Tribalism and true identity

Every school day for ten years, I’ve walked through our high school’s tall foyer. Most days, I lift up my eyes high above the foyer’s display cases and banners to the large abstract nouns stenciled on the foyer’s walls. But I’m not there today, and I can’t tell you for certain which abstract nouns are there. I think two are “integrity” and “excellence.” Maybe.

Abstractions put most audiences to sleep. I’ve learned this by bitter experience, so when I teach an abstract concept, I often use a narrative because a narrative makes my students perk up. Good speakers, as we all know, use stories.

The tribal advantage.

3PictureGerman-football-supporters-giving-the-Nazi-salute-during-the-international-match-against-England-at-White-Hart-LaneStories demonstrate the enduring appeal of what Austrian philosopher Karl Popper calls “tribalism,” a political danger he says has become active again after lying dormant for two millennia. Why stories? The inherent advantage stories have over abstractions is also the inherent advantage tribal societies have over open societies.

Tribal societies have narratives – specifically, myths – to understand what philosophers and scientists in open societies understand through observations, abstractions, models, and reason. Philosophers and scientists explain with narratives, too, but the narratives are usually only a strategy for teaching what is otherwise found to be reasonable.

But in a tribal society, the myth is both the medium and the message. The myth takes the place of the open society’s reason as a tool to discover moral and scientific truths. The tribe’s taboos amount to state-enforced virtues that prevent the development of individual morality, according to Popper (107, 164). And primitive tribal myths about natural phenomena keep members from distinguishing between tribal laws and universally applicable scientific laws, such as the law of gravity (164).

A brief history.

Tribalism first broke down in Athens a generation before Plato. Popper’s book The Open Society and its Enemies charts the rise of the open society from tribalism in Athens beginning with Democritus, Pericles, and Herodotus, who were among the first Western philosophers and rulers to insist on mankind’s essential equality. But democracy struggled following Pericles’s “Great Generation” and Athens’s defeat at the hands of Sparta.

Plato lived through Athens’s defeat, and his political philosophy aimed to return Athens to a tribal, or closed, society, which he thought would make society more stable. Plato advocated measures that are similar to some totalitarian tactics over the past several decades: the murder by doctors of political dissidents and of the physically weak, the banishment of poets, the destruction of families, the worship of rulers as demigods, the free use of lies and deceit by rulers in furtherance of a greater truth unfathomable by lower classes (Plato admitted that his famous Myth of Blood and Soil was a propaganda lie (133)), the guarantee of a pure ruling class through eugenics, and the deliberate acclimation of children to war. Popper even takes a chapter to examine the reactionary elements inherent in Plato’s ideas of the Good and of the Philosopher-King. Plato hated democracy, and he advocated these policies to move Athens away from democracy and back to tribalism.

During the next couple of millennia after Plato, the world experienced some returns to tribalism, but multi-ethnic empires, feudalism, limited monarchies, and increasingly open societies were more prevalent in the West.

Tribalism today.

Twenty-four hundred years after Plato, tribalism is growing again. Popper explains how the early nineteenth century German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, in the service of Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm III, made Plato’s political philosophy and his return-to-tribalism agenda accessible to a modern world. Continue reading

Bad writing instruction: the first-paragraph thesis

3PictureBookNewkirkSchoolManifestoHere’s a worthy little book to get you caught up on the sorry state of school essay instruction. I got The School Essay Manifesto: Reclaiming the Essay for Students and Teachers to find out some better ways to write first drafts before shaping them into literary analysis essays. Thomas Newkirk, the author, does describe three excellent methods for writing essays, and two of them involve close readings of texts. But I was pleased to discover that his essays weren’t only the first drafts. They were the subsequent drafts, too, and the finished products.

Newkirk starts off arguing against the mind-numbing structure of the first-paragraph thesis and the five-paragraph essay. But he ends up suggesting that the literary analysis essay itself should lose its prominent place in American high schools. In this respect, his book tracks the development of my argument in “The Tyranny of the Secondary School,” a post I wrote seven years ago.

I’m surprised that Newkirk, a University of New Hampshire English professor and one of these writers-workshop-for-grade-schools Heinemann Books authors, didn’t turn in a more erudite performance. I often think that, because the literary analysis essay came from the universities over a hundred years ago, our deliverance from it will come from there, too. (And, in fact, some colleges are beginning to show more interest in nonfiction texts and rhetoric and less interest in literary analysis.) Don’t get me wrong: he argues well. But Newkirk, who also taught at-risk high school students in Boston, mostly talks like one of us high school teachers. And that gives me hope: maybe we English teachers, despite everything, can really rid ourselves of some of these major impediments to good writing instruction.

Newkirk’s means of persuasion aside, all three of his essay ideas are worth the price of this slim volume.

Soccer and Our Founding Document

3PictureTimHowardGeorgeWashingtonIt’s the Fourth of July. In today’s Washington Post, Sally Jenkins, a sports columnist, urges Americans to get over “their nagging emphasis on nationality” and to find a team to root for among the remaining eight World Cup countries.

Independence Day, with impeccable timing, is here to help.

But hold that thought. First, let’s take in the biggest news ever for American soccer: this week, the entire country seemed riveted to a soccer match. At its end, Team USA was eliminated from the World Cup in a 2-to-1 loss to Belgium. This excerpt from a New York Times article is typical of the American media’s euphoria over the way our team played:

Trying to figure out where soccer fits into the fabric of America is a popular topic but, for one afternoon at least, there was this unexpected truth: All around the country, from coast to coast and through the nation’s belly, sports fans of every kind were inspired by the performance of a soccer goalkeeper. In a loss.

The key to figuring out “where soccer fits into the fabric of America,” of course, has always been figuring out where America fits into the fabric of the world. The key is coming up with an alternative to mere tribalism, to what Jenkins calls our “nagging emphasis on nationality.” To restart that figuring, we might look into why we find ourselves celebrating this loss.

We are celebrating because our goalkeeper, Tim Howard, broke a World Cup record for saves. I’ve seen an Internet meme conflating Tim Howard with George Washington, and for good reason: General Washington was a master of that most defensive of tactics, the retreat. His resilience at our end of the field won us the world’s respect. Howard’s resilience did the same thing.

We are celebrating this loss because, deep down and to the surprise of many – including ourselves – we still care what the rest of the world thinks. We cared when we fought the Revolutionary War. We had a “decent respect to the opinions of mankind” back then, to borrow the Declaration of Independence’s famous noun phrase. That respect, in fact, drove us to write the Declaration.

The Declaration’s respect for world opinion isn’t just a throwaway line. Grammatically speaking, the word “respect” is the sole subject of the Declaration’s introduction. If that weren’t enough to raise its profile, “respect” comes at the end of the Declaration’s opening sentence, a periodic sentence that dramatically highlights its point by saving its subject for the end:

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

Aristotle taught us that every speech or writing has an audience that shapes it. The Declaration’s explicit audience is mankind. We owe the world an explanation, it says. The Declaration, which reached England, France, Italy, and even Poland by the end of 1776, was our first apology tour.

The Declaration doesn’t declare our independence from the world or its opinions. It declares our independence from Britain, but in the process, it declares also our “separate and equal station” with the rest of the nations. And it expressly solicits those nations’ opinions.

In fact, the Declaration of Independence never calls itself that. I think a better name for it would be the Declaration of Interdependence. Independence, after all, is just a necessary stage between dependence and interdependence. This progression from Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is true also for highly effective nations. We have a lot to offer other nations, of course, not the least of which are the rights enumerated in the Declaration. But for other nations to benefit from us, we must understand that they still share an “equal station” with us. For other nations to adopt our rights, we need to be willing to respect theirs.

Lincoln knew that other nations would not adopt the Declaration’s abstract principles – equality and the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – through American military might. He countered Stephen Douglas’s version of Manifest Destiny with an understanding, as political scientist Harry V. Jaffa has it in his book Crisis of the House Divided, that America’s “primary action upon the international scene was to be moral, not political” (85). We need to get our house in order because other nations need us.

The reverse is also true. Long after France helped us bottle up Cornwallis at Yorktown, we still need other nations. We don’t need them to form another “coalition of the willing,” as George W. Bush called the nations that supported America’s invasion of Iraq. Instead, we need mankind’s culture, its fellowship, its perspectives. (How obvious this is; how sad to feel the need to write this.) We need its candid opinions, as the Declaration claims. In his 1939 essay “The Indispensable Opposition,” Walter Lippmann argues that the foundation for freedom of speech is our need to learn from one another. The same need is the foundation for diplomacy.

The Framers believed in a “candid world” – the final two words in the Declaration’s famous preamble. “Candid” back then didn’t mean “forthcoming” but, as the Oxford English Dictionary defines it, “free from bias; fair, impartial, just.” Do we still believe in such a world?

Our reaction to this week’s World Cup loss suggests we might. Despite the dismissal of world opinion that has characterized our politics and even our foreign policy this young century, we may have rediscovered a truer understanding of ourselves this week on the pitch. There, for at least ninety minutes, we remembered what it was like to be respected rather than feared.

Today, and hopefully for ages to come, the Declaration of Interdependence can help us more fully adopt that perspective.

And so can the Post, though for a limited time. It put together an assessment of each remaining World Cup team – why you should root for each, and why you shouldn’t. So adopt a team as well as the Declaration’s perspective, and for the remainder of the Cup, celebrate our nation’s interdependence!

The children’s apocalypse

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Last month at Kenyon’s Gund Gallery, Victoria and I moved among Bethany’s hundred-and-forty-odd, glowing and pulsing sculptures. As our eyes adjusted to the dark, we found that we were becoming part of the installation. It was ourselves, and not the sculptures, that we began to see and understand.

This secret knowledge hid us from later visitors, at least from those who didn’t stay long enough to discover that the sculptures’ lights weren’t static. The lights pulsed neither in unison nor in disregard for one another. I sat under them to see how they got along, much as I spent long stretches on beds of pine needles as a kid wondering how the trees got along.

I’ve been reading G. K. Chesterton this week, particularly his short essay “In Defence of Baby-Worship.” Here’s one excerpt from it; a second I’ve inserted at the end.

The two facts which attract almost every normal person to children are, first, that they are very serious, and, secondly, that they are in consequence very happy. They are jolly with the completeness which is possible only in the absence of humour. The most unfathomable schools and sages have never attained to the gravity which dwells in the eyes of a baby of three months old. It is the gravity of astonishment at the universe, and astonishment at the universe is not mysticism, but a transcendent common sense. The fascination of children lies in this: that with each of them all things are remade, and the universe is put again upon its trial. As we walk the streets and see below us those delightful bulbous heads, three times too big for the body, which mark these human mushrooms, we ought always primarily to remember that within every one of these heads there is a new universe, as new as it was on the seventh day of creation. In each of those orbs there is a new system of stars, new grass, new cities, a new sea.

3PictureWarren01

My video below is only from one static point looking at one part of Bethany’s installation, just as a telescope might stand at one place on earth and train on one sector of sky. To walk among the silent shapes was, for a little while, anyway, to slip the surly bonds of earth.

Bethany’s into craft, and she’s learning how to defend it from some art critics. Separated from the crafts’ beauty and utility, a piece of visual art these days too often seems to expire after delivering up its ironic or recondite message. Craft art, on the other hand, “has a special magic created by a union of the beautiful, the spiritual, the conceptual, and the useful through the conjunction of the visual and the tactile,” according to artist and art critic John Perreault.

Bethany’s work sometimes seems like an abstract celebration of craft and, consequently, of life. In the statement outside her installation, she describes how she worked with the translucent polymer clay to form the shapes:

After kneading and flatting the clay, it is pure improvisation. I follow automatic decisions made at the fingertip level, occasional vague ideas, and the clay itself as it tears, droops, or supports itself in various ways. I have begun to think of it as a dance between my fingers and the clay.

Each of her shapes slowly pulsing in the dark room was a joint creation of the creator and the created, much as we are. Walking among Bethany’s stars or microbes or sea creatures reset my spirit, much as another piece she had made about ten years earlier had. For me, wonder is a fresh improvisation with some common, diaphanous material: we’re all both creators and creatures, both apart and a part, both verse and the keenest lacunae.

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More Chesterton:

There is always in the healthy mind an obscure prompting that religion teaches us rather to dig than to climb; that if we could once understand the common clay of earth we should understand everything. Similarly, we have the sentiment that if we could destroy custom at a blow and see the stars as a child sees them, we should need no other apocalypse. This is the great truth which has always lain at the back of baby-worship, and which will support it to the end. Maturity, with its endless energies and aspirations, may easily be convinced that it will find new things to appreciate; but it will never be convinced, at bottom, that it has properly appreciated what it has got. We may scale the heavens and find new stars innumerable, but there is still the new star we have not found — that on which we were born.

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Photos are of Bethany and Warren as children. (I’m still trying to learn how to focus a camera.) The two excerpts from Chesterton’s “In Defence of Baby-Worship,” along with the entire essay and his 1911 book, In Defense of Nonsense, and other Essays, that contains the “Baby-Worship” essay are found here. Bethany’s installation’s web page on the Gund Gallery’s site is here.

The winter in winter

The snow is almost gone, a lot of it eaten by a neighborhood dog but most of it melted by still-below-average temperatures. Winter returned three times in March, each time with a few inches of snow. Sixty-two inches this winter — a lot for Virginia, even for its northernmost corner where we live. Four inches of snow this past Monday, but I rode my bike for an hour and a half Friday. Winter, that symbol of life’s final stages, may be in its own final stage. Some final flurries are expected here tonight, but I might mistake them for moths.

“Death, thou shalt die.” My tenth graders are busy emulating conceits such as John Donne’s by writing their own Metaphysical poetry. Some of their poems examine life’s common paradoxes well. My students’ relative success makes me wonder if there’s room for Metaphysical poetry’s drama, argumentation, idealism, and tough artificiality today. Eliot learned a good deal from these poets. And many modern poets have been (maybe unknowingly) returning to their concision, uneven meter, and irony for decades.

I keep returning to my best posts. WordPress tells me that I’ve revised “Ice, hail, & the reign thereafter” sixty times and “Jesus teaches the compare & contrast essay” sixty-five times. Neither post is even more than two months old. But all that refining is when I do my best writing, maybe because my imaginary reader is the most present with me, threatening to read a flawed version I posted in my haste. I almost wish my feed wouldn’t feed until a post’s fiftieth revision.

But my revising is also a working out of my ideas — well, more of a working in. After fifty drafts, even if it doesn’t seem like it to my reader, my post’s theory gets personal. “Ice” is teaching me that I’m never going to be fulfilled in this life. In fact, my faith teaches me that I wasn’t designed to be. “Compare & contrast” is teaching me that my passivity isn’t often very spiritual. In fact, it’s passive aggression towards the Father I never had.

“Compare & contrast,” then, is teaching me that I’ve buried my talent for too long.

The trick for me is to live in the still-inchoate paradox birthed from these two posts’ relationship.

No two snowflakes are alike, but I’ve seen identical snowflakes. This seeming paradox is easily resolved: if winter can return after three years away, then maybe snowflakes can, too. Maybe I’ll see an old friend tonight.

Or maybe that’s just a conceit. Heraclitus’s famous adage: “You cannot step into the same river twice.” I’m slowly reading twentieth-century Austrian philosopher Karl Popper’s political masterpiece, The Open Society and Its Enemies. It’ll be winter again before I’m done. Popper thinks Plato hated Heraclitus but nevertheless believed him and wrote The Republic in reaction to him. We must stop change, Plato believed. Poets lead the people astray, Plato said. It all adds up, and I’m with Popper so far: Plato was a brilliant and dangerous reactionary.

One’s politics is based on two things: how one understands the river, and to what extent and by what means others should be made to understand the river the same way.

Theodore Roosevelt, for his part, understood politics in kaleidoscopic terms: all the fragments — the people, the politicians, the ideas — had to fall into alignment to get things done. To me, poetry readings are a twist of the kaleidoscope. Different people read the same poem different ways, emphasizing and, with their inflections and pacing, seemingly rearranging certain of the poem’s pieces. The resulting patterns are sometimes striking. Voice Alpha recently asked its readers to perform Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem “The Windhover.” Nic Sebastian, Voice Alpha’s curator, collected fourteen readings, including my own. Some of them taught me new ways to return to and engage with a very old friend.

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Above: “Broken Stained Glass — Philadelphia, Pennsylvania” by Randy Calderone. Used by permission. I took the above Vine video in our neighborhood earlier this March.

Teju Cole’s spacious & taut new release

3PictureBookColeEveryDayTeju Cole was in Washington Tuesday when his novel Every Day Is for the Thief made its American release. I bought a copy that evening at Politics and Prose, where I heard him read from Thief and from Open City, his later novel, which was released stateside in 2011.

I’ve read Open City, one of my favorite novels, twice. But Thief is proving to be the rare novel I feel I can live in. Its vignettes and language are as spacious and taut as a well-staked tent. Oh! To write like this:

In December, dust drowns the city. But one Friday morning in the third week of the month, it rains heavily for only the second time in the dry season. It is a relief. It makes the roads torturous. Where there were shallow depressions, lakes suddenly appear. Rivulets rage along the roads. The rain falls for an intense half hour just after I head out. On Allen Avenue, through the gray scrim of the rolled-up windows, I see a swarm of lime-green shirts and yellow trousers, lime-green blouses, and yellow skirts: students caught in the rain, racing for shelter. These teenagers, thrilled by the weather and by the excitement of running together, are laughing, but are inaudible through the heavy rain drumming on the car roof. I drive slowly through this dream of hurrying bodies.

How to characterize the paragraph? Nothing overheated. Unobtrusive alliteration beginning with the paragraph’s first four words and puddling here, there, and now assonance: “Allen Avenue.”  The first sentence’s soft chiasmus is alliterative at 1, 2, and 4, reminding me of Sir Gawain and early English verse: “dust drowns . . . rains . . . dry.”

And the pacing. Breath units, which Joe Glasser defines as syllable counts between punctuation marks, well mixed at 4, 5, 13, 17, and then 5: “It is a relief” — syntactically and musically, too, a relief. An implied metaphor — “rage” — and another — “swarm.” Sparse, measured drams of metaphor’s strong stimulant. The whole effect makes space for a “dream of hurrying bodies” — just right, nothing purple. The clothing that makes the teens alike in age but separate in gender anticipates the next scene, his grown-up visit to his first, teenage love. (After the rain stops, Lagos is “becalmed and devastated,” just like the narrator, perhaps, by this visit’s end.)

The paragraph may have been inspired by the next page spread’s thoughtfully conflicted black-and-white photograph — running bodies in dark tops and light pants and skirts through a car window’s pimply raindrops.

Everything serves tone.

The structure’s as spare as the style. The varied vignettes, some focused more on Lagos, some focused more on the narrator, leave space for the reader to experience the tension between the seemingly objective view of the city and the rather fragmented, young narrator, who has returned there after many years in America. I like Cole’s choice to rely on style and suggestion instead of on detailed relationships and plot, the reflexive choice of many a lesser novelist. In this respect, Thief reminds me of the finest poetry. But the resemblance to poetry isn’t obvious. Make no mistake: this is lean, muscular prose.

(Here’s a thoughtful review of Every Day Is for the Thief published yesterday in the New York Times. And here’s Cole’s interview Tuesday on NPR’s Diane Rehm Show.)

My children

My children

The city needed lawyers.

– Alister McGrath, from In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and How It Changed a Nation, a Language, and a Culture

That epigraph has little bearing on this post. I just like the idea of a city needing lawyers. Remember all of those American constitutional lawyers flying to Moscow shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union? Those were heady days. There’s reason to conclude that Putin has since retained other counsel.

1 John's opening in Tyndale's version
1 John’s opening in Tyndale’s version

Anyway, Geneva needed lawyers, and John Calvin needed work. The rest is history. But I’d like to refer to a little of it here as an introduction to a particular English translation of 1 John 1:1 that has resonated with me a lot lately.

The Geneva Bible, first published in 1560, was a fruit of Calvin’s association with Geneva’s Protestant Reformation, and it remained the most popular English Bible for decades after the King James hit the presses in 1611. Between 1578 and 1616, the “Geneva Bible” also became the common name given to a number of very similar translations, Alister McGrath reports. Christopher Barker, to whom Elizabeth had granted sole publishing rights to the Geneva, would modify the text based on the work of English exiles in Geneva.1 (Why would Elizabeth grant a license to a Bible she didn’t really like? It was complicated, but the biggest factor was the Geneva Bible’s overwhelming popularity in England. Elizabeth was no fool, as I’m sure you know.)

I’m really into how one of these “composite” Bibles (as McGrath calls them) – a 1599 version – renders that first verse, and the next three, of First John.

First John opens like John’s gospel, though the syntax isn’t as grand and doesn’t echo Genesis’s opening as directly. The Word is still the subject, but it’s not the grammatical subject; “That which” is, or, I guess, “was”: “That which was from the beginning.” The epistle’s opening discards the gospel’s anastrophe (“In the beginning was the Word”) for a series of subordinate clauses that makes the subject the object. The epistle sounds flatter, too, and without the slight reverb; we’re exchanging Lawrence Olivier’s intonations for maybe Calvin Coolidge’s.

1 John’s opening in an early Geneva version

The audiences and purposes differ, too. The gospel’s stated audience is those who haven’t heard or believed in the Word, but the epistle’s audience is “my little children.” The gospel’s purpose is that, “believing, you might have life in his name.” The epistle’s purpose – bringing the readers into equal fellowship with the Word the witnesses have seen, heard, and touched – is as focused as its syntax is unfocused. My 1599 Geneva puts all of verse 2 in parenthesis and interrupts verse 3 with an “I say” just to signal that we’re trying to complete the sentence the epistle starts with. Just to clean things up for the English eye and ear.

Now we’re getting to what I love about the 1599 version of 1 John’s opening. Where Tyndale (an earlier New Testament version) has “which we have sene with oure eyes which we have loked vpon and oure hondes have hadled,” my 1599 Geneva adds words to create an incredulous tone through an occasional iambic meter:

That which was from the beginning, which wee haue heard, which wee haue seene with these our eyes, which wee haue looked vpon, and these handes of ours haue handled of that Word of life, [emphasis mine]

I can see John, standing before his children, pointing his index fingers to his eyes at “seen” and “these” and “eyes,” and repeatedly moving his outspread fingers away from his breast to the rhythm of “hands” and “ours” and “handled.”

You need a fix of incarnation or immanence? Meditate on this, children.

° ° °

We’ll be in the flesh at Kenyon for B’s senior art show this weekend. Very excited about it. So nice to have the four of us together again.

For her wide-ranging project, B’s been bringing in extra help – a physics professor to help her with electrical issues, some kind fellow students to help her with installation and other matters. Before she started, she knew almost as little as I do about physics, but her outreach to the physics professor landed her this semester in what has become one of her favorite courses, a survey of the physics involved in different gadgets, some of which the students get to create. Kenyon’s been a good match for B’s art because she wants to incorporate stuff outside of traditional art-think (whatever that is).

Her two-week spring break ended today. It really wasn’t a break; she and her fellow senior art majors, about twenty of them, had moved into some new dorms and had worked on the ten-day show that opens Wednesday night.

° ° °

I don’t know how many winter breaks we’ve had. We celebrated the season’s fourteenth snow day today after last night’s nine inches. So today I shoveled, napped, and graded essays. We’re now a day shy of missing three weeks of school. We’re also a day shy of using up all of our fifteen-snow-day allotment. After Day Fifteen, they’ll extend the school year further into June.

It snowed some more today after school was canceled, and it stayed below freezing all day, too, but they’re still making us go back tomorrow. It’s possible, though, we’ll get another snowstorm before the month’s over, according to the weather bureau’s long-range forecast. After all of this, I’d hate to leave that last day on the table.

  1. Alister McGrath, In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and How It Changed a Nation, a Language, and a Culture, at 128.

A goal of good lit crit: humanity

This post is from a letter I wrote a friend as part of correspondence we had in 2011 that touched on the purposes of literary criticism.

3PictureGeorgeSteinerOne of the things I love about [literary critic George] Steiner is how the development and state of language, and even the act of reading, are ultimately moral issues for him.  People who genuinely love Shakespeare can commit atrocities of twentieth century magnitude, he asserts.  So we have to be affected by what we read.  One of my favorite lines from one of the Language & Silence essays (“To Civilize our Gentlemen”):

In I. A. Richards’ Practical Criticism we find the following:

The question of belief or disbelief, in the intellectual sense, never arises when we are reading well.  If unfortunately it does arise, either through the poet’s fault or our own, we have for the moment ceased to be reading and have become astronomers, or theologians, or moralists, persons engaged in quite a different type of activity.

To which the answer should be: No, we have become men.

He sees a link between Calvinism and historicism (and positivism) in the field of literature that Harry Jaffa seems to intuit in the field of political science (and of course Steiner has lots to say about the relationship of literature and politics).  Calvinists and historicists (strange bedfellows . . .) don’t recognize what one might call a divine spark in human nature, and so projects such as self-government and even humanity (humane, human-ness) become impossible. (This is the irony of Calvinism, to me.)

3PictureBookSteinerLanguageSilenceSteiner seems to have struggled long and hard with his calling.  He is a critic who in some essays seems almost to apologize for his calling’s existence.  But that struggle, I think, won him a clearer notion of what a true critic does than I have yet read anywhere else.  (I celebrate his understanding of criticism, but I celebrate his own humanity even more, which gives me hope that my own struggle with the inconsistencies of writing and silence, while they may never make articulated sense, may transform something in me one day.)  He thinks good criticism can “show us what to reread, and how.”  (There are a lot of books out there; lots of first reads, even, to choose a second from among . . .)  “Secondly, criticism can connect.  In an age in which rapidity of technical communication in fact conceals obstinate ideological and political barriers, the critic can act as intermediary and custodian.”  And the third purpose makes a helpful distinction between a reviewer and a good critic:

There is a distinction between contemporary and immediate.  The immediate hounds the reviewer.  But, plainly, the critic has special responsibilities toward the art of his own age.  He must ask of it not only whether is represents a technical advance or refinement, whether it adds a twist of style or plays adroitly on the nerve of the moment, but what it contributes to or detracts from the dwindled reserves of moral intelligence.  What is the measure of man this work proposes?

And the final defense of lit crit in this same essay (“Humane Literacy” (1963)):

Because the community of traditional values is splintered, because words themselves have been twisted and cheapened, because the classic forms of statement and metaphor are yielding to complex, transitional modes, the art of reading, of true literacy, must be reconstituted.  It is the task of literary criticism to help us read as total human beings, by example of precision, fear, and delight.  Compared to the act of creation, that task is secondary.  But it has never counted more.  Without it, creation itself may fall upon silence.

I just want to stand up and shout.

I love what you say about practicing lit crit before embarrassing ourselves in public, and I think Steiner is with us there, too:

. . . what the critic hopes for is a qualified assent, a “Yes, but . . ” which will compel him to reexamine or refine his own response and lead to fruitful dialogue. . . .  No less than an artist — indeed, more so — the critic is in need of a public.  Without it the act of ideal reading, the attempt to re-create the work of art in the critical sensibility is doomed to becoming arbitrary impression or mere dictate.  There must exist or be trained within the community a body of readers seeking to achieve in vital concert a mature response to literature.  Only then can the critic work with that measure of consent which makes disagreement creative.  Language itself is the supreme act of community.  The poem has its particular existence in a “third realm,” at a complex, unstable distance between the poet’s private use of words and the shape of these same words in current speech.  To be realized critically the work of literature must find its complete reader; but that reader (the critic) can only quicken and verify his response if a comparable effort at insight is occurring somewhere around him.

(From his essay “F. R. Leavis.”) It reminds me of Calvino’s and Walter Ong’s thoughts on the reader’s essential role in creation.

Schoodic Peninsula

Victoria and I have gone on two trips alone, our honeymoon in 1991 and a trip to Northern New England twenty years later as an anniversary celebration. When we left D.C. in July 2011, temperatures there were forecast to reach 108 degrees. It was 97 in Portland soon after we flew there, and a couple of the locals told us that it hadn’t gotten that hot since they’d lived there. It slowly cooled off during our eight days driving around Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire. Here’s an email we wrote home to parents and children.

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Dear Mom, Pop, Bethany, and Warren,

We spent the morning and early afternoon exploring the Schoodic Peninsula version of Acadia National Park.  It’s more beautiful and accessible than the far-more-popular part of the park across the water against Bar Harbor.  We probably saw no more than twenty other tourists at the park today. We were outnumbered by the biologists, over a hundred and ten of whom were on the peninsula for “Bio Blast,” a conference and research weekend of some kind focusing on the park’s animal and plant life.

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Our waitress at the bed and breakfast this morning saw Victoria’s Kenyon shirt and exclaimed, “I almost applied there!”  She had just graduated from the peninsula’s local high school, and she’ll be at Georgetown this fall.  Based on that, I asked her if she was her class’s valedictorian, and she said yes.  She intends to major in public policy; of course, Georgetown is great for that.

“I’m interested in school reform,” she told us. Her school had been a failing school under the Maine system, which, she said, rates schools solely on SAT scores.  That’s bad for schools like hers, in which many students have no intention of going to college.  She received a grant and was the student representative on some committee that led to the principal being fired.  Talk about turning lemons (a bad high school) into lemonade for the ol’ college application.

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Another waitress served our food, but her accent – she was from Mississippi, as it turned out – was so strong I couldn’t make out “eggs” until I had her repeat it twice for me.  She returned to the kitchen, and then the couple at the table beside ours burst out laughing.  They were from Germany and spoke fluent English with thick accents, too.  “We are so glad to hear that you couldn’t understand her, either!”

We had a grand time talking.  Evidently in their sixties, the two of them were stateside for three weeks and were spending it mostly the way we’re spending our one week, if you substitute Boston for our Portland.  He had a new camera that he was researching and using a great deal, to his wife’s occasional consternation, so they were our mirror peregrine images. We ended up comparing cameras and taking pictures of one another on the inn’s lawn.

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After visiting a locally famous glass shop, we left the peninsula and drove to New Hampshire. We’re staying at a renovated railroad hotel constructed in 1843 in the middle of a small town that hugs the White Mountains. Large rooms, tall ceilings, very wide halls, and grand staircases. We have room no. 1, a corner room on the second floor facing the street.  There’s a second-floor porch next door to our room, and we sat out under the large, neon sign and watched the sporadic street life below. It was almost unfair, the perch we had for eavesdropping in this quiet town. The hotel feels slightly seedy and rundown, which I like.

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We had eaten dinner on the way here at a barbeque pub in a small Maine town on the state border.  The towns in southwest Maine that we drove through today often have beautiful views of nearby lakes and mountains.  We saw a large fair crowded with a lot of water activities. Most towns seemed to have a sybaritic air that seemed entirely absent from Eastern Maine.

Driving through the White Mountains at dusk was beautiful.  We’ll take the train to the top of Mount Washington tomorrow.

We miss you all.

Love,
Peter

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