The Cross and the Wreath
Bill Long 11/22/09
An Intellectual Picture For the Next Long Chapter of Life
Life works best if you have a sense of what you are doing and why you are doing it. In my case, it works best if I have an inkling of what I am trying to accomplish in my study, what ambitions I am trying to cultivate, which problems to address, and which issues to understand and explicate. Knowledge of all kinds is "out there" beckoning wise and simple to "turn in here." So, what is it going to be? Which choices will I find alluring?
If I were in a recognized field, and if I had as my professional identity a professorship in a department at a university or grad. school, which I had for many years, I could easily answer the question. You study what you teach and issues allied to those areas of teaching. You are a "con law" or a "Shakespeare" or a "contracts" or a "New Testament" specialist. Even within that you often have a greater specialty, such as an expertise in the Pauline letters or in the speech clause of the 1st Amendment. You have your "niche," and because the knowledge system in the USA is designed to capitalize on specialization, you no doubt have your own conferences, bulletins, journals, battles and personalities which are unique to your specialty. You are paid well enough to live, and you hit your "groove" of learning in your field and just follow it out over your career. Our society rewards a person who chooses this kind of focus. Sometimes, however, if you are an especially ambitious person, you might become a "university professor," able to range widely over the academic terrain, or you might team-teach your material with experts in other disciplines.
I have had my share of "specialties" over the years, but never felt that I wanted a field as it was defined in contemporary American higher education to define how I saw my intellectual self. So I have cast my net wider and wider so as to bring in all kinds of fascinating fish, as well as some garbage and old shoes in the process. Earlier this year I wrote about issues of capacity, persistence, spirit, and focus, and those essays accurately described me then. In the last few weeks, however, I have felt it good to drop several of the (minimal number) of things that occupied me at that time (writing Supreme Court case summaries; working with the movement to repeal the Oregon death penalty; business consulting), in order to focus on the breadth of the following intellectual challenge. In short, I have been developing an all-embracing picture of my activities. As this will probably interest no one, I tuck it here deep in my autobiographical pages...
The Cross and the Wreath
I imagine my intellectual life to consist in a cross and a wreathe. The vertical bar of the cross is the major problem or issue that I am learning about as it unfolds over time. It is, in a word, epic. Thus, along this axis is the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Aeneid, the Divine Comedy, Tasso's Jerusalem Delivered and Milton's Paradise Lost. These texts deal with heroic deeds, great people, divine interventions and emotions and so many other things. The language of epic uses similes, lofty phrases, grand expositions, compressed images, to try to understand persistent human problems throught painting them on a large screen. The goal here is to master at least these six texts, in their original languages, so that I can not only know the flow of each in detail, but be able to recite, use, and apply the world view/insights of epic to my conversation and action in the world.
The horizontal bar of the cross are languages. To the left of the y-axis or epic axis are the Romance languages: Latin, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese. To the right are Greek, German, Hebrew (and allied ancient Semitic languages), Arabic, Chinese, Russian, Turkish and others that may draw me in the future. The 'cross' becomes the primary focus of my intellectual life. Learning languages, mastering epic, writing about the latter with passion, insight and skill is the goal. The goal of language learning is not simply learning grammar or conversation, but being able to massage classic texts in that language with skill and care.
But the cross is festooned with the most verdant, rich cedar or odoriferous pine wreath. This wreath is circular, of course, but can conveniently be divided into four parts, each representing 90 degrees of a circle. In one arc (let's call it the "upper right") is literature, with the Bible anchoring this section. This means that though I am sinking deeply into the worlds of epic and language, I still "surround it," as it were, with other literary works. The Bible is the most famous and most beloved for me. But there are others, many, many others. The work of William Shakespeare is prominent here. I occasionally take some time to read contemporary fiction; it is here.
The second arc ("the lower right") consists in art and musical knowledge. It consists in all the artists of all kinds, especially the painters, whose joy it has been to capture the world in color, and musicians of all styles. This type of knowledge, visual and aural as it is, encourages the development of other ways of knowing, stressing more feeling and immediate impact than measured criticism.
The third arc, in the lower left, is my historical arc. History, like literature, incorporates a humongous supply of things. It would include not only Donald Kagan's four volume history of the Peloponnesian War, but treatments of American history at any period or, in fact, the biography or autobiography of any person. I took up teaching world civilization in 1990, leaving the "field" of religion to do so. I did this so that I could get "credit" for all the reading I did, because almost anything could fit under the rubric of history. This arc is wonderfully fruitful for me. This arc would include law, where I spent a solid decade of my life (1996-2006). Etched over the arc is the inviting statement that the man who has closely studied history has learned to live in all periods since the beginning of the world.
Finally, the upper left section of the wreath is my "science" learning. This, again, is a vast array of things, including my study of autism and the bodily systems derived from that, my horticultural knowledge, my study of living things of all kinds, microscopic and macroscopic. It includes facts, theories, people, dates, pictures, interesting insights that tell us more about what it means to be human, etc.
This picture gives me guidance on two things: what is important to study and the extent of my ambitions. Fields are nowhere to be seen; broad areas of human investigation are the key. But there is an anchor point, very clearly for me. It resides in texts that tell the majestic, and poignant, stories of life in heroic and elevated language. These stories are in every language and culture; even if I can't master them all, I can make good beginnings in positive ways. But this is the material that encourages dreaming, large ambitions, focused thought, energetic examination, an attempt to relate knowledge from many areas together. It is my "epic" dream not just for the rest of 2009 or 2010, but for many a year to come.