The Greatest Polymath you've Never Heard Of
Greetings from Brooklyn.
One of the best things about this newsletter is the conversation it generated with all of you. Some branched out into long email and WhatsApp threads. To ignite more of that beautiful serendipity, I’ve added a new section called “Seeds” where I’m sharing emergent ideas. I’m curious to hear your reactions.
Until next week,
The Wisdom of Agnes Denes
“If the technique is missing, invent it, if the material is not there, make it, if the process is difficult use something that has never before been used for that purpose.”
When you think of polymaths, who comes to mind? Leonardo? Nikola? Aristotle?
What if I told you the greatest polymaths the world has ever known is a) not a man b) still alive.
I discovered Agnes Denes when I stumbled on the picture above. I was drawn by the intriguing paradox between the golden wheat and the grey concrete. In the early 80s, the Public Art Fund commissioned her to create a work of art in downtown Manhattan. Instead, she planted a wheat field on the most expensive piece of real estate in the world to make a point about humanity’s misplaced values.
Denes is often labelled as a conceptual artist. But navigating her ideas feels like being Dom Cobb in the movie inception, there’s always another dimension within the one you just explored. I decided to focus on three of them which turned out to be north stars for my thinking.
I’ve long suffered from “generalitis”, an acute condition caused by the failure to find a specialization to settle on. The first to diagnose it was my supervisor during a summer internship I got fresh out of college. “You should pick a specialty” he offered as counsel, “something concrete like Economics or Law”. Fast forward fifteen years and I still haven’t picked. I guess it’s chronic. I did find a medicine though: a heavy dose of Agnes Denes.
Specialization in her view was the metastatic cancer of human knowledge. She would have given my supervisor an earful. In her notebook “The Human Argument” she writes:
“Just seventy-five years ago Einstein could have understood all of physics. Today it is fragmented into hundreds of fields, with no one person capable of understanding them all. [...] Our hard-won scientific knowledge accumulates undigested in specializations, and so blocks meaningful communication between disciplines. Lacking overview and direction, human values tend to decline.”
Throughout her life, she used art to integrate human knowledge. She concocted mind-bending cocktails of philosophy, math, linguistics, science and poetry. Where people saw impenetrable walls, Denes saw the possibility of a bridge. There’s no better metaphor than the story about how she sought to write a statement of hers in Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphics: “If the mind possesses universal validity, art reveals a universal truth. I want that truth”. No one wanted to translate that for her in a 4,000 years old language. “It can’t be done, it’s too complicated, it doesn’t make sense”, they said. What did Agnes do? She rushed to the library and taught herself how to write in hieroglyphics so she could have that statement translated.
“While the individual may experience freedom, he has little potential to interact or identify effectively with society as a whole. The information overload numbs his mind. Mesmerized, he gulps headlines and lives by the media, assuming that what he hears and reads is true, and the rest does not matter.”
Does this strike a chord?
I recently decided to stop reading the news because it was clouding my perception of the world, like having a constantly buzzing beehive inside my head. Ironically, when I cancelled my subscription to the New York Times, the sales guy tried to talk me out of it by reminding me that “there’s never been a more important time to read the news to understand the world we’re living in”.
In her writing, Denes encourages us to be gardeners in a field of ideas overtaken by weeds and depleted soil. “When things are pared down to their core or essence” she writes, “superfluous data fall away and new associations and insights become possible”.
I started writing to get closer to that core essence. Every word I put down is an attempt to tend to our collective garden of knowledge. Hopefully, I can bring my modest contribution to growing the seeds of wisdom.
In an interview where she is asked about one of her most powerful projects, Time Capsule, Agnes explains: “My work, if you examine it carefully, is about dealing with problems humanity has and trying to find benign solutions.”
The use of the word “benign” seemed odd to me at first. A tumor is “benign” when it does not spread, when it is not dangerous. I Googled it some more. Something is benign when it is “harmless” or “of a gentle disposition”. Adjectives that are not often used to qualify solutions to massive-scale problems like environmental degradation, gender inequality or extreme poverty. We usually go for more grandiose words like “innovative” or “radical” .
And yet there lies the genius of Agnes Denes. The recognition that in order to take on humanity’s biggest problems, it is not enough to “find solutions”, you need to invite people into the problem and turn them into an agent of change. In Tree Mountain - A Living Time Capsule, 11,000 volunteers from all over the world planted a forest protected by law for 400 years. Each of the volunteers received a certificate of custodianship for the tree they planted. They could not sell it, only pass it on to their descendants. Tree Mountain is both a concrete solution to deforestation and a device to ignite a sense of responsibility in people beyond their own lifespan.
From reluctant generalist to apprentice integrator, from headline gulper to information gardener and from tech-solutionist to benign-solution advocate, Agnes Denes transformed my relationship to knowledge and what to do with it. I hope that my writing can act as a small tribute to the many new paths she opened and that I can inspire others to join this journey.
Watch How to read fewer books and get wiser. We’re obsessed about reading as many books as possible. And yet, in the pre-modern world people focused on going deeper into just a few publications. Favorite quote: “The truly well-read person isn’t the one who has read a gargantuan number of books, it is someone who has let themselves be deeply shaped by just a few very well chosen titles”.
Read The fallacy of "What gets measured gets managed". How a quote by management consultant Peter Drucker was distorted, why we need to stop glorifying metrics and a recipe for “mindful measurement”.
Jobs of the future: We tend to evaluate the importance of jobs based on the demands of the labor market which in turn influences the kind of education we value most. What are the consequences of educating for the labor market? If we valued occupations based on their ability to solve humanity’s biggest challenges, what disciplines would we give priority to?
The words we use: The words we use every day in conversations, emails or on social media have consequences on our intellectual environment. Overused words like “amazing”, “interesting”, “collaboration”, or “innovative” pollute and deplete knowledge, turn off our minds and inhibit meaningful interaction. How do we cultivate our ability to choose words that are generative?
“Self-knowledge includes the understanding that the self we want to know is about to disappear. What we can understand is the way we occupy this frontier between the known and the unknown, the way we hold the conversation of life, the figure we cut at the edge, but a detailed audit of the self is not possible and diminishes us in the attempt to establish it.”