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Tocqueville's Abstract Language

July 20, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

In Democracy in America, Tocqueville warns that abstract language is like “a box with a false bottom; you may put in what ideas you please and take them out again unobserved” (258). Since I often study poetry and think about how metaphor affects us on every level, from personal and familial to political and global, I wanted to unpack this idea of Tocqueville’s. What is the warning and to whom is it directed? This quote comes from Volume II, Part I in which Tocqueville deals with the “Influence of Democracy on the Intellectual Movements in the United States”. The first chapters of this Volume discuss theater, art, and poetry as they intersect with taste, style, culture, politics and education. He continues, “The abundance of abstract terms in the language of democracy, used the whole time without reference to any particular facts, both widens the scope of thought and clouds it.” (258) I find it ironic that in describing a frustration with the opacity of language, Tocqueville resorts to the metaphor of clouds. Clearly, some situations warrant metaphor while in others, metaphor detracts from meaning.

Since Tocqueville often discusses equality throughout Democracy in America, he uses that term as an example of what he means by abstract language. He writes, “I have often used the word ‘equality’ in an absolute sense, and several times have even personified it, so that I have found myself saying that equality did certain things or abstained from others. Frenchmen in the reign of Louis XIV would never have spoken in that way; it would never have entered the head of any of them to use the word ‘equality’ without applying it to some particular thing, and they would have preferred not to use the word at all rather than turn it into a living being.” (258) In other words, “equality” models the way that language changes. Tocqueville attempts, throughout a number of chapters, to elucidate this term, but he never clearly defines equality. Previous generations could not have done this and still made sense. So, it seems that over time some terms gather enough general meaning as to no longer require specific identifiers. Is this a good or bad thing for language? Does it “cloud” language?

The answer is, of course, not as simple as we would like. According to Tocqueville himself, clouded language is a negative. Yet, he continues to use a poorly defined term such as equality for a large part of his argument. It is only on page 258 (out of 383) that he explains how difficult it is to define abstract language. And yet, his treatise delivers impressive insight about equality itself, which leads me to believe that abstract language, when handled appropriately, can be made useful. Therefore, I would argue that the danger inherent in language is also a part of its strength. More specifically, the ability for a term to stretch, encompass, change and grow can be both a positive or a negative dependent upon its usage. I love that idea, but to be honest, that leaves the audience with a lot of work to do.

In the chapter on “Language” from the Syntopicon, Adler states that “[t]he ideal of a perfect and universal language seems to arise in modern times from dissatisfaction with the inadequacy of ordinary language for the analytic refinement and precision of mathematics or science.” (728B) I can see both sides of this argument. While I agree that we struggle to find language adequate and fitting for quickly evolving technologies, I do not believe that most of our contemporary problems stem from this issue. Rather, more in tune with Tocqueville’s example, words accrue meanings which render them somewhat useless. I like to use the example of green: what began as a color now refers to anything from good gardening skills to novices and environmentalists. The danger that Tocqueville warns of, however, is more appropriately constrained to terms like “equality” which make an impressive sound-bite, but convey little meaning. In other words, metaphor is not the problem, per se, but rather its overuse.

Reading the chapter on “Language” makes me wonder how well we understand types of language. Where is the divide between poetic language, everyday speech, political rhetoric, and workplace memorandums, for example? What, precisely, constitutes clear language in each of these scenarios? It seems obvious that unclear terms damage important conversations, but the parameters of useful language are less clear. For example, when Shakespeare has Mark Antony claim that “they spaniel’d me at my heels,” he certainly does not literally mean dogs. Rather the opposing ships pursued him as hunting dogs pursue their prey. The metaphor surprises the reader by condensing image and action. The use of a noun in the place of a verb helps the audience feel Antony’s fear, surprise and frustration. Shakespeare is masterful at such speech, and perhaps set the tone for much poetic writing. (For more in this vein, listen to Seth Lerer’s Great Course on the History of English Language.) And while this term works well in Shakespeare’s play, what happens when we rely upon metaphor for everything? In my view, the ways in which we define and use language are of tantamount importance and deserve just a little bit more care.

To encapsulate my point, Adler writes:

“Without judging the fundamental issues involved concerning the nature of things and of man and his mind, one point seems to be clear. According as men hold different conceptions of the relation of language to thought (and in consequence assume different attitudes toward the imperfections or misuse of language), they inevitably take opposite sides on these issues. Whether the discipline of language is called semantics or the liberal arts, the standards by which one man criticizes the language of another seem to depend upon what he holds to be true.

“The present work on the great ideas aims, in part, to record the agreements and disagreements among the great minds of the western tradition. It also records how those minds have used the same word in different senses or have used quite distinct words for the same thing. It could not do either unless it did both. This indicates the basic relationship between language and thought which the great books exemplify, even when they do not explicitly make it the basis of their discussion of the relation between language and thought.” (728)

If you are interested in politics, rhetoric, man, nature, culture, or scripture, it might be worth spending a few moments with “Language.”

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How to Cook a Wolf

June 15, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

“A wise man always eats well.” - Chinese proverb

MFK Fisher (a friend and contemporary of Julia Child) first published How to Cook a Wolf in 1942 in the midst of World War II. The book deals with domestic stresses during war time, especially those related to food rations. The essays deal with economic purchasing and energy savings, but also how to enjoy what little you have. Throughout the book, she talks about wisdom and joy and satisfaction. Each chapter is sprinkled with nostalgia, stories and recipes. The fascinating portion of this book, for me, is the way in which she writes about the interaction of food with taste, culture, habit, and perhaps, even love. Since times of war make it impossible to adhere to many of the structures of peace time, it is easy to abandon decency. For Fisher, the temptation to give up is strong, something she refers to as the “wolf” at the door. Instead of giving into depression, despair and frustration, she asks that we cast aside the wolf by staring him straight in the eye and enjoy what we have. Food, she claims, is one of our greatest traditions and that simple fact should never be forgotten. In fact, she recalls reading recipes as if they were pieces of classical literature or oral traditions handed down with pride and artifice.

What follows are a number of quotes from Fisher’s book on the ways in which foods make us feel good, whole, satisfied or comforted. The book comes at a time following great sacrifice and sadness as a whole country. Fisher claims that even in times of war, “since we must eat to live, we might as well do it with both grace and gusto.” In other words, whether on a tight budget, a dietary constraint or simply making a family meal, choose the foods wisely and enjoy it well. She would ask that we take pride in what and how we eat. This simple action enables us to maintain a piece of humanity, even in times that cause such great divides.

She writes:

“Close your eyes to the headlines and your ears to the sirens and the threatenings of high explosives, and read instead the sweet nostalgic measures of these recipes, impossible yet fond.”

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“Yes, it is crazy, to sit savoring such impossibilities, while headlines yell at you and the wolf whuffs through the keyhole. Yet now and then it cannot harm you, thus to enjoy a short respite from reality. And if by chance you can indeed find some anchovies, or a thick slice of rare beef and some brandy, or a bowl of pink curled shrimps, you are doubly blessed, to possess in this troubled life both the capacity and the wherewithal to forget it for a time.”

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“Use as many fresh things as you can, always, and then trust to luck and your blackout cupboard and what you have decided, inside yourself, about the dignity of man.”

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She quotes Brillat-Savarin, who wrote, “The destiny of nations depends upon what and how they eat”.

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Fisher elaborates on Brillat-Savarin’s sentiment with an anecdote about Walter Scott. She writes:

“Once when young Walter Scott, who later wrote so many exciting books, was exceptionally hungry and said happily, ‘Oh, what a fine soup! Is it not a fine soup, dear Papa?,’ his father immediately poured a pint of cold water into what was already a pretty thin broth, if the usual family menu was any sample. Mr. Scott did it, he said, to drown the devil.

“For too many nice ordinary little Americans the devil has been drowned, so that all their lives afterwards they what is set before them, without thought, without comment, and, worst of all, without interest. The result is that our cuisine is often expensively repetitive: we eat what and how and when our parents ate, without thought of natural hungers.

“It is not enough to make a child hungry; if he is moderately healthy he will have all the requisites of a normal pig or puppy or plant-aphis, and will eat when he is allowed to, without thought. The important thing, to make him not a pig or puppy, nor even a delicate green insect, is to let him eat from the beginning with thought.

“Let him choose his foods, not what he likes as such, but for what goes with something else, in taste and in texture and in general gastronomic excitement. It is not wicked sensuality, as Walter Scott’s father would have thought, for a little boy to prefer buttered toast with spinach for supper and a cinnamon bun with milk for lunch. It is the beginning of a sensitive and thoughtful system of deliberate choice, which as he grows will grow too, so that increasingly he will be able to choose for himself and to weight values, not only sensual but spiritual.”

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The Double Consciousness of Noir

April 20, 2018

Thanks to Matt Phillips, a 2018 Harrison Middleton University Fellow in Ideas, for today's post.

There is a persistent paradigm in the American experiment: There are those among us who insist on closing their eyes to the truth, those who deny—in lieu of their discomfort—a dedicated hold on reality. More than sixty years ago, in Notes of a Native Son, James Baldwin wrote, “People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster” (148). To fully understand and upend this persistent American paradigm, we must examine the too often ignored disparity between perception and reality. And we must outline and describe this disparity as a physical thing—it is a concept and/or idea, yes, but it is also an object. Noir—as a genre and practice—provides an effective palette for drawing, defining, and collapsing contrasts. And contrast, on its face, is what disparity is—an ill-drawn, and often evil, contrast.

In her noir novel The Expendable Man, Dorothy B. Hughes constructs this disparity—that is to say she gives it physical form—by manipulating character and plot. In the book, a young doctor named Hugh Densmore is driving to Phoenix for a wedding. In the middle of the desert he picks up a young woman, a teenaged hitchhiker. The doctor immediately regrets his decision and begins to feel anxious. Hughes writes, “A chill sense of apprehension came on him and he wished to hell he hadn’t stopped. This could be the initial step in some kind of shakedown, although how, with nothing or no one in sight for unlimited miles, he couldn’t figure” (5). As readers, we may not necessarily understand this apprehension—for some fifty pages we are left wondering for certain why (and how) the doctor can be anxious about a simple act of courtesy. This foreboding anxiety and tension persist until Densmore drops the teen at a bus station (her alias is revealed as Iris Croom). It’s not long before Iris appears again; she bangs on the door at Densmore’s motel and insists he help her. Her problem, as she describes it, is this: “‘I thought my boyfriend would marry me. But he’s already married’” (35). When Densmore insists he can’t help Iris, she says, “‘Yes you can … You’re a doctor’” (36). Of course, Densmore slams the door and sends the girl away, rage and fear now running through him like hot oil. But still, it’s an oddity for some readers when Densmore thinks, “There’d always be a residue of suspicion that the girl’s inventions weren’t all false. How could he prove otherwise? They had traveled together” (36). In what reality does a doctor fear the he-said-she-said machinations of a teenaged girl? And a girl who, she admits herself, is in trouble?

Not long after this episode, Densmore reads a story in the local paper: A teenager has been found dead and, reading between the lines, Densmore knows the woman is the victim of an abortion gone wrong—it turns out the dead girl is Iris Croom. In the subsequent passage, Dorothy Hughes describes the dilemma of an innocent man who knows—who is absolutely certain—that he will be accused of a crime he didn’t commit. Hughes writes, “[T]o flee in panic was not the answer. It was construed always as the act of a man bloodied with guilt, although in fact the innocent man involved beyond his depth might have more reason to run” (44). It’s clear at this juncture that Densmore knows his guilt will be assumed, that he will be called on to prove his innocence. How does one prove innocence? Must one acquire and present evidence? Must one, in the event of proximity to a crime, always be gathering evidence and formulating arguments of innocence?

When two detectives show up to question Densmore, he is immediately intimidated. His anxiety seems to burst out of him; his first question is whether or not the detectives are there to arrest him. During the ensuing interrogation, one of the detectives reveals that a witness saw a black doctor (he does not use so kind a term as ‘black’) driving the teenager into town in his “big white Cadillac” (55). And now we know that Dr. Hugh Densmore is a black man. We also know that the detectives, whether they open their eyes to it or not, are racists. Densmore’s anxiety and apprehension, his fear of the police, and his general doubt in controlling his own narrative become not only understandable, but also inevitable. In the first third of The Expendable Man, Dorothy B. Hughes depicts race as if it were a tablespoon of salt in a glass of ice water—it is present, yet undetectable. Until, of course, one is thirsty and must swig from the glass. For Densmore, this means he understands that racial bias exists within law enforcement, but he has not yet tasted the bitterness of that bias. Once he is connected by a witness to the dead woman, Densmore takes a long swig of that salty water. With his new legal trouble, race is the primary issue. If Densmore does not prove his innocence, race will be the decisive issue. Whatever your race, on page 55 of the book, with one character’s brief comment and description, the disparity that exists between perception and reality is clearly outlined—we all see it, whether black, white, or brown…the disparity between perception and reality is now a plot device. It has become a tool of craftsmanship.

The young doctor’s understanding of his situation is described, in part, by what W.E.B. Du Bois termed double consciousness. In The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois writes: "It is a peculiar sensation, this double consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of the measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity." (2) The young doctor knows the truth of himself, that he simply gave a ride to a young woman who needed one. He also knows the truth of white public perception—he is a black man taking a pretty, young, white woman for a ride. And she ends up dead after enduring a secretive abortion. At the heart of the Densmore’s presumed guilt is the assumption of power and its location. Power, in the society Hughes sketches, resides in the white body, and—by extension—in the white body politic. Of course, The Expendable Man was published in 1963, and is clearly a noir of stunning realism. In a piece about the book for The New Yorker, Christine Smallwood writes, “Difference is defined by oppositions of power, after all—black, white; accuser, accused. Noir provides a language and rhythm for such differences.” Difference, however, has a cousin: disparity. And while it is not so visible as the blatancy of difference, disparity still carries within it myriad oppositions of power. In Densmore, Hughes creates a character at the perceived height of society—a doctor intent on researching cancer—and still he is subject to the basest and most treacherous of assumptions cast by men. As Smallwood puts it, “Densmore is exemplary, but he is still expendable. His guilt precedes him…”

I’d argue further that Dorothy B. Hughes, in her use of double consciousness as a tool of craftsmanship, gives physical form to the unspoken. The Expendable Man is a work about the monstrosity, the depravity, the utter insolvency of ignorance. There can be no true progress in human rights without a shared agreement—between all of us—about what is real. We are here. We exist. Our perceptions vary, and yet the effects of those perceptions do not waver. Perhaps the effects we see (and experience) on a daily basis—we might all agree—are reality. These effects then, as manifested in our daily interactions, are the truth. Our ways of seeing (or not seeing) not only make our world, but can also dismantle and reassemble our world. James Baldwin writes, “[T]ruth, as used here, is meant to imply a devotion to the human being, his freedom and fulfillment; freedom which cannot be legislated, fulfillment which cannot be charted” (10-11). In The Expendable Man, Hugh Densmore escapes his accusations and takes to the highway with his future wife. His life is uncharted beyond the long road from Phoenix to Los Angeles, but it is a life still under observation and accusation by the tired eyes of monsters.

It is now the year 2018 and I wonder whether, to some degree, Dr. Hugh Densmore would still be The Expendable Man?

 

Works Cited

Baldwin, James. Notes of a Native Son. Boston: Beacon Press, 1955. Print.

Du Bois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk. Dover Thrift Editions, 1994. Print.

Hughes, Dorothy B. The Expendable Man. New York: Hudson Review of Books, 2012. Print.

Smallwood, Christine. “The Crime of Blackness: Dorothy B. Hughes’s Forgotten Noir.” www.newyorker.com 15 August 2012. Web.

Pessoa Constructs a Self

September 15, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

“The mind's dignity is to acknowledge that it is limited and that reality is outside it.”

Fernando Pessoa's The Education of the Stoic is a thought-project based on the construct of a fully rational self through the fictional persona of The Baron of Teive. From the beginning, the text unsettles the reader. In a book that attempts to define a self, it is also, ironically, difficult to know the narrator. In the text, the Baron writes short journal entries about random matters. In these 'conversations' he intends to discover what it is like to fully divorce emotion from reason. His journey begins with, “We've been devastated by the severest and deadliest drought in history – that of our profound awareness of the futility of all effort and the vanity of all plans.” This, to me, sounds astonishingly like J. Alfred Prufrock, as if that persona had moved past the moment of indecision and stepped into his futile future. In other words, this narrator is capable, but consumed by his own futility. He accepts his fate. It is also ironic to note that the future is devoid of plans, and yet the next one hundred pages discuss the Baron's plan to kill himself. While the future is admittedly bleak, still, this instance represents the first in a series of half-truths.

The Baron of Teive's mantra is something like, “teach nothing, for you still have everything to learn.” And that kind of attitude is admirable in that it puts one in the open mindset of learning. But it is also debilitating, as we see here, from the standpoint that all the teaching never leads to a satisfactory level of expertise. The Baron wants the ability to act, but never finds it. On the other hand, this short entry also does what it claims not to do: it simultaneously offers a teaching and presents something learned. Instead of taking a rational backseat to life, the Baron is making a point based on his own experience. Another piece of irony: Teive writes from experience, which is a fault he finds in other writers.

He condemns the success or failure of popular poets as further proof of his current dilemma. The Baron writes,

“[H]ad these poets sung directly of their baser troubles (for they are indeed base, however they may be used poetically), had they bared their souls in all their nakedness rather than in padded bathing suits, then the sheer violence of their sorrow's root cause might have yielded some admirable lamentations. This would to a certain extent have eliminated – by bringing everything out in the open – the social ridicule that, rightly or wrongly, attaches to these emotional banalities. If a man is a coward, he can either not talk about it (and this is the wiser course), or he can say point-blank, 'I'm a coward.' In the one case he has the advantage of dignity, in the other the advantage of sincerity; either way he escapes being comical, since in the first case he has said nothing and so there's nothing to discover, for he himself revealed his own cowardice. But the coward who feels the need to prove he isn't one, or to affirm that cowardice is universal, or to confess his weakness in a vague, metaphorical way that reveals nothing but also hides nothing – this man is ridiculous to the general public and irritating to the intelligence. This is the kind of man I see in the pessimistic poets and in all those who raise their private sorrows to the status of universal ones.”

This definitely describes the Baron's conundrum: his rational divorce from emotion leaves him unable to empathize with anything other than reason. To admit that one is a coward is unadvised, and yet, it would seem that his inaction is in part due to cowardice. To make the idea of cowardice desirable is even worse. While this is his judgment of others, the judgment also points a finger at himself (unwittingly or not, the reader is unsure). The Baron of Teive embodies cowardice, inability to act, a lack of connection and hesitation. So, instead of connecting with others based upon this shared territory, he creates a rational approach – that of distance.

The Baron claims that the ordinary is uninteresting and un-literary. While claiming to know something about universality, he remains aloof in individuality. That Teive comes to these conclusions as he nears death is as he would have it. He is orchestrating and narrating his own demise. What better way to meet the self than through its preparation for and encounter with death? Yet, it is a rational approach to death, which leaves the reader with a little less sympathy, empathy or connection to this character. And this, I surmise, is as Pessoa would have it.

In my copy of the book, the translator, Richard Zenith, wrote a few notes about the creation of a self after Pessoa's text. In order to better understand the mindset and narrative presented by Pessoa, Zenith describes the writing of the poem “Kubla Khan” by Coleridge. In this poem, a “man from Porlock” interrupts the stream of writing and inserts himself (like it or not) into the poem's narrative. Coleridge never gained the momentum to fully finish that poem, so the reader is left with a brilliant, unfinished fragment. We are left with questions such as: was there truly a visitor, or did the poet interrupt himself? Is this some extension of a conflict between emotion and reason? Do we, too, often interrupt ourselves? By extending these questions to ourselves, we can better identify with the experience – both of Coleridge's and Pessoa's Teive. Is the reader to understand that the brain might sometimes get in its own way? And if so, what does that even mean?

Fernando Pessoa's text is short and easy to read. It has many noteworthy passages and is well worth the short investment of time. It fits solidly into the Modernist literary tradition, which creates a wealth of comparisons. Feel free to post a comment if you have read it or written about it. We would love to hear from you!

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