The Disappearance of Unmeasured Experience

The institutionalized values school instills are quantified ones. School initiates young people into a world where everything can be measured, including their imaginations, and, indeed, man himself. But personal growth is not a measurable entity. It is growth in disciplined dissidence, which cannot be measured against any rod, or any curriculum, nor compared to someone else’s achievement. In such learning one can emulate others only in imaginative endeavor, and follow in their footsteps rather than mimic their gait. The learning I prize is immeasurable re-creation.

Later:

People who have been schooled down to size let unmeasured experience slip out of their hands. To them, what cannot be measured becomes secondary, threatening. They do not have to be robbed of their creativity. Under instruction, they have unlearned to “do” their thing or “be” themselves, and value only what has been made or could be made. Once people have the idea schooled into them that values can be produced and measured, they tend to accept all kinds of rankings. There is a scale for the development of nations, another for the intelligence of babies, and even progress toward peace can be calculated according to body count. In a schooled world the road to happiness is paved with a consumer’s index.

A couple of quotes from Ivan Illich’s provocative Deschooling Society (originally published in 1971). Illich is radical and intense, and I tend to find more merit in his critiques than his solutions. But, the difficulty of implementing his suggested solutions only reinforces his point that “schooling” has penetrated all areas of society. Regarding the quote above, the attempts to quantify the unquantifiable have only increased as data and computing power has become more available to institutions and administrators (with little evidence, in my view, that increased measurement actually results in improved learning – if anything, the opposite is true, as time spent that could be spent in research, learning, teaching is spent providing and checking assessment data). Beyond the lost time and focus, there is, as Illich points out, a tendency to devalue that which can’t be measured. This is an attitude that increasingly pervades society outside of school and the workplace, seeping into our personal lives, even our spiritual lives (a church I once attended asked us all fill out what was essentially a marketing demographic survey). If something can’t be quantified, does it matter? Does it have value?

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Easter Spirit

The following is intended only as a sort of informal “theological sketch” – I’m not hammering out a formal argument here, just doing some exploring. 

I’m sympathetic to the (reasonably common) observation that there is an imbalance between the way many North American Christians celebrate Christmas and the way they celebrate Easter. Basically, the idea is that of the two central celebrations of the Christian year it is Easter, not Christmas, which should be the “big” one (i.e. we wouldn’t be aware of Jesus’ birth if not for his death and resurrection), but for many of us Christmas looms much larger in our imagination and lived experience. The “Easter Spirit” just never feels quite as contagious as the “Christmas Spirit.” The best place for me to observe this is, of course, in my own life as the years cycle through: often I eagerly anticipate Christmas but stumble distractedly into Easter.

There are some obvious reasons for the difference. A main one, much discussed and lamented, is that our culture has figured out ways to harness the iconography of Christmas as a marketing device to sell us a bunch of junk we don’t really need. And, um, we like stuff: we like it so much we usually don’t even realize how much we like it. Consumption is an (the?) idol at the center of our shared cultural life, and to the extent that our Christmas celebrations share in the worship of Our-Lady-of-Perpetual-Deals it is unsurprising that the Christmas holiday feels “bigger.” This again, is obvious, and maybe the answer to our question is that we just need to crucify our consumerism (even as our culture will keep doing its best to commercialize Easter) – but that’s easier said than done.

I think there are other reasons too, ones that are interesting to think about, and perhaps might provide some clues for celebrating better, if not “bigger.” Theologically it may be easier to sing “Joy to the World” at Christmas than “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” at Easter because the incarnation is God’s great affirmation and confirmation of creation. In the incarnation God enters into creation, into the particularity of it, and affirms it by being born as a baby. John 1’s echo of the creation story and Luke’s narrative describing the birth of Jesus both make the same theological point regarding the value and goodness of creation. So, there is a certain sort of theological harmony in the festival of Christmas being marked by an enjoyment of the creaturely goods of food, family bonds etc.

But, maybe I’ve just revealed myself to be some sort heretic who diminishes the significance of the resurrection? Isn’t the promise of new life, of new creation that much more powerful of a “yes” to God’s creatures than the quotidian mess of childbirth? If we celebrate a birth, how much more the defeat of death? There’s an existential element to this, I think. We all have some sense of familiarity with birth, and also, perhaps with death, but reports from the resurrected have been … rare. At Christmas we are remembering a birth, a joyful, life-affirming event; at Easter we are remembering a death … and a resurrection. In remembering the resurrection we’re remembering something we anticipate and hope for, something beyond our capacity to entirely understand, rather than something we know happens every hour at the hospital down the street (not that we understand birth and death particularly well, either). And at Easter there’s the horrific death there in the middle – the reality that there is no resurrection without the cross. Good Friday forces us to grapple with evil, death, judgment, suffering, sin, which tends to dampen the festival atmosphere one might find at Christmas. Yes, we find reason for hope in the resurrection, but the reality of Good Friday (and perhaps even more the flat “in-between” waiting of Holy Saturday) often feel easier to identify with than the wonder of the Resurrection Sunday and it would be perverse to try and ignore the importance of the cross in our attempts to celebrate Easter.

So, it’s not straightforward that the solution to a Christmas/Easter imbalance is to just make Easter “bigger.” The pleas from the pulpit on Easter Sunday to “Come on and be happy!” (usually delivered in more pious language) feel forced, at best. I think in part, we (I) struggle to recognize significance and meaning outside a limited emotional range in our shared life together. We can manage happy (Christmas Day – never mind that whole “Advent” thing), we can manage sad (Good Friday – thank goodness it’s only one day a year) and we have Easter (why aren’t you as happy as you were at Christmas?). I don’t think the goal should be to make Easter more like Christmas – trying to generate some sort of emotional response that isn’t really there – but rather to recover a richer, broader range of response as we try and faithfully remember and celebrate what God has done.

Anathem: Goodreads Notes

AnathemAnathem by Neal Stephenson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Readers will probably either love or hate this book – a nice thing, given its length, is they’ll probably get a good idea of what camp they fall into within the first 10-20 pages (I really enjoyed it). It’s strange and ambitious – both a critique of contemporary society and an exploration of various philosophical/metaphysical ideas with plenty of pages describing the details of spacesuit construction. Religious faith comes in for a bit of a beating, although I think the book as a whole is more ambivalent than some of the explicit narrative suggests (the avout are, after all, basically monks – maybe more on this later).

As a number of reviewers have noted (Alan Jacobs wrote a good review here: https://www.thenewatlantis.com/public…) it could have been tighter and shorter, Stephenson’s prose is sometimes clumsy (and rarely rises above a certain workmanlike baseline), and his characterization is not as robust as one might hope. And, in a book where language, in different ways, plays a large role, he struggles to maintain “linguistic discipline” through the book (there should be more linguistic/stylistic markers between the different populations). But, I have to wonder if some editor managed to get Stephenson to write more “MFA-acceptable” prose if some of the expansive ambition of the book would be lost. Stephenson goes big, like really cosmically big, and it’s fun. While genre lines are crossed more frequently these days, I often find some of the more literary authors dabbling in SF use SF tropes to tell the same sort of stories they could tell otherwise – basically “adultery in space” etc. Often the prose is good but the story is a bore – it’s too small. My favorite contemporary novelist, David Mitchell, gets some distance down the track of what I’m looking for – his literary skills are immense (for an example of the “linguistic discipline” I mention above, it doesn’t get much better than the subtle ways Mitchell describes different modes of speech in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet), and he writes “big” stories, but I sometimes wish he would take a sharper metaphysical angle, if I can describe it that way – i.e. point to a more distinctive view of the big universals his books often return to thematically (predacity, communication etc.). Adam Roberts’ The Thing Itself achieves a certain unity of poetry and ideas … but there is something about the persistent irony in Roberts’ work that I struggle with (need to reread that book though).

Anyway, I enjoyed this one – needed some Husserl and spacesuits in my life at the moment, I guess.

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…a grim face made of some hard kind of wood…

Matters now began to move briskly. Waiter C, who rashly clutched the sleeve of Ronnie’s coat, reeled back with a hand pressed to his right eye. Waiter D, a married man, contented himself with standing on the outskirts and talking Italian. But Waiter E, made of sterner stuff, hit Ronnie rather hard with a dish containing omelette aux champignons, and it was as the latter reeled beneath this buffet that there suddenly appeared in the forefront of the battle a figure wearing a gay uniform and almost completely concealed behind a vast moustache, waxed at the ends. It was the commissionaire from the street-door; and anybody who has ever been bounced from a restaurant knows that comissionaires are heavy metal.

This one, whose name was McTeague, and who had spent many lively years in the army before retiring to take up his present duties, had a grim face made of some hard kind of wood and the muscles of a village blacksmith. A man of action rather than words, he clove his way through the press in silence. Only when he reached the centre of the maelstrom did he speak. This was when Ronnie, leaping upon a chair the better to perform the operation, hit him on the nose. On receipt of this blow, he uttered the brief monosyllable ‘Ho!’ and then, without more delay, scooped Ronnie into an embrace of steel and bore him towards the door, through which was now moving a long, large, leisurely policeman.

Fight scene, P.G. Wodehouse style, (from Summer Lightning).

The Peregrine – Goodreads Notes

This mastery of the roaring wind, this majesty and noble power of flight, made me shout aloud and dance up and down with excitement. Now, I thought, I have seen the best of the peregrine; there will be no need to pursue it farther; I shall never want to search for it again. I was wrong of course. One can never have enough.

 

The PeregrineThe Peregrine by J.A. Baker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A strange, intense book – unexpectedly dark. I read a few entries a day, which I think might be the best way to digest it. At first, I was struggling a little with the repetition (basic summary without all the poetry: narrator searches for a peregrine, sees a peregrine, describes what he sees … over and over), but over time the book starts to have a sort of hypnotic effect. The narrator is almost non-existent beyond his obsession and longing. This creates a certain effect – creating mystery, opening a space for identification – but I found myself wishing for a little more about Baker’s actual life in the book (there’s plenty of framing material in the introductions and afterword in this edition). I agree with Robert Macfarlane in his afterword that this is a book less about “becoming a bird” than “failing to become a bird” and it creates a certain atmosphere of melancholy and loneliness. I think the juxtaposition of Baker’s obsessional searching and watching with the mundanities of everyday life (he did, after all, dedicate it to his wife) would have made for a richer, deeper book. But, perhaps I’ve just been spoiled by Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk which so wonderfully mashes and mixes memoir, “nature writing” and literary biography. Baker’s book operates in only one register with a strange intensity. This makes is part of what makes it interesting, but I find myself wishing for that other book in my imagination – the obsession set in the larger context of a life. Contra Werner Herzog, I think it would make an interesting film – not as a “direct” adaptation, but if it took into account Baker’s life.

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Ursula K. Le Guin, 1929-2018

This confirms my sense that I have been allowed to use my life well, in work that was worth the time spent on it. Many people might see my two principal occupations as incompatible: being a middle-class American intellectual/wife/housewife/mother of three children, and being a writer. I won’t say that doing both jobs at once was easy, but I can report, from very late in the life in question, that I found some inevitable conflict but no incompatibility between the two. Little abnegation was demanded, and no sacrifice of life for art or art for life. On the contrary, each nourished and supported the other so deeply that, looking back, they all seem one thing to me.

Sad to hear of Ursula Le Guin’s passing – for my money the best contemporary American novelist around. The above is from her introduction to the essay collection, Words are my Matter.

When Breath Becomes Air

There is perhaps only one thing to say to this infant, who is all future, overlapping briefly with me, whose life, barring the improbable, is all but past.

The message is simple:

When you come to one of the many moments in life where you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more but rests, satisfied. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing.

 

When Breath Becomes AirWhen Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The quote above is the conclusion of this tremendously powerful book. For a variety of biographical reasons I found it hit me particularly hard. That it was written under the duress of an advancing terminal cancer is astonishing. The risk with this sort of book is a descent into sentimentality, or a sort of “here are 7 life lessons” reduction (… let me guess … lesson 7: seize the day?). This is not that sort of book. Here is Kalanithi at one point in his treatment:

The way forward would seem obvious, if only I knew how many months or years I had left. Tell me three months, I’d spend time with family. Tell me one year, I’d write a book. Give me ten years, I’d get back to treating diseases. The truth that you live one day at a time didn’t help: What was I supposed to do with that day?

It is not that there is nothing to learn here (Kalanithi’s oncologist encourages him repeatedly as treatment progresses “to find his values” and part of what makes the book interesting and moving is his wrestling with this mission) but it is complex, thorny, multi-layered. This is one that will stick with me – and perhaps I’ll have more to write about it later.