The OF Blog: Contemplation

Saturday, October 25, 2008


The ultimate value of life depends upon awareness and the power of contemplation rather than upon mere survival.” - Aristotle

There are three skills that most language arts and social studies teachers dread teaching; writing, reading comprehension, and critical thinking skills. This unholy trinity comprises not the foundation of every poor student paper or presentation, but also serves as the root explanation for why so many university freshmen struggle so much. It is very difficult to teach students how to organize their thoughts, to construct rationales for their beliefs, to question assumptions found within a text or in the world around them, or to explore possibilities outside the very concrete.

As a high school social studies teacher (and a former English instructor before), I have seen many students get frustrated whenever they are asked to explain themselves or what another might be saying. If pressed, some facts might be tossed in, irrespective of their overall relevance to the topic at hand. After all, facts must be sacrosanct, no, since someone famous wrote them down? The notion that interpretations shape understanding, with facts being only one component out of many, is very difficult for people to grasp. I saw that quite a bit yesterday during an activity where they were working on analyzing primary source material from the late 19th century on tenement houses, child labor laws, and urban poverty. I have my work cut out for me on Monday, to say the least, especially since they have a countywide skills assessment test this Tuesday.

I have thought quite a bit on this issue for the past couple of weeks, before I began to realize that there might be a societal cause to the three root problems I listed above. Today, it is very difficult to contemplate matters, to dwell upon them and to reflect upon possibilities and consequences. Due to the fast-paced, 24/7, "life is short, ____ hard" attitudes prevalent in American society in particular, there is not as much value placed anymore upon contemplation. Philosophy, the searching for truths, has become a more and more marginalized field. Those who stop and question assumptions are too often branded as being "pretentious" or "elitist," even when it would behoove more people to reflect upon the consequences of a certain course of action before acting. This last attitude certainly has been seen in the 2008 Presidential Election, with McCain touting his "decisiveness," while many of his supporters have criticized Obama for being "out of touch" for his ponderous, reflective approach to many issues. Sound bites are preferable to exploratory policy discussions, right?

Some of this negativity towards contemplation is seen in how certain readers react to certain books. Read most online reviews (and even many print ones) and there often is not much in the way of a contemplative attitude toward a book; the book either "works" or "fails" on the level of plot/characterization without much consideration given to thematic discourse or to how the text has been constructed. I have seen many negative comments in regards to Susanna Clarke's 2004 novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, with most of them blasting her for writing a slow-paced novel that contains "little action." I wonder how many of them would care to admit that Clarke set out to write exactly that sort of novel, one that requires the reader to stop and to contemplate the character interactions, the witty repartees, or the conscious efforts Clarke made to emulate the prose of 19th century British authors such as Anthony Trollope or Jane Austen. It is one thing to admit that this isn't the sort of novel one didn't care to read; it is a very ignorant reader who claims that Clarke's novel is "poor" without taken into account (or rather, even understanding that such things exist in the first place) her apparent goals in writing that matter.

Almost two weeks ago, the first Blogger Book Club discussion of Thomas Disch's Camp Concentration led to some interesting splits of opinion regarding Disch's approaches to characterization and plot development. Some admitted that the novel had an "academic" feel to it, as if somehow that were a vague negative, even though I suspect (based on the comments that follow) that such claims were more to indicate the others' reactions to the story and to Louis Sacchetti. I do have to admit that processing that novel takes a lot of work. Disch didn't write an "easy" novel, nor one that could be processed solely on a superficial level. He aimed (often succeeding, but with some debatable missteps) to tell a multi-layered story in which our own means of interacting with a story would come into play, since after all the reader is given the same narrative point-of-view that the prison guards on the inside would have been reading and reacting to during the course of the story contained in Louis's journal. How does one process such a story, if one bothers at all?

That last question I suspect underlies a great many of the situations I mentioned above. Could it be more a case that whenever a reading requires contemplative thought rather than immediate processing/reacting that a dissonance is created between the Reader and the Text? Or is there more to the notion that many criticisms of "difficult" texts are but reflections of the Reader's cognitive disinterest in contemplating texts? That is something I shall contemplate more, I do believe...


Liviu said...

Another interesting posts that dare to say invites contemplation :)

One thing I would quibble about is when was the mythical age in which regular people used to be more contemplative? The Athenians condemned Socrates to death exactly for encouraging contemplation after all, just to give an obvious example, and in most other societies and ages people usually had to do whatever the high and mighty told them

Regarding politics, it is, has been and will always be - at least as long we remain humans, foibles, original sin and all and not re engineer ourselves to perfection :) - nasty, dirty, making sausages kind. The crucial things are competition and a way to boot off the bastards from time to time.

Regarding books, it all depends if it connects to you or not. JS & Mr. Norell just did not connect with me, but I would not criticize it for being boring. It is just not for me...

Kristen said...

I agree with Liviu that opinions on books depend on if it connects with you or not. Even if one was to think Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell was dull, it doesn't mean they would think the same about a similarly non-action packed book such as Pride and Prejudice. Maybe they do enjoy some books without a lot of action but this one didn't work for them, they liked what they saw of action scenes in it, and thought it would have been better if there were more. (This is theoretically speaking since I have no idea if there is any action at all in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell since it's on my to read stack.)

In regards to referring to Camp Concentration as academic, I don't think that necessarily has a negative connotation. If someone reading a review that calls a book "academic" likes that sort of book, they'll see it as a positive, and if not, they'll see it as a negative. Or if they sometimes like that sort of book but need to be in the right sort of mood to read it, they'll see it as a book to keep around for when they want to read that type of story. It's all a matter of perspective.

Anonymous said...

I thought Strange was dull because the reader knows what the characters do not, and therefore we spend the longest time waiting for the characters to catch up. This, to me, was a fundamental flaw that could've been easily solved by keeping the reader in the dark along with the characters. It made it a real slog, despite some good writing, because the characters aren't compelling enough for the reader's worry about them to create tension in those sections.

On the Disch--I find some of the responses to it very interesting, because the fact is that whether you think Disch was totally successful or not with that novel, he's trying a lot of complex things. Now, you don't get credit for just trying those things--you have to succeed in doing them--but some of the same people in your group who have had problems with this novel have given a pass to much less rigorous or complex stuff. Which seems curious to me.


Larry said...


I always strive to give people things to contemplate ;) As for your question, I would counter by noting that as a societal ideal, there were many times that contemplation was urged. True, most of it was a religious nature (Buddhists, especially Zen, Catholics who pray the Liturgy of the Hours, certain shamanistic religions and their departing for days to meditate/reflect), but what about the adages such as "take time to smell the roses"? I'm not arguing that in those past times it was perfect (if anything, I'd examine the tensions between such ideals and how people practiced them), but rather that today even the ideal has lost much of its societal value.


Here's a question I always try to ask myself as I'm reading/reacting to a book: "What do I know about myself and how I react to things that might influence how I understand this book?" It's just another take on "Physician, heal thyself," I suppose...


Good point about Clarke's book, although I suspect one could make the counterargument that by precisely knowing more than the characters do, a skillful author could set it up where the focused ("ideal"?) reader could come to see the characters' foibles and blind spots not as something that impedes the enjoyment of the enfolding plot, but rather as an interesting character study. It has been four years since I've read Clarke's book and I seem to recall that she only accomplishes this fitfully, with long stretches of tedious repartee that doesn't fulfill her apparent ambitions for those scenes.

As for your comment regarding Disch and the passes given to other works, I too am curious about this. Some of it I think might deal with reader willingness to question themselves and their own reactions, as well with their daring (or not) to wrestle with the text at hand. Then again, I've never found any text to be static in meaning, which in turn drives me to contemplate readings anew, I suppose...

Braulio Tavares said...

Larry: A friend of mine uses to say that when you begin reading SF in go in "first gear" - it requires a lot of intellectual effort to understand the genre's premises. A few years later you enter second, third gear and so on, because you have enough momentum (=acquired knowledge) to understand most things without much effort.

Some books (like Camp Concentration) demand that you go in first gear again, just because there are many elements not covered by your previous genre assumptions, and this can be tiresome to many readers.

Margaret Dalziel once defined popular literature as "the books and magazines that are read purely for pleasure by people to whom pleasure is incompatible with the expenditure of intellectual or emotional effort". It doesn't mean it is bad, it means it's easier to read.

billy said...

A tasty bit of thought jerky here, Larry. As always.

'Strange,' for me was a sparkling gem, perhaps not as refulgent as some, but certainly more delightful to gaze upon than most of the other rocks in the cave.

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