Many pundits say we are are becoming less textually aware. Maybe so. Odd to think that this generation spends more time with written text than any previous yet is less proficient with interpretation. Quantity over quality. It is also worth noting that this generation spends very little time engaged in oral conversation beyond what is required for conveniences. I suspect that there is some consequence for memory.
It is an extreme form of prejudice and racism that rejects the older works of the Western canon because they have been written by “Dead White European Males.” Under the guise of equality this view denies the quality of written work based on the anatomical features of its writer. Under the guise of cosmopolitanism this view lumps together and excludes all white Europeans as if they were spiritually, historically, culturally, politically, socially, or even genetically the same. Under the guise of progress this view oppresses the most disadvantaged, underprivileged, and repeatedly oppressed class—that is, the dead.
And the result of rejecting the works written by Dead White European Males: one cannot understand the criticism of today’s critics—whatever sex, color, geopolitical situation, class, etc.—because one cannot be sure what they are criticizing or whether they have understood what they think they are criticizing. If we lose the powers of making and of understanding allusions, we are adrift in the world. We become incapable of keeping the critics accountable, ultimately lost in the small-mindedness that we believe we are escaping by means of our supposed freedom from the context of the past.
A. Doesn’t it bother you that someone could just take your ideas?
B. No. It did once. But it doesn’t anymore.
A. Are you resigned, then? You don’t care about someone else using your stuff and calling it his own?
B. I do care. But I wouldn’t be upset if someone used my thoughts.
A. Your stuff is good. I wouldn’t want someone taking my writing if I were you.
B. Thank you, but I’m not worried about anyone “taking” my writing. And I’m not “resigned.” I’m determined not to be protective of what I write.
B. Because what’s mine has been taken from someone else. It’s hard to even call it “mine.”
A. But what if someone used your stuff as his own, and then made money off of it?
B. At first I’d say he’s dishonest. Then I’d say (what might be the same) that he’s a clever enough businessman.
A. Why’s that?
B. Because he has found one of the few writers, maybe in all the world, who does not believe in intellectual property, and he has taken full advantage of a great opportunity.
At the Egyptian city of Naucratis, there was a famous old god, whose name was Theuth; the bird which is called the Ibis is sacred to him, and he was the inventor of many arts, such as arithmetic and calculation and geometry and astronomy and draughts and dice, but his great discovery was the use of letters. Now in those days the god Thamus was the king of the whole country of Egypt; and he dwelt in that great city of Upper Egypt which the Hellenes call Egyptian Thebes, and the god himself is called by them Ammon. To him came Theuth and showed his inventions, desiring that the other Egyptians might be allowed to have the benefit of them; he enumerated them, and Thamus enquired about their several uses, and praised some of them and censured others, as he approved or disapproved of them. It would take a long time to repeat all that Thamus said to Theuth in praise or blame of the various arts. But when they came to letters, ‘This,’ said Theuth, ‘will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories; it is a drug both for the memory and for wisdom.’ Thamus replied: ‘O most ingenious Theuth, the parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance, you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The drug which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.’
—Plato, Phaedrus (Socrates speaking)
Reviewing journals and notes from my undergraduate years, I found something relating to the contents of this blog and their presentation. I had forgotten about my “indwellings” project until recently. The following, with some alterations in style (not without irony), are the opening paragraphs of an old theory that might have served as an introduction to the book I never finished, and never will, though now instead the theory seems to complement this blog’s about page nicely:
Il arrive souvent que des choses se présentent plus achevées à notre esprit qu’il ne les pourrait faire avec beaucoup d’art. *
—François de La Rochefoucauld
This blog contains multifarious contents, none of which are indwellings as such while they are on the page. The contents were once indwellings, but indwellings cannot be written, cannot be read. What you see instead are the expressions of indwellings.
Now, expression is violence, which is called “art” when mixed with memory and smatterings of knowledge. Expression transforms indwellings as air changes the color of blood. Everything you read has been violently wrenched from the depths. I have taken the raw, unseen indwellings and thrust them out, changing their form, so that you may be enticed enough to take them as your own.
Each one of us does this violence to our indwellings. Some of us know that we do it, and others are ignorant of it. Of the knowers, some try to make the expressions beautiful, and others, who abhor the corruption inherent in cleverness, seek to preserve the raw qualities of the indwelling as much as possible, as if the truth of them might be saved by degrees. These two classes are extremes, of course; most of us find uniformity obnoxious, so we go back and forth between the smooth and the rough. But in all cases the indwellings have been more or less processed and contaminated in the activity of expression.
When you take one of these spoken or written expressions, some deep part of you renders them again into a raw indwelling that resembles the primitive. What indwelled me I make nice on the page. After you find it nice on the page, it may indwell you. If my art has been too strong, if my expression has done too much violence to the primitive, then what indwells you may not actually resemble the primitive. Art, after all, can deform.
. . .
* Translation: “It often happens that things introduce themselves to our mind more complete than we could ever make them with much art.”
I. Reference as Self-Reference
In addition to a few marvelous skills, a liberal arts education teaches one the reprehensible habit of inserting the names of writers and books into discussions. The speaker usually knows that it is a reprehensible habit, and is still tempted by the fruit of it. “For the right audience,” he might think (and we might even imagine him saying it with a harsh lateral lisp), “yes, for the right audience this could be a concise way to present ideas. I’ll just mention Kant by name and everyone will know that I am speaking from a standpoint inimical to Humean skepticism. And for the right audience, I can establish myself as an insider, and as someone drawing ideas from time-tested authority.” So he might think. And in this habit he goes on, more or less friendless, searching for that right audience.
An exaggeration, sure, but an important one. What is reprehensible about name-dropping is not that it makes the speaker look pretentious (that would be disadvantageous, but not reprehensible). What is reprehensible is that name-dropping usually gets in the way of any attempt at building the listener up. Building the listener up is compelling him to cross over into the truth that has been presented; it is prophesying to encourage the congregation, not merely praying in the mysterious language of one’s private mind; it is demanding the listener be a doer of the word, and not a hearer only (as much as possible from a discourse). So what is reprehensible is that name-dropping gives a reference to an authority that is in effect a reference to the speaker—a self-reference that does not build the listener up. The self-reference may be useful, insightful, charming, but it is not something the listener can take to build himself up. The listener usually cannot do anything in response to the reference, except maybe agree or disagree with its placement in the discourse. If he cannot do anything, he is certainly not built up.
Now, what about building the listener up? Generally, the listener’s upbuilding will be in proportion to the speaker’s disappearance, to the speaker’s obscurity, to the speaker’s fading into the content of the discourse, to the discourse becoming indistinguishable from the listener’s thoughts. This does not suggest that the speaker says what the listener already thinks. (Pandering is inflating, not building up.) Rather, an upbuilding discourse is addressed directly to the listener as the sole listener, so that he may compare the discourse to the voice of his own conscience. If the discourse is upbuilding, it eventually loses the speaker’s personality, the I of the discourse, and takes up the conscience’s you, which is the address of innermost human thinking—intimate, ineffable, indistinguishable from self. So the most upbuilding discourses tend to be the ones that memory paraphrases rather than quotes. Needing no exact reference to the speaker, the stress falls not on the reference but on the power of the idea, not in the spoken or written word but in the word-become-flesh in the life of the listener.
II. A Little Self-Reference
To go back a bit, dropping Kant’s name into a discussion may indeed be useful. Any reference, not just name-dropping, may be useful. Self-reference may be useful—useful from the perspective of rhetoric, which should not be overlooked or pooh-poohed. Keeping that in mind, the preceding section may be summed up with stress on a condition: if the purpose of the discourse is to build the listener up, then reference (self-reference) might undermine the purpose.
But—if the ultimate purpose of this blog is to build the reader up, why are there sections devoted to reference (and the writer’s self-reference), such as the posting categories for quotes and reflections, the “About” page, and Section II of this very post? The answer: weakness. These references are a display of one kind of weakness, for this blog’s writer uses others’ words where his own are lacking. On the other hand, these references are so much a part of the writer that they almost make no reference; if the name were missing from the bottom of a quote, for example, the writer would be guilty of plagiarism but not of stealing; the references are stand-ins for his own words until he has the time or talent to give an original, non-referential, upbuilding presentation. But this comes back to weakness, which the writer submits to the reader’s merciful heart.
One of the writer’s goals is to do away with reference and self-reference in his writing—that is, to have only Section I and no Section II.
The I of speaking to another is not the I of speaking to oneself. The latter can at least upbuild the speaker; the former, no one at all.