Gopnik enters the English major fray

The New Yorker‘s columnist Adam Gopnik contributes his views about why the English major does or doesn’t matter in the blog accompanying a recent issue. He says, in response to apologists (like me) who contend that English, literature, and the humanities generally contribute to a person’s life experience in subtle, long-term ways:

Well, a humanities major may make an obvious contribution to everyone’s welfare. But the truth is that for every broadly humane, technological-minded guy who contributed one new gadget to our prosperity there are six narrow, on-the-spectrum techno-obsessives who contributed twenty.

Then he points out:

Nor do humanities specialists, let alone English majors, seem to be particularly humane or thoughtful or open-minded people, as the alternative better-people defense insists. No one was better read than the English upper classes who, a hundred years ago, blundered into the catastrophe of the Great War. (They wrote good poetry about it, the ones who survived anyway.) Victorian factory owners read Dickens, but it didn’t make Victorian factories nicer. (What made them nicer was people who read Dickens and Mill and then petitioned Parliament.)

Okay, he’s a bit broad and snarky there–but that’s his style. And nonetheless, Gopnik argues for space in society–if not necessarily in the academy–for the study and discussion and obsession with books and literature. He claims that “the best answer I have ever heard from a literature professor for studying literature came from a wise post-structuralist critic” who said the reason he was a literature professor was because he had “an obsessive relationship with texts.”

I would agree with that reasoning, though I am not a post-structuralist, so far as I know.

I believe that education ought to allow us to follow our passions to whatever logical or surprising ends appear. In light of the huge expense of a university education in the USA, however, perhaps the best question to ask is how to motivate citizens to pursue education individually (see my post on autodidacts). Gopnik calls the estimable Dr. Johnson “the greatest English professor who ever lived,” though he never taught in a university and though his title of “doctor” was honorary, and reminds us that other antecedent writers-on-literature, such as Hazlitt and Sydney Smith, “had to make their living doing something else narrowly related.” Colleges at least offer some employment and a modicum of respect to the humanist interpreters and researchers among us, but we need not be employed by the academy to exercise our obsession with books. That can be done on our own.

Dr. Johnson

Gopnik adds this lovely, wise sentence near the close of his column, and I wish I could convey the value of his idea to every college student I advise: “You choose a major, or a life, not because you see its purpose, which tends to shimmer out of sight like an oasis, but because you like its objects.”

Poems, stories, paintings, sculpture, dance, philosophy, books, books, books…I don’t know my life’s purpose, but I know the “objects” that entrance me.

Paz and poetic image

“The image is the key to the human condition.”

“Poetry is entry into being.”  ~Octavio Paz

All quotes in text below are from Paz, The Bow and the Lyre

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Octavio Paz says all great works of art arouse in the spectator (or listener) “constellations of images” which “turn all works of art into poems.” In addition, what we find in the poem is something we already have within ourselves; we could not encounter it otherwise. What would that something within ourselves be? What do all of us possess in common, unique as we are? Paz doesn’t opt for a concept such as “soul” or “spirit” to define what all humans possess within ourselves. His answer is more mysterious but I think more accurate… “Poetry is nothing but time, rhythm perpetually creative.”

Some of us may protest we are not “creative.” But creative in this sense doesn’t mean that one has the ability to create art. It means one has the ability to create the imagined sensation, emotion, or context. All of us do this: the human concept of time, for example, takes considerable imagination–yet we all seem to have an understanding of time in our daily lives, even if our individual perceptions, or cultural perceptions, of time may vary a good deal. Give that idea of time, whatever it may be, a rhythm fueled by “rhythm as transformative change,” and perhaps that would be the origin of art. To encounter and be changed can only occur when something unexpected occurs through the experience.

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“The image shocks because it defies the principle of contradiction: the heavy is the light. When it enunciates the identity of opposites, it attacks the foundations of our thinking. Therefore, the poem does not say what is, but what could be.”

“Since Parmenides our [Western] world has been the world of the clear and trenchant distinction between what is and what is not…Mysticism and poetry have thus lived a subsidiary, clandestine and diminished life. [As a result] man is in exile from the cosmic flux and from himself.”

(Here, I might suggest that Whitman made a significant attempt to bring those distinctions down.)

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Heidegger was still alive and writing when Paz was composing these essays, and Paz suggests that Heidegger had been no more able to reconcile the fact that “Western metaphysics ends in a solipsism” than were Husserl or Heraclitus. Paz adds: “Now, as some of his [Heidegger’s] writings show, he has turned to poetry,” and claims that “in losing our way in the world we have become estranged from ourselves. We have to begin again.”

And how to do so–except via image/imagination?

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Well, we might examine Eastern thought, which “has not suffered this horror of the ‘other,’ of what is and is not at the same time…in the most ancient Upanishad the principle of the identity of opposites is plainly stated… ‘That art Thou.'”

Image as opposition, reconciled and unreconciled, inferred and stated, heavy and light: “of itself, language is an infinite possibility of meanings.”

This may be why writing good how-to instructions is as challenging as writing good poems. Yet according to Paz, “There are many ways to say the same thing in prose; there is only one in poetry.” Which brings us to a lovely seeming-paradox with which I will end this post:

“The poetic experience cannot be reduced to the word and, nevertheless, only the word expresses it. The image reconciles opposites, but this reconciliation cannot be explained by words…thus, the image is a desperate measure against the silence that invades us each time we try to express the terrible experience of that which surrounds us and ourselves. The poem is language in tension.”

(I might add that Emily Dickinson’s work provides excellent examples of the above.)

Proofreading

Every Living Thing–The Life & Times of a Glasgow Vet Student has a cute anecdote regarding the value of careful proofreading and how small mistakes can be inconvenient and costly at the customs line. Who thinks to proofread a passport or visa? Well…

Proofreading is how I began my so-called career many years ago, and the habits I learned follow or perhaps plague me still. For example, I’m currently reading Hilary Mantel’s 1992 novel A Place of Greater Safety and finding the text riddled with typos. The most common error is a missed quotation mark–not surprising because Mantel takes a unique approach to setting  up dialogue. But it’s dismaying to find that a major publisher allowed so many mistakes to slip through, and it interrupts my reading pleasure.

Years ago, I saw Edna O’Brien reading at the 92nd Street Y in New York City. She read from one of her short story collections, and at one point she paused, adjusted her reading glasses, and stated: “Typographical error, Farrar, Straus, Giroux.” Called out on the podium, publishers!

Online sites host the largest number of typos and outright grammatical or mechanical mistakes, but paper texts aren’t as reliably correct as they once were. The New York Times has become quite lax lately; three months ago, I even found a typo in The New Yorker!

Proofreading services

I understand why there are so many more typos these days–there are so many fewer proofreaders. It gets expensive, hiring all those human beings to inspect the small details of every text, and publishers are not making as much money as they once did. How many picky readers like me exist? Probably not enough of us that we could stage a book-buying boycott demanding that Random House hire more proofreaders (people like me could never really stage such a boycott–we’re too addicted to books).

Computers, however, are not yet intelligent enough to catch the shimmery, shifting nuances of the English language and its attendant finery in the shape of punctuation and capitalization, footnoting and italicization. So there will be mistakes, and I guess I can live with that. “To err is human,” and all that. And Mantel is a fine writer.

Creativity

It bothers me when people tell me they are not creative. Creativity, inborn in human beings, comes in so many forms. Just because a person does not identify as a recognizably creative person–artist, decorator, writer, teacher, etc.–that doesn’t mean he or she lacks creativity. We cannot solve problems without engaging our creativity, and most of us solve hundreds of small problems daily. We just tend not to consider those talents as “creative.”

One of my colleagues is a consummate problem-solver. Yet she constantly derides her work: “A monkey could do my job,” she claims. It would have to be one heck of a creative monkey! For years, I’ve been constantly amazed at her creative solutions to problems that students present to her…everything from advising to financial aid to family issues to roommate problems and issues that are once-in-a-career type peculiarities. She always says, “I’ll see what I can do;” 90% of the time, she finds a workable solution.

Another thing that intrigues me about her is the way she uses language. She reminds me of my grandmothers: sensible, smart women born and raised in one region and wedded to certain habits but possessing considerable grit and spunk and … creativity. Including marvelous slips of the tongue or twists on clichés. One of her most charming accidental neologisms is that instead of saying memento, she says “momento.” Educated well–with a Masters degree–she probably spells the word correctly when she writes. But I love hearing her say “momento,” because that’s one way of thinking about the word: a reminder of a moment. So apt! While the etymology of the word derives from the Latin (imperative of meminisse, to remember), the idea of recalling a moment through some sort of small souvenir strikes me as perfect.

Another creative use of language occurs when we are talking rapidly and the standard word or metaphor doesn’t come quickly to mind, so our brains substitute something else. My colleague’s creativity shows up at such times. I tend to stumble and say, “uh…um…” when that happens to me; but her mind comes up with alternatives (which occasionally make me laugh, but which always make me delighted). A recent example: during a freshman student program, there was an unexpected downpour which arrived just as the 18-year-olds were walking from breakfast in the cafeteria to a classroom building some distance away. Of course, none of them had umbrellas or rain jackets.

“Those poor kids!” said my friend. “They were all huddled in their soaked hoodies like wet mice. Like…like little wet mice, trying to get dry!”

I’d have resorted to the common phrase “drowned rats,” but little wet mice wearing soaked hoodies seems so much more vivid and elicits more sympathy. It’s also more creative–don’t  you agree?

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“About as sharp as a sack of wet mice.” Foghorn Leghorn probably knew my grandparents….

Poetry and art

A colleague pointed out art critic Holland Cotter’s New York Times piece as a must-read for me with my interests in both disciplines. Here is the link to Cotter’s essay in the “First Crush” series the Times runs: Cotter August 13, 2013.

Cotter says the first love was language, specifically poetry, especially Longfellow and Dickinson.

“If you fall for Dickinson early, you’re committed to language for life, and almost unavoidably to Dickinson’s kind of language. It’s more concrete than just words on a page or in the air. It’s language as a physical material, a substance so concentrated that you can all but hold it in your hands, turn it over, feel its textures.

And it’s addictive. Once in your system, it’s impossible to shake, like a neurological imprint. In my experience, Longfellow’s intensely visual poetry was like a mural or a movie. You just wanted to stand back and let it happen to you. Dickinson’s language was visual, too, but in a startling, flashbulb way — a bang of illumination after which your vision took time to adjust to normal light.

Poetry, in general, made me sense that language could be about big, urgent subjects, the kind that ruffled even a 9-year-old mind. Will everyone I love always be here? If not, where, exactly, is heaven, and what does it look like? Perhaps most important to a writer in formation, Dickinson’s language felt personally usable. It made you want to write, made you think you could. So I did, just for the pleasure and power of creating pictures from words.”

What can I add but “Amen to that”?

It interests me greatly, though, that Cotter made his trajectory from poetry to art; my path went the other direction. I began with a fascination for and study of art and ended up as a writer.

Overlaps and linkages, interdiscipline & creativity. Big, urgent subjects…a kind of power. That’s art.

Tension or rebellion?

In my few available moments during which I can write about being intellectually engaged and curious, I’ve been working on this post. It’s been a “draft” on my dashboard for some time as I work on it. For background, recall that I was reading Octavio Paz’s prose and Dave Hickey’s essays in The Invisible Dragon.

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Both writers take up the concept of beauty in art. They approach the topic in different ways, of course, but both make note of the requirement for tension in the work of art. The tension can be of anticipation, expectation, surprise, or of opposition and rebellion. The need for anticipation and turns or surprise in poetry reminds me of Robert Bly’s idea of the “leap” in poetry–in fact, Paz is one of the poets Bly uses as an example of “leaping poetry” in Bly’s classic 1972 tract, Leaping Poetry. I infer that these emotion-forms are related to one another and that aesthetics involves at least some connection between experience (physical, emotional) and mind.

[For now, I will not take up the possibility of calm, contemplative, no-tension beauty.]

Instead, it is intriguing to consider the ways Paz and Hickey interconnect regarding the idea of rebellious art. Also, there’s an agreement between them–not literally, as they are not responding to one another at all–concerning art that is funded by governments. Both critics contend that way lies danger.

Hickey’s essays in The Invisible Dragon were sparked by the controversy of Robert Mapplethorpe’s U.S. NEA-funded photographs. These photographs are beautiful, Hickey says, though art critics of the 1990s dismissed the “beautiful” aspect of the work and concentrated on its “message,” while many other viewers considered the images pornographic and offensive. Hickey says, essentially, to hell with the message; look at the art: is it beautiful, or not?

Hickey writes:

My point here is that there are issues worth advancing in images that are worth admiring–that the truth is never plain nor appearances sincere. To try to make them so is to neutralize the primary, gorgeous eccentricity of imagery in Western culture since the Reformation: the fact that it cannot be trusted, that images are always presumed to be proposing something contestable and controversial. his is the sheer, ebullient, slithering, dangerous fun of it. No image is inviolable in our dance hall of visual politics. All images are potentially powerful. Bad graphics topple good governments and occlude good ideas. Good graphics sustain bad governments and worse governments. The fluid nuancing of pleasure, power, and beauty is serious business in this culture.

Hickey’s prose is such fun! And so provocative. He asserts that Senator Jesse Helms (who began the noisy movement to de-fund the NEA’s support of work such as Mapplethorpe’s) was the only public figure who really “got” what Mapplethorpe’s homoerotic pictures were saying: they really were a rebellion, a transgression–a purposeful confrontation with social norms. That’s what many artists and poets do: throw a wrench into the usual mundanities of life and make viewers or readers pause, react, reflect.

Mapplethorpe’s choice of images just happened to be considered sexually transgressive; and Hickey says that because the USA is a democracy, Helms’ right to protest was as valid as the photographer’s right to make the images in the first place. Hickey loved that there was potential for real discovery in that moment, and gives art critics and academics a hard time for retreating into ideas of First Amendment and artistic self-expression and meaning over beauty. He claims that when it comes to the US democratic culture of the arts, “whatever we get, we deserve–and what we get most prominently is ignored, disenfranchised, and instructed. Then we are told it is ‘good’ for us.” But what is good for us by the standards of a bureaucratic culture is not the original contract between the image and its viewer, even though that is the interaction that ignites the spark of awe we feel when we encounter great art.

“In fact, nothing redeems but beauty, its generous permission, its gorgeous celebration of all that has previously been uncelebrated.”

Hickey lambasts Americans for somewhat mindlessly appreciating what we are told is great art. “In our mild appreciation,” he writes, “we refuse to engage the argument of images that deal so intimately with trust, pain, love, and the giving up of the self.”

Paz’s chapter on the image in poetry dovetails with the argument of images and the intimacy thereof. That’s the contract the viewer or reader makes with the artwork or the poem: we agree to be, potentially, moved; to make ourselves possibly vulnerable to rhetoric, to pain, to love, to beauty, to sudden awareness of what has been overlooked, ignored, oppressed, made alien.

Through image. Through tension. Through a state of contrariness and forbidden looking: rebellion.

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In a week or so I do plan to spend more time on Paz, because I find his essays on poetry enlightening on an intellectual and on a more basic/fundamental level. Hickey’s work on beauty relates to writing but is more specific to the visual and plastic arts. I do recommend Hickey for his humorous but incredibly observant role as a socio-cultural commentator on contemporary USAmerican pop culture, academic culture, political culture, and democratic-capitalist thinking. He’s accurate and insightful even when I don’t completely agree with him. He believes whole-heartedly in discourse and discovery through democratic discussion of multiple viewpoints. Check him out. You will want to argue with him.

Critique: an anecdote

A group of friends gathers once a month to read and share and critique one another’s poems. They know one another well enough that they can be empathic, honest, and helpful; also, they are trusting enough to bring poems that really aren’t “working.” The critique’s the best way to get some understanding of why a poem is not working.

Recently, one member shared a poem that was somewhat philosophical in its overtones. The rhetoric of the poem was shifting, getting away from her, and she knew it. But she couldn’t figure out why, or how to correct the problem.

The talk moved away from critique and into values–for awhile. So the group was no longer exactly discussing the poem, or poetry, at all.

And yet, through the conversation, the writer recognized where at least part of the poem’s problem lay…which was in image and in structure (as illuminated, perhaps, by value and by rhetoric).

Reason can lead to beauty.