Conversation and Text in Community

An individual is continuous with their communities in ways that are so taken for granted, we are prone to overlook them. A lobotomy is less mentally crippling than living without community. Yet the image of the individual rationalist arriving at truth through the lonely and disciplined application of reason lives on. Our ability to learn from books seems to be the strongest case for that particular picture. Sure, we need communities to learn language and literacy. But once we’re there, haven’t we got the tools to go the rest of the way on our own? Especially if enough books exist on a wealth of subject matter.

In what follows, we will explore the ways in which both individuals and texts are embedded within communities. What will emerge is that written text creates more possibilities for their readers and commentators, even when those texts are grossly misunderstood.

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An Econ Grad Discovers Poetry

We call it “imposter syndrome.” It’s the feeling that you don’t belong, that you’ve somehow tricked everyone into hiring you, marrying you, letting you be a parent. In reality, it isn’t a syndrome at all; it is merely the lingering sense, felt most acutely in childhood, that everyone else knows what they’re supposed to do. Accepting that no one does is the first step to true adulthood, and the soil on which wisdom may one day grow.

I was a reductive materialist. I believed that everything which exists could be captured in plain, concise, direct description. Indirect speech could convey nothing which could not in principle be translated into direct speech. Analytic philosophers who wrote relatively simply were far superior to continentals who were deliberately obscure. Economists, with their elegant theoretical models, were to be prized over the more fuzzy sociologists and anthropologists. And poetry was not even on my radar.

Let’s say I had encountered Robert Herrick’s “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time”:

Gather ye rose-buds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying.

The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,
The higher he’s a-getting,
The sooner will his race be run,
And nearer he’s to setting.

That age is best which is the first,
When youth and blood are warmer;
But being spent, the worse, and worst
Times still succeed the former.

Then be not coy, but use your time,
And while ye may, go marry;
For having lost but once your prime,
You may forever tarry.

I would probably have summarized this as saying “Life is short, get married before you get old and die.”

And how succinct, how direct, how to the point that is! So much more efficient at conveying the message than the poem itself. The remainder is merely ornamental; pretty-sounding language that takes forever to get to the bottom line. At best it creates a pleasant feeling. Or so I might have said.

Over the last six years I have read some two hundred books, mostly nonfiction, predominantly philosophy. Yet far greater than all of the philosophy books that I read combined was one unpublished work—an expansive novel by one John David Duke, Jr., the proprietor of this little stretch of the web. This novel said more about the nature of politics, family, parenthood, and war—to name but a few subjects—than a work of philosophy is capable of saying. It said it by not saying it.

That is the power of art.

Since my reductive days, I have had many great teachers. Dave is among the greatest of them, of course. But other friends, as well as authors whose books I’ve had the privilege to read, have helped me to see that “direct” speech is in many ways an imagined quality. We are always pointing to much more indirectly than we are capable of saying. The greatest depth is to be found in speech that embraces its indirectness and polyvalence. Art does just that, mirroring our unarticulated practices and containing multitudes beyond what we are capable of doing justice to with our articulations. Never mind our specifically reductive articulations.

Among my many shortcomings, as I mentioned, was an absolute ignorance of poetry. Poetry, for me as with most of my generation, is something you gloss over in English class and never think about again. At most, you devote some thought to the meaning of song lyrics. As a teenager, I was very excited when I thought I had cracked the meaning of “Paint It Black”.

But I have lately fallen completely in love with poetry, and can scarcely think of anything else.

It is often observed that the language itself is more central to poetry than to prose. Whatever the merit of this observation, it must be said that the language itself does more work than simply conveying the message summarized by the reductionist, or even “creating a pleasant feeling”. Just as different soundtracks can change the meaning of a scene, so too can different sorts of poetic language.

But I am no literary critic. I find it very hard to explain or convey what it is about indirectness and polyvalence that are capable of containing more than can be said directly. But that’s the point, I suppose—you cannot truly explain it, at least not by walking right up to the matter and starting to describe it like you would begin an instruction manual.

So rather than trying, I will flex my atrophied poetic muscles and say:

The boy sees the men
who know what to do
and dreams of when he will too.
One day he’s a man
and still
does not get
what he expects
all others get.

He’s playing a part
without any script
why did no one
teach him his lines?

Scientists promise answers
and their words
are true
but hollow
insight without life.

Poetry explains
by not explaining
tells what can’t be told
by not telling.
Circling the
invisible
unspeakable
unknowable
wisdom
that makes us human.

I like to think that I have taken a big step forward by embracing the poetic, the indirect, the wisdom that cannot be properly articulated. But sometimes I think that I have actually gone back to where I began, before my reductive materialism, and simply brought something with me from the journey.

Uncoiling

“Sleep in Safety” by 45 Grave was one of my favorite all-time songs between my fifteenth and thirty-fifth birthdays. I was born in 1973. Somewhere along the line between my thirty-fifth and fortieth birthdays, I forced people to endure waves of nostalgia, as happens to those of us who watch our children rise up around our feet, coiling mortality around our throats. “Remember when?” How dreadful the nostalgic! And then the all-time favorites were boxed and put away, not thrown out, but stored, to be laughed at as comic elements participating in a greater tale, a grander story than mere fond memory.

It’s an impulse to hang on to adolescence when manhood is necessary, to substitute the carelessness of adolescence for the freedom of manhood, a liberty which requires discipline, the rote, regimen, and pure, unadulterated liability. That is to say: a man is willing to fail at manhood in order to achieve that quality which allows one to be called a man. If he’s lucky, they might append it to him when he lies in state. Therefore, why grow up?

Overlapping that prolonged adolescence, between the fifteenth and thirty-fifth birthdays, is the uncoiling, prying open mortality to see what dreams might come alive. It is uncoiling before my eyes, and with the uncoiling, the realization that Poor Yorick, though he be unearthed, sleeps in perfect safety. Should he come back, he will not come back as a zombie, formed in perfect silliness and lots of foam rubber. No, he shall sleep in safety to awaken as though he were only resting to hear the next grand story, refreshed.


It is a deliberate act, uncoiling, to examine what is and what is not, what is imagined and what is unimagined. How does one distinguish? The sun shines, the shadows move, and then the sun is gone again for who knows how long. Who can distinguish? One holds the coil open, I suppose, even as it recoils around your throat, and, with a knife, one probes carefully and exactly, inasmuch as one can remember how it looked when the moving sun shone upon it. We’re fumbling around and using the wrong tools, aren’t we? Certainty comes and goes, and then they say some words, and you yourself are gone.

Military graveyards are set in perfect rows and columns, and they endure for a time, embodied as long as they do as belonging to the institutions of power. The helter-skelter arrangement of all the rest of us–mercy! After a much shorter time we are excluded.

Dreams do come to pass, and they come. They are embodied, and we live and eat and breathe among them.