Today one of my colleagues at the Fetzer Institute, Dr. Joel Elkes, celebrates his 95th birthday. No, that is not a typo. He was born in 1913, lived through two World Wars and a century of struggle. He was a student in England in the 30’s and 40’s and thus escaped the Holocaust, though many members of his family did not. He has written a memoir of his own father, who perished in the Kovno Ghetto. Joel has served the Fetzer Institute as senior scholar-in-residence for many years and divides his time between Kalamazoo, MI, and Sarasota, FL.
I count it a great privilege just to sit in the presence of Joel Elkes and his wife Sally Lucke, two of the most vibrant, hopeful people I know. I wish him a happy birthday today from the Detroit airport.
Joel was a good friend of two other giants–Jonas Salk and Jacob Bronowski. He gave the Jacob Bronowski Memorial Lecture at the Salk Institute on January 19, 1978, “On the Neurosciences, Awareness, Choice, and the Good Day.” Joel knows how to combine delightfully strange ideas and to make the theoretical eminently practical.
The way he described Jacob Bronowski at the beginning of this lecture, applies perfectly to himself, thus fulfilling the aphorism that we often become what we admire: “Jacob Bronowski was a vast continent of a man, cognisant of his own map and deeply aware of his own geology.”
I thought immediately of Shakespeare’s words for Cassius in describing Julius Ceasar: “He doth bestride the narrow world like a Collosus.” But Joel Elke’s description is even more profound. Bronowski was not just huge, like the Collosus of Rhodes or any other natural wonder, he was a huge natural force aware of his own topography, “cognisant of his own map.”
Since Joel built three major research centers for brain sciences as they relate to mental illness, and since he is one of the founders of the field of psychopharmacology, he knows much about mapping the brain. Bronowski, like Joel, was a big thinker, someone who did not yield to the temptation to learn only more and more about less and less. He contemplated the universe and everything in it. So does Joel. And out of that contemplation comes the map of his own mind. Out of that contemplation comes intimate knowledge of the layer upon layer of metaphoric sand and rock–igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic–that compose the human mind. The layers at the deepest level were not placed there by us, and there is no way to separate one person’s geology from the landscape of the whole.
The brain can be mapped. The mind and spirit have to be explored. The wise person has intimate knowledge of both. Memoir writers at their best are cartographers of their own lives, connecting them to the geology of the places that formed their spirits and of the people who have gone before them.
Joel, I hope you are laughing today in Kalamazoo. Thank you for giving me such a vivid image of just how wide and deep one life can be.