Friday, September 25, 2015

`Their Conversation Has Grandeur'

“I have a little Attic cup dating from the fifth century B.C.E. sitting beside me. It holds paper clips, but every once in a while I `come to’ and a frisson runs down my spine as I think, `2,450 years back and perhaps a little Athenian kid was drinking his milk from this.’ Mere antiquity has its peculiar charms to which the dispositional conservative is perhaps particularly sensitive.”

I resist the urge to fetishize objects I own, to lend them a significance and worth exceeding their functional and aesthetic qualities, but sympathize with Eva Brann’s attachment to the little Greek cup. Anything that inspires such a “frisson” of connection with the past, whether historical or personal, is to be cherished. That tingle reaffirms the sense that we are the products of everything that preceded us. To think otherwise is to sit smugly in a provincial little backwater called Now.

Brann, now eighty-six, is a long-serving tutor and former dean at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Md., born to a Jewish family in Berlin that sought refuge in the United States (another of the many gifts Hitler gave us). Trained at Yale as an archeologist, she is in fact a polymath at home with Heraclitus, Abraham Lincoln and Marilynne Robinson. The passage above is from her essay “Reflections on Imaginative Conservatism,” first published online and now collected in Then & Now: The World’s Center and the Soul’s Demesne (Paul Dry Books, 2015). The passage above continues:

“But all in all the glory of the tradition–a tradition primarily in books–as I’ve tried to lay it out, is not in its pastness but in its presence. These books speak directly and rousingly to me and my friends, known and unknown; moreover, they are in dialogue with each other, on either side of their temporal position. To their predecessors they respond by acceptance and/or rejection; to their successors they attempt to project their influence. And as its individual speakers have greatness, so their conversation has grandeur.”

Seldom have I seen my understanding of how literature works -- how writers and readers, writers and writers, and readers and readers, collaborate, converse and shift positions across time -- articulated so precisely. And don’t assume you know what Brann means by “conservative.” She is not much concerned with “politics” in the customarily banal, touchy, strident sense. Her thinking nicely complements Michael Oakeshott’s “On Being Conservative.” Compare her “conservatism is a temperamental disposition” to Oakeshott’s “conservative disposition.” Brann writes:
“Let me put `political’ conservatism aside for a–long–moment. Later I’ll want to show why an `imaginative’ conservative might be all over the political map, as occasion arises: right, center, left–reactionary (disgustedly oppositional), moderate (prudently dithering), and radical (exuberantly reformist).”

Her key sentence for this reader is this: “These books speak directly and rousingly to me and my friends, known and unknown . . .” She leaves their titles unnamed but surely they would include the subject of Brann’s first essay in Then & Now, The Histories of Herodotus. Earlier this week I started reading the translation by Tom Holland published in 2013 by Penguin Classics. Brann begins her essay like this: “You would have to be pretty flat-souled not to be enchanted by Herodotus’s `history’. . .” As this suggests, she challenges the endurance of a commonplace book keeper. Enjoy the aphoristic pleasures of her prose:

“All the things we care about have, or so I think, a root to be understood, reflected on, replanted. (Thomas Aquinas, for example, speaks of radix gratiae, habitus, peccati, virtutis, rationis, `the root of grace, disposition, sin, virtue, reason.’)”

“. . .the ignorance of academic philosophy permits the bliss of occasional insight.”

“The agnosticism in which I have faith begins with a strong sense of human finitude–not others’ but my own, a strong sense that I have no access to the bounds of my own existence, no credible news of that `undiscov’d country from whose bourn/No traveler returns.’”

“So what if some oaf subjects me to anti-Semitism? Let’s not make a federal case of it. I want the law to protect my person from harm, not my soul from insult.”

James Madison she describes as “the most imaginative conservative statesmen I know of, imaginative in envisioning very specifically how things actually work on earth, conservative in devising an edgily innervating stability.” She follows this up with an endorsement of level-headed, non-theoretical, Madisonian populism – something to offend every crackpot, Left or Right:

“The populism that seems to me to suit us is a friendly fellow-feeling based on sheer liking of our common public ways: the matter-of-fact courteous helpfulness of our casual encounters; the ready wit of our linguistic companionableness, the well-worn high-jinx of our gestures; the commonsensical unegalitarian sense of equality, meaning the deep sense that sub specie aeternitatis, seen from the height of heaven, as it were, we are indeed all equal, of an equal creation, but that, on the plateau of earth, we are quite unequally, or better, incommensurably, gifted; the consequent understanding that we are endowed from above with certain rights regarding our existence, but that seen on the shared level of earth we are all mysteries to each other and so, ipso facto, entitled to respect for our individual souls.”

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