Beauty in Education

Scarry - On BeautyElaine Scarry’s elegant On Beauty and Being Just (Princeton, 1999) observes that, in education,

“One submits oneself to other minds (teachers) in order to increase the chance that one will be looking in the right direction when a comet makes its sweep through a certain patch of sky” (7).

Many educators teach for a similar reason: we, too, long for the comet that passes, but view it within a panorama of reflected images in our students’ eyes.

Paradise and Desire

Kennedy ParadiseA. L. Kennedy’s Paradise (Knopf, 2004) explores the tragic descent of Hannah Luckraft, an alcoholic. Several critics have interpreted Paradise through the stations of the cross. I find this reading quite compelling—its fourteen parts may indeed parallel the Via Dolorosa. For me, however, Kennedy’s narrative describes something much closer to home—what few religious texts ever manage to convey within the limits of philosophical and theological discourse: a complex portrait of the individual will enslaved by desire.

Paradise requires the reader to explore the dark recesses of the soul through its train-wreck central character, Hannah. Existential confusion and sensory overload pervade the book: “He gets me another whisky and then one of its relatives, and then one of its friends and I should be drunk by now, I should be feeling it, I should—in the absence of other pleasures—be in my house with the whole whisky family, all of us curled up tight around our fine, warm, cask-matured, internal fire. But I’m not. I am entirely sober. I can hear owls snatching mice in the park behind us . . . My skin is unbearable, it is holding me back, holding me in and the shine of his body is hurting it, turning so intense that I ought to be seeing blisters rise and he’s so far away across the table and talking about I have no idea what—he’s too close to hear, drowned out by the babies crying across the river and changing their minds and dreaming, dreaming loud as hand grenades—and why is he so warm when I can’t touch him?” (44).

Kennedy has a knack for describing sensory experience. The effect is profound and brings to mind one of the darkest portraits of the self in Western literature. Augustine famously wrote of the consuming power of self in Confessions—“It was foul, and I loved it. I loved my own undoing. I loved my error—not that for which I erred but the error itself” (Book 2.4).

Augustine’s account of the soul enslaved by sin, however, differs considerably from Kennedy’s Paradise. While Augustine found redemption in the spoken words of a child, Tolle lege, tolle, lege (“Take and read; take and read”), Hannah’s journey entails a cycle of devolution. Despair alone remains.

As any reader of Dante knows, this is no Paradise. It is Inferno.

Reading and Discovery

ImageYou don’t have to be an academic slogging over books to review or student papers to grade in order to have lost the joy of reading. But wherever you are on the spectrum between joy and aversion, I suspect you’ll find some unexpected delights in Alan Jacobs’s The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction (Oxford University Press, 2011).

Jacobs warns against reading patterns that stifle enjoyment (i.e. tackling the top 50 books of the twentieth century), embraces technology as a means of restoring readerly inertia (e.g. he loves his Kindle), values the role of the social dimension in the reading process (e.g. blog posts and letter writing each foster meditation and reflection), and encourages readers to avoid the temptation to read only the classics (namely, you can’t eat steak at every meal).

Many books on reading require a vast knowledge of literature to appreciate. It’s a rather deflating prospect, I think. Who would want to read a book that tells you how little you know? Jacobs’s book isn’t like that—just uncommon wisdom, from a seasoned teacher, in prose I enjoyed.

This thoughtful meditation on accidental discoveries gives a taste of the whole:

“Plan once appealed to me, but I have grown to be a natural worshiper of Serendipity and Whim; I can try to serve other gods, but my heart is never in it. I truly think I would rather read an indifferent book on a lark than a fine one according to schedule and plan. And why not? After all, once upon a time we chose none of our reading: it all came to us unbidden, unanticipated, unknown, and from the hand of someone who loved us” (145).

Perhaps serendipity in reading is but the hand of God.