What inspires you in your current position/role?
People believe beauty is in the eye of the beholder. This would be very convenient, in some ways, because it would make our tastes unimpeachable. We could no more be held responsible for our tastes in art or music than we could be held responsible for our eye color. But on the other hand, we would have little reason, and even less ability, to change our tastes. Even more alarming, we could hardly congratulate ourselves on them, as we tend already to do. No teenager who has taken an interest in a new independent rock band thinks that his delight in that music is a mere byproduct of his brain chemistry. He thinks it is very good music and, if you ask him to, he may actually take pains to show you why. This suggests that tastes may actually be the sort of thing that we change based on influences from outside. But not all influences are good. My hope—perhaps a fool’s hope—is that my influence is a good one.
By confronting my students with beautiful things with which they have had little or no experience, and demonstrating how and why these things are beautiful, I can help them like what is more likable. This saves them from being condemned to whatever tastes they haphazardly have formed and gives them the skills to continue to evaluate their leisure wisely. This will hopefully mean more pleasure for them since they will have chosen their leisure based on more than raw impulse or the brute force of popular advertisement.
The popular scientists are often reminding us of the narrow gap between humans and animals. I cannot help but think that part of their incitement to do so is to lift from humans some of the terrible moral burden we expect of ourselves but do not expect of the beasts. But the consequences of these comparisons are often more harmful than might be imagined. If we link our behavior to that of the beasts, we may forego pleasures that are distinctly human. Now, I well believe that animals have intense pleasures. Everyone in the house knows when the dog is scratching a good itch. But the pleasures are mostly sensual. Of the pleasures that come when sensations combine to form meaning—of the delights of a Euclidian proof, of the return of a symphony’s opening theme, or the denouements of Aeschylus—the dog can know nothing. Sensation offers tremendous pleasures to be sure. No human would wish to be without them for long. But it is the distinctive blessing of being human that we can have pleasures that come from meaning and not just sensation. Everyone, therefore, should study the humanities because it is there that we are offered so many examples of meaning made especially to please us.
The natural world is full of meaning too, but it is touching to meet meaning made by our fellow humans—and for our fellow humans. Here I should be careful. After all, the animals make things for one another too, as any bird’s nest will testify. But our inventions are sometimes of a sort that please only us. I too may make a nest—of blankets and sheets—but I can also make a string quartet. The dog may nestle up in the first but he will fall asleep during the second.
What is something that people might be surprised to learn about you (hobby, skill, interesting story)?
I enjoy playing sailor songs on my concertina. People imagine that they enjoy folk music when in fact they’ve likely never known it. Folk music is the music that a discreet local group of people evolve and make for one another. It is a music made by people you know personally, in an idiom that crops up in relative isolation, based on the various social and practical needs of the people who make it. I should point out at once the irony: I am not a sailor. In fact, I have never been out to sea on a sailboat at all. But by making a music that evolved for sailors (as opposed to a music that evolved to sell radio advertising space or to erect totemic pop stars) I feel myself a little bit more able to enjoy something that was once ubiquitous in human experience and is now nearly lost.
What is your first thought in the morning and last thought at night?
My first thought in the morning is surprise and gratitude. I am perpetually thankful to wake up in a world like this, next to a wife like mine, in a house full of children and a neighborhood full of life, with my books at my elbow and my work waiting for me. It seems almost impossible, given what I know of my own wickedness, to be given such a life.
My last thought is variable and depends on whatever I was reading or doing before I fell asleep or whatever I was speaking with my wife about before we both switched off the light. I suppose this is fairly normal. It is the land of Queen Mab that follows, and the dreams I meet there are perhaps more interesting—though not at this juncture.
What's a book you've always wanted to read but haven't gotten around to?
Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia. Here is a book that delighted most of our English speaking predecessors and has fallen almost entirely into obscurity. Sidney’s sonnets in Astrophel and Stella continue to delight, and his Apology for Poetry is a common enough text in literary criticism. But the Arcadia is patently his most entertaining work. I’ve taken it up several times and made it nearly halfway through but have never completed it. It makes me wonder if there isn’t some deficiency in my literary abilities that keeps at arm’s length a work so obviously pleasant.
Check back next month for more Coffee & Questions. In case you missed our previous interview with Dr. Jason Stuart, click here.