Pinning down the nebulous

Monday, February 7, 2011

6:40 AM. In reading this difficult scholarly analysis of Hemingway’s work, Hemingway: So Far From Simple, by Donald Bouchard, I am struck by one thing among others. Hemingway set out to capture his inner experience that couldn’t quite be said, but could be hinted at so that the reader could get it by inference. In other words, he was finding a way to express the inexpressible, to give the reader a bridge to the feeling behind an experience rather than merely recite the experience itself. But even this summary misses it. Papa?

In Bouchard’s book you are already experiencing the frustration that comes from dealing with scholars, even the best. The prose is thick and clotted with abstractions; the author’s personal bias is veiled and in fact the author attempts to write is if it weren’t there; the references are to other works and other theories and schools of thought so that the effect is to a great extent you as reader coming in from the outside may be made to feel like an interloper. Above all, logic and exposition are set above emotion and the setting out of facts to allow inference. On the other hand there is all that calm piling up of fact on fact, thought on thought, so that the superstructure is well constructed and buttressed. The problem is that the scaffolding may conceal the building, and beyond a certain point may be treated in effect as if more important than the building.

Yes, all of that.

Like anything in life, it needs to be taken with its natural correctives. Too much of anything is going to require its antidote sooner or later. But perhaps it hasn’t occurred to you that in your case, your immersion in history early on, and your acquaintance with scholarly methods and ideals, protected you from the extremes of New Age enthusiasms that capture so many. Your data base of knowledge of how much of life is not accounted for, or is contradicted by, sweeping generalizations based on limited experience, has helped save you from going off the deep end, even when you would have liked to do so.

True enough. And something inside me knew, before I began, that the accepted scholarly view of things was way too constricted and left out so much that it had come to its limits and was overreaching. Does this have a practical application for you and me to talk about this morning?

Somehow you have lost sight of the thing you intended to say originally, that you were wondering if you could find a way to say what you have learned, in a similar manner.

That’s right, so I was. I got distracted, thinking about how hard it is to wade through prose so abstract. I don’t have a scholarly mind, I guess.

You have a relatively scholarly mind for what you are attempting to do, and no more. If you were more of a scholar, you would lose your intended audience as Professor Bouchard and his like do.

So, let’s talk about it. Could I do what I’m sort of groping toward doing?

Maybe. If you don’t try, you won’t ever know. The point of an ambition is that the process of trying to attain it stretches you from where you were when you conceived the impression. If your ambition were to do something you already knew you could do, what kind of ambition is that?

Of course I realize that when you say “know” in this case you mean, know on the evidence, not know instinctively.

Not entirely. Sometimes you conceive an ambition and you don’t know instinctively that you can do it. As long as this is not wildly impossible, it is worth pursuing, perhaps. Not much point in forming the ambition to fly to the moon by flapping your arms, but how do you know if you could or couldn’t swim the English Channel?

And if you set out to do it, your training will bring you to a place where it might become possible, and even if you don’t try it, or you fail at it, the goal will have stretched you.

Of course. But you might say that the big step is the first one, and that is what you’re up to. You always say your task is with beginners, and that’s right. Once encourage a person to realize that the first step isn’t too big for him, and you’ve set him free; you’ve let him realize that the door wasn’t locked in the first place.

So, as I see it, my job or my enthusiasm is to show that conventional thought is wrong to dismiss New Age thought, and vice versa. No, dammit, that isn’t what I mean. When I try to set it out, it eludes me.

Chase it. You’re going to have to pin it down yourself, if it is to be yours. I can help you hold your own standing point so you don’t get lost, anyone could, but the rest is up to you.

Just as it was for you. I see that. All right, it’s like this. New Age types and religious types often can’t speak to each other because words and arrogance and ignorance of each other’s true center get in the way – but together they know something that invalidates scientific (so-called) materialism. Or, not invalidates it, exactly, but shows its crippling limitations when carried too far, as it has been. And the scientific method and for that matter scholarship itself has over-built its superstructure, way beyond what the foundations will support. This is true regardless of individual efforts of this or that scientists or scholar or even groups of them, because it isn’t a problem of character but of structure. As Lord Clark said long ago when he was still just Kenneth Clarke, the 20th century was left with scientific materialism, and that isn’t enough.

There’s more. What you’ve put down so far is only the background, and not all of it.

Okay. In our time – to coin a phrase, Papa – the churchgoing pieties have lost their ability to convince. They’d been losing it for centuries, but the first world war swept away the rotten ice overnight and showed what had been happening. But so did what John Anthony West calls the Church of Progress, a denatured, secularized absolutist belief that transferred salvation to the laboratory and the social sciences.

Careful, you’re getting pretty abstract yourself.

I know it, but it is hard to deal with abstract subjects – abstract relationships – without falling into abstract thought and words.

That is precisely the problem I set myself in my fiction. Proceed.

As I see it, we have several schools of belief – I don’t think we can really call all of them schools of thought – that don’t talk to each other and in fact are scarcely aware of each other’s existence.

Now make it very individual.

I feel history. I know that our mental and spiritual abilities far surpass what our official science suspects. I know first-hand that every specialized field of study knows things for real that are accepted but not really understood because they are not connected to phenomenon known only (formally) to other schools of experience.

No, personally. Saying “I” isn’t enough to make a statement personal.

Can you do it?

The question is, can you do it?

I was fortunate, though it took me decades to realize it, to be thoroughly immersed in the Catholic faith, connecting (I see now) to another part of myself that our common culture would not have connected me to. And I was fortunate to be in a society whose day-to-day assumptions had nothing to do with the assumptions of that Catholic belief. In other words, it left me free, between the cracks.

My father was a farmer, but I did not grow up on a farm, because we lived four miles away and my mother was resolutely determined not to be a farmer’s wife. (I don’t think she realized that she was marrying a former; dad was in another phase of his life when they met.) So I was between those worlds, farming and town dweller, too. My parents were readers, so that was never in question except I read rather than lived. When I got out of high school, I did not assume I would go to college. Until I failed the AFEES test because of asthma, I assumed I was going to enter one of the armed services; and I worked into factories the year after I graduated, so when I did go to college, I went with several background elements that assured that I would not accept that world either. I knew nothing that my fellow students knew and much history that they did not know, especially, in those days, the history of World War II and after (which from this perspective seems contemporaneous but at the time seemed past enough), and the Civil War and the usual bits and pieces of US and world history. And (although I didn’t realize it then or for a very long time) my view of how things are must have been very different.

This [last sentence] is just the kind of half-perception that must not be allowed to fade away in a sleepy generalization, if you’re going to do what I did in pinning down the nebulous.

Well, I wasn’t religious. I just stopped going to Mass as soon as I realized that I could. I thought in conventional materialist channels, as best I can remember. So I suppose what I was most aware of was that these were all city kids, and (I gradually realized through the veil of my usual insensitivity to my surroundings) they mostly came from much more money. Plus they mostly struck me as pretty superficial and anyway mostly unknowable. My own shell was very thick.

What you knew and what they knew seemed incompatible.

Yes, and what we respectively valued. I was a fish out of water there, as I had been in the factories and in high school. I was used to it, but I didn’t like it much. But I couldn’t see what to do about it. I had one friend who consciously determined to shape himself to fit into the upper-middle class, but I couldn’t do that. Wouldn’t, but it amounts to couldn’t. What are we accomplishing here with all this?

You are beginning to see how to express what can only be said between the lines.

Feels more like rambling, to me. Maybe we’ll take it up again next time. It is eight a.m. and we’ve been at this 80 minutes. Till next time, Papa.

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