Brevity: Renaissance Woman

Yuri

“Dark” by Xuan Loc Xuan

Brevity features short posts on the interesting, incisive, or inexplicably moving ideas I encounter at Harvard. It’s a record of the detail in those intellectual and creative moments, as well as an exploration of the curious questions that keep me up at the midnight hour. Here’s an honest snapshot of my mind.

Sometimes, I realize how much more I have to go and then —

limits.

I saw on Facebook that someone in my year won the Wendell Prize (congratulations!). It’s awarded to one Harvard sophomore annually, who is identified “as the most promising and broad-ranging scholar in his or her class.” We were Facebook friends but I don’t think we’ve ever met in real life. I Googled his name. What came up first was an article he had written for the Harvard Independent, titled “Getting In.” It was beautiful — a portrait of a young artist rendered more evocatively, gently, and vulnerably than most writers on campus (myself included) could have.

How to be a modern-day Renaissance woman (or man)? In a few seconds, I just knew. This was it.

Returning to the page of search results, I clicked the second listed site. It was a Physics department page. He was an undergraduate researcher in the Department of Physics, doing “statistical and semiclassical analysis of thermal distortion potentials.”

Before me was a vague outline of someone who was not just good but excellent at many things. I felt a burst of wonder and respect, but also intermingled in a tide of wistfulness, a dim sense of loss. It wasn’t self-negating. Yet, this brief internet encounter with a silhouette of brilliance made me rethink why I found his straddling of fields so surprising.

Our instincts are honed by stereotypes. Somewhere along the path of my education, I must have subconsciously internalized the distinctions between the literary arts and the sciences, took their gulf for granted, and happily embraced specialization. Why should scientists not be able to write beautifully? (Carl Sagan and Paul Kalanithi come to mind.) Why would it be impossible that a writer be a scientist? (Like Nabokov and his butterflies.) Are their objects of inquiry — nature and culture — all that different? The universe and its truths. The human condition. A story with different building blocks.

With the platter of liberal arts options, I have thus far chosen to do a grand zero of problem set classes at Harvard. Truth is: I’ve willingly, single-mindedly boxed myself in a rigid taxonomy of disciplines, the boundaries of which might actually be more nebulous than I think. The divisions between fields that we presume as perennial are often recent constructs — e.g. philosophy and the natural sciences (for instance, phenomenology started as psychology under Brentano).

Not sure how I will move forward with these thoughts. After all, I count myself blessed to have found an irresistible love for the humanities and the opportunity to study them at a place like Harvard. But, honestly, where else could I have had such a close brush with the contours of a renaissance man, or this acute of a realization?

(Typed this in a flurry, during a break from writing a paper that’s due tonight. Back to more practical tasks on hand!!!)

Lots of love,

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