The Enchantment of Learning
When were you last enchanted by scholarship?
Patrick Curry offers this short essay on a subject dear to the heart of our Rounded Globe project, a draft of part of a forthcoming longer paper on the same theme.
The wonder of learning, the delight of discovering what (it turns out) you wanted to know, the joy of a new world to inhabit, seen through other than your own habitual eyes – these things are so undervalued in our current educational institutions that we need to take a moment to remind ourselves of what we are talking about. Here are three examples.
Niccolò Machiavelli has been exiled from Florence to his family farm, and in a letter of 10th December 1513 writes to his friend Francesco Vettori:
On the coming of evening, I return to my house and enter my study, and at the door I take off the day’s clothing, covered with mud and dust, and put on garments regal and courtly; and reclothed appropriately, I enter the ancient courts of men of antiquity where, affectionately received, I partake of that food which only is mine and for which I was born, where I am not too timid to speak with them and ask them the reasons for their actions; and they in their courtesy answer me; and for four hours of time I feel no weariness, I forget every trouble, I do not fear poverty, death does not dismay me; I give myself over entirely to them. (Quoted in White: 183-84)
This passage is usually assumed by modern scholars to be a mere humanist trope, a literary flourish. It is both more respectful and more economical, however, to assume that Machiavelli meant exactly what he said, and that what he describes is just what happened. Or are we too jaded to believe it?
In another example, in 1934, after a time of sleeping rough in his long walk across Europe, the great travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor found himself a guest of the British Consul in Sofia. He luxuriated in the hot baths, clean linen and fine food, but ‘Best of all,’ he said, ‘the Encyclopaedia Britannica; I leapt at it like a panther’ (Fermor: 8).
More recently still, another writer, Eva Hoffman, recalls emerging from her fortnightly trip to the local library in her Warsaw neighbourhood, the interior of which was ‘a space of mystery and magic, on whose threshold I stand a humble acolyte’: ‘I come out, usually into the dim evening streets, enchanted with what awaits me, and as soon as I come home, I pounce on one of the volumes’ (Hoffman: 26). (Note the pantherine resonance with Leigh Fermor; the soul is hungry for living knowledge, and only that can satisfy it.)
This sort of relationship with learning – enchanted, and passionately so – is the true benchmark for understanding, appreciating and encouraging its wonder. Let me try to tease out some of the dynamics at work. One is the seriousness of play: improvised but not random, intentional but not goal-directed, and relational, involving other beings, of whatever kind, whether physically present or imaginally. When it takes place free from any attempt to direct or manipulate or use it, play is fundamental to the way we learn how to be ourselves as well as how others tick, how to create and innovate and, perhaps most importantly, how to learn at all. The enchantment resulting from play leads you deeper into whatever you’re doing, which in turn generates a deeper enchantment.
Another aspect of the enchantment of learning is the intrinsic value of what is being learned. As John Henry Newman insisted long ago in The Idea of a University, ‘any kind of knowledge, if it be really such, is its own reward’. It is valuable not for its instrumental or exchange-value, in order to attain some other goal, no matter what, but, he wrote, ‘for what its very presence does for us’ (Newman 1982 : 77, 78). And the experience of that presence is one of wonder.
In an essay of the same title, Simon Leys has restated Newman’s thesis, writing that ‘a university is a place where scholars seek truth, pursue and transmit knowledge for knowledge’s sake – irrespective of the consequences, implications and utility of the endeavour.’ However anachronistic or impractical it may appear, it is necessary, now more than ever, to insist on this humanist ideal, even if only so we can realise how far we have fallen. As Leys says, ‘When a university yields to the utilitarian temptation, it betrays its vocation and sells its soul’, without which it cannot fulfil its very raison d’être (Leyes: 463, 464).
Another dynamic is metaphor. Metaphor is the life-blood of learning, and of the humanities in particular, because there can be no empathic, imaginative or narrative understanding without understanding-as: without the tensive truth of being, at one and the same time, who you are as the reader, listener, viewer or whatever, and simultaneously (in defiance of Aristotle’s logical laws) as the other person, or indeed thing, you are hearing, watching or reading, or about whom you are reading.
Science has different goals: explanation, prediction, mastery (see the work of Mary Midgley, Paul Feyerabend and many others, including my own ‘Defending the Humanities in a Time of Ecocide’). Accordingly, it may start in wonder but can only progress, in its own terms, by trying to ‘resolve’ or otherwise eliminate explicit metaphor, ambiguity and paradox. To quote the Nobel Prize-winning scientist Sir Peter Medawar (in a passage I find quite chilling):
As science advances, particular facts are comprehended within, and therefore in a sense annihilated by, general statements of steadily increasing explanatory power and compass… In all science we are being progressively relieved of the burden of singular instances, the tyranny of the particular. (Quoted in Feyerabend: 250, 251; my emphases)
What is valued in this case is increasingly generic abstraction, whose ultimate model is mathematics. Contrast this worldview with that of Freya Stark, the great travel writer and essayist, who affirms that ‘truth is never average. Since there is not one single thing in the world exactly like another, the very essence of truth is that it leaps across averages to the particular…’ (Stark 2013 : 81; her emphasis). Certainly this kind of truth is essential to enchantment, whose ‘magic’ is always to be found in and as the ‘concrete’. Indeed, I see it as essential to life itself.
This is where metaphor comes in. As its theorist Paul Ricoeur (2003) put it, metaphor discovers as it creates, and makes as it finds. And it does so together with an other, whoever that may be. This is not truth as accurate representation, nor as deductive syllogism, but as relationship and its effects. Hence Weber’s definition of truth, respecting its wildness and autonomy: ‘only that which wants to be true for all those who want the truth’ (quoted in Schaff: 118; original emphases). The contrast with the starveling captive of modern power-knowledge could hardly be clearer.
This mode is not about knowing and manipulating an item. It is participatory, both affecting the other party or parties and being affected by them, and the actual individuals involved are of paramount importance. It is above all from and in relationship with a particular (‘concrete’) teacher that one learns, and one does so in a way that includes but transcends any methods or propositional content. This relationality extends to communities of teaching and learning – some of whose members (as in the experience of Machiavelli) may not be present in the narrowly physical sense – and their various traditions. And it leaves thinking as only a process that does not already know, although it may sense, its conclusion in advance.
I was lucky enough to have this kind of experience in Gregory Bateson’s classes at the University of California (Santa Cruz) in the mid-70s. It comprised learning new things about both the world and myself, and with each one, a significantly new world and self came into being. But not only that; the excitement was both subtler and more sweeping. To borrow Bateson’s own terms, I was learning how to learn. And that only happened in his presence, in a way that cannot be reduced to concepts alone. Yet I was also aware of the presence, not literally but unmistakably nonetheless, of those from whom he had learned, and learned how to think: Blake, Lamark, his father the scientist William Bateson and, not least, the author of The Book of Job.
Patrick Leigh Fermor, The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos. Edited by Colin Thubron and Artemis Cooper. London: John Murray, 2013.
Paul Feyerabend, Conquest of Abundance: A Tale of Abstraction versus the Richness of Being. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.
Eva Hoffman, Lost in Translation. London: Vintage Books, 1998.
Simon Leys, ‘The Idea of a University’. In The Hall of Uselessness: Collected Essays. New York: NYRB, 2013. pp. 461-64.
John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982 .
Paul Ricoeur, The Rule of Metaphor. Translated by Robert Czerny. London: Routledge, 2003.
Lawrence A. Schaff, Fleeing the Iron Cage: Culture, Politics, and Modernity in the Thought of Max Weber. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.
Freya Stark, Perseus in the Wind: A Life of Travel. Tauris Parke, 2013 .
Michael White, Machiavelli: A Man Misunderstood. London: Abacus, 2004.
Header Image credit
Jonathan Moreau, Library Parking Garage. Creative commons license.