Friday, December 14, 2012

Polymathic Perversity

                                              Hiroyuki Ito for The New York Times
One of Charles Rosen’s last pieces was a review of The Works of William Congreve,  “Congreve: The Most Elegant, Subtle Writer of His Time,” The New York Review of Books, 12/20/12). In his classic Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytic Meaning of History, Norman O. Brown glommed upon Freud’s concept of polymorphous perversity to describe the rich palette of human instinct. Charles Rosen was polymathically perverse. Mr. Rosen who recently died at the age of 85 was a pianist of note and writer who won the Pulitzer Prize for The Classic Style, which Margolit Fox’s Times obit described as illuminating "the enduring language of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven ” (“Charles Rosen, 85, Scholar-Musician Who Untangled Classic Works, Dies,” NYT, 12/10/12).  “Mr. Rosen, the polymath was possessed of a lightening-fast seemingly limitless discursiveness that has been described variously as enchanting and intimidating,” Fox went on to remark. “A conversation with him, associates have said, typically ranged over a series of enthusiasms that besides music could include philosophy; art history; architecture: travel (Mr. Rosen had homes on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and in Paris, where had first lived as a Fulbright fellow in the early ‘50’s); European literature, usually read in the original (he had a Ph.D. in French from Princeton); poetry (he held the Charles Eliot Norton professorship of poetry, an annual lectureship at Harvard, from l980 to l981); food (he was an accomplished cook), wine and the glassware it was served in; cognac and the wooden casks it was aged in; and the television shows ‘Absolutely Fabulous,’ ‘Taxi’ and ‘Cheers.’”  From Fox’s description, you might have regarded Rosen as a Renaissance man, a latter day da Vinci, but Rosen had greater ground to cover than his 16th Century counterparts and he wasn’t simply the 21st Century Victorian man of letters, since the sweep of his interests was hi and lo and included his concert level facility as a musician (finding its origins in his Juilliard training as a young man). But what accounts for these interests and ambitions? What accounts for the precocious ability to absorb and collect knowledge. John Stuart Mill credits his own demanding education in his autobiography. Mill’s father wanted to create a genius, but as those who have grown up in competitive environments know, all too well, children often crumble under the burden of their parents's wishes. What Makes Sammy Run? was the name of the famous Budd Shulberg classic about another kind of ambition. Einstein’s brain was removed after his death and whether through a pathologist’s report or a biographer’s research, it would be interesting to learn what made this Charlie run?

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