I recently read Walter Isaacson’s biography of Leonardo da Vinci. Other than being a genius – artist, scientist, anatomy buff, engineer, and self-taught at that – Leonardo was precious in another way: he was very human. He would alternate between glacial laziness and frenzied output; he procrastinated endlessly, driving his patrons up the wall; he has an enormous number of unfinished works to his name, preferring to abandon them instead of falling short of perfection.
But his most human trait was his endless curiosity, which was not the pursuit of knowledge as a means to an end but for its own sake. The example Isaacson keeps returning to is Leonardo’s quest to understand how a woodpecker’s tongue works. He didn’t need to know it; he simply wanted to because he looked at the world with a sense of wonder that most of us don’t. He noticed how the wings of a dragonfly beat alternately, he wanted to know why people yawn and how the jaw of a crocodile worked.
So, when it was time to write this letter, I thought I’d make it about what Leonardo can teach us. And, in time-honoured fashion, I’m stealing shamelessly from Isaacson’s book.
Be crazy curious: You’ve always been that; it’s one of the many things I love about you. When you were tiny, you’d try on my shoes and then your own to figure out why my feet require more space. And you once overturned a large bowl of peas just to see them roll across the room. The look of pure joy on your face when you saw that is imprinted on my mind. As you grow older, and I get a close look at our school system, like Einstein I sometimes wonder how curiosity survives a formal education. I’m very happy that in your case it’s alive and kicking. As Isaacson wrote, “not all knowledge needs to be useful” but by doing so you “explore more horizons and see more connections”.
Don’t lose your sense of wonder: As we get older, it’s only natural to stop noticing what’s around us every day. For instance, when we look at the rain we worry about traffic and flooding. Few of us think about how it is formed and why the water cycle is what it is. Like Leonardo, watch water swirl, jump and dance as it flows into a bowl.
Distraction is fine, procrastination is great: Leonardo would frequently break away from his work to pursue some odd query that popped into his head. He was criticised for this but it enriched his mind. We all experience this need but suppress it; indulge it instead. While painting The Last Supper Leonardo would sometimes stare at it for hours, make one stroke and leave. His justification: “Men of lofty genius sometimes accomplish the most when they work the least.” What he meant was, while others saw them as doing nothing, their minds were whirring, trying to figure out how to get closest to perfection.
You are perfect; let it show: Leonardo’s Battle of Anghiari and Adoration of the Magi are considered the greatest unfinished works of all time. In fact, many think there is more genius in those incomplete canvases than there is in the celebrated works of many masters. Leonardo carried these works everywhere for years, adding a stroke here, a line there… but he abandoned them, not because they were unimportant but because they were intensely dear to him. So intense was his love for them that he chose to let them be when he felt he could not achieve what he had imagined for them. They became more perfect in their incompleteness than they would be if they were complete but “merely good enough”.
Erase lines: Leonardo never saw himself as merely an artist or physicist or botanist. For him, it all overlapped. So, he used drawings of his dissection of human lips to paint the smile in the Mona Lisa. His knowledge of how light falls on the human retina informed his creation of perspective in The Last Supper.
Take flights of fantasy: Leonardo imagined giant crossbows and precursors to armoured tanks. He thought of flying machines and methods to divert rivers. Never mind that they never saw the light of day. He freed his mind, let it soar and he was content.
Every year as Father’s Day approaches, and I sit down to write my letter, I wonder whether you actually need any advice because you’re so much better at life than I am. This year, too, I felt that you’re already living so much of what I’ve advised.
That’s why I was over the moon when recently you decided to find out what would happen if you melted crayons and painted with them. You trained a hair dryer on the crayons, liquidising them on the canvas and worked your brush furiously before it all hardened. The result was your best art yet – a skyline framed by twilight, pink light rising like a mist in the background and shadows wrapping themselves around houses. You can almost see the neighbourhood turning in for the night. The ridges and inconsistencies formed by the brushstrokes make the picture leap out of the canvas. It seems to grow as you stare at it, filling your line of sight till you can see nothing else. I marvel at how you made the edges of each object melt into the next, much like we observe in real life in fading light.
You don’t know it but I look at that painting each night before I go to bed, and it teaches me to never lose my sense of wonder. Once again, you taught me more than I can ever teach you.
PS: Now, back to the woodpecker’s tongue. Three times longer than its bill, it retracts and wraps itself around the skull. Other than teasing out grubs deep inside tree trunks, the tongue is a wraparound cushion for the brain as the bird smashes its beak, repeatedly and violently, into the wood. You don’t – just as Leonardo didn’t – need to know this. But it’s fascinating, isn’t it? Curiosity for the sake of curiosity – wouldn’t it be a wonderful world if we all indulged in it?
PPS: I love you.