Accepting a Gift not Offered



Based on comment to Bracing Views blog


As the Buddha once wisely admonished: No one can give offense to anyone unwilling to take it. For my part, I have always assumed this truth as the principal operating ground rule of our conversations over the past decade or so. Your use of terminology such as "stomped on" and "setting straight" to characterize my comments -- made in response to your pointed dig at the skeptical views you know I hold regarding "existentialism" -- indicates to me that perhaps you've accepted a gift that I haven't offered.

I long ago formed my guiding ideas about "how to read and why," but not so long ago I came upon a book with that title by Harold Bloom, published in 2001. At the end of his Prologue to How to Read and Why, Professor Bloom summarized some advice he had synthesized from reading Shakespeare, Dr. Samuel Johnson, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, namely: "... find what truly comes near to you, that [you can use] for weighing and considering. Read deeply, not to believe, not to accept, not to contradict, but to learn to share in that one nature that writes and reads."

Back in late 1994, I took a short, six-month job in Beijing, China working for a Thai/Chinese business partner of a Japanese-American friend of a Japanese-American neighbor who lived down the street from me in Cypress, California. On my free weekends, I would go for long walks around the various "ring" roads that circle the city. On one such excursion, I came upon something of a specialty museum called "The Big Bell Shrine," so named because -- straightforwardly enough -- it contained a collection of really big bells. As I casually walked throughout the exhibits, idly noting the various decorations on the iron or bronze giants, I came to pause before one huge bell that had literally hundreds of tiny Chinese characters running vertically up and down and all around its surface. After simply gazing at the intricate inscriptions for awhile, I felt the strangest sensation come over me, as I realized that, at some point, I had ceased existentially "looking" and had started actively "reading."

Even with my vastly imperfect command of Chinese idiographic writing, I got the sense that some Emperor ... had gone somewhere ... and then some Buddhist Bodhisattva ... had done something ... and then some passionate fire had gone out ... and then someone had achieved some sort of "enlightenment" ... and so on and so forth. Through the meager snatches of "words" and "meanings" that seemed to arise of their own accord in my mind, I thought I could hear a tiny voice from a great distance pleading for my attention; desperate for me to understand something really important but almost impossible to communicate. It occurred to me that whoever had inscribed and cast those hundreds of tiny figures in bronze on a bell so long ago could not possibly have imagined that someone who looked like me, across an ocean of time, from an unknown land literally oceans distant, would someday stand before his work and "hear" something of his voice, however garbled and incomplete. It occurred to me then as it occurs to me now that some of what that unknown Chinese artisan/scribe had written truly came near to me; caused me to weigh and consider; not to believe; not to accept; not to contradict; but to use that experience in learning to share the one nature that writes and reads. And Emerson's words then came to mind, as well, reminding me that "The good reader makes the good book," which wise aphorism I understood to make a better bell, too.

I say all this, Stan, as a way of explaining how I read and why. I try to get something of value from anything and everything that I read, whether or not the writer of whatever intends for me to obtain any such thing. Furthermore, I try to put my reading to use in what I write myself. At the risk of exhausting your time and patience, please permit me to continue this essay with an example that I hope will illustrate it best.

I once read the following statement by Professor Kenneth Winetrout, in his book F. C. S. Schiller and the Dimensions of Pragmatism:

"According to William Barrett, the basic quality in existentialist philosophy [maintains] that the particular [matters more] than the universal."

As I had already begun composing my epic poem Fernando Po, U.S.A., I almost immediately put to use Winetrout's quotation about existentialism as it might apply to the primitive existentialist Boobies who live "in" language (as a fish lives in water) but who can't use language "about" language -- or anything else abstract. As a consequence of this basic semantic ignorance, the tribal island Boobies must see words physically acted out for them by the light of the communal campfire. This idea and illustrative image I borrowed from the epigraph to chapter one of I. A. Richards' seminal work on semantics, The Meaning of Meaning, namely:
"Let us get nearer to the fire so that we can see what we are saying" -- the Bubis of Fernando Po.

I had also read and kept in mind reporter Ron Suskind's famous interview with officials from the George W. Bush administration -- Without a Doubt -- in which media advisor Mark McKinnon boasted of how American voters who uncritically supported Deputy Dubya Bush "like the way he walks and they like the way he points." (All this "walking" and "pointing" stuff ostensibly made "heartland" American Boobies feel "confident.") Then, it all fell into place when Washington Post columnist David Broder lapsed into a public, senile swoon as Deputy "top gun" Dubya embarrassingly landed on an aircraft carrier spouting "mission accomplished" while Broder exulted: "This president has just learned to move in ways that inspire confidence!" Again, what gives with all this "walking," "pointing," and "moving" stuff? Oh, brother.

Anyway, somehow all this reading and listening to what others of my species had written and spoken -- especially teenage American high school students struck dumb by the television cartoon character Homer Simpson -- came near to what most interests me; caused me to weigh and consider; and resulted in my putting it all to use writing the opening episode of Fernando Po, U.S.A., namely: "The Boobies of Fernando Po." I trust you'll pick out with no difficulty the relevant stanzas dealing with the philosophical and linguistic issues around which our present conversation revolves. No doubt you'll also spot what teaching Japanese and English for one semester at Thousand Oaks High School taught me about the atavistic language habits of an "adult" American population that has taken to mindlessly imitating the illiterate utterances of its own uneducated children. Anyway:
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