A Case History: Not Required Reading
(Probably more than you want to know)
Since early childhood, I have lived in many directions, but without clear goals. Almost the only constant has been the desire to know things, but alas, I was never able to muster the focus and discipline required for mastering anything. One experience would open a door to a field of knowledge, where another door into a new field would beckon. Almost as far back as I can remember, my intellectual energy has dissipated along many paths and never achieved fruition. The result has been much disappointment to my loved ones as well as shame for myself. Later in life I found that there is a fashionable name for this genre of unsuccess: Attention Deficit Disorder, or ADD.
From the age of five, when I happened to be an American child living with my parents in occupied Berlin, in a large house in Dahlem (taken over from some Nazi bigwig, with all the furnishings including a serious library and a concert grand piano), I was first aware of a need to study things and learn stuff. Curiously, this had little to do with school, as my multiplying interests, to my parents’ despair, too often did not coincide with teachers’ plans. First it was letters and learning to read, which I had started before first grade. At almost the same time, thanks to a lotto game meant to teach German kids the languages of the occupying powers, I learned the Cyrillic alphabet as well. Also, I was made to start piano lessons because I clearly loved music and going to concerts and the opera. And then one day, our housekeeper handed me a book from our library on the prehistoric world called Das Leben der Urwelt: Aus den Tagen der großen Saurier, by the prolific popularizer of natural history Wilhelm Bölsche (Leipzig 1932). Though I could not read the actual text, the plates and their captions fed my fascination with mesozoic reptiles for years.
From then on through the rest of my school years I spent my free time wandering compulsively from paleontology to zoology, bacteriology, chemistry, Russian and German history, and mathematics, with a little wood and metalworking on the side. At fourteen, I was sure I was destined to be scientist, but then classical music, languages, and literature took over. My introduction to Latin was one turning point. Initiated into the mysteries of grammar, I thought why not learn French, recapture my German, and go on to Russian and Greek? A middle-school teacher’s loan of a recording of Bori Godunov was another turning point. I spent my allowance on classical LPs and stayed glued to classical music stations, eager to hear everything by everybody. I also knew there were great classics of literature, so I haunted public libraries and used bookstores wherever we lived.
After high school, life continued. In college it was German literature and music and art history, plus a little Swedish and Italian, a detour into Sanskrit and drama club. Then I went for a PhD in comparative literature that took twelve years to complete, while my attention was diverted randomly to more music, Arabic, cooking, and wine.
If there is a common theme in most of these learning projects it probably has to do with structure: Linnaean classification, the canons of composers and authors, grammatical conjugations and declensions, geometry, algebra, the periodic table, classical rhetoric—all systems, the study of which can produce the illusion that one has acquired real knowledge.
When all is said and done, alas, I must own that my knowledge of anything has never been more than superficial. I didn’t practice my piano enough to acquire basic technique. I didn’t get far with Russian or Sanskrit. I am a painfully slow reader, so even though at times I read constantly, I have not finished that many books. Not finishing a thing and and moving on to another is the red thread of my life. Since leaving school, I have lived in four countries, visited many more, acquired a little more knowledge, taught college courses, got a certificate from Cordon Bleu, picked up French, dealt in wine and real estate, learned enough ancient Greek to read Callirhoe and enough Portuguese to read Coelho; but I never settled down intellectually or professionally. In short, in my eightieth year, I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up.
So now to come to terms. I have always known that success comes through finding an congenial and remunerative field of endeavor, devoting all one’s energies to mastering it, with a definite goal. For me, though, it would mean forsaking too much, leaving too many doors unopened, paths untrodden. That is a sacrifice I could never make. But if I have not dived deeply for long into any subject and admit to being inherently superficial, still, I like to think I am, in Ned Rorem’s phrase, “profoundly superficial.” I identify with Faust’s colleague Wagner, who says “Zwar weiß ich viel, doch möcht’ ich alles wissen.” [“Of course, I know much, but I wish to know everything.”] So if I cannot claim to be a Renaissance Man, I think I can call myself at least a “Renaissance Simpleton.”