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A World of Light
Portraits and Celebrations
By May Sarton
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1976 May Sarton
All rights reserved.
An Informal Portrait of George Sarton
Many years after my father's death I received a letter from a stranger who had just discovered George Sarton, one of those moving readers who comes upon a classic work, ignorant, as it were, and under his own steam, with the freshness of personal adventure: "I can only say that your father's great work moves me just as does the final fugue in The Art of the Fugue where Bach sums up all musical knowledge in a quadruple—and also unfinished—fugue." My correspondent had just discovered the two-volume History of Science—"an unfinished fugue," since those on Greek and Hellenistic science would have been followed by other volumes through the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance if George Sarton had lived longer.
"What manner of man was he?" the letter concludes. "I shall not cease to wonder about this marvelous genius who said, 'Erudition without pedantry is as rare as wisdom itself,' and then wrote 1,200 pages of erudition without any trace of pedantry...." This sketch of George Sarton is a belated answer to that letter.
What manner of man was he? He was an exceedingly charming man; this charm made itself felt at once, on first meeting, in his beaming smile, the smile of a delighted and sometimes mischievous child that flashed out below the great domed forehead and sensitive brown eyes behind their thick glasses. He was stout, with beautiful hands and small feet, a stocky man who walked down Brattle Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at exactly the same time every morning, with the propulsive energy of a small steam engine, a French beret on his head, a briefcase in one hand, in a coat a little too long for him because he could not be bothered to have his clothes altered and insisted on buying them off a rack to save time.
What manner of man was he who moved with extraordinary freedom over the ages and the continents within a daily orbit as undeviating as that of any planet? A man of disciplined routine yet who lived surrounded by what might be called the communion of saints: "Today is the first day of spring," he notes in his journal, "the feast of St. Benedict (the beginning of the Middle Ages) and Bach's birthday—what a conjunction!" A man bent over a desk in a tiny book-filled study in the Widener Library at Harvard University for many hours each day, whose image of himself was that of a crusader in a holy war—the war to convince the universities and the academies that the history of science must be treated as a separate discipline, and the war to convince the public at large that the history of science could be a saving grace.
A man who at one time chose to spend his Saturday afternoons at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, studying Chinese painting for the sheer pleasure of it. "Who is that man who must be a specialist since he comes so regularly and studies so hard?" someone asked. "Oh, that is George Sarton, the historian of science, taking a half day's holiday," came the startling answer.
A young Belgian who, having just founded the first international journal for the history of science, suddenly found himself transported, with his English wife and baby daughter, to a strange country across the seas; who translated himself into a new tongue when he was over thirty; and who, at over forty, decided that he would have to learn Arabic for the sake of his medieval studies, did so, and read the whole of Arabian Nights in the original tongue with huge enjoyment. The least self-aware man who ever kept a journal, the most innocent and willful of hearts, who could seem totally unaware of the inner lives of those close to him, yet who enacted within himself a daily drama of self-criticism and heroic endeavor—above all, a scholar in the old-fashioned sense of the word, a dedicated man, a man of endless ardor and curiosity, one of the great pioneers in a new discipline.
As one way of trying to answer the question "What manner of man was George Sarton?" let us follow him through a specimen day. We have watched his elated progress down Brattle Street; after his death several neighbors mentioned their delight in seeing him go past each morning like some Twentieth Century Express with a destination five centuries back in time, perhaps, at a station called Athens or Rome or Mecca or Constantinople or Peking—toward Widener 189 where the five volumes of An Introduction to the History of Science were slowly being delved out and written.
The glass door of Widener 189 bore the inscription ISIS; not a reference (as at least one person imagined it might be) to a collection of Gertrude Steiniana, nor an assertion of Being, but the title of the quarterly George Sarton founded and edited for more than forty years. Once he had locked himself safely behind that door, the first thing he did each morning, of course, was to run through the mail, which might bring him letters and queries from scholars and friends in England, Japan, Arabia, Israel, France, Russia—in this sense alone he was truly "a man of the world," a man of many letters, a man of few if any intimate friends except epistolary ones. So it happened that in 1953 I picked up a dictionary of current American slang translated into Japanese by Professor Shituka Saito and discovered that it had been inscribed "To Professor Doctor George Sarton, my best friend." When I inquired who this unknown intimate was, my father gave me one of his slightly guilty yet innocent smiles and answered, "I have never seen him, as a matter of fact." Yet I am sure that Professor Saito was being a little more than polite, and it is quite possible that he had been the recipient of several of those outbursts of rage or self-pity or mere self-revelation that took the place with George Sarton of intimacy in the ordinary sense.
In the morning's mail there would be the usual pile of books and periodicals, and, every now and then, a twenty-pound sack of birdseed as well. George Sarton loved to feed the pigeons who came to coo at the windowsill, and even nested there, so that the endless writing in that fine hand was accompanied by the raising of innumerable pigeon families within two feet of his left elbow. Unfortunately professors and students who had offices across the court did not enjoy the sight of such untidiness in the sacred precincts. Reports reached the authorities, and George Sarton was requested to desist. This was the occasion of a notable exchange of letters, the opening shot being Sarton's expression of horror that Widener would consider becoming a second-class library, since every first-class library the world over, including the British Museum, had its pigeons. And for a time there was a truce. But the cleaning of the court was becoming a real problem, and after some months George Sarton surrendered in a final subdued letter in which he granted that if he had to choose between offending his neighbors and offending the pigeons, he supposed his neighbors must come first. I don't imagine that even kind Dr. Metcalf, then head of the Widener Library, had any idea of the inner agitation with which my father denied the pleading and sometimes even aggressively irritated pecks at his window for some months before the pigeons too gave up. Perhaps they eventually found their way, as did the sacks of seed, to his house in Channing Place, and thus set their seal of pigeonly approval on a remarkable personal library.
The mail attended to, George Sarton could finally get to work. On Columbus Day of 1942 he noted in his journal, "The difficulty—as well as the delight—of my work lies in its great diversity. There is much unity of single-mindedness deep in it—but the surface is infinitely diversified. For example, last Saturday I was revising completely my notes on the Persian theologian Al-Taftazani. Yesterday and today I had to prepare four lectures to be given tomorrow and Wednesday—dealing respectively with
1) The history of science in general (Colby)
2) Science and religion
3) The Western discovery of printing (Radcliffe)
4) Leonardo da Vinci, man of science (American Academy) (Radcliffe)."
We cannot watch a mind at work. We can only measure its caliber by the results. The five monumental volumes called An Introduction to the History of Science did not go farther than the fourteenth century. But, to give a specific idea of the breadth of the man, as well as of his concentrated power, consider that after his retirement from teaching at sixty-five, he published four books—Ancient Science and Modern Civilization (The Montgomery Lectures, University of Nebraska Press, 1954); Galen of Pergamon (The Logan Clandening Lectures on the History and Philosophy of Science, University of Kansas Press, 1954); The Appreciation of Ancient and Medieval Science during The Renaissance (1450–1600) (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1955); Six Wings, Men of Science in the Renaissance, (The Patten Foundation Lectures, University of Indiana Press, 1957)—and that during this time he was also working on the two huge volumes on Greek and Hellenistic science to which I have already referred, the last of which appeared posthumously, but had been completed before his death.
The days at the office, even when he was not lecturing, were tense and packed. Then, at about four o'clock (though in the later years he sometimes went home at lunchtime), he walked back the full mile to Channing Place, carrying as likely as not two briefcases stuffed with books and papers. There he would be welcomed by my mother and Cloudy, the gray Persian cat, her plume of a tail in air, and soon all three settled down for their ritual tea in the big living room or, from June to October, out-of-doors in the garden. It was the time of intimate exchanges, the relation to each other of the day's accomplishments and difficulties, and the impassioned discussions on art and life which made this marriage such a continuously alive one. He might have brought her an art book from Widener, producing it from his briefcase with the air of a magician; for there were many lacunae in his usefulness to the household, but he would always gladly search out and carry home a heavy book!
George Sarton, who had grown up in a bourgeois society where women were indulged rather than respected, emerged as a young man into the artistic and social ferment of the city of Ghent at the turn of the century, and became an ardent feminist and socialist; several of his friends among women were artists, including his future wife (as in his later years at least three of his women friends were distinguished scholars); he always had respect for women's judgment and gifts. My mother was not a learned person, but she was an artist and had a spirit that matched his in its intensity, although since her life was twice dislocated by transplanting, first from England to Belgium, and then from Belgium to the United States, her gifts had to be turned primarily to help us keep afloat financially, and so perhaps never fully flowered. But that these two shared a true companionship about all the things that mattered most to them (including cats and gardens!) is clear. I was delighted to find the following note in my father's journals: "A flower garden is a poetic creation. Any woman who knows how to grow flowers and loves them is immensely superior to one who does not." My happiest vision of these parents of mine is of my mother lying in the garden at teatime on a chaise longue, a white shawl flung rather elegantly round her shoulders, a cat on her lap, looking at her husband with a slightly quizzical tender expression, and of my father, a battered soft straw hat tilted down over his eyes, smoking a cigar and enjoying her creation, the garden: I sometimes think this hour was the only relaxed one of his day. The journal notes more than once, "A Blessed day—thanks as always to Mabel."
Of course she mothered him, and I think he was quite unaware of it, although he often called her "Mother," as he had done since I was a child; he was chiefly aware of his very real deprivation in his own infancy and while he was growing up, and there are several references to it in the journal. Among these, one seems to me especially characteristic in its approach to an intimate matter; it was written on his sixty-second birthday: "I have now discovered that the thirty-first of August is the saint's day of the Spaniard Raymond Nonnatus (1200–1240). He was called Nonnatus because he was 'not-born,' but removed from his mother's womb after her death. My own fate was not very different from his, because my mother died soon after my birth and I never knew her. Neither did I really miss her until I saw Mabel mothering our child. Then only could I measure the greatness of my loss. Many of my shortcomings are due to the fact that I had no mother, and that my good father had no time to bother much about me. I am indeed 'an unlicked bear' (un ours mal lèché)."
I must append to this passage one from a later entry on the same subject, this one written after my mother's death, "I sometimes mutter, 'Bear it, Bear!' or else 'Five Bears!' which is an abbreviated form of the great rule of conduct 'Bear and Forbear.'" Bear and forbear he did, even when a pipe burst, the cellar flooded, and his response was "Let nature take its course," as he went upstairs to his study, leaving my mother to cope! You who ask, "What manner of man was he?" Was he not a charming man? Whatever his faults as a human being, whatever his lacks as husband and father (they were not inconsiderable), all must be forgiven such innocence and such charm.
But by now tea is over, and George Sarton has disappeared into the upper regions of the house, to his study there, with its shelves and shelves of records and books, and its pigeon-frequented balcony. There, as he himself explains, "For the last twenty or thirty years it has been my habit to spend at least a half hour before dinner reading Arabic, Greek or Latin (not Hebrew, my knowledge of it being insufficient) and that reading, which is necessarily slow (even in Arabic) is restful. It is like praying, for it implies a humbler and quieter state of mind." As long as my mother was alive, this period of quiet reading was followed by an hour or so of recorded music. Methodical in all things, George Sarton always noted what records he had played in every month. In April of 1952, for instance, I find that he had been listening to Dvorak, Gluck, Beethoven, Brahms, Palestrina, Stravinsky, Chopin, Pergolesi. Curiosity and a developing musical taste led him to buy many recordings of modern music, some of which he came to enjoy (it was he who introduced me to Mahler), but in 1952 he explodes in his journal, "Many modern composers make me think of people who cannot tell a joke without punching you in the back; they are so brutal, they insist with increasing noise. I am willing to forget their dissonances and I would gladly smile or laugh if they were not so terribly anxious. They seem to say: 'You have never heard music like this' and they deafen you. Impudent rascals.
"Yet if I must choose between artistic impudence on the one hand and administrative complacency and stupidity on the other, I shall never hesitate—give me the impudent artists and the rebels."
There speaks my father, who had observed Parkinson's Law long before Mr. Parkinson did. In 1954 he was writing in his journal, "The steady development of administration everywhere afflicts me more than I can say because it always implies irreversible losses in personality and humanity. It is now spreading with the virulence and malignity of a cancer. It does not affect only offices (like the Postal one, the Treasury, etc.) but universities, museums, and many scholars and artists today have the mentality of an administrator if not of a business man. Think of a university Professor who manages his work and thinks steadily of his 'interests' in the same spirit as the owner of a delicatessen store. I know such. What caused that pitiful disease? Is it the result of the growth of industry and technology, of the availability of more machines and gadgets, or is it simply the result of growing numbers of people? Every administration grows like a cancer. Administrative problems grow much faster than the number of students and teachers...." and he adds in a typical peroration, "It is high time for me to leave this mechanical and administrative world and return to the bosom of Nature."
Possibly the violence of this reaction became a crotchet in the later years; or perhaps it was rather a kind of passive resistance, the involuted answer to certain real humiliations which he had suffered during World War II when, for instance, the then head of the Carnegie Institution (which, it must also be remembered, had generously supported my father through the years) told him to his face that the history of science had become "irrelevant." For George Sarton and his way of thinking, the history of science and its humanizing influence would never be less "irrelevant" than in an age of vast technological progress, and never less "irrelevant" than in time of war, if the values for which we fought were to be preserved. But whatever the subconscious reasons may have been, it must be admitted that my father was the "enfant terrible" of administrators, and at one time threw away letters from the Harvard deans without opening them, as "irrelevant"; if this was childishness, and it surely was, the childishness sprang from a kernel of hard-won personal truth.
Excerpted from A World of Light by May Sarton. Copyright © 1976 May Sarton. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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