Open Minded?

In a review of  The Kinsey Report that Lionel Trilling published in 1948 he notes that the Social Sciences were already suggesting ways folks ought to behave instead of simply telling us how they do in fact behave. They were already becoming prescriptive when they should have restricted themselves to description. This greatly affected the way we raised and taught our children. That went well!

He also makes a fascinating point about our democratic way of thinking, what he calls our “generosity of mind.” He regards this as peculiarly American and he insists that it is “often associated with an almost intentional intellectual weakness.” What he is speaking about is our refusal to make distinctions because of our fear that such distinctions will point the way toward discrimination.  Indeed, given the date of this review, one must conclude that Trilling was prescient, because we are now handicapped by our fear of “being judgmental,” by our inability to even allow for the possibility that anyone is different from anyone else lest this suggest that the one is somehow inferior to the other.  To quote Trilling at some length:

“[This intellectual weakness] goes with a nearly conscious aversion to making intellectual distinctions, almost out of the belief that an intellectual distinction must inevitably lead to a social discrimination or exclusion. We might say that those who most explicitly assert and wish to practice the democratic virtues have taken it as their assumption that all social facts — with the exception of exclusion and economic hardship — must be accepted, not merely in the scientific sense but also in the social sense, that is, that no judgment must be passed on them, that any conclusion drawn from them which perceives values and consequences will turn out to be ‘undemocratic.'”

This is a powerful statement and is worthy of serious reflection. What Trilling is saying is that our refusal to make distinctions has led us to the point where we are now intellectually disabled. Our fear that we might be “judgmental” renders us unable to make important distinctions between those who can and those who cannot. In our effort to “leave no student behind,” for example, we have dumbed down the curriculum in our schools to the point where those who graduate have learned very little, if anything — and the very bright are the ones who are left behind. On a broader canvas the liberal arts, as has been said many times, are elitist (“undemocratic”) and cater only to the very few. On the contrary. They can make it possible for all who come into contact with them to gain possession of their own minds and become autonomous persons who can resist the temptation to follow the herd and swallow the latest political pill that will eventually make them very sick.

The notion that certain thoughts are “undemocratic” is a brilliant way to point out that our determination to think alike has made it impossible for most of us to gain any sort of real intellectual freedom. Liberals must think in a certain way which (God Forbid!) must be nothing like the way conservatives think. And vice versa. True intellectual independence would allow us to make the important distinctions, to point out major differences, say, between women and men, between social classes, between the gifted and the obtuse. It would allow us to make distinctions between such things as the use and the mention of the “N” word, for example. Additionally it would allow us to distinguish between a protest against racial injustice and disrespect for the flag of this country, a distinction so many, including our President, seem unable or unwilling to make. To add to our intellectual burden is the current proscription against using certain words — despite the fact that words form sentences and sentences form thoughts. Without words, all words available, our thinking becomes crimped and begins to resemble, oh I don’t know, say, tweet-speak??

Trilling is on to something here and the fact that he was aware of this tendency in the late 1940s is truly remarkable. The tendencies he points out, as I have suggested, have only become worse and we are, as a society, even more “intellectually weak” than we were in 1948. The only way out is through education properly conceived, a course of study that takes the young on a challenging journey with the greatest minds that ever lived and, while being sensitive to the feelings of the disadvantaged, it allows for the open discussion of even the most controversial of topics with those who agree with us and, more especially, those who do not.



Are Poets Mad?

Going back in time at least as far as Plato there have been those who insisted that poets, and artists generally, are mad as hatters. Plato thought they were “inspired” and the Platonic dialogues are full of exchanges between Socrates and assorted poets and artists who are unable to explain to Socrates what exactly it is they do and what it is they claim to know. And because they cannot explain what they do in discursive terms — as a geometer would explain why it is that the square of the hypotenuse of a right-angled triangle is equal to the sum of the squares on the other two sides, for example  — Socrates was convinced that these folks who wrote about things they didn’t understand were in some sense of the term “mad.”

This notion persisted through the ages in the West until the time of the romantic poets, such as Byron, Keats, and Shelly who actually took pride in the fact that they were a bit mad and relished the notion. This was a view shared by many of the “beat” poets in the 50s and 60s and it still has its adherents. The problem is, of course, that we don’t know just what these folks meant by “mad” when they ascribed it to poets and artists. Freud called it a “neurosis” and sought to explain the genius of someone like Leonardo da Vinci on the grounds that his creations are the expression of his neurosis: indeed, all artists are neurotic and their art is neither more nor less than the expression of that “illness.” Later, as he thought more about this “illness” Freud came to the conclusion that we are ALL neurotic — not just the artists. As he said  in his Introductory Lectures:

“The result depends principally upon the amount of energy taken up in this way: therefore you will see that ‘illness’ is essentially a practical conception. But if you look at the matter from a theoretical point of view and ignore this question of degree, you can very well see that we are all ill, i.e., neurotic: for the conditions required for symptom-formation are demonstrable also in [so-called] normal persons.”

Neurosis, as Freud developed the notion, was the result of a conflict within the person, frequently an emotional one, but at times both intellectual and emotional. It often had to do with the person’s inability to develop a strong “reality principle,” that is, to distinguish clearly between reality and the imaginary. Cervantes had played with this notion years before when he was writing Don Quixote, since the knight can be regarded as either a poet or a madman because of his inability to distinguish between reality and his own vivid imagination. Is the barbers basin really Mambrino’s helmet? Are the windmills really giants? Is the herd of sheep really an army to be fought to the death? Are the prisoners on their way to the galley really decent folks who have been wronged by a system that is stacked against them? Quixote is always working his way through these questions. The clue that Quixote is not mad, of course, is that he is often aware of what these things appear to be to others. He knows, for example, that Sancho takes the object for a barber’s basis while he “knows” it to be Mambrino’s helmet. A madman has a weak “reality principle” and would lose the distinction entirely between what is going on his head and what is “really” going in the world we share with him. The neurotic person has difficulty separating reality from the imaginary; when the distinction breaks down completely that person is psychotic.

We have a president at the present time who seems to have a weak reality principle, who seems a bit mad. He certainly is not a poet or artist, but, rather, a deluded man who insists that reality, and facts as well, are of his making and those who disagree are clearly in the wrong.  We may all be headed in this direction as we play with our electronic toys and lose ourselves in a world of make-believe that becomes more “real” than the world we share with others. This, it seems to me, is a very real possibility since in that world we are all-powerful. In this world not so much.

In any event, poets and artists generally are no more neurotic than the rest of us and their power as artists consists of their ability to deal with the conflicts they experience through their talent and skill that allows them to create poems and works of art that reveal to the rest of us what it is they see and we are all missing. As Lionel Trilling puts it: “What marks the artist is his power to shape the material of pain we all have.”

The rest of us must simply learn how to deal with that pain with more or less success, depending on who we are and how successfully we can develop the reality principle that makes it possible for us to remain in the “real” world and not lose touch entirely with the one the rest of the world occupies. That world, for all its pain, is also beautiful and filled with many good people trying their best to do good things.


One More Time

I shall once again refer to Lionel Trilling’s excellent novel The Middle of the Journey because it raises a fascinating question, one that so many of us have forgotten to think about. I refer to the problem of human freedom and responsibility. Rather than accepting blame for our many mistakes we have become used to making excuses, prodded on by the social sciences (or the “pseudo-sciences,” as a friend of mine would have it) that insist we are the product of social causes, environment, education  (or lack of education), economic pressures, the “character pattern imposed by society” (as Trilling puts it). This leaves us no room whatever for human freedom and when freedom disappears so also does moral responsibility. We buy into this tripe because it is an easy way out. After all, if there is no responsibility for human beings then since I am a human being I bear no responsibility whatever for anything I may happen to do — including taking the life of another, or inciting others to do the same. How very comforting!

Trilling raises this question toward the end of his novel when a small group of friends is gathered around following the death of a young girl who was slapped by her father and died because she had a weak heart about which he knew nothing. The question is whether the man deserved to be published. The liberal view, the view of the social scientist, the view shared by the majority of the small group, is ready to make excuses for the man, though the most vehement member of the group wanted to have nothing more to do with the man, despite the fact that he could not have known his daughter would die from his slap. In a word, she didn’t hold the man responsible yet she can’t forgive him. These are human beings after all, albeit fictional ones, and they are as full of contradictions as are the rest of us.

In any event, Trilling insists that this woman, despite her strictly deterministic viewpoint, cannot forgive the man. Moreover, he has the former leader of the group, Gifford Maxim, the former card-carrying member of the Communist Party who has found God and left the Party at considerable risk to his own life, reply to the notion that there cannot be any responsibility — or forgiveness. Maxim makes a series of points to counteract the view of the social scientist who would blame “society” rather than individuals:

“I can personally forgive [the father of the little girl] because I believe God can forgive him. You see, I think his will is a bad one, but not much worse, not altogether different in kind, from other wills. And so you [who cannot condemn the man because you blame society] and I stand opposed. For you — no responsibility for the individual, but no forgiveness. For me — ultimate, absolute responsibility for the individual, but mercy. Absolute responsibility is the only way that men can keep their value, can be thought of as other than things. . . .”

Now whether or not we buy into the religious aspects of this point, it is worth pondering. It is so because the notion of human responsibility can be rescued only if we insist upon the fact of  human freedom — if we reject the notion that we are products of society, simply. We might be forced to admit that society, broadly speaking, plays a role in the formation of who we are. Doubtless it does. But to insist, as so many in the social-sciences do, that we are totally the product of our social conditioning — poor potty training, angry baby-sitters, or a third grade teacher who hated us — a claim that cannot be proven, is to leave no room for responsibility whatever. As Maxim points out, there can be no forgiveness because everything is pre-determined.

But the point that strikes me as the salient one in this discussion is near the end of Maxim’s comment above, when he notes that “Absolute responsibility is the only way men can keep their value, can be thought of as other than things.” This, of course, is the heart and soul of Kantian ethics as it is of the Christian ethic, and it is a point that cannot be denied without reducing, as Maxim says, human beings to things. In the end human freedom can be rescued from the snares of the social scientist by virtue of our own felt-experience; the fact that no logical proof has ever been devised to prove that we are not free; and even Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, which shows that activity on the sub-atomic level is in principle unpredictable. Accordingly, human beings can be held responsible. And they can be forgiven, or condemned as the case may be — depending on the degree of their culpability.


Another Gem!

The delight one takes in reading exceptional literature (dare I say “great” literature?) is in finding the occasional gem. They are always there and that is what makes them exceptional. In the case of Lionel Trilling’s The Middle of the Journey, to which I have referred before, they are there in abundance.

The novel was written soon after the Second World War at a time when many an American intellectual was flirting with Communism, which appeared to be the way to deliver the poor and downtrodden from under the foot of the greedy capitalist power-brokers. In the novel the leader of a small group of intellectuals from New York has had a sudden change of heart and has deserted the Communist Party to the dismay and even anger of his small group of devoted fellow-travelers.

The news has come out of Russia of the atrocities that have been committed for years in the name of Communism, the millions of dead and the promise of millions more — all in the name of a “better way of life for all.” The leader of the local group, Gifford Maxim,  has risked his life to leave the Party to which he has devoted the majority of his adult life. He has had an epiphany of sorts as he has come to realize that the end does not justify the means when the means involve the death of so many of his fellow humans. He is no longer a member of a small community of like-minded zealots, “My community with men is that we are children of God.”

By way of reaching this conclusion, he has this to say to his former friends and devotees:

“And never has there been so much talk of liberty while the chains are being forged. Democracy and freedom. And in the most secret heart of every intellectual, where he scarcely knows of it himself, there lies hidden the real hope that these words hide. It is the hope of power, the desire to bring his ideas to reality by imposing them on his fellow-man. We are all of us, all of us, the little children of the Grand Inquisitor. The more we talk of welfare, the crueler we become. How can we possibly be guilty when we have in mind the welfare of others, and of so many others?”

In light of recent events in this country, when our feckless Leader loudly threatened to “totally destroy” an entire nation of people whose ideology differs from our own, a time when the air still rings with similar threats from the leader of the “other side” who refers to Our Fearless Leader as a “dotard” and labels him as “deranged”  —  neither of these men seeming to realize that countless human lives are at stake if these threats are carried out — it is a timely reminder that the hidden political agenda is to acquire and maintain power, to “impose” one ideology on everyone. There are no winners in this power game; there are only losers.

As Maxim reminds us, ours is the community of the “children of God.” We are all human with our many foibles, and the particular ideology we follow seems not to matter one bit. There are always those who will lord it over others, those who will take while insisting that they have the right to do so, those who simply want more of what they already have. It matters not whether we call it “Communism” or “Capitalism,” in any case, it is about power, and about who is to wield it and for how long.

Trilling is usually labelled a “Conservative,” though he regarded himself as a moderate; in any event, it is a simple matter to dismiss these sentiments as those of someone who thinks differently. We tend to do that sort of thing. But this would be a mistake, the very same mistake Gifford Maxim has made in following an ideology blindly, ignoring the atrocities for years out of the conviction that his is the only legitimate way to see the world. As Trilling himself has said, in another context entirely,

“Ideology is not the product of thought; it is the habit or the ritual of showing respect for certain formulas to which, for various reasons having to do with emotional safety, we have very strong ties and of whose meaning and consequences in actuality we have no clear understanding.”

Committing oneself blindly to an ideology, any ideology, is a denial of our fundamental humanity. Labelling the opposition instead of listening to what they have to say leads to frustration, ignorance, and eventually to violence. Whether or not we are in sympathy with what the author of this novel has to say — and he has a great deal to say — it is well worth hearing. And to my ear it rings true. We all seem to be quick to condemn those who disagree with us and to see our way of thinking as the only way while, in fact, there are many ways to think and to see — and ours may not be the best way.

In any event, the end certainly does not justify the means when it involves the death of so many others who disagree with us, many of whom are totally unaware that they do so.

Imagining Peace

I have referred to Lionel Trilling’s excellent novel The Middle of the Journey and I do recommend it. Trilling writes well and has something important to say. That is unusual. Indeed. In the eighth chapter of that novel his central character is reflecting, as is his habit:

“. . . he thought how weak the human imagination is because it so dully represents peace and brotherhood. A careful, shabby Hindu student and a skinny Methodist student shake hands and agree that there are no real differences between people that cannot be overcome by mutual understanding and education and the cider and doughnuts they will presently be offered by the religious director. The world’s imagination of strife was surely much more attractive. It allowed men their force and their selfhood as well as their evil. Yet in actual fact . . . the true emotion of reconciliation is an heroic one. Hamlet never appears in fuller virility than when he offers Laertes his hand, and nothing he says rings with a sweeter and graver note of masculinity than his ‘Give me your pardon, sir. I have done you wrong.'”

There are so many things to delight in this brief passage, but I will start with the weak imagination that “so dully represents peace and brotherhood.” It raises the deep question why we seem to relish the violent and hateful and hear so little about the true heroism that goes on all around us every day. The news media, which ought to be called the “entertainment” industry to be accurate, glories in all the mayhem and animosity in the world and says little, if anything, about the beauty and goodness that is easily as common. So many of our fellow bloggers — including myself, though with the exception of our good friend Jill Dennison — tend to dwell on the bad and nasty and ignore the good and the magnificent. But our weekly posts from “Filosofa” remind us that there are good people doing good things each and every day. It just takes more of an effort of imagination to represent the good than it does to represent the evil in the world.

It has been said that when Dante wrote his Comedy he sailed through the Inferno, slowed down when writing about Purgatory and swam upstream slowly when writing about Paradise. Even Dante, he of the most extraordinary imagination, working with an impossible rhyme-scheme and burdened down with the immensely complex theological/cosmological baggage of the Middle Ages he had to carry with him as the made his way, even Dante struggled to describe peace and brotherhood. They are hard to imagine, much less write about.

But Trilling also speaks of true heroism, which consists in humbling oneself to the realities of a harsh world and swallowing one’s pride to admit that he or she was wrong. We see the antithesis of this every day in the media which cannot look away from the absurdities of a president who is unwilling or unable to admit he is ever wrong and who shows a singular lack of heroism with each and every tweet he compulsively sends forth into the world, unable to exhibit the “true emotion of reconciliation.” True heroism is simply less spectacular, and less easy to imagine. Perhaps also less common. So we don’t hear about it and confuse it with athletics or military endeavors that are sensational and take no imagination whatever to relish. But we need to remind ourselves that it is out there, the real thing and not the cheap imitation.

Trilling wrote his novel in 1945, soon after the Second World War. He would despair to see how much more diminished the human imagination has become in the meantime with the rise of the entertainment industry, the electronic toys, and the sensationalism of the cinema that glory in violence and mayhem and shy away from, or are in fact unaware of, the true heroism of those who suffer quietly, admit their mistakes, and forge ahead with their difficult lives.

“The world’s imagination of strife was surely much more attractive.” Indeed.

Seeing Things

Lionel Trilling was primarily a critic though he wrote one novel which is quite remarkable and makes the reader wish he had written more. It is a political novel about the 1930s when intellectuals around the country and the world were flirting with Communism — the idealistic version that demanded that private property be eliminated and all are treated truly equally (a truly Christian ideal, surely). It was hardly the view that soon became a harsh reality and Trilling is dealing with the clash between ideas and reality. It is a stunning piece of work and reveals to us the writer’s acute grasp of the nuances of human behavior and his astonishing awareness of the things around him. It is in this latter regard that I want to take a peek at one small passage midway through the novel that reveals what I m talking about.

The hero, John Laskell, is visiting some friends in Connecticut after a near-death experience, trying to recover in the peace and quiet of the Connecticut countryside. He is staying at the home of a Mrs. Folger and while sitting and admiring her collection of tea cups the narrator tells us:

“Laskell looked again at the cups. Sitting with Mrs. Folger over her precious pieces of china, taking pleasure in the objects and seeing life in them, Laskell was happy in the mild relationship with this worn, elderly women who was so far removed from his usual existence. As he sat in the dim, damp dining room he had a strong emotion about the life in objects, the shapes that people make and admire, the life in the pauses in activity in which nothing is said but in which the commonplace speaks out with a mild, reassuring force.”

In itself, this passage is not remarkable. But in its way it shows how the author is in tune with his surroundings, how much he sees of what he is living with, and how this makes him happy. Note how Laskell’s attention is directed outwards, away from himself. This is not about Laskell; it is about the tea-cup and what it “means.” It’s the world around him, the little things that make him happy. I find this remarkable because, with the exception perhaps of an occasional artist hiding out in Ecuador, we seem to have lost this ability, the ability to see things around us. And we don’t appear to be terribly happy.

I was reminded of the incident recounted by Nathaniel Shaler regarding his initial encounter with the naturalist Louis Aggassiz who “taught him how to see.” Aggassiz handed him a fish and told him to look at it and write down what he saw. After week of studying the specimen Shaler came up with a list of a dozen or so properties and handed the list to Aggassiz who handed the list back to him and told him, to look again.  “. . . in another week of ten hours a day labor” Aggassiz was finally satisfied.

The point is that there is so much around us that we miss in our preoccupation with ourselves and our petty lives — and our electronic toys. So many of us simply don’t see.

I am also reminded of the truly remarkable descriptions written by Edith Wharton who lived in the early part of the last century and loved to travel. This was the age of the early cameras when things had to be standing still to be photographed and she preferred to write down what she saw. She wrote several travelogues that are extraordinary in their detail and liveliness. Her descriptive powers were well beyond the ordinary — so far beyond that they would stand alone as testimony of her exceptional writing skills if it were not for her novels which are filled with similar descriptions as well as profound observations of those around her and the ideas and practices that were found by her to be worthy of comment. It is her novels that folks connect with her name, though another great writer, Wallace Stegner, later paid tribute to Wharton’s exceptional descriptive abilities.

But one would have to journey far to find better lyrical qualities and descriptive powers that Trilling himself as we can see from this brief passage:

“The air was filled with the perpetual sound of crickets, the sound of summer that speaks of summer’s end. It spoke of this now to Laskell, as it always had, ever since boyhood, with its pleasant melancholy of things ending, a conscious and noble melancholy leading to hope and the promise of things to come, of things beginning, all the liveliness of autumn, of new starts, the renewed expectation that, this year, one’s personal character would learn the perfect simplicity one wished it to have.”

But that was then, 1945 and before. This is now, and as I have suggested we seem to have lost the ability to see and to reflect on what we see means in the grand scheme of things. Granted, these were exceptional people with exceptional skills, but where do we find such people today (outside of Ecuador)? And how many of us look around us and see the beauty and weigh the details of an ordinary tea-cup or the sounds of the crickets and think about what they mean and how many things they suggest to the careful observer? It is precisely those things, those seemingly trivial things, that may be the secret to human happiness if only we bothered to take the time to look.

In the end I am reminded, once again, of the group of teenagers sitting in the museum before Rembrandt’s Night Watch staring at the iPhones clutched in their hands, totally unaware of the beauty just a few feet away. It says so much about us and about how much of the world we are blind to.