Part I of II: Learning to learn — from expected and unexpected places

I hope you loved that new Ta-Nehisi Coates piece as much as I did. It contains some passages that are about as beautifully written as any I’ve ever read:

That feeling—the not knowing, the longing for knowing, and the eventual answer—is love and youth to me…

You know that feeling you get when you read something that is so totally true for yourself?

Coates spent his summer in an immersion French class at Middlebury College in Vermont. Struggling to learn, because real learning is so hard:

…I was ignorant. I felt as if someone had carried me off at night, taken me out to sea, and set me adrift in a life-raft. And the night was beautiful because it held all the things I would never know, and in that I saw my doom—the time when I could learn no more.

Morning, noon, and evening, I sat on the terrace listening to the young master’s students talk. They would recount their days, share their jokes, or pass on their complaints. They came from everywhere—San Francisco, Atlanta, Seattle, Boulder, Hackensack, Philadelphia, Kiev. And they loved all the things I so wanted to love, but had not made time to love—Baudelaire, Balzac, Rimbaud. I would listen and feel the night folding around me, and the ice-water of youth surging through me.

A fellow student encourages Coates with a classic French quote. He understands each individual word, but still cannot fathom what she is trying to tell him:

…I asked her to spell the quote out for me. I wrote the phrase down. I did not understand. The other young lady explained the function of the pronouns in the sentence. Suddenly I understood—and not just the meaning of the phrase. I understood something about the function of language, why being able to diagram sentences was important, why understanding partitives and collective nouns was important.

In my long voyage through this sea of language, that was my first sighting of land…

You and I were just talking about how I couldn’t tell you what a hanging participle was, even though I’m a professional writer. So I’m struck by how Coates now understands (on some deep intuitive level perhaps he cannot even communicate) why it matters. Maybe I’m a little jealous.

I admire Coates most for his radical openness to learning and being taught. To finding important knowledge and wisdom in unexpected places. To what he calls “the long process of understanding.”

I love that. Especially because, lately, I’ve been discovering wisdom (or at least opportunities for productive reflection) in both expected and unexpected places.

Let me start with an expected place. Right now, I’m re-studying Othello.

You probably know the plot outline. Othello — almost certainly a black man, probably born a Muslim — is now the respected leader of the Venetian Christian military forces. He and the white Desdemona, daughter of a Venetian senator, fall passionately in love, and elope. Comes Iago, Othello’s ensign, who arrives at a hatred of Othello so deep that he determines to destroy the man.

And so he does, through a brilliantly crafted series of lies that dissolves this self-assured general into utter incoherence, convinces Othello his wife is unfaithful, and drives Othello to murder her.

Iago has committed a monstrous evil, but why? Iago gives us one superficial reason after another; they all seem mere rationalizations. When Othello finally understands what Iago has done to him, he begs for a reason. Iago responds:

Demand me nothing. What you know, you know.
From this time forth I never will speak word.

Iago is unforgettable because of — in Samuel Coleridge’s famous phrase — his “motiveless malignity.”* Evil for no reason.

Iago has sometimes been read as a traditionalist conservative challenge to liberals and other enlightenment types like myself.

People like me have tended to believe that there’s always a cause for evil; that people can generally be reasoned out of evil behavior; or that their self-interests can be creatively shaped to nudge them in better directions); or, failing this, that working hard to understand the causes of evil can help us deter it, even if we can’t always prevent it.

In contrast, traditionalist conservatives have sometimes tended to see “finding causes” as a waste of time, or worse: as a justification for evil. To them, evil is simply evil, and exists everywhere (perhaps, in the Christian view, due to original sin). It must always be defeated by overwhelming force. (I haven’t read Cormac McCarthy, so I could be wrong, but perhaps this is the evil he writes about; his Blood Meridian, in particular, has often been compared to Othello.)

Needless to say, I’ve represented each side without shades of gray, reflecting public discourse more than the quieter, more thoughtful discussion one hopes is going on elsewhere. In particular, I suspect many liberals like myself have been somewhat chastened by the last couple of decades. But I suspect you’ll find at least a kernel of truth in the way I’ve presented these competing worldviews. There’s certainly nothing original about what I’ve just said.

Still, it seems that history justifies the conclusion that what we view as evil can sometimes be deterred or deferred by rational action; and sometimes if you defer certain actors long enough, they fade away. Furthermore, it seems indisputable that simply attacking “evil” with “hard power” can sometimes have catastrophically counterproductive consequences. (See Bush: Iraq.)

So Othello finally brings me to the question that seems worth asking:

How can you tell which kind of evil you are confronting?

Now I have a question I can work on in my copious spare time!

I hope you’ll agree that it’s no shock to find opportunities for productive reflection in Shakespeare. But how do you keep yourself open to valuable ideas where they seem least likely to appear?

Let me give you an example. Amanda Hess at Slate linked to this short essay by R.R. Reno at First Things, an extremely traditionalist conservative publication.

First Things often publishes very challenging material, but on first glance, this essay doesn’t seem challenging at all.

Reno is trying to help his readers understand why single professional women won’t vote Republican, and to come up with a strategy for bringing them to their senses. He begins by conjuring up one of these women, and (as commenters observe) you wonder if he’s ever met one:

Thus we have the seemingly odd political instincts of a single, 35-year-old McKinsey consultant living in suburban Chicago who thinks of herself as vulnerable and votes for enhanced social programs designed to protect against the dangers and uncertainties of life. Why would a woman whose 401K already exceeds $1,000,000 and who owns a condo worth almost as much be so concerned to expand public support for in-home care of the elderly? It’s because she’s not married and feels as though she’s going to have to take on all the responsibilities of life on her own—a prospect that is indeed daunting…

…[she] feels “judged” when I oppose gay marriage, because she intuitively senses that being pro-traditional marriage involves asserting male-female marriage as the norm—and therefore that her life isn’t on the right path. She resents this implication. Her problem, however, is that (statistically speaking) she wants to get married and feels vulnerable because she isn’t and vulnerable because she’s not confident she can…

Among the many things that never occur to Mr. Reno: Perhaps she votes for in-home care for the elderly because she cares about the less fortunate? Who the hell knows? Maybe at one point in her distant past she came across Christ’s Sermon on the Mount?

The argument continues in a vein that strikes me as, at best, tendentious, and, well, just profoundly ignorant. Then, all of a sudden, Mr. Reno writes:

Some counsel side-stepping the moral issues. I don’t think this will work, because the deeper dynamic of modern liberalism is toward the public provision of meaning and security for atomized individuals otherwise vulnerable and uncertain about life.

Put simply, you can’t have limited government without a cultural politics that reinforces traditional modes of authority that can’t be reduced to social programs and government bureaucracies.

Holy cow. While I probably disagree with Mr. Reno about nearly everything, I think this is a deep truth. It connects directly to a common debate surrounding the size and role of government. Opponents of libertarianism, like myself, demand to know when and where a truly libertarian society has ever worked. When we hear “libertarianism,” we think: Somalia. Proponents of libertarianism sometimes point to an earlier America: through the 19th century and perhaps up to World War I.

But Reno captures something important. That was a society deeply rooted in shared Protestant religion. People may have had greater economic freedom (not least, the freedom to starve). However, they were hemmed in by deep cultural norms, the judgments of those around them, and the demands of a fairly tough minded God. Those cultural and religious norms did indeed provide meaning. They did support at least some forms of decent behavior (though the owners of slaves and sweatshops seemed perfectly immune).

These norms are now absent; I would go so far to say that they are even effectively absent among many of the people who defend them most loudly. At this late date, can one truly go backwards and recreate the sources of authority and shared meaning Mr. Reno admires, even if one wanted to?

Or must we struggle forward and look for new sources of authority, which will have to be based in the community and likely impinge on Mr. Reno’s sacred property rights? In either case, we human beings need to craft some form of authority and shared meaning. The question seems to be: How can we do this in ways that give us their benefits without more harshness and arbitrariness than is absolutely necessary?

This may well prove impossible. And it may prove equally impossible to do what Reno wants. What then? I fear your generation may find out.

So, like a bolt from the blue, an essay that I first saw as utterly worthless has connected me to the central question of modernity — and one that you and I have already talked about at length. Whither shared meaning and purpose when you don’t buy the sacred books you’ve been handed?

You see what I’m trying to do here. I’m trying to convince you to look harder for interesting and important ideas when you think you’re reading something “boring” or “useless.”

In Part II, I am going to, I fear, drive that point home with a sledgehammer. I’m going to take on the reading you just told me you hated so much.


*There are other interpretations of Othello, and while I’ve represented Coleridge as he is most commonly understood and discussed, he too seems to have seen the play slightly differently.




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