John P.A. Ioannidis, MD, DSc, is professor of medicine and of epidemiology and population health at Stanford University, where he directs the Meta-Research Innovation Center at Stanford (METRICS). Called by the Atlantic “one of the most influential scientists alive,” he has received numerous awards, and the current citations for his scientific work place him among the ten most-cited scientists in the world.
Dr. Ioannidis has also published eight literary works in Greek, and he also teaches modern Greek poetry and comparative literature at Stanford. This time his new book, Variations on the Art of the Fugue and a Desperate Ricercar,” is in English.
Dr. Ioannidis’s latest book intermingles poetry, poetic prose, short stories, a travelogue, stream of consciousness, scientific data, biography, and an extensive referencing network from myth, history, music, visual arts, and past literature – all connected by a psychological plot. It was published in May 2022 in English as an e-book.
The book has been described as “a modern multi-level Odyssey masterpiece.” The Greek language version was published in 2014, and was a finalist for the annual Anagnostis best book awards in Greece. The English version is accompanied for the first time by an added, extensive section of Annotations, a hyperlinked book within a book.
The National Herald: Tell us about your latest book.
John Ioannidis: It is, in fact, two books hyperlinked to each other. Each has an almost equal number of words. The Annotations try to explain, enhance, complement, and occasionally purposefully subvert the Variations offering counterpoints and new incentives and points of departure. If you see books as journeys, I have tried to give more options to the traveler, along with a travel guide. Moreover, the Annotations were written recently, in the last two years, with a distance of almost a decade from the Variations. Thus, they are bringing the Variations “up to date.” Much of the dystopia preliminarily sketched in the Variations has now fully materialized. Is it dangerous when poetry turns into solid reality? Maybe, but danger also carries fascination.
TNH: What inspired its title?
JI: The title plays on the names of two famous late works of J.S. Bach, the Art of the Fugue and the Musical Offering’s Ricercar. Two key themes of the Variations are about leaving from home and returning, as old as the oldest Greek poetry of Homer. Leaving, being a fugitive, in exile, a foreigner, migrating physically and psychologically – these are all familiar to Greeks and especially to the Diaspora. Still, they are also universal: all people on earth are a diaspora. Nostos, returning (or yearning to return, even failing to return) is also a feeling all too familiar to Greeks. Again, probably all humans are Greeks in this regard.
TNH: What triggered you to write it, and what does it teach us?
JI: All my previous eight literature books had been published in Greek, and almost all my scientific publications were in English. So, I carry this perplexing duality with me all the time. These two worlds feed on each other, but the language divide has also separated them. Moreover, many people have told me that they wished to read my work, but Greek is now spoken by less than 0.2% of the global population. It is not just the language. It is also the ethos, the historical and mythological hyperlinks, and the psychological structure. This whole world sustains the Variations that had to be transplanted successfully to English for an international audience. Hence, the Annotations attempt this engraftment/transplantation/transformation. I doubt ‘teaching’ is the right word for the aim of this book. I have never managed to teach anyone. I just try to be taught by others. I try to give to readers opportunities to travel. Does traveling teach us anything? It is up to everyone to discover what matters most.
TNH: What are the messages you want to convey?
JI: I would not like to ruin the travel joy with too much streamlining into key messages. The book is replete with personal and historical traveling experiences, both real and fictional. Many traveler heroes circulate in the pages of the book. Odysseus, of course, the prototype of the incessant traveler, appears here in many disguises, covering many eras and quests in his journeys.
TNH: Was the reputational attack against you during the COVID-19 pandemic orchestrated by Big Tobacco?
JI: Interesting story, and it is all there (and more) in the book. I am very proud that I have powerful enemies.
TNH: Is writing talent or skill? What does it bring to you?
JI: It may sound too unimaginative, but perhaps it is mostly work – continuous work. I enjoy it the most when I can work to the limits. I have written since I remember myself as a little child. I wrote my first poems when I was four and embarrassingly believed I had ‘finished’ my first book when I was eight. Goodness! Perhaps I should apologize for polluting the literature so profusely with 1300 scientific articles, 50 scientific books and chapters, and nine literature books, but I can’t help it! Talent would be great to have but is vanishingly rare. Moreover, it is in the eye of the beholder – and even the (typically non-talented) beholder is often unable to judge it. Let’s guess who was the most talented person in human history, perhaps Mozart. Well, Mozart applied to the Society (Academy) of Composers. He made two petitions in 1785. He received a reply that the decision to accept him had been deferred. The prestigious academy never accepted him as a member. He was not good enough for them!
However, even for this most talented person, what made him special was the fact that he was working and composing incessantly. For the rest of us, common mortals, the take-home message is work, work, work – and of course, make sure you enjoy it.
TNH: We live in strange times; has the sense of what is essential been dramatically reshuffled?
JI: Indeed, we live in strange times, but perhaps times have always been strange for humanity. We are a strange species on a strange planet, creating strange history. I hope ‘strange’ is not ‘meaningless’, though. And we often feel estranged, foreigners in our world, foreigners in our land, in our own selves. Many authors have struggled with this estrangement. For example, Variation 5 starts by invoking George Seferis, writing in his diary in South Africa in September 1941, when the known world had collapsed. He feels to be the absolute stranger, the absolute foreigner. Our world is collapsing again now, and priorities change indeed about what is essential. I hope humans and humanity do remain essential in this new world, but I worry humans are creating a world where humans themselves and humanity do not matter much. My book tries to resist this sadly too efficient de-humanization process.
TNH: We spend most of our lives searching for ‘security’. Is that a utopia?
JI: Security seems a lost cause. We wish to have control through ‘science’, politics, beliefs, and other silly toys, but fortune, chaos, and circumstances make fools of us all the time. In some of my scientific work, I have seen again and again how difficult (nearly impossible) it is to predict things that matter. Worse, we can predict and control many things that don’t matter; and then we invest all our efforts and resources on this uber-control security exercise that ruins our lives, intellect, and freedom. We become hostages of our own security utopias. We should be more receptive to the immense possibilities of the future – which, hopefully, and luckily, we cannot predict, which makes it exciting. In fact, Variation 21 starts by acknowledging that “Not only the future, but even the present time is unpredictable and unknown, broken fragments from your life that you are trying to piece together across the latitude and longitude of the globe” and Variation 22 goes a step further in stating that “The past is even more unpredictable, it is unpredictable and inexplicable why it happened, what exactly happened, what you felt, what you thought, the past continues being revised.” I hope we can all revise creatively and meaningfully our past, present, and future.
The new book of John Ioannidis can be obtained as an e-book from Kedros publisher through:
Information on all his books can be found on his literature webpage at https://sites.google.com/view/johnpaioannidis, and his webpage at Stanford is https://profiles.stanford.edu/john-ioannidis.