"I would we were all of one mind, and one mind good." --Cymbeline, V.iv.209-210. An English teacher's log. Slow down: Check it once in a while.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Art: Oooh, Uh-huh, or Aha!


Oooh is compelling, may be extreme and intense, thrilling or shocking, but it doesn’t stay with you. It gets old fast and then a newer and more intense oooh is demanded. So oooh is addictive, temporarily distracts but cannot satisfy. Oooh is the product of the romantic worship of the merely emotional—of the natural, of the individual, of impulse, of feeling dissociated from rational thought and tradition, of spontaneity, of originality, of extremes. Devotion to oooh makes a Jackson Pollack the most expensive painting ever sold. A naked Hamlet is all oooh. Its name is sensationalism.


Uh-huh is safe, reassuring, and obvious, even when it is demanding and difficult. It is certain, firm, widely shared. But uh-huh becomes personally irrelevant. It is devoted to the already accepted and does not reach paradox and mystery, where the self actually lives. The uh-huh made T.S. Eliot think Dryden a greater poet than Shelley because Dryden’s beliefs were truer. Uh-huh conveys dogma. It may be the product of the Enlightenment, of worship of the rational, the scientific, the tested, the obvious. Or it may be the product of a religious tradition or of the political right, or the political left, or of any shared hobby horse. It may be truth or it may be propaganda, but it soothes without moving.

Our age (perhaps every age) labors under both these erroneous goals of art—often in the same work. Individualism and impulse have become dogma. People exalted the impulsive gestures of a Jackson Pollack till abstract expression became an ism. The formerly oooh becomes uh-huh.

Aristotle said that virtue is a golden mean that lies between the two extremes of excess and deficiency. The oooh is excess worship of impulse and nature and emotional abandon; the uh-huh is excess worship of familiarity and safety and mental control. At the same time, the oooh is deficiency of universal rational significance and the uh-huh is deficiency of personal emotional relevance.


Aha! is a golden mean, though it cannot be achieved by mere balance of reason and impulse, as if it were itself a quantity. It is original, but not because the artist has pursued originality, for the pursuit of originality decays into mere differentness. It is true, but not because the artist has packaged received truth, for the packaging of received truth decays into mere platitude.

Aha! is achieved in a visionary incarnation of the universally true in the authentic here-and-now particular. It appears in the space between—between the artist and the made object, between the object and the audience, between meaning and form. It effects (in Martin Buber’s terms) an I/Thou moment. It rings true, and not only our emotion or our mind tells us so but our whole self—body, heart, mind, and spirit—as one.

Why should we settle for less?

And now, here, look: My title is oooh. My paragraphs are uh-huh. Where is Aha!?

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Quotation from East of Eden

A child may ask, “What is the world’s story about?” And a grown man or woman may wonder, “what way will the world go? How does it end and, while we’re at it, what’s the story about?”

I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one, that has frightened and inspired us, so that we live in a Pearl White serial of continuing thought and wonder. Humans are caught—in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too—in a net of good and evil. I think this is the only story we have and that it occurs on all levels of feeling and intelligence. Virtue and vice were warp and woof of our first consciousness, and they will be the fabric of our last, and this despite any changes we may impose on field and river and mountain, on economy and manners. There is no other story. A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well—or ill? . . .

In uncertainty I am certain that underneath their topmost layers of frailty men want to be good and want to be loved. Indeed, most of their vices are attempted short cuts to love. When a man comes to die, no matter what his talents and influence and genius, if he dies unloved his life must be a failure to him and his dying a cold horror. It seems to me that if you or I must choose between two courses of thought or action, we should remember our dying and try so to live that our death brings no pleasure to the world.

We have only one story. All novels, all poetry, are built on the never-ending contest in ourselves of good and evil. And it occurs to me that evil must constantly respawn, while good, while virtue, is immortal. Vice has always a new fresh young face, while virtue is venerable as nothing else in the world is.

—John Steinbeck, East of Eden (New York: Penguin Books, 2002 Centennial Edition), pp. 412–413.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

College Students and High School Seniors read this link

Read this essay from City Journal: "Free Inquiry? Not on Campus: And the college speech police threaten the liberty of us all" by John Leo.