To her fair works did Nature link
The human soul that through me ran;
And much it grieved my heart to think
What man has made of man.
from Wordsworth’s Lines Written in Early Spring
The two things that stuck out most to me from reading Aristotle’s Rhetoric and Isocrates’ “Against the Sophists” and “Antidosis”: (1) the role of style v. something deeper when it comes to rhetoric and (2) the role of “nature” and the link between speaking well and having a good character.
When reading Gorgias and about Gorgias last week, we discussed the value of style, like the role of meter and the poetic quality of language and how this can almost bowl over an audience. In English, I often come back to Swinburne and Tennyson: for me, regardless of whatever content lies in the poems, a certain musicality permeates their language. The ending of Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” for example, has always stuck out to me for its elegance, despite being a (dangerous) poem about imperialism:
“. . . and tho’We are not now that strength which in old daysMoved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;One equal temper of heroic hearts,Made weak by time and fate, but strong in willTo strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
all wise men, I believe, will agree with me, that many, studious of philosophy, have led a private life; but that some others, tho’ they never were the scholars of sophists, were skilled both in eloquence and governing the state; for the faculty of eloquence, and all other ingenuity, is innate in men, and is the portion of such as are exercised by use and experience.
Let no one think, that I imagine justice can be taught; for I do not think there is any such art which can teach those who are not disposed by nature, either temperance or justice; tho’ I think the study of popular eloquence helps both to acquire and practice it.
Look around you. At any given moment, “beings” encircle us from all sides. I’m using a computer on a table, while sitting on chair. Nearby, some window blinds murmur a restless patter and s kettle hisses and whines. Outside, the stirring, purring, scratching, sniffing scuttle of nature persists indefinitely. Indeed, we are not alone.
On the one hand, this is pretty obvious. Humans have always had “tools” or “technology,” and we’ve always been in the environment. But at a deeper level, this intimacy with other beings implies a kinship. Particularly in contemporary culture, people constantly interact with and through technology, like cell phones, buses, radios, computers, or televisions. Doing so, we express our humanity in and through technology, and this technology has an important role in how that occurs.
In other words, humans do not express what we often call “humanity” in a vacuum. To compose the great texts of history, Shakespeare, Beethoven, Sappho, and Sun Tzu needed technology. They needed ink or stylus, paper or tablet. And these texts always grew out of a place. The tablets of Mesopotamia needed the clay of the Fertile Crescent. The cave sketches of Lascaux needed the water and pigment–along with the cave wall.
This is what the scholar Thomas Rickert is getting at, to some extent, with the notion of “ambiance”: we grow out of stuff, express with stuff, “are” through stuff and space. As Carl Sagan said, “We’re made of star stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.” Humans may like to center the world around our own being, but we are intimately part of the nonhuman, “spoken” in a sense by our environment and the objects and nonhuman beings that compose it.
Once again, other projects have consumed my weekend. Perhaps, I’ll try to find time in the midst of the week to write, so this doesn’t happen again. In the meantime, here is a link to a beautiful poem by Wordsworth and a picture I took in my own travels around his home in the Lake District, one of my favorite places in the world. Enjoy.
For a while now I’ve been wanting to write an essay about end tables, coat pockets, bag bottoms, and storage cabinets. We often forget these clutter-gathering crevices of our individual lives, until we fish through an old coat and pull out receipts, candy bar wrappers, and a dollar or two tangled with some coins. These seemingly random articles, disused and long-forgotten, once played a role. We bought something, earning that receipt. We ate that candy bar and couldn’t find a trash can. We pocketed that loose change.
Such odds and ends reveal our former lives, providing a time stamp for our days and habits, whether they are the books and jewelry on our end tables, the unused casserole dishes in our cabinets, or the grit and at the bottom of our bags. Our past selves leave traces. And just as archaeologists dig through the rubbish of past cities, we can dig through our own lives.
But unlike archaeologists, we don’t normally care about these random bits of rubbish. We crave the big picture–the narrative that collects the pieces, not the pieces themselves. Perhaps a few things transcend this bias, like a stone from our childhood house, a ticket stub from a memorable movie, or that framed first dollar a business might display. We infuse these random pieces of existence with meaning and display them, like a museum of our lives.
But in themselves, they are mere physical objects. That dollar passed trough hundreds of indifferent hands before it fell behind that frame. Its “it-narrative” probably included stints buried in coat pockets or lost in the wrappers and rubbish on the bottom of a bag. Maybe it fell behind a bed. Maybe it went from a lemonade stand to a store clerk to a strip club. That dollar connects us to hundreds of other lives–including our past selves–but its average everydayness camouflages it.
I found my summers yesterday, in the fall, the whole of them blue-sky bound and strewn with wind. The oak and maple leaves weaved paths like a wandering needle as they settled to the ground, sun-curled and scattered. Meanwhile, the afternoon light shimmered in the shaking leaves like a mirage or a whispered poem.
Legs folded, I sat on a red Adirondack chair, looking at the backyard where I grew up. A few things were different. The white picket fence wasn’t there anymore. My brother and his friends had taken sledge hammers to it some hot day years ago, celebrated with beer, and piled up the boards like felled trees. A wire fence replaced it, rattling in the wind and squaring off the yard like the lines on a chess board.
My grandfather’s old table was gone too. It was old when I was a kid, gray like the weather had bleached the life out of it, while lichen and moss filled the cracks. I used to poke my finger through knotholes and wiggle it, like a worm, legs swinging too high to touch the flagstone patio where the table rested. I don’t know where that went. Maybe firewood. Maybe the soil behind the stand of hemlocks in the back.
There, on that old table, my neighbor and I built planes with computer paper from my dad’s old Macintosh. That’s gone too, or maybe buried somewhere in a dim corner of the basement, beneath rusted wrenches and coffee cans of old nails. Those days, before the wire fences went up, my neighbor would cut through our backyards and knock on our back door. We rarely called. I’d see him on our back step, his hair like a pile of feathers cemented under a baseball cap, and I’d steal the paper.
For the whole summer day, we’d sit out at that table, folding, and cutting, and throwing our planes when the wind blew. Sometimes they weaved, crashed, and tumbled on the ground like drunk pigeons. And other times, the wind caught the frail wings of our creations and carried them up into the blue, blue sky like birds chasing the sun, and we forgot that there were boundaries, forgot that there were fences and time limits.
Yesterday, sitting on that red chair, I found that joy again. I could see the table, the paper, and my neighbor folding planes beside me. Memories pooled in a puddle that never dried up. The images had a deep resonance, like the memory had bounced back from some distant place, bringing echoes as it returned. Time dissolved.
Then, the moment passed, as a gust brought a branch full of yellow leaves sailing down like a dozen paper planes, all weaving, and diving, and settling. I locked back into time again, like a wanderer suddenly brought back to the path.
I’ve been adjusting this past week to life back at school as I get my masters in English. That said, I’ve been a bit too disoriented to write a solid post. Although I’ve had some ideas and halting drafts, nothing coalesced.
I’ll try my best to post something this coming Sunday. In the meantime, here’s a compilation of the Sagan series, nine well-crafted videos using audio from the cosmologist Carl Sagan who died in ’96. The creators wanted to inspire science literacy, a lifelong crusade for Sagan.
You may not agree with everything Sagan says, but the videos offer a pointed perspective. One of the top-rated comments puts it well, I think: “Just like any teenager I love sleep but recently I have begun waking up half an hour earlier everyday to watch this video. It keeps my dreams alive for just a little longer before going about my day. . .”
A friend recently mentioned in a message to me that she doesn’t mind spending time alone anymore. As she put it, “I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t feel like I’m a loser when I’m alone.” She even described a moment walking home in the rain alone without a raincoat or umbrella.
“People driving by probably thought I was miserable, but I just smiled the entire time like I had a big secret that I couldn’t tell anyone,” she wrote. “The rain was so refreshing.”
I suppose the millennial generation feels particularly pressured to avoid “being alone.” We’re increasingly connected with cell phones and social networks. A “lonely person” conjures images of a Friday-night recluse in a concrete room with cold fluorescent lights pouring down on a clammy floor strewn with old magazines. Meanwhile, everyone he knows–even the smelly kid with the sketchy sweatshirt who sat near him on the bus in third grade–is at some party with Aziz Ansari and David Tennent, having a great time. FOMO, it’s called: “fear of missing out”
We fear being alone because we fear loneliness: the sense of exclusion, the shame, the boredom. But you don’t have to be alone to feel alone. It can hit anywhere, even at a party.
And sometimes being alone doesn’t mean you feel lonely. As my friend realized, being alone can be empowering. Even fun. As theologian Paul Tillich notes in The Eternal Now, “Our language has wisely sensed these two sides of man’s being alone. It has created the word ‘loneliness’ to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word ‘solitude’ to express the glory of being alone.“
But what’s the difference?
In light of the recent photograph from the Cassini spacecraft, I think Mr. Sagan’s words are especially relevant. But for me, they are always relevant. Enjoy.
I take my notebook, slide up on a weathered log, and look. The sunlight rising and
falling on the river resonates, and a fisherman inches into the water. Running his fingertips along the bill of a stained, weather-beaten baseball cap, he adjusts it. I watch him hold his line above the water with the natural, unconscious care of a mother, peering into the river.
He juggles the line, grips the pole, and catapults the lure out like a lasso, letting it sail skyward and plop in the stream. As it flashes in the sun, being tugged and buoyed by the current, the fisherman reels it in, gathering it up and casting again.
As the quaking aspens shiver in the cold wind and golden air, the sun continues to set. Hills guard the horizon, motionless blinds to the sun’s retreat. The clouds slow their silent shuffling. Nature stills. I cross my legs and wait, resting on the log.
Hearing the husky rhapsody of geese, I look up. A flock rolls over against the clouds and flies toward the silhouetted hills, over the fisherman’s head.
The sun sinks lower and lower, and I shiver like the aspens. The heat evaporates in a warm poem of lush reds and oranges. The tongues on the river cease to sway with the current; the glints against the water cease to blind. The geese calls become eclipsed by distance, and the squirrels nestle into their nooks for the night. Reeling in the bobber, the hook, and the spider-thread line, the fisherman holds the rod a bit and sighs.
Winking over the mountains, the sun vanishes, leaving the residue of its brilliance lingering like a faded photograph. Its fiery hues subside into shades of purple and of blue.
The fisherman comes to life and takes a final cast. In time, he reels it in, wades out onto the rocky riverbank, and leaves without his catch. Closing my notebook in the sinking twilight, I leave with mine.