Why I like Leonardo



What was renaissance man? A polymath perhaps? In Leonardo’s case, we could say: artist, engineer, even natural historian. He painted, sketched, constructed siege engines, and filled dead lizards with wax so he could see the shape of their internal organs. But what is the value of being a polymath? Is it just being good at many things in parallel? No, it is rather the cross-pollination that arises from the crossing-over of one’s various talents. But this could just happen horizontally, as it were, between different intellectual interests. Just as important, I believe, is the vertical interplay between what we think of as the theoretical and the practical. This is especially true of writing and thinking, where images and metaphors play such a vital role in shaping our work. When we sensuously (and attentively) work the world we viscerally reach down into the well-springs of poesis. Today I found myself repairing a broken chair with glue, and about eight clamps, each exerting pressure from a different angle. The chair was of no great value, and yet I had had it for decades, and it had become something of a friend. I had been using it to get extra height cleaning the roof of the truck, and then inadvertently backed up on it, crushing a leg. Wanting to mend it was overdetermined. I wanted to undo my own folly. But I also wanted to make a damaged thing whole. I react this way to almost anything that can be fixed, and with my workshop in place, I can now easily repair many ordinary sized objects. There is something fascinating about ‘the broken’, as Heidegger noted about a broken hammer. When a tool breaks (but equally when a living being is hurt), its taken-for-granted functionality is interrupted, and becomes visible, perhaps for the first time. There is an ontological”Aha!” experience. You appreciate things anew. But I still wonder what this desire to make things whole is all about, whether it is an instinct we all have some of (a gestalt tendency), and how it connects with Freud’s eros and thanatos. Is it broadly what Freud meant by eros? And how is it connected with the desire to destroy, to kill? I know it is not what Freud meant, but there is clearly a synergistic version of these twin impulses – in which the destructive impulse is in the service of the creative. We want to destroy what impedes creativity – negativity, blockages, bad karma. But what then is the end of creativity – is it (in the case of mending the chair) just restoration of a static whole? That would be profoundly conservative. Wholes that are worth having do something. A machine works again. A mended chair stops wobbling, enabling one to concentrate on other things. A watered plant grows. Sometimes the ‘doing’ may be symbolic – demonstrating that (in the case of my chair) that damage can be undone, that time is not always irreversible. A non-conservative commitment to restoration would be to restore potential, possibility, openings onto a future, not some fixed essence. A true conservative might respond: but of course, what else? When the glue has set, I wonder if I should paint the chair red. Or stripes. Must order a WWLD? tee-shirt.

* Speaking of symbolic connections, the second image above is of The Broken Chair, a sculpture by Daniel Berset, which stands in front of the Palais des Nations (Geneva) and symbolises the campaign for a mine-free world. A hybrid of the broken tool and the hurt creature.