Thursday, February 22, 2018

On Reading, Writing, and Theodore Dalrymple

In the few months since I've started writing here again I have also read a great deal more of. . . well, there seems no decorous way of referring to writing published exclusively on the internet. Surely not the vulgar digital content, or banal web writing. Perhaps it is a sign. At any rate I've read a great deal more of it than the nearly nil I read in the first year after moving into our new house and staying home with my daughter full time. The writing has brought me more pleasure than I thought, the reading less so.

The writing, though laborious, is a near pure pleasure, excepting those frustrating moments of editing when I must part with a beloved phrase (which I will of course forget about by the next hour) and when I simply cannot decide just what exactly I am saying. Writing is as pure an exercise of unrestrained liberty as one can imagine, with the myriad possibilities only delimited by the prudence of my conscience and aesthetic sense, which occasionally speak through the wisdom of my wife.

One limitation that has always frustrated me though, is my reluctance to let what I write cause grievous offense to someone I know, thus risking our peaceful relation. Since I write much, though not chiefly, about my experiences, I have many essays that will go unpublished for a while, presuming I have at age thirty-two some plenty of years left. On the other hand—the use of this correlative that I surely use too much because of my Classical background brings to my mind this time an anecdote: one of the first errors in my writing which my wife corrected was an instance of saying on the one hand several times in a row. My defense remains that the article was ghost-written by one of the Hekatonkheires of Greek myth (Centimanes in Latin), a few of whose heads and hands moonlight while he guards Tartaros.

Anyway, on the other hand, that act of self-censorship has no doubt reformed the character of a querulous and often petty man. If I had written as a teen or college student, it probably would have resembled this ghastly piece—ghastly in content and style—on Jordan Peterson. Reading such pieces saddens me because I cannot help assume either that the person has been bought out or is deeply troubled. Worse, it seems to me that writing would invariably reform one's character. How can you write and not make use of the seemingly infinite opportunities for reflection and self-examination? The process has pricked my conscience more times than I could ever remember. I have written some unkind and uninformed things that never saw the light of day because the sight of them displeased and embarrassed me. Not fully, of course, am I reformed, and writing has precipitated a few new occasions for poor behavior.

It is a cheap pleasure of mine to refer to a piece I've written and, even more so, to have the excuse to re-state my case. I too especially enjoy the tactful praise of liberal friends, "I love your movie reviews."  How amused I am also when someone refers approvingly to something I have written, but has clearly only read the opening paragraph, which was meant in irony. They really do mean well but can't bring themselves to run the full course. Their error is similar in spirit to one that recurred among my Latin students when I would for one reason or another truncate a portion of a passage for an exam: how often I found it translated on a test anyway! Clearly it appeared by the inspiration of the Muses, or perhaps some as-of-yet unnamed goddess of the internet.

Truly, though, writing has been a healthful pleasure both on account of the good change it has precipitated, even in failure, and the kindness and generosity of friends, family, and readers who have supported my meager talents and overlooked my errors.

I wish I could say that reading has brought me such pleasure of late. More often than not I feel preached to, lectured, or chicaned. Everybody, so it seems, is hocking his ideology or his personality. They lust after my clicks, likes, follows, and subscribes, to use the terms of their cheap currency. They pander to what they hope are my weaknesses. There is precious little that is all honest, good, and necessary. Even people of apparent good character and sound mind nonetheless seem desperate to cash in on their virtues. This is perhaps inevitable and even good, for I certainly should not like the opposite situation, in which ideas are compelled, suppressed, or absent, or virtues bring people unnecessary suffering. Perhaps it is a Golden Age of Discourse. To me it feels gilded and cheap. It seems that there is no self-censorship. Everything must be said so that it can be repeated, therefore it is short, overstated, lacking in explication, and, usually, crude.

The only prominent author who seems exempt from this cheapening, and I think fully so,  is Theodore Dalrymple. Perhaps his writing remains pristine because he does not write to sustain himself or perhaps he has by his uncommon learning, significant in both the sciences and humanities, and his uncommon experiences—of the bad and worse, both at home and abroad—tempered himself and his writing just so, but it seems to me he writes in as ideal a way as possible: reflecting humbly on life, with reason but also humanity, without the purpose of proving an ideology. For my part, I have surely not merited such commendations.

He is no publication's "go-to man" for any one idea, a fact which confuses casual readers. Watch with horror as he gets scorned on Taki-Mag for showing the slightest empathy, fondness, or respect for the non-Westerners he has met in his travels. Some years ago he was swarmed with rabid libertarians for his review in The New Criterion where he had the temerity to criticize Ayn Rand. When he wrote for Pajamas Media, it seems patently so that the prose was above the heads of the readers. City Journal, Salisbury Review, and the Law and Liberty Site each pick up parts of his work to the delight of their readers, but it is perhaps unsurprising that thoughts varied, subtle, and restrained do not find a perfect home in an age characterized by, to borrow from his many inimitable artful joinings, incontinent public confession. Rather than esteem (I have in mind here Latin's diligo: select, pick, single out, love, value, esteem, approve, aspire to, appreciate) someone who in true conservative fashion considers a matter alongside life's many others, the right prefers the company of loudmouth single-minded ideologues, usually evangelists of soft-headed religion and gaudy business.

It seems beyond wishful thinking to hope that the hearts and minds of the left will ever find room for Dr. Dalrymple since, despite his work for the poor and wretched—experience oddly but consistently in short supply among the poor's most tender-hearted and self-appointed advocates—he will not sign their prescriptions for remedies that he, with regrets, finds do more harm than good. Rather than be seen to trot with an independent thinker or risk having its conscience pricked, the left, it seems, would rather exchange platitudes with the peddlers of righteous cliche-ridden activism in a morass that Dalrymple's words describe best: an orgy of sentimentality.

I have probably made Dr. Dalrymple, who has for many years written prolifically and been respected with many well-reviewed books long in print and been often sought after as a speaker or expert, seem less famous and dear to his readers than he is. Surely too his critics betoken his notoriety. I have probably brought down his status to put it within my reach. I am frank in admitting he has been and remains a great influence.

How fortunate are all his readers, though, that he continues to share his wisdom in such a vigorous yet civilized manner. In its moderation and proportion, both in style and content, his is the prose of this age in which I feel most at home, and for that I am grateful, as I am for all things good and beautiful.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Advice for Myself: Outside

Of the outside world first, when you are young, pay as much attention as you need to understand yourself. Have adventures, though know they are with risks. Then, when you are established, pay attention to the world such that you can find a spouse. Next, pay only so much as you need to sustain and protect your family. Finally, pay it attention proportionate to your ability to help it.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Minding the Children

There is some resurgence of faith in the notion that children raised with the full-time attention of one parent are better off. I too think it is so, quite broadly but perhaps not completely, for a variety of reasons. Some of those reasons are empirical and some based on my experience, but those from my experience tell me it is not only because school and daycare are such bad places.

Instead I would emphasize that parents who spend a lot of time with their children are by the sheer volume of time spent with them given more opportunities to be changed by them, by which I mean to orient themselves emotionally toward them, by which I mean to fall in love with them.

In contrast it seems plain to me that parents who try to add children to their existing lifestyle, spending with them only a few hours a day (if that), not only have fewer opportunities to experience that reorientation, but struggle more to make use of the few they have.

When the day's time is first squeezed down first by work and school, then by homework and domestic duties, there is not much time left. Still, it is possible to flourish in that remaining time, if it is left truly free and used wisely to cultivate the family, but more often than not it is filled with distractions and out-of-the-house social engagements.

Now limited time is surely a barrier toward having loving time with children, but it is not I think the only one. Equally influential but more pernicious is the resentment that can bubble up from so squeezing your kids into your old life. When you spend most of your day the way you used to before you had kids (i.e. working) and then need to start tending to them during the few hours you are home in the evening—when you formerly relaxed and when the kids now want and need much attention—which hours do you think you will resent: the old ways or the new? It's hard to open up to someone when, deep down and beneath your comprehension, you resent them.

Of course, some adults simply refuse to let the children change them even though they spend a lot of time with them. Too, some people even don't let their spouses change them. Such people don't want marriage so much as they want a merger of assets and they don't want children so much as obedient little reproductions of themselves to reflect well upon them, shower them with affection, and trot off when told.

I am not saying the change is easily forthcoming simply because you spend a lot of time with them. Sometimes we spend a lot of time with them but at every available moment turn our minds away.

Cell phones and television will distract you. Being fussy about housekeeping and domestic responsibilities will distract you. Not having your affairs in order, such as business arrangements and finance, will cause you worry and distract you. Poor relations with your spouse will distract you. Even high-minded thoughts and philosophizing will intrude and thereby distract you. The more you are attuned to other things, even necessary and good things, the farther you really are from your children, even when physically present.

Time, then, is merely the condition for change, not a cause of it. In my experience perception and reception are the essentials, or at least are of a great importance. Watch your children, with as devoted attention as you can muster, and their love for you will be self-evident, and by nature you will reach out to them with love in return. When you have prepared the way, a transcendent touch will happen and the branches of your lives will begin to entangle. In that moment, reaching out is the easiest and most natural thing in the world, but getting yourself and your life to the point where it can happen is difficult.

In fact it is not just difficult, but painful. As with learning, as Jordan Peterson has often pointed out, part of you has to die and you have to be the one who willingly kills it. You have to repudiate some part of your former self and embrace a better you—or at least a you which is better for your new circumstances—which takes courage. Life is not an additive process by which you acquire a spouse, house, children, and so on, improving in linear progression without loss. It is a process of transformation throughout which you gain and leave behind different things at different times.

This does not mean we should dote on and obsess over our children while neglecting all else, but that we should be mindful of our connection to them and sense when we are more stretched apart and when we are especially close. The former is a part of the relationship too, but why would anyone neglect latter?

This does not mean that you can't love them if you're not home with them all the time—and as I said, being home is no guarantee—but I think you are setting up roadblocks if you simply try to squeeze your children into your old ways. Parents, I think, know they are setting up these roadblocks and tend to justify them with explanations to which they hope you will assent. They point to how much time and money they spend on their children and see there demonstrations of their love, effort, and sacrifice.

This is how conscientious and dutiful people often look at the matter and they are not wholly wrong. Their commitment is commendable but the paradigm is wrong because what they are sacrificing is a portion of their old life, a life which they continue to let rule the family. They are giving up something, to be sure, but not what is needed, and because it is still a hard sacrifice, they think that it is enough. When such dutiful people say, as they seem invariably to do, that they would do anything for their children, I would like to add—but do not, for what parent has ever taken correction?—is except that which you have not considered.

I used to hold much anger for such parents, but now the thought of their predicament makes me quite sad. They have taken in the dogmas of the day: cliches about happiness, success, and fulfillment. They are lost and unhappy. Too they are hard to help, partly because of hubris and partly because it is a challenge, impossible for some people, to admit they have failed or are failing their children. Maybe they can be jolted out of their ways by a profound emotional experience, but their circles seem ferociously to reinforce the prevailing trends. So they plod on, ignoring the sadness in their hearts as they pretend to take pleasure in putting their children in that esteemed position of first priority.

But it is not enough to place them first among many priorities: you really do need some sense of their mystical connection to you. Only with that experience will the upheaval of selling your house, quitting your job, negotiating with your spouse, moving, drastically cutting your expenses, or doing whatever you need to do to be with your kids, seem surmountable.

You can't force a realization of such a thing, but you can at least start by being with them with a clear mind and open heart.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Mozart's C Minor Mass Choreographed by Scholz

I came across the late Uwe Scholz's ballet to Mozart's C minor mass on the Classic Arts Showcase a couple of years ago. (I miss the eclectic channel, but it is available online now.) The particular clip I saw was of the Cum Sancto Spiritu, which left me awestruck. I hadn't experienced the piece so strongly since I first discovered it. 

I can't find a selection of that particular part (discs of the performance seem to be getting hard to find, but it is available for digital purchase/rental), but take a look at the Kyrie here, which too demonstrates a remarkable sensitivity to the subtitles of the music.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Advice to Myself: Wind in the Sails

Neither keep yourself weak nor abuse power.

The sailboat that has not caught the wind is neither safe itself nor harmless to others. Uncontrolled, it will go about at random and risk harm to itself, to those in its path, and those who try to help it. The boat is said to be "in irons" for a reason: because it is powerless.

Yet when you have caught the wind, never abuse your power. The wind you have now will not be the wind on which you coast in at the end of your journey. You will not be able to sail right at your target, but will need to adjust again and again. The wind is ever changing in strength and direction, and if you don't adjust your sails, you may find yourself suddenly without power or violently twisted about as the circumstances adjust you.

Quote: Lewis on the Intellectus and Ratio

From The Discarded Image, by C. S. Lewis:

We are enjoying intellectus when we 'just see' a self-evident truth; we are exercising ratio when we proceed step by step to prove a truth which is not self-evident. A cognitive life in which all truth can be simply 'seen' would be the life of an intelligentsia, an angel. A life of unmitigated ratio where nothing was simply 'seen' and all had to be proved, would presumably be impossible; for nothing can be proved if nothing is self-evident. Man's mental life is spent in laboriously connecting those frequent, but momentary, flashes of intelligentsia which constitute intellectus. [Ch. 7: Sec. D]

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Classics: Dead and Loving It

There are days, maybe one a week, on which I try to catch up on news in the Classics field in some detail. On those days without fail I come to the conclusion not that Classics should remain without revival but in fact that it is not dead enough. Maybe this says more about me than about the discipline. I don't talk a lot about my own academic experience because I have a Paul Bunyan-sized ax to grind with every school I attended and I don't think I can bring much unbiased reflection to the table. So take what I say about the field with this in mind: I am an angry outlier to the world of Classical studies.

What set me off today was something that epitomizes the source of my frustration with Classics: its utterly tone-deaf self-promotion.

I'm rarely speechless but I sat here for five minutes tongue-tied in frustration. I'm usually only this gobsmacked when I walk around a mall or watch people eat. But you have 280 characters and this is what you write?! Memo, via, versus, and bona fide! Then you sell it with a lead-in fit for a multivitamin and slap that ridiculous picture underneath?

That's it. We're done. Everyone pack up and go home. Classicists should be paid to stay home in silence and count gerunds.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Advice to Myself: On Meals

Neither be so abstemious that you are always hungry nor eat to excess. In both cases your appetite will control you and impede your work, either by distracting pangs of hunger or the torpor of digestion.

Of timing, do not follow too closely either the clock on the wall or the clock of your stomach, but don't ignore them either. Have meals prudently spaced through the day and take them at the same time each day as much as possible. In this way your body will never remind you by hunger and you will never impose what is not yet necessary.

Of quality, be neither a fuss nor a brute. Take simple food regularly, but do not be insensitive to finery and delicate touches.

Of variety, take some, but not to the point where you are ever on the hunt for something new.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Lessons for Teachers #8: The Performance

Some teachers adore the cliche that a teacher's presentation in the classroom is artistic or theatrical. These people are often very needy and teaching is probably one of the worst professions they could enter. Such people make dangerous teachers because they are flattered not only by the idea that all eyes are upon them but also by the pretense of artistic creativity, for both elevate what may be an inglorious and mundane profession. Such teachers should beware: do not seek favor or attention from your students and dot not make yourself the center of attention. This is a path to personal and professional catastrophe. Teaching is not a performance because you are the star or the genius, but it is a performance for two reasons.

First, like an actor you have to control yourself. Completely. If you cuss a lot, you need to cut it out. If you are short-tempered, grow patient. If you easily lose your train of thought or need frequent breaks, learn to follow through. If you are disorganized, get organized. If you are easily distracted, learn to focus. And so on and so on. Obviously you can take this too far and make yourself a bundle of nerves, but realize some behaviors just won't cut it for a classroom teacher. I can't list them all, but watch how your students respond to you and search your heart. Does your temperament suit the kind of class you are trying to create? Can you change it?

You can't change everything at once, but you most certainly cannot do the opposite either, and the opposite is another cliche, be yourself. In fact, that's probably the worst thing you can do.

Second, teaching is performative because ideally the teacher should disappear and the impression left upon the minds of the students should be that of the material. This doesn't mean that your zeal, style, and unique take on the material are irrelevant, but that they should serve the understanding of the content and not take center stage.

Here too are the extremes instructive. Some teachers are too much of a presence in the class. Too much talking, interference, jokes, asides, theatricality, and so on. Although they are usually enthusiastic about the material, they overwhelm it. Other teachers are nonentities in the room. Usually by lack of discipline or just by being boring, they don't bring the material out of the realm of concepts into the real world. The lesson is dead on arrival. Now you don't need to be a cheerleader, but kids need to see some heart.

In a nutshell, students need to see someone animated by the knowledge that they are articulating. They need to see only those parts of you, and those parts controlled, that let the ideas shine out. Like an actor on the ancient Greek stage, some of you will disappear behind the mask and some of you will be the medium for the ideas. Unlike the actor, though, you have no physical mask and you need to possess the understanding of yourself to decide which parts of you may and should come forth for the sake of learning.

It is a tall order and its prerequisites are not vanity and narcissism but discipline and self-knowledge, but through such teaching "performance" students will see ideas neither dull and etherized for dissection on the table, nor just barely peeking out from under your personality, but alive, present, and deserving attention and concern. In this way the teacher transforms the knowledge, the student, and himself.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Quote: Pepys on the Lord's Day 13 Nov. 1664

From the diary of Samuel Pepys:
The morning to church, where mighty sport to hear our Clerk sing out of tune, though his master sits by him that begins and keeps the tune aloud for the parish. Dined at home very well. And spent all the afternoon with my wife within doors—and getting a speech out of Hamlett, "to bee or not to bee," without book. In the evening, to sing psalms; and in came Mr. Hill to see me, and then he and I and the boy finely to sing; and so anon broke up after much pleasure. He gone, I to supper and so to prayers and to bed.