Rote Models?

“How Proust Can Change Your Life.” by de Botton
I know I should say “role models” but somehow that didn’t capture the question for me.

I have just finished reading a very elegant essay by Mr. Stanley Fish in The New York Times. The subject, if I have read it correctly, is the place of the humanities in today’s world.

Mr. Fish writes:

At one time justification of the arts and humanities was unnecessary because, as Anthony Kronman puts it in a new book, “Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life,” it was assumed that “a college was above all a place for the training of character, for the nurturing of those intellectual and moral habits that together from the basis for living the best life one can.” It followed that the realization of this goal required an immersion in the great texts of literature, philosophy and history even to the extent of memorizing them, for “to acquire a text by memory is to fix in one’s mind the image and example of the author and his subject.”

Now, of course, my interest was piqued. “…form the basis for living the best life we can…” The author whose work he discusses proposes an emphasis on a new humanism (“Secular Humanism.” A secular solution to a crisis of spirit… hmmmm) as a way to “address the crisis of spirit” that dogs 21st Century man.

I don’t agree with Mr. Fish’s final call. I believe that there is more to studying the greats (in all fields) than just dismissing the humanities (or anything) as an end unto itself. The ideas of learning for learning’s sake and the building of character have sort of fallen by the wayside. And I think that’s the problem.

Now, full disclosure, I’m no genius. While I’m certainly not as learned as Mr. Fish, I do understand his point.

I just have a different question. Rather than ask “do the humanities enoble?” I would ask “can the humanities (or any course of study in my opinion) enoble?”

Yup.

But you have to be open to the possibility. You must want to be enobled. The humanities holds a mirror up to the human race. If you like what you see, fine. Book your interviews with the biggest and best companies who need real flesh-eating go-getters and get that bonus.

Each time I look into the mirror, I find something that can be improved upon. “A sound mind in a sound body.” Gotta get that work out in after I read Mr. Fish’s article or possibly a piece from the New Yorker.

“To thine own self be true.” Out with that motorcycle jacket and on with the tweed. Thank you very much.

“Honor thy neighbor as thyself.” Sure, we’ll host a dinner for the Neighborhood Association Progressive Party.

We’ve been studying the Renaissance in art history. Humanism is a big part of the quattrocento. And who were all those Renaissance men and women seeking to emulate by careful study? The men of classical antiquity, right? They may have believed in the Platonic Ideal, even as they conspired against one another for political gain. But at least they gave lip service to holding themselves to higher standards. And we got some great art out of the effort.

Now, I take inspiration from many sources. Including Mr. Fish. Who made me reflect a little on how I hope to attain the easy and elegant life. Not by slavish imitation (I will never be Cary Grant, F Scott Fitzgerald or Alain de Botton) — or rote learning — but by careful study, extrapolation and synthesis of that which I find most elegant. In fact, it was an interest that I began to explore in college when I was exposed to the writers of The Lost Generation. Who eventually led me to the biography of Sara and Gerald Murphy by Amanda Vaill, “Everybody Was So Young.” Which got me thinking, who can live this way? Which is why I wound up here, hoping to learn a little and pass along what I learn to those seeking to live the best life (s)he can. And, if I can finish my book and make a few sales, I will have contributed to the economy while making a small impact on this little world of people who want to know…. who might pass along a few rules to a new generation and keep us all a little more civilized.

Yes, I majored in Liberal Arts. And this is sort of a calling.

And it never hurts to be able to quote a little Shakespeare, Proust or Twain.

Thus endeth the not so well-reasoned screed. Off for a run.

And now back to our regularly scheduled programme.

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12 Responses to Rote Models?

  1. I’m smitten – though not a stalker as today’s comments might imply. I’ll be stopping in every day now and you can count on me to buy the book. You are right about the classics of course and about the fact that living well takes a little thought and care. And money is not the answer. Although, it would make it easier. I have been collecting information on the Murphy’s for a post this summer. Such interesting lives.

  2. Mrs. Blandings! Banish the thought… you are far too civilized to stalk. And I’m glad you’re here.

    The equally obsessed Mrs. E. and I will journey to Yale in the coming months to see the exhibit on the Murphy’s with a stopover at The Met in New York to hear Rosamond Bernier talk. I’d like to train up, but a 45 minute hop seems more in order for a two day jaunt. My first post “Living Well Is the Best Revenge” was inspired by the Murphy’s.

    I’ll look forward to your essay. Let me know if I can help.

  3. From the New York Times:
    “On those Acoustiguides he can wax on a bit about beauty and mystery and joy and wonder. But he’s right. Museums dispense aesthetic pleasure, which doesn’t necessarily make people better citizens but at least gives people access to a larger civilization. Mr. de Montebello never seemed more joyful than he was a few years ago when he showed off a Madonna and Child tempera-and-gold wood panel by Duccio, the Siennese early Renaissance painter, a pint-size gem for which the museum paid a very large amount of money, more than $45 million. This serious picture, unveiled with a flourish, encapsulated his legacy.”

    http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/09/arts/design/09kimm.html?pagewanted=2&th&emc=th

  4. fairfax says:

    Somewhere, somewhere around here is a book about the Murphys that I got at the Book Thing this summer. I have been having eye issues (can’t get the right rx) and so haven’t been reading a lot, but it’s in a pile around here and I do want to read it. Great essay!!!

  5. Thank you.

    Is the book “Living Well is the Best Revenge” by Thompkins? Or “Everybody Was So Young” by Vaill? Read it at once, and at one sitting and be completely engrossed and enthralled. It’s what we’re all going for. Spoiler alert: there is a tragic element to their lives that is heartbreaking.

  6. E&E… I am in the middle of reading about Wm. Randolph Hearst right now. A totally different sensibility that the Murphys. Hearst owned the castsle where i worked in Wales, but this book is mainly about San Simeon, with a few mentions of St. Donat’s. I will hunt up the Murphy book and put it on top of the “to be read” stack, which is growing by leaps and bounds.
    http://pigtown-design.blogspot.com/2007/03/st-donats-castle.html

  7. HOBAC says:

    As always, fantastic. I am sure when you finish your book it will have more than a small impact. Often those who influence, or touch, our lives the most are blithely unaware.

  8. I may use that for a title of something one day. “Blithely Unaware.” Very Cowardian of you! And thanks for the compliment. You should read Mrs. E.’s novel — I wish I could write like that.

  9. Laguna Beach Trad says:

    I’m wondering if anyone here has seen Making It New: The Art and Style of Sara and Gerald Murphy, and if it is worth a look.

  10. Paul Pincus says:

    Alain de Botton is brilliant. The Architecture of Happiness by de Botton is also worth picking up.

    Alain de Botton on his Most philosophical household object: “Ludwig Wittgenstein designed a house in Vienna for his sister, right down to the door handles. These door handles have been reproduced, and I had them installed all over my house. I gain great satisfaction from them. I like the idea that a philosopher can design a door handle and it can be such a nice door handle.”

    Cheers!

  11. pvedesign says:

    “To be or not to be” is really all that matters.
    Write in the spirit of “to be” and thou shall find greatness in being.
    Elegance is found in thine own self, tweed et all.
    Brilliant post.

  12. Hello Mr. Pincus,
    And thank you for the recommendation. I always feel a bit smarter having red something (even an interview) by Mon. de Botton. I gave “Architecture” as a gift to my friend the Architect. I should have cracked the spine myself, first!

    Mrs. PVE,
    Perhaps I shall make that my motto — or tagline on my card. “To Be.” I’ll have to ask Mrs. E. for the Latin as she is the scholar.

    Thank you for your kind words. I am not my own best editor, so they are appreciated.

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