Category Archives: Tributes to Great Minds

John Updike: Conjuring from the Mind’s Eye

This week the world lost one of its greatest writers — the passing of John Updike is a loss to the world of letters that can never be filled. At the same time, his artistic influence–among the most significant of any from the last century–will live on for centuries more. An entire generation of writers followed in paths he tread. I remember reading an interview with him years ago in which he said that his career as an author almost never happened. Early on, he faced a decision to be a copy writer in advertising, or to write what he wanted to write. Thankfully, he chose the latter.  The interview below is from October 2008 with the editor of the New York Times Book Review about the craft of fiction and the art of writing. It’s just under 8 minutes long.


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The Noble Lineage of Indecision

james2I’m presently reading The Metaphysical Club by Louis Menand, a fascinating, Pulitzer Prize winning book about the development and influence of pragmatism–the only true homegrown American philosophy–beginning with the Civil War through to the Supreme Court decision that laid the foundation for modern free speech law.

During a crucial few months in this period, three influential minds met informally in a discussion group: Oliver Wendell Holmes, William James and Charles Sanders Peirce. They kept no records, but the ideas they forged became integral to the development of American thought in the twentieth century.

Of these thinkers, William James, polymath and godfather of modern psychology, was known far and wide as fanatically indecisive.  Knowing this about himself, yet valuing what he called “risk assuming decisiveness” as a mark of true character, he came up with a solution, which he called “self conscious impulsivity”.  He would act decisively, and then just as decisively, change his mind.

An example of this given in the book was his career path.  He spent 15 years trying to settle on an occupation, switching from science to painting, back to science, then back to painting, than anatomy, natural history and finally medicine (which is the only course of study he finished – though he never practiced medicine a day in his life).  He began teaching physiology at Harvard in 1872, then switched to psychology, then to philosophy.  In 1903 he began the process of trying to decide if he should retire. His diary for the fall of 1905 reads:

October 26: “Resign!”

October 28: “Resign!!!”

November 4: “Resign?”

November 7: “Resign!”

November 8: “Don’t resign”

November 9: “Resign!”

November 16: “Don’t resign!”

November 23: “Resign”

December 7: “Don’t resign”

December 9: “Teach here next year”

He retired in 1907.

So the next time someone calls you indecisive, you can tell them you’re in good company.


Link to the William James page at Emory University

Link to Powell’s page on The Metaphysical Club

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David Foster Wallace (1962-2008)

Very sad news this weekend about author David Foster Wallace, found dead in his home on Friday from an apparent suicide. He was only 46. While already a ‘game changing’ writer -someone who forever alters the literary landscape – I can’t help but wonder what else he might have produced in years to come. I’m quite sure that he could have been a cross-generational influence, much like Saul Bellow or Philip Roth – a writer who affects readers over the course of a long and prolific lifetime.  Aside from his published works, well worth reading is his commencement address to Kenyon College in 2005. Here’s an excerpt, which seems in some ways eerily prophetic.

Given the triumphant academic setting here, an obvious question is how much of this work of adjusting our default setting involves actual knowledge or intellect. This question gets very tricky. Probably the most dangerous thing about an academic education — least in my own case — is that it enables my tendency to over-intellectualize stuff, to get lost in abstract argument inside my head, instead of simply paying attention to what is going on right in front of me, paying attention to what is going on inside me.

 As I’m sure you guys know by now, it is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive, instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head (may be happening right now). Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about quote the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.

This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in: the head. They shoot the terrible master. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger.

And I submit that this is what the real, no bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out. That may sound like hyperbole, or abstract nonsense. Let’s get concrete. The plain fact is that you graduating seniors do not yet have any clue what “day in day out” really means. There happen to be whole, large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches. One such part involves boredom, routine, and petty frustration. The parents and older folks here will know all too well what I’m talking about.


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