• Tag Archives Literature
  • Higher Education Does Not Need The Humanities. But, We Do.

    Beltane                                                    Waning Last Frost Moon

    On a pile of essays, yet unread, sits one at the top, “The Great River of the Classics”, by Camille Paglia.  She is my heroine, an outspoken advocate for the content of the humanities, the deposit of art, music, literature and theater that flows from Western civilization’s beginnings in the fertile crescent, a river with a delta now rich with islands and streams, a fan of human experience at its most intense and intimate that nourishes the ocean that is Western humanity’s collective conscious and unconscious.

    Egypt’s splendor, the profundity and innovation of the Greeks, the ordered ambition of the Romans, the spirituality of the Celts, the deep feeling of the Russians and the Germans, the list is long and has depth.  Gilgamesh.  The Egyptian Book of the Dead.  The fragments of the Pre-Socratic.  Jewish texts.  Christian and Muslim texts.  The pyramids.  The parthenon.  Rome.  The pantheon. Fra Lippa.  Giorgio. Botticelli.  Michelangelo. Da Vinci.  Petrarch.  Erasmus.  Francis Bacon.  Titian.  Brueghel.  Boccaccio. Chaucer.  Beowulf.  The poetic eddas.  Ovid.  Turner.  Poussin.  Rembrandt.  Barye.   Tolstoy.  Dostoevsky.  Singer.  the Baal Shem Tov.  Racine.  Shakespeare.  Marlowe.  Haydn.  Mozart.  Beethoven.  Brahms.

    And the many, the very many left out of this brief evocation.

    Perhaps the humanities do not pass the test of occupational preparedness, a test now applied to departments in higher education.  Just yesterday an academic group released a study the dollar value of varying university degrees based on earnings over time and starting salaries.  In many colleges and universities humanities departments look like low hanging fruit when it comes to the budget ax.

    So.  If humanities degrees result in less earned income over a student’s life, does this make them, ipso facto, less valuable?  Obviously.  If, that is, the only yardstick is dollars.  No, I’m not going to make the argument that dollars are a grubby, undistinguished measure; each of us has to eat, reside somewhere, raise our children and nourish our dreams.

    Even the fact that the humanities stood at the very center of the project of higher learning at its inception does not privilege them now.  The needs and values of the middle ages were different from ours today.  No, the humanities must stand valuable by today’s standards more than they must reflect the values of past centuries.

    It may be that the university is no longer the place for the humanities.  It may be that higher education’s mission in contemporary life involves primarily occupational learning, a sort of advanced vocational training.  Institutions focuses change over time.  Their work must meet the needs of those whom they serve or they have no reason to exist.

    It does not bother me if higher education strips out the humanities.  Let the music department perish.  Banish the philosophers, the artists, the literati, the linguists and language crowd, let history go, too.  Leave the ivy covered walls with only economics, business, pre-law, pre-med, engineering, architecture, agriculture, veterinary science, family and child psychology.  Keep those subjects that inform the workers of today and tomorrow and let the fluff go.  Keep the hard stuff, abandon the soft disciplines.

    Why don’t these changes bother me?  Because an artist does not need an art department, she needs fellow artists and places to display and sell her goods, but art departments, no matter how good, no matter how well intentioned, are not necessary to artists.  Work is.  Literature, too.  Writers write because they must, because words and ideas matter to them.  No writer writes because there are good writing programs.  Of course, they can learn things in those programs, but writing does not depend on English departments.  Music, too, is part of the beating heart of culture.  Musicians, whether trained in universities or not, will make music.  Musicians will and do get trained in many other places than higher education.  Philosophers are stuck with the sort of minds that go to the root of things and they will dig deep without philosophy departments.  They need other philosophers, yes, but there are books and airplanes.

    The humanities are of, by and for humans.  Because they are of our essence, they will survive diminished or even eliminated university and college support.  Will they be poorer?  Probably.  For a while.  But not for long.  We need music to fill our souls.  We need literature to grasp the many ways there are to be human.  We need painting and sculpture and print making because beauty satisfies an essential yearning of the human spirit and because we need to experience the interior world of others as much as we can.  We need those among us who will ask the difficult, the unpopular questions and pursue them where they lead.

    We need all of these things; they do not need higher education.  It will be poorer without them, less reflective, more insular, more satisfied with apparently easy answers.

    What might happen is this.  After the humanities have been ejected from higher education, humanities practitioners and scholars will meet, find they still need each other.  An idea will occur to them.  Why not have a place where the humanities can be taught?  An institute, maybe.  A gymnasium.  An academy.  Or, maybe something new.  A virtual gathering space for artists and scholars, for writers and teachers.

    Out of these experiment might grow, what?  I don’t know.  Perhaps an educational institution with its primary mission immersing its students in the Great River of the Humanities, a baptism by art.  Could happen.

  • Still Reading Romance of the Three Kingdoms

    Summer                                   Waxing Strawberry Moon

    Hot today.  At least by our standards.  85.  Plus a dewpoint of 70.  Not outside weather for this gardener.  I did work outside this morning, weeding in the orchard and checking the trees.  I’m going to need a consultation with Ecological Gardens because some of the stuff they planted, I don’t recognize and I don’t want to remove friendlies out of ignorance.

    Kate’s off getting a pre-op physical, having dental work done and nails and hair.  A sort of clean up, paint up, fix up day for her.  Her surgery is a week from tomorrow and can’t come a day too soon for her.  The pain in her hip gives her fits during the day when she walks and at night when she sleeps.  She looks forward to having more than two sleeping positions.  So would I.

    The Romance of the Three Kingdoms has held me for several weeks now, though I’m not reading in large chunks.  It’s a three-volume work about the end of the Han Dynasty and the emergence of the three kingdoms of Wu, Wei and Shu.  This period only last for about 45 years, but it holds a position of particular importance in Chinese culture, with many of its figures like Liu Bei, Cao Cao, Zhuge Liang and the three brothers:  Guan Yu, Zhang Fei and Liu Bei attaining iconic and archetypal significance.

    (Liu Bei, Zhang Fei and Guan Yu)

    It’s not an exact analogy at all, but it resembles the mythos of the American West, a time when men were men and some men were very good and others were very bad.

    If you enjoy political and military tales or have an interest in the logic of other cultures, then the Three Kingdoms may enthrall you as it has me.  If you’re not sure, I recommend seeing the Red Cliffs, the two disc version.  The movie showcases all the main characters and records a pivotal battle, one that has ongoing importance in Chinese culture.  Not to mention that it’s great fun.  Again, if political and military intrigue fascinate you.

  • Wading in Your Media Stream

    61  bar steep rise 29.96 2mph NNW dew-point 45   Summer night, nice

                                  New Moon (Thunder Moon)

    I’d forgotten the all consuming nature of writing a novel.  It goes to bed with you, advances into your dreams and wakes up with in the morning.  Plot ideas, twists, character developments, inconsistencies, new characters.  All aswirl.  The novel bumps up against daily life, takes something from it, gives something back, a loop, a mobius strip.  Feedback.  A neuro-net firing and firing and firing.  It’s fun, a wild ride while its cookin’. 

    There are plateaus.  Superior Wolf landed on a plateau about 6 years ago, struggled to get off it a couple of times, then settled back down to rest.  Jennie’s Dead has been on a bit more of an up and down ride. She’s in storage now, but I can sense her wanting to break out now that her brother has begun to get legs, take strides.

    Somehow, as happens in my life, momentum has increased.  Both the velocity and the mass have kicked up at the same time, calling back into action skills set aside long ago.  The Sierra Club work will require a good deal of time.  The novel needs constant nourishment.  So does the garden.  These three alone would be a good deal, but I also have a sermon to write for September that will take at least a week of research, if not more.  I’ve also agreed to take on managing the Docent Book Club and my term for that starts this month.  Then there’s that pesky Africa check out tour.

    Right now this all feels good.  Blood flowing, mind working.  And I’m sure it will feel that way for a good while, probably on into December, then I’ll feel a need for a let down again.  Right now, though, I’m jazzed.

    My Woolly meeting is in August this  year.   I sent out the following e-mail so guys could prep for it.

    Hi! Your Media Stream:  This is the water from which you take much of your intellectual nourishment.  What is it?  The radio stations to which you listen, TV programs you watch, movies you see, books you read, magazines and newspapers you take or consult.  I-Pod fare, music at home.  Any media, in short, that you use for either entertainment or education. How will we organize the meeting?  Like this—please bring a book you are reading right now.  Please bring a book you consider important and formative for you, perhaps one read long ago.  Bring a copy of your favorite magazine.  Be prepared to let us know your favorite radio program, TV program (if any), movie (again:  current and from the past) and newspapers.  We’ll set music aside for this evening, but it might be fun to pick up again at some point as both Scott and Frank have led us to do at retreats. The physical objects themselves are important, so please bring whatever you can.  2 books and 1 magazine at least.  If you can jot down your favorite radio program, TV program and movies (past and present) and newspapers, I will collect your lists and send them to Bill to publish on our website. What’s the point?  To dip into each other’s media stream for a bit, to hear why we like the books, movies, programs, newspapers and magazines that we choose.  I imagine five-ten minutes each of sharing, then a round of conversation about what we’ve heard.  This is for fun and to expand our grasp of who we are.

  • An Instant Classic

    63  bar steep rise 29.64 6mph N dew-point 58  Summer night

    Last Quarter of the Flower Moon

    As always, the movies come later up here above 694, inside the pick-up section of the Minneapolis metro.  Tonight it was “No Country For Old Men.”  This movie is an instant classic according to many reviews.

    Talk about an oxymoron.  An instant classic.  That’s where the frisson is, yes, but I have a suspicion that just beyond the irony of such a juxtaposition lies a realm in which critics believe in their capacity to know a classic when they see one, even if it has only six months of theatre runs under its belt.  I don’t believe in such a capacity; but, I do believe it is of the nature of criticism to imagine its existence.

    This is a fine movie.  It has a story line that takes you by misdirection.  As the movie unwinds into its fullness, the obvious assumption is that it is a mystery, a how will they catch him yarn.  Anton Chigurh and his compressed air weapon, used in stock-yards for killing live stock, cuts a wide lane of violence down the center of the screen.  The opening scene shows the remains of a drug deal that has killed at least eight people.

    The plot seems to follow the results of this shoot out when it really follows Sheriff Bell, Sheriff of Terrel County in west Texas.  His story is a meditation on aging and on the violent criminal action that follows in the wake of the international drug trade.   He is an intelligent, compassionate man bewildered by crime he no longer understands.  In the final scene, which took me by surprise, he recount two dreams about his father.

    A classic?  Hell, I don’t know.  I’m not even sure the movies that film historians claim are classics are classics.  I feel more confident in defining literary classics.  There I feel I know one when I see one.  With movies?  Difficult.  Casablanca?  Yes.  Singing in the Rain?  No.  Wizard of Oz?  Maybe.  Birds?  No.  Why?  Too sleepy to explain.  This movie a classic?  Probably not.  But it is a damned fine movie anyhow.

  • The Book Fort

    79  bar falls 29.80 0mph NNE  dew-point 63   Summer, cloudy and mild

                             Last Quarter of the Flower Moon

    F- runs in the Star-Tribune daily comics section.  When it connects with me, its humor reminds me of the gold standard, Gary Larson.  It doesn’t hit that point much for me, but once in a while.

    One that didn’t hit me that way, but, in Kate’s reinforcement, has begun to reveberate featured a librarian looking between a pair of stacks.  In the back, near the corner, a man sat on the floor with books arranged around him in a rectangle and he had another book in hand to add to the walls.

    The librarian has a walkie-talkie and he says, “Book fort.  We have a book fort going up.”

    Kate looked at it, laughed, and said, “That’s what I’m going to call your study, a book fort.”   

     I laughed, too.  If you go into my study, you would first notice a small bookshelf filled with books and other books stacked up on top of it perhaps ten books high.  These are the books I may want to read soon.  To the right is a green cupboard with four shelves and glass doors.  That one is full, too, and contains books on liberal religion and liberal political thought. 

    On the wall that extends to the east from that cupboard stands another series of books cases.  These have philosophy, folk tales, folk myths and stories, aesthetics and art, and some religious books.  These are more reference volumes.  Directly across from them are a low series of bookshelves that hold my Asian collection.  It’s pretty deep in Chinese and Japanese literature, but there are volumes here on Hindu topics and Angkor Wat, too.  On top of these shelves sit my poety collection, perhaps 15 feet long.  Along the wall nearest my desk and half way along the room’s north side are travel related volumes, reference works and material on the Renaissance.  There are also books on the military, on water rights and gardening.

    Directly behind my desk is a tall bookcase filled with art history books.  I use these volumes a good deal when I prepare tours.

    So, book fort is an apt description.  But.  Forts are battlements, a place to hold out if the enemy strikes.  I do hide behind these books, retreating into my book fort to meditate, to study, to push away the enemies of distraction and human contact, except through printed words.  There is a hermetic quality to my life here in Andover, a quality I like, even prefer. 

    Fortresses though can keep one in as well as others out.  After giving it some thought, I would not trade my book fort for a trading post or a tourist venue.  In it I have the luxury of safety and a safety which protects my contemplative life.  This is not so much retreat from as it is retreat to.  If you ever come over, you are welcome inside the moat.  I’ll lower the draw bridge for you.

  • Sensuality Awakened in a Hindu Temple

    47  bar steep rise 30.04 6mph N dew-point 38  Beltane

                Waning Gibbous Hare Moon

    There are frost warnings not 75 miles north of us.  Frost.  On Memorial Day.  OMG.

    Kate came home after a busy holiday clinic, today and yesterday were both very busy.  I cooked walleye, pasta with morels I found in our woods with a sauce Kate made earlier and asparagus.  We ate it while watching Passage to India.  This is an old movie, so you probably saw it long before I did, but it’s a stunner visually.  David Lean and Merchant Ivory, goes without saying.  The plot worked well in exposing the basic contradictions in the colonial exploitation of India by the British Raj.  The major plot point, however, an incident in the caves of Marabara still eludes me. 

    It seems that Adela, played by Judy Davis, awakened to her sensuality while visiting a Hindu temple in ruins.  It seems further that her on again/off again marriage to the City Magistrate created a level of cognitive dissonance with this awakened sensuality.   It all came to a head when she fled a wonderful day organized by a Muslim doctor.  She made an accusation of attempted rape, or, was manipulated into making one.  Then she recanted.  Puzzling.

    Kate’s off to bed.  I plan to finish Lush Life by Richard Price tonight.  A wonderful novel in many ways, though it is so thick in its content that I become weary of it and need a rest.  It is a tour de force of urban conflict, parsed out on the shockwaves of a brutal murder on the lower east side.  If you want to read a genuine American voice on a quintessential American topic, I recommend it.

    No writing by me yesterday or today on Superior Wolf.  In a bit of a general funk, the dream surfacing some of it.  Not sure where it’s going, doesn’t seem so oppressive tonight.

  • A Vivid Imagination

    59  bar steady  30.02  1mph WSW dewpoint 42  Beltane, sunny

                    Waxing Gibbous Hare Moon 

    “The more I study religions the more I am convinced that man never worshipped anything but himself.” – Sir R. F. Burton

    Burton is an interesting guy. He traveled the world and did a translation of the Arabian Nights.  He is, however, not much of a theologian.  His genes must have cascaded down to Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins.  They, too, seem to believe that if you betray your ignorance loudly, then others will agree.   All faith traditions are far more subtle, more nuanced that mere projection.  Do they each have their problematics? Absolutely.  Do the problems justify the kind of reductionist argument deployed by religions cultured despisers (to borrow the phrase from Frederick Schleiermacher)? Not at all.

    The simplest argument against them is this.  Have you ever seen a love?  Have you ever smelled justice?  Yes, you have seen or smelled their physical manifestations, but have you seen the complex of emotions and judgment that produce them?  No.  Why not?  Because they are constructs of the mental world.  What constitutes the mental world?  Is it just the firing and stimulation of neurons?  Oh, how do you know?  Because the fMRI tells you so?  How does the fMRI tell you its information?  That’s right, through sight. 

    I’m with Kant here.  The ding an siche, the thing in itself, is unknown and unknowable due to the mediation of the senses.   Therefore how Dawkins and Harris can claim to reach beyond their sensorium and know a negative is beyond me.  Does the trashing of their fundamental argument make them wrong?  Unfortunately, no.

    By the by, if you’ve never read the Arabian Nights, The Thousand and One Nights, then you’ve missed something.  Find a complete edition because the Muslims who wrote it had a vivid imagination.  I mean, really vivid.


  • Art and Religion

    30  bar steady 30.06 1mph WNW windchill 30

         First Quarter Moon of Winds

    When I woke up, Kate was long gone.  It was 9:30.  I missed my nap yesterday and I picked the sleep time this AM.

    The rest of the morning, what there was left anyhow, I used looking over my notes for the religion and contemporary art discussion I will lead on Monday.  This topic follows two ancient trails I have followed for many, many years.  I would not characterize myself as an expert in either one, though I know enough to guide conversation.

    The result of this work has convinced me that there are several interesting tours at an encyclopedic museum like the MIA that do not follow either the cutesy or the artworld insider glimpse that most of our tours use.  With tours like love and scandal or chocolate whatever we give a cutesy turn to looking at art. It gets some people into the galleries I suppose and and the works themselves have many different facets, so these tours are not vacuous at all, but they don’t focus the mind.

    The other category of tour:  On Dragons Wings, a Taste of Asia, Art of the Americas, Art of the Ancient World give tour goers an insiders tour, a short glimpse of the world of art history, connossieurship and curating offered through a slice of an encyclopedic museum.  Nothing wrong with this either, though I often wonder about the value of this brief an introduction to six to eight objects.  It may spark interest that tour goers will pursue on their own.  I hope so.

    The kind of tour topic this religion and art material suggests could offer a third type of tour, one that takes a point of view and pursues an argument through use of various objects.  The relationship between religion and art has a long history with many chapters and in some senses the most interesting chapters come last in the world of contemporary art.   The MIA has a much better collection for pursuing this topic than, say, the Walker because we have art as old as the Lady of LaMouth and art as recent as Hirsch’s, Death of St. John.  Other interesting tours along these lines would involve the relationship between literature and art.

  • The Moratorium Years Didn’t Work Out so Well for Me

    29  90%  26%  5mph NNE bara29.84  falls windchill25 Imbolc

                     Waning Crescent of the Winter Moon

    In spite of the fact that this is Minnesota, how soon we forget, I had REI all to myself this morning.  Monday morning shoppers scared back into their easy chairs by, gasp, SNOW.  OK, I did think about turning around and heading back, then “I am a Minnesotan and I am not afraid,” soared through my mind and on I drove.  Slippin’ and slidin’ to the mall.  Just like when I was a kid and we had to walk four blocks all the way downtown to buy a pair of shoes.

    Anyhow, a helpful young lady, blond and cheerful, quite normal except for the hoop through the right nostril, which, I suppose, makes her normal in that world formerly inhabited by adults now over 60, guided me through the hiking/walking show selection process.  The first pair pretty much fit me, though they were a little snug.  Then, “Oh.  These are a women’s 8!”  Wouldn’t you know?  Still we did find an appropriately masculine pair of Keens, “They started out making water shoes so they know slick rock.”  One of the problems in hiking Hawai’i is water slicked rock;  I’ve learned this with bruised ankles more than once.

    Nearer to  home at the Anoka Co-op I went searching for Minnesota cheese (Bongards, in this case) and Minnesota bread (oddly, Holy Land Pocket Bread, made in Minneapolis) for my presentation at the Woolly retreat.  Then, sliding my way back home.

    All the while I listened to Tom Wolfe’s  I Am Charlotte Simmons.   Anyone who encountered college after academic stardom in a small-town high school, like me for instance, can identify all the over place with Charlotte Simmons, the little mountain girl from Sparta, North Carolina and a Presidential Scholarship.  Well, I never had a Presidential Scholarship, but there’s some connection, anyhow.  Wolfe has made a living out of closely observed novels of manners of our time, a sort of Dickensian project in hip, post-modern tongue in cheek prose.  This one may not be great literature, but it’s a great time-machine back to those magic years when everything seemed possible, if only you could figure anything out. 

    Those moratorium years didn’t work out so well for me.  Instead of sticking to my guns or buckling down with heroic intention fortified by small town common sense and parental support, I got drunk, wasted, started smoking and wandered without purpose for so many years I don’t even know when I stopped.  Sigh.  Oh, I did fine academically, but not as well as I might have without the marijuana and hash–yes, I inhaled–the LSD, mescaline, psilocybin, beer, 151 rum, cognac and single-malt scotch.  I floated out of college and stayed afloat all through seminary and well into my first years in the ministry. 

    Treatment.  Second divorce.  Flounder around.  Discover writing and Kate in the same year.  Now, in my final third of life, I’ve picked up steam and gotten the ole head and heart straightened out.  Thank Mother Earth.  Still, it is really better late than never.  I’m living proof.

  • Warning! Radiation Hazard.

    10 59% 24% 3mph W bar30.28 steady  windchill6  Winter

                Waxing Crescent of the Winter Moon

    Doing research for an article on touring and poetry, I wandered through the galleries this morning seeking out objects with poetry written on them, objects inspired by particular pieces of poetry and objects with poets.   The list is long and varied, much longer than you would think at first blush.  This suggests an intimate connection between literature and art in our collection.  The linkage goes deeper when we move beyond poetry and look at objects with, say, a biblical theme or a sutra or a story from any of the rich mythological traditions.  This area turns my crank.

    The galleries have a wonderful emptiness on Mondays though there is activity.  In the Ukiyo-e gallery the scissor platform supported a cleaner taking care of a case.  In the Minnesota artists gallery crews from the registry officer had Ta-Coumba Aiken’s work down and had begun to prep the galleries for a new exhibit. The medieval gallery had lights and cameras as the staff photographer shot a madonna and child.  Most interesting, and a first time for me, was the sight of radiation hazard cones in the third floor gallery that connects the wings of the old McKim-White building with the newer building.

    What were they up to?  We have a statue on a pedestal someone thinks may have an incorrect orientation.  This guy usually sits next to the elevator on the third floor, though after a long search I could find no description or name for him.  Does he really look toward the sky, rather than the northern wall?  Inquiring minds want to know so x-rays are the order.

    With these exceptions, the galleries are empty and provide a kind of sanctuary filled with wonderful objects.  Sometimes I like to just browse, wait for an object to catch my eye or tickle some inner fancy, then spend time with it. 

    After this, over to Common Roots for a gathering of a group interested in literature and the arts.  Sounds good to me, though the meeting reminded me of the  many I sat through with community and church groups when I used to participate in such groups for pay.  It was fun nonetheless.