Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The Order of St. John’s

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When I think back on my personal experience with the great books, as I did here the other day, I have to start with the six weeks that I spent as a high school junior at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland. As I’ve discussed in greater detail before, I had applied to the Telluride Associate Summer Program on the advice of my guidance counselor. It was an impulsive decision, but I was accepted, and I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to call it one of the three or four most significant turning points in my entire life. I was more than primed for a program like this—I had just bought my own set of the Great Books of the Western World at a church book sale—and I left with my head full of the values embodied by the college, which still structures its curriculum around a similar notion of the Western Canon. Throughout the summer, I attended seminars with seventeen other bright teenagers, and as we worked our way from Plato’s Cratylus through Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, it all seemed somehow normal. I more or less assumed that this was how college would be, which wasn’t entirely true, although I did my best to replicate the experience. Looking back, in fact, I suspect that my time at St. John’s was more responsible than any other factor for allowing me to attend the college of my choice, and it certainly played a role in my decision to major in classics. But it’s only now that I can fully appreciate how much privilege went into each stage in that process. It came down to a series of choices, which I was able to make freely, and while I don’t think I always acted correctly, I’m amazed at how lucky I was, and how the elements of a liberal education itself managed to obscure that crucial point.

I’ve been thinking about this recently because of an article by Frank Bruni in the New York Times, who paid a visit to the sister campus of St. John’s College in Santa Fe. He opens with a description that certainly would have appealed to my adolescent self, although probably not to most other teenagers:

Have I got a college for you. For your first two years, your regimen includes ancient Greek. And I do mean Greek, the language, not Greece, the civilization, though you’ll also hang with Aristotle, Aeschylus, Thucydides and the rest of the gang. There’s no choice in the matter. There’s little choice, period…You have no major, only “the program,” an exploration of the Western canon that was implemented in 1937 and has barely changed…It’s an increasingly exotic and important holdout against so many developments in higher education—the stress on vocational training, the treatment of students as fickle consumers, the elevation of individualism over a shared heritage—that have gone too far. It’s a necessary tug back in the other direction.

More than twenty years after I spent the summer there, the basic pitch for the college doesn’t seem to have changed. Its fans still draw a pointed comparison between the curriculum at St. John’s and the supposedly more “consumerist” approach of most undergraduate programs, and it tends to define itself in sharp contrast to the touchy-feely world around it. “Let your collegiate peers elsewhere design their own majors and frolic with Kerouac,” Bruni writes. “For you it’s Kant.”

Yet it isn’t hard to turn this argument on its head, or to recognize that there’s a real sense in which St. John’s might be one of the most individualistic and consumerist colleges in the entire country. (The article itself is headlined “The Most Contrarian College in America,” while Bruni writes that he was drawn to it “out of respect for its orneriness.” And a school for ornery contrarians sounds pretty individualistic to me.) We can start with the obvious point that “the stress on vocational training” at other colleges is the result of economic anxiety at a time of rising tuitions and crippling student loans. There’s tremendous pressure to turn students away from the humanities, and it isn’t completely unjustified. The ability to major in classics or philosophy reflects a kind of privilege in itself, at least in the form of the absence of some of those pressures, and it isn’t always about money. For better or worse, reading the great books is just about the most individualistic gesture imaginable, and its supposed benefits—what the dean of the Santa Fe campus characterizes as the creation of “a more thoughtful, reflective, self-possessed and authentic citizen, lover, partner, parent and member of the global economy”—are obsessively focused on the self. The students at St. John’s may not have the chance to shop around for classes once they get there, but they made a vastly more important choice as a consumer long before they even arrived. A choice of college amounts to a lot of things, but it’s certainly an act with financial consequences. In many cases, it’s the largest purchase that any of us will ever make. The option of spending one’s college years reading Hobbes and Spinoza at considerable cost doesn’t even factor into the practical or economic universe of most families, and it would be ridiculous to claim otherwise.

In other words, every student at St. John’s exercised his or her power in the academic marketplace when it mattered most. By comparison, the ability to tailor one’s class schedule seems like a fairly minor form of consumerism—which doesn’t detract from the quality of the product, which is excellent, as it should be at such prices. (Bruni notes approvingly that the college recently cut its annual tuition from $52,000 to $35,000, which I applaud, although it doesn’t change my underlying point.) But it’s difficult to separate the value of such an education from the existing qualities required for a high schooler to choose it in the first place. It’s hard for me to imagine a freshman at St. John’s who wasn’t intelligent, motivated, and individualistic, none of which would suffer from four years of immersion in the classics. They’re already lucky, which is a lesson that the great books won’t teach on their own. The Great Conversation tends to take place within a circle of authors who have been chosen for their resemblance to one another, or for how well they fit into a cultural narrative imposed on them after the fact, as Robert Maynard Hutchins writes in the introduction to Great Books of the Western World: “The set is almost self-selected, in the sense that one book leads to another, amplifying, modifying, or contradicting it.” And that’s fine. But it means that you rarely see these authors marveling over their own special status, which they take for granted. For a canon that consists entirely of books written by white men, there’s remarkably little discussion of privilege, because they live in it like fish in water—which is as good an argument for diversity as any I can imagine. The students at St. John’s may ask these hard questions about themselves, but if they do, it’s despite what they read, not because of it. Believe me, I should know.

Written by nevalalee

September 20, 2018 at 9:02 am

Quote of the Day

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In the last few years, I have tried to use the world as a can opener. I have tried to let the sounds, shapes and attitudes of different parts of the world play on the actor’s organism, in the way that a great role enables him to go beyond his apparent possibilities…If we know where to look we can find it at once, in a stick, a cardboard box, in a broom or a pack of cards.

Peter Brook, The Shifting Point

Written by nevalalee

September 20, 2018 at 7:30 am

The chance operation

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If you were looking for insights into leading the life of an artist at a time of political turmoil, it would be hard to find a more intriguing example than Judith Malina, who spent five decades wrestling with the problem in public as the head of the Living Theatre. Beginning in the early fifties, Malina and her husband, Julian Beck, staged a series of shows in New York and Paris that appear to have been equal parts innovative, radical, and unbearable. In 1952, for example, their production of Paul Goodman’s Faustina seems to have strained the audience’s patience to the breaking point. As Erika Munk writes in a chapter of the book Restaging the Sixties:

Goodman—a great influence as anarchist thinker, Malina’s therapist, and gay-but-married exemplar to Beck—wanted theater that provoked: “Either the audience is terribly offended…or in two hours the play effects a character-change in the audience, more than all the manifestoes can accomplish.” At the end of Faustina, which concerned Rome in the time of Marcus Aurelius, the actor playing the title character was supposed to address the spectators directly, telling them they were responsible for its murderous climax because they didn’t leap onstage and stop the action. The actor playing Faustina refused to address the audience, and Malina took her place. They still didn’t leap.

Munk concludes: “Faustina was a disaster. No surprise, when sophisticated playgoers were asked to feel real guilty for not taking steps to stop a purely fictive crime.” And I can’t say that I especially wish that I had been in the audience that night.

Yet I also respect Malina’s lifelong obsession with exploring the relationship between society and art, which she expressed in the only way that she could—by forcibly transferring it to the actors and the audience. In the program notes, she wrote: “We are the creators in an art where every night hundreds of people are ignored, a pretense is made that they do not exist; and then we wonder that the actor has grown apart from society; and then we wonder that the art itself staggers lamely behind its hope of being part of life.” Her tentative solution was to explicitly acknowledge the audience’s presence, which led to a stark contradiction in itself. She was still imposing her will on the spectators, not to mention her reluctant actors, and her response was elegant, if not entirely convincing:

The play is a ritual. Any play is a ritual, but in this play the ritual is overt and we speak out about it with real brazenness…The I Ching says, “It is the Creative that begets things but they are brought to birth by the receptive.” And it says of me further, “The person in question is not in an independent position, but is acting as an assistant. This means that he must achieve something.” I consulted this book of ancient Chinese oracle not only for myself but for my audience. To allow ourselves to be led, all of us assistants in the ritual, which hasn’t any power, but from which power is derived. The play does not take place in pagan Rome. Believe me, believe me that it takes place in the theatre. In this theatre and tonight.

In other words, the play itself was in control, and both the performers and the audience had to surrender to its logic in order to achieve a deeper form of liberation.

It’s also revealing that Malina turned to the I Ching, which is the ideal vehicle for this kind of process. A year earlier, Malina and Beck had served as performers—or “operators”—at the debut of Imaginary Landscape No. 4 by their friend John Cage, which was presented by randomly changing the station and volume on twenty-four radios according to the instructions derived from the oracle. For Cage, these mechanisms were intended to serve as a means of surrendering control, as he explained in a passage that I quoted here a few months ago:

Chance operations are not mysterious sources of “the right answers.” They are a means of locating a single one among a multiplicity of answers, and, at the same time, of freeing the ego from its taste and memory, its concerns for profit and power, of silencing the ego so that the rest of the world has a chance to enter into the ego’s own experience, whether that be outside or inside.

And Cage expressly saw the use of chance operations as an artistic reaction against political dogmatism and oppression. Elsewhere in the same talk, “Lecture on the Weather,” he explains: “Now our government thinks of us also as the policemen of the world…The desire for the best and the most effective in connection with the highest profits and the greatest power led to the fall of nations before us: Rome, Britain, Hitler’s Germany. Those were not chance operations. We would do well to give up the notion that we alone can keep the world in line, that only we can solve its problems.”

And out of all forms of divination, the I Ching might be the best one to use when enacting the relationship between the individual and authority, precisely because its tone is bureaucratic and vaguely dictatorial. As Joseph Needham writes in Science and Civilisation in China:

The Book of Changes was a system for pigeon-holing novelty and then doing nothing more about it. Its universal system of symbolism constituted a stupendous filing-system. It led to a stylization of concepts almost analogous to the stylizations which have in some ages occurred in art forms, and which finally prevented painters from looking at Nature at all…The Book of Changes might almost be said to have constituted an organization for “routing ideas through the right channels to the right departments.”

This rigidity is part of the reason why I’ve never much cared for the I Ching as a creative tool—but if you’re looking to simulate the surrender of agency to an impersonal system of power, it’s perfect. (It probably isn’t an accident that Philip K. Dick turned to the I Ching to make narrative decisions while writing The Man in the High Castle, which imagines an alternate history in which the United States was divided between Germany and Japan after World War II.) And at a moment when issues of authoritarianism seem more urgent then ever, it might be a good time to revisit such tools, which force the artist to abandon the insidious inclination toward control itself. As the priestess says in Faustina: “It’s a lot of shit, but that’s how we do it.”

Quote of the Day

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I conceive theatre as a magical operation or ceremony, and I shall strive to restore to it its primitive ritual character, by contemporary modern means, and as comprehensibly as possible to everyone…I believe it is urgent, for the theatre, to become aware once and for all of what distinguishes it from written literature. However transient it is, theatrical art is based on the use of space, on expression in space, and, speaking strictly, the fixed arts, inscribed in stone, on canvas or on paper, are not necessarily the most valid, nor the most efficacious magically.

Antonin Artaud, in a letter to Comœdia

Written by nevalalee

September 19, 2018 at 7:30 am

Reading the rocks

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“[Our] ignorance of planetary history undermines any claims we may make to modernity,” the geologist Marcia Bjornerud writes in her new book Timefulness: How Thinking Like a Geologist Can Help Save the World. In an excerpt that appeared last week on Nautilus, Bjornerud makes a case for geology as a way of seeing that I find poetic and compelling:

Early in an introductory geology course, one begins to understand that rocks are not nouns but verbs—visible evidence of processes: a volcanic eruption, the accretion of a coral reef, the growth of a mountain belt. Everywhere one looks, rocks bear witness to events that unfolded over long stretches of time. Little by little, over more than two centuries, the local stories told by rocks in all parts of the world have been stitched together into a great global tapestry—the geologic timescale. This “map” of Deep Time represents one of the great intellectual achievements of humanity, arduously constructed by stratigraphers, paleontologists, geochemists, and geochronologists from many cultures and faiths. It is still a work in progress to which details are constantly being added and finer and finer calibrations being made.

This is a lovely passage in itself, but I was equally struck by how it resembles the arguments that are often advanced in defense of the great books. One of that movement’s favorite talking points is the notion of “The Great Conversation,” or the idea that canonical books and authors aren’t dead or antiquated, but engaged in a vital dialogue between themselves and the present. And its defenders frequently make their case in terms much like those that Bjornerud employs. In the book The Great Conversation, which serves as the opening volume of Great Books of the Western World, the educator Robert Maynard Hutchins writes: “This set of books is offered in no antiquarian spirit. We have not seen our task as that of taking tourists on a visit to ancient ruins or to the quaint productions of primitive peoples.” And the justifications presented for the two fields are similar as well. As Bjornerud’s subtitle indicates, she suggests that a greater awareness of geologic timescales can serve as a way for us to address the problems of our own era, while Hutchins uses language that has a contemporary ring:

We are as concerned as anybody else at the headlong plunge into the abyss that Western civilization seems to be taking. We believe that the voices that may recall the West to sanity are those which have taken part in the Great Conversation. We want them to be heard again not because we want to go back to antiquity, or the Middle Ages, or the Renaissance, or the Eighteenth Century. We are quite aware that we do not live in any time but the present, and, distressing as the present is, we would not care to live in any other time if we could.

“We want the voices of the Great Conversation to be heard again because we think they may help us to learn to live better now,” Hutchins concludes. Bjornerud sounds much the same when she speaks on behalf of geology, sounding a dire warning against “temporal illiteracy,” which leads us to ignore our own impact on environmental processes in the present. In both cases, a seemingly static body of knowledge is reimagined as timely and urgent. I’ve spent much of my life in service to this notion, in one way or another, and I badly want to believe it. Yet I sometimes have my doubts. The great books have been central to my thinking for decades, and their proponents tend to praise their role in building cultural and civic awareness, but the truth isn’t quite that simple. As Harold Bloom memorably points out in The Western Canon: “Reading the very best writers—let us say Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Tolstoy—is not going to make us better citizens.” And a few pages later, he makes a case that strikes me as more convincing than anything that Hutchins says:

The silliest way to defend the Western Canon is to insist that it incarnates all of the seven deadly moral virtues that make up our supposed range of normative values and democratic principles. This is palpably untrue…The West’s greatest writers are subversive of all values, both ours and their own…If we read the Western Canon in order to form our social, political, or personal moral values, I firmly believe we will become monsters of selfishness and exploitation. To read in the service of any ideology is not, in my judgment, to read at all.

And while I’m certainly sympathetic to Bjornerud’s argument, I suspect that the same might hold true if we turn to geology for lessons about time. Good science, like great literature, is morally neutral, and we run into trouble when we ask it to stand for anything but itself. (Bjornerud notes in passing that many geologists are employed by petroleum companies, which doesn’t help her case that access to knowledge about the “deep, rich, grand geologic story” of our planet will lead to a better sense of environmental stewardship.) And this line of argument has a way of highlighting a field’s supposed relevance at the moments when it seems most endangered. The humanities have long fought against the possibility, as Bloom dryly puts it, that “our English and other literature departments [will] shrink to the dimensions of our current Classics departments,” and Bjornerud is equally concerned for geology:

Lowly geology has never achieved the glossy prestige of the other sciences. It has no Nobel Prize, no high school Advanced Placement courses, and a public persona that is musty and dull. This of course rankles geologists, but it also has serious consequences for society…The perceived value of a science profoundly influences the funding it receives.

When a field seems threatened, it’s tempting to make it seem urgently necessary. I’ve done plenty of this sort of thing myself, and I hope that it works. In the end, though, I have a feeling that Bjornerud’s “timefulness” has exactly the same practical value as the virtue that Bloom attributes to books, which is priceless enough: “All that the Western Canon can bring one is the proper use of one’s own solitude, that solitude whose final form is one’s confrontation with one’s own mortality.”

Quote of the Day

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There is only one thing that can lure our creative will and draw it to us and that is an attractive aim, a creative objective…The objective is the lure for our emotions. This objective engenders outbursts of desires for the purpose of creative aspiration. It sends inner messages which naturally and logically are expressed in action. The objective gives a pulse to the living being of a role.

Constantin Stanislavski, Creating a Role

Written by nevalalee

September 18, 2018 at 7:30 am

The sin of sitzfleisch

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Yesterday, I was reading the new profile of Mark Zuckerberg by Evan Osnos in The New Yorker when I came across one of my favorite words. It appears in a section about Zuckerberg’s wife, Priscilla Chan, who describes her husband’s reaction to the recent controversies that have swirled around Facebook:

When I asked Chan about how Zuckerberg had responded at home to the criticism of the past two years, she talked to me about Sitzfleisch, the German term for sitting and working for long periods of time. “He’d actually sit so long that he froze up his muscles and injured his hip,” she said.

Until now, the term sitzfleisch, or literally “buttocks,” was perhaps most widely known in chess, in which it evokes the kind of stoic, patient endurance capable of winning games by making one plodding move after another, but you sometimes see it in other contexts as well. Just two weeks ago, Paul Joyce, a lecturer in German at Portsmouth University, was quoted in an article by the BBC: “It’s got a positive sense, [it] positively connotes a sense of endurance, reliability, not just flitting from one place to another, but it is also starting to be questioned as to whether it matches the experience of the modern world.” Which makes it all the more striking to hear it applied to Zuckerberg, whose life’s work has been the systematic construction of an online culture that makes such virtues seem obsolete.

The concept of sitzfleisch is popular among writers—Elizabeth Gilbert has a nice blog post on the subject—but it also has its detractors. A few months ago, I posted a quote from Twilight of the Idols in which Friedrich Nietzsche comes out strongly against the idea. Here’s the full passage, which appears in a section of short maxims and aphorisms:

On ne peut penser et écrire qu’assis (G. Flaubert). Now I’ve got you, you nihilist! Sitting still [sitzfleisch] is precisely the sin against the holy ghost. Only thoughts which come from walking have any value.

The line attributed to Flaubert, which can be translated as “One can think and write only when sitting down,” appears to come from a biographical sketch by Guy de Maupassant. When you read it in context, you can see why it irritated Nietzsche:

From his early infancy, the two distinctive traits of [Flaubert’s] nature were great ingenuousness and a dislike of physical action. All his life he remained ingenuous and sedentary. He could not see any one walking or moving about near him without becoming exasperated; and he would declare in his sharp voice, sonorous and always a little theatrical, that motion was not philosophical. “One can think and write only when seated,” he would say.

On some level, Nietzsche’s attack on sitzfleisch feels like a reaction against his own inescapable habits—he can hardly have written any of his books without the ability to sit in solitude for long periods of time. I’ve noted elsewhere that the creative life has to be conducted both while seated and while engaging in other activities, and that your course of action at any given moment can be guided by whether or not you happen to be sitting down. And it can be hard to strike the right balance. We have to spend time at a desk in order to write, but we often think better by walking, going outside, and pointedly not checking Facebook. In the recent book Nietzsche and Montaigne, the scholar Robert Miner writes:

Both Montaigne and Nietzsche strongly favor mobility over sedentariness. Montaigne is a “sworn enemy” of “assiduity (assiduité)” who goes “mostly on horseback, where my thoughts range most widely.” Nietzsche too finds that “assiduity (Sitzfleisch) is the sin against the Holy Spirit” but favors walking rather than riding. As Dahlkvist observes, Nietzsche may have been inspired by Beethoven’s habit of walking while composing, which he knew about from his reading of Henri Joly’s Psychologie des grand hommes.

That’s possible, but it also reflects the personal experience of any writer, who is often painfully aware of the contradiction of trying to say something about life while spending most of one’s time alone.

And Nietzsche’s choice of words is also revealing. In describing sitzfleisch as a sin against the Holy Ghost, he might have just been looking for a colorful phrase, or making a pun on a “sin of the flesh,” but I suspect that it went deeper. In Catholic dogma, a sin against the Holy Ghost is specifically one of “certain malice,” in which the sinner acts on purpose, repeatedly, and in full knowledge of his or her crime. Nietzsche, who was familiar with Thomas Aquinas, might have been thinking of what the Summa Theologica has to say on the subject:

Augustine, however…says that blasphemy or the sin against the Holy Ghost, is final impenitence when, namely, a man perseveres in mortal sin until death, and that it is not confined to utterance by word of mouth, but extends to words in thought and deed, not to one word only, but to many…Hence they say that when a man sins through weakness, it is a sin “against the Father”; that when he sins through ignorance, it is a sin “against the Son”; and that when he sins through certain malice, i.e. through the very choosing of evil…it is a sin “against the Holy Ghost.”

Sitzfleisch, in short, is the sin of those who should know better. It’s the special province of philosophers, who know exactly how badly they fall short of ordinary human standards, but who have no choice if they intend to publish “not one word only, but many.” Solitary work is unhealthy, even inhuman, but it can hardly be avoided if you want to write Twilight of the Idols. As Nietzsche notes elsewhere in the same book: “To live alone you must be an animal or a god—says Aristotle. He left out the third case: you must be both—a philosopher.”

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