When I speak

Dale’s blog was the first I’d ever read. I started blogging myself a few minutes later.

And this, from Mole, almost ten years later:

The young woman on my table today was so slender that with one hand under the small of her back, and one on her belly, I had her almost compassed. All lean muscle. Radiantly beautiful, with the winter light falling across her face and her shoulders. Sometimes I think my table is a boat drifting by Avalon, half-submerged, carrying the lady from one world to the next; and I am one of those fixtures, the old waterman who steers it, neither of this world nor of that; and my straggly gray beard is threaded through the buttonholes of my coat. When I speak it is like the twitter of birds, or the splash of water, or the snapping of dry reedstalks. I belong to the boat: I have no story apart from it.

Sometimes I remember, amazed and laughing, that I’ve never met or spoken with Dale. He has, I know, been speaking with me all along.

3PictureArthurAvalon

Above: Voyage of King Author and Morgan Le Fay to the Isle of Avalon by Frank William Warwick Topham (1888).

Of commonplace books, journals, readers, & epigraphs

John Locke kept something called a commonplace book. It wasn’t a journal, and it wasn’t quite a scrapbook. It was a collection of excerpts he found significant from other people’s books. He’d copy out the passages by hand and then refer to them in his ever-expanding index so he could find them again.

3PictureFlowerGraffitiIf I were Locke, I’d leave lots of room in the margins for my notes and coloring. My journals for years have been part scrapbooks and part commonplace books, though I haven’t followed Locke’s lead in indexing them. I do number my journals’ pages and cross-reference with those numbers in the pages’ margins, which is about as much organization as I may ever need. Annie Dillard, by comparison, indexes her journals. But I don’t pretend to be Annie Dillard or John Locke, who both organized their private writings in part to help them write books they intended to publish. Wouldn’t it have been cool, though, to have been Thomas of Ireland, a fourteenth-century writer known only for his anthologizing?

Locke, for his part, didn’t pretend to have invented the commonplace book; things in this general genre have been written since antiquity. In Thomas’s time, monks copied excerpts of books into “florilegium.” Harvard’s library website reports that “The florilegium, or ‘gathering of flowers,’ of the Middle Ages and early modern era, collected excerpts primarily on religious and theological themes.” Locke, in fact, published a commonplace book organizing Bible verses into eighty-nine topics and many more subtopics.

Locke’s Commonplace Book to the Holy Bible reminds me of today’s books often called readers, which amount to a Whitman’s Sampler of an author’s work. A reader is often a good way for me to introduce myself to a writer or to a broader sampling of her work. My favorite readers include The Faulkner Reader, The Virginia Woolf Reader, A Thomas Merton Reader, and Seeds of Hope: A Henri Nouwen Reader. Of the four, only the Nouwen reader seems to be in the spirit of a florilegium: it’s organized by topic and includes short enough excerpts from the author’s works to resemble something someone might have first complied for his own edification.1 A more Middle Ages-style reader of Merton’s work might be Robert Inchausti’s compilation Echoing Silence: Thomas Merton on the Vocation of Writing, which contains very short, sometimes aphoristic passages and focuses only on what Merton wrote about writing.

Locke was moved to write about writing commonplace books. Locke had his own method for keeping his commonplace books, and his friends urged him to publish a letter he had written another friend on how to keep a commonplace book. A lot of the resulting book has to do with how to keep that running index.

Locke intended his commonplace books mainly as research tools, but I copy out others’ work to benefit my devotional practice and learning. There’s something digestive about copying out something that appeals to me. Writing something out slows me down enough to begin to think about the passage in new ways. I now buy the big art journals so I’ll have lots of room for marginalia that I sometimes break into while copying.

I do dream about writing a book, but the happiest part of my dream is selecting the book’s epigraphs. If I wrote a book, I’d audition hundreds of short passages and herald each of my chapters with around a dozen different epigraphs. I often find myself collecting quotes anyway, not to comment on them but simply to juxtapose them, to put them on the same page and watch them support, expatiate, refute, or qualify one another. A really good pairing seems to create an energy, and sometimes a friendship, much like imaginative and successful pairings among guests at a dinner party. And by the time my quotes have found their place cards, I find I have nothing to say and less reason to say it. My own book would end before it began, then, after a few extended sections of epigraphs. But I would have compiled a commonplace book.

Above: “Red graffiti drawing of flower on stone column” by Horia Varlan. Used by permission. Below: from my journal. Text in green ink is from Robert Lowell’s poem “Eye and Tooth.”

20140125-113348.jpg

  1. I’m currently reading a similar reader – organized topically with shorter excerpts – entitled Basic Ideas of Montessori’s Education Theory.  It complies a good deal of what Montessori wrote in books, journals, and letters relative to her education theory.

A sketch

Dear Theo,

. . . . Yesterday I drew some decayed oak roots, so-called bog trunks (that is, oak trees which have perhaps been buried for a century under the bog, from which new peat had been formed; when digging the peat up, these bog trunks come to light).

These roots were lying in a pool, in black mud.

Some black ones were lying in the water, in which they were reflected, some bleached ones were lying on the black earth. A little white path ran past it all, behind that more peat, pitchblack. And a stormy sky over it all. That pool in the mud with those rotten roots was completely melancholy and dramatic, just like Ruysdael, just like Jules Dupré.

This is a scratch of the peat fields.

There are very often curious contrasts of black and white here, for instance, a canal with white sandy banks, across a pitchblack plain. In the above sketch you can see it too, black figures against a white sky, and in the foreground again a variation of black and white in the sand.

Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh (6 – 7 October, 1883)

 

black mud, black
which bleached black
white path past more
peat pitch

black sky, pool in the
mud, rotten root
just like, just like
a scratch

peat —
black white, white pitch
black sketch, black white
black white

 

Two Women in the Peat-Field, with a Wheelbarrow

Van Gogh’s Two Women in the Peat-Field, with a Wheelbarrow, painted after the observations referred to in van Gogh’s letter.

Despite everything, why we can act

As we attempt to analyze dialogue as a human phenomenon, we discover something which is the essence of dialogue itself: the word. But the word is more than just an instrument which makes dialogue possible; accordingly, we must seek its constitutive elements. Within the word we find two dimensions, reflection and action, in such radical interaction that if one is sacrificed – even in part – the other immediately suffers. There is no true word that is not at the same time a praxis. Thus to speak a true word is to transform the world.

– Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed

3PictureNiebuhrTimeCoverMargaret’s comment here yesterday, which includes the above quote, may trigger the objection that someone may legitimately choose not to act if the formidable opposition presented by a society’s philosophical foundation or zeitgeist dissuades him. And under Freire’s terms, this inaction would make one’s reflection “no true word.”

I think Reinhold Niebuhr meets every larger objection to action here:

Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.

– Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History (page 63)

Restless

(To turn the video’s sound on or off, mouse over the video and click the sound icon.)

At the gym this morning, listening to Lawrence Cahoone’s Teaching Company course, The Modern Intellectual Tradition: From Descartes to Derrida. Cahoone points out that Copernicus and Galileo were in part a resurgence of Platonic thought. Copernicus’s strong proof of a heliocentric universe and Galileo’s explanation of inertia contradicted Aristotle and human experience, and Plato had always favored math over observation.

Plato would have liked Vine, too. The clip is short enough to suggest its subject’s form. And without the form, perhaps, we live inside a six-second loop, our narratives amounting to a kind of shadow theater.

While today’s snowstorm tonight will subside, tomorrow will shift with its own grace.

This is homecoming

Seon Joon’s lovely homecoming by “chains of small actions”:

I left my bag unpacked, just for now; I placed a small polished stick given as a gift on the bookshelf and hung my rosary on its hook next to my keys; I filled up the water pitcher and made dinner from scraps—this is homecoming—homecoming achieved by serial processes, chains of small actions that began before the first departure and don’t end until the next preparation begins, so that leaving and arriving overlap, folding distance and time into each other.

Liberty versus Freedom

And the chief captain answered, With a great sum obtained I this freedom. And Paul said, But I was free born.

– Acts 22:28, King James Version

Proposed Florida Civil War flagAn individual purchases liberty. A society, over time, earns liberty. As John C. Calhoun said, “Liberty is the noble and highest reward bestowed on mental and moral development, combined with favorable circumstances.” It is “the most difficult [reward] to be won . . .”1

But freedom is a birthright.

According to historian David Hackett Fischer, “. . . the original meanings of freedom and liberty were not merely different but opposed. Liberty meant separation. Freedom implied connection.”

“Liberty” comes from the Latin libertas and its adjective liber, which means “released from restraint.” The Greek eleutheria is similar, and may be defined as “an independence by means of separation.” But “freedom” is a cousin of the Norse fri, the German frei, and other Nothern European variants. Their common root, the Indo-European priya or friya or riya, means “dear” or “beloved.”2

Theologian Chaim Wirszubski points out that “ . . . the Romans conceived of libertas as an acquired civil right, not as an innate right of man.”3 But Fischer says that “by the eleventh century, most men in Iceland were born free. This prior condition of freedom was a birthright that all freeman shared.”4

“In ancient Rome, liberty implied inequality.”5 But in northern European tribes, the ancient rule was, “All free men are equal before the law.”6

Roman citizens spoke of their varying privileges and immunities. But Northern Europeans before the Middle Ages spoke of rights that were available to everyone in the community.7

The American South adopted classical Greco-Roman notions of liberty. But the New England settlers brought in Northern European notions of freedom. The American Civil war was, in an important sense, a struggle between liberty and freedom:

During the Civil War . . . Northerners expanded their ideas of freedom and union into a universal principle. Southern notions of liberty and independence went the other way.8

For Ancient Greeks and Romans, slavery’s existence was consistent with liberty. In fact, one man’s liberty required another man’s slavery. Liberty, then, is a reflection of our need for one another: the slave needs his master, and the master needs his slave. But our interdependence is a necessary but not sufficient element of true community. As Reinhold Niebuhr puts it,

Genuine community, whether between men or nations, is not established merely through the realization that we need one another, though indeed we do. That realization alone may still allow the strong to use the lives of the weaker as instruments of their own self-realization. Genuine community is established only when the knowledge that we need one another is supplemented by the recognition that “the other,” that other form of life, or that other unique community is the limit beyond which our ambitions must not run and the boundary beyond which our life must not expand.9

Liberty and freedom agree that we need one another. But freedom alone agrees with Niebuhr that “the other” is as sacred as we are.

In his debates with Lincoln, Stephen Douglas warned darkly that, were the slaves freed, society would be ruined by miscegenation. Douglas said, in effect, that whites need blacks. They must serve us as slaves; otherwise, they’ll serve us as wives. In his retort, Lincoln pointed out the slave’s status as something very much like Niebuhr’s “other”:

I do not understand that because I do not want a negro woman for a slave I must necessarily want her for a wife. My understanding is that I can just leave her alone. I am now in my fiftieth year, and certainly never have had a black woman either for a slave or wife, so that it seems to me that it is quite possible for us to get alone without making either slaves or wives of negroes.10

To leave someone alone in Lincoln’s sense is to recognize her sacred character.

At its essence, states’ rights means that the states should be left alone, as the proposed flag for Civil War-era Florida above makes clear.  If sovereignty rests in the state, then it should be left alone in Lincoln and Niebuhr’s sense. But sovereignty rests in the people, and it will remain with them in practice so long as the people’s community is based on the sacredness of the individual.

Freedom, then, is grounded in equality, and equality – recognized in the Declaration’s self-evident truth that all men are created equal – is grounded in what Niebuhr calls the “divine source and center”:

. . . life has a center and source of meaning beyond the natural and social sequences which may be rationally discerned. This divine source and center must be discerned by faith because it is enveloped in mystery, though being the basis of meaning. So discerned, it yields a frame of meaning in which human freedom is real and valid and not merely tragic or illusory.11

Science and logic cannot discover the individual’s existence “above the stream of nature and time” – something that “religion and poetry take for granted.”12

Here, essentially, is where religion and politics must not separate. Freedom and the true community it engenders are fixed in each individual’s sacredness perceived by faith.

  1. Speech on the Oregon Bill, June 27, 1848.
  2. David Hackett Fischer, Liberty and Freedom: A Visual History of America’s Founding Ideas, at 5.
  3. Chaim Wirszubski, Libertas as a Political Idea at Rome, at 3.
  4. Fischer, supra, at 6.
  5. Id. at 7.
  6. Sir Frederick Pollard and Frederick William Maitland, The History of English Law Before the Time of Edward I.
  7. Fischer, supra, at 7 – 8.
  8. Id. at 314.
  9. Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History, at 139.
  10. Harold Holzer, The Lincoln-Douglas Debates: The First Unexpurgated Text, at 189.
  11. Niebuhr, supra, at 168.
  12. Id. at 8 – 9.

Squirming, reading Stoner

John WilliamsIt snowed enough to cancel school today. In lieu of teaching, I spent the day reading Stoner, a novel about a lifer teacher, from cover to cover. John Williams’s 1965 book is scary close.

So close that I think I learned something about myself. I’ve often wondered why I had came so close to pursuing English through grad school before deciding instead to become a lawyer. Certainly, close to half of my college credit hours were in English. Looking back on it, though, I had been fairly inarticulate in class discussions, and sometimes I had loved books that I later realized I had hardly understood.

So why have I been rereading my college books for the past few years? Why have I thought I might have pursued graduate studies in English?

“But don’t you know, Mr. Stoner?” Sloane asked. “Don’t you understand about yourself yet? You’re going to be a teacher. . . .”

“How can you tell? How can you be sure?”

“It’s love, Mr. Stoner,” Sloane said cheerfully. “You are in love. It’s as simple as that.” (Page 20)

I didn’t have a Professor Sloane who understood that my inarticulateness was a matter of love, not did I have a Bill Knight, at least back then, who understood that my never wanting to leave college may have had some bearing on my eventual profession. (Bill also introduced me to this wonderful novel, quoting one of the above lines.) No one had described to me the possibility of having, as the narrator puts it, “an epiphany of knowing something through words that could not be put in words” (page 98).

(I can’t really blame my college’s English department. I did have one of my professors pick me out of his giant English lit survey to take to lunch one day freshman year. I remember his pleasant patter at the University Cafeteria, but I never remembered anything he said. Like Stoner with his professor and, later, Stoner’s students with theirs, I must have been staring at my hands for most of the meal.)

But the novel’s scary closeness isn’t just from Stoner’s profession. Stoner has my view of learning, my view of the ideal college – indeed, my view of the ideal:

“Stoner, here, I imagine, sees [the university] as a great repository, like a library or a whorehouse, where men come of their free will and select that which will complete them, where all work together like little bees in a common hive. The True, the Good, the Beautiful. They’re just around the corner, in the next corridor; they’re in the next book, the one you haven’t read, or in the next stack, the one you haven’t got to. But you’ll get to it someday. And when you do— when you do—” (page 29)

Stoner’s buddy Dave Masters then settles in on William Stoner himself:

“ . . . you are the dreamer, the madman in a madder world, our own midwestern Don Quixote without his Sancho, gamboling under the blue sky. . . . You think there’s something here, something to find. Well, in the world you’d learn soon enough. You, too, are cut out for failure; not that you’d fight the world. You’d let it chew you up and spit you out, and you’d lie there wondering what was wrong. Because you’d always expect the world to be something it wasn’t, something it had no wish to be. The weevil in the cotton, the worm in the beanstalk, the borer in the corn. You couldn’t face them, and you couldn’t fight them; because you’re too weak, and you’re too strong” (page 31).

Is it necessary that I have my faults thrown in my face like this? My lack of ambition, followed by my frustration over my lack of influence in an organization? My willingness to concede in battles I think are rooted in people’s insecurities, but my stubborn refusal to back down when one of my core principles is threatened? My desire (witness my political science writings) to change the world?

Stoner spends the novel, which serves as Stoner’s cradle-to-grave biography, reconciling his quixotic tendencies with Masters’s message: it doesn’t matter in the long run. The reconciliation is sad and satisfying. The novel also has something to do with hard work, as Williams is quoted as saying in the current edition’s introduction. Whether he’s 24, 34, 44, 54, or 64, Stoner always seems to be grading papers and preparing lectures.

The reconciliation and hard work are not enough for me to live by, however. Even as a confirmed idealist, I wouldn’t mention this except that Williams gets more strident about his take on life the older Stoner gets. Sometimes, for instance, Stoner, Stoner’s lover, and the third-person narrator all hammer home the same viewpoints in much the same way. In fact, Stoner’s lover always sounds like Stoner. The two of them spend much of their relationship repeating each other’s reactions and realizations, thereby affirming each other’s feelings they seem to experience and life lessons they seem to learn at the same moments.

Though, except for the stridency of the themes’ treatment in the second half of the novel, the book’s right real. It feels like a cross between Thomas Wolfe’s earnest and autobiographical Look Homeward, Angel and James Salter’s realistic and conjugal Light Years. All three novels take in great swaths of the life of a misfit idealist (well, Light Years’s Viri Berland is at least an innocent of sorts), more content to show the outcome of certain personalities over time than to hew to a tight narrative. Not that Williams spares a single word. In that regard, he’s a lot more like Salter and Raymond Chandler than like Thomas Wolfe. And as far as turning a phrase just enough to improve on the English language, well, think of Salter again.

And think of Cervantes. Both Stoner and Don Quixote end with long death scenes in which the books’ namesakes discover who they really are beneath their strident idealism. Is this also really necessary?

Photo of John Williams.

Another of silver

The lines are fallen vnto me in pleasant places: yea, I haue a faire heritage.

– Psalm 16:6, Geneva Bible

3PictureBoatVladLitvinov

Teaching resumes tomorrow. I lean over the bed’s gunwales and pull bobbing pillows from the floor.

First thing I read this new year – Louisa Igoria’s new poem, “A Herald,” with this reminder:

And if you nick
the skin of the outline,
in the box of 64, there is one

stick of gold, another
of silver, their wax base soft enough
to blend like a halo around everything –

Crossing over last night’s date line, I dreamed I was flying upside down. Something winged me; I wanted to look down to see what it was. But it was best to renew my fellowship with the changeless stars.

Lorianne DiSabato’s Hoarded Ordinances passed ten years yesterday. She wrote:

In an age where it’s easy to blurt out anything to an invisible audience, I’m glad to have a decade’s worth of practice saying things chiefly for my own benefit.

And for mine.

George Szirtes concluded forty years of teaching yesterday. He was kind enough to remind me of writing instruction’s ever-fixèd mark. When he started his final paragraph with “As for the institutions,” I realized that he hadn’t been writing about school at all. Well, as for it:

The current drive towards an ever more corporate business model is the opposite of learning: it operates on the lines of the nineteenth century mill glossed by twenty-first century public relations.

That’s all it was. So, cheered by lines from three teachers, tomorrow I’ll disembark.

Photo “Details of The Spirit of Haida Gwaii by Bill Reid” by Vlad Litvinov. Used by permission.