Monthly Archives: September 2017

Noted with pleasure: The other education

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Like most people, life had given her one sort of education.  She had gone to school.  She had taken such and such management courses, worked her way through various jobs, and learned such and such skills.  She had come to possess a certain professional expertise.

But now she was beginning her second education.  This education was an emotional one, about how and what to feel.

This second education did not work like the first one.  In the first education, the information to be mastered walked through the front door and announced itself by light of day.  It was direct.  There were teachers to describe the material to be covered, and then everybody worked through it.

In the second education, there was no set curriculum or set of skills to be covered.  Erica just wandered around looking for things she enjoyed.  Learning was a by-product of her search for pleasure.  The information cam to her indirectly, seeping through the cracks of the windowpanes, from under the floorboards, and through the vents of her mind.

Erica read Sense and Sensibility, The Good Soldier, or Anna Karenina and she would find herself moving with the characters, imitating their states of mind, and discovering new emotional flavors.  The novels, poems, paintings, and symphonies she consumed never applied directly to her life.  Nobody was writing poems about retired CEOs.  But what mattered most were the emotional sensations portrayed in them.

In his book Culture Counts, the philosopher Roger Scruton writes that

the reader of Wordsworth’s “Prelude” learns how to animate the natural world with pure hopes of his own; the spectator of Rembrandt’s “Night Watch” learns of the pride of corporations, and the benign sadness of civic life; the listener to Mozart’s “Jupiter” symphony is presented with the open floodgates of human joy and creativity; the reader of Proust is led through the enchanted world of childhood and made to understand the uncanny prophecy of our later griefs which those days of joy contain.

Even at her age, Erica was learning to perceive in new ways.  Just as living in New York or China or Africa gives you a perspective from which to see the world, so, too. spending time in the world of a novelist inculcates its own preconscious viewpoints.

Through trial and error, Erica discovered her tastes.  She thought she loved the Impressionists, but now they left her strangely unmoved.  Maybe their stuff was too familiar.  On the other hand, she became enraptured by the color schemes of the Florentine Renaissance and Rembrandt’s homely, knowing faces.  Each of them tuned her mind, the instrument with a million strings.  She had some moments of pure pleasure, when she could feel her heart beating faster and a quiver in her stomach — standing in front of a painting, or discovering a new installation or poem.  There was a time, reading Anthony Trollope of all people, when she could feel the emotions of the story in her own body, and was alive to the sensations produced there.

“Mine is no callous shell,” Walt Whitman wrote about his body, and Erica was beginning to appreciate what he meant.

~ From The social animal: The hidden sources of love, character, and achievement by David Brooks (New York: Random House, 2011).

 

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Noted with pleasure: The long bag

Let’s talk about the personal shadow first.

When we were one or two years old we had what we might visualize as a 360-degree personality.  Energy radiated out from all parts of our body and all parts of our psyche.  A child running is a living globe of energy.

We had a ball of energy, all right; but one day we noticed that our parents didn’t like certain parts of that ball.  They said things like “Can’t you be still?”  Or “It isn’t nice to try to kill your brother.”  Behind us we have an invisible bag, and the part of us our parents don’t like, we, to keep our parents’ love, put in the bag.  By the time we get to school our bag is quite large. 

Then our teachers have their say: “Good children don’t get angry over such little things.”  So we take our anger and put it in the bag.  By the time my brother and I were twelve in Madison, Minnesota we we known as “the nice Bly boys.”  Our bags were already a mile long.

Then we do a log of bag-stuffing in high school.  This time it’s no longer the evil grownups that pressure us, but people our own age.  So the student’s paranoia about grownups can be misplaced.  I lied all through high school automatically to try to be more like the basketball players.  Any part of myself that was a little slow went into the bag.  My sons are going through the process now: I watched my daughters, who were older, experience it.  I noticed with dismay how much they put into the bag, but there was nothing their mother or I could do about it.  Often my daughters seemed to make their decision on the issue of fashion and collective ideas of beauty, and they suffered as much damage from other girls as they did from men.

So I maintain that out of a round globe of energy the twenty-year-old ends up with a slice….

Different cultures fill the bag with different contents.  In Christian culture sexuality usually goes into the bag.  With it goes much spontaneity.  Marie Louise Franz warns us, on the other hand, not to sentimentalize primitive cultures by assuming that they have no bag at all.  She says in effect that they have a different but sometimes even larger bag.  They may put individuality into the bag, or inventiveness.  What anthropologists know as “participation mystique” or “a mysterious communal mind” sounds lovely, but it can mean that tribal members all know exactly the same thing and no one knows anything else.  It’s possible that bags for all human beings are about the same size.

We spend our life until we’re twenty deciding what parts of ourself to put into the bag, and we spend the rest of our lives trying to get them out again.

~ From A little book on the human shadow by Robert Bly (HarperSanFrancisco, 1988)


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