Wednesday, August 22, 2012

From Fenton: On Jealousy

Fenton's essay, "A lesson from Michelangelo" came out in the New York Review of books in 1995. I must have read it my first year of graduate school. The essay was an amazingly condensed survey of the "humanity of ambition" in the artistic world. Every scientist should read it.

Reading Fenton means knowing what it is to "pull a Giambologna", or the pain of "pasquinades" that apply to papers and grants as much as they did critiques of art.

The personalities and psychology of Michelangelo and Leonardo, Wordsworth and Keats...are the best roadmap for understanding the myriad psychologies of how scientists interact and how they express their ambition.

We all have ambition, but it can be expressed in many ways.

Michelangelo set fire to most of his works as his death drew close. Weaver pulled up most of his plot markers.

Leonardo could barely be bothered to sign his works. The great ecologists might sign their papers, but make little effort to control the fate of their ideas, no less require attribution.

Fenton's discussion of Auden is one of his most important lessons:

"Auden wrote a wonderful thing to Stephen Spender in 1942--it is quoted in Auden's Juvenilia --when he said: 'You (at least I fancy so) can be jealous of someone else writing a good poem because it seems a rival strength. I'm not, because every good poem, of yours say, is a strength, which is put at my disposal.' And he said that this arose because Spender was strong and he, Auden, was weak, but this was a fertile weakness."

To view your rival's strength as being at your disposal is one of the greatest propellants in science.

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