Much To Learn

I attach here a brief post I wrote some time ago that helps fill the void created by my taking time to collect these posts and ready them for publication in book form.

LEARNING FROM GREAT POETS
I admit I am one of these odd people who thinks we can learn a great deal not only from history but also from great literature. There are many, of course, who would deny that there is any such thing as “great” literature — just literature that some like and others do not. But I agree with Robert Persig, who wrote Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, in which he said that “quality” is one of those things no one can define, but everyone recognizes it when they see it. Greatness is like that.
For example, all sports fans recognize the great athlete. They are rare and stand out above the others. We may not know what it is that sets them apart, but they jump out at us. We might quibble about who was the greatest tennis player, football player, or basketball player. But we know who the great ones were. Great literature is like that. It stands out and commands our attention — if we are well read enough to know what to look for: exceptional writing and insight into the human condition.
I recently came upon a passage in E.M. Forster’s The Longest Journey that helps me make my case. Forster is a poet in the true sense of that term: he creates with words. His creations happen to take the form of novels. This novel is one of those that tells a story, but which also makes us stop and think. In that novel we find the following passage:

“the city [Salisbury] has strayed out of her own plain, climbed up her slopes, and tumbled over them in ugly cataracts of brick. The cataracts are still short, and doubtless they meet or create some commercial need. But instead of looking towards the cathedral, as all the city should, they look outwards at a pagan entrenchment, as the city should not. They neglect the poise of the earth, and the sentiments she has decreed. They are the modern spirit.”

The stunner, of course, is in the final sentence. Forster is pointing to the human tendency — which has grown stronger since he wrote his novels — to put itself in opposition to the earth, to ignore its “sentiments,” and demand that it satisfy human cravings.
Farmers sit in their eight-wheel tractors polluting the air and ripping into the soil in the Fall of the year to expose the dark topsoil to the eroding Winter winds; miners tear apart the earth and leave it exposed as they look for spoils beneath its surface; deforestation leaves the earth bare and parched and unable to provide future growth; we use millions of gallons of water to take precious oil from deep beneath the earth and burn it up in our gas-guzzling automobiles and trucks; we topple trees and cover the exposed earth with concrete parking lots and malls so we can shop for goods we don’t really need; and so it goes. In so many ways we do, indeed, “neglect the poise of the earth.” If we ever knew what stewardship meant, we have forgotten it in our haste to beat the world into submission to our will, to meet our endless demands, and continue to provide nourishment for growing human populations.
Forster’s passing remark strikes chords and makes us pause and reflect. That is a mark of great poetry.

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Great Art

One of my pet peeves — and I have many — is the rejection of the notion that art and literature can be great. The academic community, especially, has taken the lead in reducing all evaluation to feeling. But, as I have told my aesthetics students for years: art is not spinach! It cannot be reduced to a question of whether or not we like it. Instead of concentrating on the painting, let us say, its imaginative technique, its harmonies and perspective, subtle nuances of balance and imbalance, exceptional style of coloration, we look and say something like “It just doesn’t do it for me.” In a word, we stop talking about the painting and focus instead on our own personal responses. We do the same thing in ethics, of course, where we insist that good and evil are merely words we attach to our acceptance of rejection of certain types of actions — such as rape and murder. “That’s just not the way we do things here in Peoria.” How absurd.

Robert Persig wrote a cult novel years ago titled Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in which he concluded that no one can define “value,” but everyone knows it when he sees it. The same holds true of great art and literature, it seems to me (though experience helps). It also holds true in such mundane things as sports where we all recognize the greatness of a basketball player such as Steph Curry or a tennis player such as Roger Federer. Greatness, like value, cannot be defined, but it is putatively THERE in the world. It cannot be reduced to feelings — though feelings are certainly part of the equation.

There are great writers and great painters, just as there are great composers, dancers, actors, and, yes, basketball players. They stand out from the rest and they invite us to revisit their performances or their works. A great novel — such as Middlemarch by George Eliot — invites repeated readings. It has well defined and interesting characters who remind us of people we know, even ourselves, and thus gives us insight into our our minds and hearts, and of those around us. It is beautifully written, with elegant dialogue and suggestions of irony and humor. And the plot draws us in and takes us on a trip we are sad to see end. A great painting invites us to look at our world again and try to see what the artist saw, adding depth and dimension to the ordinary world. In fact, this is the great crime, if you will, of the reduction of all artistic response to personal reaction: it closes us off to the world around us.

I regard this as part of what I have called in print our “inverted consciousness,” our collective determination to turn away from the world and focus attention on ourselves. It reaches its pinnacle with the aspergers patient who is unaware of the effect he is having on others. But we all seem to be subject to it in differing degrees. However we label it, the phenomenon translates to a shrunken world, lacking in color, sound, and dimension.

I have always thought that this is the real value of great works of art and literature. They open to us a world we would otherwise ignore in our fascination with things personal. Doubtless we should have strong feelings in the presence of great works, but those feelings should not be allowed to close us off to what is going on in the work itself. And it is what is going on in the works that discloses to us added dimensions of our world, makes of it a three or even a four-dimensional world instead of a flat sheet. We need to look, hear, and see the world around us. And this is what great works or art invite us to do.