Friday, November 12, 2010

`A Burden to Me'

This makes me laugh, as it did the first time I read it thirty years ago:

“I suppose I read Aristotle in college but not to know I was doing it; the same with Plato. I don’t have the kind of mind that can carry such beyond the actual reading, i.e., total non-retention has kept my education from being a burden to me. So I couldn’t make any judgment on the Summa, except to say this: I read it for about twenty minutes every night before I go to bed. If my mother were to come in during the process and say, `Turn off that light. It’s late,’ I with lifted finger and broad bland beatific expression, would reply, `On the contrary, I answer that the light, being eternal and limitless, cannot be turned off. Shut your eyes,’ or some such thing.”

I too am blessedly unburdened by my education. The university was no more than an intellectual match-making service, an instrument of exposure – to writers and a large library that permitted me to read them. I remember the reassuring thrill of knowing the campus library was open twenty-four hours a day. If I needed Tertullian, Hobbes or George Herbert at 3 a.m., they were a short walk away.

For the purposes of education, I found most fellow students an irritation to be endured, which I suppose taught me something. Even with several excellent teachers I remained, for good and ill, an autodidact but not always, I hope, a know-it-all. I was acutely aware of my ignorance but resented most intermediaries – critics, interpreters, systematizers – and felt only aversion for grand theories. To this day I like to meet a book on my terms, without a middle-man, because most of the best books teach me how to read them. My request is simple: Don’t tell me what to think; show me what you know.

The passage quoted above is from a letter Flannery O’Connor wrote to “A.” on Aug. 9, 1955 (The Habit of Being, 1979). Here are the subsequent sentences:

“In any case, I feel I can personally guarantee that St. Thomas loved God because for the love of me I cannot help loving St. Thomas. His brothers didn’t want him to waste himself being a Dominican and so locked him up in a tower and introduced a prostitute into his apartment; he ran her out with a red-hot poker. It would be fashionable today to be in sympathy with the woman, but I am in sympathy with St. Thomas.”

O’Connor speaks of loving Aquinas, and love is always the engine driving a true education.

1 comment:

William A. Sigler said...

I love, love the slyly placed metaphor of literary intermediaries as prostitutes that must be warded off with the devil's pitchfork. The analogy may be theologically mixed (it's the Protestants who don't want no middle men coming between them and their book), but musically perfect.

I'm sure O'Connor would be smiling an Irish smile from her grand-theory-free heaven at your appropriation of her words.