David Auerbach’s brilliant excerpting* from George Dreyfus’s The Sound of Two Hands Clapping connected a few hunches I’ve been pondering recently. On the one hand, what I think of as the problem of canons; on the other, the importance of memorization to a cohesive (and rich) inner life.
I have a vexed relation to canons, as long-time readers of my blog(s) know. I don’t much like the actual instances of them with which I’m acquainted. This is probably because I’ve lived in communities utterly committed to several readily inadequate canons in my twenty two years. I’ve lived in a community where the height of literature and imagination was considered to be the writings of C.S. Lewis. The writing club that first woke my literary ambitions, in my early teens, consisted almost entirely of people who would subscribe to this view. Later, at my ill-chosen college, I encountered the appalling ethno-religious prospect of a community entirely committed to a particular brand of Dutch calvinist intellectualism. For this community, the writings of Abraham Kuyper and Herman Dooyeweerd were definitely canonical. They formed the unchanging background by recourse to which proper intellectuals were supposed to respond to any new idea or problem. It doesn’t work; I tried. So for a long time I thoroughly rejected the value of honoring a set of writings or writers who were exalted by their delimitations — exalted in such a way that it became a virtue to pretend one’s own original ideas were already to be found in these writings or writers. This attitude probably contributed to forming my antiquarian-style intellectual life.
But recently I’ve been increasingly fascinated by the promise of memorization.
Theoretically, a combination of the influence of George Steiner, Walter Benjamin, and R.G. Collingwood has had me thinking that the most important kind of self-formation is precisely the kind which conditions the reflexes of the mind. Conditioning these reflexes consists largely of internalizing the cultural productions of others. On the deserted ruins of abandoned texts, each one must build his own Rome of the mind. And, as Marcus Aurelius would put it, this city becomes a place of retreat where one abides and waits out the hardships of life. I have all kinds of incohate thoughts about this. And I’ve been trying to apply them by spending daily time on the memorization of passages culled from my reading. But as valuable as the practice is for a private individual like myself, I think its real benefits only manifest communally. And as soon as we start talking about communal memorization of important texts — we’re talking about canons.
Along with my fascination for memorization has come a fascination with schools of thought for whom such memorization is a central practice: rabbinical judaism, schools of sanskrit philosophy like Navya-Nyaya, the whole history of western classical studies, the spirituality of methodist preachers, and of course the impressive edifice of common law systems and the enormously suggestive ideal of equity.
I hadn’t really thought about how my interest in memorization forced the problem of canons on me until I read Auerbach’s post:
There is a tension at the heart of such philosophical debate within a tradition, which should be familiar to anyone who has studied in almost any philosophical school, from Christian Scholasticism to Midrash to analytic philosophy: the existence of unquestioned, agreed-upon foundational views allows for fervent and unfettered debate about consequent issues, but the foundation must remain untouched. (The higher stakes in Tibetan Buddhism emerge when Dreyfus tells of murders committed between competing schools.) For all the debate the inquiry is fundamentally more limited.
The issue of a canon becomes crucial here, since there needs to be some selection of texts to memorize and debate, and the lack of consensus in our culture today no doubt contributes to an unwillingness to have students privilege any particular text with such obsessive attention and assimilation.
So in my case I’ve actually internalized this tension. I am deeply, viscerally suspicious of canons, but I long to devote myself to one, to memorize it, and to share in a communal life defined by it. A few weeks ago I had a conversation with some friends about how alienation manifests itself in our lives — all of us felt alienated to some degree — and I concluded that for me it was the lack of an intellectual community to which I felt comfortable dedicating myself.
Interesting. Anyway, all of this was rather random, but hey — it’s my blog.
* ‘Brilliant excerpting’? Strange as the phrase may sound, I believe it applies unconditionally to many of Auerbach’s posts, posts which exhibit an extraordinary refinement of the drive to “curate,” a drive so vulgarly exhibited throughout much of the internet, a drive which accounts for much of the hollow-box effect where a few opinionators are amplified by echo. In contrast to this, Auerbach typically curates from a stream not readily accessible to the rest of us — his own reading. Somehow this seems more valuable than curating the wide river of the mass culture of commenting — each of us has the urge to do this for him or herself, so that an individual instance of such curation becomes more a way of identifying oneself as structured by certain recognizable positions, a way of showing that one is a unique configuration of independently common views. One profits from such a curator if one has an interest in them as an individual — if they are someone one wants to know better, to imitate, to hate, etc. But from a curator like Auerbach, who draws from a stream otherwise inaccessible, one profits in a different way. One actually learns new things. Consequently, Waggish is among a handful of blogs that have actually deeply influenced me.