I come back and back to a sense of my writing as topology, traveling the Möbius strip to confirm yet again that it is one and not more ways I write.
An article is a directed graph, mostly from A to B, its degree limited. We start and have way stops and end, if we have done the job right, having neither plodded utterly predictably nor lost the main road in too many departures.
A short story is a connected graph, of higher degree, perhaps also directed. Here is where I start to lose my way as the writer I am right now. I can give you a potential story’s emergent properties–themes, characters–and its statistics–various time frames planned, a summary of events. But, needing to apprehend my writing as a single whole, I’m not a good plotter: scenes I can do, scene sequences but awkwardly.
This is, I think, what has pulled me to short lyric. Still some naive Imagiste, I like words sharp and clear. No ideas but in things (of which ideas are a kind). In moments of cheerful weakness I like sound-play and quips. But I am less interested in allusive density and more in sculpting the form of a unity, as depressingly conservative a poetics as that seems.
What I mean is I want my poems to be apprehensible suddenly. Some evolve in time, unrolling like a road over terrain. But the journey is not the point–the one sight to see appears in looking back, zoomed out, when it’s all been laid out.
This is not to say that I aim at still lives. I’m a physicist: motion fascinates. But more interesting to me is motion’s signature in the space, noises used to sound out its shape. I’ve always liked harmony with its overtones more than melody, though my favorite is the polyphony that kinks the border between the two.
If I’ve a world to explore in a poem, I do it as topologist relaying the sense, not geometer calling out its measurements. But it is the sense, not a sense, still less some sense: the report must be precise before my poem is finished.
Yesterday afternoon I found myself sprawled on the couch, eyes half open, the concepts of dot product, cross product, projection and determinant swimming around in my head. It’s worth noting here both that I studied up through a MS in math and that I’m no longer a mathematician professionally. I came upon these concepts idly walking memory lane, as happens on Rosh Hashanah.
It felt great—and not just because hey, I know a lot—still got it a decade later, baby!
Doing original research in math rarely felt great when that was my task. Full of dead-ends where you think you’re about to crest a peak to a beautiful vista. An emotional tug-of-war between excitement and despair that probably didn’t help my bipolar disorder any. I often explain, post facto, that languages ended up being a better fit for me because they allow reliable, accreting progress. If I work at a language, I‘m more proficient at the end of the day than I was when I woke up, by 8 new words or a syntactic structure or maybe an inspiring target-language conversation. If I do wake up sweating at 3am—as happens—it won’t be because I recognized all the last day’s work was flawed. When I did math research, I woke up to the demoralizing poof of a good day’s thinking more often than I woke up to a fruitful new idea.
But yesterday, I knew the math I was running wasn’t going to go poof. The thinking felt like improv, where every choice is right and you just keep moving forward. It was goal-less, aimless, intensely associative, fleet, light, inconsequential. I started with a concept—a landmark on the surface of my mental model of Math World. If the flight of math had started with a problem statement, I imagine it would’ve been what a Zen koan is for the one about to sit for meditation: a jumping off point, an invitation to someplace that promises to be cool. Not a challenge demanding a solution. A problem you actively don’t bother solving, even if you know it’s an easy one and within your wheelhouse. An infinite game and a cooperative one between me and math.
One of the mini-games is how many paths forward you can generate from a single unit of math. Another is minimizing the size of your displacement while maximizing the distance wandered. If you get back to where you started, it’s a return to Cavafy’s boring Ithaca, enriched by the travels. If you set out again, in the same spirit from the same spot, oh the places you’ll go!—destination unknowable, as to Bilbo walking out his door. Any dead end reveals itself as a portal: you glide through to the next stop, no banging your head or re-pacing your steps.
I’m going to call this thing free-mathing, by analogy with free writing. It seems impossible: the internal editor is central to doing math. But I think the sense of play, openness, spontaneous generation and infinity can be likened to the state free writing wants to generate.
Free-mathing shares benefits with free writing, too: warming up the mind and getting the gunk out; lowering the activation energy for approaching the Serious Real Work that Must Be Excellent. Both mean you get in reps of concepts and skills you’ll need for a “real”, convergent-thinking math or writing task down the line, whether in five minutes or six months. Both show you what you know and actually don’t know so well as you thought you did, while being rather less critical of you when compared with a set of exam questions or the strategy of self-testing.
And why bother with this, now that I don’t “do” math anymore? I enjoy free-mathing once in a while, and now that I’ve named it maybe I’ll try it more often. I already have the permission from myself not to take my hobby math seriously. Maybe if I practice not taking things seriously there, it’ll make my writing work more approachable, too, the work I take too seriously to do it at the moment. If I freewrite and freemath and my pattern-loving brain sees the connections between the two things, maybe I’ll get more playful about serious writing. Or, supposing (ridiculously, helpfully) that Plato is right that all learning is recollection, maybe I’ll remember the lightness of play on the mind.
Es ist nicht falsch: die deutsche Sprache besitzt ungeheuerlich lange Wörter. Kann jemand wie ich, der an ADHS litte, sogar mich aufmerksam halten, wahrend „Aufmerksamkeitsdefizit-Hyperaktivitaetsstoerung“ ausgesprochen wird? Das Word „Kühlschrank“ ist ja cool, aber es klingt nach etwas eher bei einem Tatort als in der Küche. Solche zusammengefügte Wörter haben den Ruf der Sprache bei potenziellen Lehrenden überhaupt nicht verbessert. Es soll aber gar nicht so sein.
Mir ist Deutsch eine Sprache zum Tanzen. Die Art und Weise, auf die ich Deutsch gelernt habe, führen dazu, dass diese beliebte Sprache ihre Zuhause in meinem Körper—insbesondere der Stimme und den Füßen—fand, nicht im Kopf. Sie hat eher mich von Scham vor dem Körper befreit als von den konzeptuellen Grenzen einsilbiger Wörter.
Nach dem Talentabend zieht die Tanzboden die anderen an. Ich bleibe nüchtern und fast zitternd in der Ecke, so wie ich gewöhnlich tue. Ich erkenne die Lieder nicht, auch eine meiner schämenden Gewohnheiten (ein bisschen mehr okay auf einer Fremdsprache). Kurz zuvor habe ich ganz angenehm mit den anderen, Leute, die ich lieb habe, flüssig und ununterbrochen geredet. Jetzt ist es aber Zeit zum Tanzen und mein Körper schweigt, so wie es gewöhnlich tut. Gleichzeitig führt die Stimme im Kopf ein Gespräch mit mir selbst—oder eher schreit mich an, während ich, der sich sicher Ich, noch schweige.
Die Freunden freuen sich für die Tanze. Für die Freiheit und Gelassenheit, vermute ich, die sie ihnen ermöglicht. Sie schämen sich nicht, denke ich (sicher war es nicht ganz so, das wusste ich schon dann). Ich beneide es ihnen. Plötzlich bin ich wieder klein, eingeschränkt von meinen Gedanken, allein unter vielen. Ich ertrage es nicht. Die anderen scheinen, so froh zu sein. Und die sind sicher bei mir—nur ich bin nicht mir dabei.
Und dieses Mal, auf einmal—kaum zu glauben—provoziert dies mich zur Bewegung. Zu kleinen Schritten, dann größeren, frohen, endlich von mir unbeobachteten. Es war mir schon immer so: die Vorfreude veranlasst mich zur Bewegung viel mehr als die Scham und jene verdammte Kopfstimme, die täuscht ständig vor, mir dabei zu sein.
Sicher waren es die liebe Leute, die das Tanzen mir ermöglicht haben. Aber die Sprache spielt auch eine Rolle. Die Stimme im Kopf konnte nicht so schnell auf Deutsch reden, wie es nötig gewesen wäre, um mich aufzuhalten. Die Freude vor lebendigen Bewegung erfüllt die Lücke, die der herzlich willkommene Mangel an Wörter endlich in meinem Kopf lassen. Mein Kopf schweigt, ich aber schliesslich nicht.
The natural philosopher Francis Bacon is well-known (among historians of science…) for his Novum Organon that rejected much of Aristotle’s theoretical method (the Organon) and sought to establish methods of investigation that intimately bound empiricism and abstract reasoning. In the blitz history of science given in science classes, he’s one of the people cited as a founder of modern science, clearing the intellectual detritus of reliance on ancient authorities and handed-down notions.
In the passage I’ve translated below, from the preface to the work, we see a more complex Bacon (as is usually the case—let’s return to the sources when we can!) He is hardly triumphalist about the powers of his method, or of human reason, and he has more respect for what the ancients and his predecessors in philosophy achieved than I, at least, expected given what I’d been told. (I suppose Bacon would have approved of me going back to the sources and breaking through the confusions and errors brought on me by received wisdom, even given with the best of intentions.)
I give this translation in the spirit of sharing works-in-progress; there are many things about it that I’m unsatisfied with, among them my somewhat archaizing style and use of “men” because “humans” still feels awkward to this genderqueer-yet-methodologically-conservative classicist.
Original Latin text here (the two paragraphs starting from “Qua re, ut quae dicta sunt complectamur…”).
“It seems neither trust in others’ authority nor our own individual efforts have favored us humans in illuminating the sciences so far—especially since neither demonstrations nor experiments done up to now have been much help. Human reason, contemplating it, finds the edifice of this universe, its structure akin to a labyrinth, where so many impasses in the ways, such deceptive analogies between signs and things, such crooked, knotted coils and tangles reveal themselves everywhere. We must constantly journey through the forests of experience and particular things by the wavering light of the senses, now shining forth, now concealing itself. Even worse—those who offer themselves as trail guides also get turned around and increase the number both of errors and those erring.
In such difficult matters there is little hope of progress for us humans by our own powers or happy good fortune. Nor can excellence of mind or endless rolls of the dice overcome the difficulties. We must step forward along the threads reason lays down: every line of inquiry, starting from the first impressions of the senses, must be supported by reason. But nor should we deal with these matters as if they hadn’t been treated for many centuries, by many hard labors. We are not ashamed of what has been found; we do not repudiate it wholly. And the ancients certainly showed themselves to be admirable men, to the extent that they treated these matters by their own powers of mind and abstract meditation.
Conquered by an eternal love of the truth, we give ourselves over to unsteady and demanding paths and vast deserts; and leaning on and held up by divine aid, we keep our minds steadfast, against the buffeting of opinion, practically arrayed in battle against us, and our own internal hesitations and anxieties, and no less against the fogs and clouds and phantoms of the things themselves. Thus we can gift our contemporaries and those who come after us with more trustworthy and sure signposts. And if we have made any progress at all in this, the way was laid open to us by nothing other than true humbling of the human spirit.
For all those who applied themselves to the invention of arts before us, having taken a cursory look at the things themselves and case studies and the evidence of their senses, invoked their own spirits as if shown to them through oracles, as if discovery came from nothing other than a bit of cogitation. We, though, perpetually sitting with the same phenomena and exhibiting restraint, do not let our intellects roam farther from the things themselves than is necessary to form impressions and images of the concrete things in our minds—and so nothing much is left to our mental powers and excellence. And we have shown the same humility when we teach as we use when we make researches.
We do not attempt to impose or force a magisterial quality on our discoveries, neither by flashy refutations, nor invoking the ancients, nor by force of authority or any cover of obscurity. This would hardly be difficult for anyone who tried to illuminate his discoveries for his own sake and not others’ benefit. I do truly believe that we have not used any force or set any treacheries for men through our judgments, nor are we planning such now. We are, rather, leading them to the phenomena themselves and the connections between them, so that they may see for themselves what our arguments have in them, what they explain, what they add and contribute to common knowledge. And if we held false beliefs in some matter or fell asleep on the job and payed poor attention, or got lost on the path and screwed up our inquiry, we have endeavored to show these, our errors, too, unadorned and openly, so that our mistakes can be noted and separated out before they infect our scientific enterprise more deeply, and so that our efforts may be continued with fewer impediments and the way forward easier. In these ways, we trust we have formed a true and legitimate marriage between empirical investigation and abstract reasoning, whose wayward and unfortunate split and rejection of each other shook up everything in our human family.”
Maria Popova is a thought-hero of mine. She’s not an idol—rather, at my best thinking self I try to be her apprentice. No, we’ve never met. And yet, as is manifest in her writing on years of written correspondence between women who admire each other intimately, we can seem to ourselves to know a soul through its verbal emanations.
Popova is a rigorous curator of poetic-scientific feeling. Her teenaged (13 years of consistency!) weekly newsletter is timeless—she puts the date only in the URL, in case you need it for citation—not in a way that endorses the shill of universal humanity, but because its story-threads accrete into a solid world. Her implicit theory of knowing prizes personal experience while including our full intellectual, vicarious, imagined worlds therein, avoiding the smallness of the preciousness and pathos that she does not devalue. She values grand narratives and builds them bottom-up, dialectically and dialogically insisting that the cosmos, and ours, are a rich tapestry of glittering details and a sweeping structure that is true and beautiful scribed in ideal forms. If I may, she’s a Platonist imagist and an Aristotelian observer, availing herself of the logical tools of both.
Her worldviews, through my kaleidoscope, give me confidence that our brilliant hearts can perceive the gestalt, a solid whole with these threads as atoms. Our consciousness can expand to simultaneously comprehend the old woman and the young one in that classic demonstration of shifted perception: we are not limited to watching the shifting tensions in pretty partner dances between micro and macro.
Popova’s poetics of bodies and evidence do have arguments, contra Jorie Graham’s idea that “great poems have so few arguments in them.” But she agrees with Graham in not “want[ing] to make the reader ‘agree’.” Her magnum opus (thus far), Figuring, is a smart book and a full one, loving both structure and flow, vivid and associational while taking real things as its raw material—if we understand feelings, mysteries and phenomena all as reality. Above all it holds all these poles as glimpses of a whole, fading and emerging by tricks of the light, in a decidedly expansive and expanding geometry.
The author’s voice is rarely present in first person in either Popova’s newsletters or Figuring, but only she could have written her work. And so she provides us a model of clear observation by the light of the heart and me with the courage to speak words like “heart” without a reflexive academic flinch. As a curator she is no mere compiler, but gets idea-full figures to play with each other through what feels like a light touch of intuition but I know to be thorough investigation. She runs towards intensity and in that process guides me to a practice of doing so, despite my fears, despite the defense of “rigor!” that we academics so often throw up against the intrusion of abiding care.
BrainPickings is an email newsletter you will actually open every week. Figuring is a bigger and differently rich attention commitment. I’m going to be a terrible curator here and point you to the whole damn archive to find what resonates, with votes in for mentions of Oliver Sacks, Carl Sagan, Johannes Kepler, Emily Dickinson, and the wisdom of trees. Each article ends with a “complement with” section that is Popova curating herself: trust her to guide you, as I do.
I moved this week and brought only two boxes of books with me! For a word-hoard-er, that‘s an accomplishment. Especially when around half the books were ones I really do reference and need with me as I study for my oral exams.
The other box was almost exclusively volumes of English-language poetry, my native language (English, that is—if only poetry!) These are the bodies of work that I need to incorporate into my inklings on paper’s back: it’s only poetry I rarely read in ebook form.
There’s no fetishism of the smell of the paper or the crack of the page-turn there. It’s simply a different form of reading than I mostly do now: for feeling in over figuring out the language.
That I haven’t dived into any of the books in that second box in months, mostly years, shows not disenchantment with poetry, but a separation from the plain enchantment I felt when I first met these poets’ pages, that drove me to require their volume in my space. I can prove it (I say): they have survived a dozen purges of those shelves over seven years. Nor is their presence a plan or sign of aspiration: like friends you only talk to once a year but have not picked up the designation “former,” these poets are familiar, familiars, whose work I do not devour partly because I trust it will be there for the long haul, even at the end. There is a longing there of a rare sort for me: a stable and sustained one. There is a bond with even the yet-unread poems that only I can sever—a consolation, in years strewn with sudden loss and grief.
This week I mulled over. Harryette Mullen’s “Fancy Cortex” (read it in full here). I commend the whole volume it is contained in, Sleeping with the dictionary, into the hands of any lovers of sounds and play—and this one exemplifies the collection.
We talk in any “Intro to the History of English” about short, sharp Anglo-Saxon words (though I would replace that term now with Early English) versus the bourgeois signifiers of too-aristocratic Latin (and French and Greek). In “Fancy Cortex,” Mullen enjambs them seamlessly, without ostentation. The contrasting sounds of these two word-sources map onto characters: the “I” has a plain brain before the crush’s eponymous fancy cortex. No hitting us over the head with a gulf of difference: a one- versus two-syllable couplet. Sound, while shimmering, is only sequel to sense, which does not yield to aural ecstasy: the brain anatomy, the evolutionary processes, the optical are all straight science, or at least the tangle of language is woven—a little wildly, but not confused. Or at least with the concepts set straighter than lots of science journalism, and more generous, joyful, inviting, exhibitionist.
The I’s hypothetical as ifs are wink-wink suggestions of truth, not the truly tortuous counterfactuals of Latin syntax. They drive us forward, don’t hang us up. And the mapping I asserted, of simple language to modest status, is not fixed: sometimes tizzy-like conglomerations of phrases are the speaker’s, whose inquisitive iris of [her] galaxy-orbiting telescope doesn’t penetrate as far or keenly as the beloved’s vision. These two characters are definitely on the word-dance floor, juxtapositioning in a tumble of identities.
The poem’s cool-down is both cosmic (featuring a divergent universification and a microcosm) and possibly intimate: maybe the speaker’s crush will “fancy the microcosm of [her] prosaic mind.” It’s all in the cards, especially when this supposedly prosaic poet can coin verses that universify.
“You’re a polyglot? Oh! How many languages are you fluent in?!”
I suspect most who are called or call themselves polyglots usually get this response when they reveal themselves. I certainly do, and it drives me crazy.
It reflects a certain instrumental view of languages as objects or tools to accumulate. Polyglots “pick up” languages quickly and after they “master” a given language, they are justified in including it in their count of tools (and it stays in the box forever, even if it gets buried under a heap of dust). The languages are likely somewhat interchangeable for someone who asks this question, who is more interested in number than character and quality. Being a polyglot, in my experience in the United States, is considered a feat of at least slight genius, a little odd but noteworthy nonetheless—a bit like being a math whiz or winner of the pi recitation contest.
I often consider languages as instruments too: musical instruments. We ask musicians what they play, not how many instruments or (usually) how well. While there is still a strong cultural narrative of child prodigies in piano or violin, when someone tells us they play piano, we understand at some level that they must practice a lot and that they started at the beginning. We wonder how they feel about their instrument, how long they’ve played, when they started and why. We ask about the sort of music they most like to play—jazz, classical, folk, pop?–where they’ve played and for whom. If we are awed at a performance of theirs we probably lean in and not away: we might share how it moved us, ask about a part that particularly struck us, or praise them for the creation they’ve gifted the audience through their mastery. We want to know about their upcoming concerts—which we know will be totally different, even if they are still just playing that same instrument! While we might widen our eyes at someone who plays five instruments, we don’t fret over how many instruments you have to play to attain the coveted status of “real musician.”
In short, we understand that being a musician can be central to someone’s identity at any age or level. We know that mastery builds, that musicianship is a lifelong pursuit, that mastery is a craftsman’s label and not what we win when we beat the big boss. We want musicians’ stories, assuming each is unique.
When I’ve asked musicians I meet about what they play, I’ve heard:
Clarinet in high school—starting out I wanted to play sax just like everyone else, but all the saxophones were taken when I got to pick my instrument out of the closet in my public middle school
I love accompanying choirs: singing is way more challenging than people think, and it’s so rewarding to see the process the singers go through, be there at every rehearsal, watch them develop as people
Well, okay, I don’t know if I would say musician… I mean, we all played recorder in third grade, right? But actually I went further with it! After a year or two I was playing Mozart and folk songs, not that “Hot Cross Buns” stuff you start off with
I can play chopsticks, haha. No, piano wasn’t for me. But I’ve gotten back into it recently, now that I have kids… I want to expose them to music, you know, and show them what music could do for them. I’m not perfect, but when they were little my kids loved my singing to them at night…I think they still do, secretly.
In my own life, after getting stuck with clarinet and not sax in the band-room-closet scramble, the highlight of eighth grade was a Bach duet I got to play with a flautist classmate at the end-of-year concert. Clarinet brings back memories of watching the sunset from a 4th floor window at the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music, the crappy pizza place we piled into after concerts, and wanting to disappear whenever my teacher nagged his son, who was often at our lessons, to get his homework done just like I always did. Piano brings memories of listening: my parents both played, though I did so only under duress. I remember Joe Hill, John Henry, Beethoven, Schumann, the streets of Laredo. I remember noodling around on the piano in a back hallway where my a cappella group practiced in high school, and how when I (an atheist Jew) listened in chapel, I wasn’t always sure if it was the music I was falling in love with or the musician—or maybe sprouting some new notion of G-d.
I only got beyond the basics in choral singing, but I have fun with music. I know the struggles of doing two different things with your hands (mostly because that’s when I started giving up) and can feel my way to a chord on piano for tuning and warmup. I play scales to relax and I know that when I tackled Byrd motets and four-part polyphony, I was as much tackling my emotional life. I know how the same problems came up in my piano playing as in life and how it is to get called out on that, to hear “slow down, play through the doubt, and stop trying to be perfect” and take that home with me.
Languages, at least for this polyglot, are instruments in exactly this sense. I have a relationship with each of mine, a history, different loves and joys and persistent demons in each. If I am a collector, it’s not of badges, but as someone who relishes the make of a thing, its character and its long lineage of handlers. It’s about each coin, not the sum total. With Spanish I think of words flying on the yellow school bus as a kid, my delight at helping my best friend in high school with her AP homework even though I’d never taken a class, and how much I learned about what my students really thought before they realized I spoke Spanish. In Latin the author I turn to for comfort most often is still Saint Augustine, the first one I ever read extended passages from, and I felt a sort of mastery not when I could tackle the canon, but when I kept thinking in Latin even when my feelings tackled me.
These are the stories that I tell about knowing different languages when I get a chance. These are the ones that make me feel seen and heard, like the asker really cares about her question and its answer. When I have the chance to share about my languages I want to share love and fun, not curt numbers that distance us. On the off chance there’s still that awkward, unmerited awe, I want it to be the encouraging sort of awesome, the one that lets us continue the conversation.
So next time you meet a polyglot, ask for their story, not their stats.
I thrived in traditional language classes in school—so I thought, so my grades and all the adults around me insisted. I also sensed and said, from pre-K to now, “I hate school AND I love learning.” I’ve always had a keen love of hyperbole and stubbornly simple declarations–but there’s a whole lot of real science and personal history wrapped up in this strong, simplistic statement.
All the World at Home on the 7 Train
I grew up in New York City, born and raised. In my four-year-old transportation phase, even as a then-monolingual English speaker, I took in with all my senses Italian, English, German, Mandarin, Cantonese, Arabic, Hindi, Bengali, (Modern) Greek… all audible throughout the day on the MTA’s 7 line deep to Queens (which has the highest density of languages on Earth, each of which you can learn about in this interactive map).
My mundane little trips were a local, public, immersive, experiential education that gave me glimpses of linguistic communities all over the world and oodles of earfuls of the languages themselves.
Yes, that exposure was certainly surface. And yes, one could fairly argue (I have worried about it myself) that this was mere cultural tourism: a steep and slippery slope down to understanding too little of too much.
But I find that it ingrained in my roots not any one culture or language, but the epic, embodied idea that human language, culture, our selves, and the worlds we build and inhabit are all linked, woven, knotted together, utterly inseparably,to form a mosaic whole–one we can still examine by parts if we need to, whether by prism or kaleidoscope.
Singing and The Sound of Silence
Where and when did I internalize my most fluent second language, Spanish? It wasn’t (just) on the 7 train. It’s hard to pinpoint “everywhere” on a city map. It’s true but not useful to respond, “always–the thick city air throbbed and hummed with the tongue.”
It is true and important to my polyglot story to add that those sounds, that music I breathed in, I breathed it out too. I was my most grounded, creative, connected, and joyful–sometimes loudly, sometimes with a fierce, sustained quietness–singing in choirs, which I have done regularly since age 7. I have sung in languages ranging from English to Hungarian through Latin, Hebrew, Yiddish, Italian, French, Russian, and German. In fact, my very first encounter with Latin, as a secular Jew, was in classical choral settings of the Catholic mass I sang in as an 18 year old with orchestra. In a pattern that would repeat itself, I knew and loved Latin’s sounds and was drawn to its sacredness even not knowing what it meant–neither the message of the words, then, nor their gentle but insistent tug on me, towards something like what I understand faith to mean to the faithful. Sanctuary I grasped even then, singing in the church’s: I needed it, was consoled in my own storms of life pronouncing Sweet Honey in the Rock’s haunting sounds of consolation.
I loved the puzzle, structure and challenge of the languages as I encountered them in choir too, presaging more logical language adventures to come. We learn the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) to be able to enunciate properly even singing in a language we don’t speak. The IPA was even better than Unicode or ASCII, a wondrous script that let me internalize and precisely produce the lilt and cadence of languages whose worlds I did not yet have rational, meaningful access to. Sometimes, though, then and still now, a language is the most significant and sensible to me when I have no access to its messages. The poetry becomes more prose, the mystery resolves itself a little too clearly, after some patient study of the literal meaning. As I walk around flaunting my command of a word whose meaning I already “know,” the real wonder and singularity of my first encounter with it only comes to mind in particularly meditative moments. Most times, I am prone to confuse mastery of craft with command of a subject. Something gained, something forgotten–verloren.
School Days: Thinking Harder is Better (…Right?)
As I entered middle and especially high school, I lost bigger swaths of my language, of that varied rock-out, wild-joy, push-through, hold-on, step-back, breathe, rest… soundtrack. I dropped concert band after sophomore year (I had played clarinet) to double up on math and enter a research competition that I thought I loved and in a real sense did. I didn’t sing in the school choir (though meinLieblingshobby was an a cappella group, a student-run home-at-school which I attended religiously).
I chose Robotics Team over the sci-fi and fantasy games and literary magazines, because clearly I was “really” a math guy, or clearly it was more serious and taxing, and thus more worthwhile (I went to a specialized magnet high school known for math). I was really smart, so they told me–some threw the word “genius” my way–and so I could and thus should be doing hard things.
(At least, so I heard what they were telling me: the wiser ones, both peers and teacher-mentors, the foretellers of my most fulfilled life meant something different. They spoke it in the most fully human of languages I did not yet comprehend, the joint language of heart, head, study, and a lot of living in this, our world).
Thinking Hard Can Help You Think Well (…Sometimes.)
But not all who wander are truly lost. The path of the geometer may be no royal road, but (as I’ve lived) one can journey to math in awe (or to any beautifully powerful corner of our earth), a little too hurried, too green for the quest; can love and hurt in its majestic halls for a long while; and then find that its thought-world and languages still mesh lovingly with one’s new, familiarly human ones.
Thus I passed through math and stepped away from it forged more finely. I moved on but have kept it as a companion for the road–even, now, have it over like an old friend for a now-multilingual encounter into the night.
Wir machen weiter. Continuamos.Progressi sumus. Qualcosa è successo, lo che sia.
I chose Italian in middle school to make friends in the surrounding Italian-American neighborhood of Bensonhurst, a few miles and a whole world away from home–and because it seemed harder than Spanish, which was overly familiar, too close to home. I later sang in Italian knowing not just its lilt but some of its message in voice lessons in college whose memory I still cherish; studied it to advanced overall proficiency with the more creative, personally effective methods I crafted for myself after I immersed in Latin in isolated mountain-town Italy; and now use it to read with joy and fascination both Dante the linguist and Galileo the emotive poet in my PhD research, whose core is actually Latin.
I chose Mandarin Chinese in high school because it seemed fascinatingly hard and worthy of deep study (I was totally right–with wrong-headed teenaged motivations). My parents worried about me taking a language at all: maybe I would fail the speaking test in the exit exam because of my speech impediment–but I was adamant.
Chinese is one of the few languages I have studied in formal classes and one of the only ones I have studied hard and almost completely lost, though I surprise myself once in a while by recognizing the words on storefront shops in heavily Cantonese-speaking Chinatowns. Chinese was an excellent choice: it was easier for me than other languages with my particular speech impediment, since mixing s and sh sounds, a dis-ability in English and an occasion for the arching of eyebrows in Italian, can be a simple matter of regional differences in Chinese.
In class I loved the grammar, structure, writing system, the creative calligraphy with strict rules for stroke order. I loved learning directional adverbs, memorizing radicals, analyzing sentences, and the comparative ease of learning verbs, which I now understand is true of many analytic languages. I got bored when we elite AP students were finally granted access to Chinese literature and culture. (I, now a polyglot aspiring historian of science, thought history was just a collection of old facts, mere souvenir collecting, not yet knowing that souvenir is “to remember” in its original French, not to gather tourist trinkets). While I haven’t touched Chinese in a few years, I would use my skills in analyzing language and attraction to the ancient and classical later on to study Latin, taught quite mathematically, and classical Arabic, which beautifully binds structure and sanctity, laws and contemplative philosophy, revelation and study.
We End Where We Began, But Different
“Omnia tempus habent et suis spatiis transeunt universa sub caelo.”
(Ecclesiastes 3:1, Latin Vulgate Bible)
“To everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under heaven.”
(ibid., King James Version)
I stretched myself with organic chemistry and AP History courses in high school, took two acting courses, loaded up on English electives, and wrote creatively all along in a STEM magnet school whose second, secret treasure was and is its English department. I learned that I knew Spanish, somehow, when I could help my best friend in robotics and physics–also a linguistics, constructed languages (conlang) and Esperanto geek–with her AP Spanish class.
I finished a math major and applied math to physics in my master’s work, alongside intensive choir and slam poetry commitments and more classes in the English department than most majors). In the filler summer between graduation and my first full-time teaching gig teaching both science and world literature (but not math), I found linguistics through grammar-based Latin. Over the next few years, I added Ancient Greek and relearned Latin as a living language (introduced to that world by the student president of my college choir). The spoken fluency I now enjoy makes possible my doctoral work on creative, multilingual communities of knowledge-makers in the Early Modern world, focused on Kepler and other mathematical astronomers writing in Latin (both technical scholarship and popular science fiction). These Latin writers (and maybe speakers?) also wrote to home and homeland in various vernacular languages, like Spanish, Italian and German. Without revivifying the Latin language for myself, I would not be able to study these particular dead as I do.
All of this background–my scattered life’s history thus far formed into words–all this contradiction, irony, love, confusion, conflict, and clarity, got me exactly where I am–fulfilled and eager for what’s next–in my life and my professional vocations. I was a polyglot, a writer, a creative all along, I think. I didn’t notice the polyglottery at all, felt rather ashamed of taking time from serious subjects for the fierce and unexpected joy of my writing craft, and noticed my creativity mostly in how I proved new theorems in mathematics (or, as I would now express it, defined and described an unexplored corner of a simulated world). I am still a mathematician–a lover of critique and a subject of criticism, someone who looks at a sunset and notes in memory all the following at once: a photograph, emotional power, existential beauty, and the physical explanation for the color gradients.
Where to? We’ll make this way together!
I’m so excited and grateful to share our multilingual worlds and form our unique polyglot identities-–because I do believe polyglottery can be a fundamental identity, not just a collection of everyday tools, mysterious feats of intellect, or conversation starters for geeks at parties.
Some of my most memorable, and thus powerful, learning experiences in languages and humanities have come from imitation. In a college literature class on the English Metaphysical Poets, I had the opportunity to write a poem imitating John Donne’s “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning” and reflect on my process, defending how it was an imitation, instead of writing a standard seminar research paper. That was nine years ago, and I still feel a deeper connection to Donne’s work and cosmology than to most other poets I’ve studied. I also understand his style better.
Imitate more than innovate to learn your craft
There is a long history of imitation denigrated as “mere,” uncreative, derivative. Even if we recognize that poets’, painters’ and composers’ juvenalia often consist in imitations—and thus that imitation is part of learning one’s craft—they are considered juvenile: immature, less worthy of our study. Mere preludes to creation.
There is perhaps equally long history of imitation as a core part of humanistic education, whether to learn a language itself (say, Latin) or the style of its literary authors. Jacobus Pontanus, a Renaissance humanist who wrote *colloquia—*mostly fictional dialogues between students—to aid advanced students in learning Latin, is one among many, from antiquity through his own time, to suggest taking well-known fables from Aesop or a letter from some famous author and imitating it as closely as possible, sometimes following set rules of composition, occasionally taking more liberties. Expansion and summary, transposition into a new context, paraphrases, changing genres, adding meter to prose or turning verse into dialogue—all of these were common exercises designed not only to exercise the language itself, but also for students to achieve an intimate knowledge of what and how excellent ancient and contemporary writers thought.
Diligent teachers often take up the argument or the whole content of some learned man’s letter and propose it to their students, then, by comparing their students’ letters with the original, teach them what one should do and how one should write.
Jacobus Pontanus, Progymnasma 98
Pontanus even suggests keeping the theme and content of the original exactly the same, changing only words and form: treating hackneyed themes frees one from the need to make novel arguments and wrestle with style all at once. I have found this to be true in my own imitations: when I wrote a pseudo-Platonic dialogue in Ancient Greek, I tried—with less success than I’d imagined—to riff off and add a modern spin Plato’s ideas on pedagogy while I was imitating his style to better my Greek. I’m proud of the result, but I might have refined my sense of Greek prose style more had I stuck to a worn-out theme.
Fuel your originality with what you love
It’s not only the Latinists who accept and even encourage imitation—though, in modern times, often as a beginning phase that will naturally fade. In her essay “Oliver Sacks on the Three Essential Elements of Creativity,” Maria Popova, after quoting Susan Sontag on voracious reading feeding writing and neurologist Oliver Sacks on imitation as apprenticeship, summarizes the process of artistic becoming:
We learn our own minds by finding out what we love; these models integrate into a sensibility; out of that sensibility arises the initial impulse for imitation, which, aided by the gradual acquisition of technical mastery, eventually ripens into original creation.
Maria Popova of BrainPickings
John McPhee, a most dedicated craftsman-writer-researcher and, in his essay collection “Draft No. 4” a generous advice-giver, recalls his exchange with a young writer anxious about being original:
She said, “My style is always that of what I am reading at the time—or overwhelmingly self-conscious and strained.” I said, “How unfortunate that would be if you were fifty-four. At twenty-three, it is not only natural; it is important. The developing writer reacts to excellence as it is discovered—wherever and whenever—and of course does some imitating (unavoidably) in the process of drawing from the admired fabric things to make one’s own. Rapidly, the components of imitation fade. What remains is a new element in your own voice, which is not in any way an imitation. Your manner as a writer takes form in this way, a fragment at a time.
John McPhee, “Draft No. 4,” p. 161
Grounding ourselves in others is the best way to our own way. And it’s a natural, even necessary, part of our creativity (modern neuroscientists and psychologists agree).
Follow echoes to your creative self—and follow yourself
Though imitation is important even for experts, we might worry, like McPhee’s young writer did, that we won’t grow beyond it. But centuries of artists’ practice, of the “Mature Works” that follow juvenalia in anthologies, suggests that we will and they do. I treasure the Collected Works editions of poets, where one sees the writer’s lifelong creative arc(s) and shifting preoccupations. Best of all, these authors seem to learn to follow themselves and to trust the ground ahead. This self-trust is hard won, and never complete (and shouldn’t be): just enough to keep on going. Recombination within and expansion of our web of ideas is part of creativity at any stage, but it seems to me something to look forward to more as I continue creating. As McPhee reflects in another essay in his collection,
New pieces can shoot up from other pieces, pursuing connections that run through the ground like rhizomes. Set one of these progressions in motion, and it will skein out in surprising ways, finally ending in some unexpected place.
John McPhee, “Draft No. 4,” p. 11
It’s not, then, so much about growing out—of imitation or anything else—but of growing up to our hopes, growing into ourselves, growing through each other.
“Proportions alternate between infinitesimal and astronomical. The signals are infinitesimal. The sources are astronomical. The sensitivities are infinitesimal. The rewards are astronomical. The human ambition to understand the universe is merely epic, and astronomical trumps epic.” – Janna Levin in Black Hole Blues
My father, the wonder-full layman, and I, the one who broke up with professional science, read the same pop science books. We know that where they make bald declarations they are wrong in significant ways. From the ones who seem to have their noses thrust up skywards as they declaim we keep a correspondingly disdainful distance. Stephen Pinker is too confident. Malcolm Gladwell pushes too many Unified Theories. The collector and commentator E.O. Wilson of The Diversity of Life is far more compelling than the later E.O. Wilson grasping after ultimate meaning in Consilience. I find Wilson on social insects more beautiful than Wilson on beauty—in his care, his wonder, his generosity towards both subject and audience.
All the authors I’ve cited put forth simple, big ideas. Simplified, too. They leave out most footnotes or make them endnotes, as I believe they should. As best I can figure it, the ones that inspire wonder and midnight conversation differ from the ones we condemn as condescending and simple-minded mainly in whether they are inviting us to sit in front of or next to them.
The expositors who profess in their books like they do in the lecture hall are hit-or-miss. If we don’t buy or even are simply skeptical of their One Big Idea, the whole reading experience falls on the rocks. Knowing that 10,000 practice hours does not necessarily make one an expert knocks a whole subgenre of performance psych books out of consideration for what to spend my learning time on. I am so wary of the it is so because prehistoric man… just-so stories that I missed out on gems from behavioral ecology like Joan Roughgarten’s Evolution’s Rainbow for years out of fear of proximity to pop evolutionary psychology. The authorial voice in these works is strong, ruining even meaty evidence and anecdote with tiresome insistence on the Big Idea. It doesn’t matter how much good there is to be found in these books (often very much!): I come away resentful, my curiosity dulled. The author didn’t really trust me to follow along, so I don’t follow up. I imagine that he (often he) resents staying for the Q&A after he has given a talk.
The writers whose words ripple through me long after my first reading have strong authorial voices too. But they modulate them for the audience in the room. Janna Levin, Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould, Atul Gawande, Maria Popova—they invite me to wonder with them, rich in offerings while declining the high throne of authority. Reading their work, it is simplified, too, but we both trust the other knows that. We are vulnerable with each other: we don’t know, we say, and we want so badly to know, knowing we can only ever do so in part. We are no nihilists: we treasure little fragments of knowing. Like the proportions Levin sings, we are small and great, pieces and wholes. Wandering the world of astronomy we are astronomical: that is to say, we dance between the infinite and the infinitesimal and see them together dialectically in freeze-frame. As a reader I am not frozen in the spotlight of the author’s brilliance—rather, the author has a pocket flashlight to illuminate the next few steps, or invites me in as observer when she gets her few hours a year on the radio telescope, or maybe just knows where there’s a working lighthouse beaming onto this thought world I am just meeting.
So, to those, like me, who fret over telling simple stories of their nuanced worlds: show us more than telling us. Give us a map of your terrain and let us loose, but be there when called upon—whether with notes, correctives, countermelodies from other voices, or a URL that grants access to more context and sources. As your reader, I promise that I know you are telling one simple story of many not yet told. I know you have woven this one with care, oh, so much care. But I do not grieve as you do at all the untold stories, because I trust that the path you charted through them for me will lead to others—other stories, other tellers from your same world. I thank you for the courage you’ve shown in inviting simply. I will invite others in turn—my dad, first of all—and slowly, in wonder, I will learn to know better. Only open the door: we have been waiting. We who do not want perfect—who would be insulted if you claimed it. We ask, simply, for a thread of connection into your world of meaning. For a voice to end the silence, even if it trembles.