Could William Faulkner Write?

I don’t like to travel without an interesting compelling time-filling book, and I’m driving up to PA tomorrow in what is still called a car because that is what the people over at Hertz call it – a bright cool air-conditioned chamber with the windows all closed because as a man I realize that hot air prevents coolness from spreading and the open window will let more heat than cool in – so I was glancing over my office qua study bookcase covered with anthologies of great books and poems and individual novels from which life-changing insights broke in random gusts, breaking the backs of cultures on the rack of history and I made the mistake of picking up Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom. I read the first page and a half and thought, “This demands a response.”

So, even though I have no time for it, and even though I can’t possibly say anything intelligent, I am going to take a few moments and respond to this page and a half.

My first thought, by the time it formed itself into a proposition, sounded something like this: “How does such a book find a publisher?”

It’s not that it doesn’t deserve to be published, it’s just that it breaks every rule in the publishers library of rule books. How did the first editor get past the second page? This book, were it handed in to a college professor, would have almost certainly been dismissed as ridiculous.

But the error would have been the professor’s, I guess, because its now among the great books in the American canon.

My trouble, and the trouble is mine and it is a vice, is that when I pick up a book to read on my own, I want to know it will be worth my time. I am a distressingly pragmatic reader. I want to take something out of the reading and I want to do it quickly.

So when I read, “From a little after two o’clock until almost sundown of the long still hot weary dead September afternoon they sat in what Miss Coldfield still called the office because her father had called it that — a dim hot airless room with the blinds all closed and fastened for forty-three summers because when she was a girl someone had believed that light and moving air carried heat and that dark was always cooler, and which (as the sun shone fuller and fuller on that side of the house) became latticed with ….” I wonder:

How do I know Faulkner isn’t playing a joke on me?

The thing is, it may be that Faulkner is writing this exactly as it needed to be written given the reality he is embodying in this description. It may be that unless we see all these things interpenetrating each other verbally we can never perceive how they interpenetrated each other in reality. In other words, maybe high school essay prose won’t express the idea Faulkner is trying to express.

So I flip randomly and end up on my head. Then I flip the pages of my book randomly and end up on page 87, where I read this:

“She must have seen Judith now and Judith probably urged her to come out to Sutpen’s Hundred to live, but I believe that this is the reason she did not go, even though she did not know where Bon and Henry were and Judith apparently never thought to tell her.”

And just as I’m about to plunge into despair, he follows that with this:

“Because Judith knew. She may have known for some time; even Ellen may have known. Or perhaps Judith never told her mother either.”

He can write short sentences – but he won’t write in a perfectly linear way, that’s evident. Every phrase seems to be a qualification of the preceding one.

Now, being a child of the age, I prefer to read fast and to get on to the next book, but it’s pretty obvious that if I’m going to read Absalom, Absalom I’m going to have to slow down and think about what I’m reading. I’ll probably even, horror of horrors, have to read it more than once.

Who’s got time for that? There are 54 great books in the great books set and this isn’t even one of them! Plus I have to read Hicks, Plato’s Phaedrus, and The Tempest for the apprenticeship, study Latin, study poetics for LTW development, and read things for next year’s conference – etc. etc.

Who’s got time for a leisurely read?

It reminds me of Emo Phillips doing the triathlon. He swims for about five minutes and then thinks, “This is stupid, the bike is getting rusty.”

So who knows, maybe I’ll read Faulkner or maybe I won’t. I know that until I do I can’t be considered educated, but that’s the way the cookie bounces. I blew my chance to get educated when I went to school as a child. Now I just do what I can.

But it does seem to me that the effort would be worth it. For one thing, I would have to read in a manner I’m not accustomed to reading and that’s always a good thing to do. Reading is an almost miraculous activity in that it opens the mind, not only to new ideas, but to new forms of thinking, to new patterns of perception.

I like the standard clear strong manly English sentence with a subject, predicate, direct object. I like the periodic sentence too, where the verb (imitating Latin and German), till the end of the sentence, is withheld. It seems to hold the attention while the reader, anxious to see whether the sentence will heal or wound itself with its ending, poised on a balance beam, waits; and the writer, heels over head, dismounting the same beam, nothing promises.

But Faulkner: what is he doing?

Here’s how it appears to me. He is not writing, or so it seems to me from the two pages I’ve read, about actions or about the world outside. He seems instead to be writing about perceptions, relationships, and recollections all flowing together – not a flow of thought subjectivism, but a dynamic interaction between the world around and the organ of perception.

His form, therefore, while it is not easy, would seem to be essential, as much a part of the story as the words themselves. It will be demanding, as much poetry as prose. But if I ever have the time and if I ever feel like it, I might well read this book. For now, I’m happy with my Spider-Man comic.

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How to Cultivate Wisdom Through Writing (Part V)

Part 1

In my previous post, I argued, with David Hicks, that wisdom can be cultivated through writing when you move from the whole to the part, rather than from the part to the whole, or when you approach the task synthetically first rather than analytically.

I’m guessing that requires a bit of clarification.

The phrase Mr. Hicks uses to describe this process is contextual learning, by which he seems to mean something very broad, for he says later in the same paragraph that contextual learning “draws the interest of the student into any subject, no matter how obscure or far removed from his day-to-day concerns.”

What then is contextual or synthetic learning?

It might help to think for a moment about the contrast between analytic and synthetic learning as it commonly plays out. You can easily see analytic learning at play, because it gives rise to the text book and the text book is supported by it.

Here’s what analytic learning looks like a little caricatured (but not as much as one might have hoped would be necessary):

You assign a story. When the students are done reading it, you give them a list of vocabulary words from the story and either tell them what they mean (if you don’t like learning at all) or ask them what they mean (if a trace of the love of learning has survived your education).

Then you ask them to list the characters and to describe each one: what they are wearing, their physical characteristics, maybe even some subjective elements like their motives or desires.

Not having recognized that the story is now dead (and the students interest in it), you proceed to discuss themes and motifs.

I hope you see the point, because just imagining/remembering this approach truly hurts me.

On the other hand, you can approach a story synthetically – as a whole from the whole.

Suppose I am going to read the fable of the tortoise and the hare. First, I would engage in a discussion about things they’ll encounter in the story that they have already experienced.

For example, depending on their CONTEXT (age, experiences, location, etc.) I’d ask them if they have ever seen or had a rabbit or a turtle. If so, I’d ask them to tell the rest of the group about the turtle and/or the rabbit. Do they like to pet their turtle? Do they ever race it?

I’d ask them if they’ve ever raced – especially a long race. Have they ever had to do a job that took what to them would be a long time (2 minutes for a kindergartner, 2 hours for a third grader, 2 days for a middle schooler, and 2 weeks for a high schooler).

What does it feel like to look at a big job at the beginning? etc. etc.

In other words, before engaging in the story itself, I would enter into the context of the story.

Next I would read it whole (if it is a huge story, like the Iliad, I’d read chunks of it whole). While we go through it, I’d watch for clues that some of them might not know words or anything else that causes them to stumble.

After reading the text, I’d do a little mini-analysis to heal the story. In other words, I’d make sure they didn’t fall into a ditch of incomprehension while we were reading and I’d pull them out. (If, while we were reading, the text became so difficult that some of the students couldn’t follow it, I’d stop and save them right then and there).

Here we could discuss (not define from a dictionary) what some of the words mean – always asking the students if they know or can determine before telling them.

After reading the story, I’d ask the core question that drove it. I WOULD NOT EVER TELL THEM THE MORAL OF THE STORY.

In the case of the tortoise and the hare, the moral is pretty obvious so it’s not as useful a fable as, say, The Ass’s Shadow. But there’s still a worthy discussion.

The driving question is, “Should the hare have rested?” This central question is always about a concrete action, not an abstract idea.

The fact is, the rabbit did rest. And so do we. So we need to figure out why it did so so that we can understand why we do.

So I urge my students to take a position and defend it or at least to argue both sides of the case. “Give me a few reasons why the hare should have rested,” I’ll say, and have someone write them down under an A.

  • He was tired
  • He was way in the lead
  • He didn’t need to hurry
  • His feet hurt
  • He felt confident
  • etc.

Meanwhile, I’m also asking why the hare shouldn’t have rested and having someone record the reasons under N.

  • He was arrogant
  • He was lazy
  • He lost
  • A hunter could have shot him
  • etc. etc.

Now notice something. I have begun to analyze the story. But I’m coming into the particulars from the whole (the context) rather than imagining that I can have much success working from the particulars analyzed out of their context to the whole (the context).

Now I’m going to read even more closely, but never leave the context. I’ll ask questions drawn from material logic and applied to rhetoric under the topics of invention.

  • What is a hare?
  • What is a tortoise?
  • What do you mean by rest?
  • How is the tortoise like the hare?
  • How are they different? in kind? In degree?
  • What is the relationship between the tortoise and the hare?
  • What caused them to race?
  • What caused the hare to rest?
  • What caused the tortoise to keep going?
  • What was the effect of the hare resting?
  • What was going on while the hare was resting?
  • Were there any experts or judges who had an opinion on this event?
  • Witnesses?
  • What other stories or characters does this remind you of?

The value of these questions varies from story to story, but the student who internalizes them is a good reader. He can do the analysis without even knowing he’s analyzing.

He does a character study, he learns the vocabulary, he examines the plot, he discovers themes and motifs – but all in a living context of reading the story as a story – not as a carcass to be dissected.

This matters enormously, because the task of the teacher is to arouse and direct the intellectual energy of his students. Teaching from the whole to the part makes this much easier.

Let me summarize.

Contextual learning, or teaching from the whole to the part, occurs when a person learns, as a person with a context, reading a book (or otherwise encountering ideas) that is a human artifact with a context of its own, in a context that brings the learner and the artifact together.

All three of those contexts are moral because they are human.

The opposite of contextual learning is reading, as a computer, a decontextualized text that contains information to be culled or, occasionally, understood at a very low level.

This approach gives rise to multiple choice tests which to prepare for undercuts the development of the students’ reading skills by compelling him to read in an unnatural, decontextualized manner with an extraordinarily narrow focus of attention.

It also gives rise to the sort of writing that a person brought up on that kind of teaching would be inclined to write, namely stories that can fit into an analytical test-taking context by avoiding moral issues and therefore compelling human interest.

Reading from the whole begins with the core question (Should….) and uses the analytical tools purposefully in order to answer the core question.

Good writing arises from good reading. You write to become wise when you read to become wise.

In my next writing post, I’ll explore how to put writing and reading in a symbiotic relationship.

How to Cultivate Wisdom Through Writing (part IV)

Here is: Part 1 Part 2 Part 3

I have vigorously defended contextual learning in my book because I believe that it is the key to how we learn as well as to the delight we find in learning. Children learn to speak by hearing words used in context, not by memorizing their definitions or studying their etymologies.

David Hicks: Norms and Nobility, page vi

Contextual learning is called by some synthetic learning. It is the learning that comes out of the whole to engage the part. It is the context that makes learning interesting, delightful, and profitable.

However, in the excessively analytical modes of thinking that dominate our schools, we are continually required to learn things out of their contexts, and therefore in ways that are less interesting, less delightful, and less profitable.

The archetype of the decontextualized lesson is the dissected frog. Wordsworth even treated this activity as a metaphor if not a synechdoce for modern education: we murder to dissect. We do it to Robert Herrick’s poetry as much as we do to the frog.

You don’t learn what a frog is by dissecting it. You have to experience it in context – at the pond, with its mates, etc.

All human action takes place in a moral context. Every human action arises from a human decision, and every human decision has a moral context.

Every historical or literary event, therefore, is fundamentally moral. Every story turns on an action by the protagonist and every action follows on a decision. In most stories it is the moral dilemma that drives the plot. Every story ends up celebrating some virtue, even James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, or DH Lawrence.

For this reason, literature and history have always been seen as morally formative “subjects.” Fundamentally, as Mr. Hicks points out elsewhere, history and literature are driven by the same basic questions.

Although in my curriculum proposal I use history as the paradigm for contextual learning, the ethical question “What should one do?” might provide an even richer context for acquiring general knowledge. This question elicits not only knowledge, but wisdom, and it draws the interest of the student into any subject, no matter how obscure or far removed from his day-to-day concerns. It challenges the imagination and makes life the laboratory it ought to be for testing the hypotheses and lessons of the classroom.

ibid

The question that drives the human spirit, that arouses thought in child or adult, and that makes an education worth getting is this very simple question, “What should one do?”

Writing, therefore, can be used to cultivate wisdom when we teach students to engage in this inquiry. It must not be taught in isolation, as a specialized, abstracted skill. It should be taught as a way to refine thinking about things that matter, like whether Huckleberry Finn should have helped Jim escape, whether the colonies should have revolted against George III, whether Brutus should have assassinated Caesar, whether the grasshopper should have spent his summer playing music, whether Edmund should have followed the White Witch, etc.

It should be contextualized. Notice what Mr. Hicks said above: “This question elicits not only knowledge, but wisdom.”

I’ll have more to say on how to do this in later posts, but this is an important starting point. Not only can writing be used to cultivate wisdom, it must be so used. When you use writing as a tool by which your students ask the question, “What should be done?” or more precisely, “Should something be done?” you have begun to do so.

You’ve also just made reading, writing, history, and literature exponentially more interesting, delightful, and profitable.

I don’t know if there is any other question that can properly integrate or synthesize the curriculum (Most attempts at integration fail because of their analytical bias. They try to integrate at too low a level, setting aside ethical and philosophical matters).

A Lovely Afternoon Walk with Socrates and Phaedrus (Via my new Boeing Time-Traveling Vessel)

David Wright

Recently I had the fortuitous opportunity to travel back to the fifth century B.C. and take a lovely spring walk with Socrates and Phaedrus, just outside the walls of Athens. Coincidentally, Phaedrus had just arrived from a long morning walk and talk with Lysias when the door of my Boeing time vessel hemorrhaged open from a rather skittery landing.

I recognized Phaedrus immediately from the wry look of love on his handsome Athenian face. He couldn’t stop smiling and repeating lines from a speech about love. And you can always tell when someone is in love or talking about love because it is at the heart of reality.

Surprisingly, he paid little attention to my time-craft or my explanation of how I’d journeyed from the future. The speech and the idea were the logos of his entire essence; so much so that very little could distract him.

I greatly admired this—for my current cultural epoch is one of distraction; it is almost anti-speech and anti-idea. Furthermore, this was such a blessing, for I wished to be hardly noticed. I merely wanted to meander with them and take part in their discussion—the one that Plato recorded in his Phaedrus dialogue—without disturbing the moment because of my clothes or language. It all played out quite nicely.

My how green and rustic it was on the outskirts of Athens! Absolutely lovely. The insects whistling and the plantlife breathing fostered not only contemplation but also eloquence. For who would want to disturb such harmony with imprecise words? For nature speaks its own high language with perfect propriety.

Fortunately (actually once-in-a-lifetime-lucky), Phaedrus and I ran into Socrates sauntering near the west gate looking confused. It was really quite funny; he was extremely deep in thought and mumbling to himself—and having difficulty deciding whether to head toward the city center or toward the country. We quite easily convinced him to join us for a country stroll. And of course I had a small mp3 recorder. Our conversation proceeded as follows:

SOC: What were you doing there? Lysias was entertaining you with his eloquence, I suppose?

PHA: You shall hear, if you can spare the time to go with us. Oh, by the way, this is David, he’s from quite a ways away, though I’m not sure where. He’s very cordial and interested in discussion.

DAV: The pleasure is all mine. So nice to meet you. I hope you can spare the time to come with us.

SOC: Spare the time! Don’t you realize that to me an account of what passed between Phaedrus and Lysias is, to use Pindar’s phrase, ‘a matter which takes precedence even over business’?

PHA: Come along then.

SOC: Your story please.

PHA: Well, Socrates, what I have to tell you is very much in your line, for the subject on which we were engaged was love – after a fashion. Lysias has written as speech designed to win the favor of someone who is not in love with him. That is the clever thing about it; he makes out that an admirer who is not in love is to be preferred to one who is.

SOC: Noble fellow! I desire to hear your account of the speech.

DAV: I’d love to as well.

PHA: I’m an amateur. How can I reproduce such a perfect speech?

SOC: Don’t be coy. I know you’ve been out here walking and repeating the speech so much you have it memorized! That’s why you’re outside the city walls. Now you’ve met another man who likewise has a near disease-like passion for speeches. So get on with it!

DAV: Your fidelity to speeches is remarkable, as is your commitment to memorization and recitation, two canons of rhetorical discourse sorely lacking in my culture.

PHA: Let’s sit on the pretty grass in the shade below this tree. A gentle breeze is blowing.

SOC: Lead us on.

PHA: Tell me, guys, isn’t there a story that Boreas abducted Oreithyia from somewhere here on the banks of the Ilissus?

SOC: No, it was some quarter of a mile downstream, where one crosses to the temple of Agra; an altar to Boreas marks the spot, I believe.

PHA: But seriously, Socrates, do you believe this legend?

SOC: The pundits rejected it, so if I rejected it I’d be in good company. In that case I should rationalize the legend by explaining that the north wind blew Oreithyia down the neighboring rocks when she was playing with Pharmaceia, and that her dying in this way was the origin of the legend that she was abducted by Boreas.

But though I find such explanations very attractive, Phaedrus and David, they are too ingenious and laboured, it seems to me, and I don’t altogether envy the man who devotes himself to this sort of work, if only because, when he has finished with Oreithyia, he must go on to put the Hippocentaurs into proper shape and after them the Chimaera.

In fact he finds himself overwhelmed by a host of Gorgons and Pegasuses and other such monsters, whose numbers create no less a problem than their grotesqueness, and a skeptic who proposes to force each of them into a plausible shape with the aid of a sort of rough ingenuity will need a great deal of leisure.

Now I have no time for such work, and the reason is, my friend, that I’ve not yet succeeded in obeying the Delphic injunction to ‘know myself’, and it seems to me absurd to consider problems about other beings while I am still ignorant about my own nature. So I let these things alone and acquiesce in the popular attitude towards them; I make myself rather than them the object of my investigations, and I try to discover whether I am a more complicated and puffed-up sort of animal than Typho or whether I am a gentler and simpler creature, endowed by heaven with a nature altogether less typhonic.

DAV: I’m sorry, but I just have to comment here. Socrates, you have said several salient points. First, you mention that the pundits reject the myth, and that rejecting it is the popular thing to do.

In fact, they de-miracle-ize the legend don’t they?  Or as you say, they “rationalize” the legend by saying that a north wind blew Oreithyia down or else she fell from the Areopagus. But as you rightly say, these kinds of explanations are attractive but too ingenious and labored.

The slope of skepticism is a slippery one. Once a person begins this sort of cutting and trimming to fit his rational and empirical expectations and assumptions, he must continue to force all other phenomena into this machine—as you say, to put the centaurs and chimaera into proper shape.

This machine, by the way, becomes the dominant machine in about nineteen centuries, during a period called the Enlightenment. And once the machine is created, it can’t stop growing—it seems to feed itself.

You wouldn’t believe how indomitable the machine becomes in my century, entirely ruling the universities and the socio-political culture. Each successive generation since the Enlightenment has added a mechanism to the machine—a monistic gear, a materialist ball joint, an empiricist lever—and of course the fuel for the machine is an uncritical belief in technological progress.

And I love how you connect this to knowing oneself. The creation of this machine comes at the expense of the Delphic injunction. To ‘know thyself’ is vital; for man himself is the centaur and the Chimeara, a multi-faceted complexity who, ironically, defies and contradicts the very machine we have created.

To focus on the mystery of man and his soul is to watch the machine disintegrate. Your commitment to contemplating your own nature, Socrates, is in fact the greatest gift you will give mankind. For you and your commitment to the examined life is actually one of the few beacons, along with Christ the coming Messiah, that save philosophy.

Yes, you actually save it from the tyranny of negating systems such as sophistry, skepticism, nihilism, and many others. Indeed, true philosophy is rarely practiced in my era, and it’s almost nonexistent in schools, universities, and philosophy departments.

Unfortunately, because you are a point of light and a kind of savior, you will have to suffer for this. But I’m only telling you because I have a feeling you already know…

PHA: This is the place to rest and discuss.

SOC: Indeed a lovely spot for a rest. The plane is very tall and spreading, and agnus-castus splendidly high and shady, in full bloom too, filling the air with the finest possible fragrance. And the spring which runs under the plane; how beautifully cool its water is to the feet. The figures and other offerings show that the place is sacred to Achelous and some of the nymphs. I choose to lie down. Now read the speech of Lysias to me.

PHA: Why a lover not in love is preferable to lover who is in love. First, lovers repent the kindnesses they have shown when their passion abates, but for those not in love, there never comes a time for such regret. They behave generously, not under constraint, deliberately calculating their own interests.

Relieved from the disadvantages that being in love brings, nothing remains for them but to do cheerfully whatever they think will give their partners pleasure.

Second, lovers are apt to value any new love who comes along more than the old.

Third, lovers admit that they are mad, not sane; they know that they are not in their right minds but cannot help themselves. How then can one expect that designs formed in such a condition will meet their approval when they come to their senses?

Fourth, if you choose the best from among your lovers, you will have few to choose from, but if you look for the one who suits you best in the world at large, you will have a wide field of choice, and so a much better chance of finding one worthy of your friendship.

The fifth point concerns reputation. Lovers are easily offended by on another and incur worse reputations than non-lovers.

Sixth, lovers are more prone to quarrels and jealousy than non-lovers.

Seventh, with lovers, physical attraction precedes knowledge of character or circumstances, so it is uncertain whether they will want to remain friends when their passion has cooled. But for those not in love, who were friends before they formed a liaison, are in no danger of finding their friendship diminished as a result of the satisfaction they have enjoyed.

Eighth, lovers approve words and actions that are far from excellent and praise things which do not deserve the name pleasant—passion impairs their judgment.

Ninth, those not in love have an eye more to future advantage than to present pleasure, thereby laying the foundation of lasting affection.

Tenth, if you are possessed by the notion that firm friendship is impossible unless one is in love, then we should have little regard for our sons, fathers, and mothers.

And the eleventh and final point is that it is not the most insistent suitor that one should favor, such as a desperate lover, but one best able to make a return.

Well, what do you think of my speech, Socrates and David, isn’t it a wonderful piece of work, especially the diction?

SOC: More than wonderful. Divine. I concentrated on you and saw how what you were reading put you in a glow. I followed your example and joined in the ecstasy, you inspired man.

PHA: Do you think this is a laughing matter?

SOC: Why, don’t you think I’m serious?

DAV: I’m having trouble taking you seriously, too, Socrates.

SOC: Why, don’t you think I’m serious?

PHA & DAV: No.

SOC: Well, approving of the speech’s matter is one thing, and its style another. If you want to approve of the former, it is you who must take the responsibility. I can only admire its style, the clarity, shapeliness, and precision with which every phrase is turned. The matter I don’t suppose even Lysias himself could think satisfactory.

DAV: This ought to be good.

SOC: It seems to me, Phaedrus and David, that he has said the same things two or three times over, either because he couldn’t find sufficient matter to produce variety or from sheer lack of interest in the subject. The speech struck me as youthful exhibitionism; an attempt to demonstrate how he could say the same thing in two or three different ways.

PHA: Nonsense, Socrates. If the speech has one merit above all others, it is that no single aspect of the subject worth mentioning has been omitted; no one could improve on it in either fullness or quality.

DAV: I have a feeling Socrates may be able to improve on it.

SOC: Wise women and men of old have written on the subject more soundly.

PHA: Who are they?
SOC: Either lovely Sappho or wise Anacreon or some prose writers. And I can compose a better speech because I, in my ignorance, have been filled with external inspiration, like a jar from a spring.

DAV: Your acknowledgment of those who have come before is both humbling and vital to the great conversation. Nothing is new under the sun. We all absorb and build from those who have come before. I am excited for your speech.

SOC: Come, shrill Muses, help me in my tale. In every discussion, there is only one way of beginning in order to come to a sound conclusion—that is to know what one is discussing.

DAV: You must mean the crucial topic of Definition in the canon of Invention.

SOC: Right. Most people are unaware that they are ignorant of the essential nature of their subject. Believing that they know it, they do not begin their discussion by agreeing about their use of terms, so as they proceed they fall into self-contradictions and misunderstandings.

Do not let us make the same mistake. The subject we are discussing is whether the friendship of a lover or non-lover is preferable. Let us begin by agreeing upon a definition of the nature and power of love and keep this before our eyes as we debate whether love does good or harm.

Love is a kind of desire. But we know that one does not have to be in love to desire what is beautiful.

In each of us there are two ruling and impelling principles whose guidance we follow: a desire for pleasure, which is innate; and an acquired conviction which causes us to aim at excellence.

Sometimes these two are in agreement within us and sometimes at variance. The conviction which impels us toward excellence is rational, and the power by which it masters us we call self-control; the desire which drags us toward pleasure is irrational and when it gets the upper hand in us its dominion is called excess.

The conclusion to which all this is leading is obvious. When the irrational desire that prevails over the conviction which aims at right is directed at the pleasure derived from beauty, and in the case of physical beauty powerfully reinforced by the appetites which are akin to it, so that it emerges victorious, it takes its name from the very power with which it is endowed and is called eros or passionate love.

Now, let me summarize Lysias’s speech. The man who is under pleasure and a slave to pleasure will inevitably try to derive the greatest pleasure possible from the object of his passion. Hence, he will wish for his object to be inferior in all ways— in intelligence, in physical appearance and bearing, in possession of wealth, in number of friends and family members—so he can ensure total dependence from the object.

There is no kindness in the friendship of a lover; its object is the satisfaction of an appetite, like the appetite for food. One who is in love is faithless, morose, jealous, and disagreeable, and will do harm to one’s estate,  harm to one’s physical health, and harm above all to one’s spiritual development, of which nothing is or ever will be more precious in the sight of God and man. There, my speech is over.

DAV:  So you agree with Lysias? I detect a strong level of irony in your speech, Socrates. For one, it seems too “ingenious and labored,” to use your words about the pundits from earlier. It seems you’ve made an effort to trim love of its wings to fit it into a physical and rational box. I’d like to hear a speech from you in favor of love and being in love.

PHA: I also expect to hear just such a speech. For some reason, I don’t feel like you’re showing all of your cards…

SOC: OK, I confess, that even while I was speaking some time ago I felt a certain uneasiness; I was afraid that I might be ‘purchasing honor with men at the price of offending the gods’. Now I see where I went wrong.

PHA & DAV: Where?

SOC: Our speeches were dreadful, guys, dreadful—both the speech of Lysias and the speech you made me utter. They were silly and more than a little blasphemous. What could be worse than that?

DAV: Even the speeches themselves lacked love. What you are about to say is what I came here to hear. Let it fly!

[The rest of our conversation on that lovely spring day outside of Athens will be revealed in a subsequent post.]

Art as Discipline; Self-Expression as Decadence

I have argued, and will argue, that art ought not to be a matter either of self-expression or of “impressing” the audience. This matters for many reasons, not least of which is the inevitable historical decline of any art that reduces itself to “expressionism” or “impressionism.”

Believing that art is an expression of the human spirit, the sort of art that a community produces is both cause and effect of its spiritual condition.

It is cause, because whatever the artists theorize about how they became artists and do art is likely to end up in the classroom one or two generations later. Picasso, for example, was trained classically, and some of his early works, during this classical period, are astonishingly beautiful.

However, he developed a disintegrated visionof reality that came to be reflected in his paintings. Lovers of Picasso’s later works who would have trained their students in Picasso’s vision, would have failed to lay the foundations that were laid in Picasso’s training, and the art of painting will have declined as a result.

In our Progressive schools, public and private, we can see the same decline. Teachers are taught that children should express themselves in art, so they flounder and blunder and bluster about trying to teach children to get in touch with their inner lives when the children have yet to learn how to hold a pencil or punctuate a sentence.

They regard the disciplines of the art as limitations and obstacles to free expression. To this I reply with the words of two truly great artists, Wendell Berry and T.S. Eliot.

Wendell Berry replied, in a characteristically condensed spark, when he said, “The sentence is both the opportunity and the limitation of thought.”

Much can be drawn from that sentence and one day I would like to lead a series of discussions revolving around its insights. I will say this much here: An unlimited thought is a thought not thought. An unlimited expression of self is a self unexpressed.

When children are taught self-expression instead of discipline, they are, quite literally, retarded by the training they receive.

T. S. Eliot loved John Donne’s poems, especially in his early life. In fact, one could argue that Eliot was responsible for the rehabilitation of Donne’s reputation in the 20th century. But later on, he came to see a limitation and a weakness in Donne’s poetry that left him deeply unsatisfied as a reader and as a critic. 

Donne was also a preacher, an Anglican priest. It may in the context of Eliot’s reflections on his preaching that Eliot makes this point most clearly. Comparing Donne’s sermons with the sermons of Lancelot Andrewes, a 17th century Anglican divine,  Eliot says:

Donne is a “personality” in a sense in which Andrewes is not; his sermons, one feels, are a “means of self-expression.” He is constantly finding an object which shall be adequate to his feelings; Andrewes is wholly absorbed in the object and therefore responds with adequate emotion.

This comparison would also merit a whole series of discussions, which I would love to lead. But again, let me highlight two or three points.

First, notice what Eliot regards as the healthy (at least artistically healthy) relationship between the object and the emotions.

Read a book on poetry or take a poetry workshop, and what do they tell you to do? Too often this: find an object adequate to your feelings. Poetry, we are constantly told, is about the emotions. Prose, we are sometimes told, is about thoughts.

So when you write poetry, you are told to scour your memories and your heart for feelings and images, and you are told to draw them together.

This is to confuse blessing with purpose, and in so doing to risk the purpose for the blessing – for if you lose the purpose, the blessing follows.

Instead, Andrewes, because he is “wholly absorbed in the object… responds with adequate emotion.” The emotions follow. The object rules.

Here we see how we should be teaching people to write poetry. Behold. Be held. Contemplate the object. Stay on it. Learn to see. Learn to perceive. Learn to observe. When you do, you will respond with adequate emotion, without being distracted from the object that produces this adequate emotion.

Indeed, by staying on the object, you sustain the very emotion you want to feel. Direct your attention to your emotions and they will shrink away. They don’t like being watched; they don’t want to be written about; they don’t want to be the focus of attention. They want to help us observe the object of our attention (love) by making it enjoyable.

Does love not make this rather obvious, even and perhaps most vividly in love-making? I do not increase my love for my wife or children or friends when I contemplate my love for them. I grow in love for my wife when I contemplate her, and so also for my children and friends.

In fact, at least for most men I know, contemplating our love for each other is a rather embarrassing distraction. Friendships grow through the mutual contemplation of a third object. That is why some of my closest friendships have been with students. That is why working together on a common object (which is a form of contemplation) or thinking together about something that is not immediately useful are essential ingredients of friendship.

The pleasure of friendship seems largely to grow from shared irrelevencies.

When we teach our children any art, therefore, we need to teach them to master the tools of perception first and imitation second.

Even artists trained on bad theory produce great art when they perceive and imitate. Self-expression is disciplined by forms, like sentences, conventions, rituals. Disciplined self-expression has this great advantage over undisciplined self-expression: it can sustain itself through trials, it can endure hardship, it can accomplish great things.

It can produce a bang, when all undisciplined self-expression seems to produce is a whimper.

“You shall know the Truth, and the Truth shall make you free.”

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The Lost Tools of Writing is a writing program based on this approach to writing. We have already seen extraordinary results and will be releasing Level II very soon. It will be available for the 2010/11 school year. Follow the link to the left to learn more.

The Mechanism of the Organic: A Tribe Called Coleridge

A few beats in regard to the organic and mechanical components in the act of creation:

Concerning the creative process, there appears to be a connection between Aristotle’s Poetics and Poe and Coleridge. Aristotle seems to believe that creating art comes by “remixing” artistic elements and devices already in existence. Coleridge picked up on this and influenced Poe (and Flannery O’Connor). For Coleridge (and the Romantics), imagination was essential to the creative process. He divided imagination into three categories: Primary, Secondary, and Fancy. This is what he says about the first two:

“The primary imagination I hold to be the living power and prime agent of all human perception, and as a repetition in the finite of the eternal act of creation of the infinite I AM. The secondary I consider as an echo of the former, coexisting with the conscious will, yet still identical with the primary in the kind of its agency, and differing only in degree, and in the mode of its operation.”

So, what do these three categories mean? It seems to me that the first, Primary Imagination, is almost like an out-of-body experience. It is pure imagination; it is spiritual and divine. Note here that it is not Aristotle’s remixing idea, which relates to Coleridge’s other two categories. Primary Imagination creates pure, new ideas. It is akin to Wordsworth’s “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” 

Coleridge’s Secondary Imagination is that which is filtered by our conscious, rational act of creating.  Hence, it is imperfect and impure. But of course it is entirely necessary and essential, for there would be no way to capture the primary imagination’s creation without it. And this seems to correlate with Wordsworth’s “spontaneous overflow” that is captured only by being “recollected in tranquility.”

Coleridge’s third category, Fancy, is rather Aristotelian. Here imagination creates by remixing already existing things in fresh, new ways– especially juxtaposing opposite or contrary things. In his Biographia Literaria, he says the imagination “reveals itself in the balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities: of sameness, with difference; of general, with the concrete; the idea, with the image.”

Plato’s dictum “Great is the power of contradiction” relates nicely to this. So does the fruitful activity of comparison in the rhetorical canon of invention.

In conclusion, we see that all three are essential in the creative process. Coleridge’s Primary Imagination is akin to the organic, and his Secondary and Fancy categories are akin to the mechanical.

After all, as the clever and artistic nineties hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest asks in their “What?” track,

What is position if there is no contortin’?

What is a glock if you don’t have a clip?

What’s a lollipop without the Good Ship?

What’s America without greed and glamour?

          So we might also ask, what is organic without the mechanical?

Not a, not a, not a, not a darn thing

What’s Duke Ellington without that swing?

Learning to Eat with Addison

When CiRCE attains that state in which we can patronize young and up-and-coming or old-with-unwrit-wisdom writers, I will commision somebody to write a book on the following theme: Addison To Waugh: Manners Aristocratic and Bourgeois from the Spectator to the Death of Brideshead.

In my research into freedom and the ideas that sustain it, I came across an article by Peter Gay on Joseph Addison, that master stylist of the 17th century. Gay argues convincingly that Addison was teaching an unruly age how to behave and think in the new world they were growing into.

 One idea that impressed me was Addison’s “romantic” view of the stock market and how it brings people of every stripe together in one peaceful setting. I thought, “Well, that idea has been around the block  a few times since then, but it’s still an impressive thing.”

Voltaire came to England in 1720 and read Addison’s Spectator and used the same imagery about the stock market in his philosophical letters, which were widely read and influential texts in the France of the 18th century.

Benjamin Franklin, who I have no doubt read Voltaire and was contemporary with Samuel Johnson, turned to Addison and Steele when he determined to learn how to write. Franklin seems to have appreciated the outlook of Addison and Steele as much as their style, and it is likely that both outlook and style helped him when it came time to defend and negotiate terms for American Independence.

His aforementioned contemporary, Samuel Johnson, either encouraged Franklin’s action or followed it himself. In his Life of Addison, Johnson wrote, “Whoever wishes to attain an English style, familiar but not coarse, and elegant but not ostentatious, must give his days and nights to the volumes of Addison.”

But he isn’t much read today and isn’t much liked by many who read him. CS Lewis said that “Everything the moderns detest, all that they call smugness, complacency, and bourgeios ideology is brought together in his work and given its most perfect expression.

And yet, says Gay, Johnson admired Addison without embarrassment and without reservations, admired him for his delicacy, his authentic elegance, his wit, admired him above all for his willingness to use his abundant talent in a cause as important as it was just. ” He includes an extensive quotation from Johnson about Addison:

He not only made the proper use of wit himself, but taught it to others; and from his time it has been generally subservient to the cause of reason and of truth. He has dissipated the prejudice that had long connected gaiety with vice, and easiness of manners with laxity of principles. He has restored virtue to its dignity, and taught innocence not to be ashamed. This is an elevation of literary charcer above all Greek, above all Roman fame. No greater felicity can genius attain than that of having purified intellectual pleasure, separated mirth from indecency, and wit from licentiousness; of having taught a succession of writers to bring elegance and gaiety to the aid of goodness; and if I may use expressions yet more awful, of having turned many to righteousness.

Lives of the English Poet

If we could have an Addison today! We are all convinced that the stakes have grown so great in our politics and social life that we cannot afford to be civilized and gracious. But if we are not civilized and gracious, why would we want to live in the world we would create by fighting for our policies?

How different Addison’s genteel grace sounds to the brutish duty-mongering of Kantian philosophy and its spawn (a sentence, I would add, that Addison would never have written). Was it Addison that saved Coleridge from the Prussian excesses?

There is a line from Addison through Franklin to our Declaration of Independence and even our Constitution. Another lines runs from Addison through Johnson to a century of British literary theory.

I want to find the ends of those threads, to rebind them, and to strive to write with civility of manner, graciousness of tone, and humility of expression, all while laughing at the ridiculous and never failing to perceive that the image of God can never be, though it can express, the ridiculous.

I have the feeling our liberties are bound to our civilities. The thing is, we all learn to speak by listening to what people say to us and how they say it. Reading the really great stylists can help us rise above ourselves and the limits of our surroundings. We ought not dismiss such a fact with reckless (think: reck, less) alacrity.