I’ve always claimed that culture is an infinity of porous membranes, that ideas and sentences fly this way and that, being absorbed (or rejected) in this time or that, in this place or that. That’s a model I’ve liked, but I’ve just experienced it at work in a surprising way. Words I wrote in Syracuse some time ago somehow traveled to a Unitarian Fellowship in Cambridge, UK, as center pieces for discussion. And then were sent aloft again to Hod HaSharon, Israel. A lot of dispersed porous membranes had to be in play for those flights and absorptions to have occurred.
One can forget exactly what one has written with surprising ease, the flip side of which is that one can read what one has written with fresh eyes and ears as if the ideas were from someone else. In any case, if you were in Cambridge this Sunday you could have been pondering this:
Ortega calls his Meditations on Quixote “essays in Intellectual love.” As he puts it “[these essays] . . . have no informative value whatever, they are not summaries, either – they are rather what a humanist of the seventeenth century would have called salvations.” But what can we, of the twenty-first century, make of the idea that essays can be salvations? Ortega writes that a salvation – for example, his salvations of Don Quixote – will take up “a man, a book, a picture, a landscape, an error, a sorrow and then seek to carry it by the shortest route to its fullest significance.”
We should expect, then, that some essays are expressions of love, a kind of preservative love, a love that cares for persons and things and gives them life. Such essays can carry out a generous, even pious criticism or elaboration that brings a theme or person or object to its next and fuller meaning. Without such attentive care, fields of significance we now take for granted fall into disuse, decay. Like ill-treated living things, they slowly die, or stay fallow, awaiting summer’s rain and seeding. Texts or paintings, trees or figures from our past, can carry undiscovered plenitudes. The artful critic, like the curator of invaluable archives or someone husbanding objects of great cultural worth, can bring that plenitude out and into life, saving it from extinction or from an only paltry half-life.