Email exchange between J and P

Friday, September 18 — Thursday, September 24

Who was the person whom you’ve been reading and whose name you mentioned while we were talking today?

Specifically, I was thinking of an essay by Judith Butler, a contemporary philosopher and culture critic, entitled, “Ordinary, Incredulous.”  In the essay she argues for a renewed dialogue concerning the concept of normal.  Her take on the question is ontological, and moves a bit further away from a consideration of what is “normative,” or moral, and closer to a question of the tacit agreements we members of society make in order to control our appreciation of the real and raw world around us. Kafka figures prominently in her vision for how existential reality—the world of the 5 senses—is often unbearable, save for the social agreements we make with others in effort to mitigate the frustrations and agonies of existence.  Perhaps in this way she echoes Wordsworth when he wrote, “The world is too much with us; late and soon;/ Getting and spending we lay waste our powers;/ Little we see in Nature that is ours…”, but her real thesis takes off from this assumption and reaches into a rational evaluation of the value of the liberal arts.
Her thesis in the essay supports a vigorous education in the humanities which, if successful, she claims teaches students to first appreciate and then evaluate (exercise judgment: ultimately train critical thinkers to achieve ethical and moral comprehension) the world and media through the 5 senses.  It was that point that I brought up, since I perceive there is a conversation to be had concerning the relationship between the humanities and media of the digital age.
I’ll  send you an electronic copy of the essay, so you can read it at your leisure if you so choose.

Thanks. But as for sending me a copy, I did find one on the internet, in Peter Brooks’ collection of essays, The Humanities and Public Life. I don’t have time right now to read it as I’m in the process of reading and writing about a short work of Doris Lessing’s, Prisons We Choose to Live Inside, and I want to finish and move on before taking on something else. But I will read it and respond to her argument in the essay. In regard to the vigorous education in the humanities that you mention you know that I’ve always been in favor of that, as my years at St. John’s and of course the WS make that clear. But at the same time I’ve always been conflicted, not about the importance of the humanities to each and everyone of us, but how they should be introduced to young people. I’m not convinced that the classroom and the college lecture is the best way of doing that. In fact I’m not even convinced that they should be introduced before the, what?, age of reason, before reaching age 21 or more. For me the humanities should be the largest part of the subject matter content of what is called life-long learning. An introduction in school to Shakespeare and Bach and Plato with no follow-up in later years will not have much influence of how people live their lives. As we saw all too well in the 20th. century when Western public school education, perhaps consisting of the Humanities, more than anything else, did nothing to prevent the killing fields of that century. So I am conflicted. In fact I would say that rather than free public education for those under 18 years we ought to have free public education in the humanities for those over 18 (which by the way is a bit what is happening with the internet when I can listen to any number of college lectures and it doesn’t cost me a cent). Closer to home there is the important question to which we don’t yet have the answer, —of the 500 or so WS graduates how many are influenced significantly in their lives by the humanities they were introduced to during their years at Waring? Sometimes I think it’s not an education in the humanities that is the most significant part of the WS program but something else, something some of those kids yesterday at the school meeting were saying, aren’t we most of all creating an atmosphere where kids can be themselves and then grow in line with who they are? And don’t we always have to work at doing this better. And occasionally choose, say, goats and bees rather than Shakespeare and Bach?

Glad you could find an online copy of the Peter Brooks.  That is the collection in which I read the Butler.  I appreciate what you wrote.
In my own teaching, I have taken some thought to these things, largely for selfish reasons: I hate wasting my time and effort.  Spending my life helping to bridge gaps of dialogue and pose challenging questions to students would an utter waste if I was under the false impression that my students are old enough to take on the challenges that are really only managed by humans with completely developed frontal lobes, capable of independent and mature judgment.  But even at 21-27 years old or so, or whenever contemporary neuroscience has pegged the complete development of the human brain, we lack the stuff of experience—even if we are well equipped with sound intellectual education—that creates real wisdom and deep, humane thinking.  Carl Jung, in a wonderful essay on vocation, pins the psychological birth of personality at around 40 years old, or even older.  He suggests that heroism has much to do with the leaving of the herd that happens around that time in life (40+) when the initial choices and adventures in experimentation give way to real ennuis and we wander away at last from what is socially sanctioned into realms of real, bonafide independence (Cain from Genesis, any number of archetypal hero-figures from ancient myth, or Steinbeck’s Sam Hamilton from East of Eden come to mind).  Jung suggests that by answering the call and questions raised by voices (Socrates’ daemon) which one really only hears later in what we now call “mid-life” are we capable of doing heroic deeds that will make us both outcasts and saviors of our time.
For now, I trust that my students are not far different from who I was as a student when I was the age they are now.  And I teach as though I am speaking to myself at their age, but a myself who has the perspective of what I know from the past 25 years or so.  I know that the memory of what they experience in the discussions, the readings, the interactions with others will haunt them for the rest of the lives—because the same thing happened to me, and I can only guess that human nature has a few universals at work which ensure some kind of ability to generalize at a certain level.
More on this later.  Looking forward to hearing what you have to say about Doris Lessing,

Sometimes you’ll get a quick reply from me because I know from experience that what I would say in that quick reply would quickly fall into oblivion as I proceeded to forget what it was that was on my mind. So a quick reply. Not substantive, not yet substantive to the substance of your mail.
A question: do you have a copy of Jung’s essay on vocation. I’d like to have one if you do.
A comment: I met Karl Jung at his invitation following a letter from me, at his home in Küsnacht, Switzerland, just about one year before he died in June of 1961. He welcomed me with a big smile. He was a very simple man in his manner. He was alone, except for a woman who was perhaps caring for him after the death of his wife. I was learning German at the time, but I quickly abandoned my German and we talked in English, his English being pretty fluent, and my German being pretty unfluent. My memory tells that he lived in a small kind of isolated house, almost a cabin not in the woods but distant from the main road and had to walk up a stony path through fields to his house, at least that’s what I remember after some 55 years. I was greeted and invited in and the two of us sat about a table and drank coffee, and he talked. I remember he talked about the circus and elephants. I remember that he liked elephants, but most of what he said was beyond my own experience of life and I couldn’t really have a real conversation (the sort of thing you were saying about being ready, well I wasn’t), and I mostly listened. Afterwards I didn’t even try to write down some notes about the visit and about what he said. Oh, Youth, as Conrad would say, we do miss opportunities.
A response: You say you knew how you were as a student at the age of your students now. I find that amazing. I have no idea, or very little idea about who I was then, or at least about what I was reading, thinking, discussing at the time. As for being ready I wasn’t. Did it happen to me around 40+? I’ll have to think about that. My quick answer to that is that it’s happening all the time, it’s never over except when it’s all over, but it does seem to happen more, your foot on the accelerator so to speak, at certain times more than at others. As a teen hardly at all, my foot on the brake? As an 80 year old all the time and yes, accelerating.

Thanks for the reply. —I would like to take up the subject of youth and wonder, and share more stories of the amazing experiences of which youth makes nothing and for the repetition or recollection of which age would give almost anything.  I’ve attached the Jung excerpt to this e-mail.
Bon weekend,

I’m attaching to this email the first four pages of Judith Butler’s 
Ordinary, Incredulous. Now why would I do that? Because I don’t really follow what she is trying to say. This sort if thing happens all the time in math and physics, when I’m just not smart enough to grasp everything. Is this what’s happening now in the Humanities and with Judith B., as well as with, I guess, Peter Brooks’ writers when much of which I read therein is impenetrable. Granted I have only skimmed the book, not read it carefully, so it is possible that if I had I would feel differently. And I do understand where these writers in Brooks’ collection are coming from. The Humanities are losing the battle with the STEM or “instrumental” subject matters for kids’ (and educators’) minds, let alone a respected place in the public sphere. And they need to be defended, and these writers would do that.

But the language they use in this collection is not going to ever reach the public, let alone be understood by the public, or by anyone else except people like themselves. If the Humanities are down now, they won’t come back up unless these people stop using a jargon filled language to publicize their probably good ideas. 

I’ll show you what I mean by a few examples from the first four pages I’ve attached below.

When Judith Butler says– “the public sphere, public life.” I’d have a devil of a time trying to define the public sphere or public life to my or to anyone’s satisfaction. And she doesn’t help me. Do you know what these terms mean? Doesn’t there have to be a general agreement on the meaning of these fundamental terms, and others, of her argument? So for me, I’m left with not knowing what she means by the “public sphere.” Do you? Yet she would speak of the “link” between the two, between the humanities and the public sphere. Do you know what that link is?

Then a bit later she writes: “We need to discern what is happening in that sphere called public, to attempt to establish events and their meanings, to evaluate what we think is going on, and even to formulate modes of engagement when they are required. Can any of this happen without the capacity to read texts and images, to understand how our world is formed, and to ask what forms we want for our world, and to give reasons for preferring those forms?…”

Well she loses me here. It’s all much too abstract for me. What “events and meanings”? If she had given some examples… And then just as impossible for me these words: “to understand how our world is formed, and to ask what forms we want for our world,”  What does she mean by “our world”? Does she ever say? In my thinking there is no single “our world,” just as there is no single public sphere. You know what I think, and in part this was the reason I left my graduate studies in literature at Columbia in 1963 to take a teaching job at St. John’s College in Annapolis. I wanted to read the books, no longer talk about them, and St. Johns was all about reading (Judith does make a big thing about the importance of reading, but in a book about the Humanities and Public Life she ought to have talked about perhaps what she meant by the Humanities and why they were valuable, not about a incomprehensible link between them and public life (whatever that is). She does say a bit later: “that the public sphere has no permanently established borders.” What does that mean? Again, what is the public sphere. You know, until she can say what it is, how can she ever know how the public sphere has been constituted, through what media and idioms, etc… 

Josh, I probably shouldn’t have written this mail. But I don’t think that books such as Ordinary, Incredulous are going to do anything at all to restore the proper and yes valid place of the humanities in our, what, “public life.” Do you know my opinion, it’s that the musical, art, and literary works themselves are by far the best defense of the humanities. How to increase the place of them in the lives of children growing up, and in the lives of adults? That’s a worthwhile endeavor. That’s what I see you doing at the WS.

So glad to hear from you.  Of course, the Butler essay doesn’t compare to what, in my experience, we rely upon as meaningful scholarship at WS.  This fact is merely substantiated by your understandable revulsion at the theoretical acrobatics performed by Butler and the other voices Peter Brooks collects from the ivory towers everywhere across the country.  From my perspective, and in this I think we concur, the absence of personal and existential application is what gives such scholarly abstraction its metallic or plasticine or nothing flavor.  All this lack of definition and a glaring absence of what could be made personally compelling is ironic, as you mention in your note, because we who are concerned with the humanities ought to very much be concerned with what is beautiful and true (remember the conversation you and I shared several years ago?  It took up the subject of the beautiful and true…) and our study should take advantage of every opportunity at every level to explore these: from the reading of good (great!) books in beautiful places to the beautiful discussion thereof and, ultimately, the creative application of what we learn.

    So, despite the fact that Peter Brooks’ candidates for his Yale symposium were ostensibly gathered for a tribute to how the humanities can crawl out of academic obscurity and into public relevance, they seem to have proved the exact opposite.  It’s not a long leap from this observation to a cry of, ‘Viva la petite école,’ since I’m pretty sure you meant the experience to provide a real encounter with what Brooks’ coterie of academics wish they could feel, but alas, have perhaps never even imagined.  Greater irony lies in the fact that I found Butler’s discussion of the importance and centrality of the 5 senses to the study of the humanities so inspirational.  “Do I contradict myself?  Very well then: I am vast, I contain multitudes…” says Whitman.  He was a mighty fine student of humanity….

    They miss the Thoreauvian element from the American tradition of how the public and private intersect when an individual goes to the woods to be alone and read and write, and they miss the way the ancient epics support the intersection of the private and public in events such as the meeting between Achilles and Priam, and they miss the way the medieval mystery plays and, later, Shakespeare initiate great regard for the ribald and rowdy: a regard that survives the Enlightenment and perpetuates in a study Moby Dick.  And they miss the effort of Camus, who attempted to craft literature exposing how dear and difficult and dirty is human life when lived in the political tension between personal self and public others (“The Guest” is a great example).

    All this to say: yes, the Butler is esoteric and perhaps could be powerful in ways it is not.  She does continue past the first four pages to exemplify what she means by “public,” which is where she takes up the Kafka.  But getting there, and in her articulation of the subject, she loses a great deal of humanity.  Which of course I understand to be offensive in others ways than intellectual.

    I think the Jung reading I mentioned to you is a significant antidote to the depressive qualities of the academic esoterica you find so repugnant.  And, for me, I found in his championing of the voices within us a great deal of encouragement to buck the culture of the ivory tower, and build humble huts (such as the one, perhaps, where you found Jung himself in 1961) like the one at Walden Pond in 1848 in which deep and meaningful exploration of nature both within and without ourselves may be explored in freedom and truth.
 As usual, more on these things anon,

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