Saturday, September 29, 2012

The past is not past.

"The past is not past," James Joyce wrote. It is present here and now." The truth of this often comes home to me in unexpected ways, as when a St. Louis classmate yesterday forwarded a picture of me and a few fellow high school students from 50 years ago. . . .At once, I was there, in that place and time, remembering their faces and personalities as if time had stopped; in fact, to realize that one of these men is now gone and the others are grandfathers is so startling as to be unreal. The past events seem more real. . . . I found myself thinking excessively about the photo and what it evoked and decided that the best thing to do was not save it and spend the weekend in the vividness of my memories but to return to the present. . . . I felt the immediacy of what is past as a timeless moment, frozen in my memory. I have often associated my longing for the past with the fact that my mother told me stories of her family early on and so I became connected to her earlier life. Then came my Catholic education, with its traditions and reverence for the past, and then my love of history. . . .Joyce, I gather, had similar experiences. But from what I have read in the excellent new biography of Joyce by Gordon Bowker, there was a powerful socioeconomic factor: young Jim's father was a spendthrift who plunged the once-prosperous family into poverty; they moved frequently from one Dublin house to another, the dreary streets finding their way into the elegiac stories of "Dubliners." . . . .Young Joyce turned to his ancestral roots and to family lore about a more dignified past; he escaped from the grim reality of the present by imagination, which, says Bowker, was haunted by ghosts. For the young Joyce, the past was more immediate than the present. . . .This can certainly be helpful for a poet and writer, but most of us are content--and better off--with momentary epiphanies, glimpses of the past that live on into the present. . . .I remember William Faulkner's statement, based on his connection to the American South: "The past isn't dead and buried. In fact, it isn't even past." What is the past but our remembering/imagining of earlier events in the present?

Friday, September 28, 2012

The Problem with Hurrying

Having been without internet connection this week for a few days has allowed me the freedom to slow down and do other things, like listen to music and read a few things that had been piling up on my desk. . . . There is something about electronic reading, and writing, that tells me unconsciously to hurry up. I am participating in a rapidly moving world where messages require prompt responses and news flashes are updated often. The internet is not a contemplative tool. . . .The truly cultured Chinese, I am told, never hurry to accomplish things since, according to Confucius, things done in haste cannot be done well. I suspect that today's Chinese take this old wisdom with a large dose of MSG. . . .It's no wonder then that hurrying is OK only in Hell; I refer to the advice Virgil gives to Dante in "Inferno": do not spend too much time talking with or looking at the damned souls in Hell. To do so is to pay them respect, so hurrying along with that crowded realm is wise. Speed in the lower depths is also motivated by fear. . . Fear governs the life of so many people in the real world today, including nearly all of my students, who learned early on to be terrified of grades and criticism by teachers. The high school boy I tutor, who is hyperactive, worries excessively about failure and parental criticism, and so turns to me for calming advice. He knows that he can breathe deeply three times and bring himself a modicum of peace, of what I would call mindfulness: being fully present to each assignment he has and doing one at at time, without worrying about the number of upcoming tests or papers due. . . .I find fear and speed everywhere: in the speech patterns of many people I encounter, professional people who talk so rapidly that they slur their words. I am amazed that a few TV anchors, including Anderson Cooper, never seemed to have studied that old-fashioned thing called elocution. I cannot expect people in the media to slow down, but they must be fully intelligible, especially if they are earning millions of dollars a year. . . .All of which brings to me a book recommended by a friend, a book I have not yet located, by the jazz pianist Kenny Werner, Effortless Mastery, which has to do with mindfulness. The lesson here, says my friend, is to slow down the body and the mind, be fully in the present, and enjoy (if you are prayerful) what Brother Lawrence, a humble worker in a French monastery kitchen in the 17th century, called the "sacrament of the present moment." Lawrence had little education and found that the formal prayers of the monks were not enough: why not, he thought, find God in the little things of a noisy kitchen, honoring the routine tasks we perform there?.....This reminds me of an article by Dr. Jan Chozen Bays, author of Mindful Eating. She recounts eating a lemon tart and savoring fully the flavor, then getting into conversation and losing touch with what she was eating; finally, returning to the tart, she is able to focus on the smell and flavor and textures in her mouth. She has slowed down the thinking function of the mind so as to access the awareness. Whether she considers this attention prayer, it is, at least for me, closely allied with the idea of the present moment as sacred since it alone is real even in its evanescence. Bays's advice: eat slowly, with long pauses between bites. If you do anything else while eating, even think, the flavor diminishes or disappears. She doesn't mention the obvious: digestion is improved....For me, preparing food can be a meditation practice as I clear my mind of everything except the task before me; and I try to do the same when I eat dinner at home, even though I feel obligated to talk, to avoid feeling that the silence my wife and I experience is awkward or unnatural. A meal, I tell myself, is a social occasion; I cannot be expected to eat like a Trappist or Buddhist monk....And so the challenge goes on in fast-paced world where most of us enjoy human company and find it stimulating while at the same time knowing that there is a time for silence, for slowing down, for eating alone, mindfully. . . .The point is that we have to fight for every opportunity to slow down how we talk, how we eat, how we interact with others, so we can really listen and fully savor the gift of the present moment. ...As I notice the tension of others, the anxiety that tends to rule the world, I catch myself in my own anxious patterns and re-learn the ancient wisdom of slowing down. If all the media and the internet were shut down for a week, I suspect the world would be more peaceful.

Friday, September 21, 2012

A True Gentleman

Timothy Egan in today's NYTimes pays fine tribute to a noted editor, Ash Green, calling him a true gentleman. We are told he never complained....This strikes me as a limited idea of what a gentleman is and an utterly wrong-headed notion of masculinity: the stoic man who neither brags about himself nor whines is a man in trouble....I am glad that Egan knew Mr. Green and was able to honor him at the time of his passing but wonder how healthy it is for men to have old stereotypes of manhood reinforced, especially about keeping feelings to yourself. Psychologically dangerous, I would think....But I applaud Egan for using the occasion to ask the question, Where do we go today to find a gentleman? What sort of mentoring do young men have in the popular culture (see my above comment) or in churches or community? There is no clear answer to such major questions. (I find the new format of these blogspots confusing; it does not allow for paragraph breaks, at least as far as I have yet been able to determine, so I will go back and at least add ellipses to indicate pauses in my last post. It was not intended to be an unbroken blob of print.)

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Where are the Gentlemen?

A recent article on the death of the English gentleman (as an ideal) by Andrew Gimson raised a question for me: what do we mean by a gentleman in the US today? Is the idea obsolete?....... In a sense, yes, since the Victorian idea, based on a romanticized view of the medieval knight, insisted that a true gentleman is strong--both morally and physically--respectful of ladies and the elderly, polished and refined, never lies or uses bad language, is loyal, honest, and honorable. Such a man, John Ruskin wrote, should be "perfectly bred": Does this mean he had to be nobly born?.... Not necessarily. As long as he had a good education--Cardinal Newman's Idea of a University insists the a liberal education produces the true gentleman--and speaks well, dresses and acts well, he can pass as a gentleman. Even Pip in Great Expectations can learn to establish himself as a London man of respectability--the key Victorian virtue.... Much of this began, for the Victorians, with Dr. Thomas Arnold at the Rugby School who, between 1828 and 1841, sought to instill gentlemanly conduct along with other criteria at his famous "public" school. A gentleman did things because he instinctively knew they were the right thing to do. He acted with honor (whatever that meant). . . . Of course, such an idea is as impossible to define as it is to live. One advantage of the traditional gentleman was that it could be defined in a way to include yourself. You could behave like a gentleman without having a coat of arms, as in the original idea of the gentry. It was obvious then, as it was for Chaucer, that well-born men did often not behave in a "gentlemanly" way. . . . Actually, the history of the gentleman is more interesting and complex: the English courtesy books of the Renaissance were influenced by the Book of the Courtier by Castiglione, one of those amazing Italians who could do almost anything with a nonchalance he called "sprezzatura," an effortless ease, whether a man was functioning as a soldier, athlete, poet, lover, musician, or scholar. Castiglione, drawing on the chivalric ideal, created in a sense the modern idea of a gentleman, which dominated European thinking until at least World War II. . . . In recent decades, it seems, even if one learned to speak English with an Oxbridge accent, Englishmen, like men in the rest of the world, seem to value money, power, sexual success and all those other assets of the popular culture that are miles away from the noble Victorian notion of impeccable taste and courtesy in the conduct of life, the product of a classical education. . . . In this country, although English ideas of the gentleman had some sway, it is not easy to find the gentlemanly ideal in the popular culture. Our boys are raised on a diet of media warriors, rock stars, drug-enhanced athletes and pitiful politicians; and they certainly cannot learn much about gentle masculinity from their friends. . . . If you pick up a copy of GQ (once known as Gentleman's Quarterly), you are more likely to find images of tough and cool models with designer stubble, mixed in with a few andogynous models from Milan (or perhaps computer-generated). And the articles in the Advice to Men columns, as with Esquire and other such men's magazines, are about how to attract women, what to do with them in bed, how to make big bucks, how to look cool while intoxicated, how to have perfect abs, etc. . . . As I thought about gentlemen in America, I thought for some reason of the old chivalric South in Gone with the Wind, where Ashley Wilkes is a gentleman and Rhett Butler is definitely not, just as Scarlett is no lady: the artificial notions of the lady, proper and prim, seem as out of date, as those of the gentleman in the true sense. . . . So what is the true sense? I asked several friends. Having once taught a course on Masculinity in Literature, I remember how rigid the unwritten code of modern manhood can be, on the streets, in the classroom, at the workplace. The sociologist who designed and taught the course with me writes that there is always, in the idea of a gentleman, a mix of toughness and aggression along with the gentler aspects of manhood. He reminded me that the masculine ideal promoted in our culture does not havae much to say about ideal man, who, in my way of thinking, is strong in character but gentle in spirit. . . . He is not only polite but caring and helpful; education and status have less to do with the contemporary American gentleman than in the past. I have known more than a few professional men--lawyers, doctors, academics--who were well read and knowledgeable but morally unsound and boorish in behavior. . . . Another friend helped me sort out where young men growing up learn gentlemanly arts in today's society. He wrote: "my mother taught me to be a gentleman." And this means for him respecting one's elders, showing good manners, speaking when spoken to, opening doors for ladies and the elderly, standing up when ladies enter, carrying their heavy packages. It is a series of lessons learned in the home, probably with a little help from the nuns who taught him and from Emily Post. This resembles my own growing up. . . . I suspect that Emily Post, inheriting a tradition of etiquette from earlier times,codified the notion of what a lady is, and this trickled down to include her male counterpart--except taht it is more complicated than this. The fear that men have about all the refinement is found in much literature: think of Tom Sawyer and other pieces by Mark Twain, who wants little to do with educational and religious polishing during his rebellious youth. . . . At Rugby School as in Renaissance Italy, the gentleman has to be an athlete, implying competition and physical prowess, yet he must appear in society to be tamed, less the violent warrior of the playing field (or killing field) than the responsible, confident, reliable, knowledgeable, hardworking, steady and of course handsome partner for any girl (do we still call them ladies?). No wonder gentlemen are so hard to find. . . . As in the past, the ideal is impossible to realize, but the educational effort to refine the wild boy into something resembling the well-mannered gentleman goes on. . . . . I would welcome comments on this topic as I prepare to continue the discussion:

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Slow Reading

"I am the slowest reader you will ever meet," writes novelist Benjamin Percy in a recent issue of The Rumpus.

"After taking in a paragraph, I might pause and stare into space for fifteen minutes." He goes on to say that he will read it again, maybe two or three times, if it's good, examining its construction with his legal pad handy. It might take Percy two to four weeks to complete a novel, but the time is well used. He knows it completely, the way readers in earlier times, having few books to choose from, read and re-read and re-read the classics again, making these texts part of themselves.

Percy is not only a writer but a teacher of writing who believes, as I do, that good writing begins with reading. He has no patience with aspiring writers who say they have no time for reading or don't want to be influenced by another's style because they want to find their own voice.

You find your voice, first, by immersing yourself in Flannery O'Connor, as Percy did, or Hemingway, then writing a short story imitating the pattern and style of the original. You are trying out various voices, Percy says, until you find your own.

You will never find it in isolation.

This is refeshing for me to hear. In my own workshops, students, overly anxious to become published before they know their craft, look puzzled when I emphasize reading and paying careful attention to other stylists. They are unaware that all of us write in the company of other writers, past and present, whose web of influence is essential if you are to develop an ear for what works in dialogue or description or structure.

Do they think you can make a film without having seen and studied thousands of classic movies?

Underlying this advice is the more general need to slow down and remind ourselves to be patient, both with ourselves and with our craft. I have written about the slow movement in food and other areas before, along with the problems that come with the face pace of everyday life in which reflection becomes impossible. Reading, I have said, is a spiritual act, type of prayer; and writing, too, can be contemplative.

I am always learning more about slowing down--and more about writing, having been at it for more than 50 years; I am always finding stylists that entertain, impress or delight me, whose work becomes part of the well I dip into. I am grateful to Mr. Percy for coming my way and sharing his experience of slow reading.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Where is Civilization Going?

Roger Kimball is a thoughtful conservative, author of Tenured Radicals and most recently The Fortunes of Permanence. I have read an article summarizing this new book, which sounds a bit like Alan Bloom's Closing of the American Mind.

As such, it should appeal to anyone concerned about the trendy nature of much academic work, about who is teaching what at universities and how this affects education as a whole.

Scholars in my field of English literature and language have been, for at least thirty years, preoccupied with theory (gender, cultural, political, colonial) as it illuminates the writing of the past, which they don't see as containing necessarily permanent values. Reading fiction or poetry of the past, then, is for them (not for Kimball or me) chiefly a means of understanding the treatment of women and minorities or the oppression of third-world cultures.

While such new approaches have produced some revealing studies, Kimball is right to be concerned that so much of the world of academia and art are biased in favor of what's new and opposed to traditional values, including cultivating students' minds in what we used to call the humanist tradition.

My own teaching emphasis on Milton and the 17th century, as well as Dante and Shakespeare, was in large part an effort to understand the best that has been passed down over the generations, even if the voices of women. It is no surprise that no one in my old department of English has taken up the courses I taught prior to my retirement.

While I do not share all of Kimball's ideological biases, I am glad this often scathing critic (who edits The New Criterion) maintains his stance vs. the academy since, as a New York Times reviewer stated, his tirades are usually justified and he is intellectually rigorous.

Yet Kimball, like most polemicists, overstates things, as when he insists that contemporary scholars see the past as support for the "superiority and self-satisfaction" of today's readers and students. We neglect today, he says, the deep wisdom of tradition with its "answers to the human predicament."

In evoking the Judaeo-Christian tradition, as it was often called, Kimball is insisting on permanment values, including ideas of good and evil that do not change, and answers to often unanswerable questions. Yet our understanding of these values must develop and grow; we cannot fear change or the knowledge that continues to double every few years, often jarring our settled ideas about everything from the mind to the universe.

I share Kimball's concern about relativism, about a curriculum that emphasizes innovation and theory rather than the core of Western civilization. Yet I also share the more optimistic stance of Walter J. Ong, my Jesuit professor at St. Louis University, who had one solid foot in the past, the other grounded in the present as he looked forward with excitement, like Teilhard de Chardin, to an unfolding future of new knowledge and understanding.

In other words, humanists of the 21st century must have open minds, be interested in everything, fear nothing, yet be able to separate the trendy from the traditional and always value those thinkers who have made Western civilization what it is.