Conversation

Here’s an extended quote, broken up into fragments, from Michael Oakeshott. I pass it on from my friend,

Rev. Andrew Brown.

*

*

The participants (in worthy conversation) . . . are not engaged in an inquiry or debate; there is no “truth” to be discovered, no proposition to be proved, no conclusion sought.

They are not concerned to inform, to persuade, or to refute one another, and therefore the cogency of their utterances does not depend upon their all speaking in the same idiom; they may differ without disagreeing.

Of course, a conversation may have passages of argument and a speaker is not forbidden to be demonstrative; but reasoning is neither sovereign nor alone, and the conversation itself does not compose an argument. . . .

In conversation, “facts” appear only to be resolved once more into the possibilities from which they were made; “certainties” are shown to be combustible, not by being brought in contact with other “certainties” or with doubt, but by being kindled by the presence of ideas of another order; approximations are revealed between notions normally remote from one another.

Thoughts of different species take wing and play round one another, responding to each other’s movements and provoking one another to fresh exertions.

Nobody asks where they have come from or on what authority they are present; nobody cares what will become of them when they have played their part.

There is no symposiarch or arbiter; not even a doorkeeper to examine credentials.

Every entrant is taken at its face-value and everything is permitted which can get itself accepted into the flow of speculation.

And voices which speak in conversation do not compose a hierarchy.

Conversation is not an enterprise designed to yield an extrinsic profit, a contest where a winner gets a prize, nor is it an activity of exegesis; it is an unrehearsed intellectual adventure.

It is with conversation as with gambling, its significance lies neither in winning nor in losing, but in wagering.

Properly speaking, it is impossible in the absence of a diversity of voices: in it different universes of discourse meet, acknowledge each other and enjoy an oblique relationship which neither requires nor forecasts their being assimilated to one another

(‘Rationalism in Politics’, Liberty Fund, Carmel, 1991, pp. 489-490).

Is this a fitting portrait of our substantive conversations with others — those that migrate beyond chit chat?

Receptivity and Soul

*

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world and am free.

I rest in the grace of the world. 

–Wendel Berry

*

Self calls us to take charge, to take action.

Soul calls us to relinquish the stance of self. It calls us to open to beauty, to kindness, or pain.

We are tempted to think that it’s always good to take charge of our lives, to accomplish, or master – to be triumphant. Yet it’s often good to set mastery aside — to yield, to let go.

It’s often good to give in to the beauty or majesty or pain of the moment.

We needn’t always be in charge, always fight back tears of joy or sorrow.

If we yield in anticipation of the opening chords of a symphony, that yielding is not a sign of defeat. It’s a sign of a readiness to be transformed, a readiness to let music fill us with unexpected wonder or joy or sorrow.

For the moment, we can let go of a will to mastery or a desire to accomplish.

We can come into the presence of still water or the lilt of birdsong.

Then freedom is no longer a choice or accomplishment.

“For a time I rest in the grace of the world and am free.”

Receptive freedom is letting the grace of the world set the acquisitive self aside.

*

It is letting go — letting the soul flourish.

Beyond Murder

*

I don’t think I’m alone in discovering via covid a whole new range of TV fodder. More than ever in my life, stripped of my evening activities, I’ve been watching all kinds of detective series. One stands out: “Murder In . . . ” Each episode is placed in a specific French town, with its different detectives and constabularies. The episodes are not formulaic “Who-Dun-Its.” Each dives into the culture and history of a particular French village with its surrounding natural landscape.

The locale and its inhabitants are every bit as important as unraveling a crime-puzzle. It can seem we’re tourists on holiday with a special host, meeting villagers in pairs or singly, folk out on their farms or at the village pub or in the schoolyard waiting for the kids to get out.

The title, “Murder in. . . ” puts the emphasis on “IN.” It’s all about place. This sets it apart.

It’s not original to have landscape play a role in detective series. Think of “Shetland,” set beautifully on the islands. What’s original here is having the village and its characters be more than background. They assume an importance independent of the murder investigation.

This particular “Murder In . . .” is set in the village of Colmar (season 7). Here, we meet a surgeon who has abandoned his family and country to travel the world as a medical missionary. He comes to Colmar (“Murder in Colmar”) to find out more about the death of his son.

His becomes an unofficial investigator. He works on the case tagging along with the official village detectives — often getting in their way. His skill in tracking the cause of disease equips him to track the cause of his son’s death. The local detectives, especially at first, see him as mainly meddling.

A highlight of the drama is his getting to meet and know his six year old grandson. The growing cross-generational relationship attains a warmth and interest of its own, quite apart from the police investigation. In fact, as the story wound down, I realized I was less interested in the death of the father than in the growing affection of grandfather and grandson.

The incredible warmth of the grandfather as he comes to know and love his grandson gets center stage. The older man radiates good will, affection, and imagination in bridging the gap as he enters the world of his grandson.

As the police drama winds down, this affectionate connection across generations upstages all else. Quite apart from the solution to a crime, the story becomes a love story, rich in detail and modes of affection.

Against Knowledge

*

Knowing isn’t our sole access to others and the world.

Plato is charged with banishing the poets, preferring the philosophers who sought knowledge. Whether or not this is fair to Plato, with the Enlightenment, Knowledge was valorized, crowned, as the counterweight to blind faith. It was feted as the key to scientific inquiry. The stance of inquiry was given center stage. But why give knowing such regal standing?

There are two notable ways of facing and engaging the world that are infinitely valuable yet non-knowing — and they’re quite other than faith. These two are acknowledgement and appreciation.

When I acknowledge you as a friend, I’m not in a stance of knowing about you.

I can know all sorts of things about you, or about my neighbor, and never acknowledge either you or my neighbor; never appreciate either of you.

I can know all sorts of facts about Beethoven. But if I appreciate Beethoven’s late quartets, that’s not knowing facts about them. I could know everything factual there is to know about my friend or about Beethoven, yet fail to have an intimate connection. I could fail to embrace either in appreciation or acknowledgment.

If friendship or love are front-and-center, bare knowledge isn’t there.

It’s appreciation and acknowledgment that will hold center stage.

(There’s a Biblical sense of knowledge: knowledge as sexual intimacy. Today we divorce such knowing from the detached observation of scientific, or commonsense knowing.)

Without appreciation and acknowledgment we’d never have love or engagement. In personal relationships acknowledgement and appreciation are front and center, not knowing.

In our relationship to art and music, to nature and the weather, to friends and relatives, intimate appreciation and acknowledgment replace knowing.

I may know it’s cold outside. But when I reach for my jacket and mittens, beyond knowing, I’m appreciating and acknowledging that fact.

This can be like the contrast between the mind and the heart. If so, then in a culture that lets knowledge rule supreme, the challenge is to sing praises to matters of the heart. Knowledge will not be the only claimant to center stage. Appreciating and acknowledging will win central casting.

*

Poems

*

*

OFFERING

A poem lies under every leaf

Give it a gentle turn

You’ll see

*

A poem lies over every wave

Watch its ripple

You’ll see

*

A poem lies in every warm glance

Bask there

You’ll see

*

Ah, that I had known

The leaf, the wave, the glance

From birth

*

But I drink now

Let Leaf, Wave, Glance

Renew my day

**

HIDDEN GEMS

What words lie silently

Beneath a glance

*

What touch rests silently

Beneath a glance

*

What kindness lies hesitant

Hampered by fear

*

With love will they

Escape?

*

The Author Unveiled

*

*

*

A likeness offered by a good friend, an Israeli English Professor who takes up charcoal for a lock down challenge and diversion. That’s Thoreau’s cabin in the distance. The sign says “live deliberately” — Thoreauvian wisdom.

*

Ecstatic Humanism

*

From my earliest wondering about such things, I’ve been receptive to religious sensibilities.

This was not a family inheritance. Though church goers – New England Unitarians — church was a social event for them. To be Unitarian was to be a ‘free thinker’ — scornful of Irish Catholic or haughty British Episcopalian traditions.

I’m still suspicious of starting up with an embrace of Christian dogma. I’ve hoped for a Christian way of life independent of ground-floor confessions of belief. Love of neighbor ought to speak for itself — to be cherished apart from commitments to a Biblical God. Christians should be known by their kind hearts – not by their recitation of creeds.

In my teens I exalted in Emerson’s essays. He was a Unitarian preacher who left the pulpit when he could no longer lead his congregation in creedal recitation. Later, I became immersed in passages in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. I rummaged in Taoist and Confucian texts. As a professor I taught Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, not least for their struggles with Christianity.

Insofar as practices of neighbor-love and openness to strangers draw me in, I’m Christian (though recently I think I’m becoming Jewish).  Am I a Theist? I’ve been drawn to Quaker Silence – to their deep respect, as I understand it, of friendship. They are, after all, The Society of Friends. Sitting in silence on a Sunday without leader or pulpit removes any confessional basis for their Christianity.  It’s a quiet Meeting of hearts and a pacifism free from theological dogma.

A Quaker wouldn’t ask for Theistic credentials as the price of admission. From his pulpit in Cambridge, England, my friend, Andrew Brown, has called himself a “Christian Atheist,” and more recently, an “ecstatic humanist.” A Christian Atheist can be devoted to neighbor-love and good works but averse to any core theological dogmas. Christianity is then measured by neighbor-love.

My friend preaches in a Unitarian Church. From the pulpit he has called himself a Christian Atheist, and more recently suggests that he could also be called an “ecstatic humanist.” It’s not that his humanism leaves him happily ecstatic — his humanism escapes stasis.  It overflows any static formulation or practice linked to a time and place. It’s open-ended, evolving, not to be corralled.  Here is the piece that triggered my thoughts: The case for an Ecstatic Humanism—being “skeptics with naturally religious minds” or “open-minded ‘reverent’ humanists”

Leaving the World: Rilke

*

Only in our doing can we grasp you.

Only with our hands can we illumine you.

The mind is but a visitor:

it thinks us out of our world.

*

Each mind fabricates itself.

We sense its limits, for we have made them.

And just when we would flee them, you come

and make of yourself an offering.

*

I don’t want to think a place for you.

Speak to me from everywhere.

Your Gospel can be comprehended

without looking for its source.

*

When I go toward you

it is with my whole life. 

~~Rilke

Let’s take the first stanza:

Only in our doing can we grasp you.

Only with our hands can we illumine you.

The mind is but a visitor:

it thinks us out of our world.

*

How does the mind think us out of our world?

Well, it thinks us out of the world of our doing. In the moment of thinking we set aside doing. Or better, the more deeply we think, the more liable we are to enter a kind of trance that will suspend action.

Of course, not all thinking is deep.  I can drive my car and wonder if I’m on the right road.

Perhaps Rilke is saying that the more profound our thinking, the less likely it is compatible with simultaneous doing. After all, we sometimes advise kids, “Stop and think.”

*

What can we illuminate with our hands, with our doing?

I have a friend, a retired M.D., who makes wonderful things in his workshop.

Rilke suggests “Each mind fabricates itself.” My mind sometimes seems to draw its thoughts from a mysterious source within itself. Of course, there may be outside triggers. My friend looks at his carpentry project and wonders, “What comes next?”

But what triggers the stepping-back-to-wonder-and-ask? Perhaps the stepping-back-to-wonder-and-ask has no source outside itself. After all, as an outsider I could look at his project and fail to ask, “What comes next?”

Only in our doing can we grasp you.

Only with our hands can we illumine you.

The mind is but a visitor:

it thinks us out of our world.

Only in my friend’s doing can I grasp his inspiration, and that inspiration itself seems to come from out of the world I share with my friend.

And for the moments my friend thinks, he departs the world of his doing.

*

I don’t like to go Negative

*

Not in my blog. Not elsewhere. But sometimes, like a suppressed scream, it just bursts out.

I found Michael Cohen, columnist for the Boston Globe, screaming words just for me this morning.  I borow them. Here he is:  

My overriding emotion was less happiness and more relief. It’s not an exaggeration to say that for the past five-and-a-half years, Donald Trump lived in my head. I conservatively estimate that I’ve written more than half a million words about Trump since 2015 – probably more.

I would look at my Twitter feed obsessively to see the latest thing that he had said and usually shake my head in revulsion. Even Tuesday night, with the end of his presidency in sight, I was still checking to see who he had pardoned in his last grubby, corrupt act as president.

I grew to not just dislike Trump, but to actively loathe him in a way that often made me uncomfortable. For the last two months, since he was defeated for reelection I wanted nothing more than to simply ignore him. Above all, what I wanted is to never think of the man again.

——-

I’ll take a deep breath.

I’ll shift to the wonderful image and voice of our new 22 year old Poet Laureate.

*

Presence

*

I received an invitation a couple of months ago to be on a panel at the American Philosophical Association Meetings.  The topic was both daunting and exciting: Real Presences: Philosophy, Literature, and Poetry. Real presences rule out disposable ghosts in the dark. But what did the conveners really have in mind?

The invitation, which I accepted, brought to mind a passage from the neglected philosopher-poet Henry Bugbee. It goes like this:

I weighed everything by the measure of the silent presence of things, clarified in the racing clouds, clarified by the cry of hawks, solidified in the presence of rocks, spelled syllable by syllable by waters of manifold voice, and consolidated in the act of tacking steps, each step a meditation steeped in reality. What this all meant, I could not say, kept trying to say, kept trying to harmonize with the suggestions arising from the things I read.  But I do remember that this walking in the presence of things came to a definitive stage.

He continues in this lyrical mode:

 It was in the fall of ’41, October and November, while late autumn prevailed throughout the northern Canadian Rockies, restoring everything in that vast region to a native wildness. Some part of each day or night, for forty days, flurries of snow were flying.  The aspens and larches took on a yellow so vivid, so pure, so trembling in the air, as to fairly cry out that they were as they were, limitlessly.  And it was there in attending to this wilderness, with unremitting alertness and attentiveness, yes, even as I slept, that I knew myself to have been instructed for life, though I was at a loss to say what instruction I had received.       

Surely this is both philosophy and poetry. It is both evoking presence and celebrating the power of presence to transform a life – instruct it for life, even while the instruction defies palpable articulation.

Here is another poetic evocation of presence from William Stafford.:

Spirit of Place: Great Blue Heron

Out of their loneliness for each other
two reeds, or maybe two shadows, lurch
forward and become suddenly a life
lifted from dawn or the rain. It is
the wilderness come back again, a lagoon
with our city reflected in its eye.
We live by faith in such presences.

Fact/value, subjective/objective, are supervened by presence.

Teaching literature or absorbing its power and delicacy depends of evoking presence – not just facts about a piece of music or literature ready to cough up in a test.  Pulling dead facts about this novel or poem or sonata toward presence means finding a place for dialogue with this companionable figure, this striking line, this image or chord sequence.

Sticking to facts about (this or that) refuses to leave space for sites for imagining futures that might blow in as dark or lifting winds, for imagining souls taking their next tremulous step into unknowns where questions are so much more than answers and even silence has a place. There is no space for this Van Gogh crow, this line from Rilke or the Psalms, this Socratic exchange; no room for Emersonian invocation or Hepburn moment; no space for the felt texture of King Lear’s rage, Bonhoeffer’s courage, or Kierkegaard’s plea for knowledge that will “come alive in me.”

Whatever comes alive through the humanities arrives through intimacy and openness to texts, dance, and cities as these carry the arts of conversation, gesture, or praise, the habits of attentiveness, gratitude, or compassion, the contours of grieving or outrage; and as these carry the arts of seeing and coping with affliction, injustice, and estrangement (religious, existential, or otherwise).

As these arts of coping and conversation and habits of attention gradually disappear from the University they do not take up residence elsewhere (at least not in a healthy elsewhere). The lives and imaginations and hearts of its students are less for their disappearance. If departments in the humanities husband these varied sensibilities, proto-religious or not, sensibilities at least in search of a heart (and mourning its absence),

T. S. Eliot knew it was presence, not knowledge, that gives us poetry and the deepest communions with our worlds:

We must be still and still moving

Into another intensity

For a further union, a deeper communion

Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,

The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters

Of the petrel and the porpoise.

[4 quartets]

**

Or Ross Gay, “A Wedding”

Friends I am here to modestly report

seeing in an orchard

in my town

a goldfinch kissing

a sunflower

again and again

dangling upside down

by its tiny claw

steadying itself by snapping open

like an old-timey fan

its wings

again and again,

until, swooning, it tumbled off

and swooped back to the very same perch,

where the sunflower curled its giant

swirling of seeds

around the bird and leaned back

to admire the soft wind

nudging the bird’s plumage,

and friends I could see

the points on the flower’s stately crown

soften and curl inward

as it almost indiscernibly lifted

the food of its body

to the bird’s nuzzling mouth

whose fervor

I could hear from

oh, 20 or 30 feet away

and see from the tiny hulls

that sailed from their

good racket,

which good racket, I have to say,

was making me blush,

and rock up on my tippy-toes,

and just barely purse my lips

with what I realize now

was being, simply, glad,

which such love,

if we let it,

makes us feel.

*

Presence is the deepest communion.

*