Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Thinking of Literature as Art

We're supposed to be thinking about Art now in TOK, and there are some interesting ideas that can be transferred to English A1 - as to how we appreciate literature as an art form.

Two excerpts from Reuben Abel's Man is the Measure:

"Joseph Conrad's short story 'The Secret Sharer' is about a young sea captain on his first voyage in command. The captain protects a stowaway who is a murderer and a fugitive. The simple adventure has profound and ambiguous overtones - of delusion, homosexuality, the force of authority, the conflict between morality and justice, the story of Cain and Abel, the doppelganger, Conrad's own life. There is little point in inquiring what the author's 'real' intention was, or what the 'true' interpretation is: any hypothesis which can be supported by evidence in the text ought to be thoughtfully examined and joyfully experienced. To insist on the 'real meaning' is to mistake literature and art for idealized science. A work of art is not a sense datum; it is not merely something perceived, but rather something interpreted. And in the richness, multiplicity, and range of its legitimate interpretations lie its fertility and vigor as a work of art" (257).

"The essential requisite [for a work of art] is that the materials be so formed that they are finally experienced as a unity, whether they extend timelessly through space (as do painting and architecture) or whether they cumulate nonspatially through time (as does music). The frame of a painting, the pedestal of a statue, the proscenium in a theater, the silence that precedes and follows a piece of music, and the space around a cathedral all act to enclose the work of art in what Rilke called a 'circle of solitude.' Thus it is experienced as an isolated, unified, instantaneous presence" (258).


In one of your readings - the one that says 'Rebel-Seeker' at the top of the page - we are told that Hesse "was favorably impressed by Lao-Tse" and "became a passionate advocate of Chinese thought and belief" (Mileck 161).

I was looking at the Tao Te Ching recently and found a few excerpts whose sentiments and ideas Siddhartha seems to echo. I've included one example below, for your perusal and mystification.

"Be done with knowing and your worries
will disappear.
How much difference is there between yes and no?
How much distinction between good and evil?
Fearing what others fear, admiring
what they admire -

Conventional people are jolly and reckless,
feasting on worldly things and carrying
on as though every day were the
beginning of spring.
I alone remain uncommitted, like an
infant who hasn't yet smiled:
lost, quietly drifting, unattached
to ideas and places and things."

(Walker, Brian Browne. The Tao Te Ching of Lao Tze. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995.)

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Does Time Exist?

Many of the articles I looked at looked horribly difficult, so I've only included a couple of links below that looked more manageable and human:

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: What is Time? (Try the 7th paragraph onwards.)

Discover Magazine: 'Newsflash: Time May Not Exist'


Monday, January 21, 2008

Buddhist scripture and _Siddhartha_

This is the excerpt from Karen Armstrong's Buddha that I promised:

"... a biography of the Buddha has... challenges. The Gospels present Jesus, for example, as a distinct personality with idiosyncracies; special turns of phrase, moments of profound emotion and struggle, irascibility and terror have been preserved. This is not true of the Buddha, who is presented as a type rather than as an individual. In his discourses we find none of the sudden quips, thrusts and witticisms that delight us in the speech of Jesus or Socrates. He speaks as the Indian philosophical tradition demands: solemnly, formally and impersonally. After his enlightenment, we get no sense of his likes and dislikes, his hopes and fears, moments of desperation, elation or intense striving. What remains is an impression of a transhuman serenity, self-control, a nobility that has gone beyond the superficiality of personal preference, and a profound equanimity. The Buddha is often compared to non-human beings - to animals, trees or plants - not because he is subhuman or inhumane, but because he has utterly transcended the selfishness that most of us regard as inseparable from our condition. The Buddha was trying to find a new way of being human. In the West, we prize individualism and self-expression, but this can easily degenerate into mere self-promotion. What we find in Gotama is a complete and breathtaking self-abandonment. He would not have been surprised to learn that the scriptures do not present him as a fully-rounded 'personality,' but would have said that our concept of personality was a dangerous delusion. He would have said that there was nothing unique about his life. There had been other Buddhas before him, each of whom delivered the same dhamma and had exactly the same experiences. Buddhist tradition claims that there have been twenty-five such enlightened human beings and that after the present historical era, when knowledge of this essential truth has faded, a new Buddha, called Metteyya, will come to earth and go through the same life-cycle. So strong is this archetypal perception of the Buddha that perhaps the most famous story about him in the Nidana Katha, his 'Going Forth' from his father's house, is said in the Pali Canon to have happened to one of Gotama's predecessors, Buddha Vipassi. The scriptures were not interested in tracing Gotama's unique, personal achievements but in setting forth the path that all Buddhas, all human beings must take when they seek enlightenment."


Other interesting excerpts:

After the death of Gotama, the monks "started to collect their testimony in a more formal way. They could not yet write this down, but the practice of yoga had given many of them phenomenally good memories, so they developed ways of memorizing the discourses of the Buddha and the detailed rules of their Order. As the Buddha himself had probably done, they set some of his teachings in verses and may even have sung them; they also developed a formulaic and repetitive style (still present in the written texts) to help the monks learn these discourses by heart."

Finally, the scriptural texts "purport to be simple collections of the Buddha's own words, with no authorial input from the monks. This mode of oral transmission precludes individualistic authorship; these scriptures are not the work of a Buddhist equivalent of the evangelists known as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, each of whom gives his own idiosyncratic view of the Gospel..."


Can you see the relevance of the above excerpts to our understanding of Siddhartha?

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Language, perception and 'The Cool Web'

I first read 'The Cool Web' more than a decade ago and, even though I found its meaning elusive, the words have stayed with me since. I have often wondered - since I deal with language pretty much on a daily basis - whether language is really as Graves proposes: a cool web that shields us from feeling too excruciatingly, but that we might also drown eventually in our own insipid, vapid volubility.

Then today I read an interview with Oliver Sacks, and it threw new light on the poem:

"Savants are people with extraordinary capacities of calculation or music or drawing, mixed with generally low intelligence - a very startling anomaly...

Some neurologists think that what may go on in the savant may be a relative preservation and heightening of primitive perceptual and computational powers in the right hemisphere - powers of a sort that are normally inhibited with the development of abstract intelligence and language. If abstract intelligence and language don't develop, it could be possible that they may be, in a word, freer. Something which might support this idea may be the late appearance of savant-like powers in people, say, with frontal temporal dementia; it is precisely with the decline of verbal and abstract intelligence that we sometimes see this emergence of artistic powers...

...certainly, there's a tantalizing notion that such savant abilities may be universal or latent in all of us, and could be released in certain circumstances. But if the release entails a loss of enunciation - of our higher powers - it may not be such a good bargain."

The Cool Web

Children are dumb to say how hot the day is,
How hot the scent is of the summer rose,
How dreadful the black wastes of evening sky,
How dreadful the tall soldiers drumming by,

But we have speech, to chill the angry day,
And speech, to dull the rose's cruel scent,
We spell away the overhanging night,
We spell away the soldiers and the fright.

There's a cool web of language winds us in,
Retreat from too much joy or too much fear:
We grow sea-green at last and coldly die
In brininess and volubility.

But if we let our tongues lose self-possession,
Throwing off language and its watery clasp
Before our death, instead of when death comes,
Facing the wide glare of the children's day,
Facing the rose, the dark sky and the drums,
We shall go mad, no doubt, and die that way.

- Robert Graves (1927)

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Wanted: people who have gone through hell and back

If you were in my SL class in 2007, and wouldn't mind coming back to Dover Road to share some tips for surviving Year 6 with my present SL classes, please drop me an email. We need to hear it from those who lived to tell the tale.