Thursday, August 2, 2012

"Great Books (part one)"

I wrote this essay, or series of essays, back in 2002 or 2003, adding more to it as I went, but never fully redacting it. When I applied to grad school at Grand Valley, I had an exceptionally high GRE score but was nevertheless ultimately rejected after much deliberation. The problem was my writing sample. How hard it was for me to hear this! The sample happens to have been this piece, which I did not edit before sending it (I figured it was fine). Now that I read over the 6th section of the essay (the last one in this email), which is the opposite of anything PC, I understand why the university took a few extra weeks to deliberate before rejecting me.

Great Books


                You are butterflies winged with written pages. Read. Reading is man’s wisest investment. With reading, we unite with the greatest minds of history. Minds centuries past open before us. The wisest men, the greatest hearts, the staunchest heroes, and the saintliest philosophers present themselves to us with such splendor, that mere spoken word flushes in jealousy. These men labored for the perfect words to present their genius. We have in them the wisest ideas of the known universe.

                Each book is the phoenix of its author's genius. The ashes of the phoenix, burned through passion, scatter upon white pages. We devour those ashes before that raptor rises, and as they swim through our veins, the bird emerges, we are new.

                It is clear, though, that most books are dross. Close to a million publications a year, and maybe one worth reading. For while the mindful man can enlighten from any text, words, or lyrics, he will profit much more from a great book. Such great books cannot be read just once, for they are wellsprings of revelation, lifting us higher at every reading. It is good to choose ten to thirty such books to read over and over throughout our lifetime. Choose the time tested greats of the Western Canon, from Plato to Sartre. Sense the greatness of a book by the continual feeling of confusion, curiosity, enlightenment, and intrigue it arouses.

                There have been about two hundred magnificent minds who have written a record, and they have constructed philosophical, scientific, or poetical systems through their writing. These hundreds of systems and religions can be studied profitably and read so many times that they are memorized: they shall never disappoint. They include Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Nietzsche, and Emerson.

                Choose your close books like your close friends, choose ones with which you seek utter intimacy. For to fully read whatever can be read—book, speech, play, poem, treatise, sermon—this requires intimacy. What books are worthy? Great books, those giants of meaning. They speak of great ideas, relevant to us, and are infinitely plethoral.

                The four virtues of a work are importance, simplicity, richness, and musicality.

                All books are crystallized language. Language is the Holy Spirit, the Oversoul, the Collective Unconscious, Lady Lux; each infant babbles until a particular spirit is taught him. The Father Genius is the active consciousness, The Spirit is meaning, and Idol is the structure formed through these: Genius, Language, Book.

                Life is written. Whether in memories, in DNA, in stone, in architecture: man writes. And the idols of men, the great holy scriptures and the written Gods they create, these too are writings, writings and nothing more. Piety is in the written word; so is revolution. The most powerful men wielded pens. The greatest influences are writers: first the poets who guess, then the philosophers who prove (Homer necessarily precedes Plato).

                If the “great book” you are reading does not make your whole world into a great book—chuck it! Look again for a better set of eyes. What use is Argos if his every eye is blind?

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                No mint is worth a good library. Gold, in itself nearly useless; diamonds, merely a shiny piece of worry; pearls, boring; books, infinitely precious. Once you find your one book, your one person, your one text, your infinite onion, sell everything for that. That is yours to play with and work on for the rest of your life.

                Personality is infinitely interesting to us. The human mind is made to create nouns out of sense data, persons out of experiences. Thus we can say that insofar as “infinity” is a human experience, it refers to personality.

                What makes a book infinite? It captures an insoluble personality.

                The more pearl-onions a book contains, the more intricate are their layers, the more they fascinate and enthrall. Such complex ideas must be presented in full.

                Darwin had essentially one idea: evolution. It is wide-reaching and important, is still investigated daily, is the fountain of scores of scientific research today and has been for over a century. Therefore, Darwin shows how a narrow focus on one idea opens success. His books Origin of Species, and Descent of Man, are indeed among the greats of our Western canon.

                In distinction to Darwin is Aristotle, whose scientific writings covered everything yet known. Aristotle talked at length of biology, chemistry, physics, had an encyclopedic mind, never lost in details, but essencing everything into smart systems. Both men, indeed, were attentive to detail, with minds that systematized all that intrigued them. They are both scientists. They scrutinize the world.

                Other writers, such as Shakespeare, Nietzsche, Mozart, and Emerson, indeed hold to themes, hold to styles. Yet their range of ideas is worldwide; their range of styles variegated—but indeed, all four of them are monomaniacal stylists, and their influence, more than anything, is due to their own individuality as stylists. For to say it plainly: each man stands for essentially one idea, and applies that to everything. His series of attitudes make a temperament, his types of belieffs make a belief, his range of styles make a personality, his behavoirs make a character.

                Thus, Emerson is focused essentially, as he said, “on the infinitude of the private man,” allowed through self-reliance. Nietzsche stood essentially for the power of the noble soul. His extremely critical eye on everything else makes sense only in relation to this. Shakespeare stands for the rhetorical strength of personality transformed and allowed through speech. Mozart stands for the playful grandeur of melody.

                The strongest personalities are indeed monomaniacs. But for those who are full of ideas, those overrich poets and bipolars—we too are monomaniacal, in our method, single, looking at many different ideas, like a single lens focused over a million ideas.

                Beware then of cult books. The bestsellers of all time, and the most popular books of all time, include The New Testament, The Koran, The book of Mormon, the Dhammapada. Other books such as Atlas Shrugged, and Dianetics, in themselves have sold well these last 50 years. Each and every one of these books, which relies on cults to praise and adore them, is ultimately a second rate book. They are popular by propaganda. They are mediocre books, regurgitations of original ideas. Not a single one is Great Writing. The Bible for instance, contains many poor books and chapters that piggy back on Job and such. Propaganda pieces, however, are unoriginal. But they will be ever popular because of packaging. The best writings in the world are not formed by a church council, nor voted by deacons and priests. The greatest writings in the world, the best of the best, will never be bestsellers. Sniff them out. They belong to you. What is deepest to the soul is not handed out at bus-stops.

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                As it is, we have millions of texts produced each year, but no books. There are a million texts, and maybe in a decade a single work. Perhaps in your lifetime you will see one, maybe two true works. These are the books so wise and dense with meaning that they would break time’s tooth.

                “Examples!” you demand. Very well. But first, an intro into what makes a great book great. You might not recognize it at first if you are new to the field. For instance, if you pick up Plato or Aristotle, and then pick up a book written in the last ten years about Plato or Aristotle, you might think the second is better written, or at least much more accessible. In fact, if you assign two students to read Aristotle, one to read the first book of his Nichomachean Ethics, the second to read a guide to the same Ethics, and teach the class on what they learned, (I assume they are undergraduates), you will probably get a better teacher out of the second student, who read the guide. This is because greatness does not equal immediate accessibility. Far from it. Some of the greatest books ever written are in fact inaccessible. Some great books you will spend a decade with, and read every year afresh, till finally, heaven opens up and the shaft of insight graces your forehead like a butterfly's kiss. Yes, you will have to work for it, but no commentary, guide, nor lesser work can do this for you. Read a thousand commentaries about the Bible, and then fall on your knees for forgiveness for wasting Life. Then dust yourself off and read the Bible in the flesh, and there, now you begin to see why it spawns religions.

                What is true for the Bible is even more true for the books greater than the Bible. What is true for scripture is true for poetry, science, and history. For there is this strange fact of genius: it is untranslatable. I do not mean from language to language. I mean you cannot make genius common. You cannot tell the common undisciplined man the highest truths, no matter how thoroughly you know them nor what pain you take in simplifying and perfecting a textbook on the subject. Burn the textbooks, they are cheatbooks and will deceive you. Get at the Books themselves. If your students demand textbooks, you have in fact no students. Feed grass to the sheep and give them diplomas—and then never speak of it again.

                A true student is rare like a great book, but thankfully not quite so rare.

                The great original students really can have no teacher. They make best use of the best minds, and cannot be stopped, no matter how fervently the fodder-profs try. They will have the truth at any price, and like Adam says, “I will give my life for truth.” Well then: you have met the student.

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                Great books beckon with occult power. A great book is always weird. It could never be predicted. It could never be written but by that exceptional genius who brought it to life. It is an infant God, and contains eternities. You cannot sum it up. You read it thoroughly and wish to tell your friend of your joy in it. But your tongue betrays you. You speak of it, and your friend looks unimpressed. He is charitable and says, “Yes, like a book I read recently,” and you curse and say, “No, not like your book. This is different. This is brilliant. This is life. It is thus and thus,” but you find yourself unable to tell the secret. The best kept secrets keep themselves. But don’t worry, the book will shine in your hands and grace in your steps as well as echo in your indirect words. It is not, after all, your book, but a book you have learned from.

                A great book is original, infinitely rereadable, weird, deep, indispensible, and ever-relevant. Yes, and to what books will I grant these honors? I will speak first of my own personal experience, and be direct and true. Then I will speak indirectly and of what has been recommended to me by those I trust.

                My favorite writers are Emerson, Whitman, and Nietzsche. Each confounds and complicates me, and invigorates me to read again and again. My style grows in their light. They are kin to me.

                I also have found the Godmind in Shakespeare, Plato, Aristotle, Milton, William James, Henry James, Tao Te Ching, Homer, Machiavelli, Whitman, the Eddas, the American State Papers, and Blake. Of these men and woman, I have no end, but will leisure in their grace till I return to the Body of the Mother.

                The recommended Works I will list in no particular order: Chaucer, Aquinas, Plutarch, Kant, Hegel, Darwin, Marx, Dostoevsky, Spinoza, Virgil, Dante, the Rig Veda, the Dhammapada, the Koran, the Upanishads, The Analects of Confucius, the Bhagavad-Gita, and their peers. Such reading lists and canons are best made by authors who are citing their greatest influences.

                There have been written very few indispensible books. The 20th century may indeed be a dark one for genius. I haven’t heard a rumor of God in a long time.

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                Culling some adjectives from traditional literary criticism, a great work contains the sublime, the inexhaustible, the strange, the original, the inevitable.

                Sublime. The sublime is lofty, excellent language that confounds our judgment, eclipses the merely reasonable, is imperious, irresistible in force, swaying the reader despite himself, enthralling him so that he cannot take his attention from it, and, when it is finished, remaining forever in his memory. To do this, it expresses the right emotion in the right context, flowing from the situation, and from a genuine passion in the writer, or from the poetic madness of a deep soul. It says more than it says, it suggests as much as it reveals. It picks out the essential accents of a situation and evokes a whole episode with only the most vivid and explanatory details. It hides itself, as great rhetoric doesn’t seem like rhetoric, concealing its own artifice. To achieve this, you must fully imagine your episode before you write it, living in the world of your idea, and familiarizing yourself with the fauna and geology of it, so that when you write of it you are speaking as a true witness.

                Strange. The strange in a poem or writing is when you experience the consciousness of an alien mind. This writer sees the world in such a way that it takes you outside of your own mind, and gives you an uncanny new perspective. It gives a framework for going beyond your limits.

                Inevitability. The plot must unfold in a way you cannot predict, but once you have read it, you realize it could not have happened any other way. Or in a poem, the words are not predictable, nor cliché, but exactly the way the words had to be made, because the “argument” of the idea could not be worded in any other way.

                Originality. The idea must be first and best conceived by the author himself, and thus have a stark individuality. Insofar as the author is writing his own mind, it will be original, and never preceded in all of history.

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“Writing” stands for the highest and most sophisticated forms of communication—and thus us writers are humanity’s darlings, the most human of humankind.

                In my experience, women know more but can say less. “I know all and say nothing” -- one Friday goddess spoke. This might seem just the opposite to our common sense, when it seems that woman know nothing but never tire of saying it. But here we resort to the old myths where a man thinks with his heads, but a woman thinks with her whole body, a man talks with his mouth and hands, a woman talks with everything, a man understands only what he can also articulate, whereas women “intuitively” know the whole story from beginning to end.

                Speak only one language: your own. The Greeks did thus, and invented all genres. They did not bother learning foreign tongues, but differentiated themselves from the world by their own tongue. All other people say “bar bar bar” and are therefore barbarians. To be Greek means, above all, to speak Greek. Greatness is by speaking only your mother language, and learning other languages only insofar as this shines more light on yours.

                Drink from your roots. There is no stronger inspiration than your personal ancestors. The Nazis were powerful because they were Tuetons, and had the history to prove it. The Jews, in turn, remain intellectually formidable because of their racist views. The black authors that matter are very blackish about their black roots, have “black pride.”Remember what I told you about the need for everybody to find their center of arrogance, the one thing (at least) that they permit themselves to pride over. Well then, don’t overlook race, culture, or, say, if you are a Christian, then a strong understanding of the wide and rich Christian tradition, from Augustine and Aquinas, to all the other theologians, poets, sinnersaints, etc.

                All these things that are central to your identity, your heritage, you are made to drink this up. There is no stronger external inspiration than being part of a cultural tradition. This is why, for example, the modern antiAmericans who wish to damn early American history are in fact disintegrators of our culture. They claim pity for those hurt by conquest, or racial inequality, or whatever agenda they wish to justify, when in fact, they enjoy tearing into the intestines of a great nation. “The school of resentment,” they poison all. And the greatest poison is guilt.

                Well then, know how to be intolerant. Now how to be elitist, how to include yourself among the elite. For whatever extra chip you can put on your shoulder empowers you. What matters most is creative power. Insofar as you can honestly interpret the facts to strengthen this, you do good, you enact virtue. Self-love, and the love of a line of culture, a line of race, a line of history—this makes for greatness.



\ ~@M@~ /


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