The Laurentian Library, Florence.

I've been thinking quite a bit about a few different people lately.

One is Lisa Randall, theoretical physicist at Harvard University. For
over two decades Randall has been pushing the envelope in human
thought about structures as large as the cosmos or as small as an
elementary particle. And while doing this she has produced several
popular books and a number of articles, bringing that pursuit down
to those whose math may not be up to the level of the Physical Review
Letters.

Another person who has been on my thoughts is pianist Valentina
Lisitsa. Like Randall, Lisitsa continues to show a serious commitment
to perfection — or at least the idea or Ideal of it. Only last summer
she completely replaced her web site with a new one, leaving out the
excellent audio tracks she had made available formerly, saying that
the whole thing was like "an old house" that was no longer worth
repairing — best just to get a new house. Since then she has begun
to re-record many of the old pieces. And, though it seems almost
impossible, she has been surpassing them.

Excellence. The ceaseless striving to go to the frontiers. That is
something which these days has almost come to seem suspect —
slogans for Lexus and other products notwithstanding. People
with disabilities or serious illnesses usually know what it is like to
push the envelope, they must do it on a daily basis. But generally
what is good is usually considered to be good enough, or just "getting
through the day" is thought sufficient — rote existence. The idea of
ceaseless striving is thought to be a symptom of some disturbed
psychological condition or a bane to spiritual growth. Why the pursuit
of the boundaries in human activity should be considered detrimental
to happiness I have no idea. It is almost as if we have been tricked
into accepting our common lot, of settling for what we have. Homer
described Odysseus as a man of arête — the word usually translated
as "virtue" but more properly it means "excellence." For Homer,
excellence was not a bad thing. It was a mark of the heroic. As
Tennyson said in his poem "Odysseus," — "to strive, to seek, to
find, and not to yield."

Not too many years into the 16th century, the sculptor Michaelangelo
drew the plans for the Laurentian Library in Florence. It was cutting-
edge architecture, as testified to by one of Michaelangelo's contemp-
oraries, Georgio Visari:

"The admirable distribution of the windows, the construction of the
ceiling, and the fine entrance of the Vestibule can never be sufficiently
extolled. Boldness and grace are equally conspicuous in the work as a
whole, and in every part; in the cornices, corbels, the niches for statues,
the commodious staircase, and its fanciful division-in all the building,
as a word, which is so unlike the common fashion of treatment, that every
one stands amazed at the sight thereof."

Admirable. An interesting word, one which seems frequently used when
referring to people like Randall or Lisitsa or anyone else who excels in
some way — and then whose ideals are quickly forgotten about. Gone is
the world of Parsifal and the quest for the Holy Grail, which now seems
suspect. Rather go with Harry Potter, an easy world where by a few quick
words of magic things can be tweaked a bit. But it is an interesting thing
about this magic: It is only needed when things need to be fixed or when
we desire things to change. Unlike the on-going pursuit of the Grail, magic
deals with moments.

Moments. Moments where Truth lasts as long as the latest public opinion
poll — smoke blown by the wind. Forget the hard climb up the steps of
the library to new worlds of thought. Perfection is impossible, so why
bother? Best to just find our way across a flat sidewalk, or walk on the
rather pleasant beach on the edge of the Sea of Forgetfulness. Evil only
takes mere moments, it comes as quickly as the pull of a trigger. Good
can be done quickly too — giving some cash to a homeless person; but
more often Good takes a lot longer, requires more effort. The momentary
handing of cash may be Good, but it doesn't solve the basic problem. It
takes much more than some bogus momentary magic. It takes ongoing
and passionate commitment.

"Take me away from all this death" says Mina Harker in Bram Stoker's
Dracula.
I have little interest in the Temporal these days, it is reduced
to a remnant. I want the Eternal — or at least the effort to strive for the
bounds of such. For while few of us can play piano like Lisitsa or do physics
like Randall, we all have our borders to explore, the envelope we can push,
leaving this tiny Earth and — if even for a while — venturing out into
the Stars.

But, hey, pay no attention to me. I am just a very unhappy fellow. And
a little on the obsessed side. And expect too much.


Lisa Randall.

Advertisements