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Sneaking Up On The Generalities


In the introduction to the revised edition of Stephen Jay Gould's ever-excellent The Mismeasure Of Man, Gould writes:

If I have learned one thing as a monthly essayist for more than twenty years, I have come to understand the power of treating generalities by particulars. It is no use writing a book on "the meaning of life" (though we all long to know the answers to such great questions, while rightly suspecting that true solutions do not exist!). But an essay on "the meaning of 0.400 hitting in baseball" can reach a genuine conclusion with surprisingly extensive relevance to such broad topics as the nature of trends, the meaning of excellence, and even (believe it nor not) the constitution of natural reality. You have to sneak up on generalities, not assault them head-on. One of my favorite lines, from G. K. Chesterton, proclaims: "Art is limitation; the essence of every picture is the frame."

Emphasis mine. Many of my favorite books, typically nonfiction, have been about the way a humble subject can be opened up to expose tremendous depths. One of the reasons I became a fan of film criticism at a young age was not just because I had early exposure to some of the best such folks around (Ebert), but because of the way a good discussion about a work of art or an art form was a way to talk about the totality of things — "a means of rapid transportation to Life Everlasting, and to Life, period," as John Cage once said about the meaning of music.

I suspect this is one of the reasons most people don't bother with what are generally classed as serious philosophical works. They don't feel up to the job; the language is too erudite and impenetrable; and any insights they might glean from the experience would be difficult to connect to anything immediate in their lives.

In Russell Hazzard's barely known but fine little book It Scares Me But I Like It: Creating Poetry With Childrenthere's a moment early on when the author relates one of his first mistakes in teaching the subject: no connection between the idea being taught and the reality of the student receiving it. "The gulf between [Blake's] tiger and their very own concrete experience of fear was too great," he wrote. He wanted his students, all very young, to plug right into this wide-eyed, primal emotion that fueled Blake's Tyger! tyger!, but they were a little too young for that, and his enthusiasm for getting them to share his enthusiasm was overreaching. Once he brought things down to a level that was more accessible to the childrens' imaginations, their interest perked, and it became easier to have fun with the idea — and, ultimately, to extract something meaningful and relevant from it.

The really profound works of literature, I think, do not speak of The Profound but just embody the profundity they have to give. Some have more than others; such is the way. Give whatever you have, and don't worry about where you end up on the ladder. What matters more is the way you can embody the spirit of freely giving and receiving, as Dōgen put it. The generality that is there to be found is found best when you simply let it happen.

You've probably heard me talking before about the way Tibor Fischer found Martin Amis's attempts at profundity to be painful: "One of Amis's weaknesses is that he isn't content to be a good writer, he wants to be profound; the drawback to profundity is that it's like being funny, either you are or you aren't, straining doesn't help." It's about sneaking up on the generalities and not assaulting them head-on.


Tags: philosophy  writing 


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This page contains a single entry by Serdar Yegulalp in the category Uncategorized / General, published on 2019/02/22 08:00.

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