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Monday
May122014

Animal Animosity

 

May I take only a paragraph of your time? No?

Well, listening to The Secret Garden in the evenings with the kids reminds me of a midsummer evening about a year ago. We, the family and I, stood in the backyard beneath the nest of the barred owl, Belteshazzar, in our cottonwood. He peered down upon us as a family of rabbits came out to play. The rabbits seemed to be suddenly, in the beauty of the evening, considering us friends as they hopped in amongst us. The vail of fear in wild creatures fell away for a magical few moments as when the robin at MisselThwaite Manor alighted on Ben Weatherstaff’s spade. That summer evening served as a juxtaposing reminder of a quite vivid fear that would take me suddenly in childhood. At that time, knowing animals would contribute to the killing of 1/4 the population of earth (Rev 6:8), a sideways look from a stray cat or maybe a rabbit on the lawn brought a haunting fear of all domestic and wild animals turning on me in a sudden switching off of avoidance and indifference. Is there an animosity that would not only break that barrier of fear like the summer evening, but break it with  murderous aggression? Attacking those who rather than tending the garden and subduing creation, tended death and fear at the beginning. Years later, eating breakfast on the lower slopes of Horn Peak in the Colorado Rockies I was introduced to something of a animal prophet in this vein. Many mornings the most cantankerous of black squirrels would place himself just off our deck on a limb of a pine before beginning his ritual berating of the congregation. He scolded, scathed, and derided us with all his might and furry, staring at us with stinging black eyes below his sharp pointed ears. It was the closest I may ever come to Balaam’s Donkey in my life. All this to say something. In every way, animals included, creation waits and groans, sometimes aggressively.   

Phillip Tippin
Roeland Park, KS
With many squirrels, chipmunks, and rabbits round about me

 

 

Image:
View of Tangier
Oil on Canvas, 1890
Krämer, Johann Viktor 

Tuesday
May062014

Ambler, No. 10 [On Beauty]

 

I conceive there is a traditionall Magicke, not learned immediately from the Devill, but at second hand from his schollers -- Sir Thomas Browne

They stood still as statues in the field, periodically interrupting their stillness to graze on the grass. We gazed and gossiped about the deer, who ignored our presence, despite our rudeness, despite our noise. Like Tolkien's dwarves we bumbled our way along the path, crunching sticks and leaves, speaking freely and openly. We met with an old bridge that swayed with the ease of any swing. Boys cannot help but make such bridges toss and turn, much to the dismay of our female companion, who cursed our gender's existence. Though our initial course was covered with trees, the path slowly led to an open field -- and as the trees gave way to tall grass plains, our elevation increased slightly.

A contrast is discovered by man when atop a hill. For the cool breeze of an evening in spring soon becomes billowing gusts, reminding one of the coldness of winter. In the ease of prosperity, the tempest surrounding our senses do not touch our soul, and we are not affected by life's inconveniences; but when prosperity melts into poverty, the slightest of winds wounds us through and through, and slight frustrations boil into failures. Atop that hill, with no buildings to act as buttresses or trees to trap the winds, my compatriots and I adopted that aforementioned posture of our beastly brethren, despite our efforts to move with vigor, despite unwillingness to keep to that hill. We trudged on under grey clouds and acknowledged that a sunrise from that spot would be a beautiful sight, so we made a commitment to watch the sun sink and die its daily death from that spot as we took comfort from the winds in the valley below.

The few deer we had noticed before had multiplied. My fellow pilgrim must have counted at least twenty standing solemnly in the open field. We took to our car and drove past another filled with perhaps more deer than the previous field. It is very rare for modern man to see one or two deer, let alone fifty, but all the while on our journey home, we saw them out in droves, standing like statues -- all, that is, except the three who courageously crossed the street in front of our car careening down the road.

*****

Two days later my two companions and I took to that same hill, this time with decided purpose and initiative. We walked as a unified group until my friend got it into his head that the sun would sink before our slow pace could carry us to the hill's summit. He shot off like a boy's rocket, skipping and striding with the grace of a gazelle being chased by a lion in the midst of lent, starved and salivating for a meaty meal. My eyes grew large with admiration of such energy, and I turned to my other companion and told her of that feeling. We gazed and gawked, and I asked for permission to chase my friend and overtake him -- for a man should never leave a woman alone without at least asking for permission, and even if given the "okay" to do so, he should weigh that decision with much gravity. For it is often the case with the female gender that "yes" can mean "no" and "no" can mean "yes." But it is not for man to know one way or the other. The whole theory of it all is to keep the men forever guessing and eternally bewildered, until they are so turned around and spun in circles, that up becomes down and yes becomes no. And it just so happens that when they reach this point of understanding with the female gender, that that sweet gift from God decides that all along "yes" actually did mean "yes" and "no" could certainly not refer to anything else but "no." This apparent shifting of values with the female gender should never be brought to their attention by any male, for doing so would, and has, resulted in far more pain and suffering than mere spinning in circles could ever cause.

Nevertheless, I took my friend's word as she gave me the go ahead. I bolted after that summit like a boy shoots for the exit sign on the last day of school. About five strides in, however, I fully realized I was not the young boy I once was. My lungs began pleading my legs to let up the madness I was putting them through; my legs told my brain to give it up completely; my brain told my heart it wasn't worth it; my heart told my soul I was running out of steam. Despite all these accusations flung at my soul, it remained steadfast in its pursuit. As I neared the summit, the climb got steeper with each stride, and reaching my friend grew into an impossibility; but to turn back now would end in utter humiliation, so my pride pressed me forward with the vigor with which my lungs pressed against my chest. As if they sought release from the prison of my body, they made their plight known to the world as I heaved with a tremendous amount of a pain -- growing in volume just as the hill grew in its steepness. and then I saw it; my faith became sight; the dim mirror became clear vision; the form vanished and made way for the ideal reality; and I placed my hands on my knees and huffed and puffed in victory, sure I had met my end.

*****

That evening, after my lungs came back to earth and my friend had made her slower, yet much more calculated ascent up the hill, we watched the sunset. Layers of clouds were strewn across the horizon, and at times the sun merely proved its presence by shooting forth its rays from the other side. It never ceases to amaze me how different the sky can appear from various angles throughout the day. No two sunsets are ever alike; yet all sunsets are similar.

As we watched we decided to read a few Psalms which spoke of the sun; the strong man in the sky had nearly run his course. There is nothing to be said about a sunset; there is not enough which could be said about a sunset. But if anything could be said of it, it is that they are not enough. A man eats until he is full; he writes until his mind is satisfied; he laughs until he's no longer amused; he cries until he is amused. But he merely watches sunsets until the next sunset. Like the cyclical nature of the sun, so man's desire for beauty is never satisfied. He constantly wants and seeks more beauty; and when he has discovered more beauty, it only leaves him wanting more. His inability to be satisfied suggests a higher, purer beauty which his eyes cannot see, nor his mind comprehend.

This past week that same friend who ran up the hill like a glorious gazelle reminded me of a passage we had recently read in Plato's Phaedrus. Plato argued that when the lover sees beauty he is enamored by it because it reminds him of true reality -- a reality he cannot currently get to. CS Lewis spoke of a similar idea when he argued that longings which cannot be satisfied on this earth suggest we are made for a different world. We live our lives running from toy to toy, constantly and forever longing to fill a joy that can never be satisfied with the transient things of the earth. So as we descended that hill for the night and the evening chill began to slowly overtake us, none of us felt the satisfaction of a sunset -- as deer pant for streams of water, so our souls panted for God, souls that will press on in their earthly pilgrimage until they lay rest on Mt. Zion.

Sam Snow (theficklefarce.com)
Written with renewed vigor,
Manhattan, KS
May 3, 2014

Painting: "A Heath: Sunset"
By David Hodgson
Oil on Canvas,
1860-1864 

Sunday
May042014

Throwing off the Monkey: A Tennis Memoir [Part 3]

 This is the third installment of Bryn Homuth's tennis memoir. To read the first, click here and here but certainly not here.

There are two people that stand out as having rerouted my path from complete destruction and self-implosion, and the first is Juan Mondragon. Everybody knows Juan in the Fargo-Moorhead area. Not only can he be found at Island Park every summer day around two o’clock, but he owns major restaurant chains in the heart of downtown and satellite burrito shops throughout the city. Juan also sponsors a local tennis tournament every year. Juan played high-level tennis in California after he and his family moved there from Mexico. On nearly the same level as Division I collegiate or semi-professional athletes, he traveled regularly to tournaments and eventually opened a tennis academy after the prime of his career. Then comes the part I still have trouble understanding: slightly disenchanted with teaching and running his academy, Juan and his wife Annette moved thousands of miles northeast to try their hands at the restaurant business.

I met Juan when he walked by my court one day while I was practicing serves.

“Yeah Rocket,” he said, referring to what I initially thought was the steady thwock and ting of my serves as they ricocheted off the chain link fence. That may have been his intent, but before long Juan and the entire tennis staff were calling me Rocket. After nearly five years of friendship, Juan has still never called me by my first name. I’m not sure he even knows what it is. When Juan sees my mother or friends around town, he still asks How the hell is Rocket? I hope he always does.

Before long, Juan chose me to be one of his daily hitting partners, which I’m sure started only because I responded quickly to requests and never showed up late. He always arrived early; he stretched on a towel and filled an empty ball can (his makeshift water bottle) with some concoction of electrolyte powder. When I’d miss a shot or do something else embarrassing, Juan would emit this high, shrieking laugh and feed the next ball. He’d often raise his arms above his head and pretend to claw at some unseen force behind his neck.

“That’s the monkey on your back Rocket,” he told me. “And if you don’t reach back there and pull that bastard off, he’ll never leave. He lives there man.”

I still remember the first time he made me actually reach back, pretend to yank that demon off, and fling it to the ground. Sure, the monkey occasionally climbs back up when I’m not looking, but now that I know what his absence feels like, I can always tell when he adds his weight to mine.

At nearly sixty years old, Juan would still beat me soundly on a regular basis. He wasn’t shy about it either. We’d have an extended grueling rally that would end in an error of mine and he’d look right at me and yell You cannot beat me! If I began to seethe with the beginnings of an outburst, he would walk to his bag, sit, and say I don’t play with babies. Juan reminded me of two things. First, he reinforced the classic mantra “There’s always somebody better.” Second, he gave me the first opportunity to stop taking myself so seriously.

The second influence on my tennis, my private lesson instructor for many years, was a man named Oliver Summers. As his name might suggest, he grew up in England and competed well in his own right at Portsmouth—a Division 1 institution.  For a time, it seemed Oliver would give me one strong piece of immediately impactful advice every lesson. I used to call this a “treasure horde” from which he took bits of gold to gift me every one-hour session. I can still recall most of his insights (probably because I hear them in his distinct accent), but one simple tactic for rage control stands out. Oliver once told me to switch my racket to my left hand (to give my right a break) after every point and to hold it up around the level of my shoulders as I prepared for the next ball. This, he explained, was not only a symbolic “I’m still here” message to an opponent, but a visual cue for me to keep my spirits up. It was funny at first; every time I’d remember to hold my racket that way, I’d look over at Olly and flash a joking smile as if to say, “I know I look silly, but I’m trying it.” What I realize now is that every time I thought to do that, I spent the moment lifting a different kind of torch than the one I’d trashed in my match with Daniel Sam. Rather than a surge of ferocious disgust with myself, I could focus on something pleasant—I remembered to do something my coach told me, and he saw me do it.

---

When I started college tennis, one of the first formalities was to fill out a bio. On the team’s website, each player is asked to answer a few questions that combine to create a personal page. Among these are basic questions like favorite food or favorite TV show, but at the very top was a blank for one’s nickname. I thought about this for a very long time; the varying nicknames I’d been given over the years each corresponded to different aspects of my game and personality, but I wanted something new. Having just taken a course on the history of the English language, I decided to try and fuse two words to create a new word, probably derived from my fondness for the word “portmanteau.” The first two names that came to mind were “bro” and “dawg”—affectionate titles by which males often refer to one another. Placing these together in my head, I typed the word “brawg” into the spaced provided and submitted it to the athletic department.

The captain of our team was a guy named Kirby. He was much like the actual character from Super Smash Bros. in that he was small, pink in the face, and made interesting noises as he flew around the net poaching volleys. On one of our road trips, I was sitting shotgun as he drove and took song requests with his iPod. He asked me why I chose that nickname, a note of amusement in his voice. Though I remember little of the rest of that conversation, I had soon shed the name of my birth and was being referred to consistently as “the brawg.” It didn’t take long for my coach Troy to catch on too; those same clipboards hung on the wire fencing now depicted my nickname rather than the name my mother gave me. Interestingly, he spelled it “b-r-o-g,” which made me think of some amphibious combination of frog and human being. To this day, I’ve still never corrected him.

The summer prior to my junior season, the girl I was dating was off at basic training, reachable only by handwritten letter, and though I’d written several to her, I received almost no replies. Though it was a different kind of anger, I was frustrated at her blatant neglect of a two-plus year relationship. My coping mechanism had been a strict regimen of morning workouts, eight-hour shifts at the butcher shop, and evening tennis under the compound eyes of stadium lights. A blessing in disguise came in the form of a surge in my skills. Swim sprints, distance running, and endurance weight training joined with tasks like stacking eighty-pound boxes of rib eye to melt away the bulk of my excess weight. I could finally run like my teammates used to and even retained every bit of the power from my broader frame. I started to string wins together and even made the consolation finals of the Red River Open—a tournament in which I would usually only record one or two wins. Juan and I would schedule “training days” where we’d attempt to hit as continuously as possible. By the time our fall practice season opened in August, I was ready to challenge for a top spot.

As a student balancing both musical ensembles and athletics, I often found my attention divided. I had received a music performance scholarship for tuba, which meant that music was priority, tennis second. During some years scheduling managed to work out quite well, but during others the two extra-curricular activities butted heads. Such was the case my junior year. Despite every instinct otherwise, I often had to force myself to attend band rehearsal instead of going to my full tennis practice. I once asked my band director if I could split time, coming late to band two days a week in order to be to practice on time. He replied with a firm “no” and laid the groundwork for what would be a frustrating year. I felt as though time was never going to be on my side. With my fitness level high and mind virtually unencumbered, it was sitting in a chair, playing the tuba (most often, resting) that kept me from maximizing my ability.

There came a point in the season where I started to be passed over in favor of other players—far more regular attenders. Although I was a better player, commitment mattered, and Coach had no choice but to demote me in the lineup. I almost quit the team that year. I spoke to both Coach and Kirby concerning the possibility of leaving the team. The subsequent conversations were meaningful far beyond the fifteen minutes I spent in each of them. My coach didn’t suggest one decision or another, but instead encouraged me to seek the route that was best for my own development. Kirby similarly said the choice was mine, yet reinforced that there was little anybody could do with my inconsistent attendance. By the end of the year I was so irritated with trying to make it to every practice that I stopped going to tennis altogether. I concocted excuses that included some sort of “rehearsal” or “meeting,” and when I did show up it was like a relapse into high school tennis—on the court with everybody, and yet partially outside, still staring through the diamond-shaped holes in the chain-link fence. Worse than all else, though, was when Coach denied my request to be in the team photo taken at the end of the year. Still, when I enter his former office and see the pictures of teams down through the years, my absence in the 2010-2011 frame haunts me.

The last match I ever played for Concordia was at home in Fargo against Hamline—a college in Minneapolis. My friend since freshman year and I played third-position doubles while I played fourth in the singles lineup. Our doubles match featured the two of us firing on all cylinders. Between my decisive volleys and booming serves and Will’s monster forehand, we dismissed our opponents in workman-like fashion. When I was called out for singles, I knew we’d have a tough time winning the meet as a whole, but was determined to leave a lasting impression. I was admittedly nervous. As someone known throughout the conference that practiced well and performed poorly, I heaped pressure on myself before even walking out. My opponent was a hyper-aggressive guy with a forehand so hard he could easily strike clean winners from the back of the court. I tried to go toe-to-toe with him at first, and quickly lost the first game. On that changeover I thought of Juan, of Olly—how would they want to see me finish my career? Did it matter if I won? I decided, for better or worse, that I’d go out doing everything that I’d been taught, and the result would follow, whatever it was. I went down Love-30 with a couple jittery errors long, but started to force my opponent to hit extra shots. Little by little, he started to make errors, and I chiseled away at his seemingly impenetrable game. I won the first set 6-1, a score line I hardly ever achieved even when I was playing my best. The second set was closer, but I rolled right through with minor hiccups—6-2. Dominant routs were, again, not my tendency, and when I told Coach the score, his “Whoa! Nice Brawg!” conveyed something in his voice that I wouldn’t understand until we huddled up on court after the meet.

Every one of my teammates lost, leaving us with a final 2-7 meet score. We gathered and waited for Coach to give his year-end pep talk—for several seniors, our last. Few moments in my life stand out so vividly as what he said next.

“All right fellas, I know we lost today, but you guys fought hard and should be proud of this season.” He looked at me. “For some of us, today was the perfect finish. The Brawg played the best tennis I’ve ever seen him play, and in his very last match. To see what he did today is a major reason why I love what I do. Congrats to him.” As I felt my teammates pat my back, it was all I could do to keep composed.

I realized in that moment that the dream I’d constructed in my mind and held for so long was not necessarily what it should have been. In a sport as lonely as ours, tennis players have the gift (and curse) of individual responsibility for everything that takes place in the course of a match. Whether we’re hitting the ball as though it’s the most natural thing we’ve ever done or keeping afloat in the vast sea of our minds, we, at some point, have to look within.

---

I eventually started teaching private lessons, but in minimal capacity and only over the barely three-month North Dakota summer. My first student was also my next-door neighbor, Brayden. Only about eight years my junior, I worked with him the summer before he began his own plunge into high school tennis. Brayden has a severe lung condition that prevents him from speaking above a whisper and impacts his breathing. Doctors cleared him to play non-contact sports, but even in those he must monitor himself closely to prevent any sort of major respiratory distress. His life expectancy is anticipated at no more than thirty years.

At his first lesson, I remember trying to assemble my ball hopper’s long steel handles that folded under and locked so it could sit at waist-level as a basket. I thought I’d set it up properly, but after feeding the first few balls, the whole of it collapsed and spilled out across our court and into the next. From above, it might’ve looked like a tipped yellow paint can. I’ll never forget how fast Brayden picked up those balls. Stuffing his pockets full, building a pyramid-like structure to carry more on his racket—all he wanted to do was hit. Once we cleaned it up, I started feeding again, now watching his swing to diagnose the best plan for his improvement. He buried most shots in the net or sent them several feet behind the baseline, but every so often he’d catch a ball right in the center of his strings and send across a crisply timed scorcher that dipped right inside the court. In these moments Brayden’s feet would pause, and he’d smile—the smile that flickers across a person’s face when they get something right without trying.

“Keep moving your feet!” I’d remind him every time, and he dutifully would. Not once did he grimace, slouch his shoulders, or give any indication that he was missing most of those shots. In him, I saw myself as I’d been in Olly’s lessons—racket in my left hand, raised almost above my head. Something about that simple habit changed me over the years. When I moved my arm that way it was like an invisible string had pulled my attitude up out of the slouch that had become such a familiar posture. Every squeak and scuffle of his tennis shoes sent a tingle through my feet and memory; the hot asphalt radiating up through my feet, the raw red as those first blisters burst forth. 

Bryn Homuth
In the presence of (and, in sections, dictated to) one, R. Eric Tippin, in our lonely office at Kansas State University
February 15, 2014 

Image: http://www.upenn.edu/gazette/0510/images/arts_04b.gif

Thursday
May012014

Ambler, No. 9 [On Ethics]

That a man has an erect figure, and for to behold, and look up toward heaven... is a double assertion. -- Sir Thomas Browne

That man is commonly disposed to judging situations as if they are moral or immoral, or whether on occasion they are amoral, is a trait common to humanity, which not only distinguishes us from the brutes but defines our decisions, our cultures, our eras, our individuals. Despite man's obsession with ethics, it occurred to me recently that modern man is more disposed to stating that he has ethics, than to relying on an ethics by which he forms and shapes his life. The very best way to get a modern to be quiet is to ask him where he gets his ethics from, for he does not "get" ethics, he creates them, and then upon breaking them, creates new ones, and the ever-shifting target of purity becomes more illusive than eternal youth: instead of fixing our eyes on a target that can be hit, we pretend the target that exists is really an arrow telling us to shoot in the opposite direction.

The very worst advice anyone can give a young man is to tell him to follow his heart, for the heart is a very deceitful thing. The other day, however, it was brought ot my attention that much of my generation is doing just that. As we all sat in a circle during class -- for the modern classroom is very keen on the circle -- my professor, an older man, posed the following question to us: where do you get your ethics from? Now, most of my colleagues do have ethics -- the problem has never been, but for a short period, that man is unethical; it has been, and currently is, that man is ethical in the wrong ways. It is not that modern man does not judge; it is that he judges wrongly. And so when my poor professor was floored with silence after the question which so strains a modern brain, a fellow student finally spoke up and concluded that he got his ethics from himself, which is similar to him saying that he gets his sunlight from himself. A man no more produces ethics than he does stars, but the modern delusion is that this is so, and the result is that everyone is deceived to thinking they are the final authority when it comes to ethics.

But after more silence, I had had enough, and in simply explaining that my ethics came from the Bible, I explained that this was a very strict place to find your ethics, what with the whole Sermon on the Mount. Nevertheless, there is a beauty is getting your ethics from a definite and concrete source. The man who gets his ethics from a source is the man who has his feet firmly planted on something. He can judge from any situation whether he is in line with that code of ethics or not. But the modern man can tell us nothing about anything. If his brute instinct tells him that his ethical code is wrong, (and his brute instinct will always tell him this), than his ethical code can simply be altered to allow him to do what he wants. Under a guise of freedom, man is enslaved to his instincts.

* * * * *

A few days ago I was strolling about at night with a few friends. It was a spectacularly beautiful evening. The stars were out in full force, the Midwestern wind had finally chilled out for a second, the temperature had settled into pure bliss. We left my friend's apartment complex and strolled over to a nearby subdivision filled with quaint houses that we all longed could be ours. We walked in pairs, and though we certainly owned the street, our presence was no more intimidating than a common stray cat. Along the way it happened that we took to the streets and walked in a horizontal line.  It was at this point that one of my friends suggested something along the lines of it being possible that we end up lost and unable to find our way home. Another friend then kindly declared that it was a good thing she had brought her phone, for the gps could guide use homeward. Now, this suggestion sent my mind into a flurry. Though deep down inside my warm soul, I did agree with her, my boyish nature arose from within, and in teaming with my usual old self, proclaimed that if any gps was used on this amble I would "dash off in that direction" (here I point toward the north) faster than lightning, get lost, and find my own way back. My boyish nature had at the moment disregarded propriety, and the usual old, anti-technology nature of my being sought to react in the most drastic of ways. Nevertheless, when the words left my mouth, I immediately felt the impact of my wrong: for a small hand had with full force smote upon my breast as another bellowed "Open Chest!"

While my boyish nature learned a lesson from that frightful incident, I must admit my disdain for the global positioning system remains the same. A funny thing happened, however, when I pointed to the north and declared I would run away from all manner of civilization, finding the north star to direct my way back. For I envisioned myself running through wooded forests like Frankenstein's lost monster, completely free, though bound within the confines of this earthly globe. It has since occurred that a parallel exists between our physical and moral nature. For it seems the more we try to free ourselves from the bonds of our bodies the more we learn how enslaved we are the physical laws of nature. And the more we tend toward a life free of morality, the more often we find that our brute desires cannot be overcome.

*****

I sit here now, days later, with extreme writer's block. Winter has finally conceded its uglier parts to the spring, though it holds us with a relentless grip on days like today. The wind howled with its usual assertiveness, making the day seem like late Autumn even though the sun was out and look down upon us. I was reminded why I like the consistency of Autumn so much better than spring. One is entirely ready for Autumn. He is tired of heat and willing to offer up sunlight  for a few months. But the spring always gives us false hope, constantly granting us days we must cherish, only to remind us of the winter we just came from and shall return to in a matter of months. There is a solemness in spring, unnoticed by the pace of life, and unaccustomed to constant change, that only surfaces in times of quiet meditation, when memory jogs itself to our frontal lobes, and we contemplate our state's context in the silent repose of solitude. Often reached in the changing of the season and despite the hurried nature of that time, it is in these solemn states of solitude that we question the course of the world and the state of our soul. For in the perpetual winter season, so covered with frost and consistently cold, we question not where we are headed, completely aware we are not going anywhere, certain the winter will never let go. But then it does, and in the hurried frenzy of the youthful spring months, our hearts are enlivened and our souls young again, young enough to question the meaning of it all, young enough to quickly forget.

An unchanging ethical outlook on life does not stay perpetually cold like the winter, nor does it shift in its moods like the frenzied spring. An unchanging ethics is not stale, nor is it youthful, but its very maturity is a youthfulness, for an ethical life is a truthful, and truth can never grow old and yet never be born but simply is. It is a perfect spring day, as stale as any bad attempt at prose, yet as youthful as a white blank page.

Sam Snow (theficklefarce.com)
Written with extreme writer's block,
Manhattan, KS
April 27 & 30, 2014 

Image:
"A Walking Race"
Oil on Canvas -  1839
Henry S. Sheaf 

Tuesday
Apr292014

The Rambler #14: "The difference between an author's writings and his conversation."

No. 14.

SATURDAY, MAY 5, 1750.

——Nil fuit unquam
Sic impar sibi——

Hor. lib. i. Sat. iii. 18.

Sure such a various creature ne'er was known.

Francis.

 Among the many inconsistencies which folly produces, or infirmity suffers, in the human mind, there has often been observed a manifest and striking contrariety between the life of an author and his writings; and Milton, in a letter to a learned stranger, by whom he had been visited, with great reason congratulates himself upon the consciousness of being found equal to his own character, and having preserved, in a private and familiar interview, that reputation which his works had procured him.

Those whom the appearance of virtue, or the evidence of genius, have tempted to a nearer knowledge of the writer in whose performances they may be found, have indeed had frequent reason to repent their curiosity; the bubble that sparkled before them has become common water at the touch; the phantom of perfection has vanished when they wished to press it to their bosom. They have lost the pleasure of imagining how far humanity may be exalted, and, perhaps, felt themselves less inclined to toil up the steeps of virtue, when they observe those who seem best able to point the way, loitering below, as either afraid of the labour, or doubtful of the reward.

It has been long the custom of the oriental monarchs to hide themselves in gardens and palaces, to avoid the conversation of mankind, and to be known to their subjects only by their edicts. The same policy is no less necessary to him that writes, than to him that governs; for men would not more patiently submit to be taught, than commanded, by one known to have the same follies and weaknesses with themselves. A sudden intruder into the closet of an author would perhaps feel equal indignation with the officer, who having long solicited admission into the presence of Sardanapalus, saw him not consulting upon laws, inquiring into grievances, or modelling armies, but employed in feminine amusements, and directing the ladies in their work.

It is not difficult to conceive, however, that for many reasons a man writes much better than he lives. For without entering into refined speculations, it may be shewn much easier to design than to perform. A man proposes his schemes of life in a state of abstraction and disengagement, exempt from the enticements of hope, the solicitations of affection, the importunities of appetite, or the depressions of fear, and is in the same state with him that teaches upon land the art of navigation, to whom the sea is always smooth, and the wind always prosperous.

The mathematicians are well acquainted with the difference between pure science, which has to do only with ideas, and the application of its laws to the use of life, in which they are constrained to submit to the imperfection of matter and the influence of accidents. Thus, in moral discussions, it is to be remembered that many impediments obstruct our practice, which very easily give way to theory. The speculatist is only in danger of erroneous reasoning; but the man involved in life, has his own passions, and those of others, to encounter, and is embarrassed with a thousand inconveniencies, which confound him with variety of impulse, and either perplex or obstruct his way. He is forced to act without deliberation, and obliged to choose before he can examine: he is surprised by sudden alterations of the state of things, and changes his measures according to superficial appearances; he is led by others, either because he is indolent, or because he is timorous; he is sometimes afraid to know what is right, and sometimes finds friends or enemies diligent to deceive him.

We are, therefore, not to wonder that most fail, amidst tumult, and snares, and danger, in the observance of those precepts, which they lay down in solitude, safety, and tranquillity, with a mind unbiassed, and with liberty unobstructed. It is the condition of our present state to see more than we can attain; the exactest vigilance and caution can never maintain a single day of unmingled innocence, much less can the utmost efforts of incorporated mind reach the summit of speculative virtue.

It is, however, necessary for the idea of perfection to be proposed, that we may have some object to which our endeavours are to be directed; and he that is most deficient in the duties of life, makes some atonement for his faults, if he warns others against his own failings, and hinders, by the salubrity of his admonitions, the contagion of his example.

Nothing is more unjust, however common, than to charge with hypocrisy him that expresses zeal for those virtues which he neglects to practise; since he may be sincerely convinced of the advantages of conquering his passions, without having yet obtained the victory, as a man may be confident of the advantages of a voyage, or a journey, without having courage or industry to undertake it, and may honestly recommend to others, those attempts which he neglects himself.

The interest which the corrupt part of mankind have in hardening themselves against every motive to amendment, has disposed them to give to these contradictions, when they can be produced against the cause of virtue, that weight which they will not allow them in any other case. They see men act in opposition to their interest, without supposing, that they do not know it; those who give way to the sudden violence of passion, and forsake the most important pursuits for petty pleasures, sire not supposed to have changed their opinions, or to approve their own conduct. In moral or religious questions alone, they determine the sentiments by the actions, and charge every man with endeavouring to impose upon the world, whose writings are not confirmed by his life. They never consider that themselves neglect or practise something every day inconsistently with their own settled judgment, nor discover that the conduct of the advocates for virtue can little increase, or lessen, the obligations of their dictates; argument is to be invalidated only by argument, and is in itself of the same force, whether or not it convinces him by whom it is proposed.

Yet since this prejudice, however unreasonable, is always likely to have some prevalence, it is the duty of every man to take care lest he should hinder the efficacy of his own instructions. When he desires to gain the belief of others, he should shew that he believes himself; and when he teaches the fitness of virtue by his reasonings, he should, by his example, prove its possibility: Thus much at least may be required of him, that he shall not act worse than others because he writes better, nor imagine that, by the merit of his genius, he may claim indulgence beyond mortals of the lower classes, and be excused for want of prudence, or neglect of virtue.

Bacon, in his History of the Winds, after having offered something to the imagination as desirable, often proposes lower advantages in its place to the reason as attainable. The same method may be sometimes pursued in moral endeavours, which this philosopher has observed in natural inquiries; having first set positive and absolute excellence before us, we may be pardoned though we sink down to humbler virtue, trying, however, to keep our point always in view, and struggling not to lose ground, though we cannot gain it.

It is recorded of Sir Mathew Hale, that he, for a long time, concealed the consecration of himself to the stricter duties of religion, lest by some flagitious and shameful action, he should bring piety into disgrace. For the same reason it may be prudent for a writer, who apprehends that he shall not enforce his own maxims by his domestick character, to conceal his name, that he may not injure them.

There are, indeed, a great number whose curiosity to gain a more familiar knowledge of successful writers, is not so much prompted by an opinion of their power to improve as to delight, and who expect from them not arguments against vice, or dissertations on temperance or justice; but flights of wit, and sallies of pleasantry, or, at least, acute remarks, nice distinctions, justness of sentiment, and elegance of diction.

This expectation is, indeed, specious and probable, and yet, such is the fate of all human hopes, that it is very often frustrated, and those who raise admiration by their books, disgust by their company. A man of letters for the most part spends in the privacies of study, that season of life in which the manners are to be softened into ease, and polished into elegance; and, when he has gained knowledge enough to be respected, has neglected the minuter acts by which he might have pleased. When he enters life, if his temper be soft and timorous, he is diffident and bashful, from the knowledge of his defects; or if he was born with spirit and resolution, he is ferocious and arrogant, from the consciousness of his merit; he is either dissipated by the awe of company, and unable to recollect his reading, and arrange his arguments; or he is hot and dogmatical, quick in opposition, and tenacious in defence, disabled by his own violence, and confused by his haste to triumph.

The graces of writing and conversation are of different kinds, and though he who excels in one might have been, with opportunities and application, equally successful in the other, yet as many please by extemporary talk, though utterly unacquainted with the more accurate method, and more laboured beauties, which composition requires; so it is very possible that men, wholly accustomed to works of study, may be without that readiness of conception, and affluence of language, always necessary to colloquial entertainment. They may want address to watch the hints which conversation offers for the display of their particular attainments, or they may be so much unfurnished with matter on common subjects, that discourse not professedly literary, glides over them as heterogeneous bodies, without admitting their conceptions to mix in the circulation.

A transition from an author's book to his conversation, is too often like an entrance into a large city, after a distant prospect. Remotely, we see nothing but spires of temples and turrets of palaces, and imagine it the residence of splendour, grandeur and magnificence; but, when we have passed the gates, we find it perplexed with narrow passages, disgraced with despicable cottages, embarrassed with obstructions, and clouded with smoke.

 

 

This is a guest post from the esteemed Dr. Samuel Johnson which he first published without the aid of the internet in his periodical The Rambler

 

Image:
A Girl Writing; The Pet Goldfinch
Henriette Browne (1829-1901)
Oil c. 1870