Wednesday, November 26, 2014

`The Forming of the Mind'

In the nineteen-fifties, Louis MacNeice wrote “To Posterity” (Visitations, 1957), a poem strangely prescient of our diminished world: 

“When books have all seized up like the books in graveyards
And reading and even speaking have been replaced
By other, less difficult, media, we wonder if you
Will find in flowers and fruit the same colour and taste
They held for us for whom they were framed in words,
And will your grass be green, your sky be blue,
Or will your birds be always wingless birds?” 

MacNeice would die just six years later at age fifty-five. He might be writing an elegy for himself, for poetry and for the larger literary culture. “Books in graveyards” recalls Gray’s “Elegy” and its “storied urn.” Traditionally, a book carved into a gravestone signified the Book of Life, awaiting review by the Heavenly Critic. Engines and epileptics “seize up,” frozen into inoperability. And ours is the age of “other, less difficult, media.” At least since the decade of MacNeice’s death, we’ve called our time post-literate – a happy new reality for some (those who prefer their media “less difficult”), grievous for others (all who live by the word). 

MacNeice then pays poetry and the written word a splendid compliment. When the world is no longer “framed in words,” when the best eyes and ears of the past are no longer consulted, when we presume to confront the world in all our arrogant solitude, what remains?  A weirdly mutated world of “wingless birds.” Without words, grass is no longer “green” but something less. In his 1935 essay “Poetry To-day” (Selected Literary Criticism of Louis MacNeice (ed. Alan Heuser, Clarendon Press, 1987), MacNeice had already addressed posterity, saying it “affects to put dead poets and movements in their place; to tell us their real significance and cancel out their irrelevances.” Such presumption is, he says, “tidy and saves thinking.” MacNeice rises to eloquent common sense: 

“If we do our duty by the present moment, posterity can look after itself. To try to anticipate the future is to make the present past; whereas it should already be on our conscience that we have made the past past. We fail to appreciate a great poet like Horace because we don’t let him puzzle us.” 

One writer unseduced by “other, less difficult, media” is Bill Vallicella at The Maverick Philosopher. He impresses me as having a disciplined, attentive mind. He sees things, makes connections and records them in plain prose. More than five years ago, in a post titled “A Method of Study,” Bill proposed an antidote to MacNeice’s grim vision of posterity: 

“If you read books of lasting value, you ought to study what you read, and if you study, you ought to take notes. And if you take notes, you owe it to yourself to assemble them into some sort of coherent commentary. What is the point of studious reading if not to evaluate critically what you read, assimilating the good while rejecting the bad? The forming of the mind is the name of the game.  This won't occur from passive reading, but only by an active engagement with the material.  The best way to do this is by writing up your own take on it.  Here is where blogging can be useful.  Since blog posts are made public, your self-respect will give you an incentive to work at saying something intelligent.”

1 comment:

Subbuteo said...

Words, judiciously used, are the levers we use, in civilised societies where violence is not supposed to be an option, to move the world. If we lose their power what do we fall back on?