Friday, October 30, 2009

`A Certain Lightsomeness'

“I think that education in the higher things today is largely a matter of private enterprise.”

That certainly has been my experience. I’m aware of the dangers of autodidacticism, comparable to serving as one’s own attorney in criminal matters, but I earned a college degree 33 years after I matriculated, mostly out of orneriness, and spent most of the intervening years reading widely but unsystematically. I assumed learning was driven by raw curiosity, a hunger to know things, not to pass a test or get a job. As a result, I’m finding James V. Schall’s The Unseriousness of Human Affairs – the source of the quotation above – a satisfying intellectual romp. Father Schall is a Jesuit and professor of government at Georgetown University. He’s also formidably well read, playful and wise. His eyes are on “higher things,” what truly matters, not academic fashion. This comes from the introduction:

“The reader will find many of my friends in this book, both friends that I know and…many whom I have never met, yet know through reading, through having been taught about them and by them. I do not hesitate to cite Charles Brown and Lucy Van Pelt as philosophical authorities alongside real heroes like Aristotle, Augustine, G.K. Chesterton, Samuel Johnson, Josef Pieper…”

I’ll skip the creations of Charles Schulz but emphasize that an attentive reader of the five writers noted by Schall could be judged highly educated. He adds: “I cite these diverse authorities to help me show that the highest things have a certain lightsomeness about them. We sometimes confuse ourselves by thinking that solemn things cannot also be joyful things.” As though in confirmation, Dr, Johnson writes in “The Vanity of Human Wishes”:

“Year chases year, decay pursues decay,
Still drops some joy from withering life away…”

In Chapter V, “On the Mystery of Teachers I Never Met,” Schall returns to the five writers cited above (and adds, in passing, Pascal, Walker Percy and Flannery O’Connor, among others), briefly illuminating their importance to his thinking and life. Imagine a dear friend introducing you to five of his dearest friends. He does Chesterton the honor of quoting him well (from his Short History of England): “I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought; and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.” Later, Schall shares an anecdote that I intend to adopt for my own purposes:

“I read something from Boswell’s Life of Johnson almost every day.”

I always feel stronger and healthier after reading Johnson or his biographer, more centered and reassured. In a post earlier this week I argued for the obvious superiority of dead over living writers. Our arrogance toward the past is appalling. While reading Schall’s book I’ve also been reading The Confessions of a Trivialist (1972) by Samuel Rosenberg, another Cleveland-born autodidact, who collects “Things” (the upper case is Rosenberg’s), both objects and facts. He loves minutiae, occult connections and other people’s scorned ideas and possessions. He devotes chapters to Santa Claus, Frankenstein’s monster, Lot’s wife, Albert Schweitzer, Herman Melville and a peridromophile (an obsessive collector of streetcar transfers). Rosenberg, however, distinguishes his passion for trivia from the devotees of “camp” who feast at a “cultural smorgasbord”:

“The people of the past did not live and create and die in order to provide material for our condescension. Many of our ancestors, remote and immediate, were better people than we are and they produced things of greater quality. Who are we to condescend to anyone?”

Schall and Rosenberg are unlikely allies. The former writes:

“The human spirit transcends time and space. And even if one of the great minds is not alive during our days, or if we are not lucky enough to meet such a person, we need not despair. We can still find the great thinkers, can meet them and let them teach us, through books. Indeed, with the new technology, it almost seems that no one is ever really dead.”

1 comment:

Ron Slate said...

Thanks for introducing me to James Schall.