Tuesday, September 12, 2006

One of the human race

I needed a break from everything else and nothing satisfies like being immersed in a book. I'm longing for a bit of escapist literature (maybe later, along with a hot bath!), but lately I've been feeling starved for some meaty reading.

I pulled The Literary Discipline by John Erskine off the shelf. I was "introduced" to Erskine via Jacques Barzun's Teacher in America, and I deeply desire to read much by both of these men.

This book is a series of essays, and in the course of a lengthy essay called "Decency in Literature," Erskine describes part of the mental thought process that lead a man from ignorance to wisdom.

When you begin to take an interest in other men, you notice of course that their lives are not like yours, not so important nor interesting nor promising, but in their drabness they are all curiously alike; they all, with slight variation, are born, are brought up, fall in love according to their lights, marry, earn their living, have children, grow old, and die. When this uniformity begins to interest you, you are making your first intelligent acquaintance with life; and when you have looked at mankind and included yourself in the picture, when you have admitted however reluctantly that the single addition does not change the total effect, that life is still simple and uniform and that you are less peculiar than you thought--then you have seen yourself at last as one of the human race.

To see this calls for imagination and for the Greek virtue which we translate as magnanimity--great-mindedness. The virtue is not to be acquired all at once. We have made a great advance when we can think of life in terms not of ourselves but of moral and material aspects and powers--in terms of youth and age, for example, of strength or beauty or pride. This is the allegorical stage of our pilgrimage in wisdom, no mean stage to reach, though it happens to be out of fashion just now.

Erskine is describing the effects of reading great literature, or it may be said, the effects of a classical education by the "Great Books" method. The first and fundamental principle requires the humility of mind to lay aside our innate selfishness and take a larger view of life. I'm not sure our current society and culture are conducive to these habits of thought. Far from seeing mankind as a whole, governed by universal principles, we seem determined to fracture mankind into groups based on race, religion, ethnicity, and a host of other things. Our culture is the culture of the "self"--self-esteem, self-actualization, self-awareness, self-pity, self-help, and self-reliance.

We are not even in a position to be aware of what we have lost because, as a society, we cannot see beyond the end of our noses. Nor are we trying. We are staring in mirrors instead of casting our eyes out the window to the greater world beyond. So what is the hope that we will ever reach the next step Erskine describes:

But our advance is greatest when we can recognize these aspects and powers in the individuals around us--when our observation includes at one and same time the general truths of life and the particular instance.

In terms of literature, particular instances are most powerful, and escape being indecent, when they reflect larger themes and universal truths. But if no one is thinking this way, who will write the books?


At 8:10 PM , Blogger Dominion Family said...

Thanks, Karen,
I just deleted a comment I made on my own blog because I had lost sight of magnanimity.


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