They are a rare, but fascinating, type of persons. When encountered, they pique interest. Their ideas, capabilities and ways of doing and being provoke great curiosity about what makes them tick. Beings of the highest order, their presence among us greatly enriches life.
A paternal aunt is the first polymath with whom I had the good fortune to be acquinted. She had embraced the vocation of nun at an early age, during the practice of which she continued her academic studies in botany, languages and music. In the 50s she achieved a doctorate in botany. At that time, the nunneries were de-comissioned in Hungary by the then ruling Communist apparatus. So, she simply continued her religious devotions in private and in sub-rosa, informal communities, and for her living taught botany at the university. My father’s favourite sister, our family would visit with her perhaps thrice a year. In the privacy of her apartment, she wore her habit and lived the nun’s life surrounded by symbols of her vocations – the prayer shrine, and her collection of strange and wonderful plants. In this mostly silent, green home chapel, she contemplated, studied, read books in several languages and ritually listened to recordings of music. The impression I still associate with her is of moving through a cool, moist, variegated green limpid light very similar to the atmosphere of a glass-enclosed arboretum. In her home, conversations were conducted at a quiet and sedate pace. Discussions about all manner of things wove among those assembled like the threads of an elaborate tapestry. After leaving this aunt, I would feel newly refreshed and eager to re-visit her.
I had the great misfortune to get to know well one of my art-school instructors. Daily, Svengali to my Trilby, he ensnared me in a guru-acolyte relationship, with his encyclopaedic knowledge and his mesmeric physical presence. His approval and mentorship of my daily, green artist struggles was of immense importance to me. I was too inexperienced to realize that such a mentor/student dependence was unhealthy, and for some time remained mired in the situation. But, to a moth, light is fatally irresistable, and brilliance in other persons is the attraction which tends to draw me like the light does the moth. Note to self: Polymaths are not necessarily desirable people with whom to be involved! But, damn it, they are compelling to be around.
A young woman, a recent acquintance, is the most recent polymath to cross my path. She is mother to two young boys who she is home-schooling. A person with wide-ranging interests, she gathers information and knowledge in an insatiable manner. Her energy is seemingly inexhaustible as she juggles her nurturing role, with other roles as student, volunteer and worker. There is a measured pace to all her involvements – steady and persistent like the ticking of a metronome. To observe her manoeuvering through her daily involvements is to be reminded of a show jumper; keen of eye, fluid of movement, taking each jump with deliberation and, yes, eager pleasure.
There have been other polymaths in my life, and I hope to become acquainted with many more. Some characteristics which they tend to demonstrate are: being true to their own nature; being obsessive in unravelling the threads of their fascinations; having strong egos; making their life up as they go along their way; being able to revel in long periods of solitude. Strangely, it seems as if they seem to conform to a physical type, at least in my experience. They are long boned, tall and rangy and have long skulls. They are not particularly athletic, but do move gracefully.
Hmmmm… I do wonder if there are short, stubby, endomorphic polymaths around…