Pound, Popper, Beckett & Erikson: chance encounters
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, January 15, 2002)

At the age of 44, Ezra Pound was increasingly irascible, showing some of the qualities that would later be officially designated as madness. In 1929, visiting Paris, he called on James Joyce and was displeased to find him surrounded by sycophants. He turned to one young man, identified as a writer, and asked in a contemptuous tone whether the fellow was engaged in creating an Iliad or perhaps a Divine Comedy. Hugh Kenner, Pound's great admirer, wrote many years later in The Pound Era: "One should not say such a humiliating thing to anyone, but it is especially regrettable that he should have said it to Sam Beckett."

It was a case of monuments colliding at an unexpected moment. Such encounters can evoke a feeling of delicious mystery, and even the most skeptical may imagine that something indefinable lies behind them. When I first wrote on this shadowy subject last February, a reader, Klaus H. Kaak, sent me a lovely quotation from Arthur Schopenhauer: "It is as if the world were a dream of a single dreamer in which all the dream characters dream, too, as if everything interlocks with everything else like the instruments in a symphony." These stories carry meaning if the two people occupy different worlds, stand for different principles or play out their lives in different eras. Ideally, the story slightly alters our feelings about them.

Consider Norman Rockwell, whose sentiment-laden Saturday Evening Post illustrations depicted a happy small-town America populated by earnest citizens. His work reflected little except serene patriotism, yet a recent biography, Norman Rockwell: A Life, by Laura Claridge, depicts him as melancholy and unsatisfied. His first two wives were depressives, perhaps suicides. Rockwell dreamt vainly of being the kind of artist shown in museums (he didn't get there till long after his death). He sought help, and found it in the town where he lived, Stockbridge, Mass., in the office of Erik Erikson.

The inventor of the term "identity crisis" and the most famous and prolific Freudian thinker in America, Erikson wrote influential psycho-biographies of Luther and Gandhi. He developed the theory that inspired Gail Sheehy's famous self-help book, Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life. It's hard to imagine this European analyst trained by Anna Freud dealing with America's leading sentimentalist, but Rockwell's 10 years with Erikson apparently did him good.

Erikson thought that Rockwell painted his happiness rather than living it, but a close examination of Rockwell's forced, cramped, overly controlled illustrations could suggest repressed hysteria rather than happiness. Today the Austen Riggs Center in Stockbridge, with its Erik H. Erikson Institute for Education and Research, naturally doesn't violate professional ethics by naming its most famous patient. But its advertising says: "We are located in the small town of Stockbridge, Massachusetts, on Norman Rockwell's lovely Main Street ..."

Few such encounters deserve treatment at great length, but two BBC journalists, David Edmonds and John Eidinow, have recently explored, in Wittgenstein's Poker, a much disputed collision between two famous philosophers at Cambridge in 1946. Karl Popper went there to give a paper, "Are There Philosophical Problems?," to a group of about 30, including Ludwig Wittgenstein, the most charismatic and brilliant philosopher of the period. Bertrand Russell attended; this was the only time all three men were in the same room.

Popper, the author of The Open Society and Its Enemies, thought philosophers should work on problems affecting humanity directly, such as totalitarianism or scientific truth, and not on the linguistic questions that obsessed Wittgenstein. To this moment there's no agreement on what happened when they met. Popper, in his autobiography, said that as he stated certain philosophical problems, Wittgenstein began playing nervously with the poker by the fireplace, using it "like a conductor's baton to emphasize his assertions." When Wittgenstein challenged Popper to cite an example of a moral rule, Popper replied: "Not to threaten visiting lecturers with pokers." At that, wrote Popper, "Wittgenstein, in a rage, threw the poker down and stormed out of the room, banging the door behind him.'

In the 1990s, shortly after Popper's death and decades after Wittgenstein's, conflicting recollections began to appear. Everyone agreed the poker had been lifted, but all else was in doubt. The poker was either red hot or cold, it was either an example of a concrete object ("consider this poker") or an implied weapon. Wittgenstein left the room quietly -- or slammed out. He may have left before Popper made the remark about threatening visiting lecturers, rather than in response to it.

Edmonds and Eidinow delight in the irony: a roomful of academics, each of them professionally involved in analyzing truth, still can't agree about a brief event that all of them witnessed together. Those seeking to prove the unreliability of eyewitnesses hardly need go beyond Wittgenstein's Poker.

Anna Akhmatova, one of the great poets of modern Russia, was mystified about an event in her life, but for less subtle reasons. In 1910 and 1911, visiting Paris, she had a love affair with an obscure painter, Amedeo Modigliani; she was 20 when they met, he 26. She later remembered that he seemed encircled with a dense ring of loneliness. She told a sweet story about a missed appointment. She went to his studio to meet him, with an armful of roses. There was a misunderstanding, he was out, and his studio was locked. She passed some time idly throwing the roses through his open window, then left. When next they met, he asked how she had brought the roses into the locked room. She explained, and he said: "It's impossible.They lay so beautifully." Even gravity obeyed her.

She went back to Russia, the Revolution and a life heavy with tragedy. The Soviet Union was so isolated that she heard no news of him. A decade passed, then another. She didn't even hear of his death in 1920 from tuberculosis and dissipation. In the 1930s, at a conference, someone showed her a French art magazine. It fell open at a photo of Modigliani, with an article about his posthumous fame. "From this article I learned that Modigliani was a great artist of the 20th century."

Arthur Koestler defined a coincidence as the chance encounter of two unrelated causal chains that (miraculously, it seems) merge into a significant event. He concluded, "Coincidences are puns of destiny."

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