I’ve always wanted to be a polymath –much like ‘polyglot,’ I liked the word, although I have to admit that its association with math was troubling. I was never very good at math. Maybe that’s why I was also tempted to flirt with polyglotty –glottany didn’t seem as hard to work with. I already speak English. But the etymology of polymath was reassuring. The word ‘polymath’ stems from the Greek, polus, meaning “much” or “many” and mathe, meaning “learning”. How hard can that be?
When I was in school, we were always learning something or other, so I figured that was a good sign. And yet, in those peri-diluvian, pre-Google times, I felt I needed to kind of jump-start things, so I started reading the Oxford English Dictionary at night. The words I began using –like ‘threnody’, and ‘lugubrious’… Oh yes, and ‘tarn’- impressed my teachers, but not so much my friends. Of course, let’s face it, it’s not easy trying to work threnody into a conversation, although I did have some trifling success with tarn, I have to say.
But despite my burgeoning vocabulary and skill at cursing people in unusual and largely undetectable ways, nobody ever mentioned the word polymath in my presence, let alone polyglot. ‘Dork’ and ‘nerd’ just don’t carry the same resonance. At first, I assumed that I’d simply left my classmates in the dust, but after a few counselling sessions in the playground I soon realized that not only did they not understand me, but they were also unwilling to put in the time to catch up. It was just too easy to pound me into the grass and laugh. So, I gave it all up and learned the mandatory four-letter words that didn’t refer to a small mountain lake. I gave up ‘Melpomene’, and ‘dithyramb’, I abandoned ‘geophagy’ and ceded ‘lamellicorn’ to its cousin ‘lamellose’, which I’d never been able to use anyway; I even, reluctantly, surrendered ‘parataxis’ to the grammatical scree lying helplessly at the foot of the philological tower I had one day hoped to scale. In short, I renounced Youth and all its promised dreams.
Until, that is, I discovered Age and the condensed version of time it allots -the barely-enough time for disentangling a fleeting Now from an ever-present Then. Retirement is when I found the old polymath hiding -cringing, really- behind a few fragments of my memories from third grade. Well, maybe I discovered the BBC article first, but I would prefer to believe it was a Jungian Synchronicity: http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-40865986
There’s more to being a polymath than I had suspected back then, it seems. Like, you can’t do it anymore. ‘From the Renaissance, people such as Leonardo da Vinci – painter, sculptor, architect, physicist, anatomist, philosopher, geologist and biologist – gave rise to a synonym of polymath, the “Renaissance man”. […]These days, any ambition to contribute to many disciplines is probably unrealistic. It takes years of immersion just to reach the boundary of our current knowledge in any one area. Today’s polymaths might share the same personal qualities […]- an abundance of grey matter, of course, combined with relentless curiosity and a tendency to workaholicism […] but they are repositories of scholarship rather than contributors to it.’ Well, there goes that dream, I guess. And yet… There was one thing that one of the protagonist polymaths of the article (Eric Monkman) said that gives me hope: ‘”People often ask me, do you intimidate people with your knowledge,” says Monkman. “But the opposite is the case. I have wide knowledge but no deep expertise. I am intimidated by experts.”’ Already I have one thing in common with him –not the wide knowledge, but the intimidation. If I weren’t already partially there, I wouldn’t know by whom to be intimidated, though, would I? ‘The belief that researchers need to specialise goes back at least two centuries. From the beginning of the 19th Century, research has primarily been the preserve of universities. Ever since, says Stefan Collini, Professor of Intellectual History and English Literature at Cambridge University, researchers have labels attached to them. “They’re professor of this or that, and you get a much more self-conscious sense of the institutional divides between domains of knowledge.”’ I get that self-conscious sense too…
And both polymaths in the article read a lot; I read a lot. ‘Despite their anxiety about spreading themselves too thin, they share Fry’s [one of their favourite polymaths] appetite to know. It’s an overwhelming craving, likely to frustrate any countervailing drive to master one topic.’ My god, they could be describing me again –I like to know stuff, and constantly find myself countervailed in that I haven’t mastered any one topic, either.
I get the impression that this polymath thing is really a spectrum -a ‘Just right baby-bear’ Goldilocks issue. Maybe a very few of us are Bell-curved to the right, but like the now-debunked IQ, being further to the left of the curve doesn’t mean we don’t have one. We all get an IQ. And if being slotted so far to one end means you don’t have anybody to talk to except other polys, then what’s the use?
No, I’ve decided, after considering it some more, that I’d rather not be special -like them, anyway. Unfathomable suits me just fine. With no expectation of arcane trivia and no duty to recite at parties, anything I do produce is unexpected and by default, ignored. And that’s just fine. After all, they ignored Mendel for a while, didn’t they? And Ernie Fraze who invented the little handle to open pop cans –who even remembers him well enough to ignore? Oh yeah, and there’s also my father, who discovered a way to open pop cans with his boot when his hands were full. So, there are precedents.
I’m glad I didn’t become a polymath, when I stop to think about it, you know. There would have been so much less for me to find out in retirement, so much less to do. And after all, that’s what it’s for, isn’t it? Otherwise, why work first?
Those poor polymaths don’t know what they’re going to miss. I don’t envy them at all… Well, maybe a little…