Modes of Mind

March 14, 2011

A tension I am gripped by more and more often nowadays is the contrast between the political and the literary mind. Is it possible to find a reasonable balance between these two modes of valuation? I know that for myself when I am encased in one I regret downplaying the other and tend to think the other is more serious, more valuable.

I also find myself frequently recalling John Adams's sentiment that an older generation has to practice politics so that the younger generation can practice art. But how is one to know if he is part of a younger or an older generation?

Literary people have often struck me as being irresponsibly unrealistic, whereas political people have seemed flat and brutal. So if one wishes to be neither unrealistic, nor flat, nor brutal, what is one to do? Maybe there's no avoiding one of them. Still, the thought of managing to escape all these traps is attractive. In the attempt one might find himself being pushed toward the scholarly track but it's so stained with timidity and cowardice it's hard to view it as a genuine competitor with the other two.

Philosophy might be an alternative, as long as it's philosophy of a literary sort. But if it is, it may then be no more than a manifestation of the literary mind.

I have spent my life telling myself that one doesn't have to take up exclusively any standard sort of mind. I don't know why that appeals to me still, but it does. Virginia Woolf spoke of eccentrics as being more interesting than the solid and serviceable. Doubtless they are, but is being interesting the main thing?

The vital question is: who gets to define the main thing?  It's also the biggest mystery. Why people give importance to some things over others is probably beyond explanation, buried so deep in each individual psyche the most avid Freudian couldn't dig it out. It seems widely agreed that the most common goals -- riches, fame, power -- are cheap and vulgar. The agreement, though, has little effect on their appeal and I suppose you could say that's because most people are identical in character to their aspirations

The goals that stand up better -- love, ingenuity, creativity, sexual passion (which is somewhat like love but not exactly) -- are nonetheless problematic both because they are hard to define and sometimes fleeting. The man who truly lusts after money is likely to keep after it all his life whereas the glory of creativity can vanish in the night like the ghosts of dreams. I'm not talking down any of these. They doubtless are superior, by historical standards, at least, to wanting to make a flashy exhibition of self. But they don't, by themselves, define a social mind.

When you consider the political mind, which I distinguish from political ambition, there are -- or at least ought to be -- two overweening goals. Both are important but one is more important than the other. First is the construction of a system where brutish, stupid men, tricked out in the powers of the state, don't come stomping onto your front porch. Second is setting a mental atmosphere where the whole is determined that none of the parts will lack the basic needs of life -- food, shelter, medical care. There's little doubt that if we had a political class which pursued those goals sincerely and intelligently human existence would be enhanced, and the political mind could, therefore, be viewed as a noble thing. It might lack imagination; it might not help much with boredom. But it would make us less pathetic than we are.

When we turn to the literary mind, the main purpose is to allow us to be healthy companions, both for ourselves and others. It's a goal which requires us to be attentive to language, to ask continually what it is, to examine how it delights and deepens us, to keep it in good enough repair so that the common practices of life don't become deadening.

I read a letter recently which was written by Mary Hutchinson in 1919 to Lytton Strachey, describing a visit to Hogarth House, in Richmond, the home of Leonard and Virginia Woolf. Hutchinson wrote of her hostess, “I thought V's great charm was that she spoke sentences that one usually only finds written. Perfect literary sentences spoken without hesitation or stumbling.” She then went on to say that being there was “strangely like being in a novel.”

I think it would be a good thing to have an experience like that every day. And, yet, most of us go on and on and on without having a single one.

In any case, though I can't yet find the right balance between the political and literary mind, I can't find a way to dismiss either of them in favor of the other. It seems to me that if you try to get by without both, you end up whirring yourself into a disaster of one sort or another, whether it's violent or stupefying. There is nothing we can call a social mind without attention to each of these two. So though it's frustrating to be pulled back and forth, I can't think of another option.

©John R. Turner

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