Month: June 2014

Kierkegaard On “How” Philosophy


“Though he very rarely characterized himself as a philosopher, that is how world history remembers Søren Aabye Kierkegaard. And yet, while Socrates was his sage and he profoundly respected Kant, Kierkegaard ultimately became a virulent critic of philosophy, especially of the academic ilk. G.W.F Hegel was the regnant philosopher king of early to mid-nineteenth-century European philosophy. While Kierkegaard, in his early career, admired the speculative German thinker, he ultimately concluded that Hegel and other intellectual system builders “are like a man who has built a vast palace while he himself lives next door.” Writing in his journal, Kierkegaard insists, “Spiritually, a man’s thoughts must be the building in which he lives–otherwise it is wrong.” (JN, vol. 2, Journal JJ: 490, p.279). In addition to being unable to bring their scholarly studies to quotidian life, Kierkegaard complained that philosophers neglected the question of how to communicate the wisdom that philosophers (lovers of wisdom) are supposed to care about and ultimately possess.

Plato wrestled with the question of whether or not the written word was an aid or impediment to the good and just life, but for the most part the focus in philosophy has always been on the what, on the content of thought, as though wisdom in life were a mere matter of information capable of being directly disseminated en masse. With their emphasis on reason, Hegel and other virtuosi of abstractions spent little time pondering how it would be best to communicate their conclusions. Indeed, philosophers can seem almost narcissistic in their indifference to the subjective coordinates of their readers. They reason through an issue such as “What is love?” and then publish the argument, usually in a treatise form accessible only to the likes of philosophy professors.

Unlike other members of the Socrates guild, Kierkegaard grappled with the question of the how, as opposed to the what, of communication. Someone with an epistemological interest might conclude that while most philosophers probe the question of knowledge, Kierkegaard made a study of belief; Kierkegaard, however, was concerned with more that nodding intellectual assent.”

– From the Introduction to “The Quotable Kierkegaard”, edited by Gordon Marino
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As a college student studying theology, philosophy, and aesthetics, I quickly grew to distrust the tendency of intellectual academia to ponder all heady subject matter and comfortably sink into complacency in personal action and advocacy. At the same time I realized that the men whose lives I admired were founded on simple and consistent action rather than deep contemplation. Reality tells us that all men are invariably hypocrites at some point, but it has proven more life-giving to experience life with open men of conviction and action than to admire the thoughts and art of self-assured and selfish men.

I was first surprised by Kierkegaard when I started reading “Fear And Trembling.” I was completely caught off guard both by the creative style and intimate content of the work. The self-exposure required to open your own existential questions surrounding a Biblical narrative is starkly different from a treatise expounding on how neatly you’ve completed your understanding of the concepts involved.

While I cannot attest for the personal lives of authors and thinkers like Kierkegaard, C.S. Lewis, Mark Twain, G.K. Chesterton and Albert Camus, their candor, down-to-earthness, and even comic qualities show a confidence to be themselves and a capability to attack heady subjects without looking down on the laymen.

I look forward to writing a future post including a selection of potent quotes from The Quotable Kierkegaard.

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Further Reading

Kierkegaard On Gettin Rid Of Faith

Keats’ Fear Of Creative Death

G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday

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55 Classics Review #10 – Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers


Up to this point, I’ve been delighted by the books I’ve read for the 55 List. I mostly chose books for the list which I already hoped to love. This will be the first to break that streak of satisfaction. There are few books I expected to enjoy more than Mary Poppins, and not many have so greatly disappointed me.

I was disappointed on multiple levels by Mary Poppins. I grew up delighting in the Disney film and, like the multitudes, saw the recently released film Saving Mr. Banks which proposes a version of the history surrounding the author’s tumultuous relationship with Walt Disney. I found the Disney version of the history suspect from the start, but I was all the more eager to read the original text for myself. Reading with all this in mind further complicated the experience.

Mary Poppins is written as a series of short adventures in the world of Mary Poppins, the conceited, magical, aloof nursemaid who shows up and continually mesmerizes and criticizes the Banks’ children. Each chapter stands alone and some were really very wonderful. I especially loved a certain chapter concerning the language baby’s speak before they get their teeth. Travers alludes to a few mythological themes and lullaby-type fancies that were very original and which I really enjoyed.

Overall, if I had no previous knowledge of the concept, I would have thought the book was decent. If there was no movie and you asked for a quick thought, I would tell you that everything about the book was enjoyable except Mary Poppins herself. She is the wet blanket in every magical theme. She is aloof and self-obsessive at best and rude and condescending at worst. She steals from the children, does what she wants regardless of their petitions, and constantly tries to leave them out.

All of this wouldn’t be felt so harshly if Disney hadn’t made a film which constantly emphasizes whimsy that Mary Poppins is constantly attempting to stay stern against. In the film, she begrudgingly participates in the whimsy which constantly springs up at her magical heels. She is the exact hope a child might have for a magical adult who doesn’t prefer non-sense but accepts and appreciates joyful magical experiences. The movie sells a version of the unhappy and disconnected Banks’ family, relatively wealthy but without emotional ties until Mary Poppins tricks them and unites them. In the book, the Banks’ home is the poorest on their middle-class street and their father is a cheerful, optimistic sort who seems to take hardship in stride. I haven’t read the other books in the series yet, but the idea of Mr. Banks being saved by Mary Poppins seems to come completely from the Disney rewrite, which makes the entire theme of Saving Mr. Banks, even its very name, a complete fabrication of the Disney brand.

So Mary Poppins is originally a less agreeable figure and Mr. Banks seems like a pretty ideal father figure. Then Disney turns the entire story on its head and douses it in heavy quantities of whimsy.

The most frustrating aspect of the entire debacle is that I can’t help but prefer the film version to the book. I actually think that Disney’s rewrite made the story more engaging and agreeable. I liked the book, but I love the movie. I’m sure that some of that is due to sentimentality, but I so strongly identify with a parenting and mentoring style that emphasizes respect of the minds and emotions of children that I found everything about Mary Poppins off-putting. She represents a harshness and stupidity toward children that you wouldn’t expect from someone who knows the stars as personal friends and receives birthday parties from zoos full of talking animals.

The book ends with Mary Poppins disappearing and every adult in the house complaining about her vanity and egotism and how much damage control they have to do. The children ignore these complains, more eagerly wondering if she will ever come back to grace them with her wonderful presence again. I couldn’t help closing the book agreeing with the adults, feeling that the fun times didn’t quite pay for the constant snubbing and threats.

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Further Reading

Norton Juster On The Perils of Writing

The Railway Children by E. Nesbit

C.S. Lewis On Writing For Children

For Courage Of Quiet Mothers


Meditate
When the baby starts
With dawn nearing the horizon

Though your bone
Your body
Your very bond aches for rest

For you, oh sweet breast
Hold hope in your open hand
And condemnation in your fist

All life depends on your whim
Though no notice goes
To your hard fought victory

All life seems only to turn against your will
Yet all life peters for lack of your interest
You give life and enthuse

Rejoice and rejoin in happy open-handedness

– M.Landers, June 2014

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Further Reading

Wendell Berry Poem On Children And War

“Gal. V & VII” by M. Landers

“Listen Awhile Ye Nations, And Be Dumb!” by Keats

Jules Feiffer Encourages Failure


 

Jules Feiffer was a huge catalyst in the creation of The Phantom Tollbooth. He wasn’t simply the illustrator, but a next-door neighbor and co-dreamer with Norton Juster. We often hear about the value of resilience through failure, but Feiffer seems almost to encourage an attitude of looking forward to it. A failure often carries more potential for illumination than a straightforward success.

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Further Reading

Norton Juster On Creative Agony

Kurt Vonnegut Says Hate Gets Things Done

Mark Twain’s Amusement With Pains

 

Norton Juster On The Agony Of Creating


Norton Juster on writing and The Phantom Tollbooth from Maria Popova on Vimeo.

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As I make my way through the whimsical world of The Phantom Tollbooth for the first time, I am delighted as a reader and reassured as a writer. To hear that such genius minds as Maurice Sendak and Norton Juster had fears in the creative process and still managed to endear themselves to others through their mad ideas gives me hope and freedom to believe that we can continue to connect through silly stories.

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Further Reading

Dave Eggers’ Fear As An Author

In The Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak

J.R.R. Tolkien On Creativity And Fear

Gal. V & VII


The old man,
who decays as cynic,
you scorn, you deride;
as a young man
you would not have known him.

The young man,
who bleeds optimism,
you exalt, you extol;
will this world not,
in the end, have its way with him?

As father, as husbandman,
as carer for lives,
the weight of beauty
in all nature
and all natures
bores holes in the top of the soul,
making permeable,
capable to feel immense gravity
of life.

The constance of loss,
of life and limb and understanding and innocence
flooded that soul,
without relief,
without respite,
until it sank down under immense gravity
of death.

There is no drain
to empty the optimist soul.
Weight of caring
drags it down to fiery depths,
as a surgeon’s oath
in the midst
of red battle.

You young men
know some things
of history, repeating
of peers, distracted
of money, bending all wills
of influence, wooing.

You do not know some things, sneering at
the withered face,
the weathered lines,
the hardened brow.
These signs of hope deferred
and prayers unanswered
are the knell of your aspirations.
May your sneers turn to dread and woe.

The old man,
who decays a cynic,
you scorn, you deride;
history, repeating
peers, distracted
in the end, you are him,
he was you.

Will this world not,
in the end, have its way with you?

– M. Landers, May 2014

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Further Reading

“The Town Lays Awake Together”

Wendell Berry’s Greatest Poem

“Listen Awhile, Ye Nations, And Be Dumb!”