Wednesday, October 30, 2013

"Time Passes"

On Thursday, I surprised myself and my students when I observed that without time there are no existential questions.  They looked at me blankly for a few moments and then scribbled madly in their notebooks.

We  are working away at To the Lighthouse, which I have had to see in an entirely new way, imagining how an undergraduate would experience it, not how a 63-year-old scholar would attempt to explain its aesthetics.  This creates a funny kind of doubleness for me, since I think one of the novel's most intense and characteristic concerns is voiced by adolescent James just as he, his sister, and his father are about to arrive at the lighthouse.  When he had been young, this place he so badly wanted to travel to was

 "a silvery, misty-looking tower with a yellow eye that opened suddenly and softly in the evening.  Now--James looked at the Lighthouse.  He could see the white-washed rocks; the tower, stark and straight; he could see that it was barred with black and white; he could see windows in it; he could even see washing spread on the rocks to dry.  So that was the Lighthouse, was it?  No, the other was also the lighthouse.  For nothing was ever simply one thing."

But it was the "Time Passes" interlude that we were working on. I'd pointed out that toward the end of "The Window" existential questions began to rush in, with Mrs Ramsay wondering "Where are we going to?" and Mr Ramsay musing, "What was the value, the meaning of things?  There's also a figure in the "Time Passes" section that comes back three or four times--a figure who cannot sleep and so who walks down by the beach pondering even more existential questions:  "Meanwhile the mystic, the visionary, walked the beach, stirred a puddle, looked at a stone, and asked themselves 'What am I?' 'What is this?' and suddenly an answer was vouchsafed them (what it was they could not say)."  After war begins, a purplish stain upon the sea intrudes "into a scene calculated to stir the most sublime reflections and lead to the most comfortable conclusions....It was difficult blandly to overlook [the changes wrought by the war], to abolish their significance in the landscape; to continue, as one walked by the sea, to marvel how beauty outside mirrored beauty within."  The war, it seems, has changed even our relationship to beauty, questioning the Kantian notion that the beauty of the world has been arranged to appeal to the beauty of our souls.  It's not only that time makes existential questions possible; history demands such questions. 

As I drove through Wascana Park on the way to the university a few days later, I thought again about time passing and existential questions, thinking that in some ways fall is the most existential of seasons.  Perhaps because we know we are heading for winter and have no idea whether this year will bring six feet of snow into our back yards or two weeks of 30 below, we watch time and change eagerly, apprehensively.  Every day brings  change.  My eyes adapt to the beauty of trees and their naked architecture; at the same time I search the Wascana Lake shoreline for the bronzy gold of an aspen or the grey-green of the stubborn Russian Olives.  My garden has been shutting down for a month, yet the leafless trees let more light into my kitchen and allow me to see the birds at the feeder.  If we think the nights are getting longer for us, how much longer they are getting for them. 

At other times I become a student of light.  How many ways can I write about light?  I've been sitting in my bedroom, which faces south and west, watching the late afternoon light turn from blue and  silvery gold close to the horizon, which I can now see because the elm tree across the street is now bare, to blue and brilliant, improbable pink.  Earlier this week, I drove through the park to see the lake all still and pewter, like an elegant silver-haired woman in grey.  This morning, when I drove through early for my breakfast with Katherine, the trees were a complex calligraphy, an inky black next to the lightening horizon that had no colour I could name:  it was simply and purely light.

When I am not studying light, I simply feel empty.  I have written only two posts this month--the least I've written since I started the blog.  Except when I am teaching, I seem to be thinking nothing except how to get my marking done and how to plan my days so that the machinery of teaching and preparing and writing up assignments and marking those assignments doesn't break down.  I keep saying "I've got this.  I'm on top of this."  But a question lies beneath or behind that assertion.  Perhaps there is a different way to understand what I told my students:  without time to reflect, the questions disappear.  What replaces them?

Friday, October 18, 2013

Freedom from and freedom to

Tuesday morning had magic about it.  Looking out my kitchen window as I made my breakfast, I could see that the bird feeder had fallen from its chain in the crab apple tree.  So I jerry-rigged it with some twist ties and filled it again with sunflower seeds.  The nuthatches were unalarmed by my presence and ran up and down the tree trunk making their tiny-squeeky-animal-toy sound.  I drove to work through Wascana Park; fog was rising off the lake and the world was a rather cheerfully golden.  These past days, I've been drawn to be aware of the fact that the colour changes with the light.  On grey days, the sky's colour emphasizes the tangled grey-brown branches of the trees that have lost their leaves and mutes all the other colours, so that the world looks like a taupe Japanese quilt.  In the dusk of sunnier days, the gold of the elms and aspens is heightened by the slanting light, and the colours of the world look like those you would find in a Rembrandt painting.  Sometimes the gold leaves clustered around the trees look as if light itself had fallen and pooled.  Katherine Arbuthnott says that my peculiar tendency to keep track of where one can find colour on any given day, where one can see rabbits at dusk (sometimes 5 at a time), of how I can drive home past landscapes that are resonant and evocative comes from my "gatherer brain," that part which, in the past, helped people keep track of where they could find food, except that I'm looking for a different kind of nourishment. 

This week I've been teaching Blithedale Romance in my Reading Fiction class and Alan Sillitoe's working class (and very urban) short stories in my British Sixties class.  Though the nineteenth-century rural delights of New England and the urban chaos of twentieth-century Manchester would seem to have little to do with one another, both books, for a variety of reasons, explore the idea of freedom.  Yet one can see that this freedom is limited.  Miles Coverdale and the other inhabitants of the Blithedale Fourierist community seek freedom from the capitalist "getting and spending" that they see everywhere in Boston.  They have retired to rural Blithedale to do their own honest labour, hoping that this work will leave them time and energy for the writing, thinking and reflecting that they found it difficult to do  Sillitoe's characters long to be free from the working class background and the constraints that this imposes on their lives in a society that continues to be class conscious.  Smith, the character in "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner," believes that in rebelling against the way the borstal institution seeks to transform him into a useful member of society he is gaining freedom.  He will continue to steal until he is caught again, at which time a friend of his will publish the story.  Since we have the story in our hands, we must assume that he's been caught again.

Both of these works address an old philosophical conundrum going back at least to Kant.  What is the difference between freedom from and freedom to?  In Isaiah Berlin's work during the 1950s and 1960s, he coined the terms "negative freedom" and "positive freedom."  Negative freedom, or freedom from, is freedom from external constraints that create obstacles.  We could put freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from racism, sexism, fat-ism, or homophobia in this category, and once we collect enough examples we can see that public laws, institutions, and attitudes are largely responsible for these freedoms. But just because we have freedom of speech or are free from sexism, does that mean we can come the person we want to be or act on our most profound desires? Both Coverdale and Smith (what a duo!) have succeeded in getting freedom from some of the institutions that govern the shapes of their lives, but neither has fully succeeded, I suspect, in blooming.

This is where Berlin's concept of "positive freedom," or "freedom to," comes into play.  If we have positive freedom we are in control of  our own lives.  We are agents who can consciously and wisely make the choices that are best for us.  This type of freedom is intensely personal, coming out of the encouragement and permission we give ourselves, probably modeled by the people around us, and combined with our ability to critically reflect on our desires and our actions; we have gained self-mastery when we have achieved positive freedom.

Philosophers continue to argue about the difference between positive and negative freedom.  In general they concede that individuals must have negative freedom in order to make the fullest use of their positive freedom, and that it is the job of our society to guarantee as much negative freedom as possible.  Simply put, if you live in a sexist or homophobic society you are going to find it difficult to even imagine that you have the freedom to dream of becoming a CEO or of achieving an open, long lasting relationship.  But a Buddhist monk or an ascetic might well tell you that once you have adjusted your desires to fit your conditions, you are always free; in fact, you always have the freedom to make such a choice. 

It seems to me that some cultures are more preoccupied with both of these kinds of freedom than other cultures, and that they sometimes have contradictory or paradoxical ideas about negative and positive freedom.  For example, if everyone in your culture has the negative freedom to own a gun, does that limit other citizens' negative freedom to simply be safe? Michael Bloomberg's attempt to make supersized unhealthy drinks unavailable in New York City met with enormous resistance.  People should have the freedom from paternalistic constraints, so that they can make their own choices about what to eat or drink.  But does this negative freedom really further their positive freedom?  Is the self-reflection that is integral to positive freedom really kicking in every time they buy a big gulp?  How does that negative freedom further their agency in their own lives--particularly in the face of food industries who do research on the amount of sugar, fat, and salt makes food most addictive?

I've been thinking about negative and positive freedom in the context of the stories a culture chooses to tell, prompted by Charles Baxter, who suggests that victims--people who have so little freedom from that they have no freedom to--do not make the most interesting characters.  I need to think about this much more, but I can observe that insofar as literature critiques our social institutions, it explores the constraints that get in the way of our negative freedom.  Action movies may be very much about negative freedom--though I could be wrong.  Tell me if I am.  But that quiet book that explores how someone learns about themselves, learns how to trick themselves into taking risks, reflects on choices they have made, decides to make different choices or to revisit the ethics of past actions is about positive freedom.  We don't make many movies about this.

And what does this have to do with my gathering brain and my attention to the sound of nuthatches and to the times of day when rabbits are likely to be out for "silflay" in Wascana Park?  It is making me aware that our mortality leeches negative freedom out of our lives day by day.  Each day the constraints become stronger, higher, more painful.  Yet oddly enough--and this might provide something new for the philosophers to argue about--the absence of negative freedom compels one to explore more positive freedom.  To make this point almost banal, I would say I'm retiring because I need more time to simply "be," to reflect, to explore the beauty of the world I live in during long walks, to think and make.