When I was a student at UCLA, I loved walking around North Campus, looking at the lofty brick buildings. I had the idea that they were filled with knowledge, and maybe I would glean some just by being there. I wasn’t that interested in studying though. I mostly used Powell Library as a place to nap between classes (the couches in the library were especially comfy). I liked the thought of academia more than the reality, and I figured out how to just do enough to get by without having to delve too deep. It’s funny how we realize things in retrospect.
I just started Jonah Lehrer’s Proust Was a Neuroscientist. In the book Lehrer talks about writers, artists, and philosophers who discovered truths about the human mind that science is now only re-discovering. People nowadays believe that we can’t find truth unless it can be quantified or calculated. But science can only get you so far. It can explain our mind in terms of synapses firing and electrical cells, but this isn’t how we explain the world. This is why we need art. It fills in the blanks to create our reality. Lehrer examines several artists, writers, and philosophers to see how they were actually debating the truths that science is now proving.
In the first section on Walt Whitman, Lehrer goes into detail about Whitman’s central theme – that the body and the mind are fused as one, and that our emotions and feelings begin in the flesh. Neuroscience now knows what Whitman was talking about is true: Our feelings are actually rooted in the movements of our muscles and the palpitations of our insides. Our experience being human is the unity of the body and mind.
“That fragile unity – this brief parenthesis of being – is all we have. Celebrate it.”
I was reminded of studying Whitman in school. I was an English major at UCLA. I took all the classics – Milton, Shakespeare, Whitman, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Dickens… and I didn’t “get” it. I wondered why I was studying these old dead white guys. I thought, what does Shakespeare’s Sonnet XVIII have to do with anything? I was concerned about myself in my life, social dynamics, fraternity parties, hanging out with friends, and not much more. I especially rebelled because of the idea that I was a feminist, and what could I possibly learn from these men? They were completely different than me, and lived in a completely different time. What do they know?
My father, who was also an English major at UCLA, would always quip the age-old cliche, “The battles in academia are so fierce because the stakes are so low.” I always took it to mean that fighting over something like the placement of a comma, or the meaning of an apostrophe in a poem really had no impact in the grand scheme of things. People are dying every day of starvation, dehydration, war, disease, and a myriad of other issues that seem so big that the impact hardly reaches us. And there I was, being taught what dead old white guys think, by half-dead old white guys. No wonder I wasn’t interested.
But after reading the section on Whitman in Lehrer’s book, I realized that the reason the battles in academia are so fierce is because these academics are debating over the nature of truth. Whitman’s poetry might seem pretty on face value, but he was theorizing about our beliefs, values, and spirituality. He was writing about the very nature human existence. What fiercer battle is there over the meaning of life and truth?
In neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), we learn that there are seven levels of change. Going from easiest to change to hardest to change, the levels are: environment, behaviors, skills, values, identity, and spirituality. It is rather easily to change your environment, but significantly harder to change your ideas about God and who you are as a person. Academics are fiercely debating what seems rather trivial in the grand scheme of things because what they are debating ties to their central core beliefs, values, identity as a being, and the nature of the universe and God. Debating poetry is entirely personal, whereas the issues that seem to be more important, like genocide or famine, are not personal unless you make them personal. Unless we see and experience the horrific things that are going on in the world, they remain hypothetical, and we are able to distance ourselves in our mind. Poetry, literature, and art, on the other hand, is extremely personal, and we cannot separate ourselves from the aesthetic experience and what it means to us. There is a great deal of emotion tied up in these beliefs. ”The intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the stakes at issue,” said Sayre.
But maybe these dead old white guys were on to something. I tend to question any institution, and especially our university system where we are learning about everything from a eurocentric, male viewpoint. But it doesn’t mean we can’t learn from their works, understanding their biases, and expand on it with our own sense of truth. How are we to learn about and create anything new if not for the ability to collaborate and expand on others’ work?
As Robin Williams said in Dead Poets’ Society:
“We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman, “O me! O life!… of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless… of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?” Answer. That you are here – that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play *goes on* and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?”
What will your verse be?