Flannery O'Connor writes of the habit of looking. Chesterton of Cobbett that "he could believe his eyes". Arnold that the ancient Greeks were able to "see things as they are". All of these writers achieve their vision through a respect for the past and tradition, and consistent observation of the people around them (i.e. so much more than the self).
I was wondering this morning why there are so few living writers who I admire, and wondered if I might be a biased temporis laudator acti, but realised that if one wants to learn something of the lived experience, the distance of retrospect is most welcome, even beyond the personal level. When I read Victorian writers, I feel that I see the germs of ideas that have grown into the wild urban jungle that thrives around us. Returning to that germ is like getting a blank(er) canvas. To go even further past, while running the risk of lacking the contextual differences between then and now that thus blurs our perspective, is to more clearly imagine the potential of the human spirit.
Here, I need clarify. Today, people shirk from moralisers, distrust any chiaroscuro of the human spirit, because this is thought to dictate away their free improvisation. This is willful blindness, and I consider myself an authority because I used to think that way, and there is a book I wrote that I no longer stand behind. While that book has become a useful symbol for me, I do not like that I have left what might be a source of confusion for others. My current understanding of literature is that it should point the way.
Arnold writes about the difference between our ordinary selves and our best selves. Here, the chiaroscuro would be of our perfection. But for centuries, philosophy and much writing has not sought to present this: ideals have been broken as so many relics of antiquity. In the face of the devaluation of human labour, we are taught to sell our fictive best self on the market - which is never our best self, because it is already limited by market constraints, the Trend Machine.
It takes strong vision to see things as they really are. My question, also for fellow academics is this: are we furthering careers with like-minded colleagues, as opposed to being willing to accept those conclusions that may run contrary to our preferred school of thought?
Even if we are to discuss history, we are not helped because schools of thought have their roots in the many ages: bias is historical. And some say the belief in certain universal ideals (like the need for discipline, the importance of beauty) is biased. So I will take my answer from Arnold, who writes of Hellenism, allowing our consciousnesses to flow freely around a petrified rule of life. If there is that girth, if it may be done in academies, which also instill what he calls Hebraism, moral obedience (always under threat of becoming mechanical: when ideas become talismanic, isolated, all-sufficient), then this balance would surely increase our vision: both that ahead of us, and in the rear-view mirror.