Thursday, August 13, 2009

Learning & Burning

by Fred H. Stocking
(Address to Phi Beta Kappa Society, June 4, 1977)

This occasion is for me a source of both embarrassment and delight. Insofar as the honor you have bestowed on me is actually a reference to my pedagogy, I find it embarrassing because, like most of my colleagues, I have had to learn over the years that I must deal with a persistent and nagging sense of inadequacy. But insofar as this honor actually means – as to some extent it must – that you like me, I am deeply delighted to be liked by the likes of you.

I was initiated into Phi Beta Kappa at Williams just forty-one years ago. Because I was very young and very idealistic, I was extraordinarily thrilled to learn that the Greek words, Phi Beta Kappa, signified “The love of Learning as the Guide to Life.”

There were many reasons for the extravagance of my thrill. For one thing, I thrilled rather easily in those days. For another, I was sorely in need of a guide for my life, and I was na├»ve enough to believe that love, in any form, was the most reliable guide available. Finally, I was attracted to the love of learning, as distinct from the love of knowledge, because I had then – and still have – a terrible memory for facts. Discovery has always been, for me, far more exciting than retention.

The special excitements of intellectual discovery were the subject of a lecture given in Jesup Hall several years ago by T. H. White, the author who retold the legends of King Arthur in The Once and Future King. White was a big, burly man with a plume of snowy hair and a long snowy beard; indeed, he looked very much like old Merlin the Magician. White told us a thing or two about his own youth – about the agonizing experience, for example, of growing up keenly aware that he was illegitimate, and being constantly reminded of this cruel fact by other kids. To stave off a dangerous tendency to wallow too deliciously in the morbid gratifications of despair, he developed a little lecture which he gave to himself periodically and which he later put into the mouth of Merlin, addressing young Arthur who had acquired the nickname of WART and was deeply down in the dumps.

“The best thing for being sad,” said Merlin, -- and I can still see T. H. White, just a few months before his own death, reading these words from the stage in Jesup – “The best thing for being sad is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, . . . you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then – to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. Learning is the only thing which she mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting.”

Of course this psychotherapeutic view of learning dramatizes only one of its virtues. For learning ought to do more than rescue us from our neurotic bouts with self-pity and the blues: it ought to make us wise.

Forty-one years ago I was sure that if I could manage to guide to my life, by the year 1977 my mind would be well stocked with those absolute certainties which represented my conception of wisdom.

Well, here I am in 1977, and when I dare to take a peek inside my head I see – frankly, it’s hard to see much of any thing because there’s not much alight. Nothing is very distinct; in fact the only phenomenon that I can clearly discern is a distrust of absolute certainties. Still, I must have learned something in all these years – even though I cannot presume to call it anything as deep as wisdom. In fact, “wisdom” is a word I tend to avoid because it always makes me feel, by comparison, shallow.

What I have learned is more accurately defined as a collection of small truths – things which are obviously not absolute certainties but are nevertheless true for me. And I want to mention one or two of these little learnings -- not because I think they will make you; wise, but because discovering them has been for me a source of great pleasure.

For example, why the world wags and what wags it; or, Me and the Universe. I suppose this means Religion. What have I learned? Well, Because I was brought up in a minor and rather nutty Protestant sect, I first had a great deal to unlearn, and in over-reacting against the very specialized nuttiness of that particular sect, I dismissed all religions as nothing but bigotry and superstition. I was wrong. Since that time I have boldly asked myself whether I honestly believe the universe is alive or dead, and I have been compelled to reply that the universe is obviously very much alive and I therefore participate in a life much larger than my own.

This fact does not induce me to kneel down, to wear a hair shirt, to put money in a collection box as thanks for a sermon that somebody should have paid me to attend, or to proclaim my total faith in an Almighty Deity who happens to share my prejudices. Nevertheless, the realization that my life occurs within the context of a whirling, pulsing, and very lively universe is a source of profound, irrational satisfaction.

So much for religious belief.

What else is there? Well, in addition to going around believing, or not believing, there’s the business of living. And for this business the most important sentence I ever experienced was one I read as a senior in college, and the meaning of which has been steadily unfolding ever since.

This famous sentence was first published in 1868, a time when it was simply no longer possible for many men and women of intelligence to define a successful life as one which led to eternal salvation in the hereafter, and when most people were defining success in terms of material possessions which provided an ego-flattering sense of social superiority.

The sentence was written by Walter Pater, who asked the basic question, “How can we best spend the few days that are allotted to us in this life?” and who answered this question in terms of living as intensely as possible. Here are his words: “To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.”

To burn with a hard, gem-like flame. That was a shocking proposal for Pater’s fellow Victorians. But I have found it persistently helpful.

All of us are on fire with life, and each of us has been given a limited supply of fuel. But there are many ways of consuming our individual allotments of fuel. And Pater urges us to burn – not to smolder, which would be messy -- and to burn with a hard flame, not a soft, floppy flame. This suggests that we should arrive at a lucid and tough-minded decision about what we want to make of our lives, and then try to carry out our decision with zest.

But Pater’s key adjective is the metaphor of a gem-like flame. For a gem is something that is innately or potentially beautiful, but its inherent beauty can be consciously developed by cutting, polishing, and setting – that is, by artifice. The most beautiful gem, like the most successful life, is a work of art.

I prefer the phrase “most successful’’ to the word “happiest,” yet I believe there is something we can respectably call “happiness” without lowering our minds to the level of TV ads which define happiness as housewives who spend their days in the ecstasies of waxing kitchen floors, or as the He-Man workers and athletes who dedicate each day to that glorious moment in the late afternoon or evening when they can flop into chairs and guzzle Miller’s Schlitzweiser, or whatever.

These ads are based on a popular lie – that happiness can be purchased. It can’t. But it can be invented, devised, created – out of the haphazard materials of daily experience, including emotional experience, even the emotions of grief, frustration, and futility.

That is what poets and novelists and painters and musicians do. They give shape and permanence to miscellaneous and perishable fragments of their lives. And that’s what creative mothers do, and creative fathers, and teachers, and lovers, and conversationalists and dwellers on desert islands. That kind of happiness can be devised by people who are healthy, by people who are sick, and people who are dying. That kind of happiness is an art. It sometimes requires heroic dedication, prodigious hard work, and inexhaustible supplies of patience; but it can be achieved.