Monday, July 20, 2015

The Lives of the Mind

If there’s a phrase used more than “open discourse” at the University of Chicago, it’s “the life of the mind.” Those words are splashed across admissions brochures and uttered reverently by prospective students. My Gmail inbox from the last four years contains over a thousand messages that use the phrase.

On the tongues of college administrators, of course, it’s total nonsense. It’s touted to make up for a perceived inferiority to Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. Those are the finishing schools, it’s implied, where students go because they’re hungry for prestige and money. UChicago, supposedly, is where you really learn—where, instead of buying casual sex, wilderness, and wood-paneled lounges, you’re in for the life of the mind.

This is a ghost, like almost all consolations are: UChicago is just as anti-intellectual as most of American college society. (Verbatim quote from a Harvard tour guide last week: “I’m going to stop talking about academics now, because I don’t want to bore you too much.”) But despite how empty it sounds on the South Side of Chicago, the phrase has made me think. Now that I’ve thought, I can say that have had two experiences in my life that I can honestly call the life of the mind.

First is renunciation for the sake of knowledge. This renunciation is partly material: a scholar stays up all night to edit his emendations to a papyrus. It is partly social: he knows that his parents, friends, and wife will never be interested in his work. In the tiny circle in which his scholarship is read, he will be subject to abuse from colleagues who think that he is misguided. And it is partly spiritual: he must give up all investment he has in the outcome of his work. He must really, really not care whether the fragmentary letter he’s looking at is a pi or a lambda, even if the lambda would prove that Jesus had a wife and a homosexual lover. He must do his work perfectly, and he must not heed the implications of its outcome. All this for the sake of the truth.

Or: as my most intelligent friends do, you can study math or chemistry, and really take a thwack at it. Working through an advanced-level problem set is one of the loneliest experiences there is: you need to sit in the basement of a library alone, traveling through strange realms of thought as you track down invisible mathematical beings. Any break for a sandwich or conversation puts you behind. And you must be willing to be told that you screwed up, and then burn your notebook. This is almost inhuman. But Athena, after all, is the goddess of war.

This kind of life is extremely rare, because it’s hard. Few people have the gumption for it. And what’s more, it’s ludicrously unpopular. Not least, the emotional and intellectual hardness that you need for a renunciation-based life of the mind is largely missing from universities. Even among masters students at the University of Chicago, it’s quickly apparent that it’s uncouth to go for the jugular when someone spouts nonsense. “Asia is female,” a Chicago professor announced to his class a few years ago. No one in the room had the backbone to call bullshit.

But war has enormous advantages. Intellectual hardness lets us struggle for something besides our own sordid selves. That’s no small thing. A mighty effort of the brain against emotions and delusions lets us live for the one value still standing in our spiritless century: the truth. At the least we can overcome incorrectness, which is a smelly, colorful, democratic, and creeping thing.

I once spent a day with a man who was willing to talk to me about Aztec historiography, Bellini, Maria Theresa, Swedish phonetics, VAT collection, and Ecclesiastes. No social graces interfered. Nor did any temptations to spin narratives and make sense of the confusing world. When I was wrong, he said so unflinchingly to my face, and vice versa. I have never felt freer in my life. Another time, a rabbi I know called me up out of the blue for the sole purpose of discussing historical-philosophical issues in Eusebius.

This attitude to conversation is sometimes called nerdiness, and even though the word’s in danger of being turned into an ornament of mass culture, I think it suits me just fine. But in any case, nerdiness is not the whole story.

 Pausanias said that there are two Aphrodites, corresponding to common and heavenly love. I think that there are also two Athenas. Common Athena is mere truth-love: this is what I have just described. But there is also Heavenly Athena. She demands libations of wine, not coffee, and her temple is filled with laughter and sweet melancholy. She is the goddess of the social life of the mind.

I’ve drunk from her cup on a few happy occasions. Once, I stayed up in a friend’s library until two in the morning, tipsy, as we ran through the entire Western tradition, which was literally at arm’s length. Another time, I sang Greek and Latin poetry at a two-hour-long lunch. Letters in this sort of situation become a language of their own; a way for two souls to commune with each other, briefly banishing the demons who rule the universe: chaos, suffering, and above all loneliness.


No one who has never seen the flash of literary recognition in a friend’s face, or has not been moved to tears of sadness or joy by a book, has known this life of the mind. It entails opening your soul to other human beings. Not just those who are alive now, but everyone whose thoughts we can read. Here’s Machiavelli:
When evening has come, I return to my house and go into my study. At the door I take off my clothes of the day, covered with mud and mire, and I put on my regal and courtly garments; and decently reclothed, I enter the ancient courts of ancient men, where, received by them lovingly, I feed on the food that alone is mine and that I was born for. There I am not ashamed to speak with them and to ask them the reason for their actions; and they in their humanity reply to me. And for the space of four hours I feel no boredom, I forget every pain, I do not fear poverty, death does not frighten me. I deliver myself entirely to them. (Letter XI to Francesco Vettoritrans. by Harvey Mansfield.)
Now, the two Athenas unfortunately crowd each other out. You can’t have rigor with wine, and especially not with friendship. Heavenly and earthly lives of the mind are both beautiful things, but to everything there is a season.

But good luck finding either one in a modern undergraduate college. Too well-rounded to apply themselves to severe study; too faint-spirited for a real symposium, most students usually wade in pools of half-learning, and rarely open their souls to each other. The University of Chicago flatters itself, but by and large, with some beautiful exceptions, I found it no better in this respect. My real education, in fact, happened every time I left the college: either in graduate seminars that I sidled my way into, or skipping class to go to Europe, which was a fraction as expensive as Chicago tuition and much more human. I thus learned at the feet of tremendously learned scholars, and at the side of friends who spent hours walking through churches and bookstores with me. I wish I’d learned to do that as a freshman, but I guess I’m still a freshman in my life.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Homesickness and Starsickness

It’s rare that I cry, and rarer while pressed up against a gaggle of smartphone-wielding Chinese tourists. But on April 13th, when I was in Vienna, I bought a €3 standing-room ticket to Anna Bolena. This is an opera: Gaetano Donizetti’s version of the story of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. Anna Netrebko, the most beautiful Putinist in the world, sang the title role.

Immediately before her execution, Anne dreams madly of her idyllic youth, a comfortable and loving world that she lived in before she was swept up by a whirlwind onto the English throne. She sings a series of songs, longing for the life she had before her world went mad:



(The  sequence culminates in Cielo, a’ miei lunghi spasimiThis is taken from an Anglo-American song, best known as “Home Sweet Home.” It was wildly popular during the Civil War on both sides, and was reportedly banned because it caused soldiers to long dangerously for home. It was Abraham Lincoln’s favorite song, and I imagine it called up his childhood in Illinois, before he ever put on a suit.)

Here, we see nostalgia in its most distilled form. Even queenship isn’t enough to quiet Anne's quiet yearning to return home. The world, for all its sophistication, is pale and spiritually empty, and cruel to boot. But at home our existence makes sense. It is filled with love, spread out over countless unhurried hours. But there’s no home to return to for Anne—nor, I think, for most of today’s city dwellers.
All ’round the little farm I wandered
When I was young,
Then many happy days I squandered,
Many a song I sung.
When I was playing with my brother
Happy was I.
Oh! take me to my kind old mother,
There let me live and die. 
All the world is sad and dreary,
Everywhere I roam,
Oh! Brothers, how my heart grows weary,
Far from the old folks at home.
Nostalgia, for its part, is one of the inevitable pains of the forced march of time. We cannot go back to greet the dead, and can only call up comforting phantoms to our memory. Our childhood, and the memories passed down to us from our parents, are as unreachable as the most ancient history. A lost grandmother’s laugh is just as far away from us as Nebuchadnezzar, the dinosaurs, and the lonely formation of the earth.

Now for something different. Here’s another of Donizetti’s mad scenes, from Lucia di Lammermoor: Lucy, though she is in love with Edgar, has been forced to marry Arthur. So she murders Arthur on her wedding night, and wanders around in a bloody dress for half an hour while she hallucinates that she is marrying the man that she loves. 




Dispite their similarity in form, Anne and Lucy’s sufferings are completely different from each other. In Anna Bolena, Anna looks back wistfully, knowing that she can never return. In Lucia di Lammermoor, Lucy looks forwards, longing for a future that she is cut off from. Anne is homesick, but Lucy is starsick.

Lucy’s delusion here is a flight from a stabbing pain. She had been given a vision of complete happiness—a life with Edgar. But just as she began to think that she might be able to have it, it vanished like a desert mirage.

The Greeks must have felt this when they thought about their gods. They saw the gods’ eternal life in heaven, free from all pain, and filled with joys and meaningful sorrows. But they knew that they themselves were dust; that they had been given only a temporary glimpse of the sun. And I've felt it too.
 As I said last year:
Being alive is painful for this reason alone: we are born on earth, pulled from the dark lake of eternal sleep, and taken achingly close to heaven. We look upon the light of the sun, we breathe the night air, and watch the wheeling stars—and then we are thrown back into the deep.
I submit that homesickness and starsickness are the two most painful parts of being a human. They fill all of our art, and they fill the most sensitive souls.

These longings get expressed in religious form too: contrast Psalm 42 (As the deer thirsts for streams of water, etc.) with Isaiah 40:11 (He shall feed his flock like a shepherd). On the one hand we have the psalmist looking up with a pained stare, yearning to live among heavenly beauties that he barely understands. And on the other, Isaiah is gripped by a nostalgic desire for an embrace from his gentle father. The same two pains are expressed in the Eastern queen-of-heaven Mary, and in contrast, the Gothic tender mother:


The first Mary is higher than the cherubim, nobler than the seraphim: to win her favor is to be crowned with her in heavenly glory. The other is sweet and caressing: she invites us back to a warm hearth, offering us peace. We can only imagine the pain of the European souls that so feverishly reproduced these images throughout their art. They met two great human needs, and they still do for billions of Christian believers. The Jewish invocation avinu malkenu (“our father, our king”) expresses the same dichotomy, albeit in a characteristically watered-down form.

But without a religion to dull them, our needs for a home and for cosmic experience are unslakable. Even in a human utopia, even if all our ordinary needs are met—food, water, love, “self-actualization”—we are still stuck with the two greatest evils of all: our inability to return to our dead homes, and our damnation to sink below the earth.

At this point we can do two things. We can clamber into the brazen bull, and make our suffering into song. This is what Donizetti did. Or we can do our best to dull our pain with one opiate or another, self-induced faith being the most common. Either way, we can’t be cured.