Thursday, 4 April 2019

Stick with the things that make you laugh

Whilst drinking in a pub, the composer Carl Nielsen noticed a painting hanging on a wall. It was a comic depiction of the four temperaments, or personality types, that ancient philosophers believed determined human behaviour: choleric (ambitious and leader-like), phlegmatic (relaxed and quiet), melancholic (introverted and thoughtful) and sanguine (pleasure seeking and social).

The painting was so extreme in its caricature of the temperaments that it made Nielsen laugh loudly. Choleric, for example, was depicted by a man on horseback who was violently waving a sword; his eyes bulged out of their sockets and his face was impossibly distorted by rage.

Despite Nielsen's initial reaction, or more likely because of it, the painting stuck in his mind. He became increasingly fascinated by the theory of the temperaments. Eventually, this fascination inspired him to compose his 2nd Symphony "The Four Temperaments".

Each movement of this symphony thoroughly explores one of the temperaments; an extensive and complex piece of music had grown from a seed of an idea planted within the composer's mind by a comical painting (and the laughter it had caused).  

Things we initially perceive as silly, comic or absurd; things we greet with disbelief and laughter: these things can often prove of immense value. If we resist dismissing them from our minds and instead reflect upon them for a while, if we ponder their meaning, they will likely offer us unexpected insights and inspiration. 

Ernest Duchesne, a French military doctor, noticed (with some amusement) that stable boys were storing leather saddles in the most absurd of places: a dank, dark room. Duchesne's amusement, however, was soon followed by curiosity. Why were the stable boys doing such a silly thing? The answer to Duchesne's question revealed method in the stable boys' apparent madness: they had discovered that encouraging mould to grow on saddles helped prevent infection of horses' saddle sores.

Ernest Duchesne and the stable boys had discovered the antibiotic properties of moulds, and they had done this 32 years before Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin (an antibiotic produced by these moulds).