It's the reason I get up every afternoon.
Comments on lifelong learners from readers…
Roger — So happy to see this nice clean white “page” with nice black print. Talk about lifelong learning! And by the way, do lifelong learners have to get old? Mozart? Keats? What are the rules?
Marietta: Please, no rules, definnitions. And no age restrictions need apply either. Personally, I’d name Mozart, and the world is in full agreement about Beethoven, I think. If Keats is trickier it’s not because his last works aren’t quite wonderful but because I think his best work had he lived would have been in prose, fiction probably, and I don’t think that would have occurred to him. The poetic talent seems, if only to me, thin, one-noted. Roger
Performing a poem is lovely. I am enjoying these postings immensely.
Thanks, Kay, for checking in. And, since this will be sent to everyone, can everyone help me with this: I met three people yesterday, the day Performing a Poem was posted. All had read it. All wanted me to go on. I had thought I’d done enough. Have I? Roger
Very briefly, I’d like to mention J.B. (“Bruno”) Bronowski as a candidate for the life-long learning cadre. My reason – or my chief reason is this: Bronowski was a thorough Coleridgean in that he saw the Imagination (in Coleridge’s special sense of the word ) as the central and defining human faculty. And in his own life he demonstrated how, honoring that faculty allowed him to move easily and seamlessly from the realms of painting and literature to atomic theory and intellectual history, and many other fields. He is not a great thinker in any particular area , but that’s not the point;his chief contribution was to emphasize the importance of integrative and relational thinking which is so lacking in our schools and colleges, and almost completely absent from much of what passes for ‘science’ of economics, and much else.
I’d also like to plump for Owen Barfield, but that’s another story.
Keith Harrison: Thanks so much for this, and I hope you’ll do the same for Barfield; you’re naming just the people I think others should know about. RS
Keith Harrison: Thanks very much for this about Bronowski, and I hope you’ll write about Barfield too. The Bronowski I remember best is THE ASCENT OF MAN, which I once called the kind of book I was hoping to find when I went to college, but seldom did find. I felt that way about some of the relatively early Lewis Mumford, before he became an expert, as it were, or at least a pronouncer,on cities. Roger
Roger: Since my last comment and your kind replies I’ve been mulling over some ideas which I hope might be useful but am at bit if an impasse about the kind of contribution I could make so I want to ask some questions, but I’m not sure I should do so directly on the site. It occurred to me that, as a preliminary, I should write to you directly and ask some of those questions before I make another public appearance but I don’t have your email address. I take your point about ‘rules’ – that’s not what I’m looking for. Strategies might be a better word. Anyway, if it would be to the point, I can set down some queries. Meantime, I want to commend you for getting this whole thing up an going. It’s very valuable. I look forward to hearing from you in any way you think fit.
My best, Keith Harrison
So now, if you haven’t got it, email@example.com. I’ll await yours eagerly. One thought: I want people to do some writing if they’re willing. Heard from a woman today who named Edmund Wilson. I urged her to write some about him; she’s younger than I am by a tad, but she’s also the grandaughter of Maxwell Perkins, and I’d love to have her do a piece of writing on him. I’m now writing about Ted Baird, and my guess is that you could have heard of him only via Liz who got Baird from Bill Coles, and that may be more knowing of him than most others on the email list. So I’m really going slowly, trying to create him, much more than I did with Jacobs.
In order to help define the territory a bit more I thought I’d make a list, with a few notes, of some of the people who perhaps qualify for a place of honor. The first two are very new to me ( I mean in the last few days) and I know only a smidgin about them but they seem, on early acquaintance, to be well worth digging into:
Tony Judt (who died very recently from a horrible moto-neuron disease but who kept thinking hard until the moment he shut down. Heard him speak (recorded) at a conference on academic freedom and, on another occasion, on the work of the Israel Lobby. Very clear and level-headed and in many ways sharply anti-establishment. He has written a good deal on European History and I’m itching to get those books.
Anne McClintock – feminist, teaches at U. of Wisconsisn. Read a very disturbing article in Counterpunch on the cover-up over the gulf oil spill – which is not her usual territory. She is author of books and articles on feminism and the one I dipped into at Amazon. com looked very solid and well written, and provocative.
P.W.B. Medawar, a Nobel Laureate in biology who took delight in ranging around the whole field. Quite at home in painting, and a range of the humanities. His review of Teilhard de Chardin’s The Phenomenon of Man is hilarious. He achieves a marvelous balance in that he shows how absurd most of de Chardin’s argument is and yet he isn’t unkind. Most reviwers can’t do that. And on the way he tells us a lot about biology. Scientist, humanist, witty, urbane, very readable.
Michael Polyani, The Tacit Dimension. Long while since I read him but he turns some of our perceptions about knowledge and science on their head in a very challenging way. I’m anxious to get back to him. Small book, graceful writer.
Guns, Germs and Steel: Jarred Diamond. I was enthralled by this book which is impossible to categorize becasue he’s interested in anthropology, linguistics, history, technology and much else. His second book on the death of empires was nowhere near as impressive but G, G and S covers and enormous range.
Do any of your correspondents share my interest in any of these people? I would like to learn more about them. If so, I’ll add a few more to see if we are building some kind of critical mass here. Meanwhile a footnote on Bronowski:
Evidently he was a first-rate statistician but I think his main contribution was to intellectual history. He had an amazing grasp of the – how shall I say ? interior history of both the arts and the sciences of the Western world. In much of his work, either implicitly, or with particular examples, he tries to show the correspondences between the arts and the sciences. I once heard him give a talk in which he dwelt for several minutes very amusingly on Leonardo’s Lady with a Stoat and showed that the painting is built on a kind of visual pun. I can’t look at the painting without remembering what he said and seeing what he saw. Once, while driving with him to the airport he talked about the Doppler Effect and then shifted, very gracefully, to poems by Robert Frost and Wilfed Owen, which he had by heart. He saw the Coleridgean Imagination as central to all our intellectual activity and showed that, without it you have, literally, nothing to work with. The book that he co-authored with Bruce Mazlish on Western intellectual history, though it contains nothing profound or original (tough word, that!) on any of the people he discusses has the overall virtue of providing a map of many of the important things that have happened in the West and, more to the point, how the map holds together.
This breadth and depth of knowledge allowed him to stand back and get things in perspective. Another thing he talked about in the car was the enormous fuss then being made (this was in the early seventies) about the work of B.F. Skinner who some people were comparing with Darwin. I don’t remember his exact words but he pointed out that when the culture of learning becomes ingrown and provincial minor figures, because they say something ‘new’ can appear as giants. His disdain for Skinner was palpable and I think history has vindicated his assessment of Skinner’s work.
I want to say something more about Bronowski’s ideas and the implications they have for Liberal Learning, but I’ll leave that for another time as i want to come at it from a peculiar angle in the hope that it might be of interest to the (I assume) gathering crew.
I’d like to say something about Keats too but that, likewise can wait.
Your spirit is entirely kindred to mine, and you write with clarity and apparent ease. The only problem now is that this entire conversation has been conducted under About, that posting I never made and that seemed just to pop up. I’ll mention this in #8 so others can be sure to read you. Roger
Oh dear, where, then, should I put my contributions to the discussion? Liz was also puzzled about how to make her entry, but no doubt she has contacted you by now.
Keith: Good question. Put them either with #6 to make a packet, or with the most recent posting. Thanks, Roger
It now occurs to me that About, cite created I know not how,might be a good repository for all those wanting to write about exemplary LLers. So click on that–ah!–if you ever get to read this notice.
A separate posting, almost, should be concerning the helper I need to lead, guide, direct me here. Roger
Roger: I’ll follow your suggestion and use the changeling site until we can gather all the notes in a suitable way. I wondered if any of your correspondents are interested in the following people who seem to me very worthy of being on the list. I set these down in the hope that others may agree:
Guy Davenport. I thought his Geography of the Imagination was a stunning read though it kept reminding me, in the kindest way, what an ignoramus I am. His nearest spirit is Hugh Kenner and Pound is the father of both. But he is better than Pound in several major respects, the chief one being that he is a thoroughly ‘modern man’ and at the same as he lives in present day Kentucky, he is able to make a solid bridge to the ancient world and travel freely along it stopping where he will, and feeling at home. Pound inhabited a strange Arcadian mid-world of his own and wasn’t really at home anywhere except in his own mind which, except for his very considerable knowledge of prosody, was a very odd mind anyway. Davenport is eccentric but he is not odd in that sense. What he says about many writers both ancient and modern seems to me very accurate. I will have to read him for the rest of my life to test that hypothesis but so far he seems very congenial if breathtakingly brilliant.
Jerome Bruner: Again, I’m just beginning with him too but some of his essays particularly Freud and the Image of Man are very informative, and very readable.
Does anyone know the essays of my compatriot Clive James? I used to think – after only reading his autobiographical meanderings, mostly set in England – that he was a bit of a ratbag, as they say in Australia, but when I discovered his literary essays i had to re-assess. He has a really good grip on the times and when he gets into something such as an impressive German writer he takes the time to learn German. Likewise with the Italians. His memory for poetry is prodigious and he writes with great ease and charm.
I had some more but will content myself with only one for the moment: Alain Danielou – a polymath Frenchman whose book on the Indian musical scales is astonishingly well-informed. But he was much more than a musicologist. He also PLAYED some of the classical Indian instruments, understood a number of Indian languages and, like Davenport, was a very productive citizen in and for his own times.
I hope all the otherentries will be available on the site soon. I want to hear more about Mozart and Keats for starters.
I met a woman when I was 30-ish and she was 20-ish. I came from a family that valued education, Mostly that meant schools, and ‘good” schools — and the farther you went in school, the better. She did not. I imagine both our families had about the same financial resources at the time, though I do not know this for a fact.
She is however, the first person I thought of when the subject of ‘life-long learners’ was presented to me.
Perhaps it is because I felt that I knew what I wanted to do as the major focus in my life from an early age, and she did not, but she has impressed me, sometimes amazed me, with the openness that she has greeted new ideas, new challenges, and new interests. She cooks interesting food, and well (having been raised on Taco Bell), she decided that being a trapeze performer sounded like fun and so she did it, and she recently told me that her biggest problem with her 6 year old daughter was getting her to respond when called to a meal…the book the daughter was reading was apparently more interesting.
Sounds like she’s not just learning herself, but passing it on, to me.
I’ve some names to put down here, sparked by reading A.S. Byatt’s THE CHILDREN’S BOOK, a novel that can be called encyclopedic or panoramic, covering England 1890-1914, that also feels personal and domestic. I feel comfortable in saying it’s her best novel since POSSESSION almost 20 years ago. Byatt is well into her 70s.
Her sister, MARGARET DRABBLE, also into her 70s, has written three books in the last 5-6 years, all of which, like Byatt’s, are chockablock with data, bits on bits of searching and finding, as though they’d just been hanging around for the Internet to arrive. Drabble’s most recent, THE FIGURE IN THE PUZZLE,is a memoir about her family which also is an exploration of the creation and appeal or jigsaw puzzles and other games which start with chaos and end with clarity and completion. But just before this came two novels, THE PEPPERED MOTH, and SEA-CREATURE, full of family, full of childhood, full of lore, if not Drabble’s best, her best in a long long time.
I should be this eager and curious.
Roger: Had the luck to meet Margaret Drabble some years ago. Charming woman who carries her very considerable skills lightly. Haven’t read her sister but you’re not the first I’ve heard praise her highly.
For weeks I’ve wanted to add something to your comments about Keats. I’m not going to take you up on the question of what might have come of him but will restrict myself to one poem, the famous Autumn one. What amazes me is how he saw through all the Christian and Deistic stuff of his era and is simply content to be in and one with the season. One could call it objective poetry and even say that the whole thing has the clarity of much Buddhist perception, but I don’t know that either of those helps much. What came home to me much later when I was teaching Stevens is how much that poem has in common with ‘ Sunday Morning, not the ‘argument’ of the poem as a whole – though that’s important here in a way – but how in Stevens world things’ happen:’ the pigeons sinking ‘Downward to darkness on extended wings.’ Just that. Like Frost’s buck in The Most of It, which some consider a depressing poem, missing (I think) the real point of the poem. Anyway Stevens’ magnificent last stanza always takes me back to Keats’ ‘And gathering swallows twitter in the skies (sky? I don’t have the text by me). The world is as it is. No fuss, no metaphysical neon signs. There’s a lot of there there, to paraphrase Gertrude.
I was going to say something about Mozart too, but only this for the moment. It’s astonishing to me that ( and he’s like Bizet in this respect) the dramatic line moves at the same pace and with same intensity as the musical line. I should put that the other way, but you see what I mean. In a lot of opera the story often stands still while we listen to a beautiful aria. In Mozart the musical line is always dramatically alive, even when, paradoxically, it stands still – as in the famous ‘chorale’ of Zoraster.
Reminds me a little of what Leavis says about Shakespeare being a ‘dramatic poet’ i.e. the drama and the poetry happen at the same time – cf. Willie Yeats and old Uncle Tom, among others. They can’t bring that off.
There, a couple of marginalia. If they are too egghead you must tell me. I’m still not sure I’ve plunged into the heart of all the discussion so far and have the sense I’m missing something, though I do read About carefully.
My best, Keith
Glad to see the new topic and look forward to future posts. My first post-doctoral teaching job was an “experimental college,” a sort of college-within-the college at a small state university in the Northern Great Plains. It was federally funded and collapsed after five years, when the grant ran out. It had its golden moments, but on the whole may have left me disillusioned with reform though I tried to carry the idealism on into another 25 years of “regular” college teaching.
Like most people in the trade, I spent part of my time, in graduate school and out, guru hunting—-looking for someone who seemed to offer a comprehensive guide to All Things Esthetic, a Key to all Mythologies. My list is almost embarrassing long, beginning with I.A. Richards in 1963, including (among others) Susan Langer, Herbert Read, Josef Pieper, Northrup Frye, Jacques Maritain. Ultimately–and mercifully–they all failed to give me what I thought I wanted, but for a week or a month or a semester or a year, I read (or half read) them as a thirsty man drinks water. As I look back over the list in light of Roger’s blog, Herbert Read seemed the likeliest candidate for lifetime learner, so I spent some time looking back at the (surprisingly good) holdings in our little university library. Even more striking in this context than the books are the prefaces: to a book on Chinese calligraphy, to a book on the Gothic art, to a collection of the letters of Trigant Burrow (who?), to a dictionary of symbols, even to an edition of Camus’ The Rebel. David Goodway’s Herbert Read Reassessed lists nearly 300 books, pamphlets, novels, and books of poetry, 13 of them published in the four years before Read’s death in 1968. Read has a thoroughly Romantic non-esthetic based on the primacy of “instinct and intuition” but he seems best when he places himself before a specific work and tries to say what he can–in short when he seems to acknowledge what Roger tried to describe in his book On Not Being Good Enough, the sense that“ It is not easy to become literate, but it really takes no more than energy and the curiosity that allows for persistent bafflement.” I should be glad to hear from other–and more persistent–readers of Read.
Thanks to George Slanger’s entry about Herbert Read, about whom I can’t remember enough to comment.
But To Keith on Keats’Autumn I can, because in its way it confirms what I wrote a long ways back. My citation was the long letter to George and Georgiana Keats the previous spring, full of wit, cheerful observation, playful bits about Coleridge and the rhyming in “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” the world as a vale of soul=making. What I would call the world of the novel, what you identify as the that thereness of Autumn. No matter what he might have done;what’s he’d learned near the end of his life were things new, and precious.
Your notes on Performance made me prick my ears, Roger, and, taking off from what you say, I want to come at the question from a very different angle. For years I’ve been interested in the public performance of poetry, and I don’t just, or mainly mean reciting. To get at what I do mean I have to take a circuitous route. Like you, with Lewis Carroll’s little masterpiece I want to think about poetry as sound, something that most people, including most literary academics, find of marginal interest. I have a whole essay on my personal web-site called The Human Voice in Poetry which is about all this but I’ll try to condense the argument, such as it is, here.
We know nothing about the origins of language nor, therefore, of the origins of poetry. One fairly safe assumption is that – as with the baby who repeats ma ma or da da – they both began as sound. It’s only later that (both phylogenetically and ontogenetically – big words but useful) the sounds, with repetition, become meanings: mama, maman, mère, mother, ma mie, mammy, daddy, dad etc. In this sense then the origin of poetry and language are the same. Both have their root in the human mouth, throat and voice, to make their own kind of music. I think that’s why nearly everyone likes ‘Twas brillig . . ‘– it seems to take us back to the origins of our language where the meanings shift and cross and flow into each other as ‘sounds’. When we perform it we can play with sounds, as our neolithic forbears may have done.
To move back into the world of fact – one of the things that the ancient Mongolians and the Tibetans discovered was that the human voice is an extraordinary ‘orchestra’ of sounds. Pythagoras did the same thing much later, but he did it with strings. As far as I know he wasn’t interested in the sound potentials of the human voice as such – which is very odd as our voices are the primary way we present ourselves to the world. But let that pass. What Pythagoras did discover was that if you make a sustained sound on any note is becomes the mother of a whole range of other notes, which musicians call harmonics or overtones. As Yeats tells us, Pythagoras ‘Fingered upon a fiddlestick of strings’ and showed us that when you halve the length of the stretched string you get a sound an octave higher, and so on. The Mongolians and the Tibetans, and maybe other people, did that with the voice in somewhat different ways, but this is the main idea: if you chant one note very firmly and you use your throat, lips, tongue etc. in special ways (it takes years to learn) – an amazing thing happens. The overtones which, as Pythagoras showed, are part of the natural order of things, will resonate at the same time as the root note, or sah, or doh – or whatever you like to call it. What you are producing is overtones of that sound, which are mathematically related and which harmonize with it in the same way that the notes E,G, B etc relate to the lower C on a piano etc. Not only that – and this is the really thrilling part – as you get more skilled, at producing overtones you can hold the lower note firm and as you do you can make the overtones of that note whistle and flute quite rapidly up and down. If you do this in a very still forest you can hear the overtones break off and float independently through the trees and they can run for hundreds of yards, while the deeper root note stays closer to home, that is closer to your own throat. This sounds odd, but it’s true. I’ve heard it done, and I’ve done it.
What in the devil has that to do with the public performance of poetry? someone may be asking. I think the answer is ‘maybe plenty’. When we hear, and I mean really hear Roger’s little gem from Lewis Carroll, or when we listen to Pound’s tiny ‘Fan-piece, for Her Imperial Lord’
O fan of white silk,
clear as frost on the grass-blade,
You also are laid aside.
we realize, as we experience the poem as a special kind of music, that language – all language – can be heard as a stream of vowels separated and joined by consonants. I used to tell my young writers that we have only one thing to work with: syllables – and syllables consist of those two elements. First and last, that’s all there is. Of course there are all those wonderful things between, such as ‘meaning’ and ‘emphasis’ and ‘plot’ and ‘facts’ and ‘logic’, and on and on. But when any writer forgets that his basic material is sound, and that there are two, and only two, elements in his prose or poetry which are inevitably dancing together in a hundred ways, the writing becomes deaf.
Here’s the point: when Roger or myself or anyone else performs a poem viva voce – and this is a matter of physics – the speaking/performing voice not only has a tone, it is charged with overtones which are only half-heard. Nonetheless they are very powerful. To make this clearer: a flute and a clarinet might play exactly the ‘same’ note but they will sound distinctly different. We hear that difference immediately because of the difference in the patterns of their overtones. The tones are, obviously, identical. To put this another way: in a good writer we not only hear the basic tone but the way the overtones marry with the meaning.
To be practical about all this I want to use an example of my own, not out of vanity but because it’s a passage I know well and I think it will illustrate my ‘argument’. Here’s the passage:
When we come home to the good place in ourselves
There’s a brown music like the hum of bees,
And then the speech of our hands is delicate and sure;
We touch our children and our aging fathers.
This greeting, this farewell, the cantus firmus
On which all our smaller songs depend.
We stand here in the courtyard in winter sunlight,
Carried a moment beyond the edge of speech
Carried to a place where sound rises in quiet columns.
Clumps of pampas push up from the ground,
Like the heads of giants, our witnesses.
The Greeks are in us and the green bones of our children.
Two major points, and I’ll make them briefly: the words come, home, hum, moment, columns, clumps and in a distant way, firmus, green and bones form a family of sounds. (I didn’t realize all this until after I’d written the piece, but that doesn’t matter.) What does matter is that if you get a didjeridu, or a cello or – better still – a group of singers to sustain a note at the natural pitch of the performer’s voice something very interesting happens. The words that the speaker is performing will alternate between two distinct modes: they will be heard as ‘meanings’ (come, home, etc) and then they will drown in the surrounding plenum of sound and merge into the ‘humming’ (which, of course, has no ‘meaning’). In other words they will first foreground themselves as lexical meaning and then go back to their origins as sound. Apparently Lewis Carroll was once tempted to translate Jabberwocky into English. He realized, fortunately, that the enterprise was unnecessary; we all know about slithy toves and mimsy borogroves and we don’t need a dictionary. That’s why we like the poem: the sounds make the meanings is immediate even though we don’t understand them!
So here’s the rub as far as performance is concerned, and that’s where we, or at least I started: one way of thinking about poetry in performance is to start off where Carroll, or Campion, or Pope, or Dylan Thomas or ancient Hebrew or Christian chanting do. If we think of poetry as sound we can devise a kind of plenum or ‘pure sound’ with a didjeridu, cello, chanting, or whatever is suitable for that poem – and the poem will move between ,’meaning’ and sound. Campion, who knew all about this, would have been very hard pressed to say whether he was a musician or a poet. He was both, and he was both at the same time. When you first hear: ‘Never weather-beaten sail,’ or a score of other pieces by him you sense that instinctively.
Handel, likewise, understood the music of Pope’s words in’ Where’er you walk’. His setting is acutely aware of Pope’s consonants and vowels as well as of their ‘meanings’. Most song-writers, Schubert not excepted, choose poor lyrics because they need the words and the ‘story’ only as a matrix for the melody. Who can remember more than a few lines of a Schubert song? – yet we can recall scores of his melodies.
Anyway, Schubert and scores of others point to the split I’ve been hinting at and which is at the base of our contemporary deafness. We have become a culture of the eye and the brain. In the academy almost everybody is concerned, in one form or another, with hermeneutics. The essential music of poetry is given scant attention. Hardly any teachers perform poetry in class, and most students never even consider it as a possible way of understanding. (I’ve got to write this paper on it!) Hence we characteristically read poetry as if we were studying the score of a sonata and don’t really hear the music except as a faint echo. Yet our direct, and enduring experience of poetry, as Roger implies, is rooted in the sounds inherent in the poem itself, in the language itself and, to extend Roger’s point, in the tones and overtones of the performer’s voice.
There’s a lot more to say about poetry in performance if there’s any interest, but I’ll just add this for now. If you can find a way of going back, as Carroll does, to the real origins of poetry you can present a poem in public in a different way. You can make meaning and sound blend into something new, and very old. You can even have the audience join in on the chanting. Most audiences, once they get past the initial strangeness, find it a rewarding experience. Lévy-Bruhl’s participation mystique: they get to perform too instead of being only passive listeners. In doing that they catch the ‘meaning’ of a poem in all its fullness. It’s a kind of feast which our usual ‘interpretations’ almost never offer us.
Whne we come home to the good place in ourselves
There’s a brown music like the hum of bees.
And then the speech of our hands is delicate and sure.
We touch our children and our aging fathers
PERFORMANCE POST SCRIPTUM:
I hope everybody will realize that the four lines of verse at the end of my remarks on poetry, sound and performance are redundant. Somehow when I transferred the text from my file to the comment box the lines detached themselves from the text and multiplies. These electronic tics can sometimes make us sound incoherent which, on this occasion, I wasn’t! Sorry for any confusion.
The uneasy feeling comes that I’m replying too frequently, but you did say you’d love to hear from us, so here goes on one or two of your questions. The Liberal Arts is, I believe, what we used to call Education in this country circa 1905 – William James, and all that. It’s, as I argued earlier here, a question of making a number of overlapping maps: historical, intellectual, scientific, humaniitic, and so one. The idea is to home in on something that really fascinates you, and from that developing strength, learn to make excursions into other areas, some of which will have direct bearing on your specialty, some marginal and some apparently no bearing at all. It’s a constant flux. What appeared irrelevant on Tuesday may be very significant on Friday.
The idea is to also to read books and talk about them with friends. Argue, challenge. listen. My own mostly second-rate education took place in Australia finishing up at the University of Melbourne (category Commonwealth Young Ivy). English and French. Taught for 3 years in a country High School, then off to Europe and , much later, America.
I disliked high school and most of the classes at U. of Melbourne. I was lucky with friends. One of them (quite literally) knew Paradise Lost by heart, as well as loads of Eliot, Yeats, Spenser, and on and on.. I hardly went to lectures as most of the Profs were dried out and belonged to the class of the spiritually unemployed. There were some really notable exceptions. Early on I knew if i were to get an education I would have to design it myself and tried. Still trying. The English language is key. Other languages too. If a scientist can’t give a rough but very clear idea of the nature of his work to a non-specialist he is either a charlatan or a nincompoop. As the Arabs say, Shun him. Language is the matrix. It’s not only, as Ausden said, the handmaiden of thought is is very often the mother of thought. It winds us into the ‘story’, whatever it is; It allows us to breathe, roam, dance with ideas. Homo ludens. the absolute necessity of ‘play’. And Plays.
Liberal education is almost dead in this country. We live in a country of the eye. We have forgotten the meanings of the verbs ‘ouir’ and’ entendre’. Ouir is cognate with ‘hear’. entendre gives us ‘entendu’ (heard=understood). Ouir also gives us Oui = (by implication) Yes, but that was not its original meaning.
Philological understanding is of vital importance. No one teaches it, hardly anyone learns it. We use words as if they were old signs. As long as you get the ‘meaning’ language doesn’t matter all that much.
Enough of that, though. There is hope. I met some splendid young students at the Univ. of Minnesota two weeks ago. Young people can be very surprising. I look forward to the time of Rebellion. It will come from continual starving. The young deserve much better than they are getting. Universities are good places becasuse the resources are there, and some marvelous people. That’s why you go. The ‘courses’ are very often a waste of time. Certification. Success. People like Arne Duncan are totally without vision. High Scores on Tests. That’s the only thing that matters. He is a scourge and be-suited, and besotted with nothing, and well paid. Successful.
I think young people should learn how to be successful in managing a budget so well that they can retire early and get on with the serious things in life: thinking, using one’s hands with skill, learning how to relate to people, learning how to build a rich relationship, learning to be awake and curious. All very difficult. I suppose kids have to go to school though I remember the words of Miriam Rothschild (Nobel Laureate in plant genetics) who said she would never let her kids go to school because it spoils all their natural curiosity and creativity. She’s mainly right about that.
Very inadequate sketch. I think we need to listen to each other and explore. That’s why I like this enterprise I much look forward to hearing what all you others say.
A few months ago I steeped onto the golf course having, that morning, been persuaded by Lance Armstrong’s testimony for a new drink called (I think) FRS and found, to my astonishment and delight a surge of very centering energy that remained with me for several hours. It was a very vivid experience: I hit the golf ball a lot further than usual and felt both calm and very focussed. I have no idea how it worked. I told the womenfolk in my family about i, and they were horrified ” You know you have high blood pressure and that stuff’s likely to kill you.” So that’s the last and only time I tried it. Since then I’ve looked at a lot of stuff on the web about it and, though the drink is not exactly a scam, the small print does lock you up, so I called the credit card company, deleted my card and got another one. A nuisance but it saved my being charged a hefty sum each month for a contract that I may have found difficult to get around. Others have found so. Yet I do miss that energy. It didn’t feel unhealthy at all. But my womenfolk are powerful, if terse, orators, and I haven’t tried the stuff again. I’m very tempted though, and others have also experienced the surge. Some others have experienced nothing when they drink it, some have felt ill. Many are convinced the whole thing is a scam. I simply don’t know, but the feeling of youth and being intensely alive in the body were very real to me. I don’t know what I, or anyone else can make of it.
All the other things in Roger’s list can certainly help. But perhaps the sense of discovering something new (to oneself) is perhaps the most reliable among all the intermittencies associated with energy-surges. Here are a random few from my own wanderings: hearing David Hykes overtone chanting for the first time, then learning more about what he does and how he does it. I began to get a genuine sense (it may be a delusion) of what the ancients mean by the Musicke of the Spheares. Claudio Arrau playing Beethoven’s Appassionata is another. You have the unshakeable sense that that Beethoven puts notes together in a way that’s almost impossible to imagine, and you realize there are different KINDS of human beings. Same with Richard Feynman; how can a person be so quick, in both sense of the term, and so accurate? You can’t even generate a sense of envy. They are just ‘other’. Then there’s Pancho Gonzales who, along with Roy Emerson, was the greatest and most under-estimated tennis player of his era – bar no one. In the court he was like a cat, his feet always in the right place to make the stroke. And the huge delight he took in the game. Always grinning when he did perfect backhand – which was very often. Some moderns – Nadal and Federer are stong candidates here- are deeply committed to the game and really enjoy it. But Gonzales had this amazing sense of fun. Ase Eliot said about Marvell ‘C’etait un bel ame qu’on ne fait plus a Londres (this program has no accents – sorry).
Then there’s the great Australian aboriginal painter Emily Kane Kngwarre who STARTED painting at the age of 84 and produced hundreds of paintings in a ten year period. I think she is unquestionably a great painter of the stature of say, Turner, whom in some odd ways she resembles. When I think about her journeys and discoveries at such a ripe I look ion my own lack of energy as something to be scorned rather than accepted.
Falling in love is terrific, of course. But then one remembers several things. As I explained to an incredulous friend some time back, even monkeys fall in love, and according to Jane Goodall, they sometimes have a hard time of it. I think of Goethe too, in his ripe old age and his poem to a young woman of (I think ) 17 with whom he was briefly half-besotted. Goethe understood that falling in love is exciting, yes, but very tricky. I rate it fairly low as an energy source. Learning to love someone is another matter. That’s very, very difficult. Monkeys can’t do that. But when we make a little progress toward that goal it is very sustaining. There we are: perhaps we should write some notes on What is Sustaining? Maybe I’ve started to to do that.
I am cranky, as I just spent an hour typing a heartfelt, personal response to 18, and the phone rang and I hit a key and it all disappeared. The upshot: liberal arts education changed my life and the toolbox it gave me continues to be within my reach and so I continue to change and be changed. Sigh…
Please keep doing this, and trust that, for myself, I read and answer in spurts so keeping it up, intact, is a useful way for me to connect and reflect.
#30 THINGS THAT ENDURE
Stevens’ beautifully ironic line about April’s green is, I agree, one of the many he imagined which fits the new bill. Another example is this couplet: The honey of heaven may or may not come/ But that of earth both comes and goes at once.
But going back to his irony: In another place he talks about Imagination or Desire – I’m not sure which and it doesn’t much matter – and says that (one of them) passes away like everything else ‘But in the flesh it is immortal’.
Stevens endures in hundreds of ways. I want to come at your question by mentioning two other things: there is music by Monteverdi and Vivaldi and Mozart, and scores of others, that endures . We hand them on, as we can, to our kids and students. I want to suggest that one of the reasons why good music endures – along with best poems we know – is because of the least understood of all aspects of art: the quality of rhythm. Mozart knew all about rhythmic dynamism. Salieri – who was by no means an incompetent composer – didn’t. What catches our ear in the opening bars of the Bflat Piano Concerto is the subtlest rhythmic change. We aren’t even aware of it, but we sure as hell hear it. Salieri couldn’t do that. And this is the point, and Steven’s point: we hear any rhythm that’s really alive with our whole bodies. We can find scores of lines from Sir Gawain to Seamus Heaney where the memorability of a poem in very intimately connected with the sense of rhythm – a play between the fixed and the free that we find everywhere in Pope and Chaucer, Marvell, Fitzgerald’s Omar, and on and on and on.
Someone told me that the Greeks had two words for ‘life’ : ‘bios’ and ‘chloe’. Pure bios doesn’t endure (Eliot: ‘That which is only living can only die.’) Chloe is what lives on after us, not is some sentimental way, but in a living figure, and that figure is very often a rhythmic one.
There are other things about us which endure. When we learn to love someone the right way – and for me that’s about the most difficult thing I can think of – what we learn endures. It’s like the sap renewing each year in the dry vinestock under the pruner’s hands. Your ego and your ‘bios’ life fall away. Whatever genuine chloe life you experienced here will stay around – in ways that we might find very unexpected, and transformed, if we could stay around to hear them. That, alas, is all I think we can expect of ‘eternity’. But it’s not bad, as Stevens shows us very clearly with that ring of men in his Sunday Morning. A lot better than Yeats’ ‘palpable Elysium’, whatever that can mean! Who wants to be a bird made of metal who sings, but cannot sing?
Hi Roger – Greetings from Afghanistan – It’s nice to know that you’re still plugging along. After recieving a note from Gil & Jean that you had a blog, I figured I’d go there and see for myself. The blogs are great and I’lreturn to read them often. Hang in there.
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