Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Hope and Humility

Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope.

                                                                                                         F. Scott Fitzgerald

If great literature does anything it humbles us. We are humbled by its artistry, by the force of its vision, by its insistence upon the messiness and complexity of life. At its best literature checks our need and proclivity to judge. 

This seemingly reflexive human practice of rating and ranking, of calculating, simplifying, typecasting, and generalizing, of pronouncing upon, of presuming to know, seems all but ubiquitous these days, aided and abetted as it is (to a degree I fear we are no longer capable of tracking) by the crass, essentially consumerist nature of the internet, that is, by the corporate, self-centered, often civically inimical logic by which each day we are training ourselves to live.

While founded surely in a natural, even evolutionary, need to organize and classify the world around us, this restless propensity to judge, and judge quickly, with impunity, to compare value, to make ever finer distinctions between celebrities and products and brands, seems more and more to me, and for all the apparent abundance of this age, to signify the opposite, the reverse—that in fact we are happy and satisfied with less.

When I was a student in college I had somehow been convinced (or had convinced myself) that being opinionated and judgmental was synonymous with being intelligent and intellectual. If someone asked me about an issue, about a particular politician or writer or painter, or about some moral or philosophical conundrum, I didn’t even pause to consider the matter but told them exactly, succinctly, what I thought. Yet what I told them wasn’t actually what I thought, for most of the time I wasn’t thinking at all. What I was doing was judging—judging swiftly, prematurely. For all my purported love of books and ideas, I had little patience for analysis, for the taxing, deeply humbling discipline of thought. What mattered was that I had an answer, an opinion. What mattered was that I knew.

I’ve changed a bit since then—thanks to my wife, thanks to the fact and complexity of my sons, thanks to the many good friends and colleagues I’ve known. Of course I am also deeply indebted to the literature I’ve read, to the countless poems and novels and plays, some of which I’ve discussed in this blog. And I must thank my students as well. Over the years they too have helped to shape and temper who I am. Directly and indirectly, they have helped me to refine the way I think about literature and language, the way I think about life.

Often now I advise them, my students, that before they can rightly judge a work of literature (as they are nearly always eager to do), they first need to know what it is. What exactly (to use the term broadly) is the argument it makes? Each time we read a story or poem or essay, each time we read a novel or play, I insist that before they render their verdict on it they must turn it inside-out, describing it as thoroughly and objectively as possible. I ask them to tell me everything they notice about it, everything they see. Not surprisingly this radically changes the dynamic of the class. Instead of judging (with all its inherent pressures, its stakes) they find themselves merely looking, observing, seeing. Without knowing it, they have made themselves susceptible.


Even less surprising to me, now that I’ve done it for years, is the fact that once my students have invested the time required to get to know a piece of literature on its own terms, in its own right, they often find that the need, the impulse, to judge it has faded, if not vanished altogether. This is not to say that they always come to love what we read—certainly not. In fact they often end our study of a given text with clear reservations about it. That of course is their due. They have earned it; it is theirs.

Which brings me to the matter of literature in general, and why the act of reading widely, deeply, patiently, is more important today than ever. “The poet judges not as a judge, but as the sun falling around a helpless thing,” writes Walt Whitman, an insight, an assertion, that applies equally to writers of fiction and plays. Simple on the face of it, what he proposes is astounding—that literature is something different, special, that literature is something else. Milan Kundera, in his defense of the novel, of its power to render the world more justly, truly, insists that “Suspending moral judgment is not the immorality of the novel [or poem or play]; it is its morality. The morality that stands against the ineradicable human habit of judging instantly, ceaselessly, and everyone; of judging before, and in the absence of, understanding. From the viewpoint of the novel’s wisdom, that fervid readiness to judge is the most detestable stupidity, the most pernicious evil.”

Literature then is that rare, imaginary terrain wherein moral judgment is suspended, a realm in which characters move and interact “not as a function of some preexistent truth, as examples of good or evil, or as representations of objective laws in conflict, but as autonomous beings grounded in their own morality, in their own laws.” As readers we are pressed to see them not as they could be or should be but as they are. That—of all its merits—is literature’s greatest gift.

Judging is easy; I do it every day. It is withholding one’s judgment—taking the time to really know a poem, a person, an issue, a place—that is hard, a discipline that not only requires trust and patience, but humility, forbearance, and hope. 

Peter Adam Nash

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