Friday, June 18, 2010

Churchill--Learning to See

I just gave a talk at Oxford University last week, staying at Magadlen College, and I look forward to giving two talks on the island of Malta at the end next week. More on these later. Just now I thought I would focus a bit on Winston Churchill--once again. In doing research for In the Mind’s Eye long ago, I was surprised to find how interesting he was on many levels, and what perceptive observations he had made.

As I have been driving through the English countryside West of Oxford this trip, through villages like Blockley and Pusey, and driving past the entrance to Blenheim Place (where Churchill was born), I found myself thinking once again of the strikingly apt passages I had found in Churchill’s writings. I pass an old airfield and think of Churchill’s observations on early aircraft and flying. I see a blank wall in full sun and think of his observations regarding painting and his growing powers of observation. I see a broad expanse of hillside and think of his comparison of visual thinking in military operations and (amazingly) techniques in art. I will quote below sections from In the Mind’s Eye (without quotation marks).

Learning to See

The theme of the late-bloomer reappears again and again with Churchill. He was not an early reader, but greatly loved reading once he became proficient. He had difficulty with speech as a youth, but developed, in time, an extraordinary sensitivity and skill with language. He seemed to be poor in nearly every aspect of school, until his late teens when, at Sandhurst, he developed with great rapidity--feeling himself "growing up almost every week"--then finishing well ahead of most of his peers. Even his great love of painting was developed quite late, when he was middle-aged. And, of course, his greatest achievements during World War II were reserved for the years in which most would have already gone into retirement (and some time after he and others regarded his political career as essentially "finished").

What, then, can be said of his education as a writer and historian? His education during his years at Harrow (where, after all, he did not do very well) would not seem sufficient to explain his great skill or depth of knowledge and understanding in later years. Nor would even his oft-repeated study of elementary English composition and grammar. His years at Sandhurst were designed for the active and practical military professional, not to provide a background in the literature of the military historian.

Where and when had he read the great authors, to provide a base for his native writing skills? Once again, late-blooming seems the answer and seems the dominant pattern. Like Faraday, Churchill started late but he never stopped. And he followed his own program, in his own time, for his own purposes.

After Sandhurst, and after brief exciting exploits in Cuba, he was posted with his British Army unit to India. During this time, he entered upon a program of reading to correct the deficiencies of Harrow and Sandhurst. If we are correct in asserting that Churchill developed capabilities greater than others, but later than others (as some of those we have been considering), then it is not hard to imagine that his program of self study had the right timing and conditions for the greatest benefit (perhaps much greater than one would usually obtain as part of a conventional university program of study).

In India, Churchill had apparently taken well to the easy routine of military duties and regimental competitions. But when his need for deeper and broader knowledge came it was abrupt and strong: “It was not until this winter of 1896, when I had almost completed my twenty-second year, that the desire for learning came upon me. I began to feel myself wanting in even the vaguest knowledge about many large spheres of thought.”

By this time, he had developed a feeling for language and an appreciation for words "fitting and falling into their places like pennies in the slot." He had developed a extensive vocabulary, yet he was aware that he was not always sure of the meaning of certain words and was hesitant to use them "for fear of being absurd." He was aware that he knew something about a variety of topics, such as tactics or politics or honorable behaviour. But what of a topic such as ethics? “. . . In Bangalore there was no one to tell me about Ethics for love or money. . . . This was only typical of a dozen similar mental needs that now began to press insistently upon me. I knew of course that the youths at the universities were stuffed with all this patter at nineteen and twenty, and could pose you entrapping questions or give baffling answers. We never set much store by them or their affected superiority, remembering that they were only at their books, while we were commanding men and guarding the Empire. Nevertheless I had sometimes resented the apt and copious information which some of them seemed to possess, and I now wished I could find a competent teacher whom I could listen to and cross-examine for an hour or so every day.”

So without an instructor, he taught himself. He wrote to ask his mother to send him books. He started with Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: “I was immediately dominated both by the story and the style. All through the long glistening middle hours of the Indian day, from when we quited stables till the evening shadows proclaimed the hour of polo, I devoured Gibbon. I rode triumphantly through it from end to end and enjoyed it all. I scribbled all my opinions on the margins of the pages. . . It was a curious education . . . because I approached it with an empty, hungry mind, and with fairly strong jaws; and what I got I bit. . . .”

For a time during this period he read history and philosophy four or five hours each day. In addition to Gibbon, he read Plato, Aristotle, Schopenhauer, Malthus, Darwin and many other books of "lesser standing." The education was "curious" but effective. As one biographer commented: “In fact, it was a very wide and remarkable one; Churchill's selection of books was eclectic and random, but the purpose was serious: what he read he remembered, and he challenged and questioned what he read. This self-education was the first real indication of his ability, his determination, and his independence. It may also be seen as the first clear sign of a personal ambition to succeed in life.”

This dedication to work and study continued through to his early years in the House of Commons and beyond. His dedication as a young M.P. was characterized by "living with Blue Books and sleeping with encyclopedias," according to one observer.[i] A friend during these years noted that when Churchill was "not busy with politics, he was reading or writing."

Considering the pace and timing and success of Churchill's program of self study, it is perhaps not at all surprising that he observed that it is best not to read too many great books too early. Presumably, his own personal experience was a powerful testament to the truth of this assertion, especially for late bloomers. In characteristically plain but powerful language, he explains: “It is a mistake to read too many good books when quite young. A man once told me that he had read all the books that mattered. Cross-questioned, he appeared to have read a great many, but they seemed to have made only a slight impression. How many had he understood? How many had entered into his mental composition? How many had been hammered on the anvils of his mind and afterwards ranged in an armoury of bright weapons ready to hand? It is a great pity to read a book too soon in life. The first impression is the one that counts; and if it is a slight one, it may be all that can be hoped for. A later and second perusal may recoil from a surface already hardened by premature contact. Young people should be careful in their reading, as old people in eating their food. They should not eat too much. They should chew it well.”

This passage suggests a reader who is not only careful in what he reads, but also one who takes plenty of time to consider what he is reading-- pondering the content, contending with the author (as he says, scribbling his opinions in the margins), integrating what is learned with what he already knows.

Integration of knowledge. Integration of a whole life. As noted previously, the wholeness and the interconnectedness of wide interests was seen as a special and remarkable quality in the life of Maxwell, for example (perhaps the more so because this quality contrasts so greatly with the highly specialized lives and interests of many modern scientists). Integration, wholeness and the ability to see connections between highly diverse things are also repeated themes in the lives and work of others such as Faraday and Edison. With Churchill, similar themes may be seen, although they are not always, perhaps, as clearly evident.

However, the integration of diverse elements in Churchill's life has been seen by some as a characteristic of prime importance. For example, one reviewer of the two recent biographical volumes by Manchester (The Last Lion: Alone) and Gilbert (Never Despair) comments: “As for the man himself, both these books offer rich testimony to his genius. Churchill was not merely great as a man of affairs; he was the complete and rounded person--as poetic as rational; as visionary as practical; as imaginative as he was sturdy: Integer vitae might be the motto of his life. He combined artistry with hardheadedness and magnanimity with sturdiness. . . . In the years covered by these volumes he wrote his two-volume life of the first Duke of Marlborough, his famous ancestor; published six volumes of war memoirs, the first volume of which sold a quarter-million copies in one day and made him a fortune. He won a Nobel Prize for literature (few were so richly deserved) and exhibited his paintings at the Royal Academy and the Tate Gallery. All the while he fondly tended his goldfish, dogs, cats, pigs, swans and racehorses and proved himself a gifted farmer and brick mason--and devoted friend.”

Churchill may have been a late bloomer with broad and integrated interests, but he also shows evidence of being a thinker with a definite propensity toward visual-spatial modes of thought. This propensity is apparent in a quite different aspect of our considerations. It is not, of course, surprising that those with high visual-spatial talents are often quite proficient in activities which require exceptional visual-spatial ability. And it is not surprising that these persons also may be especially sensitive to the special abilities of those, other than themselves, who are proficient in these areas. Thus, one might expect to find that one with these high visual-spatial talents would greatly appreciate the skill of another who is able to move with special grace and skill--by means of the newly-developed flying machine--through three-dimensional space.

In 1912, with some trepidation, Churchill started flying because he thought it part of his duties as First Lord of the Admiralty. (It is worth noting that Churchill started flying only 9 years after the Wright brothers' first flight in December of 1903 and only four years after the Wright brothers started providing aircraft and pilot training to military personnel in both America and France in 1908.[ii]) In time, however, he came to develop a very special appreciation of this new world. Churchill's description is so evocative and is so supportive of the point we are trying to make that an extended quotation seems warranted: “Once I had started flying from motives in which a sense of duty, as well as excitement and curiosity, played its part, I continued for sheer joy and pleasure. I went up in every kind of machine and at every air station under the Admiralty. . . . Then came the episode of Gustave Hamel in the spring of 1914. If ever there was a man born to fly, three parts a bird and the rest genius, it was Hamel. He belonged to the air rather than the earth, and handled the primitive machines of those days in what was then an unknown element, with a natural gift and confidence quite indescribable. . . .

“Although I have flown hundreds of times, probably with a hundred pilots, I have never experienced that sense of the poetry of motion which Hamel imparted to those who were privileged to fly with him. It was like the most perfect skater on the rink, but the skating was through three dimensions, and all the curves and changes were faultless, and faultless not by rote and rule but by native instinct. He would bank his machine so steeply that there was nothing between us and the world far below, and would continue circling downwards so gently, so quietly, so smoothly, in such true harmony with the element in which he moved, that one would have believed that one wing tip was fastened to a pivot. As for the grim force of gravity--it was his slave. In all his flying there was no sense of struggle with difficulties, or effort at a complicated feat; everything happened as if it could never have happened in any other way. It seemed as easy as pouring water out of a jug.”

Churchill shows evidence of a special sensitivity for accomplishment in a visual-spatial realm. But is there, we might ask, evidence of a more purely visual mode of thought--the operation of the mind's eye? With Faraday, Maxwell and Einstein, it seems clear that their deepest, most natural, most personal and most productive modes of thought were intensely visual (both literally and by analogy with vision), even though this might not always be apparent in their more professional and public discussions.

But what of Churchill and those like him? Can we expect to find evidence of similar hidden visual processes? Words and politics seem to lend themselves to the visual less than other things. Can we uncover evidence of an intensely visual approach laying hidden not far below the surface of verbal discourse--an underlying context of apt images and distant analogies which invisibly mold the discourse? Small and large hints, here and there, provide some indication. . . .

But [we can learn much from the] passionate love of painting described by Churchill in "Painting As A Pastime." The essay title belies its content. We are not given, as the title would suggest, the idle musings of a hobbyist dabbler in semi-retirement. On the contrary, we are given, instead, the ardent passion of one who has discovered, before it is too late, a fresh new love in his middle years. This new passion draws on such deep resources and reserves that one can only guess that these great engines of refined and skillful observation had previously had some other object in other facets of a rich and energetic life.

He explains: “One is quite astonished to find how many things there are in the landscape, and in every object in it, one never noticed before. And this is a tremendous new pleasure and interest which invests every walk or drive with an added object. So many colours on the hillside, each different in shadow and in sunlight; such brilliant reflections in the pool, each a key lower than what they repeat. . . . I found myself instinctively as I walked noting the tint and character of a leaf, . . . the exquisite lacery of winter branches, the dim pale silhouettes of far horizons. And I had lived for over forty years without ever noticing any of them except in a general way, as one might look at a crowd and say, 'What a lot of people!'

“I think this heightened sense of observation of Nature is one of the chief delights that have come to me through trying to paint. . . . Once you begin to study it, all Nature is equally interesting and equally charged with beauty. I was shown a picture by C├ęzanne of a blank wall of a house, which he had made instinct with the most delicate lights and colours. Now I often amuse myself when I am looking at a wall or a flat surface of any kind by trying to distinguish all the different colours and tints which can be discerned upon it, and considering whether these arise from reflections or from natural hue. You would be astonished the first time you tried this to see how many and what beautiful colours there are even in the most commonplace objects, and the more carefully and frequently you look the more variations do you perceive.”

Churchill's great love of painting seems to indicate a deep reservoir of native capacity which may have readily manifested itself in other analogous ways in comparatively distant disciplines. Are not the fifteen hundred toy soldiers with which he spent so much time as a youth, but a near analogy of real armies which must be managed with real tactics in real battles (and in primarily visual and spatial modes of thought and analysis)?

Similarly, it is not hard to imagine that the architect of the grand allied strategy of the world conflict of 1939-1945 conceived and habitually considered this grand over-arching plan in primarily visual terms--using intellectual capacities which focused on the whole rather than the parts, the long view rather than the particular, the simultaneous comprehension of vast and complex interrelationships.

But what justification have we for such an assertion? Are we not stretching the point. Yes, granted, in some cases there may be real justification for drawing such a conclusion. It may be true of some scientists and some mathematicians and even some poets, perhaps. But painting and politics and military strategy (among other things)--can this really be defended by a responsible observer?

In response, it may be argued that one need go no further than to read closely Churchill's own thoughts and observations as laid out in his essay on painting. In a curious passage--an almost unwanted and unplanned digression--he appears to clearly make the point that he believes the great painters and the master artists were drawing on intellectual capacities which (given the necessary particular information in a given field) may be used to understand and rightly perceive "any other high activity of the human intellect."

He refers to the great Italians, but does not name them. However, among those he was referring to we would expect to find Michaelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci--master artists who were known for their great skill in so many diverse areas of investigation, knowledge and endeavor. This passage is not elaborated, and Churchill quickly returns to his main topic--almost as if he had momentarily forgotten himself, indulging in a distant digression in thought that had presented itself to him unbidden (as he dictated his text). The passage is terse and elliptical, but his point seems to be clear enough.

Notably, the passage begins with a fresh and unexpected analogy--a comparison of the principles of painting with the principles of military command: “But it is in the use and withholding of their reserves that the great commanders have generally excelled. . . . In painting, the reserves consist in Proportion or Relation. And it is here that the art of the painter marches along the road which is traversed by all the greatest harmonies in thought. . . . It is wonderful--after one has tried and failed often--to see how easily and surely the true artist is able to produce every effect of light and shade, sunshine and shadow, of distance or nearness, simply by expressing justly the relations between the different plains and surfaces with which he is dealing. We think that this is founded upon a sense of proportion, trained no doubt by practice, but which in its essence is a frigid manifestation of mental power and size. We think that the same mind's eye that can justly survey and appraise and prescribe beforehand the values of a truly great picture in one all-embracing regard, in one flash of simultaneous and homogeneous comprehension, would also with a certain acquaintance with the special technique be able to pronounce with sureness upon any other high activity of the human intellect. This was certainly true of the great Italians.”

Indeed, in this passage Churchill's terminolgy itself is almost unsettling in its unexpected aptness. Painting and military strategy and any other "high activity" of the human mind are seen in clearly visual-spatial, right-hemisphere terms, employing words now often used by professionals in this context: focusing on "proportion" and "mental power and size" together with "one all-embracing regard, in one flash of simultaneous and homogeneous comprehension.”