18 August 2005

The One Great Truth

I've just finished Alice Flaherty's The Midnight Disease, which is a fascinating review of current ideas about the neurobiological roots of creativity, particularly writing. Flaherty suffered from hypergraphia, or compulsive writing, and became interested not only in its neurological and psychological roots, but also in comparing it to the apparently opposite situation of writer's block, and to issues of creativity in general.

One little gem is embedded in the discussion of the impact of drugs on creativity. It is a long quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., who is now known mostly for having been the father of the great Supreme Court justice, but who was a prominent public intellectual of the late 19th century. (He was especially known for The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table, a quasi-fictional setting of his conversational opinions on virtually everything.)

Holmes sought to understand the effects of ether by trying it himself. In this excerpt from Mechanism in Thought and Morals: An Address Delivered Before the Phi Beta Kappa Society of Harvard University, June 29, 1870, he describes the result. As I move from blog to blog, seeing what each purveys as the one great truth one which we must order our lives, I will try to keep this truth in mind:
The one great truth which underlies all human experience and is the key to all the mysteries that philosophy has sought in vain to solve, flashed upon me in a sudden revelation. Henceforth all was clear: a few words had lifted my intelligence in the level of the knowledge of the cherubim. As my natural condition returned, I remembered my resolution; and, staggering to my desk, I wrote, in ill-shaped, straggling characters, the all-embracing truth still glimmering in my consciousness. The words were these (children may smile; the wise will ponder): ‘A strong smell of turpentine prevails throughout.'


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