Saturday, June 19, 2021

Close encounters with the remarkable Buckminster Fuller (repost)

[Adapted from a letter to Thomas Schöllhammer, dated 28 February 1986. Mr Schöllhammer, then a student of ‘American Culture’ at Munich University, was writing a dissertation on Buckminster Fuller and had requested a full account of my personal contact with ‘Grandpa’ Bucky.]

I’m not sure how I first heard of R. Buckminster Fuller.

But the first time I saw him was in Kuala Lumpur in 1973 when he gave a talk at the University of Malaya. He was extolling the virtues of non-specialization, which was to me an interesting change from the conventional Jack-of-all-trades doctrine that you can achieve nothing unless you concentrate on a very tiny area. In later life Bucky (as he liked being called) would describe himself as a Comprehensivist.

I was impressed by his awareness of 4-dimensional processes – the only way apparent contradictions can be reconciled and appreciated. It was the first time I had heard the word SYNERGY. He also expressed his belief in “syntropy” – the opposite of entropy. Whereas most scientists speak of “negative entropy” Bucky used the more pro-active term, syntropy: the antidote to pessimism (“things fall apart,” “the heat death of the universe,” “Murphy’s Law,” and so on).

SYNTROPY he defined as Scenario Universe’s counter-tendency towards greater coherence and integrity: the centripetal (returning to Source) counterforce to centrifugal “expanding Universe” theories. Bucky was a visionary who could sense transcendental Meaning and Higher Order beyond the apparent disorder and randomness of physical phenomena. I had no chance to talk with him, as he was hurried off to some official tea party immediately after the lecture.

Fuller poses with his Dymaxion car, circa 1933

In 1975 Bucky was invited to an international conference on “Malaysia in the Year 2000” organized by the Syed Kechik Foundation. Herman Kahn of the Hudson Institute (a research team entrusted with developing futurist ‘scenarios’ for the Pentagon, among other corporate interests in the U.S.) was also there; and so was Prof. Robert Jungk, the famous German sociologist-historian. I managed to get myself invited to the conference and that’s how I finally got to meet Bucky.

U.S. Pavilion at Expo 1967 designed by Buckminster Fuller

He was very approachable, very warm and saintly, radiating a very loving aura – in sharp contrast to Herman Kahn who was hugely aloof and sneering, radiating little warmth. In the two men you could see the polarities of intellectual vision. Kahn was convinced that the planet was in deep trouble and that Malthusian economics dictated Darwinian survival strategies (e.g., he advocated and defended America’s policy of exporting pollution to Third World countries). Fuller, on the other hand, was convinced that Universe is sentient, that Cosmic Intelligence always prevails, and that cooperation, not competition, was the key to real progress. Mentally I called Herman “Fat Hope” and Bucky “Slim Chance.”

Within hours I had decided Bucky would make the ideal grandfather. So when I found him sitting one row behind me at one of the talks, I scribbled my request on a sheaf of conference notes and handed it to him: “Do I have your permission to adopt you as my grandfather?”

Bucky scrawled an unhesitating response: “Indeed you do! It gives me great joy and an increase of responsibility.”

This simple act proved to me that Bucky represented the noblest spirit of humanity, the archetypal Community Elder who has grown beyond tribal concerns and was in effect one of the True Sages of Planet Earth. Such beings are not universally recognized under the military-industrial power structure – but I’m sure that as the Aquarian Age proceeds, they will come into their own.

The general atmosphere at the 1975 conference was pretty much a triumph of Optimism over Pessimism, of human over technocratic values.

Herman Kahn (pictured left) was loudly and repeatedly booed during his address in which he defended the hard-line “realist” approach to problem-solving (that whole pragmatic worldview founded on Original Sin, the contrariness and imperfectibility of Human Nature, and the overall untrustworthiness of the Cosmos; the scientific-materialist paradigm wherein “God” is essentially an abstraction to which political expediency demands payment of lip service, but in private nobody really gives a hoot about “moral authority” or any sense of ethics governing human existence; the Bottom Line being, of course, Economics).

In contrast, Bucky’s talk was very warmly received. Though a fair portion of the audience seemed to have difficulty following his non-linear, multidimensional way of thinking and speaking, Bucky was able to transmit a clear and direct feeling of genuine goodwill and high intelligence. He didn’t refer to notes and could have gone on for hours if there hadn’t been a time limit. I can recall only fragments of what he said, but those few fragments remain vividly imprinted in my mind:

Bucky speculated on the ascendancy of Muscle Power during a particular phase of our prehistory when kings and chiefs were chosen from the warrior caste and Power was equated with the weight of a man’s weapon. Cerebral individuals were given subordinate rôles as consultants, magicians, healers, and comedians. (“Put this little guy on the payroll, he tells funny jokes.”) These thoughts were neither new nor radical to me as I had covered the same contemplative ground in the course of my personal musings – but it was the first public utterance of these ideas I had encountered, and it served to reaffirm the validity of my own views on social hierarchies and power elites.

Buckminster Fuller's trademark geodesic dome

Bucky came up with another important analogy: that of the honey bee colony which serves a greater design (the propagation of plant species) without actually being aware of its nature-ordained function. To the bee, the whole purpose of existence is simply the gathering of nectar and the defence of its own hive until the next generation is ready to take over the endless cycle.

Dymaxion House (prototype revealed in 1929; redesigned in 1945)

This metaphor (perfectly illustrating precessional effects) was very mind-opening and allowed me to view even the multinational corporations in a more generous light: like the honey bees, most of them haven’t attained the 4-dimensional awareness of their higher function within the planet’s ecology. But, as Bucky pointed out, these Great Pirates (his name for the fortune-hunting, empire-building colonizers who have shaped the course of recent centuries) produced global navigation maps and introduced the concept of a continent- and culture-bridging spherical world through purely selfish, greedy motives. Bucky’s graphic thought processes approach a workable solution for all conflicting tendencies in human and animal behavior. For me, Bucky had successfully performed the alchemical marriage of Heaven and Hell, extending his mentations beyond simplistic “good” and “evil” to an enlightened state of dynamic equilibrium, of reintegration and reciprocity.

Bucky with his wife Anne Hewlitt and their daughter Allegra, circa 1927

Yes, Bucky was indeed a 20th-century Buddha with access to the harmonic overtones of Higher Consciousness. No wonder some "experts" are of the opinion that Fuller went “kind of nuts in his later life.” Bucky’s concepts had transformed into metaconcepts: to comprehend Whole Systems you need to exercise your mind in ever increasing spheres of interest. No way any die-hard academic specialist could ever publicly endorse Bucky’s work. It’s so much easier to protect our own petty interests by playing down or not noticing other people’s greatness.

Allegra Fuller Snyder, Bucky and Anne's only surviving child, visits the Eden Project 
in September 2009

Another very important thing Bucky pointed out was that no true scientist will ever describe anything as a “mistake.” In experimental procedure, all results lead to deeper understanding, whether “positive,” “negative,” or “ambivalent.” I view Bucky as a philosopher-guru using mathematical and technological terminology to express his mystical insights. In this respect he was often misunderstood and dismissed (and, to a certain extent, still is) by mainstream scholars. He was fond of describing himself as a “maverick” – the ox that refuses to run with the herd. In problem-solving it’s often the maverick idea that proves most valuable.

Buckminsterfullerene aka Buckyball - the C60 carbon molecule discovered in 1985

Most important to me was the fact that Bucky Fuller had devoted his life to developing a syntax and a geometrically achievable model of Utopia: a vision I have explored in mystical terms, but which I've found difficult to articulate “objectively.”

Bucky’s work with the miraculous behavior of Whole Systems, Synergetics, Syntropy, Reciprocity, Regenerative Intertransformations, Integrity, and Omnidimensionality put everything mystics had always spoken of in poetic code into clear, technical focus – the same way G.I. Gurdjieff and John C. Lilly made epistemology accessible to empirical investigation. However, don’t take my word for it – read Bucky’s Utopia or Oblivion (Pelican Books, 1968)!

The conference on “Malaysia in the Year 2000” lasted only five days – but I had the chance to have more contact with Bucky between sessions and at meals. The remarkable thing is that there was never much casual talk at these encounters: it was more like a reunion of intimate friends. He would perform childlike exercises on paper napkins, demonstrating how EVOLution derives from EVE and how EVOL is really LOVE spelt backwards.

I wrote a long letter elaborating my ideas on transport systems (from solar buggies to antimatter propulsion to mantra-powered lightships) and handed it to Bucky on the second day of the conference. When we met the next day he gave me a radiant smile and a warm handshake, saying: “It was the best letter I’ve ever received, I was absolutely delighted!”

He asked if I was interested in reading a new poem he’d drafted, something called Complexion 1975. He had only the original copy, so I was required to read it all at one sitting in his hotel room while he very kindly ordered me a glass of milk (perhaps I still looked like a baby to him). Since then I’ve read the published version of Complexion, but it didn’t read like the same document I saw in Bucky’s room. My memory informs me that the original draft was more science-fictionish – written from an extraterrestrial viewpoint. I had the feeling that Bucky was eager to communicate some earthshaking secret – but he apparently changed his mind and all he said to me before we left the room was: “Don’t worry about anything. It’s 99.9 per cent metaphysical!”

I did feel a pervasive sense of “unreality” – as though the view outside his hotel room was a holographic projection. I looked at him for further clarification and he kept smiling beatifically and insisting that the physical reality around us was such a minute section of the electromagnetic spectrum as to be actually quite insignificant.

Around this time, a half-mile or so away, the Japanese Red Army (a leftwing terrorist group) was getting ready to take over the AIA building on Ampang Road and hold 50 people hostage for several days. Mercifully, it all ended without bloodshed soon after the conference. A mere background detail to this account.

I wrote Bucky a few times after that. He would reply personally or get his secretary to send me his latest itinerary. Which is how I got wind of his brief visit to Kuala Lumpur in 1976. I met him at the airport with a gift of his favorite oolong tea and he suggested that I accompany his small entourage to the Hotel Equatorial for dinner.

Our conversation was mainly about John C. Lilly (right) - the multidisciplinary scientist best known for pioneering dolphin intelligence research and the sensory-deprivation tank. Bucky mentioned that he once saved Lilly’s life; he felt that Lilly was far too reckless, doing dangerous things to himself; but he agreed that the man was truly brilliant, if somewhat erratic. Then Bucky handed me some advice that has served me well over the decades:

“Just do what you feel you must do. Do it the best you can and trust that you’ll be looked after. Believe me, it’s true. I’m an old man, and I’m not in the habit of giving irresponsible advice.”

Six months later I quit my job in an advertising agency and have been gainfully unemployed since.

On October 12th 1979, I saw R. Buckminster Fuller for the last time. I’d written to his secretary earlier, saying I’d be passing through Philadelphia and asking if I could visit. The response was swift and warm. I found Bucky in his Market Street office, older and feebler but still as sensitive as ever.

Bucky's 1946 Dymaxion Map showing the relationship of land and ocean areas
The moment he laid eyes on me he said: “I hope you don’t succumb to disappointment. These things take time. Right now we can only try to cushion the impact.” I believe he was referring to my hopes (and his) that Utopian values would spread universally and rapidly, rendering the apocalyptic option unnecessary. This revealed Bucky’s more human dimensions, I felt. He seemed to be expressing his own sense of frustration that the world wasn’t listening to him; that his ideas were still being dismissed as “over-idealistic” or even “crank.” But he was visibly pleased that two groups of students had produced comprehensive reports on energy and food (Energy – Earth and Everyone, edited by Medard Gabel, published by Doubleday; and Ho-Ping: FOOD, also edited by Medard Gabel on behalf of the World Game Group, and published by Doubleday).

Bucky chuckled over the fact that the UN had finally endorsed his work by adopting these encyclopedic studies as standard references. “As to be expected, they don’t seem to be leaping into action,” he lamented. “The merchants are still calling the shots.” He wanted me to have these books – but the advance copies weren’t in yet.

Bucky autographing books for me in his Market Street office in Philadelphia. 
This photo, which I printed myself, has survived three decades of floods, termite invasions,
and several changes of address.

So he wrote the titles for me on the back of an envelope and decided he couldn’t let me leave without a small stack of autographed books. While he was putting his shaky signature on the books, I took a couple of photographs of him – one of which keeps reappearing at the oddest of times from within the pages of my favorite collection of Bucky poems: And It Came To Pass – Not To Stay.

[Bucky was recalled from Spaceship Earth on 1 July 1983, just 36 hours before his wife Anne also made the transition. Herman Kahn, oddly enough, died about a week later. Let's hope being free of all that mass has given him a Fuller perspective on everything.]


ETHICS by R. Buckminster Fuller


[First posted 12 July 2013]