Books, burning

“Every burned book or house enlightens the world; every suppressed or expunged word reverberates through the earth from side to side.” ~Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Compensation”

I have taken this quote out of context–Emerson wrote this sentence as part of his reflection on compensation: he was questioning the received doctrine of his era that evil-doers flourish on earth and the just do not, therefore Heaven is God’s compensation for the trials of being a Good human being. Emerson did not accept this doctrine out of hand and theorized that, through just laws, people could make compensatory actions operable on the earth. He recognized, too, that sometimes evil people fail to thrive and compassionate, just people manage quite well. The received wisdom was merely received, not wise. Nonetheless, I find “Compensation” essentially dualist. And it is, truly, a sermon.

In the paragraph that contains the above words, Emerson suggests that there is always compensation of some kind for any act, for good or ill, that suppression cannot be maintained–the volcano will surge eventually–that the martyr never dies in vain because from his or her action will arise, in time and through the flaws and the perfections of Nature, some form of (often surprising) compensation. Hmm. Sounds a bit similar to Karma.

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And I am thinking, again, of books and what they offer. My students tend to consider books as information solely (I do not generally teach the kind of young person who reads novels or philosophy). This is, we have been reminded continually, the Information Age–so that approach to books seems well-founded. Then there are our other means of information-gathering, largely through technological devices. These phones and various screens are mighty distracting and designed to be so. Yes, Fahrenheit 451 was prescient. Does the book-burning in that novel begin a revolution? Not in the predicted ways.

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More prescient writing (found, by the way, in books): Neil Postman, back in 1985, commenting on the prescience of Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World in Postman’s must-read cultural criticism, Amusing Ourselves to Death. In his foreword, Postman writes

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions”. In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.

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Is there compensation for being drowned in a sea of irrelevance? What might that look like?

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Perhaps these are a few of the reasons I often need to turn from information to poetry.burning

 

Poetry Readings~September

Please check out my Events Page here, especially if you are not too far from Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley or Berks County. I will be participating in two quite different poetry events during the second week of September.

The first event presents the culmination of a years-long project of collaboration between educators/writers/photographers Hernán Pereira, Pamela Daza, and Lucia Ramos in Iquique, Chile and Dr. Karen Jogan of Albright College in Reading, Pennsylvania. There will be a gallery of photographs in the library at Albright and a celebration of the book’s publication the evening of September 11. Arturo Prat University and Albright College have been able to sponsor this project through a competitive teaching innovation project. The book’s title: So Far..So Close/Portada y Contraportada: Contemporary Writers of Tarapaca & Pennsylvania.

The anthology presents poets from both Chile’s Atacama Desert region (Tarapaca) and Pennsylvania’s eastern/northeastern counties. Interviews with the poets provide insightful mini-biographies and are accompanied by wonderful photographs. Here’s mine:

photo by H. Periera

photo by H. Periera

I have previewed the book, through the magic of .pdf files, and found it fascinating to read about the backgrounds of these writers, their writing processes, their creative influences.

The Pennsylvania writers include some colleagues I have known for awhile, yet the editors’/authors’ choice of inquiries and the settings of the photographs evoke aspects of these writers that inform and delight. It should be an interesting evening, and the public is invited.

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The second event takes place in Bethlehem, PA at Godfrey Daniels–a listening room/coffeehouse in the American Folk tradition. Dave Fry, folk troubadour extraordinaire, hosts a monthly “Dave’s Night Out” concert there at 7 pm on Sundays. Most of the time these events feature singers and musicians; but Dave branches out to storytellers and, on Sunday the 14th, to poets Daniel Notaro (author of Limn the Mask) and me.

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We’ll be reading from our work and conversing with one another, with Dave, and with the audience. $10.50 at the door.

 

Dissent, controversy, & opinion

It may be obvious that, in this blog, the writer tends to shy away from highly controversial contemporary issues–with the possible exception of my occasional strong views on education–even though philosophical and critical arguments are part of my job and integral to my life interests. One possible explanation is that I am, as Charles Schultz memorably popularized, “wishy-washy.” (This strip is from 1952, © Charles Schultz):

Peanuts

And a little destructive criticism from 1959….

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Indeed, my students sometimes get annoyed with me because I do not take sides during class discussions of controversial topics. “Don’t you have an opinion?” they ask.

Why, yes, I do. It is not my job to share my opinions with students, however, as much as it is my job to make them think more than once about their own opinions. It is also my job to help them navigate the complexities of critical thought, weighing “both sides” (and pointing out that many controversies have many more than two sides), and learning that perspective can deepen understanding and sometimes even alter opinions. This approach is far from wishy-washy; it is courageous. It can be risky to analyze rationales and points of view that differ from your own, and risk takes courage.

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A good book that explores the courage it takes to analyze and, often, to dissent from the normative view is Cass Sunstein’s Why Societies Need Dissent. Sunstein argues that truly free societies need to permit dissenters room for expression and criticism; he provides evidence that without dissent, societies fail to thrive through change. Because growth is a change process, societies that resist change too rigidly fall apart.

This year, my class and I will be exploring Sunstein’s text in an effort to recognize the kind of thinking and evidence needed before one writes an essay. I hope they apply these ideas in their freshman Philosophy course.

I hope they apply these ideas in my course, for starters…

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Argument has a negative connotation in American English, so many critics substitute the word discourse. I have no problem with such a substitution: the term discourse seems to connote politeness and respect, behaviors necessary for useful dissent and analysis of alternative perspectives. The philosophical argument, whether taking place in philosophy class, conference hall, or koan, operates most productively and insightfully when predicated upon mutual respect for differences.

Dissent as discourse may not be the most natural behavior for human beings, but it is something we can demonstrate and coach in the university classroom.

With any luck, both students and teachers may be able to apply the techniques to other areas of our lives. Along that vein, here’s an easy-to-interpret Buddhist explanation from New Lotus on how to approach argument in the Buddhist way.

GFS2

 

 

 

Preparation

As I prepare for the upcoming semester, my thoughts turn from weather, the garden, and philosophical readings to the gnarly process of educating the young adult. In fact, I just spent four days with a group of 46 incoming freshmen who were involved with an intensive college preparatory orientation. So much potential there. So many high hopes.

What tends to be lacking is “grit.” Most young adults have not yet developed the mindset that accepts the unavoidable need for hard work, for mastering skills that are tedious, for thoroughly and correctly finishing assignments that bore them–all in order to attain the seemingly far-off goals they have set for themselves. I don’t blame them for this attitude, since I shared it when I was their age.

And growth is as hard as it is rewarding. I like what blogger Danny Anderson says:

“Education is growth, and like all growth (think of your shins at night when you were a teenager) it is painful and requires struggle. At its most basic level, education is the twofold act of acknowledging a shortcoming in one’s self and working to improve in that area. This is simple, but, if taken seriously, brutal.”

Acknowledgment of this kind takes reflection, and effective reflection takes analysis; and few 18-year-olds in the USA are spectacularly skilled at analysis (of self or of any other kind). They know precious little about themselves, the job market, adult society’s expectations, college expectations, debt load, and back-breaking personal responsibility.

And that’s ok, as long as they learn these things in good time, which most of them will.

I agree with Professor Anderson’s assessment that many students arrive at college thinking that four years of grind and partying will get them a diploma and a magical job offer, and that such assumptions are woefully in error. He writes, “Education is not a product you purchase and consume. You are not a blank slate waiting for me to write something marketable on you. On the contrary, Education is something that consumes you.”

That’s one thing I always understood about education, even when I was as irresponsible and callow and un-grounded and enthusiastic as the students I’ll be teaching later this month. Even now, I am preparing for my Education (continuing, always) to consume me.

If you’d like to read the rest of Anderson’s post, it is here.

Here’s something lovely

Ann E. Michael:

Last year at this time, a hiatus; and again this year–for the same reasons! I am about to retreat to the 19th century for two days, and then to re-establish myself among incoming freshman students. If you follow my blog, I suggest you check out my pages tabs or some of the links on the right side of this theme page. Lots of cool stuff. :)

Originally posted on annemichael:

…from Maria Popova at the Brainpickings site: book loving and writing and art and literacy and library connect to produce this event/display at the New York Public Library. I was in the city just last week–rats, I missed this. (But I did see Ken Price at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and spent part of a lovely afternoon at Untermyer Park again).

~ Please click on the links! (I know they’re kind of hard to see on this theme)~

MEANWHILE…

I’m on blogging hiatus again while I get accustomed to my work week and while we prepare for the Goschenhoppen Folk Festival (or on Facebook here) this coming Friday and Saturday. Not a time to get much writing done, nor much reading.

A festival participant prepares apples for drying

A festival participant (19th c) prepares apples for drying

Young apprentices (18th c) at work

Young apprentices (18th c) at work

View original

Hymns & yearning

Around 1996, my friend and colleague Alla Borzova, a contemporary classical composer of considerable talent, asked me to help her “trans-literate” the libretto of her cantata Majnun Songs from Russian into English. She had composed the piece in Russian, so the English version had to fit the existing music. The cantata is based on the story, made famous in the Arabic world through the works of the poet Nizami, of Majnun and Layla…a story of abiding, and forbidden, love. Majnun, “Madman,” finds his purest self through this unrequited love for Layla as he wanders the desert creating poems praising his beloved.

One selection of Borzova’s cantata that I particularly love is called, simply, “Hymn.”

A hymn is a song, either of praise or worship, usually both. We may worship a god or many gods; or a beloved, human or non-human; or a value or other abstract concept (generally personified) such as nationhood. In this case, the poet worships his Layla.

Wiktionary says–and I have checked several other sources–that the word “hymn” derives from Middle English ymne, borrowed from Old French ymne, from Latin hymnus, borrowed from Ancient Greek ὕμνος (húmnos). Links courtesy of Wiktionary. The húmnos was part of ritual and sung to praise gods or heroes, but the ode genre easily lent itself to songs praising a loved one or merging the idea of human passion with a “higher” passion. Which is one way to read The Song of Songs attributed to Solomon, and which is one way some readers have interpreted the Majnun cycles as well: relating the sexual-passion-into-spiritual-purity to religious fervor, by analogy.

This seems a particularly human level of the consciousness continuum: the ability to blend several similar relationship ideas, as is so obvious in our uses of symbols, metaphors, analogies and similes. The resulting hymns can be wildly transcendent, alloys of passion, lyric poetry, imagery, rhythm, and tones when the music melds with the rest. Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” as presented by Beethoven, for example. Few hymns attain such a pinnacle, but the effective ones–religious and secular–reach listeners in a way similar to the best poetry and create the same kind of surprising prickle in the mind and body. It may be a sense of glory or a sense of awe, or a sudden shiver of beauty, unity, or wholeness, or an indescribable feeling of love greater than oneself, or the awareness of a keen yearning.

Yearning seems to me to be the over-arching tone in Borzova’s “Hymn.” In this two-minute piece, what comes through is a yearning for the beloved so deeply and for so long that what finally matters is not the being-together but love itself–eternal.

You can listen to it here:

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In what ways, and through what means, do we relate our lives, our selves, and our world to love? There’s a question I have lately been meditating upon.

Redbud leaf in fall

Circle Game

Mandala: मण्डल

ann e michael

Sanskrit for circle. Symbolic of completeness, unifying principles. The container that holds the center. The cosmic center and the spiritual center, including the void (being able to recognize that the “self” is also a void, a construct).

This deep practice–the emptying of self and the entering into completeness and unity with everything (becoming One)–intrigues me but seems very far beyond my grasp. If consciousness can be envisioned as a set of experiential layerings that the mind braids into a narrating self, illusory but convincing, I can imagine feeling One with them. But that’s theory, not genuine practice.

“You and I are all as much continuous with the physical universe as a wave is continuous with the ocean.” ~Alan Watts

I am a physical being in the universe; this, too, I understand. Somehow, that doesn’t make meditation easier for me–even though I have always been a highly reflective person.

Trying too hard to empty the mind defeats the purpose, of course. The practice of compassion as meditation (see Thich Nhat Hanh and Pema Chödrön)  seems a more effective way for me to enter into a sense of oneness and completeness. I am definitely experiencing beginner’s mind, perhaps complicated by my interests in philosophy, psychology, neurology, and art.

So I turn, constantly, to nature for an immersion in something other than the human self: completion of the cycle evident in every plant and creature. See the mandala of the sunflower above. Contemplate the circle–what it contains, in this case, pollen, seeds, a tiny bee; what encircles the circle: the petals that fade so rapidly, the sun, the air.

And then I turn to my reading again. Hungry mind (appetite). But I found this wonderful column by Kate Murphy in the recent New York Times:No Time to Think.” Quite fitting, given these recent ruminations!

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And thank you, Joni Mitchell, for the title and this song: