Monday, February 20, 2012

Bertrand Russell was a popular don at Cambridge

.. and he prided himself on being on good terms with his students. His better students flocked to the Tuesday morning "squash-ups," when he was available in his rooms to discuss anything with anyone who cared to come. Yet for all the seeming openness of this concept, these sessions were resoundingly closed by virtue of the gulf between what Russell knew and what they knew.

But the real difference was not so much what they knew or didn't know but rather how they knew it.. Russell saw that it was not intellect or even imagination they lacked, but that clawing, irrational desire to know. This Russell could not teach, and not through any effort in the world could they acquire it. And not from mere lack of ability, but for a simpler, chicken-crossing-the-road kind of reason: unlike Wittgenstein, they had no real reason to make the crossing.

I have parsed this internal monologue not a few times, to find that window of opportunity we know to exist in life for it to slip free from its character's limitations. This is novelist Bruce Duffy's characterisation of a narcissistic reflection in an invention of his, something of an intellectual Willie Mays of his day, in the parlance of cinema a natural, who bore a famous name. But whose thinking it is, scarcely matters, given that it's common enough. 

If not taught, then imparted or uncovered; if not through any effort, then by circum-stance, coincidence and personality, we have seen, all about us, the direct descent of the inquiring torch. Our means of flattering the most luminous, then, have to avoid casting them as unnatural and ourselves as unrespectable, for the simple reason, occurring every single day, that we will meet or be in a position through other means to affect, a young person. Let this be Monday. 

Bruce Duffy
The world as I found it
New York Review Books, 2010©

v  Sunrise over Keros, from Koufonissi
    Photo Tassos Paschalis


  1. The desire to know is everything. It starts with curiosity. Rare is the student (I teach) who arrives with a notebook, ready to remember and reflect. Most think of their lessons as a product and themselves as deserving of being served.

    The desire to know can be taught. In my case, my teacher simply said: "What have you learned since I saw you last?" A simple enough question that changed my life. But the ground has to be ready.

  2. Thank you, Linnea -- but I hate to add drudgery to Monday. :)

  3. Mr Shigo, you raise some of the salient problems - certainly the assumption you describe is sadly prevalent. It is, however, such a posture of moral and psychological weakness that it is promisingly vulnerable to destruction, as I don't doubt you have shown.

    The ground to be readied, this curiosity, is enormously contagious, is it not -- even against the passivity, some of it cowering, that you observe? We can well imagine the catastrophe Duffy's Russell would have wrought in the "many better students," of whose outward appearance of curiosity he so despaired, and probably projected.

    Sometimes myriad contributions toward curiosity pile up, reaching later a breaking point where their strands defy attribution. There can't be any doubt that the hopeful teacher will play his part in many more ground-breakings than he witnesses - yes?

    We'll have to come back to this. Sometimes (Virgil again), we are not asked, 'show me the journey of stars through heaven'; and sometimes, someone hears us ask it, and hears his own voice in it.

  4. It can be contagious, I agree. It's the rebirth of the youthful "why" that every annoyed parents wants to shut up.

  5. I should have drawn some sort of Chinese wall or other fine line between communicable and incontinent. :) You put me in mind of my favourite depiction of this in cinema, which I'll wager you will remember, in which Antoine Doinel buttonholes pretty much everybody in the cast of the film-within-the-film in Truffaut's "Day for Night," asking if women are magical. Of course that is not quite so excruciating as the "why" attack.

    It would be interesting to know if this probably universal mischief is motivated by anything like curiosity as to the answer, or fascination by the unsettling power of the new word -- a game we see outliving the era of innocence, pretty widely. Is this the place to exchange agonies over the universal misuse of the word, "Irony"? Probably not, but we must tend to that, particularly if we are to continue to endure broadcast punditry.

  6. I must say that I have not seen this film, but I believe I understand your meaning. My meaning is somewhat different. Having taught children, I've observed that they are those who are innocently curious about the world, which is separate from the 'why' attack that you speak of. However, I should not that curiosity in adults - I have found- a rare thing, at least the kind of curiosity that lasts until the end of inquiry is reached. Scientists have it certainly. But our TV culture promotes something else. Children, on the other hand, are wide open and not prone to censoring themselves and their interests, that is, until they are taught by example to keep quiet. I think our present culture kills this genius.

  7. Although it was clear to me that you were deploring the shutting down of inquiry, I thought you could also have been discussing the passing foible I mentioned. I don't doubt that you're right about what TV promotes, but now we have an entire and greatly matured generation steeped in what it has always promoted, which exemplifies disdain for inquiry quite ubiquitously, regardless of current programming. With the dawn of portable solitary hand-set "games" devices, and their incredibly early adoption by children, I wonder if you have any concern in that direction. I believe you read "Blue Remembered Hills," and would have seen the current posting on the American girl on the train from Rome to Naples, absorbed in her hand-held device, never looking outside. Shall there be children, as we knew them?

    I thank you very much for the stimulus of your thoughts here.