In Which I Wax Mostly Clever

I’m reading Scruton’s aesthetics (of music), a formidable work. I turned away from it in former times because it had musical notation alarmingly liberally scattered throughout. I find the language of musical notation one not congenial to whatever it is my mental processes are. I don’t flow with it; it doesn’t conjure up for me what it should; it is just markings without meaning. I need to pick it out on something and I have nothing on which to laboriously pick it out or can’t be bothered or don’t think it will help. I half believe that the world is using a system of musical notation that is absolutely the worst that could be invented, but against me is the fact that many musical geniuses seem to have found it most congenial. The aforementioned book is one of the few by the chap in English here available and so I thought I’d give it a try, and I found the examples don’t matter all that much, and for the crucial ones I can use youtube to get what I want to understand. It would be formidable were I not an inveterate listener of classical music; were his examples, for example, to be drawn from popular music or jazz it would be formidable. It is formidable in that it is a work of philosophy and as demanding as such works tend to be for somebody who is not in the habit of reading philosophy. (I probably ought to be more in the habit, but I have not found anything that really puts the desire for it in my heart; it is usually a duty without love. There are exceptions to this: Barfield, for one, . . . and perhaps someone else.) At the point of thinking I should give myself to something I could better participate in, such as a biography of Yeats, I began the chapter on representation and found it most compelling. At the conclusion of that chapter I find the next one looks very, very compelling. He has so far had scattered interesting things and insights (and I confess my understanding of it has not been characterized by utter clarity, but that’s the problem about doing something without any true persuasion about it; without sweet desire, it does you so little good—at least me), but now he’s starting to explain the world to me, and that is what one wants.

One wants discipline in one’s reading, one realizes, but one wants more. After discipline I have entered, at the right point in my life, into the enjoyment of poetry rather thoroughly. Perhaps in due time I will enter into the enjoyment of the drier edges of philosophy some day when I realize whatever it is I do not realize at this time. The curiosity remains, at this point, mostly idle though I try to keep it idling and not entirely shut off. I was recently reading Coleridge for the literary criticism and was not grateful to him when he indulged in a great deal of philosophy, though I realize that eventually I’m going to have to come to terms with it if I’m going to profit utterly from the criticism. My consolation is the example of Dr. Johnson, who, from the incident involving the kicking of the rock, appears to have had rather rudimentary philosophical ideas. But perhaps I ought to try to read more of Dr. Johnson and become informed.

I suppose that my problem is like the problem that afflicts those who appreciate Blake’s poetry or Yeats’ and yet remain contemptuous or dismissive of their vision. I confess that at this point I am very interested in their vision (or visions, perhaps) more than I am in the philosophy of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. I am interested in the philosophy of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, mind you, but not, for instance, in the philosophy of Immanuel Buckwheat Kant. I’m working on a distinction in learning that will perhaps serve my purposes. I’ve seen hints of it in Yeats and I might say it is a type of understanding that is participatory and not disinterested. Yeats talks much of personality and of abstraction or refinement. Somehow, it seems to me, the whole thing is bound up with the incantatory power of poetry and a true account of the necessity of rhyme and meter for the poem to be vital. It is an essay that perhaps I will entitle Why Does Väinämöinen Sing? So it seems to me, for reasons altogether vague, that perhaps the rather studied but thorough accounting that Scruton makes of the things the acceptable have said in their detachment might not be entirely wasted on me at this point in my life.

I ought to include this quotation at some point, though I wonder about the mode of its expression:

Although the purpose of an act of worship lies beyond the moment—in the form of a promised salvation, a revelation, or a restoration of the soul’s natural harmony—it is not entirely separable from the experience. God is defined in the act of worship far more precisely than he is defined by any theology, and this is why the forms of the ceremony are so important. Changes in the liturgy take on a momentous significance for the believer, for they are changes in his experience of God.

I do not say I wonder about the mode of its expression because I’m vaguely dissatisfied and want to hedge my bets, as it were. I say it because I find it stated in a philosophical treatise and that mode of learning is one of which I am, at least at this point, rather skeptical. Who can convince me it is not another mode of learning than the poetical mode which Plato used? Who can allay my suspicions that it is illegitimate though somewhat useful? It proceeds by analysis and detachment. It can be grasped without involvement. It thinks it thinks clearly because it thinks dispassionately for it believes feeling would blind its thinking. Can such a thing (I typed ‘think’) be right? Here I am considering it with perfect ambivalence.

It reminds me of something, though, that quotation. I left fundamentalism to be a Reformed Baptist (and I am not aware it made any significant changes to my blogroll) because I became convinced the line between worship and entertainment was more important than the line between Israel and the church (or, you might say, I joined a Reformed Baptist church because I was less embarrassed at being part of that membership than at the former place). It reminds me that Ben Wright is doing something interesting—at least I think so. I am not sure Ben Wright’s arguments always hold water (I was tempted to say ‘generally’ but I’m in an expansive, friendly mood; besides, that might be inaccurate; I don’t pay that much attention to them actually), nor am I sure this one will—not because I give fundamentalists (you know, I often type fundamnetalists, which is not generous) the benefit of the doubt, but because his whole argument has not yet materialized that it may be scrutinized. As to whether in the end the argument holds water is something to which I have achieved a very philosophical indifference, but what does interest me is the way he is already being responded to pro and con.

Fundamentalists have been asking for a long while why the young are leaving—without having achieved an answer that will really plug the hole, apparently. I find it interesting that even Robert Delnay was evasive about it (the alternative is that he didn’t understand the question, and for all I know he didn’t, but I find that hard to believe—though perhaps I misunderstood the question . . . but that would hardly fit the whole context). Wouldn’t it be very interesting, however, if instead of answering the question themselves, for once they asked somebody who had left who was articulate enough and not intimidated to give them the answer? What if, for example, they asked Ben Wright to address them, and they actually let him put the whole argument before them in the philosophical and disinterested manner, promising not to react defensively and simply to understand, like philosophers? Part of the reason for it is legitimate: it is not the sort of thing which can be considered entirely philosophically, with the studied detachment of analysis. (Let it not be part of our reasons that if he’s right it would mean repentance; it may be some are not unwilling to face that possibility, for the world of motives is a complex one.) But I wonder if most of the reason isn’t that doing it would mean assuming for the sake of argument, that the young had reasons that held water.

Eh? Well, I’m not sure what good would be achieved by it either, but it would certainly be a curious gesture.

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  1. David

     /  December 19, 2009

    Touché :) I intended the example to have more generalised sound than it ended up with.

  2. Wouldn’t it be very interesting, however, if instead of answering the question themselves, for once they asked somebody who had left who was articulate enough and not intimidated to give them the answer?

    Surely you can’t be serious.

    First of all, fundamentalists aren’t asking the question you say they’re asking. They ask instead a question that goes like this: the new evangelicals parted ways with fundamentalists for four or five reasons fifty years ago; for which of these reasons are young fundamentalists leaving today? In particular they say “Young fundamentalists are leaving fundamentalism because they want to be respected as intellectuals. Why is this so important to them?”

    Second, fundamentalists do not ask questions to engage in inquiry; they ask them as catechesis.

    Third, separatism is um foundational to fundamentalism, and it requires people who leave to be considered apostate.


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