Forgive me for the provocative title; I meant to draw you in, a goal at which I was successful if you’re reading this! So, let’s get started.
Read this quote:
“The passing of classics from our schools has in fact crippled the larger culture. Here Auden cast his net far and wide. “The people who have really suffered since classical education became ‘undemocratic’ are not the novelists and poets — their natural love of language sees them through — but all those, like politicians, journalists, lawyers, the man-in-the-street, etc., who use language for everyday and nonliterary purposes. Among such one observes an appalling deterioration in precision and conciseness.” How ironic that those democratic fears of “elitism” should ensure that those born without the privileges of the educated classes will remain permanently disabled, victims of others’ good intentions. The signs of rot surround us. “Nobody,” Auden wrote, “who had had a classical education could have perpetrated this sentence…in The New Yorker: ‘He [a film director] expresses the dichotomy between man and woman in the images of the bra and Dachau.’” One would hope not. That’s the murky, self-important lingo emanating from the lit. crit. seminar in English departments.”
It’s an excerpt from: Tracy Lee Simmons. “Climbing Parnassus”, and my reaction to it has evolved over time. When I first read it, I was happy because when people try to roast Postmodernism, they’ll usually find a happy spectator in me. Then I read it again, and I questioned it. It seems like the author of the quote and the novel were preaching to the converted, instead of aiming to convince the person who doesn’t believe in all of that superstition. I know this because of the next two sentences, where basically all he does is say that English departments have stuffy noses.
Dig a little deeper, and you get to a scarier idea: that you education limits your thoughts. Now I don’t think that limiting your thoughts is always a negative thing. For example, when you take a Logic and Critical Thinking class, you have to either (1) throw away all the ideas in your head which are based in fallacious reasoning, or for that matter, no reasoning at all, or (2) reject the method itself: in this example, you would reject Logic itself. But I don’t think it’s a good idea to reject Logic because it gives you immense power: you can make better arguments, formulate accurate statements, discern good ideas from bad ones, and all of these things in turn lead you to have a life filled with less suffering and chaos because you can see through the fog around you with this new tool: logic, which is like a flashlight that’s laser focused and powerful. I guess the argument on the positive side of the anti-logic camp would be that you’re free to think whatever you wish; that you’re free to act however you’d like, even if that means you continue to be an evolved chimpanzee who is still nonetheless subject to natural and sexual selection.
So while you may think that freedom in and of itself is a desirable goal, I don’t think that it’s worth much unless you have a disciplinary structure, like logic, to take advantage of it. So for example, when I first moved out on my own for university, I just ate a whole bunch of junk food. I had the freedom, but I didn’t have the discipline necessary to live within it. So don’t get me wrong, I’m not taking offence at the disciplinary structure itself.
What I want to know is which structure I should take on.
I made a pretty good case above for why someone needs a good disciplinary structure or methodology, such as Logic or the ability to shop and cook for yourself. But is learning Latin or Greek the best methodology for developing that discipline?
Okay, so how does any of this relate to rhythm and poetry, which is what I promised you in the title? I think there’s a tradeoff between the preciseness of your words, and the beauty of your words. The latter category is not sharply defined: it’s not just the beauty of your words, it’s also the rhythm, tone, intonation, everything.
If there’s something that you want to say, you can just go ahead and say it. So for example a sibling is bugging me because she takes my clothes, I go and tell her off. It’s not surgically precise, but it’s like a bat: it gets the job done, even though it’s blunt. Then you get more and more specific as the topic itself gets less and less obvious.
Eventually, you’re charting new territory and you have to lay out for your reader what you think is the case in this unknown domain of knowledge. Someone like a Newton, or Descartes, or Bacon, or the work of any of those really smart philosophers who ended up starting revolutions and things like that did. They were pretty precise with their words, just like Latin, which they all learned and knew, demanded of them. So then what. If you asked Newton, Descartes, or Bacon to make every second word in their work rhyme, do you think they would still be able to publish the same ideas? I don’t think so.
So then why does this matter? I guess the question I’m asking for which I don’t have an answer is how someone knows whether the constraining structure is the most supportive or not. Because I can choose my constraining structure, and become good at these structures. But which one would do me the best? Because it certainly worked well for the Enlightenment thinkers to have a constraining culture: it ended up producing the freaking Enlightenment. So this I guess will remain an open ended question. Till Next Time,