Gnomicon 229

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Introduction to Gnomica.

Gnomicon  229
Thursday 27 December 2012
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One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown
is the belief that one’s work is terribly important.
Bertrand Russell (18 May 1972 – 2 Feb 1970)

This is an ‘interesting’ (as in, “Hmm, that’s very interesting!”) proposition, coming as it does from this prolific intellectual, a 1950 Nobel Laureate in literature (‘in recognition of his varied and significant writings in which he champions humanitarian ideals and freedom of thought”), an affirmative atheist (or was he  an agnostic?), and a renowned philosopher and mathematician. He is probably best known for his Principia Mathematica (1910) on the foundations of mathematics which he wrote with the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead.

I am thinking that Russell’s statement could be taken seriously or as a kind of tongue-in-cheek comment on some of the academicians he must have come across in the long course of his life.  Or, I suppose, he could have meant it literally.  It can happen:  I know, because it happened to a professor I once had whose painstaking work of many, many years was rendered entirely irrelevant before it could be finished and published – thanks to the arrival and adoption of computer applications to research in the humanities.  It was quite sad, but, I believe, thoroughly understandable.  To the person involved her work was of course of immense importance – all that work for, in effect, nothing.

I had a similar feeling once (and even now I shudder as I recall it), so I do understand it – I really do!  Remember, this was in an age before there was anything like the personal computer where you could store everything you typed in many duplicate files and save these on duplicate flash drives.  And there were no copy machines!! You typed everything on to a sheet of paper backed by a carbon paper and a second sheet and a third carbon and a third sheet (I had to turn in two final copies and wanted to keep one for myself), and if you had to use (as I very much did) different language fonts you had to leave spacing while typing the English and then retype on the same page using a different ‘font ball’ on the IBM typewriter and all the time make sure that the six sheets lined up perfectly!  God, did I really get that done?  Now, when I (yes, I, not a hired typist) finally got everything typed up that had been approved by the committee, I fretted (too mild a word) about everything that could go wrong with my dissertation:  the building it was in could burn down, someone could break into the office and steal it just to be nasty, I could spill something all over it, somebody would hold me up and steal it while I at last walked it over from the office to the administration building and turned it over and had it leafed through and got a receipt for their receipt of my magnum opus …  I believe that I recall that, after walking down the stairs of that building out into the summer sunshine, I actually cried with relief.

So, yes, to me, without the slightest question, it is even now in retrospect of a few months short of exactly half a century quite terrifyingly understandable that a person who with good reason (like, yeah, my whole future career hangs on this thing!) had the strong belief that his work was terribly important could not only have a nervous breakdown on a monumental scale but even go quite, quite mad if … .

The same was of course frighteningly true of shipping off manuscripts to journals and book publishers – remember, no email!

Even yesterday evening as I finalized this posting I caught myself short of breath just thinking about the potential catastrophes of being an academic from which benign powers-that-be have saved me.  And you lucky moderns writing your dissertations and articles and books and storing multiple copies on flash drives the size of your thumb, count yourselves truly blessed!  Just try for a minute or two to imagine what the sheer mechanics of it all entailed back in the late stone age of the pre-digital era when, before some point in the eighties of the last century everything changed, we weren’t, functionally speaking, that distant from the quill and ink-pot.

For my money, Russell wasn’t so far off – and I wonder if he even had a typewriter (which apparently began its commercial career around the time he was born) for his most important work!

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