Reading James’ Varieties today, and I ran across a phrase that struck me. ‘The willingness to be…” The phrase struck me because it seems particularly apt for characterizing a crucial part of grief and of aging. Each, in its peculiar way, threatens or diminishes our willingness to be.
Grief, the experience of loss, makes the thought of renewed investment in being frightening or unendurable. Aging all-too-often chokes the willingness to be by making it seem that being is the using up of a now urgently finite resource — and we become miserly with our willingness to be, as if unwillingness could somehow bank being, and willingness spend it, if it is spent, only in certain chosen moments.
But we will be — whether we be willing or unwilling to be.
Each summer I re-read all of Jane Austen. This year, I decided to post a bit about it on Facebook, just some notes and jottings, noting more. I will move future FB posts here as I go so you might want to check back periodically. (Original posts and comments are on my FB page.)
Mr. Collins, proposing to Elizabeth Bennett: “And now nothing remains for me but to assure you in the most animated language of the violence of my affections.” Austen! Hard to think of any sentence whose form more completely stutifies its content. All you can do is bow and delight.
Finished Austen’s *Emma* this morning, and was struck by the final chapters more than I recall being before, particularly the similarities between Emma and Frank Churchill, remarked upon near the end by Emma herself. We might say that both Emma and FC are ‘imaginists’ to use the novel’s own term for Emma, but Emma’s imagination mostly imposes on herself, while FC’s imposes on the entire village (more or less): Emma fools herself, FC fools Emma, the Westons, and many others. Still, like FC, Emma manages to emerge from all her foolings uninjured, ‘the child of good fortune’ (Knightley’s description of FC). In the end, Robert Martin, by proposing yet again to Harriet Smith (and by being this time accepted), saves Emma from the one lingering secret she has kept from Knightley, and a raider of neighboring poultry yards motivates Emma’s father to allow her to marry sooner rather than later. — The child of good fortune, indeed! What a remarkable novel.
Reading *Mansfield Park*, my favorite of Austen’s novels. Chaps 8-12., roughly, are given over to differentiating Fanny Price from Mary Crawford. Although the word does not, so far as I recall, occur until Chap 9, and there not in application to either woman, — the word ‘disinterested’, as Austen used it so often in *Emma*, hovers over the differentiation. Fanny is disinterestedly engrossed in everything around her on the trip to Sotherton; Mary cannot manage disinterested engrossment in anything. She can be engrossed (if that is the right word) only where she is *interested*. She can see only for her own sake, not for the sake of seeing, or, better, for the sake of the thing seen. And so she is unseeing, blinded (“she saw Nature, inanimate Nature, with little observation”). Worse, Mary’s blindness is communicable, infecting Edmund as well as herself, although he has a restive sense that something is wrong with Mary, and wrong with him for being unable to *observe* it clearly. It will take Fanny a long time, and much suffering, to clear Edmund’s vision.
Austen’s ability to force characters into hearing what they do not want to hear, in a form to warm and wound the heart all at once. *Mansfield Park*, Chap 27, Edmund to Fanny, discussing his hopes and ‘misgivings’ about Mary Crawford, his planned proposal: “You are the only being upon earth to whom I should say what I have said; but you have always known my opinion of her; you can bear me witness, Fanny, that I have never been blinded.” But blinded and blind he has been and is.
Reading the amazing 34th chapter of Mansfield Park, the chapter in which Austen shows the character of Henry Crawford to the fullest. He is a man of genuine powers, agreeable to a remarkable degree. But for Austen — as Tave has shown — the relationship between ‘agreeableness’ and ‘amiableness’ is always under investigation. The two terms are so intimately related that they can be — and often are (by Austen’s characters, in life) — conflated. In many ways, their relationship is much like that between ‘truth’ and ‘validity’: they can be mistaken for synonyms, but they can part company. In the chapter, Crawford reads Shakespeare aloud so well that he eventually entrances even the reluctant Fanny, but as the conversation turns to reading aloud well (more generally) and eventually to reading Scripture aloud well, and to preaching, Crawford cannot manage himself for long. For all that he says of which Fanny approves of, he eventually wanders into the peculiar careless self-regard that is her aversion. Fanny involuntarily shakes her head in disapproval. Crawford sees her reaction but cannot really understand it. He sees nothing to repent of: he was sincere in what he said. Of course, Crawford is so thorroughly admixed with the false that even what he says sincerely is gainsaid by his being the speaker. — But that is part of the problem. He can talk ‘sincerely’ about himself but with no proper response to the things he ‘believes’ about himself.
Finished MP. Lots of thoughts, but here’s one. There’s a fascinating subjunctive paragraph as the novel ends, one that details a successful bid by Crawford for Fanny. Its tone suggests that it details what *almost* happened. — But that’s false. To use the lingo of analytic philosophy, the world described is no *nearby* possible world. Given Crawford’s watery character in the actual (fictional) world, the stoutness of resolution that bid involves makes it quite *distant*. The tone, I believe, is Austen’s narrative voice ventriloquizing Crawford’s own, showing his point of view on the unfolded events, his very unhappy sense that a different, better life was *almost* in his grasp.
MP is a novel about conscience, consciousness and the (intertwined) corruptions of each. The stress on vision and blindness figures a stress on moral vision and moral blindness. The late, severe language on the Crawfords, on Mary’s mind as ‘bewildered’, ‘darkened’, and similar language about Henry’s, has been built to in careful stages. The long, centerstage section on the MP theatrical accomplishes much of the work, as conscience, its use, abuse, and absence is displayed. As the literature on conscience bears out, and as Austen understood full well, there’s no blameless exit from the predicament of an erring conscience: the person in the predicament is damned if she does, damned if she doesn’t. She either does what her erring conscience demands, and does wrong, or she violates her erring conscience and so does wrong. Austen elongates the section because of the delicacy of the predicaments of the characters. No one’s conscience is simply absent, but various consciences are being abused. Mary and Henry’s err in crucial ways. So too Maria and Julia’s. Edmund’s actions cause Fanny so much distress because she sees him violating, and even laboring to befuddle, his own (non-erring) conscience. Fanny herself is worked upon by the theatricals, and is dangerously close to duplicating Edmund’s folly. The unexpected arrival of Sir Thomas saves her from having to choose whether to play (read) Cottager’s wife. The problem with the Crawfords is that they do not just have bad ‘principles’, though no doubt some of their ‘principles’ are bad: they can’t see clearly enough as to justly apply principles of any sort. Their consciousnesses themselves are corrupt. They do not and will not see.Near the book’s end, Henry suggests to Fanny that, married to him, she will become, in effect, his conscience. Fanny rejects the imputed role. No one can be anyone else’s conscience. But she reminds Henry that he does not need her. Each of us, she tells him, has in him or her what is necessary for determining right and wrong. I find that line tragic: Abstractly, Fanny is right, and her saying what she says is charitable. But it is not clear that Henry, the particular concreted human being, has any longer in him what he needs to determine right and wrong. Beneath his errors of conscience lurks a more fundamental moral debility, the protoplasmic untruth in which his heart itself is and has long been afloat.
I’ve started S&S, more on it soon, but, for now, a couple of final notes on MP.— For a great deal of her life (and of the novel) Fanny seems almost voiceless. No one hears her, seeks out her thoughts (except Edmund). But she hears herself, the voice of her conscience. Fanny listens to Fanny, even when no one around her does, and despite no one around her else listening to himself or herself. — I’m thinking I will write an essay on MP. “The Moral Grandeur of Fanny Price”. — The Crawfords are such smiling villains. Complicated, gifted, they call forth sympathy and regret as they repel. Seeing them for what they are requires keeping in mind something J. L. Austin once pointed out in a footnote (about the dangerous tendency to conflate succumbing to temptation to losing control of oneself). Imagining himself succumbing to temptation, to taking his own and someone else’s serving of ice cream at High Table, Austin asks: “But do I lose control of myself? Do I raven, do I snatch the morsels…and wolf them down…? Not a bit of it. We often succumb to temptation with calm and even with finesse.” Just so the Crawfords, at least until Henry’s ‘etourderie’ (Mary’s word) with Maria.
S&S: Austen’s gift for delivering crucial character descriptions in ways that can easily slip past the reader: Early in S&S, when Colonel Brandon must cancel the pleasure party to Whitwell, Sir John tries to reverse Brandon’s decision by reminding Brandon of the sacrifices made to attend that morning (it’s after 10am). The two Miss Careys have come from Newton, the three Misses Dashwood walked from the cottage, and Willoughby “got up two hours before his usual time”.
Austen, S&S. — More one-liners than in Emma or MP. The prose is far less complicated. Reminds me a bit of passages of H. James before he rewrote them and after he did (although Austen’s are obviously not the reworkings of passages). — The very careful apparent parallel constructed in Marianne’s situation with Willoughby and Elinor’s with Edward Ferrars. The contrast then from the beginning between Marianne self-feeding misery and Elinor’s efforts at self-command, made all-the-more strenuous by facing an almost omnipresent tormentor in Lucy Steel. Lucy’s clever, coldly cruel indirection in her speeches to Elinor — wow. She strikes home with dagger-point precision while seeming all smiles and amiability. “She looked down as she said this, amiably bashful, with only one side glance at her companion to observe the effect on her.” Ouch. What Austen gives with one hand she takes back with the other. — Austen’s careful foreshadowing of Lucy’s capacity for clever cruelty (the foreshadowing does not come long before the revelation of the fact) and of Lucy’s sister Anne’s blunt cluelessness (the foreshowing does come long before the decisive effect of the revealed fact).
More on S&S
— It’s easy to miss, despite her being the center of consciousness in the novel, that S&S really is the story of Elinor and Edward. The story of Marianne and Willoughby (and later, Brandon) plays a contrapuntal role in the overarching structure. Elinor’s story is ‘told’ by and in the telling of Marianne’s, in Elinor’s moments of identification with and distance from Marianne. It’s easy to lose sight of this in part because Elinor’s self-command creates inner stillness, and that inner stillness can seem (and often does to Marianne and to Mrs. Dashwood) like a lack of feeling. But it’s not that at all, as Marianne will come to understand. That inner stillness costs Elinor tremendous exertion.
— The wonderful, subtle similarity between the nasty letter from Willoughby Marianne receives in London and Lucy Steel’s torment of Elinor! We will later discover that Willoughby’s letter was dictated to him by his wife-to-be, making it all-the-more like Elinor’s torment by her rival.
More on Austen.
Much to think about as I finished S&S, but I wanted to note something that carries across the novels I have read — the notion of *tolerable happiness*. Austen uses the term repeatedly (along with a variant, ‘tolerable comfort’) in the novels, and it characterizes the happiness of the novels’ happy endings. I suspect that Austen is doubling meaning here — a not-uncommon feature of her prose. ‘Tolerable’ can describe that which can be borne or endured; it can also describe that which is moderately good or agreeable, that which is not contemptible. (In *Emma*, I believe, we also get the phrases ‘happiness a la mortal’ and ‘finely chequered happiness’, both of which belong to this discussion.) Austen knows that what we often want when we want happiness is moments of transport, of body-leaving joy (there are such moments in the novels) but she also knows that such moments are (grammatically) *moments*: such happiness is intolerable; it cannot be borne, supported, for long: the business of embodied living goes on, a la mortal. The happiness that will satisfy is one that is moderately (another doubling word in Austenian contexts) good, agreeable, supportable. It is happiness compatible with wanting rather better pasturage for one’s cows…But, someone might ask, what of Emma and Knightley’s ‘perfect happiness’? That sounds more than tolerable, at least in the second sense? — True. — Still, I wonder if the ‘perfect’ there is not a bit of deliberate ironic archness, a bit of Emma’s imaginist point of view entering into the narrator’s voice? Not that I mean they were not happy: but rather that their perfect happiness was, after all, perfectly tolerable.
— I’ve been accompanying my reading of Austen with sallies into Crabb’s English Synonyms. Crabb, prefacing the work: “Should any object to the introduction of morality into a work of science, I beg them to consider that a writer whose business it was to mark the nice shades of distinction between words closely allied could not do justice to his subject without entering into all the relations of society and showing, from the acknowledged sense of many moral and religious terms, what has been the general sense of mankind on many of the most important questions which have agitated the world.” It seems to me that this captures a deep ambition of Austen’s novels, her writing.
— While *MP* is my favorite Austen novel, Anne Elliot is my favorite Austen character. — The beautiful handling of Anne’s history with F Wentworth, the proposal, and eventual parting: it is easy to understand even if not to agree with the views of all the interested parties. And the subtle ways Austen shows the reader just how deeply in love Anne was (and, really, still is). Much of the novel’s power is drawn from the continuing strength of her feelings, her constancy.
— Two observations. (1) In an early paragraph about the mutual affection of Anne and Frederick, Austen’s notes that “the encounter of such lavish recommendations could not fail…they were rapidly and deeply in love.” And so they were, and so they are. Anne, although the least self-deceived of Austen’s central characters (she is certainly less self-deceived than Frederick — but then he was the one rejected, not the one who did the rejecting), is self-deceived about the continuing strength of her feelings for Frederick. Austen shows this to the reader (even before Anne realizes it) in the comments about her loss of ‘bloom’. The return of it later in the novel is not due to Lyme’s sea breezes but to her gradual rehabitation of feelings that have long been treated as alien, abandoned. When Anne first sees Frederick in person, the meeting deeply unsettles her, and she finds that to “retentive feelings” eight years may not be a long time, indeed not much time at all. But despite that acknowledgment, she will continue to resist her feelings, sure that Frederick is no longer for her. (What a wonderful phrase, “retentive feelings” — a ‘conative’ word modified by a ‘cognitive’ one, and their conjunction tells us a great deal about Anne’s mind, in the sense of ‘mind’ that is so important in Austen, the sense that Ryle delineates in his famous essay.)
(2) The fall of Anne’s sister’s son and the consequent events not only allow Austen to delay the first meeting between Anne and Frederick but they serve to foreshadow the fall of Louisa in Lyme and that fall’s consequent events. That’s obvious enough I suppose, but I am embarrassed to say I never really recognized it before. More on that soon.
—”Prettier musings of high-wrought love and eternal constancy could never have passed along the streets of Bath than Anne was sporting with from Camden Place to Westgate Buildings. It was almost enough to spread purification and perfume along the way.” Beautiful. I love it when Austen lets the prose spring into poetry. Such a paragraph. The play with ‘p’ and ‘sp’s!
— Anne is, in general, clear-sighted, self-commanding. That she is renders the three moments when she completely loses herself and her senses all the more memorable: when Wentworth first sees her again (and she him) at Uppercross, when she first sees Wentworth again in Bath, and when she realizes what his comments and stammering mean at the concert (“He must love her”).There are two other similar moments: one when she finds out that Wentworth is not in love with Louisa (“joy, senseless joy!”) and the other after reading the note Wentworth writes to her while she talks with Captain Harville (“It was an overpowering happiness.”)
In Boswell’s Life of Johnson (I think, I haven’t had time to check), an old acquaintance accosts Johnson to tell him that he (the acquaintance) had tried, like Johnson, to be a philosopher. “But,” the man went on to say, “cheerfulness kept breaking in.”
Stanley Cavell, writing of Wittgenstein’s philosophical work, notes that Wittgenstein writes to create change in his readers, to deliver them to self-knowledge. And, Cavell adds, “self-knowledge is bitter.”
I want to address a few words about Thoreau’s worry about Walden being mistaken for an “ode to dejection”. I will not finish with the topic in this post.
Philosophy sounds in a minor key. At least, it does when it undertakes the living of a human life. Its lessons are of the need to change: to rethink, re-look, re-tell: Thoreau’s first chapter is Economy. If we were already leading the life philosophy would tell us to lead it would lack illocutionary space in which to speak. It sounds in the margins, narrow or wide, between what we are and what we should (and might) be.
Thoreau will tell his readers that he writes for “poor students”. He will tell them that most idle in “quiet desperation”. Even without exploring the linguistic densities of these two phrases, two of the densest in all of the book, it is easy enough to see why Thoreau worries that his reader will mistake Walden for an ode to dejection. The reader is a poor student, lives in quiet desperation. Not good news. Not big on uplift. If this is gospel, it is not the Prosperity Gospel.
To read Walden as an ode to dejection is to turn it into a metrical set piece. A bit of lofty sentimentalizing on a grand topic. Kierkegaard somewhere underlines that it served the Athenians to treat Socrates as a genius. Because, as a genius, he was eccentric, not really one of them, and, as such, his life had no claim on their lives: Socrates was a different form of life: his was not the form of Athenian life.
To treat Socrates as a genius was to (functionally) banish him from the city, excommunicate him. Teachers discover their own form of this banishment when they urgently recommend a book to students and the students take the recommendation only to reveal (more of) the eccentricity of the teacher. Thoreau writes Walden because he believes the life he led at Walden makes a claim on his reader’s life, on the discordant lives of the citizens of Concord (Everywhere, USA). That life exerts the pressure of an exemplar.
An effective means for escaping this claim, reducing its pressure, is to recategorize Thoreau’s communicative act (a kind of excommunication). “Ah! I see! An ode to dejection! Isn’t it fine? Highflown, lovely turns of phrase, — fighting ants, — splendid!” The reader aesthetisizes the book, as if its aim were to please by its magniloquent descriptions. Perhaps what it describes displeases, but the focus is not on the object of the description but on the description itself . And so Thoreau’s cannot discomfort his reader — everything has been rendered comfortable. “Write on, Thoreau, write on! Beautiful! Oh, look, a pun,” the reader mutters, reclining. “Write on!”
A strategy for refusing Thoreau’s Walden-life as an exemplar…
I do not propose to write an ode to dejection, but to brag as lustily as Chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake his neighbors up.
Thoreau chooses to write an epigraph for his own book, not to use a quotation, although he goes on in Walden to quote other writers constantly, to seed his book with the words of others. So why not choose a quotation to serve as the epigraph? It was standard practice at the time, as it is now.
Thoreau chooses his own words. Now, of course, no one owns words as such: if anyone did, they would not serve their manifold purposes. If your words are really yours, owned, then they are not available to me to be understood. An owned word is incommunicable, unsharable. Yours but inert. Language is a mutual, joint-stock world in all meridians. But these are the words Thoreau chooses, his long and elegant sentence. Why these words and in this order?
The first word of Walden is: ‘I’. — Thoreau underwrites that choice in the opening paragraphs of Chapter one but here he simply makes the choice.
Thoreau steps into view, in propria persona, first to resist a misunderstanding of the action he performed in writing Walden, and then to embrace — and subtilize — an understanding of it.
We will return to ‘I’.
After stepping into view, Thoreau, in effect, puts his hands up, stopping the reader, gesticulating. “I do not propose to write an ode to dejection…” Why would Thoreau refuse this, expect his reader to expect such a proposal?
I suspect the answer has to be that Thoreau writes ahead of his reader’s actual expectations and anticipates what the reader may take the book to be if read in the wrong way, the wrong posture, the wrong spirit. If that’s correct, then Thoreau gives his reader the benefit of his own experience of Walden.
Being the writer of Walden complicates Thoreau’s reading of the book, of course. The writer relives the spontaneity that produced the ordered words: unless the action of writing is completely forgotten, that action returns to the writer in reading: Thoreau cannot encounter his words for the first time as his reader can. The words cannot speak to a passivity unaffected by the writerly activity that produced the words. Still, admitting that is not to admit that Thoreau cannot make an educated guess about how his words will strike his reader, address his reader’s passivity.
Thoreau anticipates that his reader will mistake Walden as an ode to dejection.
A few words about Bill Mallonee’s lush, cornucopia of songs.
Ending the Preface to his Philosophical Investigations, Ludwig Wittgenstein writes these words.
It is not impossible that it should fall to the lot of this work, in its poverty and in the darkness of this time, to bring light into one brain or another—but, of course, it is not likely.
Bill Mallonee’s newest offering, Lead on, Kindly Light faces a similar problem. Mallonee would no doubt grant the poverty of his work, and he calls attention repeatedly to the darkness of this time. But, much like Wittgenstein, he stubbornly hopes to bring light into one heart or another. No, it is not likely. We each have a heart full of weeds, tall weeds; it is hard for light to get in. And even if we see a little light, true blue, we are too ponderous, too full of devices and of the 21st Century to rouse into concerted action. Mostly, like Nietzsche’s ‘Last Man’, we blink. And turn on the blue-light filter. A little sleep, a little closing of the eyes in sleep. All apps, we lack application.
Kindly Light is a dialogic album, lush with interlocutory guitars. Mallonee’s singing, his plain but precise phrasing, his wife Muriah’s delicate, tasteful harmonies, needlework through the songs, stitching together the different conceptual orders of melody and words. Like exceptional conversation, the songs become bearers of meaning as wholes beyond what they are about, centrifugally. In an elusive sense, they are meaningful in themselves, centripetally.
But, centrifugally, what are the songs about? — About the accumulated weight of human experience, bourne by an individual but touching the lives of all: about the unappeasable hunger of the human imagination, the irrepressible vanity of human wishes, the endless tedium of another day and our sickened anxiety over wasted time, — about our damaged hearts and darkling fates. There is no emigration from a world bursting with evil and sorrow, despite the fact that we all seem to have immigrated here. Death guards the borders, fencing us in.
That makes Kindly Light seem more about (the) darkness (of this time) than about light, and that is misleading. The songs chart the path of light in the darkness, its dimming and brightening. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not. The light is there, never really gone, but we will not admit it. It’s easier to lapse into darkness. A little sleep…
The songs of Kindly Light all are cries of, cries for, wakefulness, for admitting the light, fighting toward it, for it. But it is also a reminder that our spontaneity is ever a receptive spontaneity, that our words were never the first words, are never The Word. And the light we admit, fight toward, fight for, will never allow us (to borrow John Henry Newman’s phrase) “to see the distant scene”. Light enough for the next step — that is what we can admit, fight toward, fight for. Some light in the brain, in the heart, enough to hazard everything, as we all do everyday, — no choice —, though we hide the fact from ourselves. We do not choose or see our path but we have to walk nonetheless. Time forces our footfalls. Will we sleepwalk or take the single step, awake, we have light enough to see?
The songs are sermons but not of the televangelist variety that rules today, preachers on screens, holygrams. No. The sermonizer here is sermonizing himself: Mallonee is his own congregation. He needs to hear what he is saying. We all need to be reminded more than informed. No message here from on-high, UHF. The message is sung from a modest place among the least of these, in poorness of spirit, from among the weeds by the wall.
For fans of melody, there is much here, songs that stay in the ear of the mind, that end up being hummed almost absently during the day’s business. The songs are unhurried, the guitars linger on, over and around the melodies. The listener is drawn into the dialog of the songs, asked to join it, given spaces to fill. These songs are, as Mallonee says life is (in “A Borrowing of Bones”), “a gift by slow degrees…
No blinding flash of light & few epiphanies/No one really leaves with anything that is his own/You get your doubts and a borrowing of bones…
Mallonee gets his doubts and he gets ours. All our bones are borrowed bones. We must return them in the end, like it or not. But, until then — lead on, kindly light. These songs hallow that light and, moonlike, reflect it back to the listener.
I was standing in front of the library wishing for the old days, a smoking campus, a campus that had not banished Lady Nicotine, when I saw him approaching: Socrates.
He had on his usual garb, a dark knit cap, a green flannel shirt under ancient bibbed jeans. His heavy work boots had soles with peculiar wear — no doubt the product of his awkward duck walk, each foot falling as though pissed with the other and determined to find its separate way. He grinned when he saw me, a Socratic grin, half-ignorance, half-knowledge, and he waved.
“Kelly,” he started, the rare cold morning air in Auburn making his exhalations visible against the threatening dark sky, “what are you doing outside the library? Wouldn’t you be better off inside?”
I eyed him cooly. He was always asking questions with multiple meanings but he would never own up to it. He just smiled a Cheshire Cat smile while the question, with its hidden questions, vanished away. I wasn’t sure what question I wanted to answer so I kept my mouth shut and endured the vanishment.
He laughed at me, as he often did, but there was a dollop of frustration in his laugh, since he couldn’t work his magic if I wouldn’t give him words. He waited for me to speak but I took off my backpack and unzipped it, hunting around in the bottom. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular, just looking, just hoping he might let his question suffice and move along.
After a moment, the silence seemed to move him to further speech instead of a change of location. “So, are you writing these days?”
I looked up at him quizzically. This had always been a sore spot between us. I wrote. He didn’t. I had tenure. He didn’t. Never would. He could wipe the floor with me philosophically, but I had a windowed office while he had a darkened carrel in the library, if he was lucky. I knew he had written a little poetry, but he resisted my one request to see any of it and I never asked again.
“I am — but mostly fiction. I have written no philosophy. Not lately.” I stood up and glanced down at my tennis shoes, “Maybe never again. Who knows?”
He grinned again at that. “Not me,” he noted, “I’m not one of those teachers who knows things. And how goes the fiction? Are you troubled by the thought of writing about what-is-not instead of what-is?”
I groaned and only afterward realized I groaned aloud. He seemed tempted to smile and then did, and I smiled back. “Let’s not have that conversation again, Soc, okay? You studied with Elias Stranger at Princeton — and you did that plenum post-doc at the Parmenidean Institute. You can tie me in knots of what-is-not or knots of what-is, maybe even knots of what-is-and-is-not.”
A flash showed in his eyes. “Is there anything that is-and-is-not, or is there not?”
I donned my backpack instead of answering. After a moment, I gave him a teasing glare. “You know, there’s a reason why the other profs hate you.”
We both laughed at that. “So,” he added, after the laugh disappeared, “how do you keep yourself at it, fiction writing? I’ve never been able to get myself to stick to the blank page, to screw my philosophical courage to that sticking-place. I like conversation — philosophy with no pretensions to draw the limits of things, or to occupy their center, or to have achieved some War Eagle-eye point of view. I like the on-the-spotness of conversation, the circumscribed, improvisatory exercises of a kind of human wisdom.”
I nodded. I’d been improvised on often enough, shown to lack a kind of human wisdom, dragged dizzy and dithering from Socrates’ vortex of dialectic. But even so, I couldn’t help liking the guy, even if he was a pain in the ass.
I threw caution to the wind— it’s that tendency that made me into a philosopher — and I bit: “I guess I keep at it because I’m disciplined.”
He smiled and leaned in. “You know, I have often wondered about discipline…”
I groaned but kept it wholly internal this time. I set the hook in my own jaw: “And…”
He leaned further, one of his eyes drifting outward as it often did when he concentrated, as though he was focused on me and lost in thought. It was disconcerting. I braced myself for a beating.
“And I wonder — is discipline just habit or is it more than a habit, or is it habit at all?”
We stood for a moment in low-hanging cumulus clouds of our visible breaths.
I yielded. Spoke. “Well, I guess it depends. If you compare my discipline in writing to, I don’t know, a habit like smoking or nail-biting, it seems distant from that, but if you compare it to something like map-reading, it seems closer to that.”
“Yes, but map-reading is a skill, that kind of habit. Nail-biting, unless it is a tip of the finger form of topiary, isn’t. Some habits you just have: you can’t be good or bad at them. Others, skills, you can be good or bad at.”
I considered myself. “But if you are bad enough, can you be said to have the skill?”
His eyes shined — or at least the one focused on me did. I couldn’t quite describe what happened with the other.
“Good question. I think the answer is that only someone with the skill can be said to be bad at it, but that’s a discussion for another day.”
I blew out a breath in relief, hoping that maybe he had to be somewhere else. I had heard some gossip about him being called to the President’s office — some parent had accused him of uprooting her son’s faith in the God of the Presbyterians. Maybe I would be spared a long conversation after all.
He rocked back on his feet. Then he leaned in again. Shit.
“But isn’t it true that discipline is required to learn a skill?”
“Um, yeah, I guess, usually. Unless the skill is really easy.”
“Ah, yes, but if it is easy enough, does it count as a skill? You can zip your backpack; I just witnessed it. Is that a skill?”
I shrugged. “No, I don’t think so. I mean, it is something I know how to do, but not every knowing-how counts as a skill, does it?”
He gaped at me. “You’re asking me? Me? Why? You know I don’t know. I am an ignorant man.”
Jesus, I think, sometimes I want to punch him right in his good eye. Ignorant! He’s like an X-Man mutant. Doctor Ignorance. Maybe he could borrow half of Cyclops’ visor!
I realized I was being mean-spirited.
He believed all that ignorance mumbo-jumbo, I think, as much as he believed anything, or at least as much as anyone could tell he believed anything. At any rate, it was no overt parrot belief, no mere ventriloquized form of someone else’s words. It meant something to him; it was rooted in him. He said once it had something to do with his mother, but I couldn’t tell if that was some darkling Freudian comment or a was claim about the family business.
“Can’t we say, at least provisionally,” — and as soon as I used that phrase I sank a little inside, because I knew he had me — “that there are kinds of know-how that are skills, things we do well or poorly, and forms of know-how that are not skills, things we can just do, but where evaluation seems otiose.”
He stared at me for a moment. “Provisionally? I would rather like to know what you really do believe.”
“Yeah,” I added, and gave him a defensive, one-shoulder shrug, “I’d like to know what I really believe too, but I don’t. You’re going to have to deal in half-measures. No full-scale, ad hominem, you’ve-refuted-yourself in the offing today, Soc.”
He let me slide. “So, operating a zipper doesn’t seem like a skill even though it is a kind of know-how?”
“Yeah, at least around these parts.”
“So, is a skill then a kind of know-how that you need discipline to gain?”
“Let’s say, yes.”
I could tell he wasn’t happy about my flippancy, but, hey, no one — except him, apparently — could spend the day in argument.
“Ookay. So, could we say that discipline is the habit needed to gain skills?”
“Would that make it the habit habit?”
He chuckled. “And you complained about my is and is-not.”
He gave me a flat look, hard to do with one eye straying toward the heavens.
I sighed. This is how it always went, no steps forward, countless steps back, a marathon to the starting line.
“I dunno,” I murmured, finally, putting all my higher learning to work, “how can there be a habit habit — short of a nunnery?”
“Isn’t discipline taught? That was what I was taught back in my Marine training. Oohrah.”
I winced. I couldn’t seem to keep in mind that he was not always an academic, that he was a military man once, that he somehow tucked that lifetime into his other lifetimes as a bricklayer and as a programmer for Oracle Corporation before he became a professor. He seemed younger than his seventy years, didn’t seem to be unhappily married, though I knew he was, didn’t seem to be a father, although I knew he was that too.
“So, if I understand, you mean that my discipline, if I have it, started as someone else’s discipline?”
He shrugged. “Yes, although when you put it that way it seems more paradoxical than it is. If you are lucky, your parents were disciplined people and instilled that discipline in you, raised you to be disciplined, rewarding and punishing you when you were too young to be reasoned with concerning the need for discipline, later explaining to you why the brief displeasures of discipline were key to life’s durable pleasures.”
My childhood had been about discipline; I was unconvinced that ‘brief displeasure’ was quite apt as phrases went, but I left it alone. I got the point, his point, as I got my father’s.
The point was that we have to internalize external discipline — that’s the making yours mine part of it — and all too often, parents didn’t have enough of it to pass it onto their children. Luckily, there were other sources, but it was still unlucky when that normal source turned out to be empty.
“This all sounds like Aristotle to me,” I finally said, a non-sequitur of truly non-stunning non-grossness.
He blinked. “Aristotle? Must be a new guy. Should I read him?”
Another shrug, my gesture of the day. “I don’t know. He’s a student of that student of yours, Plato.”
Socrates shakes his head. “Don’t blame me for Plato. Like you,” he says, glancing at me and narrowing the eye focused on me, “he can’t decide if he is writing fiction or philosophy. I tried to beat the fiction out of him, you know, dialectically, but he’s hard to pin down. Who knows what he actually thinks?”
“But in that,” I say, and somehow felt the gleam in own my eye, “isn’t he a chip off the old brick? After all, he says he’s your disciple.”
Socrates shook his head more emphatically. “I don’t have disciples. How could I? I have got nothing to teach.”
I pressed my lips into a line, sealing in a string of curses.
He seemed to expect a comment. “Well?”
“Well,” I echo, pausing, “isn’t your sort of ignorance itself a discipline? It’s not like you just don’t know, like a child just doesn’t know — and you know it.”
He closes his eyes and seems to drift off into existential abstraction, communing with his Unknown God. I waited, no interest in interrupting his moment, glad for a moment to recollect myself.
It took a little while, but Socrates returned to where he was. “I suppose,” he said in a slightly concessive tone, “that you are right. I know that I’m ignorant, I’m not just ignorant.”
“Yeah,” I added, “but even that’s not enough. You know it and you…embrace it, or something like that…Anyway, you don’t seem alarmed by it or ashamed of it…Being ignorant the way you are requires discipline, right, is itself a discipline?”
We stood there for a moment. He shifted his weight from one foot to another, an externalization of some inward motion. “You can’t learn if you think you know.”
“True,” I say, nodding, “but you won’t learn if you think you can’t.”
He seemed to agree with that, and I fought down a sudden desire to follow-up my remark with, “It must be so, Kelly,” to philosophize with myself in the third-person.
“But you shouldn’t confuse my ignorance with skepticism; I’m no skeptic.”
“No, you aren’t simply ignorant and you aren’t a skeptic. You’re in-between.”
He seemed to like that phrase although his quick grin turned down just as quickly. “Yes, but don’t plot me in two dimensions, I’m both in between them and behind them.”
“Thanks for that, ” I say, thanking him for nothing, “it’s a big help.”
He ducked his head a bit and shrugged and smirked — a mockery turtle. “I guess I have to go. I have to meet with President Gogue. Some well-meaning parent claims I made her son impious.”
We stood there for a moment, him delaying, me unsure what else to say. I glanced at him.
“Do you ever tire of philosophy?”
He scratched his scraggly beard, shaking his head. “I have to be about my father’s business.”
“Your father?” I asked, confused.
“Apollo.” It occured to me for the first time in several minutes that I could see his answer and not just hear it.
“Hell, Socrates.” I shouldered my backpack into a more comfortable position. “Good luck with the President. I’d…um…keep the Apollo stuff to myself.”
We parted company. I headed toward Haley Center. He headed toward Samford Hall.