Scales of Worth

"But most of us, alas! are what we must be, not what we ought to be, - not even what we know we ought to be," writes Matthew Arnold in his Lectures and Essays in Criticism. At the start of these works, he retracts a line of criticism he had written for its having been phrased with "too much vivacity" - but adds that the criticized translator in question might have been more forgiving towards him if he considered how the world is headed for the dark gloom of a Philistine future (one thinks of Melville's "civic barbarism" that is "debased into equality"). Arnold, defender of what we must be, yet champion of models: men of genius, not of mere ability.
Such are the words and thoughts that might soothe the mind assaulted by the insolence that thinks itself correct without having at least first considered a problem from more than one angle; one knows they haven't for they cannot name them, let alone use them as concession. How is one to face such conceit - if one consistently feels there is so much more to be learned before one might speak with some degree of authority. To be no genius yet adopt the teacher's pose, it may pain the heart, which immediately rushes to The Anatomy of Melancholy for a cure through words, for Burton's apology of the "imposter" in seeking to emulate a great man, in his great paean to thought - and the pleasures and discomforts it affords, from joy to pain, fleet to slow, as in, "When I lay waking all alone, Recounting what I have ill done". I have not grown enough to comprehend it all, but was compelled to break that book's spine as I seek solace for my predicament.
To be pursuing the lines of thought - not merely those of habituation, the thinking Arnold argued against - one is emboldened. I must pause in this writing to say that at this very moment of eveningfall, I hear a great flock of birds moving past, in indigo darkness.
Arnold quotes from Joubert: "A small talent, if it keeps within its limits and rightly fulfills its task, may reach the goal just as well as a greater one." Arnold considers Joubert not necessarily as genius or able, but new. "Though it is by no means true that from what is new to us there is more to be learnt; it is yet indisputably true that from what is new to us we in general learn most." One need not be genius to be instructive.
In this case, the new, Joubert, shows the importance of talent to keep to its task: to belong to a regular order and to provide fruit for the mind. While the insolent may provide that "taste for things of the mind" through the dialectic of provocation, it is only from one angle, and only if we are to reconsider Joubert's qualifying words, "talent" and "order". Effrontery considers nothing else outside of itself but seeks to claim that territory.




"Good books may instruct; but bad ones are more likely to inspire," writes Northrop Frye in "Auguries of Experience." He seems to have thought through the very real changes in standards (justifying Arnold's fears?) - compiled in Writings on Education ,Vol. 7. In one interview, he refrains from predicting the outcome of what he describes as fields being broadened so that there is always sure to be something new to be said (described elsewhere as "new critical treatments") that is not necessarily genius, but that emerge through the necessity of being a "productive scholar".
He pits the conservative, marked by the myth of concern, against the liberal, characterised by the myth of freedom. To remove the "conservative", "concerned", "good" rhetorical branch that "instructs" is to maim the trees in the ὕλη of their fruit-bearing potential. To live on inspiration alone is to deny man's capacity for thought.
One is ideally tolerant, even of cheek, inspired, duly respectful of the freedom of thought ("Here now, then there; the world is mine,"), as well as concerned that knowledge of the good life be continued. Frye congratulates himself on keeping to the middle of the road. I only started reading him today, so cannot comment, but will along with Aristotle always recommend that as the way to go.
Frye also values the Classical education that he came to: "I think most young critics should start as I did, picking up some Latin and Greek as soon as they have finished jumping through the hoops and turning PhD cartwheels to amuse their elders. By that time they're old enough to know what they're interested in and what to look for." To my mind, audacity is the deracination of not having any ideas of what one's predecessors wrote. Frye continues elsewhere, "One of the things the university stands for is to give its students some sense of historical imagination, and to convince them that a culture without a memory is senile, just as an individual without a memory is." Literacy, so insisted upon as a social issue, is not to end up as a means to mere ornament (Vol. 7 pp. 206) but a means to fight for the sanity and dignity of mankind.




These are all very noble ideas, but as arguments they will only work on students who are already looking for answers. Gall is to be met by the haruspex. But it is one thing to peer at entrails and see the message there and another to read one's own divination from figurative liver. I would like to consistently remind myself to speak in broad terms when addressing a general audience. Perhaps this is why talking nonsense works so well today. To quote a nicely-written 1926 Spectator article, nonsense, "has no specific meaning, is not narrowed to reasonableness or confined within the bonds of the syllogism, but rather is fraught with a universal appeal and applicability. Nonsense truly understood is oracular."
By instinct (gut instinct, to replace the animal organ I do not have to consult) I draw out The Eclipse of the Intellectual by Elemire Zolla, like a , and at random open to what first seems a poem but is in fact the "Answering Psalm" of Milarepa: "The surge of profound intuition / and the deep conviction that 'this seems right' and 'that seems true,' / seems the same, but beware and do not confuse them."
How wonderful it would be to pronounce such lines when the classroom shrinks, words to be pronounced and left to hang in a silence, not asking for further response, because, speaking of silva, Confucius wrote that there is no use in reproving the student who is like rotten wood that cannot be carved (公冶長 10), rather one is to learn from the rotten student, as did Confucius, and as is advised in the Dao De Jing (27).
Accordingly, "he who displays himself does not shine; he who asserts his own views is not distinguished ... Such conditions [are like] a tumour on the body, which all dislike." (24) If one wishes for fulfillment, one is to be partial (22). Feelings of inadequacy are not to be dreaded, but understood as a sign that one is on the way (20): "The multitude of men look satisfied and pleased; as if enjoying a full banquet, as if mounted on a tower in spring. I alone ... look dejected and forlorn, as if I had no home to go to. ... Ordinary men look bright and intelligent ... while I alone am dull and confused. ... (Thus) I alone am different from other men, but I value the nursing-mother (the Dao)."
The value of one's worth in the context of the Dao is precisely to keep from self-assertion, let problems be, let good come forth of itself, claim nothing as one's own. "Stop thinking and end your problems" continues passage 20, "Must you have what others value, avoid what others avoid?"



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