“Reading as Beginning”
Convocation Address, Summer 2012
Greetings and welcome, and an especial welcome to the new students of the Graduate Institute, who are matriculating with us here today. Today marks the beginning of what I hope will become for you a life-long relationship, surely not with learning, for that is a journey you began long ago, but with learning as a member of the St. John’s community. It is also a new beginning for me. This past Monday I assumed the duties as the new Director of the Graduate Institute. When we’re done with today’s ceremony I imagine you’ll go back to reading and preparing for next week’s classes, and I’ll go back to unpacking books in my new office. We are both, in a sense, new students today, embarking on new stages of a familiar journey.
But we are new as part of things that are old: the third oldest college in the country; a college that learns from the oldest traditions of literature, history, and philosophy contained in both the western and eastern traditions; the oldest books, the classical thinkers, a time-honored tradition of reading, writing, conversation, and reflection as the foundation stones of liberal education. In becoming a part of these traditions we tie ourselves, in all our newness, to things that have a history all there own. And we strive, through our work here, to become a part of that history, and to make it a part of who we are.
This doesn’t happen at the general or abstract level. It happens in concrete and definite ways: together, through conversations in our classrooms and dormitories, in the coffee shop, and over lunch in the cafeteria; and alone during our hours with Homer and Plato and Kant, or Murasaki, Dogen and Basho or while staring at a blank sheet of paper or the blinking cursor on our computer screens. Through our work at the college, in its many specific manifestations, we gradually become part of a history of learning and study that also becomes a part of us.
How we accomplish this remarkable feat, learning to talk to each other, to listen to each other, learning to read in ways that we never thought possible before, and to develop, shape and share our thinking about these books, started me thinking about beginnings. They aren’t always pretty. Rarely graceful, often awkward, difficult, or embarrassing, they nevertheless provide some of the crucial elements necessary for real learning to take place. The intellect is stimulated, but ego must be chastened. We have to approach these books, and each other, with respect and humility. Over-confidence won’t get you nearly as far as a sense of curiosity and trepidation when faced with difficult material and excited classmates. A sense of wonder, as Aristotle says, is a part of awe and confusion, not complacent certainty or dogmatic assertion.
As the new Director, I thought I should blaze the trail of feeling awkward and embarrassed and try to model for you some of the virtues I associate with being a beginner in this talk today. I’d like to lead by example in the claim that being new to something, for all its difficulties and potential embarrassments, is not only a great way to be a learner, but is at the very heart of how we believe we should approach the study of the liberal arts here at St. John’s.
As I prepared for today’s brief talk I was thinking about a lecture I gave during my first summer at St. John’s 13 years ago. Frankly it’s a somewhat embarrassing recollection. I chose as my topic that summer nothing less that reading itself. Looking back at it I blush to think that someone with all of 9 months experience at the college would presume to give a lecture “on reading” to a community which has dedicated itself to learning how to read, as carefully and thoughtfully and reverentially and critically as possible, the greatest books ever written in Ancient Greece and Rome, Europe, China, India, the Middle East, America and Japan. But such presumption, as shocking as it is to think of it now, is a testament as much to the enthusiasm that St. John’s inspires in us as it is to the folly of being new. If you think I’m being critical of this folly you’re missing my tone. It was embarrassing for me, no doubt, but it was part of what made learning possible. Fools rush in, but at least they’re not left waiting outside the door.
I offer this anecdote as an example of one thing that being a beginner at St. John’s can mean: not being afraid to stand up and say what you’re thinking; but also, not being offended when you’re corrected in your errors or threatened when you’re introduced to new ideas and possibilities. This is true no matter how long you’ve been at it. In this way we are all perpetually beginners when it comes to learning.
Being a beginner means not being shy or silent, but also not being brash or over-confident; it means knowing that good listening is as important as, and often more difficult than, good speaking. Having the intellectual courage necessary to be a learner at St. John’s, is about being willing, indeed being capable of always being a beginner. Nothing shuts down an openness to new ideas and possibilities like the limiting confidence of thinking oneself an expert.
And in true St. John’s fashion, thinking about being a beginner led me to think about those books, essays, and poems I’ve read that have been about beginnings: the beginning of a journey, as in the Odyssey, or a new idea, as in Kant, or of relationships, as in The Tale of Genji. Each of these kinds of beginning constitutes a new way of looking at the world.
And so, returning to my theme of that first lecture 13 years ago, I’d like to use today’s talk as an opportunity to reflect on some of the ways in which being a beginner is essential to our work as readers. I will mention, briefly, 6 ways in which, as readers and learners at the college, we are all beginners.
One. In his book The ABC of Reading, in a chapter called “The Instructor”, American poet Ezra Pound writes,
There is no man who knows so much about, let us say, a passage between lines 100 to 200 of the sixth book of the Odyssey that he can’t learn something by re-rereading it WITH his students, and not merely TO his students. . . . I believe the ideal teacher would approach any masterpiece that he was presenting to his class almost as if he had never seen it before.
What I like about Pound’s comment is that it gives the lie to the distinction between “instructor” and “student” when it comes to reading a work like Homer’s Odyssey. When there is something to learn, we are all students. And students, of course, are beginners. To say that an instructor is not a beginner is to say that he or she is no longer a student, that is, no longer has anything to learn from the books we are reading together. Such a claim is surely false. This is the first (1) way in which readers are beginners.
Two. Later today the new students will sit down for their first seminar on Plato’s Meno. A short book which is the record, or the imagination, of a conversation. This conversation is between three people: Socrates, Meno, and the reader. For as we read Plato’s words, we quickly come to see that many things in the dialogue are left unsaid. Much room is left for another participant, one, for example, capable of questioning Socrates in ways Meno seems unable to do. The Meno, like all the books we read at the college, is unfinished. It is just a beginning. And it looks for its continuation, certainly not its completion, in our work as readers. As we join in the incompletion of these great written works perhaps we will experience, as readers, a sense of our own incompletion, not as a failing or a lack, but in a productive and creative way. This is the second (2) way in which, as a reader, one is always a beginner.
Three. As learners we are always essentially beginners because there is no end to our task. There is no end to reading, either of new books, which are waiting to be read for the first time, or of certain old books that can never be read enough, because they can never truly be finished.
This kind of beginning leads to something of a paradox: on the one hand there is no end to learning or to knowledge, and yet the drive for knowledge desires completion, certainty, and truth. In his Lectures on Physics, Richard Feynman describes the challenges faced by modern physics with the phrase, “there is an expanding frontier of ignorance.” This phrase has always struck me as good way of describing our attempts to obey the Delphic Oracle’s injunction to self-knowledge.
To further explore this paradox of self-knowledge and its relation to reading, let me turn for a moment to Marcel Proust, the author of that massive masterpiece of modern literature, In Search of Lost Time, who was also a passionate reader.
In a short essay called “On Reading” Proust describes the time he devotes to reading as a precious and delicate treasure which he must protect from the incursions of the outside world, the distractions of relatives and servants, social obligations and meals. The opening of the essay discusses his attempt to establish what he calls “a sanctuary for reading.” For Proust reading is a place, a room he enters into and dwells within. In his essay he extends this metaphor. I quote at some length:
I leave it to people of taste to adorn their dwellings with reproductions of the masterpieces they admire, thus sparing their memories the task of hoarding a precious image by setting it in a frame of carved and fretted wood. I leave it to people of taste to turn their rooms into mirrors reflecting that taste, filling them only with what they can approve. Personally speaking, I feel myself alive and capable of thought only in a room that has been created by, and speaks the language of, lives that are profoundly different from my own, of a taste that is the very opposite of mine, where I find nothing of my conscious, personal thought, where my imagination thrives because it has a sense of having been plunged in the not-me.
This passage strikes me as an apt description of the difference between a lazy, passive reading, interested only in finding in books a reflection or confirmation of what the reader already thinks or knows, and an active, adventurous reading interested in expanding and challenging the limits of the self, and in discovering, or participating in the creation, of what that self may become through its encounter with what Proust calls the “not-me.” Reading, for Proust, must challenge the limits of the self, rather than confirm and contribute to the ossification of those limits. He writes: “One always likes, in one’s reading, to get away, to some extent, from oneself, to do a bit of traveling.”
Proust returns to this same point, nearly 15 years later, in the concluding pages of Le Temps Retrouvé, the final volume of his magnum opus, when he writes,
True, when you are in love with some particular book, you would like yourself to write something that closely resembles it, but this love of the moment must be sacrificed, you must think not of your own taste but of a truth which far from asking you what your preferences are forbids you to pay attention to them.
For Proust, reading removes him from himself in order to return him to a self made better through its exposure to that which is other than the self. Being a beginner often means being on uncertain ground. Not knowing with certainty where one is or even who one is. It means relinquishing the comfortable and familiar and exchanging it for the new and uncertain. It means, in short, to give oneself over to the challenges of learning. This is a third way in which learning is the work of a perpetual beginner.
Four. Like Meno approaching Socrates, when we encounter the author of a great book, too often (to quote again from Proust’s essay): “we want him to give us answers when all that he can offer are desires. And these desires books can awake in us only by compelling us to contemplate the final beauty to which they provide a gate. . . .” For Proust, books are the gate we walk through at the beginning of a journey of discovery. They are not the repository of final answers.
Proust asserts, “the great, the marvelous power possessed by good books . . . lies in this, that what the author may treat as ‘conclusions’ can, for the reader, be ‘incitements.’” An incitement of course is a sort of beginning, often a violent or disruptive one. The very opposite of a conclusion. For Proust, one of the values of reading is that our work doesn’t end with the author’s conclusion; often it begins there. This is a fourth way in which the work of reading is essentially that of a beginner.
Five. At the end of his massive novel, Proust writes, “to read . . . [is] an act of creation in which no one can do our work for us . . . .” Acts of creation, of course, are also forms of beginning, as in Genesis, or the Mahabharata,or in the Gospel of John. If reading is an act of creation, and our work as readers is a creative activity, then this is a fifth (5) way in which, as readers, we are beginners.
Leaving Proust aside, let me conclude with some reflections on reading as a form of beginning from two final authors. Thoreau remarks, in a chapter from Walden entitled “Reading,”
Most men have learned to read to serve a paltry convenience, as they have learned to cipher in order to keep accounts and not be cheated in trade; but of reading as a noble intellectual exercise they know little or nothing; yet this only is reading, in a high sense, not that which lulls us as a luxury and suffers the nobler faculties to sleep the while, but what we have to stand on tip-toe to read and devote our most alert and wakeful hours to.
It is of course children who have to stand on tip-toe in order to reach things that are otherwise out of reach. The effort of a child, perhaps the most perfect model of a beginner, is an image, for Thoreau, of the loftiest kind of reader. As readers we are all children; that is, beginners possessed with wonder and curiosity.
Reading, for Thoreau, is one of the noblest pursuits man may engage in. “The adventurous student,” he writes, “will always study classics in whatever language they may be written and however ancient they may be. For what are the classics but the noblest recorded thought of man?”
“What are the classics?” This question strikes me as a good place to end today’s brief talk. Thoreau’s notion of a “classic” reminds me of a short essay by the Italian novelist Italo Calvino, whose answer to the question “Why Read the Classics?” suggests a final way in which as readers we are essentially beginners.
In response to the question “what is a classic?” Calvino offers five definitions:
- The classics are those books about which you usually hear people saying:
‘I’m rereading . . . ’, never ‘I’m reading . . .’
2. A classic is a book which with each rereading offers as much of a sense of discovery as the first reading.
3. A classic is a book which even when read for the first time gives the sense of rereading something we have read before.
4. A classic is a book which has never exhausted all it has to say to its readers.
5. A classic is the term given to any book which comes to represent the whole universe, a book on par with ancient talismans. (Italo Calvino, “Why Read the Classics?”)
Notice that 4 of these 5 “definitions” are explicitly about the kind of rereading Pound had in mind when he spoke of the ideal instructor. Calvino associates rereading with “a sense of discovery” reminiscent of Aristotle’s observation that “philosophy begins in wonder.” This sense of discovery, or wonder, is (for now) the final way in which, as learners, we are always beginners.
Finally, for those of you joining us for the Eastern Classics program this summer, let me conclude with some advice from Bhikkhu Bodhi, the Buddhist scholar and translator of many of the Buddhist Discourses we read here at the college. He observes, “Only two things are necessary to reach the final goal: to start and to continue.” Today, by signing the college register, you will make a start, a new beginning. I hope your efforts to continue will bears those marks of remaining a beginner that characterize the kind of reading, thinking, and conversation that I have begun to describe to you today.
Thank you, and welcome.
Elsewhere Proust writes: “Real life, life at last laid bare and illuminated—the only life in consequence which can be said to be really lived—is literature . . . . Through art alone are we able to emerge from ourselves, to know what another person sees of a universe which is not the same as our own and of which, without art, the landscapes would remain as unknown to us as those that may exist in the moon. Thanks to art, instead of seeing one world only, our own, we see that world multiply itself . . .”