The Last Days of the Polymath

Edward Carr in The Economist:

MASA_Polymaths Carl Djerassi is a polymath. Strictly speaking that means he is someone who knows a lot about a lot. But Djerassi also passes a sterner test: he can do a lot, too. As a chemist (synthesising cortisone and helping invent the Pill); an art collector (he assembled one of the world’s largest collections of works by Paul Klee); and an author (19 books and plays), he has accomplished more than enough for one lifetime.

His latest book, “Four Jews on Parnassus”, is an ima­gined series of debates between Theodor Adorno, Arnold Schönberg, Walter Benjamin and Gershom Scholem, which touches on art, music, philosophy and Jewish identity. In itself, the book is an exercise in polymathy. At a reading in the Austrian Cultural Forum in London this summer, complete with Schönberg’s songs and four actors, including Djerassi himself, it drew a good crowd and bewitched them for an hour and a half. Sitting down with the book the next day, I found it sharp, funny, mannered and dazzlingly erudite—sometimes, like a bumptious student, too erudite for its own good. I enjoy Djerassi’s writing, though not everyone will. But even his critics would admit that he really is more than “a scientist who writes”.

The word “polymath” teeters somewhere between Leo­nardo da Vinci and Stephen Fry. Embracing both one of history’s great intellects and a brainy actor, writer, director and TV personality, it is at once presumptuous and banal. Djerassi doesn’t want much to do with it. “Nowadays people that are called polymaths are dabblers—are dabblers in many different areas,” he says. “I aspire to be an intellectual polygamist. And I deliberately use that metaphor to provoke with its sexual allusion and to point out the real difference to me between polygamy and promiscuity.”

More here.