Thoughts on the First Day of School
All philosophy begins in wonder, Socrates tells us, and it is a mark of the greatest forms of human enquiry – from Homer to Heisenberg – that they increase our sense of wonder at the universe (or multiverse, if you must) and our place in it. The highest goal for teaching and commentary is to keep this wonder close at hand because it is all too easy to lose sight of it in our world of utility and commerce.
My reading tends to be more eclectic than it should be (although I’m glad I’m not alone among Verdicts bloggers on this), and in the last few days I’ve read Geoffrey Hill’s Style and Faith and Marilynne Robinson’s Absence of Mind (part of which appeared as an article in Commonweal; subscribers can read it here.). Both remind me that true wonder doesn’t come cheap.
A few weeks ago Anthony Domestico offered us a reading of Hill’s fine poem on Gillian Rose. (Hill’s Selected Poems is a marvelous collection.) Besides being one of the strongest poets who writes in English, Hill is also a formidable literary critic. Style and Faith is a collection of seven essays, five of which first appeared in the Times Literary Supplement. There is much to say about all seven essays, but Hill’s words in the “Of Diligence and Jeopardy,” a review of Yale University Press’s 1989 “modern-spelling edition” of Tyndale’s New Testament, have stuck with me as term begins.
I would argue that in his collection Hill reminds us how easy it is to forget how difficult it is to read. Such forgetfulness decreases our appreciation of the wonder in the world. In his review of the Tyndale New Testament, Hill argues that its editors and the editors of the Revised English Bible (REB) (1989) and indeed “significant numbers of contemporary theologians and textual scholars accept, as one of their major duties, the protection of ‘today’s reader,’ tomorrow’s worshipper, from the jeopardy of cultural embarrassment or the faintest possibility of mental or emotional strain.” This is “a different issue from the attainment of increased accuracy, a principle with which one is not in dispute and which Tyndale himself established on his 1534 title page.” (41) Accuracy, we might say, increases wonder; condescencion destroys it. The near impossible task of teaching and research is to know the difference between the two. But the best critics and teachers make this difficult task appear simple.
Marilynne Robinson needs no introduction to readers of this blog. The greatness of her fiction should not crowd out her own accomplishments as a critic. Her book of essays The Death of Adam is well worth a read, and I hope her 2011 Commencement Address at the College of the Holy Cross appears in print soon.
In Absence of Mind, which she originally gave as the Terry Lectures at Yale, Robinson argues that writing about contemporary science “inevitably yield[s] a conception of humanity that is itself very limited, excluding as it must virtually all observations and speculation on this subject that have been offered through the ages by those outside the circle that is called modern thought” (x). Robinson is not “anti-science” in her lectures. Instead, she reminds us that to ignore what human beings have produced culturally in the name of discovering what human beings “really” are is to miss an important aspect of humanity. As she says, “If the mind is the activity of the brain, this means only that the brain is capable of such lofty and astonishing things that their expression has been given the names mind, and soul, and spirit. Complex life may well be the wonder of the universe, and if it is, its status is not diminished by the fact that we can indeed bisect it, that we kill it routinely” (112).
Hill and Robinson set the bars high for reading and for understanding and for our imagination. They help us to wonder. More importantly, they remind us that the “quintessence of dust” that is humanity deserves nothing less.