Friday, May 30, 2014

Loren Eiseley: from THE NIGHT COUNTRY

"It is frequently the tragedy of the great artist, as it is of the great scientist, that he frightens the ordinary man.  If he is more than a popular story-teller it may take humanity a generation to absorb and grow accustomed to the new geography with which that scientist or artist presents us.  Even then, perhaps only the more imaginative and literate may accept him.  Subconsciously the genius is feared as an image breaker;  frequently he does not accept the opinions of the mass, or man's opinion  of himself.  He has voiced through the ages, in one form or another, this very loneliness and detachment which Dewey saw so clearly at the outcome of our extending knowledge.  The custom-bound, uneducated, intolerant man projects his fear and hatred upon the seer.  The artist is frequently a human mirror.  If what we see there displeases us, if we see all too clearly our own insignificance and vanity, we tend to revolt, not against ourselves, but in order to martyrize the unfortunate soul who forced us into self-examination.

In short, like the herd animals we are, we sniff warily at the strange one among us.  If he is fortunate enough finally to be accepted, it is likely to be after a trial of ridicule and after the sting has been removed from his work by long familiarization and bowdlerizing, when the alien quality of his thought has been mitigated or removed.  Carl Schneer recounts that Einstein made so little impression on his superiors, it was with difficulty that he obtained even a junior clerkship in the Swiss Patents office at Bern, after having failed of consideration as a scholar of promise.  Not surprisingly, theoretical physicists favored his views before the experimentalists capitulated.  As Schneer remarks: It was not easy to have a twenty-six-year-old clerk in the Swiss Patent office explain the meaning of experiments on which one had labored for years."  Implacable hatred, as well as praise, was to be Einstein's lot.

-- Loren Eiseley --
from The Night Country

I have one small quibble here with what Eiseley is arguing--he says "uneducated" as a characteristic of those who fear the genius or one who goes beyond the accepted dogma.  I would remove "uneducated" because I see many "educated" people in the ranks of those terrified by the new or the original.

Just because it is new or original or unique does not make it bad or wrong or good or right.  It is hard to judge something that is novel objectively or fairly, for our biases and prejudices immediately come into play.  For this reason, we should always wait a while before passing judgement.

Too many times those first immediate snap judgements are proved wrong later.   Some are able to  reevaluate their position and admit they were wrong, facing unfortunately, derision and even isolation from those around them--wobbling is unacceptable to many.  Others unable to admit their errors then search out evidence that appears to support their position while ignoring, avoiding, or ridiculing contrary evidence.   Mocking or ridiculing those who disagree is also a common tactic employed to protect oneself from having to admit one made an error.

It is unfortunate for a country or other political entity when the leaders, elected or appointed, are among those who are shackled by the past and unable to consider new ways of doing things or new ways of thinking, simply because they are new.  We should wait before dismissing the new, for there just might be something there worth thinking about, something better than today's universal truths.

It's been said in many ways: Yesterday's heresies are today's revelations and tomorrow's dogmatic truths.


  1. The last line is interesting, though there must be counterexamples.

  2. Di,

    Not clear what you mean. Counterexamples of ?

    1. "Yesterday's heresies are today's revelations."

    2. Di,

      True, for many heresies are either stamped out or fail to gain a following.

  3. "In short, like the herd animals we are, we sniff warily at the strange one among us." Yes, differences can cause difficulties within the herd. But thank God there are those who are not part of the herd.

  4. RT,

    Yup, there are a few who break free and sometimes even escape being trampled by the herd.