I haven’t read All the Sad Young Literary Men, and I’m not confident that I’ll get around to it eventually, but in Scott McLemee’s column/podcast about the book and its author, he quotes the following paragraph:
The trouble is that when you’re young you don’t know enough; you are constantly being lied to, in a hundred ways, so your ideas of what the world is like are jumbled; when you imagine the life you want for yourself, you imagine things that don’t exist. If I could have gone back and explained to my younger self what the real options were, what the real consequences for certain decisions were going to be, my younger self would have known what to choose. But at the time I didn’t know; and now, when I knew, my mind was too filled up with useless auxiliary information, and beholden to special interests, and I was confused.
So (as best I apprehend this), when you’re young, you don’t have sufficient experience of the world to assay truth from folly or deception, and when you’re older, you have made enough wrong decisions that you’re enmeshed in errors that you started into when you were too young to know better.
This all seems plausible enough to me, but I wonder about the note of betrayal in the lament. Whence came the idea that we have the prerogative to expect a higher degree of certainty? I admit that just now I’m scoring pretty high on the “affected by unforeseeable contingencies” scale, but I believe I recall making this sort of point in various public venues well before this winter. The illusion that we have, or ought to have, a determinative role in how our lives play out cripples our capacity to thrive in circumstances we didn’t choose and don’t control. Sulking, fulminating, agonizing over how things should have been misses the point, because our particular (always conflicting, always divergent) visions of “ought to be” pertain to how things actually go only sporadically. If we stake everything, anything, on controlling our own destinies, we gamble on a giant lottery with contingencies compared to which our aspirations and willpower are but paltry things.
(I hope I’m listening well to what I just wrote.)
Now, speaking theologically, there’s much more to be said about sin, grace, alienation, hope, theosis, and so on. On the terms of everyday secular discourse, though, the poignance of a character discovering how much more complicated it all has been all along, and perhaps not even registering how misplaced his expectations were, struck a note that reminded me of other times I’ve inveighed against illusions of control.
“Truth cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own truth, as it makes its entrance into the mind at once quietly and with power.”
Pope Paul VI, Dignitatis Humanae.
It’s not exactly a commonplace strictu sensu, but I can never remember the title of this Cat and Girl comic when I want to look for it.
I was reading an article in Inside Higher Education that cited Malebranche as saying, “Attentiveness is the natural prayer of the soul”; that seemed worthy of remembering, but because I’m fussy about things such as that, I opted to Google the phrase to find precisely where Malebranche said it, if I could. Lo and behold, I see those words attributed not only to Malebranche, but also to Paul Celan, Simone Weil, and Walter Benjamin (presumably based on their having quoted Malebranche) and to “a smart guy quoted in an Edward Hirsch book.” Now, of course, I’m curious to track down precisely what Malebranche wrote, where, and how that was mediated to this intriguing coterie of intellectuals.
Maggi appositely cites Dorothy Sayers:
You would be ashamed to know as little about internal combustion as you know about Christian beliefs. I admit, you can practise Christianity without knowing much theology, just as you can drive a car without knowing much about internal combustion. But when something breaks down in the car, you go humbly to the man who understands the works; whereas if something goes wrong with religion, you merely throw the works away and tell the theologian he is a liar.
Now I have to track down the specific source of the quotation.
Ah! Paul has reproduced the whole letter (which I find less convincing, alas, than the excerpt) and duly notes the uncertainty regarding its provenance. And it turns out that Fred has more context, and a more satisfying rationale for the peremptory tone.
I’m starting a category for “Commonplaces,” so that I can store and share online the snips that I want to store someplace retrievable — and to begin the category, I want to quote from the FAQ of Tom Matrullo’s late lamented “Commonplaces” blog:
A common-place book is what a provident poet cannot subsist without, for this proverbial reason, that “great wits have short memories;” and whereas, on the other hand, poets being liars by profession, ought to have good memories.
~ Jonathan Swift, A Letter of Advice to a Young Poet.
In ancient rhetoric, commonplace is koinos topos – “a composition which amplifies inherent evils.” It often fit into the curriculum as a preparatory exercise for either encomium or vituperation. Which is not altogether unrelated to what seems to be going on here.
Tom Matrullo, http://tom.buzzword.com/faq
Beware lest thou do like mad and foolish people who want to set themselves up to investigate and judge the deeds and habits of the servants of God. He who does this is entirely worthy of severe rebuke. Know that it would not be different from setting a law and rule to the Holy Spirit if we wished to make the servants of God all walk in our own way – a thing which could never be done.
Catherine of Siena, “Letter to a Mantellata of St. Dominic” (Scudder, p. 91)