Alfred and give a report on it, Alfred seemed as interested in Ralph’s process as in the reported content. He might give Ralph a gentle scolding, “You don’t read. Remember this when you read, study the author.”

Ralph observed that the amount of work to be done at the Institute seemed tremendous:
AK and the staff were, each of them, riding a formidable backlog. There were not enough hands, or heads knowledgeable in the underlying theme of IGS (“Linguistic Epistemologic Scientific Research & Education”); not enough hands to run the ship, not enough funding. AK used to say, “We ought to be funded by the Government.” 

Nonetheless, Korzybski plunged and plugged ahead. Ralph “likened his passion for getting every detail right to a cowboy leaping from his horse to wrestle a mouse to the ground. It could get trying. Without this focus to a tremendous overall drive he would not have produced his work.” Ralph found him slow as a reader, marking just about everything he read. His work model in writing, as he stressed to Ralph, was: “First spit it out, then go back and fix it up.” Having eaten very little breakfast, Korzybski would have lunch and then continue working in the afternoon. After dinner, he would usually either go back to work, if he had something pressing to do, or retire to his room.

Despite the amount of work, Ralph and Alfred had many conversations:
We had all kinds of conversations: scientific, political, reminiscences about his youth in Poland, WWI, selling war bonds in the US, the moment of inspiration when the conception that became GS occurred to him, personal stuff, etc., etc. He was a one-way “conversationalist.” His hearing had been blasted during the war and he had great difficulty hearing what you were saying (especially when he had something important to say) and that double barrier was sometimes impassible. But that was minor. I would not have missed any of those conversations.  

Among the topics of conversation was the U.S. Congress: “Ah, that filibuster! It’s short of criminal! Saunders approves it, I say it should be prohibited.”
As to opinions, he used to say, “In the old, ‘democratic’ way, everyone has a ‘right’ to his opinion. In the new way, scientifically, no one has a ‘right’ to his opinion—if he has not studied the matter and informed himself.” 

Working daily with Korzybski for over a year typing letters; ‘delousing’ his writings; chasing down some piece of scientific data for him; helping him with seminar preparation, note-taking, diagramming, demonstrating, etc., gave Ralph Hamilton a great deal of data for some strong impressions about Korzybski’s output and personality. Regarding Korzybski’s output (his lectures and writings):
AK had a feel for, an insight into the existence and importance of basic levels of process, submicroscopic (‘nanotech’) and sub-conscious. He lived in a multiordinal, multidimensional world, of structure and function, misrepresented by our language and A [aristotelian] orientations. I think it was this that gave his prose, written and spoken, its convoluted and often labored approach. He was trying to convey his “take” on things to his readers and hearers. And it was this that made diagrams and models (e.g., Structural Differential) and such visualizations necessary in his seminars and lectures. Such means enabled him to show several levels, dimensions, etc., at once: the structure of things...Mathematics too, is, or represents, multidimensionality, e.g., matrices, simultaneous equations, etc. 

Alfred’s analytical ability and what he called ‘feel’ seemed especially noteworthy:
You studied the data, you explored the structure involved, you visualized it and so on, until you had the feel. You could fly by the seat of your pants. You could feel the relations, patterns and structures involved...AK applied his “feel” to people too. He looked from his office window once and saw, some 80 yards away, a couple headed for the Institute. At that distance he couldn’t see who they were. He watched them for a couple of seconds and said to Charlotte and me, “That man is in love with that woman.” I knew who they were. He was right. And from such “feel” he derived his caring for the people he worked with; his ability to see “where they were at.” Which was sometimes uncomfortably acute.

Ralph noted the force of Korzybski’s personality:
The first impression you got on meeting AK was vigor and directness and openness. These came with courtesy. If you hit it off, the courtesy grew into consideration and, over time, caring. He cared about anyone associated with him, and spiced it with an impish humor. “Warm” was the word most used at IGS. Robert Heinlein described him: “He had gusto.” (Said of a character representing AK in the tale “Blowups Happen.”) If you didn’t hit it off, and he still had dealings with you, you soon found out. And if you needled him he was quite ready to lower the boom without malice.

Regarding Korzybski’s ‘impish’ humor:
On one occasion, at his desk, anent something he and Charlotte had been reading, AK (glancing sidelong at Charlotte), remarked to me “But you know, human bodies really ugly.” CS: “Now don’t start that.” AK (grinning at me): “You go out to the beach and look at the people. Ugly!” And so on, for a couple minutes. Charlotte, in a sort of resigned protest, walked out and sat on the steps outside the office door, while AK, still grinning, continued in this vein a bit. This was blaspheming part of Charlotte’s creed: beauty of the human body. With her dancing and related work, she aimed at perfecting the human form, in motion and rest. And AK in the role of Puck, mischievous but benign. Kendig could smile at this. But sometimes the mischief came her way, and it was her turn to protest. And Skinny got his share too. But, I wasn’t inclined to protest...As Charlotte develop beauty in the human form, so AK, you might say, strove to develop sanity. He kept at it in the face of what he saw at the beaches and hospitals and governments—manhood, as Lewis Carroll put it, involved in ambition, distraction, uglification and derision. 

Ralph recounted what happened near the end of 1948 when, deciding to leave his ‘informal’ unpaid Institute job, he told Korzybski. (Ralph would stay in touch and later, over the next year and into 1950, worked pro tem for the Institute for pay):
...I began to see that I’d done what I could at IGS, and IGS and AK had done what they could for me. More, at that point, would on my part be a surfeit with relatively little, by comparison, application in work. I knew AK would not take to my leaving and would vigorously try to persuade me to stay; and that I wouldn’t have much success in explaining my view, by reason of the one-way communication I’ve described. I left a note on his desk saying how much benefit I’d gained, how much I appreciated it, and how, regretfully, I must get a job and get to work. I would leave on such a date. Two blasts on the police whistle soon followed, and, bracing myself, I reported to the mentor. He asked, “How have I failed you?” I said I didn’t think he had; that I was much more capable now of doing the job I needed to find. He doubted it; asked me to cite how I would perform; how I would use my hands (always a big point with him) in talking to those I had to deal with; etc. Not much reassured, he gave me advice: act more extensionally, get in more direct contact with people, drop the theorizing and integrating for now—all sound, all valid. And shrugged his shoulders and sighed, and wished me well. 

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, pp. 420-421. 

2. Ralph’s observations were gathered in number of phone interviews and letters between 2005 and 2009. After an initial phone conversation in October 2005, I mailed him an extensive list of questions to prime the pump for later discussions. Most of the material quoted here is from a remarkable 20-page letter stimulated by these questions that he began writing soon after our first contact. (Although dated November 17, 2005, Ralph’s letter was postmarked March 8, 2006.) The material in this letter-memoir was supplemented by interviews (Nov. 21, 2005), (Nov. 28, 2005), other letters (Mar. 7, 2006; Mar. 13, 2007), and phone conversations (Dec. 30, 2009). I remain in contact with Ralph, who has become a friend.  [2014-15 Update: 
on July 26, 2011 Ralph—in his 90s—died after a brief period of failing health. Ralph gave me a tremendous amount of time and help; I'll miss him. I had just sent him a bound galley proof of this just published biography. His son, also named Bruce, told me that he was able to tell his father that the book was out, and that Ralph had a prominent place in it. Ralph smilingly replied, 'That will ensure my notoriety.']

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