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Guestwords: Fractals in Our Far East

Wed, 11/08/2023 - 17:29

E-leafing through The East Hampton Star of Nov. 16, 1928 — the week Dr. Robert Marshall of East Hampton was born — I came across a delightful story of how “a young man of the city, confined to his home with a bad throat, answered his telephone sometime a-midnight recently. Three girls of acquaintance announced that they prepared a concert for his exclusive entertainment, and that he should ‘please stand by.’ The girls then put their telephone at one end of their piano and got a ukulele to fill out the harmony. All three of them sang to the soft accompaniment, doing all the popular songs of the moment, to the unbounded joy of the sick young man, who had been dying for company all evening.”

I thought of the plight of a similarly afflicted young man 95 years later, with hundreds of cable streams to channel, a flurry of Faces to book, voices a world away within a finger’s reach. And I thought of when Bob Marshall (who turns 95 on Wednesday) was 20, the world of 1948 not significantly more companionable than that in the year he was born, when he too might have positioned a telephone by his keyboard to bring an evening’s measure of joy to a bedbound friend.

Music has shaped Bob’s life; he would today be possibly not just the oldest but the only one to readily qualify for Montauk’s Shagwong Tavern’s long-unanswered advertisement for a piano player who must have a knowledge of opening clams (clamming is a knee-deep sport he particularly enjoys). It was on a fall afternoon 70 years ago that he married Simone Verniere; her success as a contestant on the radio show “Name That Tune” may well have derived from their sharing of the songs that molded their times. They established a residence in East Hampton, starting a family with their daughters, Gabrielle and Annette.

Simone passed away in 2017. Five years later, Bob married Anne Cooper-Menguy. As Christine Sampson wrote in The Star at the time, “Ms. Marshall said she finds herself intrigued by her new husband’s jazz piano playing, never comprehending how it is that he is able to improvise. And Mr. Marshall discovered his wife has a lovely singing voice and a great sense of rhythm.”

And beyond, but not unrelated to, music, his profession as a psychologist. In a scholarly yet eminently accessible study published in Modern Psychoanalysis in 2011, Bob notes how he “was impressed with the many similarities between conducting psychotherapy and playing music, especially jazz. Given a theme, the musician improvises indefinitely and returns to the theme. When a musician tires of playing the same melody, chords, style, he moves into the infinite space of music.”

An infinity that may explain Bob’s fascination with fractals. “Fractal” is a furtive figure; Google it and you get a plaintive plea: “Did you mean factual?” Try again and up pops the querulous query “Did you mean freckle”? Third-time lucky, you get a definition that itself requires a Google galaxy of searches to understand.

Unless you are fortunate enough to stumble upon Bob’s limber metaphor of the fractals within a tree. “Imagine standing under a large tree and looking up. Off the trunk you will see a pattern of limbs. Off the limbs you will see a pattern of branches. Off the branches you will see a pattern of twigs. Off the twigs you will see a pattern of leaves. If you examine a leaf, you will see proliferations. Under a magnifying glass, these proliferations reveal a similar branching pattern. And under increasing powers of a microscope, you will see similar branching patterns.”

Patterns that are infinite, an infinity, even in areas that appear fixedly finite, but which are, to possibly coin a word, fractalously not so, areas such as the human mind, and the agency with which it governs human behavior, the fleeting fractals of individual thoughts and actions coalescing into the larger whole of situation or experience and continuing to so expand and evolve until detailed examination reveals a pattern that, at its most mundane, is repetitive and, at its most soaring, infinite.

Dr. Richard Taylor, head of the department of physics at the University of Oregon, has written how “even more exciting, fractals have the potential to build bridges from the sciences to the arts. Surely, artists and scientists have a shared interest in understanding fractals? For me, the most staggering factor in the story of fractals is that artists have been creating fractal patterns in their artworks long before these recent scientific breakthroughs.”

He goes on to cite, as illustration, another longtime resident here, mentioning “Jackson Pollock’s epic organic paintings,” and how his “fractals have even been shown to reduce people’s stress levels, perhaps explaining that magic feeling of awe that many people experience when facing one of his creations” — affirmation, as he has said elsewhere, that “Pollock painted nature’s fractals 25 years ahead of their scientific discovery!”

Pollock himself wrote of how “the modern artist . . . is working and expressing an inner world, expressing the energy, the motion, and other inner forces.” He would have known that inner world from the artist’s eye and easel, just as surely Bob does from the psychologist’s, its shades of enraged red, melancholy blue, envious green, or passionate purple, their shared appreciation testimony to the colors of Louis Armstrong’s “wonderful world,” which Bob recreates on his keyboard just before the Fourth of July fireworks each Hamptons July, its notes a nuance of sunlight whispering by the fractals of the trees, its remembered lyrics a voice half captured you are certain you have heard before, storied with signposts to places unfamiliar that yet seem a part of your past. In geography, in memory, in the immediacy of the human mind.

Ramu Damodaran was the first chief of the United Nations Academic Impact initiative and a TV news anchor and radio disc jockey in India. He lives in Springs.

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