“The peacock spreads his fan”

I learned about Leonard Cohen’s death from Virgil Shaw, who mentioned it in between songs last night, during a superb show. I didn’t check my phone (and the news) until later, but there it was. Leonard Cohen is gone. Is that true? Is he gone? His music is playing in my mind, so he isn’t gone; the songs carry on in his place. What’s hitting me, though, is the knowledge  that his work is now sealed, that there will be no more new songs. Even more than that, it’s the knowledge that the person who wrote “Suzanne,” “Story of Isaac,” “Avalanche,” “The Stranger Song,” “Dance Me to the End of Love,” and “Hallelujah” is no longer here. Even there, it’s hard to pinpoint the sadness. He could have died earlier or later; maybe he could have lived until a hundred. At some point he would have had to go. Nor would I ever have met him, as far as I know, nor does that have anything to do with the tightness in my throat right now. What hurts is the loss of a fighter for language and song, who I trusted was somewhere breathing.

Note: I made minor revisions to this piece after posting it. It was hard to get the words right. I commented on the New York Times obituary as well; see the many beautiful comments  there.

Update: See Leon Wieseltier’s moving eulogy.

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.

Teaching and Physical Presence

I don’t comment on blogs and online articles as much as I once did. But when I do, I am still left with a feeling of dissipation, which starts with the knowledge that I spent time and thought on comments that, in retrospect, seem limited, even foolish, and that did not get through to the other participants. I am left with the sinking thought, “Oh no, why did I do that?” The most recent example is the comment thread on Leon Wieseltier’s column “The Unschooled” (online title: “Education Is the Work of Teachers, Not Hackers”).

One of the main points of his piece is that students need actual teachers—not virtual teachers, not scripted teachers, not stand-ins for teachers, but teachers themselves, in the same room with the students. They are essential precisely because they give us something that daily life (online and offline) does not. Once we leave school (be it high school, college, or graduate school), we make our way through life without formal teachers, for the most part. It is our teachers who help us prepare for this independence.

Most of what I learned from teachers, I owe to their physical presence as well as their intellect. What sets the classroom apart from other situations is, first of all, of someone who not only knows the subject well but strives to bring the students into it; second of all, a focus on something interesting in itself, whatever its applications may be; and, third, the allowance for thoughts in formation. I will focus here on this last point and its usual absence from online discussion.

In the classroom, you can say something that is incomplete, flawed, or utterly incorrect. This can contribute to the overall discussion, as the goal is not to score points but to arrive at greater understanding. A teacher or professor welcomes errors or limited assertions as an opportunity to probe further. (This requires, of course, that the students participate conscientiously and thoughtfully, instead of speaking haphazardly or bluffing.) What’s more, once you have said something in the classroom, it vanishes; unless you have made a particularly memorable point, or unless the teacher has picked up on it, it does not follow you around. (This is a good thing.) It is possible, in such a discussion, to clarify terms on the spot; to interject questions; to return to the text or problem; and to glean things in the speaker’s tone and facial expressions. The teacher, who has a longer and broader perspective on the subject than the students do, is able to bring together seemingly disparate points and take the discussion further. Sometimes the teacher does most of the talking—in some of my favorite courses, this was so—and that does not degrade the discussion.

In everyday face-to-face conversations, many of these features may be present. Two or more people may well learn from each other in person. There is room for tentativeness, as most of what is said gets left behind. The point is not only to learn but to enjoy each other’s presence. The teacher in such settings may well be absent—and so topics may be broached lightly or in depth, with or without accuracy or probing.

Online discussions are a different matter. There, the participants often do not know each other; often they hide behind fake names. Aware that their comments may remain on the website forever, they try to be right and to defend what they say. Because this can be extremely time-consuming with little reward, they also try to do it swiftly, without too much thought. Such commenting is different from letter or email correspondence, which is based on mutual regard, including the regard of adversaries. In far too many online discussions, mutual regard is absent. Worse, a great deal of online discussion is about nothing at all, or about a dizzying cascade of topics.

I am glad that I spent years in classrooms with teachers. When online discussions discourage me (and they often do), I remember that there is a different way of discussing things, a different way of handling ideas that are in formation. This has to do with examining and correcting oneself, sharpening one’s language, and finding the right mixture of integrity and openness. It is similar to what George Kateb describes as “self-possession” in Human Dignity:

By that term I mean the awareness of oneself as susceptible to intimidation and mental capture. One must catch oneself if one is not to conform thoughtlessly to codes, customs, and practices; if one is not to yield to the self-imposed tyranny of compliant habit; if one is not to give in to the inevitable pleasures of simplifying ideologies and the agitation of shifting fashions. One’s dignity rests on the ability to resist being too easily ensnared, and to avoid being a target of solicitations. One has to engage in self-examination in order not to succumb to false needs and wants; one must struggle hard and with only a modicum of hope to discover what one truly needs and wants and thus to approach somewhat more closely to being oneself rather than being a poor imitation of oneself and hence an unconscious parody of oneself.

Such self-possession is far removed from self-justification or self-insistence; to catch oneself, one must have guides to one’s own folly. One can find such guides in books, but one also needs their voices and gestures and faces; the nod, the quizzical look, the ability to pick up on thoughts in the room and show where they might go. Physical presence is not a good in itself, but it contributes to the “spirit of liberty” (in Learned Hand’s sense).

This good is too important a gift to give up. If students do not know what a class discussion or lecture is, they may confuse online bickering, or even face-to-face shouting, with true exchange. Many already do.

“They Guided Me in My Sense of What Is Significant”

Thanks to Leon Wieseltier for his splendid column “The Unschooled” (The New Republic, December 31, 2012). He begins boldly:

WHEN I LOOK BACK at my education, I am struck not by how much I learned but by how much I was taught. I am the progeny of teachers; I swoon over teachers. Even what I learned on my own I owed to them, because they guided me in my sense of what is significant. The only form of knowledge that can be adequately acquired without the help of a teacher, and without the humility of a student, is information, which is the lowest form of knowledge. (And in these nightmarishly data-glutted days, the winnowing of information may also require the masterly hand of someone who knows more and better.)

The piece builds from there and speaks for itself. I want to take a little time with these first five sentences.

The very act of teaching has become taboo. A teacher is supposed to “drive” results–or else “empower” the students to initiate their own learning. A teacher who wants to teach something substantial is told, directly or indirectly, “that’s not how it works.” Students, too, are swept up in this credo; they don’t think they have to pay attention unless there’s a palpable payoff. Some regard listening to the teacher as a passive and outdated activity (or, rather, non-activity).

Not all students, educators, and policymakers have fallen for this. Many understand that education requires voluntary and persistent attention, the kind that William Wordsworth and Charles Darwin considered a virtue. In A Choice of Inheritance, David Bromwich describes this kind of attention:

[Darwin] gives attention to objects whose use is as yet inconceivable, and he cannot help exemplifying the value of such attention. As with Wordsworth, it seems to me difficult to do more than connect this with a virtue like patience. One watches an object closely, even when it does not fit an available story, because one trusts that it will matter. The practice is not a wager or a sound investment but the pursuit of a calling.

What if you do not have such a calling? Can anyone push you to exhibit patience that is not there? Can it be created artificially? My answer would be no and yes. Ultimately no one can be forced to take interest in something. On the other hand, attention itself can open up the interest, and impatience can close it off. To listen to a teacher is, at the very least, to consider a possibility. It is a good habit.

I have been impatient at various times in my life. In the first semester of my junior year of college, I plunged into political activity and social service. I thought my classes were remote from the crises and demands of the present. I was taking a fascinating lecture course on the history of the American West, but decided that it didn’t speak to current problems. I stopped doing the work.

Jay Gitlin, the teaching assistant, whom I revered (and who is now a professor and author), approached me in the snack area of the library one day. “You should read these books,” he said. “You will find them interesting. Read Cabeza de Vaca.”

“But–” I tried to explain to him that I was worried about various pressing problems of the moment.

“These books have more to do with your concerns than you may think,” he said. “Just read them and see.”

He was wise and kind, and he let me make my own choices. I chose to do the wrong thing (slip impossibly behind in the class) but knew that I was wrong and appreciated his gesture. I must have recalled this conversation hundreds of times over the years.

Even then, at the nadir of my general patience, I wanted to listen to him, my teacher. I treasured his advice although I didn’t follow it; over time, I treasured it even more. Today I am indebted to him for the understanding that came out of that conversation, which led to the understanding that things may matter in oblique ways, or show their mattering slowly (and that Cabeza de Vaca is well worth reading).

This brings me back to Wieseltier’s words: “Even what I learned on my own I owed to them, because they guided me in my sense of what is significant.”

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.