Feb 24 2018

What Germans Thought of American Football Coaches 100 Years Ago

la casaWhat Germans Thought of American Football Coaches 100 Years Ago:
(At Least According to Max Weber):

Written in about 1917:

The American boy learns unspeakably less than the German boy.

In spite of an incredible number of examinations, his school life has not had the significance of turning him into an absolute creature of examinations, such as the German.

For in America, bureaucracy, which presupposes the examination diploma as a ticket of admission to the realm of office prebends, is only in its beginnings.

The young American has no respect for anything or anybody, for tradition or for public office—unless it is for the personal achievement of individual men.

This is what the American calls “democracy.” This is the meaning of democracy, however distorted its intent may in reality be, and this intent is what matters here.

The American’s conception of the teacher who faces him is: he sells me his knowledge and his methods for my father’s money, just as the greengrocer sells my mother cabbage. And that is all.

To be sure, if the teacher happens to be a football coach, then, in this field, he is a leader. But if he is not this (or something similar in a different field of sports), he is simply a teacher and nothing more. And no young American would think of having the teacher sell him a Weltanschauung or a code of conduct.

Now, when formulated in this manner, we should reject this. But the question is whether there is not a grain of salt contained in this feeling, which I have deliberately stated in extreme with some exaggeration. ––Max Weber (1864–1920)[1]

 

wood

[1] Max Weber, “Science and Politics,” From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, translated by H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills, (New York, NY: Oxford UP, 1958) 149–50.


Feb 18 2018

We Will Always Think Together (Even If We Don’t Think Alike)

Palazzo Re Enzo, Bologna, ItaliaWe Will Always Think Together (Even If We Don’t Think Alike):
Or, Relying on the Resemblance of Others to Think for Ourselves

catena: n. A string or series of extracts from the writings of the fathers, forming a commentary on some portion of Scripture; also, a chronological series of extracts to prove the existence of a continuous tradition on some point of doctrine. (Oxford English Dictionary)

As I have previously done here and here, what follows is another cantena of thoughts supplementing Alan Jacobs’s How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds (2017) and his point of how it is impossible to think for ourselves because we always rely on the thinking of others in order to think for ourselves.

However, the further I plod along in Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011), which Jacobs refers to (sometimes in agreement, sometimes not), the more I suspect that the quotations below, as well as those in my previous posts, may not compare as well with Jacobs’s point as I initially thought. They may not because I may be falling for resemblance bias, for all the quotations I give are based on my limited recent reading––which itself might constitute a combination of what Kahneman calls the availability and priming heuristics.[1]

In other words, instead of relying on the words of others so that I can understand Jacobs’s book, perhaps I’m really just relying on the resemblance of the words of others as they compare to Jacobs. Either way, here it goes:

wood

At age 33, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1808–1882) recognized: “I suppose my friends have some relation to my mind.”[2]

At age 37, Walter Kaufmann (1921–1980) taught that our convictions are worthless until we encounter others who dare challenge our convictions:

Ultimate convictions are often inconsistent and can be refuted. They cannot be proved. But they can be responsible or irresponsible. They are irresponsible if they are arbitrary and blind. They are responsible if they have grown out of encounter after encounter. And in the end we can only ask others to expose themselves to the same encounters—and, if after having done this they do not agree with us, expose ourselves to their criticisms. [3]

At age 44, filmmaker Stanley Kubrick (1928–1999) knew that, even the artist-as-author must rely on others to render creation. The working artist cannot be isolated but must come into communion and let the surrounding community contribute to the work at hand:

The reality of the final moment, just before shooting, is so powerful that all previous analysis must yield before the impressions you receive under these circumstance, and unless you use this feedback [of the cast and crew on the set] to your positive advantage, unless you adjust to it, adapt to it and accept the sometimes terrifying weaknesses it can expose, you can never realize the most out of your film…. If the camera operator spoils a shot, it can be done again. The thing that can never be changed, and the thing that is the make or break for a picture, are those few hours you spend alone in the actual place with the actors, with the crew outside drinking their tea.[4]

At age 66, Hannah Arendt (1906–1975) explained how Hegel got it wrong: that we cannot think in pure isolation:

No one has fought with more determination against the particular, the eternal stumbling block of thinking, the undisputable thereness of objects that no thought can reach or explain. The highest function of philosophy, according to Hegel, is to eliminate the contingent, and all particulars, everything that exists, are contingent by definition. Philosophy deals with the particulars as parts of a whole, and the whole is the system, a product of speculative thought. This whole, scientifically speaking, can never be more than a plausible hypothesis, which by integrating every particular into an all-comprehensive thought transforms them all into thought-things and thus eliminates their most scandalous property, their realness, together with their contingency. It was Hegel who declared that “The time has come for the elevation of philosophy to a science,” and who wished to transform philo-sophy, the mere love of wisdom, into wisdom, Sophia. In this way he succeeded in persuading himself that “to think is to act”––which this most solitary occupation can never do, since we can act only “in concert,” in company and agreement with our peers, hence in an existential situation that effectively prevents thinking.[5]

At age 77, Daniel Kahneman shared in Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011):

Many of us spontaneously anticipate how friends and colleagues will evaluate our choices; the quality and content of these anticipated judgments therefore matters…. The premise of this book is that it is easier to recognize other people’s mistakes than our own.[6]

NOTES

wood

[1] Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011). For Kahneman, “systematic errors are known as biases” (3–4), while “the reliance on the ease of memory search” is called “the availability heuristic,” (7). “They were primed to find flaws, and this is exactly what they found,” (58) is one of Kahneman’s examples of the priming heuristic.

[2] Emerson, Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks, eds. William H. Gilman et al, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1960–82). Vol. V (1835–1838), October 19, 1836, Journal B, p. 223.

[3] Kaufmann, Critique of Religion and Philosophy, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1958) 408.

[4] Strick and Houston, “Modern Times: an Interview with Stanley Kubrick,” Sight and Sound, 41 (Spring 1972) quoted from Stanley Kubrick Interviews, ed. Gene D. Phillips, (Jackson, MS: Mississippi University Press, 2001) 134.

[5] Arendt, The Life of the Mind, (1971), ed. Mary McCarthy (New York, NY: Harcourt Brace & Co, 1978), Volume I. Thinking 89–90.

[6] Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow 3, 28.


Feb 13 2018

Seating at Dinner

Piazza Navona, Roma, Italia

Seating at Dinner
(According to Martha Nussbaum and Larry McMurtry)

First, from Martha:

The domain of life that can be called the “Middle Realm,” a realm in which much of our daily life is spent: in dealings with strangers, business associates, employers and employees, casual acquaintances, in short people with whom we are not involved in relations of intimacy and deep trust, but who are also people and not legal and governmental institutions. A great deal of anger is generated in this realm, over slights to reputation and honor, insults or fantasized insults, and some genuinely harmful and awful behavior. Seneca’s On Anger depicts a typical Roman’s day as a minefield. Go to a neighbor’s house and you are greeted by a surly doorman who speaks rudely to you. Go to a dinner party and you discover that the host has seated you at a place at the table that others will view as insulting. And on it goes. [1]

And from Larry:

I wasn’t good at galas, either, being inexpert in the delicate metropolitan matter of placement. At my second [PEN] gala, held downtown in the old Customs House, both Susan Sontag and Peter Jennings (the late ABC anchor) left because they were seated with people who had no idea who they were. Such, I suppose, is the Big Time. Towering figures such as Susan Sontag and Peter Jennings must be seated next to people who want to sit beneath a tower. What could be more simple?[2]

Interior of a restaurant (1887)
by Vincent van Gogh (Wikicommons)

NOTES

wood

[1] Nussbaum, Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, Justice, (New York, NY: Oxford UP, 2016) 138.

[2] McMurtry, Literary Life: a Second Memoir, (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2009) 132.


Dec 27 2017

11 Books I Read in 2017 (Placed in 7 Categories)

book spines

11 Books I Read in 2017 (Placed in 7 Categories)

Books I probably shouldve already read a long time ago but somehow hadnt: For this category, I call it a tie between the Scotsman Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s (1859–1930) Study in Scarlet (1887), which introduces the world to Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, and the Anglo-Irishman Bram Stoker’s (1847–1912) Dracula (1897), which was certainly not the first book that introduced the world to vampires, but a staple of twentieth-century popular culture in the West nonetheless.

Best autobiography: ‘Tis Herself (2004) by actress Maureen O’Hara (1920–2015)––someone whose tough spirit, terrific behind-the-scenes anecdotes from the classic Hollywood era, and her proud (but also modest) part in promoting Irish independence made the telling of her own life stand out when compared to some other autobiographies I read this year, such as those by Edward Gibbon (1737–1794) and Giambattista Vico (1668–1744). Michael Morton’s Getting Life: an Innocent Man’s 25-Year Journey from Prison to Peace (2014) was a powerful telling of justice (and its opposite) occurring in Central Texas, and was a close second behind Miss O’Hara.

Most useful book of the year: Baylor University’s Distinguished Professor of Humanities, Allan Jacobs’ How to Think: a Survival Guide for a World at Odds (2017) is a book I will be keeping within reach and often returning to, much like H. W. Fowler’s (1858–1933) Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926, 1965), or University of Texas English professor emeritus John R. Trimble’s Writing with Style: Conversations on the Art of Writing (1975, 2000). Jacobs’ book can, at times, be just as casual and amusing as Fowler can, but Jacobs is especially good at taking personal anecdotes and demonstrating that he has already applied to his own life the lessons he’s now trying to impart to readers in this book. All authors should be so self-applicable.

Most anticipated book of the year: this would be Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option: a Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation (2017). Dreher is a prolific blogger at The American Conservative, someone whom I’ve read weekly (if not daily) for the past 4–5 years. Like my observation of Jacobs, Dreher is also especially good at taking his own life situations and applying them to whatever it is he’s writing about. The Benedict Option, however, is a departure from Dreher’s typically personal style of writing. It is much more theoretical than his previous books, much more detached than even his particular blog posts on the Benedict Option that led up to him writing the present book. Dreher’s book is certainly not an indictment of the present-day United States, though it may be a lamentation.

2017 as the year for reading history: In the Benedict Option Dreher writes:

I am a college-educated American. In all my years of formal schooling, I never read Plato or Aristotle, Homer or Virgil. I knew nothing of Greek and Roman history and barely grasped the meaning of the Middle Ages. Dante was a stranger to me, and so was Shakespeare (p. 154).

I recognize some of this as being true for me as well, particularly with respect to history. So this year I got through Herodotus’ (~484–425 BC) Histories, Thucydides’ (460–400 BC) History of the Peloponnesian War, and Livy’s (~64– ~17 AD) History of Rome (books I–X, XXI–XXX). I will say reading these have already helped me find things to write about and get published as I did this year with my essays “Custom Versus Culture: a Modest Distinction” by Real Clear News of Chicago and “Between History and Myth in Austin, Texas” in The Fortnightly Review of London.

Best reread of the year: former professor of philosophy at Princeton, Walter Kaufmann’s (1921–1980) Critique of Religion and Philosophy (1958, 1972) is a tour de force spanning all across the humanities. I found it much more difficult reading the second time, probably because I forced myself to read it at a much slower pace than I did about 5 years ago. I’m a better reader now than I was then, but there’re parts to Kaufmann’s Critique that still seem to slag, particularly the digressions on Aquinas and Niebuhr.

Most difficult book of the year: Certainly the winner of this category belongs to the Max Weber (1864–1920) anthology, From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology (1945), trans. by H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills, (New York, NY: Oxford UP, 1958)––a long book with a long biographical introduction to Weber––a book that requires many notes to be taken, reread, and thoroughly pondered before proceeding further. It was Charles Taylor’s titanic A Secular Age (2007) that turned me on to this collection of Weber’s work. I started Taylor in about June, and probably won’t finish until this time next year.


Dec 12 2017

Between Real and Unreal in Death and Pornography

Mark Twain in Athens

Between Real and Unreal in Death and Pornography

Beginning with Oscar Wilde (1854-1900):

Yes, Mr. Gray, the gods have been good to you. But what the gods give they quickly take away. You have only a few years in which to live really, perfectly, and fully. When your youth goes, your beauty will go with it, and then you will suddenly discover that there are no triumphs left for you, or have to content yourself with those mean triumphs that the memory of your past will make more bitter than defeats. Every month as it wanes brings you nearer to something dreadful. Time is jealous of you, and wars against your lilies and your roses. You will become sallow, and hollow-cheeked, and dull-eyed. You will suffer horribly…. Ah! realize your youth while you have it. Don’t squander the gold of your days, listening to the tedious, trying to improve the hopeless failure, or giving away your life to the ignorant, the common, and the vulgar. These are the sickly aims, the false ideals, of our age. Live! Live the wonderful life that is in you! Let nothing be lost upon you. Be always searching for new sensations. Be afraid of nothing…. A new Hedonism—that is what our century wants.

The Picture of Dorian Gray, ch. 2.

Now compare Alexi Sargeant, “The Undeath of Cinema: Why digital resurrection is so creepy–and how it’s hastening Hollywood’s decline into a soulless factory,” The New Atlantis, Summer/Fall 2017:

Peter Cushing’s performance in 2016’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is remarkable because Cushing died in 1994. Industrial Light & Magic’s computer-generated imagery (CGI) wizards digitally resurrected Cushing to once again portray the villainous Imperial Grand Moff Tarkin, a central antagonist of the original 1977 Star Wars, in which the character brutally orders the destruction of Princess Leia’s home planet of Alderaan. Recreating Cushing for Rogue One was experimental in two senses: Disney was testing out both the technology and audiences’ reactions to it.

And from Samantha Cole, “AI-Assisted Fake Porn is Here and We’re All Fucked,” Vice, December 11, 2017:

Someone used an algorithm to paste the face of ‘Wonder Woman’ star Gal Gadot onto a porn video, and the implications are terrifying….

And a followup to Cole’s piece by Rod Dreher, “Stop it with the Selfies. Really,” The American Conservative, December 12, 2017.

Returning to Wilde:

“My dear Gladys, I would not alter either name for the world. They are both perfect. I was thinking chiefly of flowers. Yesterday I cut an orchid, for my button-hole. It was a marvellous spotted thing, as effective as the seven deadly sins. In a thoughtless moment I asked one of the gardeners what it was called. He told me it was a fine specimen of Robinsoniana, or something dreadful of that kind. It is a sad truth, but we have lost the faculty of giving lovely names to things. Names are everything. I never quarrel with actions. My one quarrel is with words. That is the reason I hate vulgar realism in literature. The man who could call a spade a spade should be compelled to use one. It is the only thing he is fit for.”

The Picture of Dorian Gray ch. XVII

 


Dec 5 2017

Scottish Schadenfreude from David Hume

porticos in Bologna, Italia

Scottish Schadenfreude from David Hume

“[David Hume] loved to puncture convictions and to discomfit dignitaries. He was sincerely irreligious, but he also wanted to shock. Such Schadenfreude doubtless quickens a man’s perception of vulnerable targets, but in itself it gives no more, though no less, of a title to intellectual eminence than does the desire to reassure. Both can be motives to good, both to bad thinking. But the quality of the thinking has to be judged by its results, not by its motives.”

––Gilbert Ryle (1900-1976)

“Hume” (1956) in Gilbert Ryle: Collected Papers. Vol. I, (London: Hutchinson & Co, 1971).


Dec 3 2017

Some Notes on “How to Think” by Alan Jacobs

Palazzo Re Enzo, Bologna, Italia

Some Notes on How to Think (2017) by Alan Jacobs

  • “To be freely aware and richly responsible” means gracefully attending to the “relational goods” of one’s neighbor (Jacobs 47-49)….
  • One must graciously attend/adjust/adapt these relational goods–what Roger Scruton calls “negotiating our posture toward the other,” (Jacobs 83)….
  • Genuine questioning in a community is conversation, not communication, (Jacobs 59) as I’ve recently pointed out:

Communication [says Wendell Berry] is when you’re being told to do something by someone else, like to remove a statue or let it remain. Conversation, on the other hand, is dialogue, a back-and-forth process of giving and receiving. Or to use the words of Martin Buber, while conversation is a mode of discourse where an “I” and a “You” function as reciprocal partners, communication is a mode of discourse between an all-powerful “I” talking down to a faceless, listening “It.” The first treats humans as individuals; the latter as mere objects of manipulation. Hence the fluidity of conversation is open to inquiry in ways that rigid communication isn’t.

  • Out of that negotiation one finds a You in their neighbor instead of an It….
  • My neighbor who voted differently than I….
  • As I read How to Think, I keep recalling words from Martin Buber (1878-1965Knowledge of Man (1966):

Genuine conversation, and therefore every actual fulfillment of relation between men, means acceptance of otherness….  (69) Man wishes to be confirmed in his being by man, and wishes to have a presence in the being of the other…. (71)

By far the greater part of what is today called conversation among men would be more properly and precisely described as speechifying. In general, people do not really speak to one another, but each, although turned to the other, really speaks to a fictitious court of appeal whose life consists of noting but listening to him…. (78–79)

Man exists anthropologically not in his isolation, but in the completeness of the relation between man and man; what humanity is can be properly grasped only in vital reciprocity…. (84)

Now, since if there is anything real, then (on account of this reality consisting in the ultimate agreement of all men, and on account of the fact that reasoning from parts to whole, is the only kind of synthetic reasoning which men possess) it follows necessarily that a sufficiently long succession of inferences from parts to whole will lead men to a knowledge of it, so that in that case they cannot be fated on the whole to be thoroughly unlucky in their inductions. This second branch of the problem is in fact equivalent to asking why there is anything real, and thus its solution will carry the solution of the former branch one step further…. Each of us is an insurance company, in short….

The care that men have for what is to happen after they are dead, cannot be selfish. And finally and chiefly, the constant use of the word “we” — as when we speak of our possessions on the Pacific — our destiny as a republic — in cases in which no personal interests at all are involved, show conclusively that men do not make their personal interests their only ones, and therefore may, at least, subordinate them to the interests of the community.

But just the revelation of the possibility of this complete self-sacrifice in man, and the belief in its saving power, will serve to redeem the logicality of all men. For he who recognizes the logical necessity of complete self-identification of one’s own interests with those of the community, and its potential existence in man, even if he has it not himself, will perceive that only the inferences of that man who has it are logical, and so views his own inferences as being valid only so far as they would be accepted by that man. But so far as he has this belief, he becomes identified with that man. And that ideal perfection of knowledge by which we have seen that reality is constituted must thus belong to a community in which this identification is complete…. (“Ground of Validity of the Laws of Logic: Further Consequences of Four Incapacities.”)

Finally, as what anything really is, is what it may finally come to be known to be in the ideal state of complete information, so that reality depends on the ultimate decision of the community; so thought is what it is, only by virtue of its addressing a future thought which is in its value as thought identical with it, though more developed. In this way, the existence of thought now depends on what is to be hereafter; so that it has only a potential existence, dependent on the future thought of the community. (“Some Consequences of Four Incapacities.”)

Great to see @ayjay and @austinkleon at @bookpeople tonight #books #thinking #literature #ATX #Austin

A post shared by Christopher Landrum (@bookbread2) on


Dec 2 2017

When Late-19th Century Daughters Remember The Fiddles of their Fathers

pencil shavings

When Late-19th Century Daughters Remember The Fiddles of their Fathers

The other day I was doing some background research on my grand-grandfather by reading Emma Guest Bourne’s (1882-1959A Pioneer Farmer’s Daughter of Red River ValleyNortheast Texas (1950) and came across this poignant passage:

Father used to play a piece on his violin known as Blossom Prairie. I caught a few words as I would hear him singing the song, but have never heard the song since I was a child, and only know a few words. Yet the melody is still with me. In my imagination, I can see father as he sat before the fireplace in his little straight chair with his violin and bow as he played this beautiful song. At intervals he would let the bow rest as it was poised over the violin, and he would thump the melody of the chorus with his left fingers as he held the violin under his chin. In the chorus, Mount Vernon, Mount Vernon, were the opening words, and then these words would follow; [sic] “Oh, the green grass grows all over Blossom…” How I have wished for these words, but no one has even been able to give them to me. Mount Vernon was the county seat for several years of Lamar County before the seat was established at Paris, five miles north of Mt. Vernon. [1]

Bourne was born in 1882, and her longing for a ghost-song of her father initially reminded me of the early days of file-sharing on the internet–when one may have heard a song only once in one’s life, and never knowing the name, was somehow able to find it on Napster or by similar means.

But upon reflection, what Bourne’s passage reminded me of was a similar scene told by Laura Ingalls Wilder’s (1867-1957) daughter Rose Wilder Lane (1886-1968) of her last visit to her grandparents “Ma and Pa Ingalls”:

We were ready to start early next day, before sun-up, and that evening we went to Grandma’s to say good-by….

Aunt Carrie and I sat in the doorway. Papa got up to give Grandma his chair and Mama stood a minute in the doorway to the dark sitting room. They had blown out the lamp, and there was just a faint start-shine that seemed to be more in the summer air than in the sky. Then, Mama said, “Pa, would you play the fiddle just one more time?”

“Why yes, if you want I should,” Grandpa said. And then he said, “Run get me my fiddle-box, Laura,” and somehow I knew that he had said those words in just that way, many times, and his voice sounded as if he were speaking to a little girl, not Mama at all. She brought it out to him, the fiddle-box, and he took the fiddle out of it and twanged the strings with his thumb, tightening them up. In the dark there by the house wall you could see only a glimmer in his eyes and the long beard on his shirtfront, and his arm lifting the bow. And then out of the shadows came the sound. It was—I can’t tell you. It was gay and strong and reaching, wanting, trying to get to something beyond, and ti just lifted up the heart and filled it so full of happiness and pain and longing that it broke your heart open like a bud.

Nobody said anything. We just sat there in the dimness and stillness, and Grandpa tightened up a string and said, “Well, what shall I play? You first, Mary.” And from the sitting room where she sat in her rocker just inside the doorway, Aunt Mary said, “ ‘Ye banks and braes of Bonnie Doon,’ please Pa.”

So Grandpa played. He went on playing his fiddle there in the warm July evening, and we listened. In all my life I never heard anything like it. You hardly ever heard anymore the tunes that Grandpa played…. [2]

NOTES

wood

[1] Emma Guest Bourne, A Pioneer Farmer’s Daughter of Red River Valley, Northeast Texas, (Dallas, TX: The Story Book Press, 1950), 262.

[2] Rose Wilder Lane, “Grandpa’s Fiddle,”A Little House Sampler, by Laura Ingalls Wilder and Rose Wilder Lane, ed. William Anderson, (Lincoln, NE, 1988; New York, NY: Harper Collins, 1995), 66-67.


Nov 26 2017

Reading About AI and All That

porticos in Bologna, ItaliaReading About AI and All That

Three interesting pieces on AI and its potential malevolence or benevolence:

 

 


Nov 25 2017

The Trouble with Reading Too Many Good Books

bookshelf

The Trouble with Reading Too Many Good Books

Twenty-four years ago, Harold Bloom said we should read only canonical works, only the best of the best:

Who reads must choose, since there is literally not enough time to read everything, even if one does nothing but read….

Reviewing bad books, W. H. Auden once remarked, is bad for the character. Like all gifted moralists, Auden idealized despite himself, and he should have survived into the present age, wherein the new commissars tell us that reading good books is bad for the character, which I think is probably true. Reading the very best writers–let us say Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Tolstoy–is not going to make us better citizens. Art is perfectly useless, according to the sublime Oscar Wilde, who was right about everything. He also told us that all bad poetry is sincere….

Reading deeply in the Canon will not make one a better or a worse person, a more useful or more harmful citizen. The mind’s dialogue with itself is not primarily a social reality. All that the Western Canon can bring one is the proper use of one’s own solitude, that solitude whose final form is one’s confrontation with one’s own mortality.

We possess the Canon because we are mortal and also rather belated. There is only so much time, and time must have a stop, while there is more to read than there ever was before…. One ancient test for the canonical remains fiercely valid: unless it demands rereading, the work does not qualify….

Yet we must choose: As there is only so much time, do we reread Elizabeth Bishop or Adrienne Rich? Do I again go in search of lost time with Marcel Proust, or am I to attempt yet another rereading of Alice Walker’s stirring denunciation of all males, black and white? ….

If we were literally immortal, or even if our span were doubled to seven score of years, says, we could give up all argument about canons. But we have an interval only, and then our place knows us no more, and stuffing that interval with bad writing, in the name of whatever social justice, does not seem to me to be the responsibility of the literary critic…. [1]

More recently, Alan Jacobs has suggested we should place some limits even on canonical works:

While I agree with Harold Bloom about many things and am thankful for his long advocacy for the greatest of stories and poems, in these matters I am firmly on the side of Lewis and Chesterton. Read what gives you delight—at least most of the time—and do so without shame. And even if you are that rare sort of person who is delighted chiefly by what some people call Great Books, don’t make them your steady intellectual diet, any more than you would eat at the most elegant of restaurants every day. It would be too much. Great books are great in part because of what they ask of their readers: they are not readily encountered, easily assessed. The poet W. H. Auden once wrote, “When one thinks of the attention that a great poem demands, there is something frivolous about the notion of spending every day with one. Masterpieces should be kept for High Holidays of the Spirit”––for our own personal Christmases and Easters, not for any old Wednesday. [2]

Excess is toxic. Too much of anything is biologically poisonous. One might compare the worldview of the steady reader to the worldview of the career soldier. Take General John J. Pershing (1860-1948) for example:

He liked life at McKinley. With a good Officers’ Club and a large contingent of officers, it furnished a social world all its own. Pershing made it a point, however, to avoid concentrating on Army friendships. “We Army people tend to stick together too much and become clannish,” he said. “It’s good to know civilians. It helps them appreciate what the Army is like and it’s good for us to know what they’re like.” [3]

It was Pershing’s ability to get outside his own habitual worldview as a career soldier and actively intermingle with civilian life and culture that led him to further successes. At one point, when he was stationed in the Philippines:

Pershing was thunderstruck. To his knowledge, this was unprecedented. He had never heard of a white man being so honored by Moros [as Pershing had]. Solemnly he thanked Sajiduciman. In a concluding ceremony, both men placed their hands on the Koran and swore allegiance to the United States. [4]

NOTES

wood

[1] Bloom, Harold, The Western Canon: the Books and School of the Ages, (New York, NY: Harcourt Brace, 1994) 15–16, 30–32.

[2] Jacobs, Alan, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, (New York, NY: Oxford UP, 2011) 23.

[3] Smythe, Donald, Guerrilla Warrior: the Early Life of John J. Pershing, (New York, NY: Scribner’s Sons, 1973) 135.

[4] Smythe, Guerrilla Warrior: the Early Life of John J. Pershing 92.