Wednesday, September 17, 2014
Matila Ghyka (1881-1965) in full military/diplomatic rig
Individual lives, like all of history, have a tendency to divide themselves up into discernible periods; and in life as in history it is the transitional moment that is most difficult to define. When did the Jurassic give way to the Cretaceous, or the Medieval to the Early Modern? I’m feeling indefinite and micro-transitional myself. I have finished a book project, and before I really settle into a couple of others there will be a brief trip to England, beginning later today, to take in the annual “Oxford Thinking” conference and to visit family and friends.
My recently completed project involved the study of some erudite Renaissance poets who use complex mathematical schemes in the construction of their poems. Believing that the divine Creator had laid out the universe in perfect, intelligible harmonies, Christian poets, no less than painters, sculptors, and architects, often sought to imitate or echo in their own works what they sometimes called “divine proportion”. One very common device exploits the so-called “Golden Section” (division in extreme and mean ratio) or plays with its arithmetical expression in the irrational “Golden Number,” Φ (1.6180339887….)
The weeds grow thick around the topic of Pythagorean number mysticism, and a poor literary scholar can easily get lost in them. Just as I was about to drown in the choppy waves of Robert Herz-Fischer’s A Mathematical History of Division in Extreme and Mean Ratio I chanced upon a life raft in the form of an older, delightfully “humanistic” book dealing with the information I needed by somebody with the unlikely name of Matila Ghyka.*
I used it with profit and made a mental note that, when some unfettered leisure should arrive, I ought to find out who Matila Ghyka might be (or as it turned out, might have been). My transitional otium has allowed me to do so. What I found was that Matila Ghyka, who died in 1965, was a polyglot Aromanian aristocrat. Or he was a French naval officer. Or he was a Romanian diplomat. Or a vagabond world-traveler. Also a mathematician, a philologist, and an American college professor. Most of all he was an exciting odd-ball thinker and an engaging writer.
One gets the impression that by the turn of the twentieth century Transylvania and Moldavia (Ghyka’s native haunt) had changed little since the time of Count Dracula except that its upper crust, to a degree even greater than the Russian aristocracy, had immersed itself in French language and culture. Ghyka, who had been educated almost indefinitely in French Catholic schools, naturally wrote in French, but in a French beyond my pay grade.
I was delighted to learn that he had written an autobiography, more delighted still to learn that there was an abridged version in English wonderfully entitled The World Mine Oyster (1961). The writing is excellent. The author has translated his own French into his own English. There was yet better news. This book has a substantial introductory essay by a favorite author, Patrick Leigh Fermor, prince of modern “travel writers”. It turns out that Ghyka and Fermor were old friends, having around 1934 shared the exotic hospitality of the Princess Marie Cantacuzène at her estate at Tetzcani in Moldavia.
But then Ghyka was friends with numerous writers, including two of the giants of modern French literature, Marcel Proust and Paul Valéry. Who knew? Not I, for sure. But if you read Ghyka—another of whose books available in English is The Geometry of Art and Life—it becomes obvious why artists so deeply concerned with rhythm and structure would find him congenial. Valéry is a rare example of a “creative writer” with a powerful philosophical mind. Of Ghyka’s demonstration of the aesthetic ubiquity of Φ, Valéry wrote thus: “I maintain—and I have made it a precept of my personal aesthetic—that there exist, in the order of the spirit, powers of passion and of ‘sentiment’ as strong—even if more rare—as those in the order of the ‘heart.’” If I understand this aright (by no means certain), here was a modern artist subscribing to some twentieth-century version of sacramental hierarchy or of the Great Chain of Being.
But leave all that aside. Quite apart from any abstruse aesthetic theories, The World Mine Oyster is a simply fascinating autobiography rich in exotic information and strange adventures. Much of it has to do with a world long vanished, as viewed by a certain kind of cultivated European sensibility that has as good as vanished. And the introductory essay by Patrick Leigh Fermor is pure gold. There is currently issuing from the press what is already a stream and will soon be a flood of books marking the somber sequence of Great War centennials. How extraordinary it seemed to me amidst all this to stumble upon these old reflections from the Balkan hinterland where the whole mess began. The World Mine Oyster is not too easy to find. But any educated and curious “general reader”—the sort of person for whom this blog’s essays are intended, plausibly or not—will be rewarded by seeking it out, even should the effort involve enlisting the services of Interlibrary Loan.