Thursday, May 07, 2009

What am I doing here?

What am I doing here? In the middle of the night, in this deserted country music outpost in the south of the midwest, attending a conference dedicated to a mathematical object that does not exist, contemplating a kaleidoscope of broken glass: the fragments of what used to be a promising long term research and collaboration project. Rorschach blots of unfinished thoughts, of unfulfilled desires drifting between inner and outer darkness. I'll do my act, "a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more" and, otherwise, I will simply be counting the passing of the days, "tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow". If I had been waiting for this time in the hope of restoring that puzzle of broken shards, of finding a way back to a special place of the mind that for so long had been like a lighthouse in the storm, I am forced to realize now that even that refuge might well have vanished, swallowed by an unquiet sea with little care for transient ships in search of a beam of light.

Is despair an acceptable motivation to work? Cynically, if that does it why not? But does it really produce anything worthy of a second look? What motivates one to work in scientific research is a difficult question to answer. If an answer exists it is surely not a universal one. We might all have different perspectives on what drives us on. Ideally, there is a desire of understanding, a basic sense of curiosity and wonder, which is the very reason why science came to exist as a product of the human mind. Yet, this is a highly idealized vision, which rarely accounts for the whole of the forces that stir our daily course of activity. In a first approximation, one can either work for a reason or against it: both are powerful drives at the emotional level, and one should not underestimate the role that the emotional involvement plays. The role of emotional life in the workings of the mind, even when applied to something seemingly detached and objective as the most abstract of sciences is far greater than one would at first be inclined to believe.

Love and hate are the two most powerful human emotions and only one or the other can catalyze and focus enough inner resources to overcome the steep potential barrier one needs to climb in order to make any, even small, progress on the way of research. Yet, they do not quite play symmetric roles and they are not interchangeable. When the driving force is a constructive one, the accompanying feeling is one of enthusiasm, hope, any progress achieved brings pleasure. When the only remaining motivation is destructive in nature, the overall color is that of despair, there is no good feeling attached to whatever is eventually achieved, at best a sense of relief, but most importantly, the quality of work drops.

Where things go wrong is in the difficult alchemy of transforming an idea into a final product, the technical work involved in the fine tuning of details, which is not accessory but crucial to scientific practice. While positive emotions, even strongly felt ones, can be effectively used to focus attention and generally tend to improve one's capacity for concentration, strongly felt negative emotions destabilize the mind: trying to do the necessary delicate work of putting together a well crafted piece of work in science when one's motivation is mostly of this darker color is like trying to build a house of cards on top of a surface that keeps shaking violently every few seconds.

To use a well known mythological image, the doors of heaven and hell are adjacent and unmarked. So it is easy to slip from a constructive to a negative motivation, but from there to travel backward to a more positive view of things is typically a lot more difficult.

Bruce Chatwin's last book "What am I doing here" is a collection of scattered essays and memoirs, ranging from being stuck in Benin during a military coup, to following the Indira Gandhi election campaign, to paying a visit to a creepy fringe sect headed by a psychedelic guru in the Boston area, to walking across the mountains of Nepal, or following Herzog in Ghana on the set of Cobra Verde. In addition, there are beautifully written essays, on Melnikov, Malraux, and other real life or literary encounters. The collection is the ultimate portrait of displacement: "man's real home is not a house, but the road, and life itself is a journey to be walked on foot". The illusion of belonging is vanquished in a very understated but most effective way throughout the pages of this book, as it was in Chatwin's life itself. The main message one brings home from reading the best Chatwin books like this one is that there is no "special place" one can return to, and the very idea is merely illusory. Life is portrayed as a whirlpool of random encounters and adventures in improbable places. There is nothing structured about how events follow one another, how geographic locations alternate in a frantic dance of dislocation. Each person or event is a cameo where the wit and skills of the narrator draw a minute and intricate calligraphy of descriptions and observations, generating a cascade of thoughts and reflections. They look like those small vortices and fractal-like islands that emerge in the middle of a turbulent flow, creating an illusory impression of structure.