Sunday, January 27, 2013

Language Matters

A few related items from my in-box:

1. "I lied, but only briefly,"  Manti T'eo reportedly said, according to a cable news headline I recently saw. Reminds me of being sort of pregnant. He was referring to a dead girl who never existed. Notre Dame should mandate a course in ethics and one in logic for this guy.

2. Speaking of logic reminds me that I keep hearing the phrase "begging the question" in the media when the speaker really means, "that raises the question" (of whether Hillary Clinton will run...or whatever).  To beg the question has a specific meaning in logic as a fallacy in reasoning, in this case assuming something to be true that needs to be demonstrated.  For example,  "Why do we let the city cheat us this way?"  First, the speaker/writer has to prove that the city is in fact cheating the people.
The broadened use of such a phrase, with no awareness of its essential meaning, often happens in language when phrases floating in the community soup get picked up and become trendy.  "Begging the question," for some reason, has become trendy.

3. A government economist quoted in the NYTimes recently declared that the budget bill passed by Congress is "no existential threat to the overall U.S. economy."  Did he need that word "existential"?  Does it add any meaning?  Did he or she mean, "real"?  Everyone who writes for the media or speaks to the press should read George Orwell's essay, "Politics and the English Language" once a year to remind themselves about meaningless phrases and the abuse to clear thinking caused by jargon.

4. I am tutoring a high school boy, who is now studying, week by week, a list of words for the future SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) required by colleges. Without going into the usefulness of this test as a means of determining intelligence or academic skill, I can only say that the list of 20 words, which he commits to memory each week as if they were in a foreign language, are taken out of any context.  He does not see how they are used in sentences, and so they mean little to him.  I notice most recently the following words:  assiduous, penurious, recondite, and puissant--all very bookish, the last of which I associate with Milton's Paradise Lost (1667).  I can't recall seeing any contemporary writer using this recondite word (or that one either, very often). Why is the teaching of English in secondary schools not more enlightened?
 Brute memorizing, like cramming, can be done, but the learning value of such studying is limited. Why not relate the words to texts the students are reading?  Sound obvious?  It is!

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Wrestling with Simone Weil

To read Simone Weil is to exist on a high level of abstraction where such concepts as God, joy and evil predominate. Rather than try to discuss the problem of evil--how can the existence of God be maintained in a world of evil?--or the existence of God or the meaning of joy, I focus on a statement in the form of a question that nags at me.

Weil, the always challenging French philosopher and mystic, wrote:  "To say that the world is not worth anything, that life is of no value and to give evil as the proof is absurd, for if these things are worthless, what does evil take from us?" (Gravity and Grace)   I am trying to figure out what she means.

What, she goes on, does suffering take from the one who is without joy? In other words, if I may presume: A glimpse or experience of joy is essential if we are to see what is real beneath the misery of life.

For Weil, the reality of life is suffering, yet this does mean that reality is evil or worthless; suffering is the precondition for moments of transcendent joy. (She wrote extensively about affliction.) We must endure pain and suffering, which do not de-value life any more do than human evils (war, racism, hatred, etc.).

Another way to express this is to focus, as Justin E. H. Smith does in a recent blog (, on love as the essence of God.

The problem, he says, with most concepts of God is that they include God as king or tyrant or powerful father rather than simply "the love that charges through all of creation."  The anthropomorphic images of God, it seems to me, are useful metaphors for children, but prove dangerous to mature people who want to pray.  God is not a being, but Being itself.

Since God is not a being, Smith says, God cannot be a monarch.  God should be a reason to rejoice: so the love that is God and that is seen in creation leads to joy. We see this love in the God's creatures, and to experience it is to know something deeper and longer lasting than mere happiness. In other words, joy.

I assume this is something Simone Weil would agree with.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Guns in America

I doubt if I can say much that is startling about the current gun control debate or the American love affair with guns--except for this chilling fact: there are reportedly 300 million guns in the U.S., about enough for every man, woman, and child.

Do we feel safe yet?

The obsession with guns and the paranoia of the NRA (National Rifle Association) in recent years is a bit of a mystery to me, having grown up in an apparently innocent time, the 1950s, when guns were only part of my fantasy world.

I played with guns, imagining myself to be a cowboy, like the ones I saw in movies and later on TV, but I knew no one who actually owned (or admitted owning) a gun. No one in my family was a hunter.  When I got to high school, there was, among all the various student groups, a Rifle Club, but I paid no more attention to that than to my cousin's BB gun.

I lived in a Midwestern city, St. Louis, with plenty of crime, but I have no memories of seeing actual guns, except occasionally on the holster of certain police officers.  No one I knew talked about, collected, or used guns.
Was I being cheated of true masculinity?

In any case, the gun-soaked culture of violence of recent decades, stoked by increasingly violent movies TV programs, and video games, continues to alarm and surprise me. This is especially true of the sale of military weapons, which have nothing to do with the legitimate right of self-protection or hunting, both of which are covered by the Second Amendment.

What bothers me most is the fear that grips people, terrified of what they imagine to be a federal takeover of their right to do as they please, whose fear turns into hatred. So last week we found the right wingers calling Obama a fascist, tyrant, king, and worse because he proposed some sensible, legal guidelines on guns.

Even after the horror of Newton, Conn., where 20 kids were killed last month, millions of men and some women in this country still resist any common-sense effort to curb the availability of handguns and assault weapons, which all too often are bought and used by those least capable of responsible action. They are terrified of change and a supposed loss of freedom, as if the president were intending to confiscate their gun collections.

It seems to me that the extremism of the NRA and the Tea Party anti-Obama folks will backfire (no pun intended): their madness will be seen for what it is by the majority, and background checks will be mandated, even if the cannot be universally enforced.  Common sense will prevail.

Clearly, something must be done by the federal government--and in a calm, civil manner that overcomes extreme fear with a concern for the common good: the safety of children in their schools, of workers in their offices, of any of us in public places.  And a realization that we have long had more than enough guns for our own protection and sport.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Unspoken

How many major things never get said. How often families live and die with certain facts never explained, certain truths never acknowledged.

It was true in my family and in the culture as a whole in which I grew up. This explains, perhaps, my appreciation of the Tobias Wolff novel
Old School, which takes place at a boys' prep school in the early 1960s. When I put it down, I told myself, the title of this book could be called The Unspoken.

The narrator, a hardly fictionalized version of Wolff himself,  comments on the way certain things were taken for granted, never acknowledged, both by the school's culture generally and by his friends in particular.  "No acknowledgment of who we really were--of trouble, weakness or doubt--of our worries about the life ahead and the sort of men we were becoming. Never; not a word."

This sums up much of conventional masculine culture in which any admission of fear or the inner life in general is seen as inappropriate (i.e., effeminate or weak). These boys can and do talk about sex, of course, and their teachers' habits, but they rely on a superficial code of masculine behavior that is artificial and coolly detached. Even in the face of tragic news, they are reluctant to confide in one another and would rather be dead than seen weeping.

The novel is set in 1960, in the period of my own education in an all-male college prep school, but not a residential one in New England. As I think now of the boys I remember quite vividly from those days, I realize with a certain sadness that I never really knew them.  We had an acquaintance and an intimacy that resembled what went on our families, for the most part, where the Big Things were kept hush-hush.

The culture has changed quite a bit, after a generation of talk shows and tell-all books, yet I wonder how much has really changed in the life of young men as they grow up.  The ones I encountered in my course on masculinity (as in other courses) were often surprised at the candor of our discussions of conventional male behavior patterns, especially the stoic fa├žade, the "I don't want to talk about it" attitude.  Many were reluctant to say much on any topic.

Some of the smart ones, like Wolff, turned to writing; and it's no wonder so many people, men in particular, are drawn to writing: at last they can express what they truly feel. 

In the letters from schoolboys in earlier times, especially in the Victorian era, we can hear the yearning to share affection and other feelings with their mates, which they do in passionately romantic terms, saying things they would not be permitted to say aloud.

I have received, and still receive, written messages that nearly move me to tears--some from students, some from close friends who can only tell me of their admiration and love at a remove since when we are together, the discussion, however emotionally real or intimate, cannot quite express the depth of our bond and the gratitude we have for each other. The written word is safer.

I find this topic of men and friendship filled with sadness since so much of life goes unspoken, buried deep in the heart, covered over, sometimes crushed--adding to the stress that causes cardiovascular problems.  We all have known, or seen depicted, fathers estranged from their sons, yearning to express their love or admiration, sometimes waiting until it is almost too late.

When men can't even admit their fears and inner feelings to their wives or girl friends, tragedy invariably follows in the form of violence, alcoholism, or abuse.

I would like to think that Wolff's moving look at his high school days has become dated, but I doubt it. Fear holds men back from discussing fear, and from fear comes anger, hatred and violence.  The "real man" of strength has the courage to open his heart to others; he has outgrown the stoic code of repression that leads some boys to go so deep within that the only way they can find to validate their existence is to kill innocent strangers and themselves. No one should be surprised that the killer is almost always male.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Is Multitasking Real?

Sherlock Holmes, at a key moment in the TV version of "The Three Gables" with the incomparable Jeremy Brett, pauses in listening to an old lady's account of her grandson's murder and says, surprisingly, "This cake is delicious."  He has consciously shifted focus from the usual rapt attention he pays to every detail of the case to another, much more trivial present-time moment: what he is having for tea.

I thought of this scene in part because Maria Konnikova in her book Mastermind presents Holmes as the model of mindfulness, a term I question elsewhere (Jan. 2 post). She also asserts that multitasking is a myth since, as in the example above, we actually to shift our attention from one thing to another; we are not really able to attend to two things at once.

This is not to say we can't walk and chew gum at the same time or drive and listen to music, since the latter rarely requires concentration. Listening to music is not a task. Texting or using the cell phone is a task requiring attention and has no place when a person is driving.

A friend who often telephones us on her way home from work uses a headset, not a cell phone, but it is obvious that she is not giving good attention (especially listening) to the person (me) at the other end or to the road.  I would like to say, "do one thing or the other, and please wait until you get home to call us (unless it's an emergency)."

A student of mine was busy putting away groceries in the family kitchen--I could hear annoying noises in the background as we spoke--and I suggested he call me back or do the unloading later.  Talking to me (I suggested) was important. This is not a statement of vanity but of fact: he has things to learn from me and needs to pay attention and remember them. If he tries to divide his attention from what we are saying to the kitchen chore, he will be at some level frustrated, unfulfilled.

He replied, "Oh, I'm in to multitasking." It was then that I remembered Sherlock's remark about the cake, the author's comment about multitasking, and my dislike for the whole idea of pretending to do two things well at the same time.  Don't we have enough distractions in everyday life in our effort to communicate? Why create more?

Of course, one can be content to do two things haphazardly, mindlessly, perhaps hurriedly, but this is spiritually dangerous. What do I mean?

I mean we need to slow down and be fully present to one another in every conversation, in every human encounter. To be present means to be patient enough to listen and to stay with the other person before turning our mind over to something else.

A phone conversation is not a task on the level of washing dishes or even driving a car--things we do to get them over with: it is a personal exchange requiring that we be fully attentive to what is happening in the reality of the present moment.

That is mindfulness and it is real; multitasking is not.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Is Conversation Dead?

To say that conversation is a declining art does not seem like a new insight; in fact, people have been complaining about the challenge of maintaining a true exchange between two or more people for centuries.

In his history of conversation, Stephen Miller discusses in detail the type of intellectual exchange valued by Hume, Dr. Johnson, Ben Franklin, and others during the 18th century and contrasts this with the often emotional, often angry interchanges that too often characterize conversation today.

He cites my late professor Walter Ong, the Jesuit polymath, who said that conversation means persons communing with persons; his focus was on interiority. Whether such our culture of talking can live up to this ideal is questionable; it was questionable in 1558, when Giovanni Della Casa wrote that good conversationalists are hard to find.

People meet to chat, have lunch, discuss books and hook up in various ways for interpersonal dialogue, yet the result is often one-sided. I think of how many people I have met who give monologues; there is no real exchange. They appear totally wrapped up in their own lives and problems. They pay perfunctory interest in me and my ideas and do not know how to listen.

To listen is an art requiring patience and the humility to put one's ego aside for a while as we focus attention fully on the person speaking, rather than pretending to listen while thinking of ways to respond.  Often this inability to be a good listener is motivated by a desire to "win"--as if conversation were argument. What is also missing in many conversations is politeness, an essential ingredient in true conversation, as Miller shows.

For Miller, conversation has no real purpose except pleasure. It seems to me that its purpose is to stimulate ideas and learn, not to give advice or push an agenda or offer a confession. It requires practice and a certain period of time. It assumes a less hurried pace of life than most of us live today.

Ben Franklin agreed with Hume, Addison and Johnson that the art of pleasing in conversing does not come naturally; like good manners, it must be cultivated. Few of my students know how to have a class discussion; they make a point, when pushed, and don't know how to keep the ball going.  Where are their models?

People, hungry for conversation, turn to talk radio or talk shows on TV, which offer no real conversations at all: they are full of advice and self-promotion.  Or people turn to conversation avoidance devices--cell phones, I-pods, and the rest. No wonder an Amazon reviewer, Miller reports, wrote that "conversation is dead now."*

Miller's book would be a stimulating topic for a real conversation. He covers the waterfront from the classics to Jerry Springer and Eminem. He could say more about the obvious speed of our postmodern lives, making time for real conversation rare; but his intellectual history of what is essentially an intellectual pursuit (stimulation of ideas) is worth reading. And conversing about if you can find a partner who listens.

*I just received an email picturing young people at sports events, museums, beaches, and restaurants and staring at their cell phones.  What Einstein predicted has come true: he feared that technology one day "will surpass our human interaction. The world will have a generation of idiots."
So much for conversation and discussion.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

What is a Chair?

The question is not facetious since a chair is much more than a piece of furniture. My friend who creates furniture as sculpture might disagree.

Even an article in the NYTimes today by Al Baker about classroom chairs indicates that the standard, stacked, steel chairs used widely across the country in schools are being replaced by ergonomic seats that, since they fit the shape of the body, allow students a bit of "sovereignty" by allowing them the freedom to move.  Goodbye to rigid teaching and rote learning?

Clearly the chairs we sit in have many social functions; what they symbolize interests me. And their history.

I began this investigation by listening to TV news commentators discussing House and Senate chairmanships and was reminded of the issue of using "chair" rather than "chairman" at the university where I taught. Universities have endowed chairs as well as influential chairs (once called chairmen) who run departments. The father of the family traditionally sits at the head of the dining table....So I asked myself, why is the chair the place of leadership and authority and not just a piece of furniture?

I remembered that cathedral comes from the Latin cathedra for chair: the seat of the bishop is there.  St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, for example, is not a cathedral, to the surprise of many; the pope as bishop of Rome has his traditional seat (sedes, See) in the Lateran, the old home of the papacy. Many people seem to think that any huge church is a cathedral.

In Catholic tradition, the chair of the bishop (or priest when he presides at the Mass) is not a throne; it is a place from which he teaches and where he presides.  The present pope often preaches from a seated position, the more ancient way of teaching used by Jesus.  Many people who read the Gospels imagine Christ standing as he gives his parables.  Scholars tell us that in the ancient world, teachers like Jesus sat as they taught, just as judges always have in court. So the chair has long been the chief symbol of authority and office.

I remember a line from one of the old Marian litanies that puzzled me: "Seat of Wisdom, pray for us."  Catholics pray to Mary, enthroned as Queen of Heaven, seated next to her son, who is "seated at the right hand of the Father." (An exalted position of authority, to be sure, expressed metaphorically.)

In a 2005 Spectrum article, B. N. Goswamy presents a brief history of the sitting position, which philosophers once designated the seat of the soul, of intelligence, reason and wisdom.  So power comes to mind when we think of what chairs signify--not comfort, not the freedom for more wiggle room in classrooms. The Queen reads her speech each year to Parliament from a seated position (in a throne, of course).

A fuller treatment of the chair in daily secular use might include paintings of chairs, like Van Gogh's, as well as the "final" chair Andy Warhol depicted in 1967: the electric chair. What have so many victims of capital punishment in modern times been seated rather than lying on a flat bed?

Clearly, the chair has various political, social and religious meanings that go beyond its physical function as a piece of furniture. Another question: when the chair as furniture is turned into a work of art, are some of these symbolic functions suggested?

All of this requires further investigation.  I welcome comments at or at the blog comments spot.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

What is Mindfulness?

Because I purposely detached myself from news about the fiscal cliff, the Rose Bowl, and New Year's hoopla, my year began very peacefully; even though I attended a Jan. 1 open house, I was totally relaxed, a good omen as I start 2013.

How can this peaceful spirit be maintained?  One clear way is by attention to the here-and-now in the daily practice of meditation. It is called mindfulness: knowing that I am in the present moment, aware of only one thing at a time.

Maria Konnikova in her new book Mastermind uses Sherlock Holmes as an example of mindful thought. I found her article "The Power of Concentration" in the New York Times last month.  She says the famous fictional detective, by silently concentrating on one problem at a time, is a master of unitasking or what "cognitive psychologists mean when they say mindfulness."

I like her comments about the folly of multitasking, which (she rightly observes) is a myth: in "multitasking," we really shift our focus rapidly as we move from one task to the next. We don't devote as much attention as we should to any one thing.  But the single-minded concentration on an issue is not really mindfulness, as conventionally understood.

The type of spiritual mindfulness found in the Buddhist tradition as well as in contemplative prayer in the Christian West has nothing to do with thinking and analyzing, as Holmes does; the mind is not active but passive. The goal is no-think: the absence of ideas so that the person who meditates clears the busy mind and is fully in the present moment. He or she might be, as I was yesterday, able to transcend possible stress and tension by an awareness of one's surroundings.

There can be, in mindfulness, a sense of the timeless present, the goal of prayerful meditation. Thomas Merton wrote, "Eternity is in the present. Eternity is in the palm of the hand."

So I don't think mindful meditation, though it might produce cognitive improvements, including an increase in happiness, is really mindfulness at all.  And the estimable Mr. Holmes is not a model of how to find inner peace, though he may be helpful in the concentration required of focused thinking.

But let's please not let such thinking be called mindfulness.