Tag Archives: class

Dore chaos
My friend Stuart sent me a letter:

You can learn a great deal from a springer spaniel. For instance:

Total order and total chaos are the same thing. Identical. Not a dime’s worth of difference. And neither is very helpful.

Think of it in terms of the Linnean metaphor. I’ll get to the spaniel in a moment.

At one end of the spectrum is chaos, a totality that is unordered, a cosmic goo. This is not the current chaos of the eponymous theory, which is merely a complexity beyond calculation, but rather the mythic chaos out of which the gods either create the cosmos, or arrive unannounced from it like Aphrodite from the sea. It has no edges, no smell, no shape, no parts, no color, no anything. Inchoate muddle. john martin chaos

So, in the beginning was the word: Or rather, our ability to organize this chaos through language. The universe exists without form and void. Then we begin the naming of parts to help us understand the welter.

And so, god created the heaven and earth, dividing the parts. And this division of parts is in essence what the Creation is all about. Ouroboros

Of course, the incessant need to divide and name is only a metaphor, but it will help us understand the conundrum of order in the universe, and how the ouroboros of Creation begins and ends at the same place, no matter which direction we go in: The law of entropy and the law of increasing order both have the same final destination.

When we look at the world around us, we immediately split what we see into two camps: That which is living and that which isn’t. It helps us understand the world we live in and we make many of our biggest decisions on this basis: Ethics, for instance. We have no problem splitting a rock in half with a hammer, but would feel rather evil doing the same to a dog.

But the living things fall into two large camps, also: Animal and vegetable (again, I’m simplifying. I haven’t forgotten the bacteria, but we can ignore them for the sake of the metaphor).

Some of us have a problem eating animals but not eating vegetables. So, again, our ethical world depends on how we sort out the chaos.

Let’s take the animals and subdivide them, the way Carl von Linne did, into classes, orders, families, phyla, genera and species.

Each level makes our divisions less inclusive, more discriminatory.

Let’s take the dog, for instance. It is classified as a chordate, which means it has a central nervous system stretched out into a spinal chord. This is different from, say, a starfish or a nematode. But there are many chordates, so, if we want to differentiate a dog from a shark, we have to look to its class. It is a mammal. That makes it distinct from birds and fish.

But there are lots of mammals, too. Some of them eat other animals; we call them carnivores. A dog is a carnivore.

Notice how each level of nomenclature narrows our definition down to a smaller and smaller group of initiates. When we had only living and non-living, there were only two groups; with each level, we add dozens, hundreds and then thousands of other groups disincluded in our catalog.

The order carnivora is one of many orders in the class of mammalia, which is one of many in the phylum chordata, which in turn is one of many in the kingdom animalia.

The order separates our subject, but lets us see in relief that it is just one constellation in the heavens populated by many other constellations.

The same poor pup is in the family canidae, which includes all the dog-like animals, from fox to coyote to jackal. Among them, it is in the genus Canis, and species lupus, which makes it brother with the wolf.

But our wolf is a friendly one, as long as you aren’t the postman. So, now we call it Canis lupus familiaris, or the family dog. And our particularization of the beast means we are conversely aware of all of creation — each in its own genus and species — that makes up the non-dog, and each of them is like the billions and billions of stars that make up the many constellations in the night sky.

Yet, this isn’t far enough. For the dog I’m thinking of isn’t just a dog, but a spaniel, which is a type of dog which isn’t a poodle and isn’t a terrier. It is a dog with “a long silky coat and drooping ears.”

Each time we subclassify, we are adding to the order we impose on existence, and each classification adds to the proliferation of categories just as it reduces the members inside each class.

So, there are also different kinds of spaniels. The dog I’m thinking of is a springer spaniel, which come in two forms, with a brown-and-white coat and a black-and-white coat.

My brother’s dog is a brown-coated springer spaniel named Sylvie. She is getting old now, and her backside — very much like humans — is getting broader.

And now, by classifying things to the level of the individual, we have as many categories as there are things in the universe, which is effectively the same as nothing being categorized: It is all primordial goo and might as well not be cataloged: Total order and total chaos are the same thing. QED.

A Facebook friend left a challenge for her followers: 

“In a text post, list 10 books that have stayed with you in some way. Don’t take but a few minutes, and don’t think too hard — they don’t have to be the “right” or “great” works, just the ones that have touched you. Tag ten friends, including me, so I’ll see your list.”

guilford 2

College is where the majority of attendees do the most reading of their lives. Indeed, surveys consistently record that at least a third of college grads never read another book after graduation. One must assume that these are the people who become politicians.

For the rest of us, college is where we encounter the first books that we recognize as opening the doors of our minds and either forming the adults we become, or providing reinforcing arguments for the personalities we have already developed: Really, both.

Coursework reading is where we first discover that other people have had the same thoughts we have had, and what is more, have been entirely more articulate about those thoughts. And those writers have considered issues that had never, as yet, occurred to us.

It is a four-year span in which we are, for the second time in our lives, slapped awake.

As for me, I couldn’t wait. College was an escape from the oppressive banality of suburbia. I was told by my parents that upon entering second grade I asked if that meant I could “go to college next year.”

I really wanted to get away and enter what I imagined to be the real “adult” world of intellectual pursuit.

However, when I got there, I proceeded to waste most of my time and my parents’ money. I was a terrible student. Oh, I worked hard and made excellent grades in those courses that interested me, but in courses that didn’t interest me, or in which I felt contempt for the professor (being the know-it-all that we all are as adolescents), I hardly attended class and instead slept late, drank beer, or spent time in the company of the serial list of women who let me into the mysteries for which I was such an eager sleuth.

There were, nevertheless, a few things from early-morning classrooms that have stuck with me. I want to mention four of them.shelley

The first, and probably most indelible, is Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Defence of Poetry.

There are many for whom art, whether poetry or TV sitcom is essentially a branch of entertainment. These people includes highbrows as well as low. But there are some — and I am unfortunately one — who see a more serious purpose for art. It is probably just a genetic relic of the Norwegian Lutheranism I was born into, but boy, did I ever suffer from it.

This is a position that it is difficult to maintain in part because of the solemn piety of its adherents: easy to make fun of. And the grand claims made by Victorian do-gooders and Modernist manifestos are often preposterous, even laughable, and further undermine any effort to find a moral purpose to scribbling on paper, whether with pen or brush.

Too often, moral purpose in the arts has led to boring, didactic works, espousing this partisan view or that, whether Christian or Marxist — or in the case of that great fashioner of doorstops, Ayn Rand, unreadable tracts.

But Shelley makes clear in his argument that it is not the modeling of behavior that makes art moral, but the very act of imagination: The ability to conceive of thoughts, emotions, pains and motives not our own. Imagination fuels empathy.

“The great instrument of moral good is the imagination; and poetry administers to the effect by acting upon the cause.”

At the heart of great art is compassion. Not as a subject matter — that is left to the preacher’s sermons — but through opening each of us up to the multifariousness of experience and the variety of responses to experience. A great work of art must make us understand even that which we abhor. Humbert Humbert, for instance.

As Yeats wrote, “From our arguments with others, we make rhetoric; poetry from our arguments with ourselves.”

The class where I read the Defence was one in English Romantic Poetry, and it left me with a trove of things I return to over and over, from Wordsworth’s Intimations Ode (which I re-read at least once a month), to William Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell, to the psychedelic fourth act of Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound, which is my substitute for bong and hash: “With a mighty whirl the multitudinous orb/ Grinds the bright brook into an azure mist /Of elemental subtlety, like light.” Flashing, man.greek myths 2

The second lingering from class is Robert Graves’ Greek Myths. I took several courses in classical literature, including a blunted attempt to learn the language of the ancient Greeks. En arche hen ho logos. I foundered on the aorist voice, among other things, including my growing dislike of the word-games and fascistic tendencies of Plato, whose Euthyphro I was tasked to translate.

But, I came to love the classics. They have enriched my life from then to now (more about them in a later blog entry). But Graves gave me a deeper and richer appreciation of mythology, and upset any naive notion I had that it was all a coherent, organized system of gods and goddesses (as it was made to appear in Edith Hamilton or Hawthorne’s Wonder Book), but rather a welter of conflicting local stories, changing over time and mixed into a stew that no one ever held onto in a single grip. Again: multifarious and complex. robt graves

One of the underlying messages of any important reading: Everything you know is wrong. Or at least, no single idea or ideology can adequately describe the world. It is always more complex than that, and we should beware of anyone who tells us they have the answer.

It is true that Graves had his hobby horse and you can’t take everything he avers as solid truth. But the underlying mash of malt and hops captures the brew pretty well.

Third, there was E.M.W. Tillyard’s The Elizabethan World Picture, which I read for a Shakespeare course. Tillyard covers several aspects of that world view, but most essentially, the idea of hierarchy, the sense that God created a world in which everything exists on a rung of a ladder of which there is always something above and something below. Thus, lions are the “king of beasts,” the way gold is the most noble of metals and the oak is the top tree. Further, that trees as a whole top minerals, and animals top trees, and man is atop all this, yet under angels, which in turn, are under God, who is the end of the line, very like Canarsie. descent of man

It can get quite silly and convoluted: arguing whether a siamang or white-handed gibbon is higher on the chain, or whether a peach is more noble than an apricot, since clearly, one must rank higher. Medieval literature is chock full of such debates: Who ranks higher, king or pope? But we still have these arguments, all over the place.

Becoming aware of this persistent trope in our culture turned the lights on: We are still suffering from this idea, and it is all around us, unexamined. Tillyard made me see and examine it: Every time someone talks about something being “higher on the evolutionary ladder,” one must counter that such an idea is a misunderstanding of Darwin. But that misunderstanding drives so much policy and inflames so much political rhetoric.

Tillyard made me re-examine many of the axioms and assumptions of our culture in a way more direct and concrete — and easier to understand — than all the horse-hair stuffing of the French Post-structuralist philosophers and deconstructionists. prolog canterbury tales

Finally, from class, and by no means least, I came to love Geoffrey Chaucer. I have become a fair reciter of Middle English, with a credible accent. And I found that reading Chaucer out loud enhances his comprehensibility. It become very like getting used to a thick Scottish burr or the sing-song of English spoken in the Indian subcontinent. When you get used to it, it disappears. Outside of some arcane vocabulary, Chaucer’s language isn’t all that difficult.

What is more, the poetry itself is overwhelming, whether it is the Wife of Bath’s prologue or the short poem, Trouthe, the language is as delicious as can be found in our mother tongue.

“The wrastling for the world axeth a fall.”

“Here is noon hoom, here nis but wildernesse.”

“Much wele stant in littel businesse.”

My wife periodically asks me to recite the general prologue to the Canterbury Tales, which I have fairly well committed to memory, and I can’t think of a greater or more pleasurable chunk of poetry in the English language.

NEXT: The years in the wilderness