Monday, February 20, 2012

Monastic Order

"I have not lingered in European monasteries."
Leonard Cohen


I often worry whether universities are sufficiently "orderly" to fulfill their social mission. Students are said to be "adrift", their teachers are as busy as stockbrokers. Many scholars rush around chaotically, between meetings and conferences, finding time to write only if they practice what their colleagues are likely to call an "extreme" discipline (namely, writing for something as simple as an hour every day). Stress has come to replace (the at least more serene condition of) melancholia as the characteristic pathology of the researcher. I'm no longer certain whether universities are good places to conserve and transmit what we have learned as a species. I don't know whether they are, to use Steve Fuller's phrase, "safe for intellectual life".

Here at RSL, I sometimes express what Wallace Stevens called the "blessed rage for order" (or at least what I use his words to call it). I don't think we'll understand what, say, Heidegger was trying to teach us about, say, human organization, if we don't have a certain measure of serenity. I don't think we'll be able to push back against the excesses of scientific confidence if we don't practice a degree of rigor. ("You know the way to stop me," sings Cohen, "but you don't have the discipline.") I often hear people express perfectly sound, or perfectly brilliant, "ideas" but then doubt whether they will find the time to form them effectively in prose so that these ideas can have the impact they deserve in the literature. That's why I talk so much about discipline and training. And too little, perhaps, about what makes a good sentence or a good paragraph.

But I worry that my ideas about order are likely to be misunderstood in a fundamental way. Given the pressures, its easy to think of order as a means to particular ends. Students should keep their lives orderly, we might think, so that they can get good grades. Scholars should organize their work so that they can reach their career goals, i.e., so that they can publish, not perish. I talk a great deal about time management and about managing the space of the page. Even the name of my system, Writing Process Reengineering, evokes images of productivity and efficiency, which is to say, the image of a process that is designed, as a means, to reach a particular set of ends. But I don't think that's really why we should strive for order.

Order, I think, should be an end in itself. Its "goal" should be something wholly abstract and transcendent, like cultivating a "love of God", if you are inclined towards such things. The orderly lives of monks are not intended to make them more efficient or productive (though they no doubt get their chores done). If they read, write, pray and exercise every day it is because order as such is valuable to them. Their submission to God is simply realized in their submission to the disciplined life of a monastery. It is this order itself that they seek.

Leonard Cohen closes the poem whose opening line I've used as my epigraph as follows:

I have not been unhappy for ten thousands years.
During the day I laugh and during the night I sleep.
My favourite cooks prepare my meals,
my body cleans and repairs itself,
and all my work goes well.

Let me begin the week by wishing you such simple order in your intellectual pursuits. And happiness.

1 comment:

Z said...

When I lived an orderly life, I was calm and clear-eyed, and my dissertation director told me it meant I wasn't working hard enough and would never get a job - finishing a chapter every month was not as important as looking and acting stressed.

Bad dissertation director, I know, but she's famous for being good and lots of people like her. I cite this as an example of what academic values seem to be.

It is all very well to have order and serenity, and even necessary; I am for it. However, in my experience it is not all self generated. If you have chaotic and abusive work circumstances, crisis ridden for the express purposes of placing obstacles in your path and that of your unit, then life becomes difficult.

I say all of this because my rant in life is about how all academic advice seems to think everything is internal: if you managed yourself right, then everything would be fine.

It's very Christian of them but these ideas are predicated on the idea that the monks lived in monasteries, outside of the world; we do not. I say, don't self-flagellate, organize!