In many ways, our civilization seems weary, lacking a youthful confidence in its principles and promises. Perhaps no institution manifests this as clearly as the university, or at least the humanities. Preoccupied with theory and identity politics, trapped in hyper-specialization, the humanities shed majors and lose the reading public while pretending to the moral seriousness of liberation, justice, and equality.
It is thus notable to find a scholarly amateur—a lover—one whose leisure cultivates humanity in themselves and their students, and for whom study leads to maturity of soul, thought, and speech. Far too many academics lose themselves in research of the sort a thinking machine could do, or, conversely, lose their better selves in advocacy and politicization. That middle place of fair and honest study, responsible to both the pure question and the messiness of the political is rare, and praiseworthy.
Pierre Hadot famously complained that the liberal arts had become the cataloguing of ideas rather than disciplines, spiritual exercises, or ways of life as understood and practiced by the ancients. While gaining in precision, purpose and meaning is lessened, as anyone familiar with the professional journals is painfully aware. Endlessly boring into the recesses of specialty, or incautiously proclaiming manifestos, the appearance of genuine thought is unusual. Jargon dominates, as does a dreary marshalling of evidence in lieu of reflection and deliberation.
The dialogue and the aphorism remain somewhat immune to these doldrums, although difficult to do well. Of these two, aphorism retains immediacy and power, in part because amenable to ambivalence, playfulness, and leisureliness. At times, aphorisms are merely witty, but they can convey and evoke sustained reflection and thought, as those of Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, or Nicolás Gómez Dávila.
To that list we can add Eva Brann, tutor at St. John’s College since 1957 and something of an icon of its great books program. In Doublethink/Doubletalk, her second collection of aphorisms, she invites her reader to participate in “a way, not a method, technique, process, protocol, or program.” On her account, doublethink is “a spontaneous readiness to do mental double-takes,” an expectation that to every position there will arise “its antithetical complement” just beyond the edges of what seemed obvious. For Brann, the habit of “second sighting” is not relativism, equivalence, or “ambiguity (indefiniteness of thought) but rather ambivalence (coexistence of thought).” She encourages us to “respectful rank ordering,” to judgment of truth and falsity, but always reminds us of “a potent alternative” and “claims of the other side.” This is not a listing of pros and cons but something much more dynamic and alive, namely, “an account of the way things are.” As thought converges on truth, as we draw near to knowing, reality reveals itself as more fecund than we had supposed; out of the corner of our eye we catch a glimpse of unexpected depths. To doublethink is always to expect more, and such expectation can become habit, a mode of living and being.
Doubletalk, on the other hand, acknowledges the gap between thought and speech. While the well-springs of our thought are beyond mastering, the “transmutation of thinking into talking … is, in fact, more nearly our doing, one of our humanly defining efforts: concentration.” We form our speech, putting thought into word, and yet that “pre-verbal meaning” eludes us, remains just out of grasp. Ready to assert our claim, doubletalk displays “the ‘adversative’ conjunction but, signal of a mental recoil.…” “It’s thus-and-so,” we say, followed immediately with “But consider also.…”
In lesser souls, doublethink/doubletalk would be no more than tiresome reconsiderations, listing judgments and their reversals, but Brann conveys an entire “way of life and a mode of mind.” For her, this is no “fence-sitting (since doublethink plants you firmly on both sides), and no prevarication (since doubletalk continually pulls you up short).” In other words, Brann thinks, and engaging her thought is an education into a reflective human life.
Her aphorisms are not as startling as those of Nietzsche or Gómez Dávila, to be sure. Some are forgettable, others a bit forced, none so remarkable as in the masters. But in the few hours spent with her, one finds a wise, slightly acerbic, good-humored teacher—one wishes for her friendship, for more time with her.
Rather than scientism or politicization, here is a kind of judicious attentiveness. She might be thought skeptical if taken to mean a questioning anticipation rather than a doubting antagonism. For instance, she distinguishes “Bad-faith agnosticism: ‘leave it alone’” from “genuine unknowing: ‘leave an opening,’” and suggests reverence as “the decent agnostic’s placeholder for faith, the brinksmanship of belief.…”
In a similar way she conveys a hard-won reticence about bureaucracy and expertise: “If you know and have confidence in your principles, in their bearing on life, you’ll eschew ‘a foolish consistency’ in favor of judgment, officialdom in favor of authority.” On decision making she writes, “impelled by impromptu impulse—50 percent disastrous; compelled by cautious calculation—50 percent successful.”
As opposed to the pretentions of rationalism and the vanity of expertise, doublethink creates a resistance to the need to conclude and be done with it all. Unsurprisingly, such modesty swivels its attention to the concrete, the particular, the person or thing or text right in front of us and away from the abstract and the utopian. This isn’t cynical or pessimistic but “is more alert naiveté than strained sophistication.” Logic has its place, but is kept in that place: “Couch propositions in semi-symbolic speech. Presto, something precise follows, which, however, when turned back into natural language, is either irritatingly obvious to good sense of off-puttingly inadequate to real life.” Instead, Brann suggests, “train yourself to deep and uncertain conviction.” Thinking should be “full of curlicues, so that thinking will be adequate and life rich.” Paradox may follow, but this “is not ambiguity” for “uncertainty is the respect a soul pays to its finitude.” Paradox is not mushy, however, for it is false that “Fixed opinions prevent an open mind … It’s indeterminacy that obstructs receptivity—for then all distinct figures diffuse and vanish into a fog.”
Naïve, but alert, thoughtful, but not governed by technique or program, Brann presents a way of life that is hopeful but non-utopian. For her, expertise waffles between equal parts failure and success, but she gives no ground no emotivism or thoughtless preening: “Don’t trust the do-gooding of selfless people, the ones that ‘get involved’ because they have no business of their own to mind. I think that sound doing issues from a solidly centered self who acts under the guidance not of intrusive empathy but of considerate analogy.” Or, again, speaking of self-congratulatory outrage, “How did the vice of temper come to stand in for the virtue of concern?”
Attentiveness in its modest uncertainty fosters an appreciation for place and people. While some academics nurture grievances against the West, Brann finds instead that the “great comedians”—she mentions Aristophanes—“are great lovers of their land and its language” because “they see the world as blessedly resistant to managerial reason, and individuals as intractably recalcitrant to being … shifted out of their own type.” Such lovers “tend to grateful reverence for the way things are,” but “since they think that the world is not rational, they know it’s sometimes tragic … and so they like to laugh.…”
Her own laughing love is evident in her admiration for the democratic American ethos, but a barbed laugh at what she judges to be British pretension: “What is it with these highbred Brits with lovely heads of hair and bad teeth, that they allow their intellects to go to seed?” Americans are so familiar, but this “impersonal friendliness” is the “non-rebarbative protections of privacy.” Some Brits “despise American-style civility,” but Brann prefers “American gregariousness as the proper façade for dignified reserve” much more than “an intended slight to my being—such as I’ve heard issued in English common-rooms.”
Doublethink/doubletalk tends to conserve. As non-utopian and willing to laugh at life’s incongruities while rolling eyes at pretense and programs, it resists “goal-less change” and does not “preach freedom to students,” since they’ll “take it as an incitement to rebellion.” Instead, a fixed attention to thinking and thinking again knows that “freedom is first exhilarating, then tedious, finally malaise-making.” But if freedom is thought as “for something” then it becomes “the prelude to fixated effort and so, the condition of work.”
Somewhat against the expectations of our cultured mandarins, their vicious and destructive critique and outrage ends in malaise, in exhaustion. Whereas Eva Brann, approaching ninety and having taught at the same college for sixty years is “tired (that’s unavoidable) but not weary (of it all),” for she continues to hold that “really sensible people are often child-like.”
Not every aphorism in this collection is a gem, but we would all be better off if our colleges and universities produced more doublethinkers and doubletalkers like Eva Brann. Reading this good book may go some way to making more sensible and child-like people who are not at all weary.
R. J. Snell directs the Witherspoon Institute’s Center on the University and Intellectual Life in Princeton, NJ.
Posted: April 2, 2017
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