· A Saving Imagination: The MLA's "Necessary Angel" ·
A year ago I shared an image in a holiday post entitled Christmas Light. The implied relationship expressed there between imagination and reason I thought to develop more fully today. I have marked it earlier in other posts, especially in Wilsonian Democracy, but I thought to define it with the explicit words of the twentieth-century American poet Wallace Stevens, this from his book The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and Imagination. His words seemed particularly apt today.
The imagination is the power of the mind over the possibilities of things. . . . We cannot look at the past or the future except by means of the imagination. . . . [The imagination] enables us to live our own lives. We have it because we do not have enough without it. . . . The imagination is the power that unables us to perceive the normal in the abnormal, the opposite of chaos in chaos. . . . The truth seems to be that we live in concepts of the imagination before the reason has established them. If this is true, then reason is simply the methodizer of the imagination. It may be that the imagination is a miracle of logic and that its exquisite divinations are calculations beyond analysis, as the conclusions of reason are calculations wholly within analysis. If so, one understands perfectly that "in the service of love and imagination nothing can be too lavish, too sublime or too festive."
I mention this because I'm off to one such "festive" occasion, the annual meeting, December 27 to 30, of the Modern Language Association in San Diego. This lavish professional conference annually draws thousands of teachers, readers, critics, and scholars who celebrate imaginative poetry, fiction, and drama in various forms of the critical-scholarly essay. You may ask how such folks add to the creative mix of such fare? Simply by sharing such loving "Festivals of Light" as wisely, generously, enthusiastically, and imaginatively as they can.
Naturally some will scoff at this view, saying with Scrooge, "Bah, Humbug," but even they are effectively open to the hope of "Peace on Earth, Good Will to All."
Why else would MLAers have chosen Christmas-time to say that poetry, fiction, and drama are among our age's saving human graces!
Mark indeed! My, my, how could I forget? Of course!
I hope that since I posted last you haven't forgotten me! All this writing is tricky, especially during finals, and as I've had to lie low here after drafting a crafty holiday letter, I thought today to relieve myself of some unused energy! As you can see, I am trying!
And what should come to my aid but an old email from my sister! Yes — and here's how the lovely Stylesweet starts!
Hi, Styles, I've been corresponding with this very erudite young college student named Mark. He doesn't know if we are related or not or where he got my address. But he wrote such a scholarly piece the first time that I thought you had crafted it. Anyway, I wrote back for his identity and told him about you, and in the course of our correspondence the subject of exclamation points came up.
This was his reply. (I think he expresses my feelings about them very well. He attends the University of Georgia — a senior. He teaches piano but majors in English lit.) Maybe you would like to get into a conversation with him. We are enjoying ours, even though I could be his grandmother!
Well, I was intrigued and found myself taken, indeed, by Mark's style.
Perhaps Styles [he says] is more of a structuralist than I. Whereas he probably looks for consistency, structure, and some "truthful" correctness to the style of writing, I don't mind subverting these standards. Do you ever watch the Sienfeld show? They did a skit concerning one of the character's proclivity towards exclamation points within her writing, with the suggestion that such marks are incorrect! The sad exclamation point does tend to dramatize and romanticize things, and it does impart an informal flavor. However it serves a very specific purpose, especially in a hypertextual society where words provide only a portion of essential communication. Furthermore, it's purpose (exclamation) is especially useful in a particularly fluid, conversational medium such as Electronic Mail! Quite often, I find myself using two of them!! Maybe the exclamation point is overbearing, but it seems more clearly to illustrate the emotions and the message of the author, albeit informally. But we're not submitting any formal dissertations any time soon!
So what did I say? Only this:
After clearing my throat twice (piano the first time and forte the second) I can safely respond here to Mark's delightful note. I can tell that he, too, has read the usual post-structuralists, Derrida, Barthes, et al., whose playful, witty-wise proclivity for orthographical expression I have also read with pleasure. Mark's wrong to think I'm a "structuralist," though, since in spite of my phonocentric metaphor "expression," I'm only "methodical" — although I do believe I am thus politically, religiously, and academically non-sectarian. So I must still cite John Trimble's apt ripost: "Avoid exclamation points, which have been cheapened by comic-strip cartoonists (who haven't yet discovered the period) and by advertising copywriters. . . . " Though Mark may find Trimble too elliptical, don't you think Trimble at least direct? I know I do. Do perhaps find his book Writing with Style: Conversations on the Art of Writing (1975, 2000). Who knows, Mark may someday have taught (just like Trimble and me) America's ever-expressive freshmen for over three decades.
I'm giving my final exams this week. Without time to describe them, I thought to share something from the philosopher Michel Serres today, a writer whose extended 1995 text, The Natural Contract, grasps both substantively and stylishly the aims of the work I typically ask students to do.
Serres' words pass a clear test of intelligence and mark well the two aims of real study, instruction and education. As we sometimes forget them, I've thought Serres' "Rearing" section, from his book's third chapter ("Science, Law"), apt to our use. His passage, given today without added comment, I hope you'll agree merits a solid "A."
In any case, here's Serres' "Rearing":
May this Sage1 found a lineage. The rearing of the human baby is based on two principles: the first positive, concerns his instruction; the other, negative, involves education. The latter forms prudent judgment and the former valiant reason.
We must learn our finitude: reach the limits of a non-infinite being. Necessarily we will have to suffer, from illnesses, unforeseeable accidents or lacks; we must set a term to our desires, ambitions, wills, freedoms. We must prepare our solitude, in the face of great decisions, responsibilities, growing numbers of other people; in the face of the world, the fragility of things and of loved ones to protect, in the face of happiness, unhappiness, death.
To deny this finitude, starting in childhood, is to nurture unhappy people and foster their resentment of inevitable adversity.
We must learn, at the same time, our true infinity. Nothing, or almost nothing, resists training. The body can do more than we believe, intelligence adapts to everything. To awaken the unquenchable thirst for learning, in order to live as much as possible and to persevere, sometimes, through invention: this is the meaning of equipping someone to cast off.
These two principles laugh at the paths that guide today's contrary educational practices; the narrow finitude of an instruction that produces obedient specialists or ignoramuses full of arrogance; the infinity of desire, drugging tiny soft larvae to death.
Education forms and strengthens a prudent being who judges himself finite; instruction by true reason lauches this being into an infinite becoming.
Earth, the foundation, is limited; yet the casting off from it knows no end.
I've always been a sucker for long sentences. This doesn't mean that I'm overly obsessed by them. Even short ones do have their place. I think I prefer them. You might, too.
But a long sentence — one able to rise to the complicated challenge of a new journey — merits clear regard if without sacrificing speed it happily sweeps us along over the last bumpy road toward home, like riding with John Wayne as he pulls into Dodge City, gets down, casually ambles over to get a bourbon, and says, "Howdy, boys. What do y'all do here for fun?" I mean old Texas tumbleweeds really do roll.
I got to thinking as much Thursday in view of the wide stretch of ocean reaching in long relief westward from the south-facing windows of my house. You might recall my description of my Thanksgiving dinner: "We're all a happily diverse bunch," I said, describing my guests at length. Stripped of add-ons, here's what I actually said — "We're all a happily diverse bunch, with Tom, Nancy, and Savvy; Seppo and Rick; Pirjo; Tracy with Katri, Brett and Kaycey; Smart and Soulful; Suave; Matt and Marsha; and Stylish."
Now in thinking about that sentence, I suddenly recalled the secret — grammatically — of its construction, this in a classic British sentence by Sir Herbert Read:
Sentences in their variety run from simplicity to complexity, a progression not necessarily reflected in length: a long sentence may be extremely simple in construction — indeed must be simple if it is to convey its sense easily.
What Read has in mind, really, is the stuffy old grammatical saw about simple, compound, and complex sentences, tempered by this helpful rhetorical tip, "Keep It Simple, Stupid."
I mean — returning to my Thanksgiving post — it turns on just five simple sentences, here ellipitcally stripped for easy reading:
We're expecting old friends and family for dinner.
We're all a happily diverse bunch.
This is nothing like the first Thanksgiving.
So is this report.
Do have a Happy Thanksgiving!
William Bradford had three others:
And besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys.
Besides they had about a peck a meal a week to a person.
Which made many afterwards write so largely of their plenty.
Bradford's last sentence is but a fragment, of course, and brings me to the logical reason for today's post: to say happy birthday to my own older brother Styleshort, who turned seventy last Sunday.
He hasn't as yet made his own longevity disreputable by any untimely persistence in it.