One who might chance to pore over my posts may think I’m a big fan of Fleming, a professor at the U.S. Naval Academy, where I once matriculated, back in the Age of Dinosaurs. Well, the fact is, I find the professor’s writing on eclectic subjects pretty darned interesting, and I consider the man intellectually brave, given where he teaches. I always found that environment most conducive to remaining invisible, but then I wasn’t a civilian professor there.
This book of his, The New Tractatus, is pretty much what the title depicts, in that it seems to summarize his former writing on a myriad of subjects. He has drawn his structure for the book from Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, a ground-breaking philosophical tract of the early twentieth century, part of philosophy’s linguistic turn. Wittgenstein was influenced by Bertrand Russell in endeavoring to draw rules for language that disposed of ambiguity. His stab at this lofty goal appeared in a later book, his Philosophical Investigations. The Tractatus seemed instead intent on depicting logic, the baby of British empiricism, as transcendental to all human concerns, hence beside the point. But then we were talking about Fleming and his book.
Where Wittgenstein made pronouncements a la Moses and his tablets, Fleming seems to offer up his statements of “the way things are” in the true spirit of academe, i.e. as the first volley in an argument. This is the way philosophy has always been done, at least that’s the way it appears in retrospect. Fleming’s work here isn’t philosophy as we think of philosophy—oh, it’s based in places on extending philosophical discourse, but mostly it seems to be written in the same vein as Coetzee’s recent book, Diary Of A Bad Year. Which brings up a point: where does opinion figure in the span of Literature? Let’s let that one go for a moment, but we’ll come back to it.
Fleming holds forth on the abstractions of knowledge—what can be known, how we can know things. Then he turns largely to the concerns of modern life, including in them ethics and esthetics, and a long spiel on science, what science is and does. That leads him into social systems, sexuality, political thought, and, finally, death. Seems quite a chore for a working academic, doesn’t it?
I like his thoughts, here, even when I find myself smiling at his occasional impetuosity (Kant sought to define things in an indisputable fashion, says Fleming, and that makes of him a fascist).
And that returns us to the role of such writing in the realm of literature. Perhaps this sort of writing is part of an evolving philosophy—that field, as Fleming says, has generally been the study of intellectual mummies—and it’s due for a shake-up, whether in the hands of one gifted person or a host of lesser minds.
If I were to bring up last week’s post, and without trying to seem too presumptuous in doing so, we might consider literature a secular form of scripture. Scripture is generally associated with the sacred, but what does sacred connote, anyway? If we bend to the urges of contemporary philosophy, we discard the transcendental, the eternal. What’s left is a comprehensive view of life. This seems to be what literature intends—to portray life, from without and within in as broad a panorama as possible.
The advantage of secular thought in this respect over that accepted by religion is that religion tends to “freeze-frame” the best thought of an age and hold it forth in perpetuity, and secular writing cannot. As humanity evolves, the human condition evolves, and the only way to cope with that in the religious arena is through religious revolution. Think Buddha, Christ, Mohammed, Luther, Gandhi. Within secular thought, persons such as Dickinson, Melville, Hemingway, Mailer, Roth, Gordimer have the gift of presenting a comprehensive view of life to readers, but through the perspective of that person only, not some omniscient view to be held as eternal, but a chronicle of life in a certain place and time, through one person’s eyes. A canon of such writing , then, leaves a roadmap of where we’ve been, where we are, and where those dots on a mapped piece of paper might lead us.
Opinions, then are the purview of those who have gained their props in the literary field; these persons embody the ethic and they can be trusted. Their opinions are based, not on extrapolations into one’s ego; instead they simply cite the world in a manner and perspective we don’t have to fend off to understand and appreciate.
It’s unusual that an academic has done this—it’s usually the novelist and memoirist. So, full speed ahead, Professor Fleming, and damn whatever fallout might drift by the Severn.
Last week's post promised to reprise some thoughts from yesteryear on the value of literature as it emerges in the early twenty-first century. Keep in mind that literature is more than story, more than history-more of an organic attempt to balance the truth of the human experience with the dross of existence.
Athens, 399 B.C.
In a sparsely furnished room lit by a single oil lamp, Socrates refuses to allow friends to arrange an escape, thus reinforcing his death sentence. A jury has convicted him of corrupting the morals of Athenian youth, undermining democracy and introducing strange new gods to his followers. In fact, he has held himself aloof from politics and has expressed little interest in so-called new gods. What he has done is urge his students to forsake combative rhetoric and winner-take-all attitudes for self-examination and the quest for truth. He reaches for his poisoned cup and surrenders peacefully to death.
Plato is incensed. He begins to write what will become known as the Dialogues, somewhat fictional renderings of Socrates’ teachings. These works survive Greek culture to become the bedrock of western thought.
Cordoba, 969 A.D.
The streets of Cordoba are filled with flames. Its mayor, Almanzor, has ordered the 400,000 volumes of literature, philosophy and scientific treatises collected by caliph Abdur Rahman III and his son Hakam II to be burned in the streets. A young French priest, sent here by his bishop to sharpen an already formidable intellect, hangs his head, tears in his eyes.
Cordoba, the nexus of European and Islamic cultures, is widely known as “the pearl of the world”. But after these book burnings the caliphate weakens and Cordoba never regains its original vitality.
What connects these events?
Socrates’ life ended in the final stages of what has been called the original Axial Era. In Asia, Europe and Africa, the older versions of universal principles, which acted as social glue, were cracked and fraying. Emerging sciences posed new explanations of nature’s workings. And philosophers of a new rationality sought to re-define humanity’s place in the world.
In similar fashion, the creative synthesis of Islamic and Christian cultures in tenth century Spain was already ebbing in 969. Certain imams, who saw emerging philosophies, sciences and arts as threatening to their hold on power, pressured Cordoba’s mayor to reject them, to return to a more restrictive intellectual diet. But the vacuum created by this declining Iberian culture made possible the rise of Germany, the Ottos, a reconstituted Holy Roman Empire and a new social structure for Europe.
The Ottos sought to legitimize their political unification of western Europe with a heady blend of Christian and classical thought. To this end they enlisted the aid of Europe’s preeminent man of letters, the French priest Gerbert of Aurillac. A prolific letter writer and gifted teacher, Gerbert had personally witnessed the Cordoban burnings. This led him to amass one of the time’s largest book collections. Thus armed, he was able to bring classical and Middle Eastern thought to a wider audience.
It’s suggested that we live in another Axial Era. Governments are scrambling for traction. Religion’s depth, power and relevance in a technologically driven world have been questioned. Many, unsettled by such future shock, maintain a tenacious grip on old ways and turn to ever more taut fundamentalist precepts. Even within the humdrum of politics and social theory, an entrenched modernity struggles with a more relativistic reality.
So what are we to do with this age’s rapid expansion of intellect, of mind? Can we write ourselves into balance this time? Some would say we’re already doing so.
W.B. Yeats once championed a technique called automatic writing: simply write whatever comes into your head. Over time, truth would reveal itself through such free associations. Andre Breton commented that traditional western thought would eventually transcend the realm of reason. James Joyce and others devised literary techniques allowing the reader to peer deeply into the netherworld of the human psyche. As a result of their experiments, the aims of creative writing were broadened to accommodate the loosened expressions of mind
So what are literature’s aims now? Somewhat the same as in previous eras, I should think: to comfort and console in reaching for something beyond the ordinary. To portray human traits in ways that might reveal deeper truths. But such insights seem to have no new relevance until they are able to reach beyond themselves. A broadened literature now involves blending philosophy, psychology, sociology and science, these fields now interdependent, unable to grow enduring legs on their own. In ages past, the only realm claiming such breadth was religion. Now literature, in committing such scope to common language, has invaded the realm of scripture.
But there’s no need for fear here. True, literature’s power is palpable. By nature, it’s a product of mysterious forces, a mirror constructed of inspiration and imagination revealing something perhaps divine about ordinary life. But this power is a passive one, not foisting itself on you – simply available to offer validation of your own depth by witnessing it in the lives of others, fictional and real, nearby or a world away.
And neither should we be concerned that each person’s inner space generates one of many valid perspectives on reality. These different vantages are simply the geography of our commonality – islands projected from an oceanic collective unconscious.
Virginia Woolf saw art as part of a transcendent good. If that’s true – and I think it is – let’s allow literature, and art in the general sense, to be our guidebook in trying times. Trust the process. Something good and enduring will come of it.
I’ve always considered Coetzee an adventurous novelist, adventurous in subject matter and style. In Diary Of A Bad Year, he proves no less adventurous as he enters his eighth decade. The book is largely an unwinding series of opinions on nearly everything in modern life, from George Bush to his new homeland of Australia. Each page begins with such an opinion, followed by a narrative of his “story,” which concerns Coetzee himself as he writes the book. In this middle point of view, he enjoins a voluptuous young lady to be his typist, and something of an editor. The third section of each page turns to Anya, the young woman, and her point of view as she assists Senor C, as she calls him, this slowly enraging her crass live-in boyfriend, Alan.
It’s an odd read, but the strange concoction works. Still, I never settled on how to read it—should I read down the page? The opinions first? Then his point of view, then hers? In some instances, it worked as well to read up the page, perhaps backwards. No, reading it backwards is being facetious.
In his opinions, he is not even close to being politically correct, a tone he has carried with him since his early days and which surely pushes him from the mainstream of literary readers. But as I read these bits of mind-matter, I couldn’t help but become endeared to him, the vulnerability he slowly projects onto the page that of a man whose intellectual ethos is growing out of sorts with a transforming world.
Coetzee isn’t a pessimist—he’s too smart to give to that. He deals with his angst in a wryly humorous way that defuses as it disarms.
And the story part of the book works as well. He gently nudges his characters into a transformation of their own, Anya becoming a devoted friend, where first she supposed Senor C to be a lecher. And the Senor, who seems to have built a wall between himself and the world (as borne out by his opinions) slowly becomes indebted to and devoted to Anya. Alan slowly becomes the odd man out in this strange, triangular relationship, but in a way this reader hardly expected.
A professor of mine recently asked, “When we write, aren’t we always writing about ourselves?” Of course we are, but not always in as blatant and assured a manner as Coetzee does here.
This segues to next week’s post—I quote here from page 126 of Diary: “(Ordinary people)…hunger (a mild hunger, it must be admitted) to hear what articulate people outside the political world—academics or churchmen or scientists or writers—think about public affairs.”
To conflate the opinions of politicians, churchmen, academics, and writers concerning public issues brings me to the theme of literature’s value within the public at large. Next week, I’ll reprise a post from several years ago concerning my initial thoughts on such things, and follow that with something similar from a book I’m now reading. As always, I solicit opinions other than my own.
Once in a while you come across a book that takes you by surprise, both by its artistic content and by the fact that it has managed to escape your attention for so long. A Girl In Hyacinth Blue is such a surprise to this reader.
Originally published in 1999, the book traces the lineage of a supposed Vermeer painting, but in an unusual fashion. The story begins in contemporary times and takes the reader—ever so slowly—back in time to Jan Vermeer’s work on a portrait of a girl (his daughter) sitting, with sewing on her lap. Instead of attending to the chore, she is looking out the window as Vermeer paints, her face a mixture of emotions and attitudes, all part of the girl’s personal mystery.
As the story falls into the past, Vreeland paints the scenes of Dutch life, from the Nazi deportation of Jews from the Netherlands, and confiscation of their art and valuables, through the creation of the Dutch dikes and back to an earlier, more rigorous life in the seventeenth century. Along the way, ownership of the painting seems to occur randomly, by chance, often as a symbol of good fortune; at other times its sale brings both the poignancy of loss and enough money to survive hard times. Each owner reacts differently to the artistry, from identification with the girl to an artistic appreciation of Vermeer’s technique.
I found myself a bit ruffled at first by the reverse chronological flow, constantly leafing backward to keep the painting’s lineage straight. After fifty or so pages of it, I gave up, realizing that the author was presenting a new temporal experience—an experience of the painting simultaneously with a backward look at the history of the Netherlands as well as that of the painting. But Vreeland goes even further—she allows us to see the painting through the eyes of Vermeer, and into her interpretation of the emotional makeup of the daughter.
The book has been touted as a read for those who appreciate art and history, but the significance of the book does deeper. Whether Vreeland intended it or not, her book is a statement on the significance of art—both visual and prosaic—in a world increasingly absorbed with the manipulation of information as a means to monetary wealth. A Girl In Hyacinth Blue provides a wealth to the soul that cannot be measured or manipulated as easily as facts. For that challenge and its own invaluable effects on the reader, we are indebted to her.