Z. A. Melzak—professor of mathematics, Holocaust survivor, pessimistic social critic, and at times humorist—concludes his autobiography with a hard-headed yet tongue-in-cheek observation:
As for the whole undertaking loosely proposed in these three volumes, there is no possibility whatsoever of finishing; the end of that work is unreachably far. So is completing the preliminaries to its beginning so that it might be understood and continued. That would have to be done by others, by those who will come hereafter and who will know how to sidestep the Cleanthes-Seneca-Spengler 'fates'. Here ends the tale of a bore who thought that he had a lot to say, and has said it all.
Volume Three of Melzak's In Search of the Fulcrum is even darker and harder to read than its predecessors. Like them it smolders hot and occasionally flares into brilliancy. Parts of the book are annotated bibliography; they bring to mind the pioneers who raised cairns and blazed trees to mark their journeys through wilderness. Parts of the book are dystopian screed. Parts are philosophical musing. And parts are throwaway remarks, at times hilarious in their impropriety, by a man who has clearly enjoyed and suffered the extremes of life. Some representative core-samples follow.
From the Introduction to Part Three:
Regarding truth and importance, a philosopher who thought he knew was quoted: importance is not important, truth is. ...
From Chapter 25, "On Education":
... Glorification of violence in arts is also mentioned and here the completely unnecessary euphemism which substitutes 'arts' for television entertainment is as superfluous as it is offensive. Current television violence could stand many orders of improvement and beautification but it has hardly any connection with arts, being partly explained by lack of ideas among those who design that entertainment, and partly by lack of taste among those who consume it. Further, that poor quality is also intentional since it is realized that nothing other would answer to mass demand. This will do for a short and cheerful preface.
Later in that same chapter, concerning the decline and popularization of what was once called "higher" education:
Of course, there is something serious and even tragic underneath it; something so obvious that it will be suppressed and opposed by every means. Namely, the world has not found out yet what to do with its abnormal increase of population, and more particularly, how to keep youth off the street corners. And so, the contemporary method is to 'educate' them. But to educate the masses, the level of instruction (and in particular of teacher training) must be thoroughly lowered.
In Chapter 28, "Antinomies", a numismatic observation concerning an inscription on "one of the earliest German coins with a swastika":
The coin is a silver two-mark piece of the year 1937 and the inscription is 'Gemeinnutz geht vor Eigennutz' (common weal (or advantage) comes before personal (or individual) weal (or advantage)). And now for the antinomy of polyenia itself. In a previous chapter it was suggested that certain four national or religious groups can be somewhat more incisively characterized, not superficially by the single supposedly distinguishing property, but by a pair of more or less diametrically opposed features. It was suggested that the history and the development of these groups go together with the swings from one pole toward the other. The four groups and their respective polar opposites were as follows. For the Germans it was inertia-violence, for the French vanity-glory, for the British hypocrisy-righteousness, for the Jews humility-impudence. Later, another pair was tentatively added for the Poles: delicacy-crudity ...
From near the end of Chapter 29, "Nostalgia, Prejudice, Polyenia":
When the ship carrying Apollonius and disciples was passing between the legs of the colossus of Rhodes (one of the seven wonders of the ancient world) one of the disciples, Damis, asked Apollonius if he thought anything could be greater than that; and he replied, "Yes, a man who loves wisdom in a sound and innocent spirit." ...
From Chapter 30, "Views From Far Below", concerning the shape of the near-future catastrophe which Melzak foresees for our society:
... The enormous convenience of computers is unarguable, and there are few things which corrupt more than lasting convenience.
From Chapter 31, "Views From Far Below Ctd.":
Even well-meaning readers might be confused by the preceding paragraphs or, for that matter, by the whole vol. 3 of this book. They might ask the following question which, incidentally, occurred as a direct self-challenge: just what is being proposed? ... This simply cannot be answered precisely or imprecisely; only the sole direction of pointing remains feasible. The only further comment here might be an augmentation of a lovely maxim of Lao-Tse: those who tell do not know, those who know do not tell. Add to it 'but it must not be assumed that silence implies knowledge'.
And later in that chapter Melzak quotes the Latin aphorism:
... 'difficilior lectio potior' (always choose the harder way) ...
Good advice. Two years ago I opened In Search of the Fulcrum to learn about the author of the best-written math books I've had the pleasure to encounter. Although the way at times was hard, I found myself reading onward and finishing the three volumes of Fulcrum—to salute and to honor the life of that extraordinary man.
|Zdzislaw Alexander Melzak |
a profoundly human being