Sunday, October 04, 2015

`Respect for Our Common Learning'

Think of what Eva Brann does in Open Secrets/Inward Prospects (Paul Dry Books, 2004) as polishing a seemingly oxymoronic form, the discursive aphorism, to a pleasing gleam. They are aphorisms because they are brief and focused on a central core of thought, like electrons around a nucleus, and discursive because most are not that brief, they leave room for subsequent thoughts and a little embellishment, and because most are not barbed. In these ways they recall Pascal more than La Rochefoucauld, though she is more charming than either of them (one doesn’t read aphorisms for their charm). Few possess the Martial-like lethal thrust of R.L. Barth’s “Don't You Know Your Poems are Hurtful?” (Deeply Dug In, 2003):

“Yes, ma’am. Like KA-BAR to the gut,
Well-tempered wit should thrust and cut
Before the victim knows what’s what;
But sometimes, lest the point be missed,
I give the bloody blade a twist.”
Brann is less bloody and more sanguine. She has been a tutor at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Md., since 1957, and published a dozen books suffused with Greek thought. Open Secrets/Inward Prospects gathers more than thirty years’ worth of what Brann calls, in Greek, skariphemata – “scribblings.” In her preface she offers these instructions for use: “Open anywhere and if it irks you try another page. This book can be long or short—As You Like It.” This is not an irksome book, though Brann herself is not above getting charmingly irked:
“Innocence at home: Some of our students read their Nietzsche assignments as if that author was as indefeasibly nice as they are. Oh, the wicked pleasure of hearing all that nervously nasty transatlantic subtlety neutralized by the all-American balm!”
With her Greek and Latin (especially Greek), Brann thinks etymologically. She is, in this sense, an amateur of philo-sophia:   “There’s business and there’s work. Business is as the Romans say, neg-otium, `non-leisure,’ and is to be disposed of. That gets you to base level, leisure, and thence to real life.” [See Josef Pieper’s Leisure: The Basis of Culture (1952).] And unpack this lesson in medieval epistemology and writerly advice: “They say that truth is adaequatio intellectus rei, `the fitting of thought to thing.’ Writing is the adaequatio linguae rei, `the fitting of speech to thing.’ So pick a good thing and your writing will be good." In Brann’s case, what is a “good thing”? Her book should not be confused with a diary. We learn much about Brann, none of it day-to-day banal. She offers a clue when explaining her choice of title. The book, she says, can be divided in “a rough but ready way” into two categories: “1. observations about our external world well known to all but not always openly told, and 2. sightings of internal vistas and omens, looking at myself as a sample soul.” Brann relishes particulars while seeking general truths, and this would seem to be a lesson drawn, at least in part, from a lifetime spent teaching young people:
“It’s a mark of good teachers that students trust but don’t confide in them, that they speak in hypothetical, general, third-person terms—in the case of our students that they convert personal problems into philosophical issues. It’s their way of showing respect for our common learning: They want from us not coddling warmth but serious reflection on their concerns.”
In a dense nutshell, that tells us everything we need to know about the disastrous state of public education in the United States, without once mentioning money or computers. Brann’s book will remain on my bedside table. I’ll return to it the way we sometimes visit the barber less for a haircut than for a quick, restorative trim. Brann writes (and this one has already set up housekeeping in my brain):
“Later on it might look like `one’s own style.’ But it surely never began by `finding oneself’ but by imitating the finest models—which proved, thank God, to be inimitable.”

1 comment:

George said...

"In a dense nutshell, that tells us everything we need to know about the disastrous state of public education in the United States, without once mentioning money or computers."

Really? There are six school systems within roughly 10 miles of my house. Five have high schools ranging from excellent to awful, one, being small, houses the excellent and awful under one roof. Generalizing about American public education may be profitable financially (for the rare pundit) but not I think in any other way.

Having said that, yes, certainly Brann is correct. It never occurred to me to confide in my teachers.