Sunday, January 29, 2012

Should Philosophy Be Required?

The government of Brazil, I was surprised to learn, has mandated that high school students take a course of philosophy. Carlos Fraenkel of McGill University analyzes the results so far in the Boston Review.

Based on what I know of the idea, my own reaction is generally positive, as long as the courses are intelligently taught and lead to greater critical thinking skills among the Brazilians. There might be an increase in logical discourse--imagine how that would impact politics in this country!--or, as is probably intended, to do what the church once did but now cannot because of a lack of personnel: teach ethics.

How could anyone object to the study of Plato, who said that the unexamined life is not worth living? Well, if the courses become exercises in abstraction, with no practical impact on the society, resulting in confusion. Even then, I would hope that any serious look at basic Western philosophical principles would help these students examine their assumptions and be more careful in defining the general terms they use.

So the experiment is worth following. I can't help but think of such a mandate here in the U.S. would be beneficial, if the huge political obstacles could ever be overcome.

Consider, for example, an examination of greed, which seems to have replaced pride as the chief of the seven deadly sins. (These are not really sins but vices or dispositions, the character flaws that Aristotle talks about and that Dante dramatizes in his Divine Comedy. In the Purgatorio, souls are being purged of these flaws.)

I would hope that an American philosophy course would examine the Occupy Wall Street movement, for example, and see what is at stake: reckless indifference to the common good because of a corporate culture that rewards conspicuous self-interest in the form of extravagant rewards for the one percent.

Or the way greed, another manifestation of selfishness, has been ruining the environment and threatening the planet. Or the way power becomes self-serving and greedy. Raising questions about such issues, without presenting an official position, would stimulate thinking, if the students are mature enough to handle such big ideas.

It seems to me that the very raising of Big Questions is what educators must do; it's what great literature does. It does not require the instructor to provide final answers. Yet open-ended moral discourse can be disturbing, even at the university level.

In a recent review of Cullen Murphy's new book on the Inquisition and its modern counterparts, God's Jury, Adam Gopnik makes this important observation: "The values of tolerance are one of the most difficult lessons to impart, not because people are naturally cruel but because power is naturally fearful."

Whether the power is exercised by church or state, it can have catastrophic results, and its roots in fear need to be examined. The values of tolerance are hard to impart on any level, yet the effort must be made somewhere.

Yet I suspect any philosophy taught in high school would have to steer clear of such discussions. And those on the religious right would object to the teaching of morality in public schools, making any discussion of selfishness, greed, virtue, evil, even tolerance questionable. And so the course would be, like so many well-intentioned courses in the social sciences, vague, general, and useless.

What a shame. Let's hope Brazil's experiment has something to teach educators elsewhere. The world desperately needs people who can think.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

A nation of joiners?

Despite the American tradition of individualism, we always seem to have been a nation of joiners. Consider all the clubs, organizations, and societies out there.

Some of these are so highly specialized they strike me as hilarious: a friend is a member of the American Coaster Society and travels the world riding roller coasters. Another is a member of the Cat Writers Association, for people who write about, well, you guessed it.
I recently read about the Society for Barefoot Living, a new online group aimed at promoting the right to exist without shoes (and without criticism).

Of course, there is the Cloud Appreciation Society and the Mexican Cockroach Racers Society--not to mention thousands of organizations devoted to Norwich canaries, baroque opera enthusiasts, gay penguins, orchid fanciers, nude bathers, Neo-Nazis, hyperactive bowlers, and collectors of nearly everything. I am a member of the Friends of Silence, one of those free, online groups that remind me occasionally that inner silence is essential for a peaceful life.

Behind all this organized activity seems to be a basic human need for individuals to "do their own thing"--but in the company of others! In the 19th century, men formed Elks, Moose, Lions, Odd Fellows, and Kiwanis clubs, presumably to get away from wives and the home and bond with other men. In London clubs, as pictured in films, men like to read and be alone--away from females--but in a large room with other men, many of them smoking.

Today, as more of us work at home via the Internet, the trend seems to be advocacy for various causes, many worthwhile, some merely entertaining, some dangerous.

Every writer, even the lesser known ones, has a society producing newsletters and advocating research into the life and work of Ford Maddox Ford, Charles Brockden Brown, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, et al. I am a past member of the Milton Society of America and the T. S. Eliot Society as well as a present member of the International Thomas Merton Society.

These and thousands of other professional associations are only partly social; they help unite scholars who are otherwise isolated in their work and encourage them to exchange ideas.

I don't know if Americans are unusually given to forming associations. My point is to note the paradoxical nature of the American experiment: we are proud of our individual rights and freedoms but, whether admitting it or not, see the need to form communities since we sense, at a deeper level than the political, that a man (or woman) alone is in bad company. Most of us need to belong to something outside of our limited life-world.

I'd like to hear from readers in other countries: is this tendency to organize an American phenomenon?

Monday, January 16, 2012

In Praise of Long Sentences

I was glad to find Pico Iyer, in a recent issue of the LA Times, singing the praises of the long sentence, something I regularly do with my workshop students, even if they are puzzled or turned off by sentences (like this one) that seem to ramble, like speech, even if they fear that a long sentence like this might be ungrammatical, which it ain't, or worry that such writing is artificial, which it might be if it isn't done carefully, with balanced phrases and clauses that pile up to amplify a main point.

I am grateful to Mary Ann DiStefano of Mad About Words for today's weekly newsletter, which provided a link to Iyer's piece.

Iyer likes the long sentence, balanced, of course, with shorter ones, because he sees it as a protest against the speed of information that comes at us from all sources. He wonders if telegraphic writing is "a way of keeping our thinking simplistic." Well, it can be.

The long sentence is expansive in the way it opens the reader to various levels of meaning and ambiguity, enabling him or her to descend deeper into herself and into complex ideas that "won't be squeezed into an either/or."

The longish sentences I share with my students come from fiction (T. C. Boyle, among others) and non-fiction (Gay Talese, among others). As I struggle with my own piece of fiction, I find myself using shorter sentences than usual because I want to capture the speech of my anxious narrator, and I wonder if the longer sentence is not more suited to "long form journalism" or discursive non-fiction. It all depends.

Some of the really long sentences I have collected have been pretentious or unreadable (as in Henry James), but most are wonderful ways of listening to writers as they take us, in Iyer's words, "further from the predictable and normal and deeper into dimensions I hadn't dared to contemplate."

Of course, everything depends on the writer's subject, but writers need stylistic options. They can write trailing, expansive sentences that tell the reader, like a dentist, "Open wider," so I can probe more thoroughly; but they have to be careful not to overdo these and to balance them with shorter sentences so that readers can catch their breath. Writing just one such sentence can be fun.

If anyone reading this has a long, expansive, descriptive sentence (written in the last 20 years or so) worth sharing, send it to me at my e-mail:

Saturday, January 14, 2012

How Free are We?

Ursula Hegi, the German-born novelist and author of the best-selling Stones from the River, has a fine new novel, Children and Light, which I have recently read. It was recommended by a friend and former student, and I can see why. Hegi is a masterful stylist with a compelling narrative.

It is the story of a teacher, a young woman named Thekla, in the fictional German town of Burgdorf who worries about the boys she teaches:it is 1934, and many will be expected to join Hitler Youth groups. She doesn't want her boys to become future cannon fodder, as in the last war. She tries to get them to think: "the absence of doubt will turn these humans into beasts," she says in her narrative.

How far can teachers go in shaping the destiny of their pupils? Can teachers help prevent violence, even the suicides of their charges? Can they protect their students? These are the recurring questions she, and the reader, must face as the next war draws nearer, as Hegi wrestles with her own conflicting feelings about her German past.

Thekla's main lesson is summed up when she says, "For us, as humans, there is choice." Yet she knows that choices are difficult and complex in the real world because of fear and shame. We are not capable of not doing wrong, she says.

I recall Isaac Bashevis Singer once saying, "We must believe in free will; we have no choice." Yet the prevailing attitude of the social sciences in modern times has been to focus on the brain as the origin of behavior that is physically determined. We are not only the products of nurture but of nature, of our own biochemical systems.

Challenging this is a recent book by Michael Gazzaniga, Who's in Charge: Free Will and the Science of the Brain. It has attracted much attention in several articles and reviews I have read because the author, a neuroscientist at the Univ. of California-Santa Barbara, believes that "we are personally responsible agents and are to be held accountable for our actions, even though we live in a determined universe."

This strikes me as a crucial statement, a valuable response to the thinking of the ages, which have usually upheld freedom of the will as essential to morality. Now we have a scientist who suggests that the origin of personal responsibility lies outside the brain. Thus he looks beyond a strictly physical basis for good or bad behavior.

These hypotheses will be challenged, of course, and discussed, as they should be; but they point up what is for me the central issue: that there is a non-material element, often called the mind or soul, that cannot be left out of any understanding of ourselves as persons or of our actions. It is refreshing to see that Gazzaniga apparently prefers to go beyond physical determinism and remain open to mystery.

I suppose he would agree with Singer that we have no choice but to believe in free will. Not to believe in freedom, it seems to me, can lead many to blame God, nature, or society for human evil. Not to accept complexity and an element of mystery seems simplistic.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

No True Forgetting?

A basic principle of Freudian thinking is that there is no true forgetting; every experience we have leaves some sort of trace.

I found this statement, by a type of coincidence that often occurs in my life, in an article (by Adam Kirsch) the same day I watched a film, in this case the remarkable documentary by Werner Herzog, Cave of Forgotten Dreams.

The topic: cave paintings in southwestern France, discovered only in 1994, that contain the world's oldest examples of human art: 32,000 years old, at least. Herzog takes us inside the Chauvet cave and shows the images of horses, bison, and other animals in a kind of motion, comparing the technique to that of cinema.

"Images are memories of long-forgotten dreams," Herzog says in his narrative. I wish he had expounded on this idea. But he asks, Was this the beginning of the human soul? He explains that by "soul" he means the need for communication of one human with another. One of the French scientists interviewed wonders if we should change the term Homo sapiens to Homo spiritualis because man does not know; he is often lost in wonder and mystery.

This is an intriguing and important idea about the limitations of reason and science and the inherent human longing for connection and communication that we call spirituality. And this documentary leaves us thinking about the relation between the art of the earliest man to religious concepts, including music (since 40,000-year-old flutes have been unearthed.)

It's a film that could have been longer,to my taste, with more discussion of the mystical implications of these ancient images. A movie I saw recently, too, was even more unforgettable: The Tree of Life by Terrence Malick, which I would not want to be any longer but which I must see again.

I would need several of these posts to explore the riches of this amazing, original, and beautiful film. It resembles a slowly unfolding prayer, with a profusion of images and half-whispered dialogue that ventures into the spiritual, the religious, and the mystical. I can think of no American film to put the existence of God at the center of its story and to suggest that at the heart of life are deep mysteries and universal images (archetypes) that we find in dreams.

Both of these films, in their very different ways, raise timeless questions that are beyond all knowing. Both are testaments to the term "Homo spiritualis."

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Never enough time--or patience

When my aged neighbor rings the doorbell, as she routinely does, late in the afternoon when I am napping or in the middle of a project, I know that she will not say much of anything when I answer the door. Growing weary of these interruptions, I began putting a discreet sign on the door: Do Not Disturb.

Since that has had no effect, I recently moved it so it hangs right over the doorbell, so that she could not help but see it. Yesterday, she rang anyway, ignoring all warnings, and I became angry when she offered, as always, no apology. In the past six months of these interruptions, I have been annoyed and whenever possible let my ever-patient wife handle the neighbor, who is more than "out of it," to put it mildly. She is also lonely and wants some human interaction. So I should be sympathetic and smile. Instead, I fume.

I try to put this minor challenge to my sanity in the context of patience, and I wonder if I am growing less and less patient; I also wonder how I can cultivate more patience. Is asking for more patience akin to asking for more time?

Since the two are related, I guess the answer is affirmative: I fear being robbed of my privacy and my time. Maybe I fear my own future dementia, when I will be the one going around the neighborhood ringing doorbells and never apologizing for disturbing the residents.

This neighbor, 85, has something in common with the boy I tutor: they both test my patience.
The boy, who is 15, has ADHD and seldom listens to me and wastes valuable time as a result of my need to repeat. He wants to rush through every assignment when I want him to slow down. He probably will never be a patient person.

All this leads to my wish for myself in this new year: to slow down, be patient, and repeat the words of St. Francis de Sales that are posted on my study wall: "Never be in a hurry. Do everything quietly and in a calm manner. Do not lose your inner peace for anything whatsover, even if your whole world seems upset."

This should be easy for me, a retired professor who is home most days writing or reading. But old A-type patterns persist, and my brain continues to burst with ideas and reminders of unfinished tasks. It's no wonder I have become a student of silence, a member of the Friends of Silence.

Or that I appreciate articles like that of Pico Iyer in the Sunday NYTimes, "The Joy of Quiet," in which he describes his need to escape the rush of daily life. For most of us, it's a life in which we keep finding more ways to connect and thus produce more stress. At the same time, he says, we keep finding new (or old) ways to disconnect. Often this involves a retreat to a place where the absence of TVs and internet connections and phones is a blessed relief.

He quotes Nicholas Carr: the average American spends eight and a half hours a day in front of a screen (TV or computer), and the number of text messages maddingly increases daily. So for more than 20 years, Iyer has gone to a Benedictine monastery several times a year, not to pray but to be: to lose himself in stillness, to enjoy nature unfettered by noise, to find something akin to happiness.

What he wants is the happiness that doesn't depend on what happens. This is the idea of joy defined by the monk Brother David Steindl-Rast, a fine spiritual writer. As for me, instead of writing about all this, I should be practicing it daily. I don't need to travel to a monastery: I can create a monastic setting of contemplative life in my home, with my patient, literary wife and my ever-silent cat.

I vow to do more of this, become less busy, and maybe as a result less annoyed when my aged neighbor pushes my buttons.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Writing in the New Year

One of the first things I read on this first day of the new year was an interesting statement--for anyone who writes--from John McPhee (in the Paris Review, reprinted in today's NYTimes):

"I think it's totally rational for a writer, no matter how much experience he has, to go right down in confidence to almost zero when you sit down to start something. Why not? Your last piece is never going to write your next one for you."

As I work on the beginnings of a piece of fiction--a rare venture for me--I appreciate this admission by a noted author. Each piece takes us back to the beginning, in a sense, and we have to remind ourselves that, despite the misgivings, we really do know what we're doing, that our experience as readers and writers will lead us eventually out of the pit of writer's block. That McPhee uses the word "rational" is curious since the issues involved are largely emotional: fear of the blank page, of wasting time, of facing our inner selves.

One of my Christmas gifts was a book by the master stylist Gay Talese, A Writer's Life, in which he confesses--after explaining the slow, "Stone Age method" by which he works to create what look like effortless sentences--that he produces prose "with the ease of a patient passing kidney stones."

Hyperbole aside, his admission is refreshing, and he rewards himself after a morning of such labor by having a fine lunch in a New York restaurant because writing, as he and many others have attested, is indeed hard work. He lingers over each sentence, he says, "until I conclude that I lack the will or the skill to improve upon it..." The results are invariably wonderful--for the reader.

Part of every writer's challenge, as McPhee's statement suggests, is that combination of distraction, loneliness, and restlessness often called acedia, which is not (despite what Kathleen Norris suggests) a type of depression but of fear: like the early medieval monks in the desert, the writer facing an entire morning of work, freezes. There is too much time and yet not enough, perhaps. How do I begin to make myself clear, and how can I stay focused on the task at hand and not be lured by the beauty of the day or the inviting phone call?

This is the great challenge of the contemplative life, which English professor John Plotz discussed wisely in The New York Times Book Review last week. Solitary, cerebral, sedentary work of any kind, especially writing, can lead to acedia. When you add in our conscious or unconscious sense of readers (who are likely to be critical), the fear intensifies. The early monks knew how to anticipate and deal with the problem, and it didn't keep them from continuing to live contemplatively.

What I tell my writing students is that, as much as we can gain comfort from the struggles of other writers, we must adopt a positive attitude toward ourselves and our work. Any start we make, any draft, any sentence we write is a step in the right direction; the roughest of outlines can help us bridge the gulf between creativity and despair.

So my new year's wish to anyone who writes is that you have the courage to forge ahead. There's no other way to write than to write: maybe just one sentence will lead to another...

The difficulties of the solitary work of a writer are real but utterly human and nearly universal. Be skeptical of those who dash off essays in 30 minutes. Value revision. Reward yourself for any good sentence you produce; rejoice over every paragraph you have revised.

Any beginning you make is a beginning. Build on that and keep going. The rewards of the struggle will become apparent; eventually, you will enjoy the process, as Talese surely does despite his agony. As every good writer does, even those who say they hate to write but love to have written. (I enjoy both; generally, the process of producing an article is more rewarding than its publication.)

To give up or postpone writing might be to deny that part of your soul that needs nurturing, just as the soul of the contemplative needs the daily exercise of silence and prayer. Any struggle is holy: it leads to wholeness. I see writing as a spiritual activity, in case you haven't guessed. Happy new year!