an intellectual adventure

 

 

“My father never judged people by what they wore, how much they earned or what school they attended. He wanted to know if someone was an intellectual. By that, he meant someone who read books and thought about ideas. That was his kind of person.”

— Judith Colp Rubin, eulogy for Ralph Colp Jr., MD, November 2008

 

 

i In my first two brief therapy sessions with Dr. Ralph Colp Jr. at Columbia University, he asked me some standard questions for a psychiatric interview and I shared with him in general some of the problems and anxieties I was having, such as feelings of frustration in dating and romantic relationships and with my job.

In our third session, I said something which I can’t recall precisely — something along the lines of I am not just a bored, frustrated office worker living a life of quiet desperation; I have a rich intellectual life.

“Tell me about them,” he said. (I seen to recall that I had mentioned books.)

I told Dr. Colp that I was reading Tolstoy’s novel Resurrection and — as has been the case with me through my life; there are books that come along, so to speak, that overwhelm me — about how Resurrection overwhelmed me on so many levels: the story, the writing; the underlying moral and human questions addressed. I think I said something to him about how I had always thought that I would be likely to prefer Dostoevsky (whom I had already read) to Tolstoy, and here I was bowing at the altar of Tolstoy.

As was usual, Dr. Colp did not say all that much. But he was never a passive listener, never cold, bored, or indifferent (He was simply reserved and very thoughtful.) I could tell that this “disclosure” by me had him thoroughly engaged and was giving him a truer picture and appreciation of me. It was another level for us to connect deeply on: the intellectual or “thought” sphere.

A few sessions later, I said something to Dr. Colp that I knew he appreciated very much as feedback. I could see and sense it. I told him, “I can feel the interest [in me, his as a therapist] on your part. That in itself, that alone, is therapeutic.”

 

 

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Dr. Colp’s whole life was that of an intellectual. I realize now, at this stage of my life, that this is now, and has always been, true of me. It has given my life meaning and purpose, and whatever achievements or value it has involved or amounted to.

At some point, much later, I told Dr. Colp that I had been reading Samuel Johnson’s essays and that they were a revelation for me: the depth of penetrating insight, the practical wisdom that one could take away from them. (Dr. Colp once complimented me with having the gift of “rapid insight.”)

Dr. Colp belonged to a reading group. He told me that my comments about Johnson were illuminating. He said that a man in his reading group had once said, “The only reason that Johnson is of any interest is the book Boswell wrote about him.”

I told Dr. Colp that (I had already read Boswell’s biography, about which I had talked at length with Dr. Colp) Johnson’s own writings assuredly were well worth reading.

“I guess he was wrong,” Dr. Colp said of the past remark. He always welcomed the opportunity to learn something new.
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I told Dr. Colp once, ruefully, that I had bought quite a few expensive books, including multivolume sets of the works of writers such as Whitman and Parkman. (And a multivolume set: The British Empire Before the American Revolution by Lawrence Henry Gipson, which I still have not gotten around to reading. Dr. Colp told me that he had been told that it was a great read). I felt rueful because I had “overbought” and would probably never be getting around to reading most of the books. My appetite was bigger than what I could consume.

“You’ll get around to reading them,” Dr. Colp said emphatically. I wondered if that was true, but I felt better about my indulgences.

 

 

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Right now, I am having a sort of intellectual adventure. I love to map out such intellectual endeavors for myself, and then try to follow through on them. I am reading Samuel Johnson’s works in the Yale Edition. They are splendid books, superbly edited and annotated, and beautifully produced. There are twenty-three volumes, of which I own all but two.

I probably won’t read them all. I have already read, in their entirety or in part, Johnson’s Diaries, Prayers, and Annals, his Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, many of the essays (which are a must), a portion of his Lives of the Poets, and other miscellaneous writings by Johnson.

Johnson is, I would suspect, not in fashion nowadays, and his style is often said to be dated. His political views would probably be regarded as retrograde. He has typically been portrayed as a stodgy Tory conservative, if not an arch-conservative. This is simplistic and amounts to making Johnson a caricature (as Boswell has been accused of having done.) Books such as Donald Greene’s The Politics of Samuel Johnson (which I have read) demonstrate this. I think it is more accurate to say that Johnson was a contrarian who hated political cant and what today might be called liberal smugness.

 

 

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So why go through this self-appointed intellectual task, this “journey” of plowing through Johnson’s works? Because there is so much to be learned — so much that I am learning as we speak — from him, both from his writings, the excellence of which I can only hope to emulate; and his deep thoughts, which cause me, in the words of Charles Darwin (Dr. Colp’s alter ego), to “think energetically.”

The other books can wait.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   January 2020

1 thought on “an intellectual adventure

  1. J.M.James

    Thinking energetically can not be achieved in a vacuum. Great works from Samuel Johnson and Charles Darwin and current commentary by Dr. Ralph Colp Jr. and Roger W. Smith are a great place for thinking energetically.

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