Saturday, January 17, 2009

Reclaiming Liberal Artistry - Part I

Reclaiming Liberal Artistry
Part I

For Christmas in 2007, my Father gifted Rob and I with a complete set of The Great Books of the Western World series which, as the title implies, comprises a representational selection of the greatest thinkers that Western culture has yet to manifest. Of course, the works of our species’ more recent creators are only marginally represented as we have not yet had time to weigh their contributions against those of our Western ancestors and those of our Eastern and Indigenous relatives are absent completely.

Our process of reading these “Great Books” was commenced by candlelight and glowing fireplace during an horrific ice storm that devastated power lines and hundred year old trees indiscriminately. After each selection, we engaged in an oral discourse of the writings covering a broad range of considerations and conclusions. It was a good and learned situation which went smoothly for a period of time but seemed to deconstruct itself into oblivion when I was defeated by Augustine and Rob by Rabelais. Also during this time, there began a currently shared urge (inspired by Rob) to compile our thoughts in writing as a means of gaining a more tangible foothold in our heritage. We both received our higher learning degrees from the only liberal arts university in the state of Oklahoma where we embraced this method of learning. We have been avid readers our whole lives and as a result have become solid writers in the process of indulging in our favorite past time.

The reasons behind this need for a more secure footing are that we were and still are witnessing Western culture’s slow and painful degradation. Or, in the words of Robert H. Hutchins, "the headlong plunge into the abyss" from which our civilization may not return. This is not a new phenomenon; we both understand this to be truth, but rather a generational experience that in many ways each of the authors of the “Great Books” are attempting to explain. For me, this realization did not make it easier to resume our readings of the series. I have been harboring misgivings specifically about revisiting the material that runs counter to my personal ideas of truth and, especially, equality among “men”. I recognize the fallacious elements of actively engaging this perspective but I also cannot deny its existence.

The year 2009 finds us starting anew and we will be responding to each of these authors using the written form. I find myself excited but also filled with trepidation as we begin this endeavor. I am looking forward to recreating within myself the discipline of writing which requires regular practice and dedication; reclaiming my own liberal artistry. I want to renew and strengthen a lifelong habit. It is an emerging of who I truly see myself to be which is, at heart, a word-nerd and/or an artist of the pen. Poetry has been my chosen form of creative expression since becoming a liberal artist. I find metaphor and the art of twisting language to be most enjoyable though I have also written some prose. But, the main point beyond all of this is that I WANT to write and writing takes practice, diligence as well as affording the reader/writer another method of understanding whatever they may be reading.

However, since reading Leonard Shlain’s Alphabet vs. the Goddess – The Conflict Between Word and Image, I have found myself equally distressed about the written word and the consequences that we have seen throughout our history from its use. Shlain’s observations of Western civilization are that a neurosis manifested from literacy which caused left brain dominance and thus a sort of war upon the right brain that inspired those qualities that it informs to be suppressed, repressed and demonized: images, non-linear thought and most universally, the feminine.

“There exists ample evidence that any society acquiring the written word experiences explosive changes. For the most part, these changes can be characterized as progress. But one pernicious effect of literacy has gone largely unnoticed: writing subliminally fosters a patriarchal outlook. Writing of any kind, but especially its alphabetic form, diminishes feminine values and with them, women’s power in the culture. . For now, I propose that a holistic, simultaneous, synthetic, and concrete view of the world are the essential characteristics of a feminine outlook; linear, sequential, reductionist, and abstract thinking defines the masculine.” (Shlain 1998)

Shlain argues that every person possesses these “opposite perception modes” in equal measure but that rampant alphabetic literacy void of right brain stimulus has had obvious and violent ramifications within the evolution of our culture. These arguments ring of truth and as a result I continue to endure volatile emotions when I think of immersing myself in the words of those authors whom I remember from my previous liberal arts education to be representative of the more devastating consequences that this neurosis of written language has inflicted.

This is a deeply rooted emotional reaction with which I am attempting to contend. This reaction is beautifully irrational and wholly right-brained, however, it is real and must be given its proper due and respect. I’ve spent a good portion of the years since receiving my bachelor’s degree on a journey of exploration where I have learned much of what can be known of Goddess-based ideas and cultures influenced by the Divine Feminine prior to the solitary Sun God’s “Word” dismantling of this ancient wisdom piece by piece with each stoke of His followers’ pens. I continue to find this occurrence unsettling and without resolution. Part of what my journey has thus far revealed to me is that each and every one of us is missing at least half (probably more) of what we could call the “Great Wisdom” of our civilization. For that reason, it seems to me that we are a people who are struggling to lay claim to an already fractured and broken culture.

Please understand the nuance of wording between the “Great Books” and what I am terming the “Great Wisdom” of Western concepts and ideas. These "Great Books" are only a small part of a greater tapestry of knowledge and wisdom. And the deepest irony is, of course, that these books reveal to us in many ways a further degradation of an already disjointed entity. This reality makes it difficult to avoid emotional reactions to the words that remain no matter how valuable and pertinent these works are for all of us today.

However, Shlain also helped me recognize that what has been true in our past is not equally true in our current time. This continued evolution of Western thought results mostly because of frenzied changes in the ever present influences of our culture, especially in regards to information technology. In our time, we have equalized our brain stimulus by integrating images and the word into our day to day lives and we are beginning to see the balance between the genders reach a more equitable place. However, there are now different problems on our horizon. We find ourselves living in a time where we are each awarded “political power and leisure time” by our democratic and, in some ways more balanced society and yet, the education of our people is suffering from a seemingly mandatory anorexia which is creating perhaps the greatest danger to our species yet (Hutchins, 1952).

Robert M. Hutchins takes up this worrisome manifestation in inspiring ways in “The Great Conversation” which is the introductory essay for the first edition of The Great Books of the Western World. A discussion of Hutchins’ observations will continue in Part II of “Reclaiming Liberal Artistry”.


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