Thursday, September 17, 2009

Conversing with the Dead

It is very seldom that a truly personal blog post resonates with me. I figure that the blogger is writing it for the same reason that I write such things: Writing is a way of trying to bring some order to unkempt thoughts, usually on the premise that they may achieve a more secure place in memory once they have been ordered. (These days, I am not sure I can vouch for my memory; but I have a fair amount of confidence that those thoughts, now ordered by the process of writing, will soon be within the grasp of at least one of the search engines I use!)

I say all this as prologue to Jeremy Denk's blog post about Leon Kirchner this morning. It followed a path of free association that began with Kirchner "jokingly" comparing Denk to Walt Whitman, continuing with Denk finding (and purchasing) a copy of Leaves of Grass in Grand Central Station, being transformed by the text, and ultimately receiving the news of Kirchner's death. For me, however, the punch line hit me after that transformation:

Am back at home, looking at a giant writing project on the Goldberg Variations which I am supposed to finish, f&*(). How I wish I could ask Leon about them right now.

This struck me in a bizarre way, not so much because of my own sporadic encounters with Kirchner as much as a failure to appreciate conversations with a mentor until it is too late.

My first doctoral thesis advisor was Gian-Carlo Rota. It was an inevitable commitment after all the time I had taken transcribing his lectures on combinatorial analysis into printed notes (which was probably just as valuable on my path to becoming a better writer as any of my projects involving writing about dance or music). That commitment had the unintended consequence of reorienting the target of my research passions, resulting in my changing advisors. It was Rota who had been responsible for my being at the University of Colorado in Boulder during that fateful summer of 1968, when my life was changed by my encounters with John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and the members of the Cunningham Dance Company. Rota had a visiting appointment at the University of Colorado that summer, and he lured me to join him to continue my scribal duties while he lectured on a new approach to Pólya's Theorem. When I arrived, having given my Volvo is first serious road trip on the Interstate system between Boston and Boulder, Rota informed me that he had decided to lecture on category theory instead; and every day become an adventure of a stranger in a strange land (for me, if not for Rota). Going on mushroom hunts with Cage was the perfect way to clear my head while trying to make sense of each day's lecture.

I think Rota realized that I was more passionate about music than about pure mathematics; and, while he was never sympathetic to the agenda of artificial intelligence, I also think he realized that Marvin Minsky would serve me better as an advisor, even if it was just a matter of giving me a freer rein until I found my way. However, while Rota and I went separate paths where my doctorate was concerned, we stayed in touch sporadically. Thus, when I was teaching at the Technion in Haifa, I wrote to let him know that I had given a series of lectures on combinatorics that owed more to the notes I had taken in his lectures than to any of the current textbooks. I also mentioned that I had written up those lectures for the benefit of the students who did not follow my English very well, and Rota almost immediately wrote back to request a copy of what I had written! (Old habits die hard.)

Less than a decade later, when I was doing military research in Santa Barbara, I had a visitor one day who noticed a copy of José Ortega y Gasset's Phenomenology and Art on my shelf and asked, "Did you get that from Rota?" I doubt that he knew more about me than my MIT background; but through him I discovered that, having securely established his position in mathematics, Rota was now lecturing on phenomenology. It took almost another ten years for our paths to cross: I was now doing research at the Information Sciences Institute at the University of Southern California (USC); and Rota was spending chunks of his winter time in the USC Mathematics Department, primarily because of the preferable weather. By this time my struggles with Ortega had evolved into struggles with Ludwig Wittgenstein. We had lots to talk about, and I remember bringing him home to meet my wife and have dinner with us. He seemed particularly interested in my decision to view Wittgenstein as straddling a borderline between philosophy and poetry, seeking out a poet's approach to expression when the language of philosophy failed him. (These days I wonder how much of that was actually Wittgenstein and how much came from those who faithfully transcribed his lectures!)

We had only one encounter after that. This was when I was working in Singapore, and I was part of a task force considering an invitation for membership in the MIT Media Lab. Rota was both tactful and cautionary in his choice of words about the Media Lab. I could tell this was more than his usual skepticism about Minsky; and some of that skepticism wore off on me during the nuts-and-bolts discussion of whether or not the Media Lab's invitation would be accepted.

Throughout all these events, my reading continued to follow paths similar to those Rota had chosen in his excursions away from mathematics. News of his death came to me from one of my Xerox colleagues while I was working in Palo Alto. Ever since then I find that I cannot read a text by Edmund Husserl (or, for that matter, Jacques Derrida writing about Husserl) without having the same reaction that Denk articulated about Kirchner. My jaw would drop in amazement at some passage I had just read, and I would immediately have this urge to share it with Rota and probably ask him something about it.

Rota never understood what it was about Cage that appealed to me. He used to ask me to explain Cage to him back when I was still his student. (He also made the request concerning Charles Ives, who, ironically, now holds such a strong place in Denk's repertoire.) He would then add that he would only accept an explanation grounded in the aesthetic theory of Benedetto Croce. I am now reading The Aesthetic as the Science of Expression and of the Linguistic in General for a second time in conjunction with my ongoing efforts to understand the nature of musical performance; and, damn it all, I can give that explanation now! However, rather than feeling frustration over Rota no longer being around to hear it, I realize that he would have been more concerned about whether or not I could provide that explanation to myself than with how I would deliver it to him. My guess is that Denk will come to a similar conclusion, coming to grips with the "Goldberg Variations" by finding the right way to converse with himself now that Kirchner can no longer participate. The flesh of the dead may no longer be with us, but we can still converse with them in spirit. We do that through our gift for being able to hold conversations with ourselves.

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