Original Minds

by Eleanor Wachtel
ISBN: 0006394191

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A Review of: Original Minds: Conversations with CBC Radio∆s Eleanor Wachtel
by Michael Greenstein

Eleanor Wachtel's voice on CBC Sunday afternoon's Writers & Company is as familiar by now to the arts' scene as Barbara Frum's was in the political arena. Original Minds is her third collection of conversations, and Wachtel engages her guests and their listeners with her thoughtful questions. Carol Shields's generous "Foreword" well describes Wachtel's techniques of interviewing writers and thinkers who grip us at every turn of the conversation. It would be interesting to read a comparative study of National Public Radio, CBC, and BBC to get a more comprehensive view of the arts in various countries.
Her first subject in this book is Jonathan Miller-a Renaissance man, polymath doctor, and theatre director whose conversation covers anthropology, neuroscience, and various artistic forms. Miller attributes his encyclopedic interests to an innate curiosity, but his accomplished parents lend a genetic component to his genius: his father was a surgeon who introduced him to Gray's Anatomy at the age of six, his mother was a novelist. He is critical of Freud as a scientist but admires him as a writer. In passing, he mentions Oliver Sacks and Noam Chomsky, two other figures represented in this book of sixteen important thinkers.
Also from England, biologist Jane Goodall describes her fascinating work with chimpanzees in Africa. A combination of curiosity, mentoring by Louis Leakey, and the influences of her mother and grandmother led to Goodall's success. In her camouflage khakis she's able to study the similarities between human and chimp behaviour.
Italian film director Bernardo Bertolucci discusses his rural background as well as the cosmopolitan influences of Pasolini and Jean-Luc Godard on his avant-garde films. Semiotic scholar and novelist Umberto Eco is the other Italian subject in this book.
George Steiner is another polymath (like Jonathan Miller) whose encyclopedic mind covers vast stretches, yet the highbrow mandarin offers a touching allegory (worthy of Jane Goodall): "We've all seen those breathtaking nature films where on a rhinoceros there sits a tiny bird. The bird helps clean the rhinoceros, gives him warning of enemies but, more interestingly, tells others, Rhino is coming'." This kind of dialogic parable serves as a charming reminder of Wachtel's interviews: she engages the reader and the great mind, warning that great ideas are coming. Steiner attributes his success to his father's far-sightedness into history and his educational background in France and the United States. The Holocaust has always played a central role in his thinking, and he concludes: "God has decided to make Jews of everybody. By that, I mean very simply that He's going to teach everybody else what it's like to have to wander, what it's like not to have safety and protection." Steiner and other intellectuals in Wachtel's collection are those rare birds atop the rhinoceros, giving us fair warning and direction.
Susan Sontag reviews her personal battles with cancer. Indian economist and Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen discusses famine, inequality, and development in the Third World. Gloria Steinem discusses feminism and her opposition to marriage, though at the age of sixty-six she finally decided to get married.
Jared Diamond is also a polymath whose book The Third Chimpanzee (1992) links him to Jane Goodall and Jonathan Miller. His more recent book, Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (1997), ranges over the past 13,000 years to account for Eurasians' domination of the modern world. Diamond argues that latitude played a crucial role in the spread of crops from the Fertile Crescent: from China to Western Europe the east-west axis offered a similarity in climate that facilitated trade, whereas the predominantly north-south axis in Africa and the Americas with different climates slowed growth and exchange of crops. Diamond also describes the ease with which 169 Spanish conquistadors defeated 80,000 Incas in Peru in 1532. Before the battle the Spaniards were terrified at the sight of so many soldiers, but since the Spaniards were armoured and on horseback, they easily defeated the foot soldiers who had only stone and wooden weapons. Within ten minutes the Spanish mowed down 7000 Incas; smallpox later took care of the rest.
Parentage plays a crucial role in so many of these extraordinary lives. Diamond's father was a physician, his mother an accomplished linguist and concert pianist. Both of Oliver Sacks's parents were physicians in London, while both of Noam Chomsky's parents were Hebrew teachers in Philadelphia in the 1940s when he imbibed anarchism with his mother's milk. The book ends on a poetic note with Harold Bloom's prodigious memory quoting from Wallace Stevens:

"The reader became the book;
and summer night
Was like the conscious being of the book."
Substitute Sunday afternoon for "summer night" and you have the essence of Eleanor Wachtel.

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