Something brought the following thought to the forefront of my consciousness this morning.
That the true intellectual knows his or her strengths and weaknesses.
I would imagine that this is true of people in other fields — say, an actor or athlete whom everyone raves about, who knows better than anyone else what they excel at and what their weaknesses are — what they can and can’t do, so to speak.
Relatives — which is to say, people who know me well — have often accused me, unfairly, of braggadocio in my writings, in these posts.
I was thinking this morning about intellectuals and writers I have known personally.
I became a close friend of Charles Pierre, a New York poet and author of five books of poetry, in my early days in New York. There was a meeting of minds, and there were many deep discussions. From Charlie, I learned much about poetry, and how little I knew. I also learned that some people are more well read than me. His reading was prodigious, deep, and wide in scope: poetry, classic and contemporary (I had never head of Hart Crane, Frank O’Hara, or John Ashbery); classical and modem fiction; and philosophy. There was no way I could ever match his knowledge of poetry. Or of contemporary literature, including the avant-garde and the poets who were reading their works in the bars of Manhattan at Sunday poetry readings. I had dipped into James Joyce’s Ulysses. Charlie was reading it when we were first becoming acquainted, assiduously.
He gave me a learned, extemporaneous “lecture” in one of our chats on the “Oxen of the Sun” episode. He told me about his admiration for the poetry of the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy (whom he was reading at the time) and how difficult it was to translate poetry. About what he thought the best translations of Dante (whom I had never read) were. About the Roman poet Sextus Propertius (whom I had never heard of) and Juvenal’s satires. About how much he admired the Romanian philosopher and essayist Emil Cioran (whom I had also never heard of).
And, then there was my therapist, Ralph Colp Jr. MD. I was a history major. Dr. Colp (doctor, scholar, and writer) was a walking encyclopedia. His knowledge of history was encyclopedic; his mastery and recall of the facts near total. He put me to shame. He caught me in faux pas, such as placing Frederick the Great in the wrong century.
And, yet, Dr. Colp once said to me, “There are great gaps in my knowledge,” by which he meant his knowledge in general (his book learning). He had the humility of a true intellectual.
Guess what. So do I.
— Roger W. Smith
May 6, 2020