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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