Friday, November 11, 2016

The Habits of the Craft

(Five years ago, I wrote a post warning against hating your work and followed it up with some thoughts on how to love it. More recently, I wrote one about the importance and the pleasure of order. With the passing of Leonard Cohen, who has shaped both my love of order and the order of my love, I feel like re-posting parts of those posts here, in memoriam. An elegy of sorts.)


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

Ezra Pound was fond of quoting Spinoza's suggestion that "the intellectual love of a thing consists in understanding its perfections ... all creatures whatsoever desire this love" (SR, p. 91, see also GK, p. 73). As scholars, too, we must strive to understand the perfections of things, which is to say, we must have some love for the subject we are studying.

"If love be not in the house," says Pound in his Cantos, "there is nothing" (116/810). One of the most beautiful passages in that difficult work is about the importance of love in the development of craft:

What thou lovest well remains,/ the rest is dross**
What thou lov'st well shall not be reft from thee
What thou lov'st well is thy true heritage
Whose world, or mine or theirs/ or is it of none?
First came the seen, then thus the palpable
Elysium, though it were in the halls of hell
What thou lovest well is thy true heritage
What thou lov'st well shall not be reft from thee (81/534-5)

Four decades earlier, Pound had glossed a remark of Horace's as follows:

The accurate artist seems to leave not only his greater self [to posterity], but beside it, upon the films of his art, some living print of the circumvolving man, his taste, his temper and his foible—of the things about which he felt it never worth his while to bother other people by speaking, the things he forgot for some major interest; of these, and of another class of things, things that his audience would have taken for granted; or, thirdly, of things about which he had, for some reason or other, a reticence. We find these not so much in the words—which anyone may read—but in the subtle joints of the craft, in the crannies percerptible only to the craftsman. (SR, p. 88)

What the craftsman lovest well remains, we might say. There is a wonderful poem about this by Leonard Cohen, which takes its title, "The Rest is Dross", from the passage from Canto 81 I quoted above. It is about the meeting of two old lovers after (as I read it) many years and many loves have passed:

surprised that we've survived as lovers
not each other's
but lovers still
with outrageous hope and habits in the craft
which embarrass us slightly
as we let them be known
the special caress the perfect inflammatory word
the starvation we do not tell about

The influence of Pound's reading of the troubadours is obvious not just in the title, but in the emphasis on the retention of an accuracy in the "habits" of "craft". Cohen seeks a precision of address and, if you will, of caress, of word and of deed. (Do we not feel the resonance of Pound's "subtle joints of the craft ... the crannies percerptible only to the craftsman" in Cohen's "hinge of her thigh"?) This precision stems from a love of the object, an understanding of its perfections. "God I am happy," says Cohen, "we've forgotten nothing."

It's this happiness that we feel when we return to a project that we love. The materials are there, and we understand their "subtle joints". Our "outrageous hope" is supported by a mastery; the lovers "own [their] own skins". We have, as Pound puts it, "gathered from the air a live tradition".

In the pursuit of this intellectual love of things, there is no room for vanity. We cannot let the fact that our love for the subject is revealled in our facility with the relevant materials embarrass us more than slightly. As Cyril Connolly reminds us, vanity is that which prevents us from learning from our mistakes; it is the refusal to do something badly. "But to have done instead of not doing," Pound writes, "this is not vanity.// ... Here error is all in the not done,/ all in the diffidence that faltered" (81/536).

Interestingly, this diffidence of love appears in a poem by Cohen's friend and mentor, Irving Layton, which gives us a somewhat scrappier image of love. "Love is so diffident a thing," he complains, and enumerates some of the places he has failed to find it. "I am confused, forsaken," he laments. "I have lost the way." He now rejects some commonly suggested remedies (a woman's eyes and kisses). Then he gets down to it:

Love, I call out, find me
Spinning around in error.
Display your dank, coarse hair,
Your bubs and bulbous shoulder.
Then strike, witless bitch, blind me.

Layton has his way of putting things. Perhaps, however, he is talking about the same thing as Pound, who says that "there is, in what I have called 'the natural course events', the exalted moment, the vision unsought, or at least the vision gained without machination" (SR, p. 97).

The troubadours did not simply wait for their visions. Their appreciation of the perfections of things (and fair maidens, of course) was grounded in a hard won discipline, supported by a tradition, their "true heritage". Pound talked of a medieval "cult for the purgation of the soul by a refinement of, and lordship over, the senses" (SR, p. 90). On specific subjects (our chosen specialization), we can cultivate this refinement too. And, as Pound reminds us, "Here error is all in the not done". We have to work at it.

I often worry whether universities are sufficiently "orderly" to support this work. 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".

I am subject to fits of what Wallace Stevens called the "blessed rage for order". I don't think we'll understand what, say, Heidegger was trying to teach us about, say, human existence, 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.

So long, Leonard Cohen; it is time I began...

*Martinus Rørbye, Scene Near Sorrento Overlooking the Sea, 1835. (Source: Nivaagaard Collection)
**For a discussion of the meaning of "dross", see this post.

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