Sunday, August 23, 2009

Why to read, and how to do it.

Richard Weaver is one of those Dangerous Writers. It's important to be careful and discerning as we make our way through his work. Plato, Nietzsche, Walter Kaufmann, Leo Strauss are among those authors who are perceptive and profound in their observations of human thought and culture. Here is a lengthy passage from the concluding chapter of Visions of Order, where he discusses human learning. (His idiom is mid-20th century, so please overlook the non-PC terminology, like "man".)

Now while man has many times claimed goodness arising from a divine connection and while he is given to erecting codes of ethics, he has committed the most abominable crimes and has visited every kind of suffering upon his fellows for an infinite variety of alleged reasons. He is passionate and unstable, sot that very little is required to set him on the warpath, even against his kith and kin. Most fearful of all to contemplate is his great power of self-deception. He often does things for reasons that are obscure to him, and undoubtedly many a person has led an entire life in ignorance of the mainspring of his own actions.

These things being so, nothing could be more proper to man than the study of himself, and it is important that this should be the deepest, freest and most imaginative that the most gifted individuals are capable of making. It should be a continuing, earnest examination of human life, with all its moods, impulses, choices of means, failures and successes, miseries and happinesses shown in concrete representation. The indispensable requirement, both for the creation and enjoyment of literature thus conceived, is a receptivity to the real image of man. The practical problem is how to restore that receptivity in the face of a barbarism nourished by the scientistic fallacies discussed earlier.

A simple illustration may make this clearer. Every teacher of experience knows that there is a type of student who resents the very idea of studying literature. This student hangs back or is even defiant because he senses that the study of literature demands a certain kind of intellectual and emotional response. We might say that it demands a sign of consent, almost like some religious sacraments. It requires of every man that he suppress at least part of his native barbarism and enter into rapport with the realm of value. The easier and more natural thing for him to do is to regard the work of literature with mingled contempt and truculence. For literature, at the same time it pleases those who accept it, imposes obligations; one does not enter into it and leave scot-free. In that important respect literature is further comparable with religion; it is not supposed to make us merely comfortable. This the wary barbarian (even in the form of the reluctant student) senses, and he may decide to persist in an obdurate barbarism. It is part of the barbarian's self-protection to reject cultivation. He may repel all influences that would mollify the attitude that keeps him narrow and destructive. Putting this in a figurative way, one might assert that men are not ready for literature until they have been "Christianized." By this I refer to the establishment of that "prejudice" Blackmur speaks of in Language as Gesture. They must give initial assent to certain propositions about man and the world. In no age are all men equally ready to give this assent, and in our age there are new active forces to persuade them against giving it. The barbarian's picture of the world is founded upon the simple adulation of force, direct ways of satisfying appetite, and generally the absence of any idea about human destiny. (Of course not all peoples who have been called barbarians fit this description.) When the barbarian is asked to respect things which rebuke, refine, and control these ideas, he is being asked to change his way of life. Hence the problem of conversion arises, which in the modern setting will have to be away from the idealization of physical comfort, from the view of life as the mere play of physical matter, and from the shortcutting of those processes around which cultured man weaves patterns of significance. It must be to a conversion to an awareness of the ethical and religious drama of every moment.

1 comment:

ttyler5 Editor said...

Great post!

Just left a response for you over at SciGuy: