Saturday, September 28, 2013

What do Noel Streatfeild and Isaac Asimov have in common?

Many years ago, I read about two very similar incidents in the autobiographies of two very different people.

The first incident was recounted by Noel Streatfeild in her autobiographical work A Vicarage Family. It comes from her school days.

The glamorous, exotic Russian Ballet was visiting London in the summer of 1911; everyone was talking about them; everyone longed to see them. A teacher took those older girls who could afford it to London for three nights to see some performances. Noel (Victoria in the book) was not in the party, despite being obsessed with ballet. She was enthralled by what she heard about the company, and was desperate to learn, even if it was only at second hand, all she could about the dancers and the ballets. She listened eagerly when she heard some of the starry-eyed girls discussing the outing with the teacher on their return, trying to catch some of the magic from what they said.

Noel meant only to listen, but there was so much she wanted to know. She asked some questions that, she later realised, might well have sounded puerile to a teacher who had actually seen the Russians and who was probably tired after the exhausting trip. The teacher reacted strongly and negatively, telling her that if she had nothing more sensible to ask she should say nothing at all.

Noel felt snubbed and deeply hurt.  Tears came into her eyes. How could anyone be so mean after three lovely days seeing ballets in London as to refuse to describe them to someone who was too poor to go and see them for herself?

Noel decided that she was not going to forgive her teacher.

The second incident was recounted by Isaac Asimov in In Memory Yet Green. It comes from his college days in the late 1930s.

He describes seeing his first ever slide rule on his professor’s desk. He picked it up and asked what it was and what it did. The professor took it back from him and said with irritation “It would take too long to explain.”

Asimov thought that if the teacher had only started him off by showing him how to do a simple calculation, which would have taken only a few seconds, he could have worked out the rest for himself. Asimov felt that he had lost a lot of time because the professor wouldn’t help him.

Asimov wrote “I have never forgiven him for that.”

These relatively trivial but painful incidents obviously affected both people very strongly: they never forgot their grudges. It speaks for itself that they included the incidents in their autobiographies, which were written decades after the event: Noel Streatfeild was around 65 years old when she wrote her book and Asimov was 60. 

I didn’t forget these episodes either: they seemed significant to me at the time and they still do. There are some lessons to be learned here.

People who take an individual path through life may well feel things much more than collective-minded people do. People who sense a special path ahead of them may well react strongly when someone appears to be blocking their progress, or does not help them along their way when this could easily be done.

Noel Streatfield later enhanced the lives of huge numbers of girls with her inspiring children’s classic Ballet Shoes; generations benefitted from her obsessions. Isaac Asimov became a world class science populariser. He wrote An Easy Introduction to the Slide Rule.

Both people needed large amounts of food for the future in the form of useful information: perhaps they reacted so strongly when people wouldn’t help them because they sensed what was at stake.

On the other hand, someone targetted for help and information by such creative people may feel that they have been attacked in some way: their reaction may be automatic self-defence. Obsessive people who sense a chance to get some vital information may behave like a tiger that has scented its prey. They may appear overeager and come on much too strong, thus triggering a negative response: action and reaction are equal and opposite.

Creative people may have a bad effect on others because they bring the powers of the subconscious mind into their inter-actions with others. They are unaware of their own strength. This is a topic that needs further investigation.