Fully human

A student who grew up in Viet Nam and arrived in the USA just two years ago scheduled an appointment with me for assistance in revising her final paper for Philosophy.

My job is to help her with her articles, subject-verb agreement, verb tense, and plural forms and uses, and when to use a capital letter for proper nouns. I also assist students like her with claims, thesis statements, and rhetorical structure–but I am not a “content tutor.” Of course, I often understand the content and find it interesting to observe how young people interpret, say, literature or philosophy.

In this case, Western philosophy, in English, as interpreted by a person raised in a culture quite different from the Western university system norm.

Philosophy 109 challenges many native-born and US-educated freshman students; taking this course as an English-learner with very little “Western” experience must be ridiculously difficult. So I first assessed how the course had been going for her, and she said, “So-so.” What had been most difficult? Note-taking, she said. With the texts she could take her time, translate, and eventually tease out the ideas; but class lectures were really hard. In addition, she struggled with the concept of opposition and rebuttal as structured in the philosophical argument.

 

Her assigned argument for the term paper was: “The arts, sciences, and philosophy are valuable because they help us to become fully human.”

The paper began with her assertion that the arts make us more fully human because they are beautiful to behold and inspire in us joy and appreciation.

“Is the best art beautiful?” I asked. She said yes, and I asked her, “Is it only art’s beauty that makes us human and good?”

“Not only,” she said, after a moment of hesitation. “Sometimes–sad is beauty. Sad is not good, but sad also makes us human.” She hesitated again and then went on: “I think good art, and good science, has both sides. I think this but it isn’t in my paper. Should I put it in my argument?” We agreed to work on a sentence or two that might express her interpretation more completely while heeding the general conventions of Introduction to Western Philosophy.

Sometimes, syntax is content.*

Without exception (well, almost), I learn so much from student interpretations of ancient concepts. Rather than rolling my eyes and scoffing at how little they know, I’m searching their perspectives for what it is I ought to know about them and their experiences. The stance of most older authorities is that young people must integrate themselves into our norms and conventions; but we will age out of our power base, at which point we’d be better off recognizing their norms and points of view and exercising our neurons by learning how to adapt to the next set of conventions.

Philosophy and the arts will stay around. I have no doubts about that. The ways in which human beings interpret them may change; all to the good–stasis would destroy philosophy and art, thus keeping us from our potential to be fully human.

~

 

*[You might want to read Sister Miriam Joseph’s classic text, The Trivium, for a deeper explanation of how to approach ‘mastery’ of the liberal arts and learning.]

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Far afield

My desire has been to wander, but my inclination does tend toward staying at home. One reaches a point in one’s life, however, at which wandering will shortly become more challenging than it was in youth. Also, it gets far too easy to stay comfortably within one’s zone of familiarity, which limits transitions and other difficult things.

Recently, I went far away, found myself (among other interesting places) in a field and happily fell into familiar behaviors I follow at home. In this case, scoping out the local flora and minor fauna in the hills in July.

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We were touring a small region of a small but extremely varied country: Portugal. The field featured small lizards that were so quick I couldn’t photograph them; dozens of types of wildflowers and grasses and their assorted tiny pollinators; robins, black redstarts, kestrels, and other birds I couldn’t identify. I am pretty sure we saw a hoopoe, which for me is exciting, though I expect it is not uncommon in Portugal.

As a humanities geek who loves Medieval and Renaissance art and architecture, I love the old cities; and the sea’s appeal abides, but the mountain regions appeal to the introverted gardener and naturalist in me. I was pleased with the quiet, with the pure air and blue sky, the twisting roads, the small farms. Most of all I was pleased to find so many plants and pollinating creatures in the field next to where we stayed for two nights, not far from the Peneda-Gerês National Park.

Some of these flower photos feature at least one bee or wasp or beetle-y thing. Below, a common sight on the mountains: heather, flourishing as well as it does in the British moors. Not much rain, but many misty mornings, even in July.

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This region is wind farm country. There are large, electricity-generating windmills atop much of the range, and quite a few of the many small rivers are dammed to create electric power and places to fish and swim. There’s certainly very little air pollution up in the hills…I have visited few places so pristine.

More little critters among the field flowers. Easy to overlook, despite how vivid these photos may appear.

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Nice to dwell, if only for awhile, in a place that offers a beautiful change of perspective.

Aesthetic values

Today, the weather was beautiful; the trees, early-greening, and the gold tassels of oaks shimmering in the sun, and the cherry and dogwood blossoms: beautiful.

I think about how we value beauty. And maybe do not know what it is–or recognize its many forms–as it is, by its nature, subjective.Liz MZ

A friend I knew was physically beautiful. Or was that mostly her generosity and cheerfulness, her sparkling eyes? She had specific aesthetic tastes she followed with delight; but she remained practical, full of humor. Today, there was a poetry reading in commemoration of her life.

A beautiful day, a beautiful event, a beautiful friend.

~

The aged best-beloved who recently departed was also a person who had particular ideas about beauty. She cultivated flowers, liked certain artists, wanted her rooms decorated just so. She had an expectation that she could control her death, too–she wanted it, also, to be beautiful.

She was, I fear, thwarted in that desire.

~

My brother the amateur science historian has taken it upon himself to defend the reputation of Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, a late-Enlightenment scientist best known in the 20th century for coining the term “Caucasian” (though there is some dispute about the neologism). An overview can be found here, but my brother’s argument hinges upon the way the word “beauty” was defined in 18th-century Germany and the ways Blumenbach employed it in Latin in his 1795 masterwork, De generis humani varietate nativa (3rd ed).

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What do we mean by beauty? Must the meaning hinge upon perspective and culture?

~

There are tumors in the body of the beloved. The surgeon, with his amazing equipment that can take photographs deep inside the tubes and organs of a human being and his unimaginably small and precise surgical tools, shows me “before and after” images.

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His enthusiasm enlivens his description of the surgery: Look at these tumors–unusual, hardly see these and I’ve been at this thirty years–but afterwards, very clean. Look here–no sign. Went very well. Beautiful!

Beautiful?

Does he mean the tumors, or his surgical work? In either case–would I define this as beautiful?

~

And a colleague who has had major surgery does a close reading of the (“rather horrifying”) fluoroscopes from the operation and in them finds something beautiful. Something she can create her own art from. Because what the surgeon accomplished was to her mind art; and art is beautiful, though often in a way that isn’t necessarily aesthetically pleasing as, say, a lilac in bloom is pleasing.

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Does it matter–should it–that something is ‘beautiful’ ?

I am asking but I do not expect to find an answer, myself.

 

 

Nesting

When I go out of doors on a splendid day, I keep finding things to observe and tasks to do–before long, I realize I have spent more time than I intended (and indoor tasks are calling). Today’s yardwork entailed cutting back weed brush and vines before the trees and shrubs leaf. It can be challenging, as it requires the intrepid gardener to crawl into the woodlot and under the large pines and tamarack to yank loose entwined wild grape, Asiatic rose, elderberry, blackberry, and poison ivy stems, there in the tangled vitality of plants-that-thrive-where-I-don’t-want-them.

The mourning doves kept me company with their coos, and small birds busily checked out the birdhouses in the meadow. Soon it will be nesting time (already is, for the owls).

Always, when I cut brush, I find last year’s nests. Look at this one:

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A bird made this! Probably an oriole. It is a sweet little bag woven or knitted without any tools but the animal’s own body. Beak and feet, saliva, and the nestling body rounding out the basket within.

Here, you can see the interior of the nest; I folded back the strong but delicately-woven sack and the interior nest is visible.

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I was a little surprised at how well the bird-made mesh held up as I handled it. It is really resilient–those birds know what they’re doing!

Here is a more detailed photo of the little nest-basket inside of the sack:

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The process of gardening heals me in so many ways. I sense the need to write poetry again, and I get the urge to tidy up the landscape and prep the vegetable patch. Things will return to themselves in their own time and their own ways. The birds return. The flowers return. My own nest needs attention, and the energy for that attention will also return.

Give it time.

In this photo, the shadow on the right shows how porous the nest’s weave is, almost like macrame. It seems like a miracle to me. And so beautiful.

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Moment for beauty

Bill Lantry over at Peacock Journal has been endeavoring to continue our appreciation for the beautiful. I’m pleased that the editors chose three of my poems for the journal, which is a rotating online site, well-archived, and quite lovely.

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Dirk Van Nouhuys–photo

Here are the poems:

Peacock Journal–Ann E. Michael poems

Please explore the site further. Yours, in beauty.

Negotiating the storm

I have lived and driven vehicles in regions that receive a great deal of snow, but it has been awhile–and I am not as spry as I once was–and I don’t even own a pair of cross-country skis anymore (a favorite winter activity). Being responsible for keeping a house and property and cars and pets maintained while the ice comes down and the snow piles up and the heat stops working and the power goes off has also somewhat dampened my enthusiasm for snowy winters. Plowing and shoveling are no substitute for XC skiing, and harder on the back. Worries about possible frozen pipes or whether the oil truck can get down the driveway (which resembles a bobsled run) shove more leisurely, more inspired thinking out of mind.

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Nonetheless, I cannot ignore the beauty of fields and trees in snow or branches rimmed with ice or–as tonight–the cold, bright moon above the cold, white earth. I remind myself that snow is the best mulch. I think of the crocus and narcissus bulbs snug and dormant below the deep drifts. The house we built does its job of upholding us and protecting us. The house, wearing its white hat…

~

A poem from 2007, an experiment in sapphics, that seems appropriate.

Negotiating the Storm

Dawn. I curl away from the ice storm toward you,
your breath cools my face and my hair, the warm room;
Love, we’ve had too few of these moments lately—
other storms plague us.

Ice assaults the windows with droves of needles,
gusts shove over pines and flatten the birches.
I am glad for the weather’s impersonal aspect:
nothing to blame there.

Sleep. The sleet does not suffer indecision.
You don’t have to touch me, just breathing is plenty.
Walls and roof are stolidly doing their jobs,
power is on yet.

Let’s recuse ourselves from the task of judging
guilt or merits the past twelve moths have garnered,
forge a drowsy peace between us and also the
guileless brute outside.

~

© 2007 Ann E. Michael

Sublime beauty

In his book Survival of the Beautiful, David Rothenberg says perhaps it was the evolution of an abstract aesthetics in art (abstract work as beautiful) that enabled human beings to begin to see natural things as beautiful in themselves–as opposed to the Romantic view that human yearning and elevated sensibility could best be encountered while experiencing Nature or Classicist ideas that found natural things corrupt and irregular, in need of perfection into better-proportioned objectification. In History of Beauty, Eco allows the Romantics their view of the sublime but says that in the late 17th c “the Sublime established itself in an entirely original way, because it concerns the way we feel about nature, and not art.” His text offers the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich as an excellent example, paintings that depict people as observers of the Sublime:

The people are portrayed from behind, in such a way that we must not look at them, but through them, putting ourselves in their place, seeing what they see and sharing their feeling of being negligible elements in the great spectacle of nature…more than portraying nature in a moment of sublimity, the painter has tried to portray (with our collaboration) what we feel on experiencing the Sublime.

I love the idea Eco parenthetically notes here: with the viewer’s collaboration. These paintings permit us to enter into the experience as the great preponderance of the artistic canon did not. Some critics suggest the environmental “movement” (in the USA, at least) owes its lineage to Leopold via Thoreau through Darwin, Wordsworth, and the German Romantics.

Friedrich’s work tends a bit over the top for my personal tastes, but I do think some of his best work (notably The Wanderer above the Mists, Woman on the Beach of Rugen, Moonrise by the Sea) does exemplify a sense I have experienced myself in natural surroundings when I feel myself a “negligible element” amid the remarkable scope of the cosmos and the world.

In the USA, at about the same time as the German Romantics, the paintings of the Hudson River school evoke some of the same sense of nature-as-sublime. (Frankly, I prefer Thomas Cole to Friedrich.)

~

This, too:

“The sense of the Sublime is a mixed emotion. It is composed of a sense of sorrow whose extreme expression is manifested as a shudder, and a feeling of joy that can mount to rapturous enthusiasm…while it is not actually pleasure…”   Friedrich von Schiller, On the Sublime (tr. Alastair McEwen)

~

“Poetry might be defined as the clear expression of mixed feelings.” I am pretty sure W.H. Auden said that. Which, by the way, gets us into the territory of the Sublime as described by Schiller.

~

In Japan, in the 17th century, Matsuo Basho composed haiku, some of which demonstrate the sense of the Sublime (without being Romantic at all)–i.e. that sense of rapture tinged with the shudder of grief or the feeling of awareness of one’s negligibility:

A wild sea-
in the distance over Sado
the Milky Way.

~

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I stand on my back porch; I am small and negligible, the sky is large and Sublime.