An Either Scholarly or Artistic Picture

To hold questions open, to be able to remain with the uncomfortable questions in one's various quests, can bring answers, sometimes suddenly, like those waves that hide then reveal trails of jewels of shells on the shore. Questions can be at once typological and personal, so can be answered by gazing at what other people retain from the movement of their lives. What follows is a personal anecdote on this theme.
While I was reading about deserts, still (dryly?!) afflicted by the concerns of my previous post, I came to a blog that set out its modus operandi as "either scholarly or artistic". Those words are answers to an uncomfortable question, elucidating two poles that are at battle within me: pedantic methodology vs. the freedom and freedom of application of craft in the exploration of subjects. In those two simple words, are two different approaches - can we say that one is more valid than the other? Scholasticism can be limited by the shortsightedness of the historical situation or variations on Baconian idols; art, by whim and fantasy. But both have the potential to seek something true and meaningful about the lived experience.


As I continued to reflect on this blog that I found (The Southwest Journal), I marvelled at how much of myself and how many of my own questions that I had been uncomfortably carrying around seemed to be dwelling there - that is, beyond the "scholarly or artistic".
For example, what is the point of the scholarly or artistic, if we do not know what it is for? Pedagogy teaches that where learning is concerned, one of the first problems is determining an end-point to the journey is to be. In other words, teachers must have some idea of what they want students to have acquired along the way of a lecture series: a fair teacher not only knows what will be "wanted of" the student, but will make this explicitly clear, over and over again. So, what is the point of the scholasticism and art?
... The noble life [in the] life of the common, day-to-day struggles that everyone faces, ... [which] is only gained through perseverance, inner strength, and the determination to build the character that comes with playing the long game. It is the life-long devotion and perseverance to unglamorous actions that develop into stewardship for that which lies before us in daily life. As Wendell Berry said, “It may, in some ways, be easier to be Samson than to be a good husband or wife for 50 years.”
... The noble life has been ignored, I think, because it’s not a shiny object; it does not end in a spectacular singular event. It is not a candle burning at both ends. It has the unfortunate commodity of being personal and slow, built on values not easily measurable or even visible. The noble life unfurls behind the man or woman living it where understanding requires knowing the story, seeing with different eyes, and valuing the slow and steady march of time, for that is what it takes to grow into such a life. Where we live and who we live there with define the terms of our relationship to the world and to humanity. You cannot save the land apart from the people or the people apart from the land (Wendell Berry).
This was written by GSH, here. In another post, she writes, "Survival happens through compromise not through hard lines and competition. Compromise is how you don’t lose it all."


The point to scholasticism and art, in this iteration, is character building and other people. Indeed, it is through other people that the very seeds for this post were spotted.
Just as invisible and uncomfortable questions can inform the outcome of one's daily thoughtful desert wanderings, keeping an eye on character building and the importance of others can inform the effect a life has...
... if one can handle the discomfort. To hold open space for other people is uncomfortable; they are unpredictable and will require ever-newly-invented responses, testing one's resolve and intentions (does one really care about others in practice, or only in theory?) There will be times one will have to face an unfortunate image of oneself, when one fails to choose the right response in the moment to unpredictable interlocutors. But there is a bigger picture - which can be intuited and incorporated into the picture of one's own life, if one has the scholastic or artistic inclination to grasp it.

Brush: misprinted type.

What Is My Problem? (... with teaching extracts)

The conclusion to this post has been updated. In teaching, I struggle with which texts to assign: more fruitful, complex texts (like speeches by Cicero or Demosthenes, or Benjamin's "The Task of the Translator") can lead to drops in attendance and participation, but less dense ones (like select think pieces from, say, The Atlantic or The Millions) seem to reinforce the common view held by 20-year-olds that they pretty much know it all. It is a problem when students do not participate because if they bring nothing to the conversation, there is nothing to tie the material to, to make it relevant. Some years, I almost exclusively use excerpts from the more complex texts - if only inclusive of a few non-sugar coated ones, but I maintain that this method is rife with dangers, which may or may not have been indirectly apparent in my last post, which drew only on excerpts.
To use an excerpt is to take on the responsibility of filling in the context of what the excerpt was cut out of. This not only includes explaining parts of the text that surrounded the excerpt, but also explicating related schools of thought, historical details and precedents, specific references, etc. This is particularly challenging where it cannot be assumed that there is a shared 'cultural language' to begin with - which means that I might not know how important it is to emphasise certain points, or might not remember to point things out that I take for granted.
It may be because of these problems that I am increasingly interested in "the rudimentary" - and doubtful of whether I have a sound enough mastery of the basics: to use an example mentioned above, I might forget to explain points I have long assimilated and internalised.
There is also the problem of what "knowledge" is - for example, how can one claim to know a book when second, third readings bring elucidation of ideas one failed to see or retain the first time? Or, when further readings bring entirely new meaning? Such basic and common experiences are further warnings of the inadequacy of the outline.

 

This has been better expressed by Auerbach when he describes, in his famous essay on "Philology and 'Weltliteratur'", the problem of achieving "synthesis", which is similar to the outline, or summary in its concern for a vision of the whole. It is problematic because of the problem of the uncertainty of what is truly known of the past, as well as the challenges of grasping "the conditions under which ... literature developed", which includes religion, philosophy, politics, etc. He explains the "problematic and the ordering categories" of literature by writing: "Most of them are too abstract and ambiguous, and frequently they have too private a slant. They confirm a temptation to which neophytes (and acolytes) are frequently inclined to submit: the desire to master a great mass of material through the introduction of hypostasized, abstract concepts of order".
The pitfalls of abstracted overviews is no new concern. I think it is reflected in the adage non multa legere sed multum (which I will poorly render as: read not many but much). If the meaning of this phrase is not immediately apparent, I think it is rather well illustrated by the reading habits of A. W. Verall (in the foreword to his Collected Literary Essays: Classical and Modern, eds. M. A. Bayfield and J. D. Duff):
"For mere information he did not care overmuch, he preferred multum legere potius quam multa. What he asked for from serious books was nutriment, and this he got better (if I may pursue the horrid metaphor) by repeated mastication than by the hasty omnivorous feeding which makes assimilation impossible."

I am afraid that my own habits are inferior - and I attribute my shortcomings to inadequate "mastication": there are no shortcuts in learning, or teaching. That is, if we care about knowledge and learning.
To return to my initial ramblings in this post: "select think pieces" offer immediate relevance to students, the familiar, the contemporary. This is an important piece in the attempt to reach a potential audience. I think it is also important in terms of the meaning of learning, which I consider to lie at the crossroads between distant horizons and what can actually apply on one's journey - which is part of the mystery of learning, as these coordinates are always moving where there is thought. But, as implied, equally as important is having further horizons to strive towards. These can be afforded by exposure to rich rhetoric and history. I was about to write theory, but after having tried to teach it alongside the former two, I cannot claim that it is as rich. Even theorists reach towards Plato, or Homer... Distant contextual horizons are important, but so is where we are standing, in more practical and immediate terms. So the problem is how to encourage an orientation towards horizons, for students to embark on their own Odysseys. One hopes the journeys are informed, for what use is travel in the wilderness if one knows nothing of the elements or navigation - if this seems a pathetic defense of the exaggerated tenet of what is known in textual criticism as the "difficult reading", just read any tales of outdoor experience and travel (three links there). I think this practical comparison is valid: knowledge has been described as an ocean or a wilderness for a reason.
Teaching navigation through overview-courses based on extracts seems reasonable because extracts are short but deep enough to encourage star gazing and the related connection to greater coordinates. But teaching via extracts is also riddled with problems. That's my problem.
And why I feel the burden of bussardes - I sometimes feel the fear of being a bussard myself (one responsible for teaching!), even though that fear is more a fallacy of composition than a reasonable assessment. Such reactionary thinking stems from the lack of proper mentors, and the critical stance towards the status quo. I will illustrate what I mean by this.
In teaching composition, I found I was dissatisfied with the handbooks, readers, etc., on the topic and found I had to compile my own assembly of guidance from various sources (for example, describing essays as "narrative", "descriptive", etc. is ridiculous as most good essays combine these "types": by contrast, teaching composition via rhetoric, where those same "types" are assembled under "invention" is far more useful). But this very illustration reveals my problem: what if one does not have a degree in the classics: can one be sure that one's occasional ("excerpted") references to classical rhetoricians is accurate? One needs to be guided in such things by specialists. I of course make an attempt to research into what I teach, and should add I truly enjoy the opportunity of taking a broad approach that is perhaps characteristic of making of the humanities a "core", but I am just trying to articulate here what I think some of the problems of this approach.

Photo of a bee-eater, not a bussard. 
Brush: misprinted type.

The Cultural Literacy of Blind Bussardes

One of the meanings of "bussard," or buzzard, is, "A curmudgeonly or cantankerous man ... a mean, greedy person" - so, potentially, one filled with stubborn ideas and opinions.
I found the word in an excerpt of Roger Ascham's "The Scholemaster". In it, he explains the benefits of consulting commonplaces and epithets, which can "induce a man into, an orderlie generall knowledge, how to referre orderlie all that he readeth, ad certa rerum Capita, and not wander in studie". Yet he also warns of the pitfalls of the same, which can occur if study only involves those platitudes, without also developing discernment through methodical reading of the complete texts representative of the best knowledge.
"Bussardes" are worse than those who, thanks to commonplaces and epithets, know something one season but forget it the next (oh, how one finds oneself in the criticism!), but are instead trenchant in the shallowness of the learning that blinds them, having long ceased the pursuit of horizons of learning and thus having nothing to teach.


The excerpt reminded me of another extract - from J. M. Coetzee's foreword to Higgins' Academic Freedom in Democratic South Africa, which takes issue with the claim that "only the full apparatus of a humanistic education can produce critical literacy" because such critical literacy can arguably be provided by ("core") courses in cultural literacy - which I think are comparable to the function of commonplace books within the rhetoric courses of yesteryear. Here's Coetzee:
Can you not simply design a pair of one­-semester courses - courses in which all undergraduates, no matter what their career track, will be required to enrol - one course to be entitled "Reading and Writing", in which students will be trained to dissect arguments and write good expository prose; and the other to be entitled "Great Ideas", in which they will be briefed on the main currents of world thought from Ancient Egypt to the present? A pair of courses like that will not require an entire faculty of humanities behind them, merely a school of critical literacy staffed with bright young instructors. Basic courses in cultural literacy are not a new idea. They have been mounted at countless American universities under the rubric of "Freshman Composition".
As an alternative to the commonplace-approach to defending the humanities, he argues, "we need free enquiry because freedom of thought is good in itself. We need institutions where teachers and students can pursue unconstrained the life of the mind because such institutions are, in ways that are difficult to pin down, good for all of us: good for the individual and good for society."


In other words, and to draw from Ascham, if learning ends in platitudes, we will be perpetuating a shallow level of knowledge that can either be forgotten or, worse, lead to blind, trenchant opinion with no appreciation or feel for, say, nuance, context, or even, say, the speciousness of argument that has produced certain thought.
Platitudes are difficult to attain and maintain (though we are helped by commonplace blogs), but to make a claim on knowledge (brave or foolish) requires further, regular dogged revision of entire key and associated texts. Such is not for the "obstinately ignorant", to quote a 1774 entry on what the proverbial use of "buzzard" means.
According to the OED, the word buzzard is used "in names of other raptors regarded as unsuitable for falconry" - so it seems that the secondary meaning is a figurative transfer of the first. Incidentally, the second entry reads: "An ignorant or stupid person. Now usu. with the weakened sense, fellow, chap". So, today's chaps can't be trained; useless and greedy? Surely education is not to cultivate those.


Magazine in background: Marie Claire Maison.

Neither Catechism Nor Multiplication Table

The title is from A. E. Housman's "The Application of Thought to Textual Criticism", in which Housman explains that textual criticism is more like an art than a science. Where scientists or doctors can test their theories with experiments or by noting visible effects, "the discovery merely of better and older MSS. than were previously known to us is not equally decisive". He proceeds to give specific examples of the dangerously arbitrary categorisations that are made about the quality of manuscripts, explaining that were such generalisations to be stated in concrete terms, the arbitrariness would be spotted immediately, no less by butchers and grocers, who are comparatively more thoughtful than arbitrary textual critics - as they "depend on their brains for bread". His jokes aside, Housman suggests that the way out of this mess is to "collect and compare" individual readings, and "not to ride easily off on ... false and ridiculous generalisation[s]". In other words, thoughtful textual criticism essentially works on a text-by-text basis (though this feeds back into the bigger picture, to create a more accurate general understanding) [1]. Readers of this blog, or blogs like it, may already be thinking of how much this approach resembles Auerbach's, in Mimesis.
Thus, even once philology ceases to be primarily interested in manuscripts, and becomes concerned with different sorts of comparison - let us call it "the historical experience", a "true philological" approach may be defined as an art: involving both an appreciation of rules as well as the readiness to descend into the complexities of myriad particularities, collecting and comparing. Housman writes that a nascent flair for this art is desirable - and we may note that Auerbach was praised for possessing just such a gift. Also important, however, is the habit of thought, which, while no substitute for an aptitude for textual criticism, can minimise error, Housman writes.


This approach is not a science. To illustrate, Housman considers rules vs. examples, methodically arguing that it is the weight of what appear to be exceptions to rules, and not their number, that must, on a case-by-case basis, be "ascertained by classification and scrutiny". It cannot be a science, because its subject matter is the product of the fallible (not hard-and-fast) human being:
It deals with a matter not rigid and constant, like lines and numbers, but fluid and variable; namely the frailties and aberrations of the human mind, and of its insubordinate servants, the human fingers. It therefore is not susceptible of hard-and-fast rules. It would be much easier if it were; and that is why people try to pretend that it is, or at least behave as if they thought so. Of course you can have hard-and-fast rules if you like, but then you will have false rules, and they will lead you wrong; because their simplicity will render them inapplicable to problems which are not simple, but complicated by the play of personality.
This is the lesson of what the humanities, as opposed to the sciences, can share. We are to remember human fallibility, and appreciate that science is not the best tool for more accurate understandings of things human. Of course, this is not just the idea of the philologist - although it is fascinating to me that it is possibility the influence of the philologist (Auerbach) that shaped Gadamer's philosophical magnum opus Truth and Method, for making this very point (we remember, too, that he briefly opined in the book that he had not written it sooner to argue against false objectivism in a timely fashion). This idea of the trickiness and case-by-case discernment of the human experience is part of Plato's Socratic elenctic questioning, dialectics.


To shorthand a conclusion to this post, I will refer yet again to how Jowett describes Plato's Phaedrus as a "picture, not a system". What is more, he notes that Plato "works freely" in his writing, meaning, "which is the warp and which is the woof cannot always be determined". Science is not appropriate here: knowledge is reached through "many preparations and oppositions, both of the characters of men and aspects of truth, especially of the popular and philosophical aspect; and after many interruptions and detentions ... we arrive at ... knowledge. This is an aspect of truth which was always lost almost as soon as it was found, and yet has to be recovered by everyone for himself who would pass the limits of proverbial and popular philosophy," Jowett writes.
Finally, as an educator in today's world, I would like to point out the ubiquity of the popular - with its watered-down platitudes, laid down like (psuedo-) scientific law, like: do what it takes to get where you want, which is hardly an ideal civic ethics. In contrast to this, is Auerbach's retort to accusations that he was not methodical enough in Mimesis, and bogged down in too many particularities to be appropriately scientifically philological: "If it had been possible, I would have avoided all general terms and instead suggested ideas to the reader by the mere presentation of a sequence of passages".
Neither catechism nor multiplication table, textual analysis requires engagement of the individual in a case-by-case evaluative dialectics if one cares even the slightest about the truth of the matter (and has a flair for it: cf. can discernment be taught?)

Book in background: Boucher's 20,000 Years of Fashion. Brush: Ewansim via Deviantart.

[1] cf., "The MSS. are the material upon which we base our rule, and then, when we have got our rule, we turn round upon the MSS. and say that the rule, based upon them, convicts them of error. We are thus working in a circle, that is a fact which there is no denying; but, as Lachmann says, the task of the critic is just this, to tread that circle deftly and warily; and that is precisely what elevates the critic's business above mere mechanical labour."
Post Script: at some point, I will need to change the labels of these posts. In preparation of that, and to that end, for my convenience, I am linking here to all posts I was able to find that mention Gadamer's Truth and Method: experience-experiment; interiority-nonsense; facts-of-fiction; hands-of-tongue; beyond-myth.

Brazen Giant with Conquering Limbs

The title is from Emma Lazarus' "The New Colossus", which was excerpted in Knopf's poem-a-day series in a passage from Esther Schor's Emma Lazarus. The passage reminds us of the initial mockery that greeted the monumental Liberty Enlightening the World, which bears in its title and land of origin the French ties to the New World. I think these ties highlight the problem behind contemporary claims to "world citizenship", which are levelling in their shared, "enlightened" philosophy.
While it appears that civilization has reached a philosophical ideal, I would argue: not so fast. Auerbach, in "Philology and Weltliteratur" explains a point that extends beyond literature, and which I will paraphrase for this larger context: the point of being a "world" citizen ceases to be "at once realized and destroyed" once this "world" is a standardized world that speaks a single literary language.
I got the impetus to write this post, which has been a long time coming (and will likely spill into further posts), after reading a post on this topic by a blogger I really admire. The post is nominally called "The Man from Nowhere" - but this formulation is a riposte to the Theresa May comment that, "If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you're a citizen of nowhere." It is important to clarify the provocation behind the post, because I am sure many will therefore question why I am taking issue with it. But I do have a point of contention: namely, world citizenship, in my understanding and experience, is less something that can be claimed than it is aspirational - read: ideal. Once it is claimed, it is levelled, beneath a "brazen giant with conquering limbs".
Tension and disagreement must remain: this is a prerequisite for "fruitful discourse", which is to be differentiated from "imposed uniformity" (I use Auerbach's terms). Plutarch's Socrates says he is a citizen of the world, wherein world is defined as comprising universal truths; but knowing Socrates' view on the attainment of truth, we should be wary of the implications of this affiliation.


It is no accident that the post on the topic of world citizenry that I took issue with was posted by a scientist (specifically, a historian of science).
Christopher Prendergast, in "The World Republic of Letters" explains that the enlightened 17th and 18th century "literary republic" - which, I'll add, often stands as the ideal of world citizenry called on to this day - comprised scientists and philosophers, and not writers and poets, which, I need to emphasize, is critical to recognize. Jebb, for example, writes in "Humanism in Education" : "there is a danger lest analogies drawn from studies conversant with different material should be pushed too far, and what is called the scientific spirit should cease to be duly tempered by aesthetic and literary judgement". Prendergast also emphasizes that these scientists of the "literary republic" were engaging in scientific dialogue, in which national characteristics were irrelevant.
That said, I don't think that co-mmunication can be possible without the existence of universals, which are what sentient human beings aspire towards. But expecting that they are a birth right or something some of us can call on from our global family legacy is presumptuous. From a cultural perspective, even natives can feel alienated from fellow natives; even those who ostensibly share the same universal beliefs can feel alienated through the manifestation of those beliefs.
It is important to distinguish ideals from reality; it is important to distinguish the universal from the standardized lest we are to be conquered by giants of our own making.

Brush: Misprinted Type.