Carl Djerassi, exemplary forerunner of Post-Gutenberg Man

Carl Djerassi in the late summer of 2013 - postgutenberg [at]

Carl Djerassi at home in Green Street in San Francisco in the late summer of 2013
– photograph: postgutenberg [at]

Recorded with sadness:

Carl Djerassi,

29 October 1923 – 30 January 2015

In an unprecedented commemoration, in our experience, yesterday’s Guardian ran — in addition to a short obituary for the general reader — a long and detailed encapsulation of Carl Djerassi’s extraordinary life in its science pages, and in its arts section, a critique of his dramatic oeuvre by a veteran theatre critic.

The photograph was taken in a poignant, unforgettable afternoon spent with Dr. Djerassi in September, 2013 – in which he revealed that he was recovering from a surgical operation for an illness he hoped to defeat for a second time. One recurring conversational theme was a comparison of recent experiences of grief and bereavement: it was clear that he found the loss of his third wife, the literary scholar Diane Middlebrook, virtually unendurable. We were both unquestionably happier discussing e-publishing and the post-print future — the reason for his invitation after writing, improbably, to express his pleasure and surprise in discovering this ‘sophisticated and literary’ blog.

His mention of having personally designed the gorgeous cover of the book he is holding, in his portrait — Newton’s Darkness: Two Dramatic Views — made it impossible not to ask him to pose with it. This he graciously agreed to do without any fuss, issuing no instructions and imposing no conditions. He could not have been a more relaxed subject.

The cover image he chose for the joint publication in a single volume of his play, Calculus, and Newton’s Hooke, by the English dramatist (and father of a physicist) David Pinner — about curious incidents and relationships in the life of Isaac Newton — is a photograph of a sculpture by Salvador Dali, a perfect choice for the surreal life of the greatest scientist before Einstein.

The news that Dr. Djerassi had designed some of his own book jackets could not have been less surprising after the three entries on this blog nominating him as a leader in the transition to unbounded, unboxed, post-Gutenberg creative expression: ‘Carl Djerassi’s sumptuous foretaste of publishing’s mixed-media future’, parts 1, 2 and 3.

We did not expect to find any mention of his accomplishments as an early prototype of Post-Gutenberg Man in any obituary, and indeed there has been none in the dozen-odd specimens we have read so far. But on this blog and elsewhere, there will be a lot more to say on that subject.

In the meanwhile, because his interest in finding new readers of his work could not have been fiercer, all the way to his final weeks, here is an extract from Dr. Djerassi’s programme notes for Calculus – which should be of particular interest to readers of the most popular item in this site’s archives, ‘The Riddle of Ramanujan,’ an essay and review of a novelisation by David Leavitt of the life of India’s legendary mathematician, Srinivasa Ramanujan.

Any mention of dabbling in mysticism by a venerated scientific figure is apt to make the typical working scientist bristle, snap, or break out in some other conversational equivalent of hives. Positively the last thing she or he wants to hear is about the brain of Newton not merely leaning heavily in that direction, but every bit as preoccupied by the extra-rational and occult as an ‘exotic’ subcontinental would be three centuries later.

Putting physics on a firm experimental and mathematical foundation – an approach coined Newtonism – earned Newton the ultimate accolade as father of modern scientific thought. However, a revisionist historical analysis, based in part on the discovery by the economist John Maynard Keynes of a huge trove of unpublished papers and documents, has led some scholars to consider Newton the last great mystic rather than first modern scientist.


… Newton spent much more time on alchemy and mystical theology than on “science”-composing over 1 million words on each of these two endeavors, much more than all his writings on physics combined! His alchemical library was huge and his alchemical experiments, though kept secret from all but a few intimates and servants, consumed much of his waking hours for decades. Even his religious convictions had to be kept secret, because his faith in Arianism (holding that Christ and God are not of one substance) was considered heretical within the Anglican Church.

Born on Christmas day in the year of Galileo’s death, Newton was so convinced of his supernatural powers that he once constructed a virtual anagram of his name (Isaacus Neutonus) in terms of “God’s holy one” (Jeova sanctus unus). His position as a fellow of Trinity College and Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge (a chair now held by Stephen Hawking), his subsequent elevation to the important government rank of Master of the Mint, and conferment of a knighthood by Queen Anne …

[ and here, because the playwright would prefer you to read his words in their context – and purchase and arrange for performances of his play — please continue to … ]

Thoughts on Charlie Hebdo, Molière, and Carl Jung: where does a fearless – heedless – sense of vocation originate?



Still finding it hard to put the Charlie Hebdo victims out of mind, to get work done – because so many of them look like writer, journalist and artist friends of post-Gutenberg’s, over the years – we have a question. Where does a sense of vocation come from?

There is no doubt that it is an irresistible, mysterious-bordering-on-mystical compulsion. It was described penetratingly in the last century by Carl Jung, though without an explanation grasped as easily as, say, a definition of a table – or, for that matter, a layman’s guide to particle physics. He saw a vocation as a sort of daimon. In an essay on the subject, an unidentified Jungian blogger has attempted a down-to-earth summary of the psychology pioneer’s conception of it:

The word “daimon” is Greek, deriving from daiw, “to divide or distribute destinies.” [… “D]aimon” is not the negative thing we associate with “demons.”

Being well versed in the classics, Jung brought many ancient concepts into modern usage in psychology … The “daimon” became a central part of his thinking about vocation, motivation, creativity and the individual’s potential for achieving fulfillment in life.

[… ]

As “… autonomous psychic content,” the daimon is a “force as real as hunger and the fear of death.” Because it is autonomous, it behaves within us like a god, making demands of us and acting with authority. The poet and potter M.C. Richards describes the experience of the daimon well when she says, “There lives a creative being inside all of us and we must get out of its way for it will give us no peace unless we do.” Beside Jung, multiple figures in history have acknowledged being in the grip of a daimon, e.g. the Greek philosopher Socrates, the German poet Goethe, and the French ruler Napoleon.

Inclusive, democratic media of this post-Gutenberg age are making it easier than ever before for the ‘creative being inside all of us’ to get out and do something. What effect is that going to have on this world?

We suspect that no matter how many millions are freed by digital tools and the net to let their daimon out for a run, the class of people who have anything critically important to tell us — who are gifted enough to excel in exercising their talent for communicating, and in exploring new avenues — will always be small. Those who put themselves at risk will be an even tinier, vanishingly small minority.

Last week we quoted one slain Charlie Hebdo artist and caricaturist, Jean Cabut – who signed his work ‘Cabu’ – saying that art should never be constrained. Artists who honour their vocation resist re-routing into less imaginative and risky occupations, and attempts to constrain what they express.

Writing on the New York Review of Books blog two days after the bloodbath at the French magazine’s offices, Robert Darnton, a historian of French satire, said that Charlie Hebdo is carrying on a tradition of fearlessly lampooning ‘power and bigotry’ that, in France, goes back at least as far as the reign of Louis XIV in the 1600s. He mentions Rabelais, Bussy-Rabutin, Beaumarchais, Chamfort ‘…and above all, Voltaire’ as practitioners of this art.

Somehow, he (or perhaps his editor) omits Molière, who died in 1673 at the age of fifty-one as one of the greatest satirical playwrights and actors of all time – and whose short lifespan was arguably part of the price he paid for giving up life at the heart of secure, bourgeois Paris to wander in search of audiences and patrons with a band of fellow thespians.

We are guessing that the NYRB was needlessly bowing to the frenzied pace of internet news analysis when it posted the Darnton contribution – because with his expertise, given a little more time, he could have shown us how some of those 17th-century French satirists were punished almost as severely as members of the Charlie Hebdo crew.

In a sparkling, dancing, marvellously imagined biography of Molière presented as part-fact, part-fiction, Mikhail Bulgakov – the Russian novelist and satirist – tells us how he died. The Wikipedia supports his version as mostly true; not too far removed from the actual events.

The medical profession and the priesthood were two of Molière’s favourite targets. He eviscerated arrogant, all-knowing doctors and their habit, in that era, of killing off patients with bleeding by leeches — because they had neither the tools nor understanding to effect a cure. He did this in one play after another with titles translated as The Flying Doctor; The Doctor in Love; Love, the Doctor; and The Doctor in Spite of Himself (in which the writer of this post actually had a leading, non-speaking part as a mute, at the age of fourteen).

In Mira Ginsburg’s quick-stepping, compulsively readable translation of the Bulgakov biography, there is this passage:

As regards the purely external characteristics which distinguished doctors at the time, we may safely say that these men, riding through Paris on mules, wearing long, gloomy mantles and beards, and speaking a mysterious jargon, simply begged to be set on the stage in a comedy. And in his Love, the Doctor Molière brought four of them on stage upon the stage. … The first doctor was called Des Fonandrès, which means ‘murderer of people’; the second, Bahys, ‘one who barks’; the third, Macroton, ‘slow of speech’; and, finally, the fourth, Tomès, or ‘bloodletter’.

What followed was a major scandal, for the audience easily recognized in the four quacks four of the Court physicians, Sieur de Forgerais, Jean Esprit, Guénaut, and Vallot, the latter being not merely a Court doctor, but the King’s chief physician. … [I]t is small wonder that hatred of Molière among the physicians reached unprecedented proportions.

After he collapsed on stage, acting a part in his latest play, The Imaginary Invalid –— then died coughing and spitting up blood a few hours afterwards — old friends and family were obliged to cope, without his help, with the consequences of his years spent savaging mediators between the realms of matter and spirit:

[E]arth refused to receive Monsieur Molière’s body.

Jean Aubry had vainly pleaded with the priests of the Saint Eustache parish to visit the dying man. Both of them flatly refused to come. A third, taking pity on the desperate Aubry, came to the comedian’s home, but it was too late. Molière was dead, and the priest hastened away. Burying Molière without proper Church rites was out of the question. The sinful comedian died without a last confession and without repudiating his profession [acting], which was condemned by the Church. Nor had he made a written promise never again to play on the stage again in the event that the Lord, in his infinite mercy, restored him to health.

This formula had not been signed, and no priest in Paris would undertake to escort Monsieur de Molière to the cemetery. Besides, no cemetery would accept him. …

Back to the Jung blog post quoted above:

[ The daimon ] … pulls us out of conventions and social norms. Because it is archetypal, the daimon exists outside of time and cultural contexts. It doesn’t follow fads or fashions, or feel any need to measure up to social niceties and expectations.

Fair enough — and well said. But what explains the existence of daimons, and what or whose purpose do they serve? We have never read a completely satisfactory answer.

Humour does not travel well — not even in doing business — a fact that the net can only alter slowly, if at all

Everyone’s lens on the world --even from thousands of miles away -- has been darkened by the Charlie Hebdo killings  --

Everyone’s lens on the world — even from thousands of miles away — has been darkened by the Charlie Hebdo killings —

  1. Nothing justifies butchery – ever.
  2. The right to free speech is inseparable from the joy of being alive, and deserves to be treated as very nearly our highest value (after, or on a par with, the right to love as we choose).

But underlining these truths does nothing for the anguish of looking at the Charlie Hebdo faces no longer with us. It is so close to unbearable that post-Gutenberg has grabbed at the distraction of thinking about the massacre tangentially, in the abstract.

For instance: are human beings more or less likely to change our behaviour, customs and beliefs by being teased or mocked about them? And can we expect teasing about religion to cross yawning cultural gaps, when jokes across narrow secular divides — within the English-speaking world and in business circles far removed from religion — must be made sensitively?

David Brooks, writing in The New York Times yesterday, came to a conclusion that seemed exactly right:

The massacre at Charlie Hebdo should … remind us to be legally tolerant toward offensive voices, even as we are socially discriminating.

On the other hand, a quotation by the Daily Mail of one victim, Jean Cabut, induced shudders on behalf of the most heedless creative geniuses:

Despite all the controversy, Mr Cabut was insistent that art should not be constrained. Perhaps his most famous quote was: ‘Sometimes laughter can hurt – but laughter, humour and mockery are our only weapons.’

That word, weapon, arrests the eye. If your countrymen include Albert Camus’s L’Etranger — minorities still making the transition from feeling like strangers and outsiders — can wit mocking soul-sustaining beliefs of theirs make them feel like insiders, rather than victims of barbarous attacks? That would depend on the styles of humour they consider within the pale.

For a comparison, consider these illuminating, fine-grained perceptions about differences in the sense of humour of English-speaking nations on Culture Resource Centre, an Australian website – recommending extreme caution in doing business with jokes, internationally:

Have you ever been in this position in an overseas business meeting when you thought it was appropriate to crack a joke and things go horribly wrong? …

Americans often consider Australian humour offensive as it often aims at taking the ‘micky’ out of themselves or a situation. American humour is considered a bit dull by the Australians; it is too ‘safe’ and aims far more at sharing the agreeableness among business partners. The British humour takes both the micky out of themselves and others and is probably considered a bit too sophisticated for both Australians and Americans. It hints at the fact that the Brits feel they have a unique knack for using words, phrases, and expressions: it allows them to show off their intellectual ability and using their famous understatements.

Contrary to the Brits, Americans and Australians often tend to use their language much more as a functional rather than intellectual tool to get messages across as can be seen in the use of for example Australian language: arvo, barbie, mozzie, pressie, etc. The Australian humour is probably a bit too rough and shallow for the Brits as it is often too direct without the intellectual cleverness so aspired to in the UK. But in all fairness, as long as you talk among English native speakers you might actually get away with your own culturally specific humour as the concepts underlying the humour are not always so different and are less likely to be so offensive as to cost you the business relationship.


Humour is very much culturally influenced and you need to be aware of it before using your favourite joke as it might just cost you the deal… Leave it at home until you are familiar with the do’s and don’ts of humour in the new culture and then adjust your style.

In the future, will gleefully transgressive cartoonists turn in the opposite direction from open, all-inclusive net culture, to publish their work in cultural pods – like Facebook’s gated communities of friends?


The Supreme who reads Proust to live by, and to understand his fellow human-beings

Marcel was surely here: a Parisian backstreet not far from Sacré Couer - postgutenberg [@]

Marcel Proust was surely here: a Parisian backstreet not far from Sacré Couer
– postgutenberg [ at ]

‘Artistic people aren’t respected.’ We quoted someone to that effect a year ago – a close relation of someone else of strikingly conventional views, but unusually plain-spoken, who says frankly, ‘I want power,’ and would like to have been a lawyer or politician.

We thought of her as we read a recent interview with an American Supreme Court judge, Justice Stephen Breyer, translated by The New York Review of Books from a French literary journal, La Revue des Deux Mondes. Justice Breyer was talking with marvellous fluency about his near life-long love of Proust’s In Remembrance of Things Past. The edited transcript of the conversation reads like an early Christmas card – except that the most winning images of doves, poinsettias, Boticelli angels and white-bearded old men clad in scarlet, humping sacks of gifts, cannot compete, as channels to transcendent happiness, with what he says about the supreme importance of literature:

Q: This year marks the centennial of the publication of Swann’s Way. In your opinion, what is the novel’s greatest contribution?

A: What I especially remember is the meditation on the passing of time at the very end of that volume, when the narrator strolls through the Bois de Boulogne just as Odette used to do so many years before. But the forest he walks through is no longer Odette’s forest. Time has passed. Women are no longer dressed the same way, the fashion has changed, automobiles have made their appearance. And as he watches the women promenade down the chestnut-lined allées, the narrator wonders: “Where has Odette’s world gone? Has it vanished forever?” The answer of course will come much later, in Time Regained. This world still exists, but it does so in our memory, in our recollections, and what gives it new life, what rescues it from oblivion, is literary creation. It is the work of art that allows us to rediscover lost time.

Q: During a lecture you delivered at New York Law School, a student asked you what major you would recommend he select in order to become a lawyer. Your answer was quite surprising: you suggested that he choose “whatever major you want, as long as it has nothing to do with the law.” You, in fact, studied philosophy at Stanford and Oxford before studying the law at Harvard. How can the humanities or foreign languages be an asset for a jurist?

A: It’s true, I’ve always thought that it was not particularly useful to study law as an undergrad. We are only allowed to live one life: it’s the human condition, there’s no escaping it. In my view, only by studying the humanities can we hope to escape this fundamental limitation and understand how other people live. Because literature, history, or philosophy all provide extraordinary windows on the world. Foreign languages, too, are fundamental.

The French language gave me an entrée into another culture. It allowed me to discover different means of expression, a different way of life, different values, a different system of thought. Because when you’re a judge and you spend your whole day in front of a computer screen, it’s important to be able to imagine what other people’s lives might be like, lives that your decisions will affect. People who are not only different from you, but also very different from each other. So, yes, reading is a very good thing for a judge to do. Reading makes a judge capable of projecting himself into the lives of others, lives that have nothing in common with his own, even lives in completely different eras or cultures. And this empathy, this ability to envision the practical consequences on one’s contemporaries of a law or a legal decision, seems to me to a crucial quality in a judge.

… Literature is crucial to any democracy. Take the field of women’s rights, for instance. You have to read Mme de Lafayette’s La Princesse de Clèves to realize how narrow a range of opportunities were available even to a highborn young woman in the seventeenth century. They had a choice of either marriage or the convent. It only got worse in the nineteenth century, because along with the pressure of the church, there was the male stranglehold on all property rights. It’s evident in Balzac’s novels, for example. In Balzac, there are mainly two types of women: prostitutes and brebis, or ewes, who are all victims. Eugénie Grandet is a victim. Madame de Mortsauf, in Le Lys dans la vallée (The Lily of the Valley), is one too.

… Personally, I get a great deal of pleasure from writing. I take great satisfaction in drawing out the substance of matters that are separate and unrelated and giving them form on paper, through writing: that too is a creative process.

Q: In France, there is a very special prestige that attaches to being a president who is a “man of letters” or a “friend of the arts.” In the United States, the label of “man of letters” seems to be much less valued in the realm of politics. A presidential candidate or a sitting president is unlikely to express his or her literary tastes publicly, much less claim to be “cultivated.” How would you explain this difference between the two cultures?

SB: I think that Tocqueville can help us to understand that difference. He very rightly pointed out that there is a mistrust of elites in the United States. […] Now, in France, art and power have always been bound up together, whether under the monarchy or in a republic. You will not find the same proximity between the spheres of power and culture in the United States.

… [T]heater tickets—could they be considered basic necessities, and could they be regulated as such? The majority thought the theater was not a necessity. The great Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. replied in his dissent: “We have not that respect for art that is one of the glories of France. But to many people, the superfluous is the necessary.”

Q: You often emphasize the beneficial role of artistic creation for all of us.

A: To me, the distinguishing characteristic of human beings is the desire to create order out of chaos, to give form to the universe. We are surrounded by colors, shapes, and sounds. We can arrange all these things in an attractive and constructive manner, as in a painting or a symphony. And that is what Proust did with his writing. Of course, he was supremely talented—but I firmly believe that every one of us can, to some extent, try to establish order amid chaos.