Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Mens sana...

I'm trying to unpack Juvenal's slogan "mens sana in corpore sano". "A healthy mind in a healthy body," some translate it. Apparently, however, it really means "a sound mind in a healthy [or sound] body." That suits me fine because it allows me to avoid talk of "mental health". But what is a "sound mind"?

If good health (a sound body) is about being "in shape" to carry out the work that gives you pleasure, I want to argue, then a sound mind is likewise one that let's you experience pleasure in your work. We don't have to distinguish between physical and intellectual labour in this regard. Any craftsman needs to be of both sound mind and sound body in order to enjoy the work he or she does. There is an aesthetic dimension to the careful manipulation of materials, their composition into a particular arrangement, to a particular end.

"Beauty is aptness to purpose," Ezra Pound reminds us. To produce an object, whether a piece of music, a painting, a table, or a text that is beautiful is a pleasurable experience. Or, at least, it ought to be. Even the most romantically suffering artist, I like to think, suspends that suffering in the actual creative moment. I.e., when the work is going well, when the artist feels that the object is becoming increasingly apt to its purpose. This is a pleasurable experience.

Writers, especially academic writers, sometimes lack this soundness of mind. Their texts are written in painful confusion rather than pleasurable illumination. They loathe the work of writing because it gives them pain. They struggle, sometimes, with the language (even, sometimes, when it is their first language), and sometimes with the ideas they are trying to express. They are like untrained bodies climbing a flight of stairs. They quickly run out of breath.

How do you keep your mind sound? A healthy and varied diet: read different kinds of text, and read in moderation. And chew your food: read carefully, with comprehension. Exercise: write every day, in moderation. (Don't wear yourself out.) And write in a calm and orderly way: one paragraph at a time, 30 minutes at a time.

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