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No. 1398:
Back to the Beginning

Today, a process within a process. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

We are four white-haired college professors from four institutions. We're planning our annual short-course for the Medical Center. Each year we look for new ways to encourage medical students to ask how art and medicine inform one another. It's an odd exercise, but it really does open doors for many students.

Three of us swap ideas about how to do it this time, while Michael sits quietly. Then Michael speaks. He begins haltingly, feeling his way. But he's on to something. He quotes Napoleon, who said, I engage myself; only then do I see. The fact that a commitment to action precedes understanding, Michael continues, offers a hint about dealing with the dilemma of self-knowledge: Even though self-knowledge is something we never achieve, we need to go after it. Then he quotes T.S. Eliot:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Eliot's exploration, or Napoleon's self-engagement, is essential. It inevitably takes us back to old places. When it does, what's old is made new again, because the process changes us.

So Michael has built a metaphor for invention. Suppose you want to invent something: How to proceed? Well, think about that unlikely pair: Napoleon Bonaparte and T.S. Eliot. Napoleon describes the process, and Eliot the outcome. Napoleon says we'll see, only after we dive in and commit ourselves. Eliot says that engagement brings us back to where we began, but with new eyes.

That's what great inventors do. When he was twenty-five, Alexander Graham Bell engaged himself by taking a teaching post at a school for the deaf. He married a deaf woman whom he loved deeply; then he sought mechanical means for helping the deaf to hear. He came back to the world of hearing and non-hearing with the finished telephone, but that world was changed because he'd changed. He'd learned to see by transmuting bedrock idealism into creative action.

As a young man, Leonardo da Vinci made cold-blooded sketches of sexual intercourse. But his interest in the anatomy of procreation evolved. He was in his sixties when he tried to use anatomical dissection to get at the mystery of reproduction. An aging Leonardo finally made his unforgettable drawing of an embryo in the womb. By then he'd fused art and dissection and changed the course of medicine. He'd engaged himself fully. By the time he returned to his original question, he'd given us all a new ability to see.

Michael's idea was only a starting place for our own exploration. We decided to make an 8-part course out of one sketchy idea about self-discovery. Then we realized: we were actors in a play-within-a-play. To put the Napoleon/Eliot idea to use, we ourselves will have to commit, to return, and finally to see through new eyes.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

What Napoleon actually said was, On s'engage et puis on voit.

Eliot, T. S., Four Quartets. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1943.

The four professors were Stanley Reiser of the University of Texas Medical Center, Blair Justice of the University of Texas School of Public Health, Michael Hammond, Dean of the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University, and myself. We were (are) planning the 1999 Health Care and the Arts Lecture Series which will be offered to medical students and staff, as will as to the general public, at the University of Texas Medical School. The sessions will be held each Monday and Wednesday Noon from March 15, 1999 to April 21, 1999.