The “Old Verities” and the Lamentation Sprawl

In his prize acceptance speech at the Nobel Banquet in 1950, William Faulkner spoke of a pervasive fear that was taking hold of writers and reducing them to mediocrity: a fear of being blown up in nuclear war. Consumed by this, writers were forgetting “the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself,” the only things worth writing about. He continued:

He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed – love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.

We live today not under the immediate threat of nuclear war, but under other threats: in particular, the threat of spiritual and intellectual sprawl. Our intentions, desires, efforts, loves, treasures have no special time and place; they get spread out throughout the day and night and year. Supposedly, the more we get done (no matter what the time), the better. It is as though there were no more seasons. It is common to answer a work-related email at 11 p.m., work through the weekends, and take vacation only sporadically. People even find satisfaction in this; if they make themselves available around the clock, they not only receive kudos but expect some kind of reciprocation. If they are available all the time, then so are others, or so it seems for a while.

In this sprawl of unending availability and accessibility, it’s difficult to make anything matter. Things get flattened because they’re “always there”—and when you look around, they seem to be nowhere. With respect to the classroom, there’s an adage that students don’t need to learn things because they can “always” look them up. Not only is this notion false—they need a store of working knowledge to make sense of texts and concepts—but it robs us of a sense of treasure. When I memorize a poem (or even the conjugation of a verb), I am taking time with it and giving it a place in my mind. I “produce” something—ultimately, the recitation of the poem, and a greater understanding of it—but I hold something as well.

Today we are caught up in production without treasuring and holding.

To stop treasuring things is to stop grieving them, to take up residence in a lamentation sprawl. You can’t grieve what you have never missed. This is why Faulkner says of the writer, “Until he [commits himself to the old verities], he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.”

What does it take to gather oneself up from this sprawl, in education and in life? How does one honor the “old verities”? This may take, among other things, a willingness to set certain activities and roles apart from others, certain times and seasons apart from others, certain works, certain people apart from others. Leon Wieseltier writes in Kaddish:

In Chicago: Kaddish on the road. A lovely little shul near the lake, with the separation of the women from the men cleverly accomplished by a row of plants. I say the kaddish and stroll along the silver shore. I am delighted to have done my duty. Tonight the fulfillment of my obligation does not oppress me. It refreshes me. It occurs to me that delinquency is such a waste of time: all those years spent extenuating, thinking, rethinking, apologizing, refusing to apologize, feeling guilt, hating the feeling of guilt. You can squander a lot of your soul not doing your duty.

“Doing your duty” is not the same as caving in to every demand that comes your way, or pursuing any particular work without pause. It is different from that; it involves refraining from work just as it involves working; it involves refraining from giving to others just as it involves giving. It involves giving dignity to things.

What does it mean to “do one’s duty” in education? It means to devote oneself, in a structured way, to things that matter—and having the courage to say that they matter. A curriculum should not just consist of “complex” texts; who cares how complex a text is, if it has no beauty or importance? No, a school should dare to teach what is beautiful and important, even if there is disagreement over the selections, and even if the selections change over time.

Beyond that, “doing one’s duty” involves a sense of humanity. In the classroom, we approach the “old verities” obliquely, through the subject matter—but we also encounter them directly, in subtle ways. It takes courage to show interest in a subject when others do not; it takes honor to make good judgments about the direction of a discussion. In all of these things we are fallible; that’s where compassion and pity come into play. The “old verities” surround and fill us all the time; we need only be alert to them.

The greatest threat to the “old verities” is a crass version of utilitarianism: an insistent focus on short-term results that can be assessed quickly by an outsider. Results are important (sometimes immensely so), but it matters what they are and what they mean. One must continually choose from an array of actions, each carrying possible results. These choices hold everything; in their absence, without a sense of conscience, soul, or something worth holding up, one ends up without choices, as they all seem more or less on a level, without height, texture, or abyss.

 

I made a few edits and revisions to this piece long after posting it.

Wieseltier’s “Going to Melody” and the Language of Lament

We aren’t expected to lament much today. If we have a complaint about the state of things, we’re supposed to back it with data. It will not do, for instance, to say that children don’t have enough time to roam. We must argue, instead, that research has shown that the lack of roaming affects a particular area of children’s brains.

This puts us in a bind. Research has its place, but if it replaces lamentation, we lose something of humanity (and I won’t provide brain data for that). Lamentation has thousands of known years beneath it, and even more unknown years. It has the toughness  of memory and treasure. It is about those things that we will not give up even when the world says we must. It is David weeping for Absalom; it is Jean Passerat’s “J’ay perdu ma tourterelle”; it is the narrator in a Gogol story who exclaims, “It’s dreary in this world, gentlemen!” Its privacy taunts us like water. We thirst for those quirky cries so close to our own.

So it was with thirst that I read Leon Wieseltier’s piece “Going to Melody” (The New Republic, February 2, 2012). It’s about the uninspired greed of large businesses such as Amazon—how their “hunger for profit exploits a hunger for meaning.” As they drive bookstores and record stores to the ground, they kill the activities that take place in those stores, particularly browsing. Browsing is the opposite of searching, writes Wieseltier: “Search is precise, browsing is imprecise. When you search, you find what you were looking for; when you browse, you find what you were not looking for.”

Granted, there is browsing within searching and vice versa. But the distinction stands—and there’s still more too it. Browsing makes room for uncertainty and serendipity, for those books we didn’t expect to find, let alone continue reading. Amazon doesn’t have room for serendipity. “After all,” Wieseltier explains, “serendipity is a poor business model. But serendipity is how the spirit is renewed; and a record store, like a bookstore, is nothing less than an institution of spiritual renewal.”

Where’s his evidence? The memories of Melody Records, for instance, which for thirty years stimulated him and “provided a sanctuary from sadness and sterility.” Or his father’s furniture store, where Wieseltier as a boy sold sofas to U.N. people who lived nearby—by talking to them about the crises in Iran and Cyprus. He knows the foe, too; he describes Amazon’s Price Check, the app that allows customers in a bookstore to scan an item’s bar code and transmit the information back to the behemoth, which then offers a discount if the store’s price stands to compete with its own.

The evidence lies not only in these memories and details, but in the language of the piece, its amblings and rhythms and visions. As I read it, I too experienced a “sanctuary from sadness and sterility.” I found myself in the record store, listening to the advice of the staff, enjoying this song, or at the bookstore, picking up a book and reading it without rush. I came in with worries and sadness, which loosened and fell away, and with petty complaints, which fizzled in their silliness. I was not loftier than before, but somehow the piece lifted me a little, the way a parent lifts a child up to the window.

Kudos to Wieseltier for not citing brain research here (or any research, for that matter). It would have taken something away from this piece. Yes, there may be research indicating that our loss of real-life interactions has correlated with an increase in stress. Yes, it may be interesting and important. But the point of such a piece is to say, with full risk of disapproval, that I have lost something dear to me, be it a surprising piece of music or a store my friend owned or a place where I can be renewed and revived.

At least we have not yet lost the language for robust lamentation. Let us take care not to lose it. Let us not ask it to be anything else.

 

I made a few edits to this piece long after posting it.