Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Of Friendship

A friend suggested to me today, as she complained of the emptiness of much friendship, that I compose a post for this blog considering the opinions of great thinkers upon the subject. Although I have been commended for the wideness of my reading, I think myself hardly fit to conduct such an undertaking with either the scholarly care or philosophical perspicuity so grave a subject would demand. I do, however, keep often in my mind the remark of Francis Bacon, in his essay Of Followers and Friends, that “there is little friendship in the world, and least of all between equals, which was wont to be magnified. That that is, is between superior and inferior, whose fortunes may comprehend the one the other.” I think we today would do harm neither to our happiness nor our virtue to consider friendship this way. For if Aristotle, the philosopher of optimates, could require that equality of friends which Bacon here dismisses, how much more so do we slaves to the democratic vision find ourselves searching eternally for friends who are our equals?

My grandfather once told me that the greatest difficulty in finding appointments for our clergy couples in the Methodist Church is the inevitable reality that one of the two will be a much better minister than the other; and so, in the best interests of the gospel and of Christ’s holy church, one must put a strain upon an institution pleasing to that same Christ and approved by the same holy gospel—for only among spouses of the humblest and best sort will the advancement of one not engender envy and remorse in the heart of the other left behind—otherwise we must do disservice to our mission by either elevating an unworthy laborer or holding back an excellent one. Yet we who are so ready to sacrifice at the altars of equity and equality would balk at the sacrifice of a spouse who puts their career in the service of their partner’s—and if it be the wife that does so those of us well trained by feminists will either pity her or blame her husband; the man who does so, well, is he not weak and uxorious? And yet who would deny the contribution such a sacrifice can make to matrimonial felicity? Indeed among the many causes of our society’s propensity to divorce may we not name alongside individualism, shamelessness, love-worship, and the contractual idea the fact that it is now equals who marry? When we are rivals with our husbands and wives in not only amatory contests of jealousy real or imagined, but also in the merciless and worldly battlefield of our status and careers, who can expect all barriers to vanish or affection to ground itself in the conversation of wedded souls and not the ambitions of advantageous partnership? And should another or no partnership seem better, by what cords are then the partners bound but those of legal inconvenience?

It is the first great advantage of a friend, says Bacon elsewhere in his essay Of Friendship, that they allow us “ease and discharge of the fullness and swellings of the heart,” that a friend is medicine for stress and sorrow. And yet if we are in constant fear of losing standing before our friends and hesitate to divulge our weaknesses in imagination of their later mocking us or thinking less of us, the medicine shall never be applied; indeed unless our friends are shrewd physicians and diligent confessors (friendship, says Bacon, is “a kind of civil shrift”) they may never detect either our symptoms or our evasions, and keep both absolution and prescription beyond our reach. If our friends are our equals this will always be the case, but if they are so far above us that we could never hope to gain their favor—and yet they may never be so beyond us that we do not think and feel as they do—or if, on the contrary, they are beneath us by such a degree that our livelihoods and happiness do not hang upon their opinions, then we will be freed to unfold before them the tale of all that ails us, and will not hesitate to share with them both relief and anxiety, sadness and joy. To be a peer in sentiment is to be ripe for friendship, but likeness in station is an invitation to rot.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Of Education

It was the custom of Protagoras to ask his students only for such payment as they felt his teaching worth. I suppose if such a model were adopted today by any institution of higher learning, or indeed if such a framework were imposed upon the tax rates with which our public schools are funded, a great many diligent secretaries and mediocre lecturers would be compelled to seek other employment, not so much because the labor of our educators, poor though it may be, would go so undervalued or unappreciated (though that it would be), but because the spirit of cheapness and of avarice its sister holds such sway within the tempers of our age.

To be recompensed for the exercise of one's intellect and to be paid wages for the impartation to others of one's long-acquired knowledge are ideas both of which I find abhorrent and repulsive. A teacher is not worthy to have gained such knowledge if they demand some payment to divulge it, just as that student is a base and illiberal learner who cares for either grades or degrees. The student that desires something other than to become a man of learning and the teacher who desires more reward than to be one are both worthy of pity for the same reasons, if not in the same degree; for student may merely be ignorant, but the teacher has drunk of truth without feeling the refreshment of virtue. And those societies which fail to support such as are indeed seekers after truth deserve a harsher condemnation than even these. Boswell relates a story of Dr. Johnson that, when he learned the last surviving granddaughter of Milton was compelled by necessity to maintain herself as a shopkeeper, he considered it a grave injustice and a point of national shame and immediately went about lobbying the influential men of his acquaintance to see if they could provide her with a pension from the crown. Yet today we expect that even the poets themselves should work.

We might ask what can be done, and wonder whether a society of wage labor can ever again accept more aristocratic modes of sustaining our intellectuals. Indeed, even the institution we possess which is closest in spirit to the benefices and pensions of our forebears, the tenured professorship, is today adulterated with quantifiable standards and requirements and nonetheless remains relentlessly and constantly besieged. Yet it is better to ask another question: why must the university remain the model for higher education? After all the university itself displaced the monastery; why should the monastery not again return to the fore? The monks have their gardens and the alms of their benefactors; they have no need to demand a wage for teaching. And the initiate also is hardly pursuing advancement, but rather binding himself to a life dedicated to the highest ideals, a life which neither asks nor expects remuneration in this world. From teachers the expectation to publish would be thankfully removed and the vain and dangerous idol of advancing or expanding knowledge expunged from our world of thought. A world of such scholars would make Protagoras seem the greedy man.

Friday, September 3, 2010

On Speaking the Language

Caleb Crain is a blogger, but, unlike the rest of us, one who is often actually worth reading. His training, and to a great degree his interests, are in American literature, a fact for which, as a horribly unfashionable exponent of High Classicism, I will not so much blame as pity him, and which, despite all my expectation to the contrary, seems to have left the sharpness of his intellect all but untouched; only a favorable disposition towards Freudianism reveals him. This Caleb Crain then, possessed of no small amount of both sagacity and taste, and yet hardly accustomed, as we shall see, to think within the constructs of earlier civilization, has taken upon himself to read "desultorily, and with no ambitions for speed or even completion," the Faerie Queene of Edmund Spenser. It is a pleasure I would recommend to all. After commenting first upon the archaism of his diction, Mr. Crain passes this evocative judgment on the allegorical world of Spenser's poem:

"In principle I don't mind it that one character stands for virtue, another for virginity, etc., but many of Spenser's characters represent their ideas so impartially that they don't quite come across as people. Add in the poem's resort to fantastical and sometimes gruesome imagery, and the reader sometimes feels as if he is trapped in another person's unconscious, prey to mysterious forces incarnated as monsters, elves, and beauties, all lacking the sort of personal self that might in a pinch be negotiated with."

The rest of the post continues with a discussion of the episode with Redcrosse and Despair, and its relevance to psychoanalytic discussions of suicide, which, if such things hold your interest, would certainly be worth reading. What more attracts me in Mr. Crain's comment is all the many things it says about how a reader raised on the novel has been taught to enjoy a text, and what a scholar trained in the last two centuries has been taught to find, indeed also what such readers cannot find and cannot enjoy--and his comments show he is certainly aware of this fact. Whatever I may say on this point has in all likelihood already been said, and more eloquently, by C.S. Lewis in one or other of his scholarly publications, to which I would direct the interested reader, especially his The Allegory of Love and The Discarded Image.

Mr. Crain's first observation, and the problem he has with Spenser as a reader of novels, is that the allegorical characters of the poem are not "believable," in his words, "don't quite come across as people." I assume we all know what is meant by "people," but it is worth parsing the statement out. Mr. Crain, I would wager, does not mean primarily things like the monstrosity of Duessa when she is uncovered by Arthur and revealed to be not a person but demon, or Occasion with her grotesque forelock. Such characters certainly do not come across as "people," but in the same way the giant Orgoglio, or for that matter the Rivers and Months that parade at various points in the poem, do not come across as "people": they are something other than people to begin with, and in that are well portrayed. What Crain means, rather, is that the human characters of the poem do not possess the depth of psychological complication one expects from the great novelists or may easily see in the great dramatists. One has, instead, people who are not "people," but rather move more comfortably in a world populated by Venus and Diana in their allegorical modes, and who have names like Braggadocchio.

What is it about such writing that troubles the modern reader? Does Spenser's method so offend against verisimilitude as to render his text unreadable because implausible? Or is it merely uncomfortable to find human beings who are not the complex individuals we often wish ourselves to be, who are "mere" instantiations of a transcendent ideal. For a man of Spenser's philosophical predilections, of course, such an instantiation is more "realistic" than the jumbles of quirk and nuance that our novelists portray. Yet we easily enjoy the writing of those whom we dissent from philosophically, and so in the case of Crain's dissatisfaction with Spenser I think one may more justly point to the long shadow cast by novelistic aims and procedures over all our current conceptions of literature, and narrative literature most of all. Unless one has become steeped in pre-modern literature, and done so in a way that is critical and attentive, any narrative piece will have the appearance of a failed novel. And I should perhaps say that, for someone who has somewhat become so steeped, the best novels too begin in their turn to take on the aspect of a failure.

Since we have spoken already of Lewis, it will perhaps first do to point out that Mr. Crain's second observation, that there is an aspect of Spenser that speaks to the mysterious and irrepressible power of the unconscious, has a certain resonance with the comments of that great critic. As he says, in The Allegory of Love, comparing Spenserian profundity with the elegance and charm of Ariosto, one of Spenser's "real concerns" is

"the primitive and instinctive mind, with all its terrors and ecstasies--that part in the mind of each of us which we should never dream of showing to a man of the world like Ariosto."

While Professor Lewis emphasizes what we might perhaps call the shame of those deep chords that Spenser touches, for Crain the problem is that they cannot "be negotiated with." There are many things, of course, other than our unconscious selves and desires that cannot be negotiated with, and among them is another of Spenser's "real concerns": the nature of the universe. And here we come to a very important question, for the greater part of Spenser's allegories display for us "the way things are." The Cantos of Mutabilitie do this most explicitly and profoundly, but one may also point to the Seven Deadly Sins in Book I, Alma's castle in Book II, or the Temple of Venus in Book IV, with Spenser's fine adaptation of some beautiful verses by another poet who wrote on "the way things are," Lucretius (Stanzas 44 following of Canto X of Book IV reproduce the opening lines of De Rerum Natura). What does it mean to transfer these non-negotiable realities from the order of an external world to the chaos of an internal one? This, it seems, is what Mr. Crain has done almost by accident, or perhaps it is better to say, by second nature.

The self is, after all, what we have been told literature is best employed in interrogating. To the natural sciences belong the discourses of physical reality and the metaphysical reality (or its absence) is a project for philosophers. The self, however, remains for us a field of inquiry in which literature has lost little prominence as a means of communicating knowledge. And yet it remains an empirical inquiry like the others, one in which its authority, like its pleasure, as we have seen above, derives in some sense or another from a reproduction of the psychological reality that is faithful in a very particular way. To approach literature like Spenser's expecting the "meaning" to be in some sense primarily a descriptive account of the self is only natural for a person of our age, but it is also only natural that such an endeavor will produce the sense of flatness which Mr. Crain identifies in the poem's allegory; it is precisely the sort of flatness one would find in Henry James if one were looking for the moral and philosophical heft of Dante's Commedia.

I suppose what most catches me about Mr. Crain's reaction is that it is not at all how I reacted to Spenser's poem when I first read it. To me, beyond the sheer consistent volume of the poetry--Spenser is closer to Homer in this regard than any other poet we have--what was most striking about the Faerie Queene was the clarity and texture of its allegorical representations. Before modern democracy or the modern sciences had even arisen, Spenser's narrative of Artegall's encounter with the Giant (Book V, Canto II) had already laid bare with precision and charm both the unity and the absurdity of those two powerful ideologies; the Cantos of Mutabilitie already mentioned give an account of reality which no philosopher could surpass and only the best might even equal for either propriety or presentation. Not once, however, did I long that Sir Guyon might become a "believable" character and cease to represent the virtue of temperance, nor did I ever suspect that the Bower of Bliss was primarily a fantasy of Spenser's eros (though it would not of course have portrayed what he intended it to portray if it did not touch those erotic chords within us). We are faced once again with the simple fact that learning to understand a poet's language amounts to far more than Mr. Crain's amusing trips to the OED. It requires rather a philologist's submission to the idiom of the poet, both in content and in the key to content, form.