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a portrait of Edith
november 25, 2010

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Edith McKeever was born in 1895, growing up in Connecticut to become a “lady with a lady’s education only (in Switzerland, England...),” writes her future friend Margaret Mead.

  Edith Cobb  

Mead met Edith in 1940, “slender and fair with a kind of evanescent, luminous beauty, gently reared and bred, represent[ing] the lady about whom Edith Wharton might have written twenty years earlier. Edith spoke with the attenuated tone of voice that can still[, in 1977,] be heard from upper-class [women...]—assured in social position, but frightened and self-deprecating before professionals....For all of her later years of association with some of the most exciting intellectual groups of our time, Edith never quite lost this mixture of assurance, generously proffered hospitality, shyness, and wonder at being treated as a peer by people who were professional scientists and writers.”

 

“Throughout her childhood..., Edith cultivated an absorbing interest in poetry and autobiography” which remained through a “growing concern with psychology,” after she married a businessman, Boughton Cobb, and became an upscale and active (welfare philanthropic) member of their Manhatten community during the ’30s (and the Cobbs retained an estate in Connecticut).

As Margaret and Edith’s friendship grew—and in light of a diary Edith kept “for me,” Mead continues—“it became increasingly clear that Edith needed to develop a new kind of identity—one based not on social position but upon a rich social experience and an extraordinary knowledge of poetry and history. She needed to bring her passionate but undirected interests into some kind of focus, to stand on her own among those whom she had formerly entertained or rescued.”

So, Edith entered the New York School of Social Work, 1942, and pursued an ambitious scale of interest in child psychology. “She had shifted from the thought of doing any actual social work, to the [systematic] observation of children’s play constructions,” which she documented photographically. Edith began what could be called a perpetual project which would continue to grow, unpublished, for 30 years after Mead saw Edith’s first formulations in 1947. “I showed it to a sophisticated child analyst who sniffed and said, ‘She’s clearly trying to work out her own problems.’ But....[h]er absorption in poetry and the interpretation of poetry, her growing interest in psychology and anthropology, biology and the natural world...provided her with a number of paths along which she could walk eagerly and rewardingly for those who accompanied her.” By the early 1950s, her manuscript had grown to over 50 pages, characterized by one academic as “a kind of ‘prose poem out of the most unpromising materials’ as she wove together in startling combinations bits of medical social work, autobiography,” and anthropological work. “The main illumination that I drew from Edith’s writing in those days was the idea of a cosmic sense [expressed in children]—that human beings need to take in, reshape, and give out[, like the take and give of breathing], in some altered form, their perception of the natural world, the cosmos....The metaphor of ‘breathing in air,’ utilizing this air internally and the ‘breathing’ it out in a new form, to be recycled by the natural world, fitted many of our theories [among anthropologists in the ’50s] about...the nature of the differences among children reared in stimulating and unstimulating intellectual and artistic environments....Edith herself was...living...in the emerging climate of opinion [in the ’60s and ’70s] that was to insist on a closer relationship between the humanities and the sciences....She insisted on the inclusion of our knowledge of other living creatures in our self-concepts...New discussions of evolution and man’s relationship to the natural world and our growing awareness [...of] being desecrated and endangered were incorporated in her basic design.”

“I find the figure of a mosasic the most appropriate image for the work in which she was engaged. The basic design was already evident in the late 1940s, but the choices of pieces for the mosaic—quotations, observations of children, responses to projective techniques[, i.e., experimental gestalting or prospective cohering], and autobiographical material—were constantly changing....So the work remained fresh and alive—continually renewed as her own imagination expanded with the expanding understandings of the times. This was during the long incubation period of anthropology [through the ’60s into the late ’70s]—between Ruth Benedict’s Patterns of Culture...and Gregory Bateson’s Steps to an Ecology of Mind, [and importantly including] Armstrong’s Shakespeare’s Imagination, and Ella Sharpe’s Dream Analysis...and René Dubos’s concept of health. In a sense she could no more finish the book than if she had been an avid child reading her way through a library, constantly renewed with new accessions, suddenly told to stop and call it a day.”

“Edith’s imagination fed upon the wonder expressed in poems by Keats and Wordsworth, upon the drawings and ‘worlds’ constructed by children....[I]n all of the incorporation of new scientific insights, the changes in a quarter century of excited exploration of the expanding universe, the ‘Prelude’ and the poems of Keats remained central to her thesis...[as] other people’s most abstract conclusions became raw data for [her] own creativity....In the 1960s Edith struggled with a new concept—she saw each individual as becoming, in some metaphoric sense, a species in him or herself, the source of new evolutionary changes in human consciousness, creators of essential discontinuities.”

  book jacket cover

“In 1971 she had a stroke,” so her manuscript was published by 1977 because Edith could no longer evolve it. “She is very frail now [1977] and her sight is almost gone; a granddaughter has designed the jacket of this book. If Edith’s strength had not failed, her search would still be continuing; the mosaic would still be changing. There never would have been any good reason to slow or stop the adventure, not even her anticipation of publication.”

“In the present study,” Edith begins chapter 1, “Prelude to a Method,” “—the result of over twenty years of research...—I am attempting two difficult tasks. The first is to define what is meant

 

by the genius of childhood as a common human possession and a biological condition peculiar to man. The second consists of showing that a major clue to mental and psychosocial, as well as psychophysical, health lies in the spontaneous and innately creative imagination of childhood, both as a form of learning and as a function of the organizing powers of the perceiving nervous system. Of necessity this exploration of genius requires, on the one hand, relating early psychophysical forces in personal development to the uncommon reaches in human achievement that eventually tend to shape cultural evolution. On the other hand, the time perspectives opened up by an investigation of the biology of creative motivation in childhood ultimately lead to a search for the relationship of child mind to nature.”

“This unique and unusual book,” the book jacket notes, “grew out of Edith Cobb’s belief that in the imaginative experiences of childhood could be found the essential kernal of the highest forms of human thought....It is the author’s notion that the genius of childhood is a common human possession and a biological condition common to people in all cultures. Its special qualities, however, are seldom retained throughout life except in the most highly creative individuals. The spontaneous and innately creative imagination of childhood is seen as a spur to positive human evolution and as an important factor in mental, psychosocial, and psychophysical health. In mature form the quality [of creative imagination] promotes self-transcendence and is essential to the development of enlightened human compassion.”

Here following is a random (truly, as I opened the book) passage, which is discussing Nabokov’s Speak Memory, quoting him at this point (top of p. 42): “‘Besides dreams of velocity, or in connection with them, there is in every child the essentially human urge to reshape the earth, to act upon a friable environment.’ Changes in the meaning of motion, Butterfield[, a historian of science] maintains, are basic to the rise in levels of thought. Nabokov continues,” Edith notes:

Rapid growth, quantum-quick thought, the roller-coaster of the circulatory system—all forms of vitality are forms of velocity, and no wonder a growing child desires to out-Nature Nature by filling a minimum stretch of time with a maximum of spatial enjoyment.

“When, in addition to this insight,” Edith continues, “Nabokov adds that ‘innermost in man is the spiritual pleasure derivable from the possibilities of outtugging and outrunning gravity, of overcoming or re-enacting the earth’s pull,’ we can link this intuition directly to Gesell’s analysis of the embryogenesis of mind in the prenatal functional adaptation to the ceaseless pull of gravity.”

Edith is a precursor for me, not an influence. But we are children of the same evolving era. Here, I’m merely admiring a wonderful example of mid-20th century conceptual adventuring. She courageously (as a matter of conceptual prospecting) anticipates, I would venture, the holistic discourse of well-being that’s so important for our globally-warming, hyperNetted (singularly planetary) futures, by gardening ideas of her time.

Here’s the last paragraph of her short, only book, which is the progress report, c1970 or so, of a “luminous lady” in the perpetual project of evolving mind:

The common-plus-cosmic sense of the beginnings of the child’s thought establishes a basic need for outer expression of the power to model and mold his environment. This can be achieved through cooperation and mutual relations with his total environment, in which learning, imagination, and the process of evolution will be geared to one another in the child’s personal development. If cultural attitudes could be shifted toward a recognition of human desire to exercise a compassionate intelligence, not only as tool and method but also as the chief human survival function, we would, I believe, find ourselves capitalizing on the human impulse to nurture, cultivate, and extend this vast potential. It is even conceivable that the economic motive, which at present dominates social structure and stifles other styles of motivation, could be enlisted if all humanity’s health and welfare were seen to be at stake. The counterpoint between life and death, even in wartime, tends so evoke man’s nurturing impulses, thus developing new methods of healing that lead to new techniques of learning. When these conditions prevail, the world—or the particular ecological niche we inhabit—becomes in truth a “vale of soul-making,” to quote Keats again. We are today in a position to release this creative drive in the world.

 

 

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  Be fair. © 2017, gary e. davis