Non-Pareil again

This one is mild, but I haven’t provided a non-pareil for a while. Here’s the latest. Can you tell what’s wrong with this sentence from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel sports page?

He used free agency to sign defensive tackle Santana Dotson, kick returner Desmond Howard, wideout Don Beebe, left tackle Bruce Wilkerson, linebacker Ron Cox and traded for safety Eugene Robinson.

The Heart of the Story

Stories revolve around the virtues and vices of their characters because virtue is so astonishingly admirable. We are drawn to every kind of excellence unless envy interferes with our admiration. Even then, we are still drawn to the excellence. We just don’t like its carrier.

Living Like You Mean It

When Andrew Pudewa and I present our writing workshops, one of the topics we address is what we call the five paths to great writing. I’ve introduced them HERE.

I need to clarify that those five paths arise from a direct consideration of the use of language. There is one more thing a writer needs to do besides reading, thinking, and writing – and that is living. Some would-be writers, and I suspect I have this tendency, want to write because they love writing. This is a bit like teaching because you love teaching.

Fine. Do it. But have something to teach too!

Same with writing. I have this old New Yorker cartoon in my computer where a man’s wife is leaning over his shoulder while he is trying to come up with something to write in his journal. He has writer’s block. She says to him, “Maybe you should do something first and then write in your journal.”

Indeed. The greatest poets and writers all wrote about things they experienced or at least witnessed and their souls were informed by the experience. When poetry is written by poets who sit around writing poetry for readers who sit around reading poetry, poetry is living off the neighbor’s stream. The poet needs to dig his own well, just as the teacher needs to reinvent the wheel every year or two.

The poet must not only write the poem but must scrutinize the world intensely,  or anyway that part of the world he or she has taken for subject. IF the poem is thin, it is likely so not because the poet does not know enough words, but because he or she has not stood long enough among the flowers, has not them in any fresh, exciting, and valid way.

Mary Oliver, A Poetry Handbook (highly recommended!)

As Mary Oliver is using standing among flowers as a synechdoche for the act of living perceptively, I’m confident she will not object if I add a few more: from engaging in battle, raising children with your eyes open, holding a lover’s hand always for the first time, listening to Mozart’s Concerto for Harp and Flute with mind and ears engaged, participating in the liturgy, eating a freshly picked radish that you grew yourself, jumping out of an airplane, teaching an eager student, teaching a stubborn and unperceptive student, contemplating Euclid’s definition of a point, looking into your spouse’s eyes – you know, living like you mean it.

That’s what literature and writing should teach us.

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Andrew and I will be in California from June 7-10. Please come see us!

Even Poorer in Thanks

Still immersed in final preparation of LTW II so it’s been very hard to write on here. Camille Goldston called me this morning to see how I was doing  and whether there was anything I needed her to do.

It’s amazing how much work she has put into this project over the last couple years – and into studying and teaching the Lost Tools of Writing before that.

Camille has told me that she didn’t like writing before she got involved with this, and there are times when I’m sure I’ve made her like it even less. Yet she outlined and created the great bulk of the level II teacher’s guide and then subjected it to review by others, especially Dr. Timothy Diebler from Covenant Academy in Houston, TX.

That takes some courage.

Camille has written, modified, and edited module guides and worksheets, she has found others to help with various parts of the project and guided them in their roles, she has given me feedback on most of the things I’ve worked on directly.

When I review what Camille (and Leah) have worked on, and then I remember that another dozen people have been involved in this task, I ask myself what exactly I have done.

The only thing I can come up with is my normal role ever since school days: to create confusion and chaos for the people who are trying to be productive.

I hope that you will all get your hands on LTW II because it really is going to be the best upper school writing program for the teacher who wants to teach students how to think and who values practical communication skills that grow from clear and creative thinking.

And I hope that when you get the program you will drop Camille a line to thank her for the innumerable hours of work she has given to classical rhetoric, from her four years in the apprenticeship to teaching level I (including on-line with Memoria Press – see our website for details on that), to the last two years of showing constant initiative to complete level II and work through some really tough spots even when I felt like quitting.

It’s personal. I’m indebted to Camille for her work and for her encouragement. But I can’t thank her enough. Can you help me?

Nowhere Near the Honor Due

Perhaps you have noticed by now that level II of The Lost Tools of Writing will be released to the Cosmos on April 19. If I were to start publicly thanking everybody who had a role to play in the development of this work, I’d be posting for a long time. If I proceeded to enumerate all the reasons they deserve thanks, I’d never stop writing.

My invention knows no limits, not because of any genius on my part, but because of the reach of the work done.

I can begin with the topic of definition, asking the question, “Who is it?” And that leads to a list of names that fills a phone book. For example, the two superstars of LTW II are Leah Lutz and Camille Goldston.

First they studied both classical instruction and classical rhetoric for three and four years as CiRCE Apprentices. No, that wasn’t first. Both had already been teaching for years before they joined the Apprenticeship, and what a lot they had to add when they joined.

This year I can think of many things each of them did, but would shame myself and undercut them if I tried to enumerate them all. Let me, instead, present some types and reveal some kinds.

Leah pretty much oversaw the development of the worksheets and module guides for the past two years. Perhaps you know the old bromide about not wanting to see how a sausage or a law is made. That may be, but if you had watched how LTW was made, you’d have a very different feeling. Leah has an amazing mind for ordering disparate and confusing things.

She kept us all on track without once losing her temper. She gave her time sacrificially to collect and review drafts and either revise them or make suggestions for revision by the writers (of whom more later). When difficult issues needed clarification, her input and questions were always insightful, appropriate, and productive. She wrote plenty of the materials herself, first as an apprentice and then as a developer.

If you remember the first edition of The Lost Tools of Writing, Level One, (which you probably don’t since it was so much less perfect than I had credited it with being!), you will appreciate the leaps, the bounds, the works of supererogation that have been accomplished when you see Level Two. And Leah was the ordering mind behind much of the improvement.

Leah, allow me here to publicly express my gratitude for your amazing work. The world will receive your work with great joy, beginning on April 19.

Because of you, LTW II will be clearer, full of better examples, easier to use, more thorough, more effective, and easier to understand than any other writing program available – even, for now, than LTW I. In fact, because of you, LTW I has been and will continue to be improved in many ways.

As you put it in an E-mail, “The end is in sight!! And it looks like a pretty great end.”

Friends, make no mistake, for the last 125 years our approach to teaching children has undercut their ability to think and to communicate. We are living in the early years of a dark age. Unless a light can be shined on how to think and communicate.

While the classically educated in time past would not think a whole lot of what we are doing now, they would appreciate that we are doing something. A genuine renewal is possible, but only if each teacher devotes herself to teaching the child in front of her instead of trying to save the world all at once.

The Lost Tools of Writing fancies itself a tool box for such a teacher: one who wants to learn how to think herself, and who wants to teach her students how to think, how to communicate, and how to grow in wisdom and virtue even in an age that, in its darkness, reflexively scoffs at such a fanciful dream.

Leah is one of those teachers, and we are all blessed by her commitment to the Christian classical vision.

Come back soon, because I have to tell you about Camille as well. And a lot of others. This could take a while!

When you see the product of their workmanship, you’ll undersatnd why I’m so grateful.

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.

A Genius on Genius

To find no contradiction in the union of the old and new, to contemplate the Ancient of Days and all his works with feelings as fresh as if all had then sprang forth at the first creative fiat, characterizes the mind that feels the riddle of the world and may help to unravel it. To carry on the feelings of childhood into the powers of manhood; to combine the child’s sense of wonder and novelty with the appearances which every day for perhaps forty years had rendered familiar:

With sun and moon and stars throughout the year
and man and woman;

this is the character and privilige of genius, and one of the marks which distinguish genius from talents.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge: Biographia Literaria

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?

What were you thinking, Mr. Coleridge?

I’m driving up to PA today for the Orthodox Classical Home Schooling Conference at Antiochian Village. Along the way I’m going to listen to some Louis Markos tapes from the Teaching Company in which he describes, in an introductory way, literary theory “From Plato to Post-Modernism.” I’m particularly interested in his lectures on Kant and Hegel for two reasons:

  1. When Coleridge was trying to describe the creative process he encountered a problem not unlike the one I’m dealing with right now. The Augustan age, the age of the Enlightenment, left him dissatisfied with the language and terms they gave him. They were too mechanical and immediate. As a result, he looked to Kant, Shelling, and Hegel for language to describe the organic and transcendent side of the imagination. I run into this problem, not so much because the language of description isn’t available, but because the language of harmony isn’t there. In other words, we are expected to approach things from a naturalistic materialistic set of assumptions when we do science. If literature aspires to recognition beyond the domain of personal feelings it feels a need to use scientific language. Even worse, so does teaching. So analogy, parabolic thought, common intuitions, the inner life of traditions, etc. are all “thrown under the bus” as it were. Which marks the end of literary and pedagogical theories as creative forces.
  2. Because Kant, Schelling, and Hegel are, in my view, essential forces on the way to totalitarianism in Europe, so I need to understand what Coleridge was doing with them. Was he adopting their views? Or was he using their language and ideas to lift his own thoughts to a higher level of harmony than they had attained previously while avoiding those elements that laid the groundwork for an expanded tyranny.

I don’t think I’ll have much time for blogging over the next few days, but when I get a chance I’ll try to report on what I discover. Of course, to receive the refined, reflected on, edited, careful report, you’ll need to come to the CiRCE conference this summer and engage in the discussion!

If you are wondering, yes, I do recommend the Markos set for people teaching or studying or, better yet, loving literature. I would also recommend reading the old Encyclopedia Britannica article on Samuel Taylor Coleridge. If you are up for it, his Biographia Litteraria is quite interesting, but don’t anticipate an orderly discussion. He has shorter essays, like his Art of Poesy that are, if only becuase they are shorter, easier to read.

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.