Aug 30 2019

The Dangers of Being an Eternal Student

Piazza Navona, Roma, Italia

THE DANGERS OF BEING AN ETERNAL STUDENT:

MEDITATIONS ON BEING A WRITER no. 3

Recently I came across an interesting passage from Ivan Illich (1926–2002) writing in 1973 on how to balance learning against teaching as well as the dangers of being an eternal student:

This blindness is a result of the broken balance of learning. People who are hooked on teaching are conditioned to be customers for everything else. They see their own personal growth as an accumulation of institutional outputs, and prefer what institutions make over what they themselves can do. They repress the ability to discover reality by their own lights. The skewed balance of learning explains why the radical monopoly of commodities has become imperceptible. It does not explain why people feel impotent to correct those profound disorders which they do perceive. (Tools for Conviviality, (c. 1973), (London: Marion Boyars, 1990) p. 68.)

Perhaps I’m too comfortable writing on topics as a non-expert—and (perhaps) this is the origin of recent feelings of scribbler’s impotence. I admit to being a carrier of that most modern of aliments: skepticism toward expertise. Yes, it’s too easy commenting on things as a student rather than a teacher, because against any objection to a comment made by a student, the student can always counter: “I am a student: by definition, I am ignorant.”

On the other hand, that doesn’t mean all objections to student commentary are valid; for it’s legitimate to ask why, to begin with, an objector is paying attention to a student (a non-expert)—for what use can that serve the objector? When it comes to discussing topics, students don’t have followers (captive audiences/readerships) the way teachers (expert authors) do.

The eternal student always knows she or he is powerless against an expert. Perhaps part of the solution is balancing means over ends, as Aristotle explains:

The magnificent man will therefore necessarily be also a liberal man. For the liberal man too will spend the right amount in the right manner; and it is in the amount and manner of his expenditure that the element ‘great’ in the magnificent or ‘greatly splendid’ man, that is to say his greatness, is shown, these being the things in which Liberality is displayed. And the magnificent man from an equal outlay will achieve a more magnificent result; for the same standard of excellence does not apply to an achievement as to a possession: with possessions the thing worth the highest price is the most honored, for instance gold, but the achievement most honored is one that is great and noble (since a great achievement arouses the admiration of the spectator, and the quality of causing admiration belongs to magnificence); and excellence in an achievement involves greatness…. But in all these matters, as has been said, the scale of expenditure must be judged with reference to the person spending, that is, to his position and his resources; for expenditure should be proportionate to means, and suitable not only to the occasion but to the giver. Hence the poor cannot be magnificent, since they have not the means to make a great outlay suitably; the poor who attempt Magnificence are foolish, for they spend out of proportion to their means, and beyond what they ought, whereas an act displays virtue only when it is done in the right way. (Nicomachean Ethics, trans. H. Rackham, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1934) (IV, ii) pp. 208–09.)

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Dec 21 2018

The Gospel of Honor (or “Honour”)

bookshelf

The Gospel of Honor (or “Honour”)

I’m very glad to have my essay/review of Tamlar Sommers’s Why Honor Matters (2018) published in the Fortnightly Review.

It explores what Aristotle, Boethius, Machiavelli, and others, such as Martha Nussbaum have to say about the concept of honor.

But beware, it’s a long read (4100 words):


Apr 16 2018

Midwest Mod Squad no. 03: What is the Essence of a Work of Fiction?

book spines

Midwest Mod Squad no. 03: What is the Essence of a Work of Fiction?

(Read Midwest Mod Squad no. 02 here)

The age of argument appears to be over…. (Is that what’s implied when someone says we live in an age of anxiety?) … But let’s walk away from that question and leave behind the game of Who Can Best Guess this Zeitgeist? Leave that contrivance to the book peddlers….

All I can do is read a story and see what grabs my attention. And what grabs my attention is usually the essence of the story. (I say usually, because any first appearances that grab one’s attention can of course be deceiving.) And just because the essence of a story grabs my attention doesn’t mean I’ll be able to articulate a definition of that essence.

By essence I mean the thing (moment, symbol, character, idea, etc.) that the entire work of short fiction seems to hinge on—the essential thing without which the story would have no reason to be read by the average casual, curious reader. It may or may not mean a Joycean “epiphany,” or an Aristotelian catharsis, or the thesis of a classical rhetorician. The essence may even be something “whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”[1]

To find the essence of a story, a reader asks questions, like the four questions of Alfarabi, or other things like:

  • What topics does each story contain and concern?[2]
  • What of things I’ve previously read that concern and compare and contrast with those topics and subjects?
  • Who is the storyteller of each story? (Which is not the same as asking, Who is the creator of each story?)

And in asking these questions I assume the storyteller is separate from the story creator, but I don’t assume or deny any reliability in what that storyteller tells me the reader/listener. At this early stage in the investigation, I don’t even have to worry about defining the word reliability.

The next two posts in this series will examine a pair of short stories by a pair of New York writers: Chris Arp and Nicole Cuffy. And while no one ever confused the Big Apple with the Midwest, Edward McClelland’s How to Speak Midwestern (2016) does include much of Upstate New York to be, in terms of regional dialects, part of the Midwest. Keep in mind, however, that both Arp and Cuffy have written pieces of historical fiction set neither in New York or the Midwest.

(Read Midwest Mod Squad no. 04 here)

NOTESwood

[1] Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus § 7.0.

[2] An infinite number of topics might exist for any story, sure, but see Bateson on Kant:

Kant argued long ago that this piece of chalk contains a million potential facts (Tatsachen) but that only a very few of these become truly facts by affecting the behavior of entities capable of responding to facts. For Kant’s Tatsachen, I would substitute differences and point out that the number of potential differences in this chalk is infinite but that very few of them become effective differences (i.e., items of information) in the mental process of any larger entity. Information consists of differences that make a difference. (Mind and Nature: a Necessary Unity, (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1979) 81, 99.)


May 17 2017

Christopher Landrum: the Pretend Priest

Christopher Landrum: the Pretend Priest

Part I: Confessions

I have a confession to make: I am no priest, but I receive confessions from others.

I hear confessions from Dale Dudley (a socially liberal, economically conservative radio talk show host in Austin who broadcasts over 30 hours a week on KLBJ fm and KLBJ am). I also daily read confessions from Rod Dreher (a socially conservative, economically liberal (?) writer from Baton Rouge who blogs at least 10 posts a week at The American Conservative).

Like me, they are Southern white men. Unlike me, Dudley is a victim of sexual abuse and religious shame who grew up in east Texas; Dreher is a victim of a bureaucratic resistance to the sexual abuse scandal of the late twentieth-century Catholic Church and grew up in southern Louisiana. But they talk/write about every anxiety/excitement/crisis/joy in their lives on a daily basis. They cannot help but confess.

Although, I recently pretended to be a priest at a Renaissance festival, I generally hate the fake. I don’t want to be an actual priest. I don’t want to be a monk. I want to drink the beer, not brew it as a friar might.

Name of heroes.

A post shared by @outlawproducer on

Me pretending to be a priest/monk

It seems like there’s something sick about wanting to pretend to be a priest but not wanting to be an actual one. Perhaps it’s similar to Rod Dreher’s latest book The Benedict Option (2017) whereby he advocates establishing not “literal” Benedictine monasteries but analogic ones. Then what’s the difference between pretend and analogy when both actions strive to not be too literal? On this point, I feel perplexed.

Similarly, I take pretty pictures in cemeteries but I don’t pray for the dead. But also I don’t deny acknowledging the majority in the graveyard while remembering a few outliers who happen to catch my eye. Some ask only to be remembered, and not prayed for:

A unique specimen #cemetery #Dublin #catholic

A post shared by Christopher Landrum (@bookbread2) on

Read the Tale of Edward Duffy #Dublin #Ireland

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Part II: Citations

The nineteenth chapter of Oliver Goldsmith’s (1728–1774) Vicar of Wakefield (1766) is entitled: “The description of a person discontented with the present government, and apprehensive of the loss of our liberties,” and involves a butler pretending to be the master of the house who wants to argue with his guests about politics. This chapter has the wonderful phrase “apprehensions of my own absurdity,” which may aptly describe my anxieties about pretending to be a priest.

250 years after Goldsmith, George Costanza just wanted to pretend to be an architect:

Aristotle points out in the fourth chapter of the Poetics, humans are imitative creatures, but Oscar Wilde (1854–1900) (who is almost always right) says: “The first duty in life is to be as artificial as possible.  What the second duty is no one has as yet discovered.”

After readings some bits by Alasdair MacIntyre, I wonder: is such pretending part of the lost art and effectiveness of argument? Do we pretend because we can no longer argue with anyone about anything? Or perhaps we have lost only affirmative arguments; because negative arguments still hold strong. Modern moral philosophy, according to MacIntyre, defines itself for what it is not, not for anything it might be.[1]

Is my pretending to be a priest an example of seeking the sacred?––a search for some lost community as mentioned in Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age? Do I seek to understand the abstract concept of “community” because I feel like most tangible examples of it have been lost? Or is it something along the lines of what Baylor University’s Alan Jacobs wrote the other day about how part of being in a world that doesn’t feel human is to pretend to be human—and what is more human than being religious?

Anthropocene describes what we are doing to our environment, while posthuman is largely phenomenological, a condensed articulation of what it’s like to live in a world where we are constantly making and remaking ourselves, especially via biotechnology. And surely there is some truth in these points, but I want to suggest that the apparent disjunction obscures a deeper unity. A world in which we remake our environment and ourselves is a world that does not feel human to us. We do not know how to play the role of gods, and on some level perceive that to act as gods is to betray our nature.

NOTES

[1] MacIntyre Alasdair. “Why is the Search for the Foundations of Ethics So Frustrating?” The Hastings Center Report. Vol. 9. No. 4 (August 1978.) 16–22 at 17.


Sep 10 2010

“The Philosophers Song” (Monty Python)

Mark Twain in Athens

Monty Python’s  “The Philosophers Song”: