Amalgamating Disparate Experience: John Donne and the Commonplace Book

“Amalgamating Disparate Experience”: John Donne and the Commonplace Book

I recently finished reading (really listening to) Katherine Rundell’s biography of John Donne, Super-Infinite. Having recently heard Rundell interviewed on Tyler Cowan’s podcast, I wish she would have narrated the audio book. The exuberance of her personality would have nicely matched her exuberant portrayal of Donne and his world.

I am working on idea for an essay about Donne and anthropology, but for now I wanted to note what Rundell has to say about Donne as keeper of a commonplace book. Donne was known as one of the great commonplacers of his age, and Rundell notes “that the first recorded use of the work ‘commonplacer’ in the Oxford English Dictionary is Donne’s.”

Here is how Rundell describes the commonplace book:

The commonplace book allowed readers to approach the world as a limitless resource; a kind of ever-ongoing harvesting. It was Erasmus, the Dutch scholar known as ‘the prince of the humanists’ who codified the practice. The compiler, he wrote, should ‘make himself as full a list of place-headings as possible’ to put at the top of each page: for instance, beauty, friendship, decorum, faith, hope, the vices and virtues. It was both a form of scholarship, and, too, a way of reminding yourself of what, as you moved through the world, you were to look out for: a list of priorities, of sparks and spurs and personal obsessions. Donne’s book must surely have had: angels, women, faith, stars, jealousy, gold, desire, dread, death.”

I’ve posted in the past about my own experience of keeping a commonplace book. What strikes me as completely true from her description is that knowing I had this book and a set of preoccupations helped me look at the world in a certain way. What I read, what I listened, what I watched, all had the potential to speak to me. The practice has always helped me foster some level of expectation and receptivity.

When I think back on the practice of commonplacing, I am sometimes even able to remember what I wrote down, even years ago, but more often than not the real benefit is reading back through what I have collected over the years. A few months ago I flipped through a set of notebooks from around ten years ago. There were all sorts of quotes about beauty, about perception, about epiphany, about the nature of divine revelation. Those quotes, I realize now, and the reading they represented were the seed bed of what became my doctoral work on theological aesthetics.

I used a horticultural image to describe commonplacing, but T.S. Eliot, speaking of Donne, uses more alchemical language, writing, “When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience.”

Virgil and Daniel – Two Visions of Empire

“The search for God is not the search for comfort or tranquility, but for truth, for justice, faithfulness, integrity: these, as the prophets tirelessly reiterated, are the forms of God’s appearance in the world” from Nicholas Lash, “Creation, Courtesy, and Contemplation” in The Beginning and the End of ‘Religion’

Does one read the Bible like any other book? R.W.L Moberly begins his The Bible in a Disenchanted Age: The Enduring Possibility of Christian Faith with this question. In exploring this question, Moberly works with a three-fold typology, based on what he takes to be the three main ways people read the bible–as history, as classic, and as Scripture. In each of the main chapters, Moberly offers comparative readings of the Aeneid, especially Book 1, and Daniel 7 as a way to explore these three approaches–history, classic, Scripture. So why is that we should read the Bible any differently than we read something like the Aeneid? It’s worth reading the whole book to see the ways he grapples with this question. Here I want summarize the contrastive reading he offers of Aeneid and Daniel 7 on the question of empire.

In Aeneid 1 Jupiter speaks of the coming Rome as a “limitless empire,” and in Daniel 7 the Ancient of Days promises “a kingdom that will not pass away.” So what is the difference? Moberly observes that Daniel’s vision stands in sharp contrast to the Roman vision of endless empire. In the vision of Daniel 7, the prophet beholds the bestial violence of earthly empires as they clash and jostle for supremacy. In contrast to this bestial violence, the promised “son of Man”, the truly human one, inherits a kingdom from the Ancient of Days. But in a strange ambiguity in the text, it seems that the kingdom entrusted to the son of man is then entrusted to holy ones, the saints of the earth. Because of their humanity these holy ones are able to resist the temptation to meet beastly force with beastly force. Beastly force must be met with a human serenity which itself rests on divine sovereignty.

The apocalyptic vision of Daniel 7 initially terrifies, both Daniel himself and any reader who dares to envision the horrifying parade of beastly empires. The horror and the violence these beasts perpetrate on the world and each other is all too real. It is precisely such bestial violence that Aeneid, if not commends (for Virgil is subtle in theses matters), at least inspired in Rome. For this reason the book of Daniel speaks acutely, both then and now, to the persecuted, to those who face the beastly. The encouragement is not to meet fire with fire, to fight a beast with beast, but to stay your eyes on true humanity, on the son of man, who resists the turn to the beastly, who refuses both coercion and violence.

As Moberly observes about Daniel, “the wider book portrays faithfulness and loyalty, and also wisdom, as the qualities of life expected for resisting the four beasts for as long as they have their dominion…A good case can be made for the thesis that the book of Daniel as a whole, in its own right, is subverting any straightforward notion of dominion and is reconceiving where, under the God of Israel, true power and dominion lie” (120;123).

And yet Christians have found the Virgilian vision of empire very tempting. In rehearsing the reception of Virgil by Christians, Moberly recognizes that throughout the history of the Church, “the vision of endless empire posed a particular temptation for Christians” (127). In other words there has always been a temptation to replace the Daniel 7 vision of human patience and faithfulness in the face of the beastly, with the Roman vision of conquering the world in the way of the beast.

But as Moberly rightly notes, these two visions cannot be conflated because they rest on different understandings of power:

“The ’unending dominion” of Daniel 7 thus is of a different order than the “limitless empire” of Aeneid 1, because Daniel 7 is not speaking of any prospect of power in the same way…The appeal of Daniel 7, however, appears to be less straightforward and more demanding. A positive appropriation of Daniel 7 would in principle entail a willingness at least to sympathize, and perhaps to identify, with a small and regularly oppressed people who have a strong commitment to faithfulness in adversity, and who through that faithfulness maintain confidence in the ultimate triumph of their vision of a just God" (128).

For the Christian the Daniel 7 vision of human resistance to the bestial forces of violence and coercion is only possible within a faithful community. It is only the faithful community, the church, who receives Daniel 7 as Scripture who can have any chance of living the kind of resistance it envisions. The Church, in other words, makes such living not only possible but first it makes it plausible. Using the Peter Berger’s sociological language of “plausibility structures,” with an ecclesial assist from Leslie Newbigin, Moberly describes the church as that faithful community: “The church functions as a plausibility structure not only through its contemporary witness but also through its persistence through the centuries in maintaining the importance of a particular way of God, the world, and ourselves” (156).

The church as plausibility structure is the place in which the Bible is received as Scripture. Though the Bible can be fruitfully read as history and as classic in virtually any context (even within the Church!), it can really only be read as Scripture within a communal context that not only receives it as Scripture but also tries to faithfully live it.

The Gospels as a Field of Vision and Field of Play

In “The Gospels for the Life of the World”, Ben Quash focuses on the mediation of Christ by the Spirit through the Scriptures, giving special attention to the generative possibilities of fresh encounters with the Gospels. While the Spirit of Christ mediates the presence of Christ through the Scriptures and through the Gospels, people generally and the Church especially must accept the responsibility of faithfully receiving this mediation. The task of receiving the gospels and reading the gospels is an invitation into the on-going interpretation and enacting of the gospels.

The Spirit works to meditate and we must work to receive and interpret. The Spirit must continue the work of unfurling the meaning of the Gospels because their meaning is superabundant, both inexhaustible in themselves and in need of constant appropriation and reception in every time and place. As Quash puts it,

“We may expect certain qualities in the gospels in order that they will be suited to the Spirit’s work of gradual mediation. To lend themselves to the Spirit’s unfolding, they must first be, so to speak, folded texts. They must be texts that ‘keep on giving’ over time. They must be immensely, if not infinitely, generative of new and transformative insight: rich, dense, full of implications (implicatio being the Latin word for ‘foldedness’).”

The Gospels’ meaning was not locked in time for the people to whom they were initially addressed. To accept that the Spirit continues to unfold the meaning of the Gospels is to simultaneously accept that these texts are addressed to us and to those who will come after us just as much as they were addressed to those who first received them.

Moreover, in their superabundance the Gospels are both iconic and ironic. The gospels are first iconic because they display the multifarious glory of Christ. Using Graham Sutherland’s Christ in Glory, a tapestry that hangs in Coventry Cathedral, to illuminate this point, Quash argues that the four gospels must be taken together. In the tapestry, in accord with biblical imagery, the four beasts surrounding Christ represent the four gospels, and the space that they open up between them is the space in which we are able to behold Christ. While each individual gospel displays Christ, the four gospels taken together create an entire field of vision in which to behold him.

In addition to being a field of vision, it is also a field of play, for the four-fold witness of the gospels invites both interpretation and participation. The space they open between them, Quash says, pulling from Balthasar’s theodramatics, is a “Spielraum”–an acting area. It is not just a space of understanding, but a place of enactment, and more literally a space of play (spiel).

The gospels are also ironic because they, as Quash puts, “slip the frame”, they point beyond themselves as texts, and so invite generative encounter. Quash writes, “There is an apparent self-consciousness in the gospels by which they both acknowledge the specifics of an original narrative context and also anticipate an indeterminate number of future ones. They promise to seek ‘readers’ who will ‘understand’ wherever and whenever they may be.” The gospels wink at the reader, in other words, and that wink is an invitation to interpretation and participation. Rather than seeking to define once and for all the meaning of them within the world they came from, the task is to allow the gospels to slip out of themselves into the world we inhabit and so transform it.

Not speed, not breadth, but purpose – On the Purposive Intellect of Abraham Lincoln

Not speed, not breadth, but purpose – On the Purposive Intellect of Abraham Lincoln

“The prime quality of his mind was not speed—which in the different world a century and more later would be thought to be almost the defining feature of intelligence. It also was not breadth—the embrace of the best that has been thought and said in the world of learned persons, which Thomas Jefferson aspired to—or instant knowledge of the inner details of public affairs of the twentieth-century policy wonk. Lincoln’s mind instead cut deeply, perhaps slowly or at least with effort and concentrated attention, into a relatively few subjects. It was purposive—personally, politically, morally.” Walter Lee Miller, Lincoln’s Virtues: An Ethical Biography

Discussing the value of reading biographies, Cal Newport recently mentioned this biography of Lincoln on his podcast. I was instantly intrigued by the idea of an ethical biography. More than offering yet another sketch of Lincoln’s life, Miller seeks to account for Lincoln’s moral formation and to explore the reasons for and the consequences of his moral choices. In the podcast Newport drew a parallel between Lincoln’s purposive intellect and the three principles of his model for deep productivity—do fewer things; do this work at a slower pace; obsess over quality.

I’m struck by the idea of a purposive intellect, particularly as it stands in contrast to a quick intellect. Miller observes that different ages value different dimensions of the intellect, and he is certainly right to say that our age most praises speed. If you asked me outright to say which of these three I aspired to, I would probably say that I desired breadth. But if you probed that answer just a bit further, you would find that what I really want is breadth quickly, to master a lot of material, yes, but to master it quickly. What I really value then is speed. The ultimate version of this to my mind is the gnostic fantasy about learning in The Matrix. That one could learn kung fu, or anything for that matter with the speed and ease of a download is nothing but fantasy, but that fantasy grows out of the idolization of not just speed but of computers as ideal minds. We want to learn the way a computer “learns.” A computer may be fast, but it cannot be purposive the way described here, no matter what one thinks of AI.

One consequence of idolizing the speed of a mind? If speed is the primary attribute we praise, then to admit slowness or to intentionally attempt slowness, as if it were good to slow down, amounts to a confession—I am not smart (at least in the way the age currently defines or values it). If the videos YouTube suggests to me about reading more, more quickly are any indication, I must have more than a passing interest in speed and the attendant anxiety that I am not fast enough. But a purposive mind is slow by design, or if not slow at least deliberate. It distrusts quickness for the sake of quickness.

What are the qualities of a purposive intellect? The purposive mind works like a plow. As Miller says of Lincoln, “His was a mind inclined to plow down to first principles and to hold to them—not as a metaphysician does, abstracting from particulars and spinning great webs of speculation, linking abstraction to abstraction, but as a lawyer, a politician, a moralist does at his or her best: by tenaciously analyzing one’s way through the particulars, seeking the nub of the matter.” Though this is true as far as it goes, I would push the image further. One does not plow simply to turn over the ground. One plows the earth in order to prepare it to bring forth new life. The plowman follows slowly as the the long steady furrows cut into the earth. With each step the earth turns up rich soil that can cradle and give life to a seed. The purposive mind is therefore generative. The purposive is also tenacious. As Lincoln said of himself, “My mind is like a piece of steel—very hard to scratch anything on it, and almost impossible thereafter to rub it out.”

Of course, these three qualities, speed, breadth, purpose, are not comprehensive, nor do they necessarily exclude each other. Think of a mind given to both speed and purpose. Mozart comes to mind as an example. He not only produced so much, so quickly but also so much of lasting value. Breadth and purpose readily also go together, while St. Thomas Aquinas seems to be a stunning example of someone who possessed all three. His was a mind that was quick and supple, a mind absolutely steeped in the breadth of the tradition, but also a mind that worked with great purpose.

(If you click the tag for intellectual life on this blog, you will find many posts dedicated to exploring various aspects of what the intellectual life is and what it entails, and more than a few posts sketching the main lines of The Intellectual Life by A.G. Sertillanges.)

Reading as a Creative Act

I recently posted some epigraphs from the novel Absolute Truths by Susan Howatch. In that novel most of the epigraphs come from the Anglican theologian Austin Farrer whose theology provides a historical backdrop for the novel itself. Farrer’s words also serve as a foil and as a guide for the narrator in the novel. In this post, I wanted to look at a passage in the novel where the narrator, Charles Ashworth, picks up one of Farrer’s book of sermons. His reading of Farrer sets off a series of connections and insights for him, and Howatch masterfully shows us how reading itself can be a creative process.

In the scene Charles begins to ruminate on a profound encounter he had recently had with a sculpture. When he was looking at the sculpture, he and the artist began to discuss the intimacy of creating, the deep emotional investment the artist makes in order to create. Later, as he remembers the scene, his mind turns to a sermon he had recently read, so he picks up a copy of Austin Farrer’s sermons Said or Sung and turns to this passage on the divine creator:

“The skill of the divine potter is an infinite patience of improvisation. No sooner has one work gone awry than his fingers are pressing it into the form of another. There is never a moment for the clay, when the potter is not doing something with it. God is never standing back and watching us; his fingers are on us all the time.”

After reading the passage, he begins to think of his own life, the loss of his wife and the ensuing catastrophe, and he remembers the way in which the artist had caressed her own sculpture: “When I remembered how she had caressed her sculpture, I knew I was being called to believe in a creator who never gave up, a creator who suffered alongside his creation, a creator who was driven by “an indestructible sort of fidelity,” by an “insane sort of hope” and above all by the most powerful form of creative love to bring order out of chais and “make everything come right.”

I love this scene because beyond being a lovely meditation on the beauty of art and the redemptive love of God, it is striking representation of the process of reading itself, of thinking along with a book. Charles has a thought that leads him to pick up Farrer’s book. As he reads the sermon, he imagines himself as the ball of clay being sculpted and re-sculpted by God, which then turns his mind again to the artist and the sculpture he had recently seen. And then he ruminates more, reflects, and as he does more of Farrer’s words begin to interweave with his own thoughts. What he had seen in the studio, what he now reads on the page, all interweave to affect a profound thought which helps him see his own circumstances in a new light.

By showing us the connections in Charles’ own mind, Howatch invites us to reflect on the power of art and of reading itself. It’s a masterful scene in a profound novel.

Learning the Wrong Lesson from the Amish – Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism

Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World offers a digital detoxification program for the harried and distracted. In addition to providing a step-by-step guide for fasting from technology, he also offers ways for thinking through what technologies and platforms we use and why. I’m drawn to the way he thinks about technology, especially the downsides of social media, and I’ve learned a lot form his blog and especially from his book Deep Work. It was in Deep Work where I first encountered The Intellectual Life by Sertillanges, and that book has been the subject of my last few blog posts. There are many helpful things in Digital Minimalism, many practical things to think about, and as always with Newport, nice summative aphorisms, like “clutter is costly”, that help drive the message home.

However, reading Newport’s assessment of the Amish community and their approach to technology struck me as symptomatic of some of the problems with books like this. To put a name to it, most books like this speak in terms both grand and vague about personal values and how discerning and living by these values is the golden key that unlocks every door. It is through the lens of values that Newport reads the Amish community’s approach to technology, saying, “The Amish, it turns out, do something that’s both shockingly radical and simple in our age of impulsive and complicated consumerism: they start with the things they value most, then work backward to ask whether a given new technology performs more harm than good with respect to these values.”

What I find interesting in his analysis is that he places the emphasis on the values, rather on the community itself because for him the community is mostly problematic. While he discerns that there is something to learn from the Amish about approaching technology, he ends by hedging his bets. At the end of the discussion, Newport wonders “whether this value persists even when we eliminate the more authoritarian impulses of these communities”. And this is exactly where I would have liked him to push further. The threat of the authoritarian clouds his vision, I think, from what is really interesting in the example, which is not values themselves, but the thickness of community itself. Newport hopes to extract all the possible benefits of communal discernment, and to eliminate all possible, and probably very real down sides. Speaking like a true individualist, he looks past the meaning of community itself and the possibility of discerning together, and concludes instead “the sense of meaning…comes from acting with intention” (56). But in the Amish community, the willingness to surrender certain technologies is not intended to pursue a sense of meaning or to live by values in the abstract, but to enact an already present sense of belonging.

His approach assumes that values are free floating, that they are not embedded in communities themselves, and as free floating they can theoretically be extricated from one context and simply applied in another. But the reality of community is that values are not abstractions, and they are not self-determined. Rather they are woven into the community itself. And, yes, this can have a dark side, and yes there is the possibility of authoritarianism, but such is the risk of community itself. For good or for ill, depending on your perspective, the community itself speaks into the life of the individual. These things are not determined in isolation, and this can of course bring comfort and clarity, but it also means that the community may very well, and most certainly does, say no to things that you as an individual might say yes to.

It is not just a they who discern, but a we who not only discern, but more simply live the values. It is a communal act, and moreover, the values are not piecemeal, the values themselves are communal, they are a shared horizon to navigate by. But here is the rub, in the Newport model, I determine my own horizon, and I’m supposed to say no to myself simply on the basis of my own values, which are self-determined. But I know for myself, and assume for most others, such values are often not really enough of a reason to say no to myself. How thin is a self-determined value?