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

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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.

Organic vs. Mechanical art

Works of art are created by artists who execute an art, thus producing an artifact.

The artistic process is without doubt one of the greatest mysteries of existence, even in this 21st century: the Age of Reductionist Explanations.

I quoted Samuel Taylor Coleridge a couple weeks ago in a passage where he mentioned two different approaches to creativity: the mechanical and the organic. This passage resonated with me for a lot of reasons, among them my life-long desire to understand creativity and my long-held conviction that education has become hopelessly confused by imposing mechanistic metaphors on the minds of educators.

Many years ago, in a moment of ecstacy, an idea was conceived in my mind. When I read the Coleridge passage, the period of gestation came to term and my mind began to dilate.

Last Friday, the baby crowned. And Saturday, with the midwifery of my Plato’s Republic dialogue participants, a new idea was born from my mind.

I named my new child, “Art.”

Let me describe him for you. Art is a process, but not a mechanical process. Art is an organic process. Its mysteries can never be exhausted, but in outline it works like this:

There is soil. There is a seed. The sower takes the seed and plants it in the soil.

The seed is buried. It sits alone in the darkness, apparently forgotten, neglected. Yet it is not neglected. The weight of the soil puts pressure on the seed. The sun keeps the soil warm and the seed protected in that warmth. The rain works on the seed coat, pressuring it and feeding the embryo within the seed.

After a time the seed does one of two things: either it spends itself on nothingness, or it dies. If it dies, the seed coat wells and softens, the embryo sends a radical downward and a shoot upward.

The radical beomes the root and the shoot the plant. And here a second area of the mystery of creativity is revealed. First, the seed is planted, and an apple seed can only become an apple tree, a sunflower seed only a sunflower. If they try to become something else they will die. That seed contains the whole idea of the full grown plant!

Everything the plant will ever be is contained in that tiny seed. All, that is, but the matter.

 That is the first mytery of creativity.

The second is perhaps as great. The apple tree can never become anything other than an apple tree. But how does it manifest itself as an apple tree? By eating dirt.

And water.

And light.

The shoot absorbs soil and water into itself and turns the dirt and water into an apple tree. The root does the same, reaching further and further into the soil, instinctively seeking out what will help it realize itself.  

Whatever it can, it absorbs into itself and it grows into a trunk, and from a trunk it breathes out branches, and from the branches it sends out leaves, and in the shelter of the leaves it generates a blossom, and from that blossom there blooms a fruit, and in the fruit the tree bears seed to beget an apple orchard of the same kind.

As it grows, it adapts to its environment, since that is all it has to transform into itself. It turns to the sun; it bends with the wind; it joys in the rain.

If it is well tended or fortunate in its environment, it bears extraordinary fruit, feeding multitudes.

I find it miraculous to think of all the life of a free being pre-determined by the seed, but not inflexible – not mechanically stamped in.

An apple tree is not a wax tablet pressed by an iron stamp. When such a stamp is used, everything is predetermined. The exact shape and dimensions of the seal are determined ahead of time. The maker has complete control over the outcome, or if it does not come out as it should have he can dispose of it. Outliers are destroyed.

With organic growth, the outcome is unpredictable and, perhaps most crucially, cannot be forced.

Everything that matters is a work of art including our own lives. We degrade ourselves when we reduce them to something mechanical.

The product of a work of art is the fully realized tree. Somehow, at some time, a seed is planted in the soul of the artist. There it is kept warm by the light of truth. Eventually, the seed dies. The soul of the artist will have a profound effect on the health and integrity of the expression of the idea, more even than the environment has on a tree, but he cannot make it other than what it is.

Everything turns on the aesthetic health, that is to say, the readiness of the soul of the artist.

And yet it is not to the artist, but to the idea that we must attend, at least once it has been conceived. The artist’s role is not to express himself, but to shepherd the idea to its full realization. Of course he will learn a great deal about himself as the tree grows, and hopefully this will compel him to tend the soul of his own soul as it seems to have done eventually for example in Oscar Wilde’s case.

But if the artist asserts mastery over the idea, then he will interfere with it.

This frequently happens in two ways: impressionistically and expressionistically.

In the first case, the idea is represented not for its own sake but for the sake of the impression it will have on its audience.

In the second case, the idea is embodied not for its own intrinsic beauty but for the self-expression of the artist.

A work of art is the embodiment of an idea – the incarnation of a logos. As such it serves as  a mediator between the soul of the artist and that of the audience. Only when both submit to the glory of the logos contained within and through and under and around the work of art can it realize itself and fulfill its function of mediator.

The idea or logos embodied in the artifact (work of art) is the principle of unity in the activity of the artist. What I mean by that is actually rather obvious. Why have I not written anything about dolphins in this post until now? Simply put, because as my roots were searching out the soil for healthy nutrients that I could transform into my tree, my roots didn’t come across any dolphins until now.

They might have, I admit. Let’s say I had this brilliant idea about dolphins chasing sea-horses into a cave where they hid behind the throne of Poseidon and Poseidon had to persuade the dolphins that they should direct their rage and that abominable Odysseus instead of at the gentle, tame sea-horses. How would I know if I should bring that into my post?

Quite simply. I would ask, is this part of my tree? Is it an organical development of the idea I am trying to express? If not, it will be either self-indulgently expressive or it will impressionistic. Or it could be utterly pointless and stupid, unskilled, foolish. But even those characteristics are summed up in self-indulgence.

Please note that the plant is not my creation. It is my stewardship. Once it has been formed in me, I have no more authority to do as I wish with it than a mother has over the child in her womb. She bears the authority that arises from her duty to nourish it and no more. She is bound to the well-being of that child and has no right whatsoever ever to harm it in any way.

In just such a way, the artist is bound to his work of art. He has authority because the idea has been given to him and not to others. But he has no authority to subject the idea to his own whims or even interpretation.

This was, in general, the understanding under which artists of the Renaissance labored, and it would seem to be the understanding of the prophets and tabernacle builders of the Old Covenant. It’s loss, apparently under Kant’s influence over the arts in the 19th century, represents an overthrow of the arts at the very moment when artists have been most free to produce whatever they are given to produce – especially, teachers.

Sympathetic Identification or Critical Analysis?

All learning is imitation, if only we understand what imitation is. All teaching, then, is either exemplifying or presenting what the student will imitate.

This can apply to the classroom, but the truth is, we spend most of our active time teaching and learning anyway – or at least attempting to do so – so it would be foolish either to apply this only to the classroom or even to begin our reflections on learning with the classroom.

The classroom seeks to make learning super-efficient by removing every extraneous movement (usually by sending him to the office), but I remain skeptical about the effectiveness of this approach. As a teacher, I have alway found the classroom to be something with which you must do the best you can rather than the best there is, which is, I suppose, the reason why they have extended courses on classroom management at teachers colleges and at education conferences.

Imitation, however, comes in layers. I am beginning to suspect that you can see these layers played out, perhaps in reverse order, over time in European art.

The most obvious layer of imitation is when the artist (art is imitation) imitates the surface of the artifact he is imitating. For example, I can imitate a poem by Wordsworth quite easily by memorizing it. I can imitate a painting by DaVinci by coloring it in a coloring book.

Inasmuch as every following layer of imitation depends on this layer, I am unwilling to dismiss it as insignificant or unhelpful.

In the second layer of imitation, I would imitate the form of the artifact. While I simply retained the words in my head in layer one, now in layer two I would try to replace the words themselves with words of my own, but I would do so in the form (fable, lyric, etc.) of the original artist.

This is what Benjamin Franklin refered to when he used “hints of sentiment” and what Andrew Pudewa uses with IEW when he has students make key word outlines. The reason was activated by the imitation of level one, but not very vigorously. In level two, we call on it for more energetic activity.

Layer three imitation goes beyond the form to the qualities found within the form, such as voice, energy, harmony and other more abstract principles. Here the reason is seriously challenged even in analyzing, not to mention imitating, the artifact. This cannot be done by the would-be artist who is unwilling to practice the first two layers of imitation.

Finally, the artist becomes an artist in his own right when he imitates the artistic process itself: the process of creation. This varies from art to art and artifact to artifact, but there remains the universal process of creativity that applies to every art and artifact: attentively perceive, contemplate, conceptualize, re-present or articulate.

The master teacher is able to guide his students from the first through the fourth stage organically and dynamically and the gifted student is able to pass from one stage to the next with an alacrity rooted in attentive perception.

Most artists (including teachers) are unaware of this sequence and are drawn by thy mystic cords of necessity, the rational call of harmony, and the volitional impulse to beauty. But when programs are constructed to teach students en masse that disregard this organic sequence and strive instead to teach on mechanistic assumptions, a vast array of talent is squandered and human souls atrophy in the desert of negligence.

Thus scientific materialism undercuts the teaching of literature and composition by applying un-artistic, unfitting, counter-productive tools of assessment.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, one of the greatest English philosophers of the 19th century, comes to my aid in his analysis of the poetic process. For simplicity, I quote from English Romantic Writers, ed. David Perkins, 1967 and I italicize for emphasis.

Coleridge often contrasted organic with ‘mechanical’ form. The ‘mechanical’ he said…, is predetermined and subsequently impressed on whatever material we choose, as when ‘to a mass of wet clay we give whatever shape we wish it to retain when hardened.’ The organic form, on the other hand, ‘shapes as it develops itself from within, and the fulness of its development is one and the same with the perfection of its outward form.’ Each exterior thus becomes a ‘true image’ of ‘the being within.’ The concept of organic form… gave rise to an approach to art that stressed sympathetic identification rather than analysis from a critical distance. And it stimulated  a criterion of evaluation that rests on the extent to which all the ‘parts’ of a work of art… interconnect and sustain one another.

I have never seen a clearer and more concise description of the heart of the classical education that arises from a close understanding of what a “logos” is, that Plato and Aristotle groped for, that Chaucer and Shakespeare expressed, and that nobody of whom I am aware ever developed in a more timely way than Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

As I continue to reflect on teaching in a manner that sustains and is compatible with liberty and as I continue to explore the impact of the German philosophers on German and American education, I will frequently return to the foregoing passage  as something of a locus classicus of sound artistic theory and therefore of how to practice the art of teaching.

I promise to try to write more clearly as I develop some of these thoughts. ; )

Inside, Outside, Upside Down

You can live from the inside, or you can live from the outside.

You can think from the inside, or you can think from the outside.

You can read from the inside, or you can read from the outside.

You can teach from the inside – but only if you live, think, and read from the inside.

To live, think, and read from the inside you must enter into the thing you live with, the thought you are thinking about, the text you are reading.

To live, think, and read from the outside, you only need to look at it.

Most living, thinking, reading, and teaching are done from the outside.

The greatness of the great teacher is the ability to get inside and lead his students there.

Things can only be loved on the inside, where they cannot be measured.

Things can only be measured on the outside, where they cannot be known.

By living on the outside, we have turned education and our civilization upside down.