Bill Long 11/12/04
Untimely Reflections on Portland's Intellectual Life
This is not an essay that many people should read. It is not a nice upbeat, pleasant, affirming-of-all-humanity type of essay. As one friend of mine said as I told her I was going to write it, "Why write it then, Bill?" It was sort of like the advice that many of us have heard since our childhood--if you can't say something nice, keep it to yourself.
But as I weighed that advice and thought about my past, I saw that it was precisely this type of attitude, trying to be nice to everyone and to affirm whatever they did, that got me into immense trouble in my earlier life. It led me to deny what I really felt about a situation or about people's thoughts or mental processes under the guise of "well, they are just doing the best they can, so give them an A." But then you end up hating yourself because you see that unless you find a rhythm of feeling and articulation that meets your own mental processes and equipment, you have lost your soul. So, here I am, breaking out of the confines of the affirmation of all that led to immense personal pain and, indeed, tragedy. [See my 2nd biography, 52 and Strangely Found (2004), for the gory details].
On to the Yahoos
Before Yahoo.com took over a perfectly good English word, invented by Jonathan Swift in 1726, and made it into a high-tech term, the word "Yahoo" was pronounced "yay-hoo" and referred to a person who was rustic, boorish or uncultivated. I want to recapture the sense of that word today because it was the most powerful one that came to mind as I was trying to sort through conflicting feelings I had as I attended a stimulating lecture last evening in Portland on Andrew Jackson by Presidential biographer Robert Remini.
On the one hand I had a wonderful evening. The company I was with was outstanding; the lecture was well-presented and flowed from a deep acquaintance with the subject. Even the questions in general gave Dr. Remini a chance to introduce intersting vignettes about Jackson that his main lecture had not treated. But, on the other hand, I had an uneasy feeling from the moment that Dr. Remini was introduced.
That uneasy feeling was generated by the fact that the two people who introduced the speaker freely (and seemingly eagerly) confessed their complete ignorance of the topic of the evening. While I think they intended these comments as an indication of their eagerness to learn something new, I interpreted them differently--as an indication that Portland's intellectual life still finds it acceptable to parade ignorance in verbal form in supposedly more intellectually-oriented forums.
Deeper Thinking on Yahoodom
After all, if they really wanted to do it right, it would have taken the two people who introduced the speaker all of 30 minutes in online searching not only to understand some of the work of Robert Remini but to place him in the swirling currents of historiographical debate on Andrew Jackson. Their introductions then could have set the stage for an interesting and exciting intellectual feast. They could have briefly used Andrew Jackson as a case study in the problem of Presidential biography; they could have placed Remini in a tradition of Presidential biography-writing; they could have mentioned the way that Remini's work has been received, both positively and critically. In short, there were several face-saving measures that could have been pursued to show that Portland is not just a "gee whiz" city when it comes to understanding scholarly approaches to things.
But, by not doing so, and by probably not even being aware that it was being so ignorant, Portland shows itself as a city whose role in the intellectual life of America remains derivative and gratulatory. Ideas, in general, do not originate here and, when they come in, mostly with East-coast pedigree, Portlanders feel that they just need to applaud, usually on their feet.
These realizations have to lead to mixed feelings for a thinking person. On the one hand, you are grateful for the effort expended to bring thoughtful or creative people to town to share some of the results of their work. Even if the fare delivered is in small doses, that is just fine. It can stimulate thoughts in me that take on a life of their own and beckon for further study. Thus, Dr. Remini's brief lecture on Jackson has already made me not necessarily want to pick up his biographies (11 of them!), but it has made me want to master the details of Jackson's life until I get the "angle" on him that will be most fruitful for me to pursue in some depth. It may be Jackson's Presbyterianism. It may be his attitude and actions toward John Marshall, since both of them were strong men who wanted to extend the reach of the Presidential or Judicial powers arguably beyond the strict language of the US Constitution. It may be Jackson's status as orphan, something that Dr. Remini passed over almost without mention last night but which, it seems to me, would weigh heavily on a 14 year-old's mind, especially if you see a few of your loved ones die right in front of your eyes.
But, on the other hand, there is the sense that I have to ignore the context or the people who took so much effort to bring the ideas to me. It leads to a general feeling of aloneness, of a sense that I possess a sort of organ that other people don't have. I don't really like this feeling both because I don't think it is fully true (even though I think that the "admirable conjunction of diverse excellencies," to use a phrase of Jonathan Edwards, that I bring to knowledge does give a "different twist" on learning), but I don't think I can give it up now.
So many things about life are unfinished. And, indeed, we are all trying to amass learning about things so that we can situate ourselves in the world today, to find a "fit" that works for us. Part of my "fit," I think, is developing the critical voice. Hence, these untimely remarks.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long