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Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Purpose of this Endeavor

O wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in't.
—William Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act V, Scene I, ll. 203—6[3]

I imagine I'm not the only one that often wishes I could remember almost every line of each book and poem I'm reading. And so, as a long-time appreciator of beautiful words, and sadly aware of my own inability to adequately add to them, I've decided it's time for me to start a blog about wonderful writing. This might be as simple as putting up favorite quotations from whatever I'm reading, perhaps commenting on it when the need presents itself, and hopefully generating at least a little discussion with other readers who need somebody to talk to about their latest literary escapades. Just as a warning, I might occasionally throw in links to The Onion, comic commentaries bemoaning the decline of language in modernity, or share some really awful jokes on grammar. Also, as there is no formality here, I might get a little rambly here and there - I'll try to avoid it, so just bear with me!

Before we get started, I have to share with you a bit of my philosophy on the power of the written word. While I do think that music is the most unstoppable form of art (Plato's on my side on this issue - we can talk more on this if you want), John the Evangelist didn't call Jesus "The Word" for no reason. We don't say "Word...." to express our very hip appreciation of something (Wait, do we still say that? We did when I was in college, anyway) without cause. Why do people pay the extra fee for vanity license plates on their cars? How long has graffiti been a problem for street cleaners and city officials? "Quintus Flavius hic erat..." It is not without reason that there are so many poems about the immortality of the written word and its ability to influence its readers for centuries, sometimes for millennia. (Sidenote, as long as we're talking about words that have influenced millennia of thought and writing - One of my favorite things is when writers write back and forth at each other or about each other. Keats' On first looking into Chapman's Homer is a great example of this, as is that classic pair of poems, The Passionate Shepherd to his Love and The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd). For a long time I have debated with myself, and occasionally with others, if the writings of the great minds of each day and age shape its people, or if those writings are merely the articulate voice of the already-present thoughts of that people. Recently, I think I decided on the easy answer, which, luckily, I also happen to think is the true answer: it is a combination of the two. The writings of an age are both a reflection of the thought of that age, and therefore an invaluable record of the times, and also help to shape the time that follows. How can we develop and build on what we are if no one has clearly said what that is? The founding fathers had Thomas Jefferson write the Declaration of Independence because he was a rhetorical wordsmith. And we all know what that document has come to mean. How many of you memorized the first few lines of it in your junior high history classes? Your teachers didn't make you do that to torture you, despite common belief (talk to my American history students!) -- they did it because they wanted you to know what was in the minds of your forefathers when they were trying to build a nation for you -- they did it to tell you who you are now, to tell you the founding myth that shapes you.

Now, for a look at how this issue plays out in the world of literature, which is much more my realm of expertise than history, read Harold Bloom's Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. While I certainly do not agree with everything that that man says (to quote one of my favorite youtube videos, "Harold Bloom is a misogynistic narcissist. They gave him his own department of humanities because nobody could frackin stand him"), I cannot deny that he is an invaluable critic of Shakespeare, and I did use him to get the juices going for the SEVEN Shakespeare plays I studied with my high school students this year. In brief, his theory is that Shakespeare is the inventor of modern man's intellectual formation; he says that Shakespeare's works, influential as they have continually been for 400 years, have shaped the thought of man to such a degree that his words, phrases, images and ideas not only occur casually and accidentally in our language and minds -- they have made us what we are. They have invented us. This extreme credit given to Shakespeare makes me understand the term "Bardolotry" better than I had. And while I do not go so far as Bloom in the credit I give to the Bard (I am a Christian theist, and, unlike Bloom, know myself to have been created by God), I do understand what he says and why he is saying it. How many times have we heard it said, or said ourselves, that young children are very maleable, that the words they hear (and, God forbid, sometimes repeat in their innocent voices) stay with them, become a part of them, and help to form them into adulthood? Shakespeare has permeated our language and thought to such a degree that he has shaped us the way we shape our children. (And, sadly for him, like our children, we don't always listen to the whole story. Taylor, I am sorry to inform you, but Romeo and Juliet DIED, ok?) A happy example of words working on an impressionable child, and one of my favorite stories to recount: When I was studying poetry for comps, I read Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening to my little sister, who was then only 4 years old. Several days later, she collapsed by my side with a melodramatic sigh, rolled her eyes heavenward, and wailed, "Oh, Ellie! I wish it would snow again, so we could go outside and listen to the sweep of easy wind and downy flake!" I was utterly delighted by her, as I often still am (she is 9 now.) The words of poetry and stories (Dr. Suess, Charlotte's Webb), become a rhythm to our ears, a part of our heart beat, part of what makes us breath and see the way we do. Did Shakespeare invent me, Mr. Bloom? Well, no, of course not, you crazy man. Why yes, indeed he did, you brilliant soothsayer!! At least, he shaped a part of me. How many words did he add to the English language? I don't remember, but it was well into the thousands."Incarnadine" (Macbeth) is one of my favorites. "Puking" is also one of his, by the way. (We all know he's a lot bawdier and well, "earthier" than we'd like to admit, right?) How many of his phrases indolently slip their way into our conversations, so easily that we don't even know it? Pick up Hamlet one day, and you'll be amazed at how many famous lines come from that play: Get thee to a nunnery! Something is rotten in the state of Denmark. Brevity is the soul of wit. Frailty, thy name is woman. To be, or not to be... The list goes on. How many of you ladies feel with Elizabeth Bennet that Mr. Collins should have realized the soul of wit? How many of you gentleman out there agree with Will Shakespeare that frailty is a pretty accurate name for most women (don't answer that)? How many of you wish you had said, "Oh, most pernicious woman!" before Shakespeare did? Well, the fact of the matter is, that's what good writing is, and does. It takes what we're thinking, and puts it better than we can. Sometimes, it even tells us what we were thinking before we knew it, and then goes on to tell us how to continue thinking about it. Talk about power! That's the written word for you. That's why I love it.

Of course, power corrupts, with great power comes great responsibility -- you know the drill. But power is necessary for redemption, too. And I don't mean that immediately in the teleological, cosmological sense that you all might be jumping to. Let me explain. Can you remember back to when you first heard the word "cathartic" or maybe "catharsis?" For me, and I hope for most of you, it doesn't at first bring images of punching bags and smashed plates (but those work, too). Perhaps there are vague bits of memory about a definition of tragedy, and something about pity and fear? The purpose of the story of Oedipus (yes, there is one) is the proper purgation or catharsis of pity and fear, remember? It's the same for any tragedy. Words, stories, and especially music, help us to process something, and, in doing so, they change us. You might have a favorite book that you go back to when you need a bit of comfort, a particular poem that, when you read it, all of the sudden brings into sharp focus a part of the world you realize you've been misunderstanding, or a letter from a dear friend that changes everything, that you hold on to and read over and over. Why are your favorite quotes on your Facebook page there? What is the point of the "Words of Wisdom" in a yearbook? Why do you get some tattoos with text, not just image? Words heal and strengthen you, give you a reason to fight, an explanation for something that has happened. They give us our answers and our reasons, in beautiful form. And if that's not worth talking about, I don't know what is. Last year was a hard year in my life, and then I read G. K. Chesterton's The Ballad of the White Horse. It certainly didn't change what was making things hard, but these words in particular gave me comfort, scant and irrational though it might have been:

“But you and all the kind of Christ
Are ignorant and brave,
And you have wars you hardly win
And souls you hardly save.

“I tell you naught for your comfort,
Yea, naught for your desire,
Save that the sky grows darker yet
And the sea rises higher.

“Night shall be thrice night over you,
And heaven an iron cope.
Do you have joy without a cause,
Yea, faith without a hope?”

There's a challenge for you. There's a call to action. There's a reason, a purpose. So go and DO something about it!

I didn't expect this introductory post to go on so long. But, one more thing, before I go. If you don't understand the title of this blog, it is in reference to The Tempest. When Miranda, the lovely lady of the story, sees other people for the first time (she has been raised in isolation on a mostly uninhabited island), she is astounded by their beauty. She is utterly astounded by the world that the fact of their existence has opened up to her naive understanding. That childlike delight in humanity and the surrounding world, particularly as experienced through her phrase "Brave New World", isn't at all, as far as I can tell, what people think of when they hear that phrase. What I would love to see happen, and what I humbly hope I can help to accomplish through this blog, is for this redemptive, clarifying, and spiritually elevating power of words to work towards a transformation of ourselves and the world around us. "Brave New World" is not the title of a dismal novel -- it is the delighted exclamation of a young woman at the glories of the world in which she is suddenly immersed. At least, that's what it used to be. And so, the challenge before us: can we use our language to redeem itself, to redeem ourselves, and so to redeem our love of our world? Let the work begin.


  1. wow, so much energy in this post!

    This tired mamma is thinking: "wow, when did she have time to think all those...thoughts." haha. lame. nothing to add. I'll just let your thoughts wash over me, ok? :)

  2. Wow, I am inspired, Ellen! YES, let's go DO something about the hope we have, which is founded in knowing Christ, who is Truth!

  3. I'm going to bypass the rest of it and ask what's so special about music? Maybe I should just go and engage Plato again (but really... and this is coming from a Philosophy major... do we seriously want to do that??), but I just don't understand why it's so very significant. I mean, I think it's the most accessible of the arts, but why?

    And PS - not that the rest of it wasn't mesmerizing, I'm sure.

    1. Thanks, Annie and Erin! I'm glad you both liked it.

      Sam, I'm going to let Plato do the talking for me:

      And therefore, I said, Glaucon, musical training is a more potent instrument than any other, because rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul, on which they mightily fasten, imparting grace, and making the soul of him who is rightly educated graceful, or of him who is ill-educated ungraceful: and also because he who has received this true education of the inner being will most shrewdly perceive omissions or faults in art and nature, and with a true taste, while he praises and rejoices over and receives into his soul the good, and becomes noble and good, he will justify blame and hate the bad, now in the days of his youth, even before he will recognize and salute the friend with whom his education has made him long familiar.

      Yes, he said, I quite agree with you in thinking that it is for such reasons that they should be trained in music... Thus much of music, and the ending is appropriate; for what should be the end of music if not the love of beauty?

      (The Dialogues of Plato, translated by Benjamin Jowett, Volume Four, The Republic, edited by M Hare & DA Russell, Sphere Books Ltd., 1970, Book III (398-403), pp.165-171.)

      Since you are a philosophy major (this means war, I hope you know), you probably read that with more fluency than I do. But in my own words, going off of this, music is accessible because of the way it can affect the soul, play with the emotions, and either change a mood for the good or the bad. Much as we would all like to be cool-thinking intellectuals, our passions and emotions are what motivate us most of the time, and music touches and moves them immediately. The sound envelops you, surrounds you, and brings pictures into your head, sometimes colors, stories, and, if it has lyrics, the beauty of the written word (and you know how I feel about that!) I don't know - I guess it's hard for me to explain away exactly what it is about music, but maybe that helps?

      Can you imagine watching an epic war scene with no soundtrack? Do you have particular songs you listen to while you're running or working out? Why does some music belong at a camp-fire, some at church, and some at a dance party? It makes your blood pump a certain way, gives a context for whatever you might be doing, and colors your whole experience of it. Why is it the most accessible? Well, you don't have to study it to be affected by it. Studying might enhance it, but it just happens to you. Toddlers dance to the rhythm, but I doubt that your average 2 year old would be particularly moved by a poem, a sculpture, or a painting. And wasn't there some study done where babies cried whenever people played dissonant music in their hearing? I'm not very good at answering this question, but maybe all this helps.

  4. What a delightful site! I find that Ellen's writing absolutely SPARKLES!!

    Referring to the essay on Don Quixote, of course, I couldn't agree with you more, although fiction is "made up" it must also be true. The better the work of fiction the more closely it corresponds to real life.

    But I'm afraid I have to agree with Sam up there when he asks what's so special about music. Don't get me wrong. I like music. Some of my best friends listen to music. But I have always thought it takes second place to reading, good poems, good novels, good anything. Music is passive. I don't have to do anything but sit back and let it affect me. Not unlike watching television. Ellen said it pretty well when she said, "Do you have particular songs you listen to while you're running or working out?" That's it exactly, you can listen to music while doing other things. On the other hand, one cannot do anything while he is reading a poem except read that poem. It takes all of him, no distractions. I've always thought that this was an important difference between music and the more intellectual pursuits (basically, everything else).

    The Thin Man

  5. Good Lord, such blasphemies against music!!! Listen to Roy Harris' 3rd Symphony. It is not easy to listen to. It demands real commitment. But it tells a story more dramatic and immediate than even the greatest literature.