Styles of Back to School Prose




With September comes thoughts of endeavors that get categorized in our culture as intellectual pursuits. Part of this is of course the season schedule of those institutions we call schools. But it feels to me that it is more than that and September always seems to bring me back into contact with my first love of books and learning.


Like spiritual practice these can be done literally anywhere and do not require a certain setting.


Some of the fondest memories of my early adult life consisted of exploring some of the greatest works of prose to have been committed to paper with some very good mentors and guides. There is of course the uncovering of a text which is done with introspection and in solitude which is something that, if you are cursed or blessed to have a taste for this sort of thing like the present author, is in so many ways its own reward.




When you have completed to solitary communion with a text then you reread it in the presence of someone more expert and better experienced than you hopefully somebody who has read it before you and is more knowledgeable. You compare notes; your own reading is hopefully challenged, some things are confirmed, others rejected. And all the while you are hopefully mindful of the ever present fact that these texts which are great also have flaws and problems, some owing to the vagaries of the eras from which they emerged and some owing to the emphases of the author in question. And hopefully you will also love them for all these.


If an author like Isaiah Berlin who loves to dazzle and entertain with his erudition and with a kind of wit that in his period would have been considered peculiar to England yet generally enjoyed and comprehended is the one you happen to be reading and considering, those very features I just listed are the ones with which you have to contend. Like all matters of style these are features that never shut up and comprise the majority of the meaning and experience.


Isaiah Berlin

Here is Isaiah Berlin in one of his most famous works, the one in which he claimed the invention of Romanticism as the most revolutionary and diverse developments in culture and history since the late 18th century:

Quote from Isaiah Berlin

This passage gives you a sense of the glittery, fluttery quality of Berlin.


His interest is in surveying ideas from the past into the present and trying to get the reader or listener as best as possible a sense of how others felt and thought, not necessarily what he - Berlin - feels and thinks. This could leave him open to the unfair charges of being superficial or lacking commitment. But you do not go to Berlin for being rallied to a cause; you go to him for the excitement of the ideas themselves. And depending upon your point of view as a reader, the virtue of a writer like Isaiah Berlin might become a vice if you are not already predisposed to accept or comprehend his sensibility, or if you think of what the presence of their qualities necessarily leaves out - for example, in Berlin's case, emotional intensity (something which he never displays) or a certain earnestness or extra amount of seriousness which he mostly avoids. For these latter you literally have to go to another, rather different author - for example, Berlin's beloved Tolstoy. (This is most interesting because Berlin rejects strongly a lot of Tolstoy's sensibility - Tolstoy's moralism and earnestness for starters. But a thinker with Berlin's sensibility is quite able to respect and appreciate while at the same time disapprove.)

And when you have concluded whatever it is you have read you by any author, you will still inevitably have favorites to which you will return throughout the rest of your earthly life: because every one of us is a unique individual and as such is made up of preferences and idiosyncrasies. Without these we would not be recognizably human. And we read particurlar authors as much for what they do as what they necessarily leave out.


This is what Emily Dickinson meant when she talked about Truth being slant in her poem "Tell all the truth but tell it slant"

Quote from the poem" Tell all the truth but tell it slant ", by Emily Dickinson

Dickinson is saying here that this whole notion of truth being this objective and external thing "out there" is a fallacy. It's really all subjective; it is colored by somebody in particular that makes it "slant." All of our perceptions are like this in fact.


This is in addition to the more common interpretation of the poem as an homage to the virtues of obliqueness and indirection, as a rebuke to literalism. It is that too - like the T.S. Eliot line "that we cannot bear too much reality." This is not unlike describing what lightning is to a child in her example and how and why this should be different than describing the same phenomenon to an adult.

It is the most dangerous arrogance to think that we can have "a view from nowhere". We as humans are individually and collectively always somewhere, on a particular plot of land or in a particular physical form. Instead of seeing these as only limitations we should be delighted that we always have our embodied point of view rather than some allegedly perfect, omniscient point of view.

As of the writing of this particular post I am reading for the fist time Hannah Arendt's The Human Condition. It is both one of her most important works as an author and the one book of hers I have not read until now. It is a weirdest and somewhat embarrassing thing that as a fan of hers I had not read this book. I had read her On Violence as a 12 year old boy and subsequently read Eichamnn In Jerusalem and Origins Of Totalitarianism later in college and after. To give you a feeling for what Arendt is like and why a book like The Human Condition becomes a classic I reproduce here a passage from this book:

Quote from Hannah Arendt

Now I find in passages like these the greatest joy at what one woman was able to accomplish in prose. The content of a passage like this with its meditative quality about all of previous history and what different people and societies have thought has an openness about it whose excitement seems to me utterly separate from the convictions being surveyed or even what Arendt herself may or may not have thought. Now what makes this possible is all in her style. Part of it is the syntax. Part of it is in the tone and attitude of the author. You get this panoramic feeling as a reader and you get to leave behind the necessary narrowness of where you happen to find yourself at a given moment a single lifetime.


Your mind and heart wanders about what these people in the past thought about things and you are completely free to contemplate these things without becoming settled definitively on one side or another.


This is a style borne of deepest curiosity on Arendt's part.

I tried to stay with examples you could safely and accurately call highbrow in this post: they are recognized as being in certain styles that become famous or classic and continue to be taught- hopefully - after a passage of time, but in truth we need all kinds of different styles to accomplish varying things.

And not only in styles like these. I pick these because they are not immediately commercially appealing while having had an effect on breast numbers of people. In future posts I will discuss t.v. shows and material we associate with what is called entertainment - all with an eye towards showing how the principle involved in their styles are surprisingly similar to what you find in Hannah Arendt, Emily Dickinson, in well practically anything.


Hannah Arendt

Emily Dickinson

The similarities are as valuable and important as the differences.






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