"As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame; / [ . . . ] Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: / Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; / Selves -- goes itself; 'myself' it speaks and spells, / Crying 'What I do is me; for that I came'." --Gerard Manley Hopkins

20 July 2007

"Feeling Unabstracted"

Some thoughts stimulated by yesterday's quote from Gardner: "True art is a conduit between body and soul, between feeling unabstracted and abstraction unfelt."

The YM and I have been reading Richard Weaver's Ideas Have Consequences this summer. One thing Weaver stresses is the need for "abstraction" -- for what he calls a "metaphysical dream" (a worldview that takes into account something above and beyond us) -- in order to place the physical observations we make and experiences we have in a context which gives our lives meaning and purpose. He was objecting in particular, in 1948, to the philosophy of nominalism, the emphasis on the material world as all there is which leads to materialism and desire for comfort, ease, physical well-being above all else.

Nominalism, for all that I understand it is not accepted in philosophical circles these days, has made its mark well on our culture, and I would say that most of us probably, practically speaking, pretty much live as though the material world is all that is (or all that matters, anyway). (Patrick Henry Reardon has
a good article on this at Touchstone.)

But even more than material goods and comfort, we seem to have moved to an idolatry of emotional well-being these days. One sees it everywhere, but I am always discouraged by my observations on this Christian campus. The large majority of our students certainly claim to have a "metaphysical dream," to embrace the Christian worldview as a foundation for their lives. Yet a significant portion of them live in a world of emotional reaction devoid of any clear connection to that supposed foundation.

So long as they are "happy," then all is well. If a chapel service makes them cry and lift their hands and laugh and feel warm and fuzzy about their faith, then all is well. Never mind that they might have stayed up half the night playing video games or blogging at myspace or texting with someone in the next room, then started on their homework at 3:00 a.m. and come to classes late, sleepy, and unprepared. What does that have to do with faith?

And if we dare to point this out, they resent our "attack" on their "walk with the Lord," which is obviously fine because it makes them feel happy (or, in some cases, it has made them feel sad, and that's also good because feeling sad is the same as repentence, right? Then they can feel happy about having felt sad and thus feel happy about themselves again).

"Feeling unabstracted." "Abstraction unfelt." This is where they live. Their feelings are self-justified, their claimed foundation moves them not at all. Or, rather, they confuse their feelings with the worldview itself.

How does one battle this? I think that Gardner is right, that it must come through art somehow. (Yes, yes, I know that it is the Holy Spirit --but how can He work if we give Him nothing to work with? "How shall they hear without a preacher?") Some, of course, will "get it" from a clear exposition of what they are doing to themselves. But most won't listen or can't hear it this way.

And we have so little time to reach them through art. One course in literature. One novel in another required course. It's not enough, and most of them don't and won't read more -- or won't read any better works than the junk that passes for literature in the Christian community today, which only affirms their wrong understanding of faith.

If art is the answer, if art is the conduit, then we must somehow find a way to reach them with true art so that it can have its effect. And I don't see how that will happen, here or anywhere else.

"[G]iving all diligence, add to your faith virtue, to virtue knowledge, to knowledge self-control, to self-control perseverance, to perseverance godliness, to godliness brotherly kindness, and to brotherly kindness love" (2 Peter 1:5).

In art lies the means for inculcating virtue, not just in preaching it from the parental or church pulpit. If our art is not virtuous, or if we silence our best artists by refusing to read their works, how will we understand and desire to practice virtue? And without virtue, knowledge is dangerous, and we will not add to it self-control and the rest, but we will only add to it more self-centered manipulations of the world to gain "happiness."

I really believe this. And right now it is making me despair. So few, so few that we can reach . . .

On a Criminal Minds re-run the other night, Gideon said to Hotch, who was near despair about the apparent futility of their work, "Save one life, save the world." I guess I will have to embrace that philosophy, because it's all one person can do at a time.


St. Kevin & the Blackbird said...

I admit to sharing these sentiments from time to time. For myself, I battle it by being demanding of the students that care, and letting the others fail themselves. I use all my powers and magic of charisma to make the ideas seem irresistible to all and sundry. And some learners just shrug their shoulders and walk away, others don't show up at all, or are not prepared as you say. Not pretty, I know. I don't want to sound crass, however, I am put in mind of something Dorothy Parker once said, when asked to make a sentence out of the word "horticulture": You can take a whore to culture, but you can't make her think. Antidotes to shallowness of character take time, life experience and intimations of deprival. My job as a teacher of philosophy is to mediate that sense of deprival effectively so that learners begin to wonder what they've been missing.

St. Kevin & the Blackbird said...

One could also say, as Cormac McCarthy does in *All the Pretty Horses*, "No creature can learn that which his heart has no shape to hold." In other words, learning is a process of identity and what you know depends on who you are. One sees this at work in the existential question that Plato uses to open the Gorgias: ask Gorgias “who he is”, and also in the dialogue between Socrates and Callicles, where the question is no longer rhetoric, but how one should live.