Switching sides: a confession

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When I was younger – more than quarter of a century younger – I did something that I now think was wrong, though I didn’t at the time. I was asked to cover someone’s Higher English evening class and found that they were studying Wordsworth’s poem that begins

‘Up! up! my friend, and quit your books’

(which I find is called ‘The Tables Turned’ and is actually part of a sequence – see here: http://www.bartleby.com/145/ww134.html) The poem contains one of his most famous lines, the last in this verse:

Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;

Our meddling intellect

Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:–

We murder to dissect.

As one who had spent his university education largely in philosophy, I found this equation of intellectual analysis with meddling and murder difficult to stomach and I’m sure it contributed to a general antipathy I felt (and still feel) towards Wordsworth, whom I also studied at university. It is a purely personal prejudice: I allow that he wrote some beautiful poetry, but I cannot like the man. This poem in particular I find repellent, I think because it has a strain of jolly heartiness throughout: one can picture those opening lines accompanied by some hearty backslapping that sends the poor weedy scholar sprawling, with each exhortation to be ‘Up!’:

UP! up! my Friend, and quit your books;

Or surely you’ll grow double:

Up! up! my Friend, and clear your looks;

Why all this toil and trouble?

There is also a glib certainty about many of the sentiments expressed that strikes me still as oversimplification, the same sort of wholesome hokey that sets my teeth on edge when people post it on Google Plus as ‘inspirational quotes’ (often misattributed):

Let nature be your teacher!

and

One impulse from a vernal wood

May teach you more of man,

Of moral evil and of good,

Than all the sages can.

And I have always found a smack of ‘Strength through joy!’ in the lines that follow the exhortation ‘Let nature be your teacher’ (though that is hardly Wordsworth’s fault):

She has a world of ready wealth,

Our minds and hearts to bless–

Spontaneous wisdom breathed by health,

Truth breathed by cheerfulness.

So, finding myself confronted with this, I chose instead to offer the class an alternative view, in the form of this poem by RS Thomas, which seemed to me the perfect rejoinder to Wordsworth’s ‘bland philosophy of nature’:

AUTUMN ON THE LAND

A man, a field, silence — what is there to say?

He lives, he moves, and the October day

Burns slowly down.

                                     History is made

Elsewhere; the hours forfeit to time’s blade

Don’t matter here. The leaves large and small,


Shed by the branches, unlamented fall

About his shoulders. You may look in vain


Through the eyes’ window; on his meagre hearth

The thin, shy soul has not begun its reign

Over the darkness. Beauty, love and mirth


And joy are strangers there.

                                                    You must revise

Your bland philosophy of nature, earth

Has of itself no power to make men wise.

I am quite sure now that what I did was wrong, on the simple ground that I would not have liked someone to come in and subvert what I had chosen to teach my class; besides, doing Higher English in a year can be hard enough without having extra texts sprung on you at a moment’s notice. So for that, I apologise (as I recollect, I was never actually paid for the class in any case, so that is amends of a sort, I suppose).

However, I still think Thomas’s the better poem. It exposes a shallowness in Wordsworth’s thought: he overlooks the preconditions for learning from nature, which surely include some measure of material prosperity, a degree of leisure and perhaps also a certain level of education; if your relationship with the land is simply one of back-breaking toil for little reward, then I do not think you will reap many of the benefits that Wordsworth promises.

But that aside, I find myself now in a curious pass, because I have changed sides in the debate – not between Wordsworth and Thomas, but between Wordsworth and philosophy. Though by training and education I am a meddlesome intellect and a murderous dissecter, of recent years I have come to think that Wordsworth was right: I now believe that (in Western culture at least) we hugely overvalue the rational, the intellectual, the literary and the academic in relation to the instinctive and intuitive, and that we are the poorer for it – in simple terms, we have given the Head dominion over the Heart, when they should at least be equal partners.

In another post, I would like to consider this in particular relation to stories and storytelling; but for now, enough.

Why is a raven like a writing desk? The power of abstraction.

ImageAbstraction is an interesting notion. The word itself is derived from the Latin preposition ‘ab’ meaning ‘from’ or ‘away from’ combined with the verb ‘trahere’ ‘to pull or draw’ (which also gives us our word ‘tractor’) – thus it means, literally, ‘to pull or drag away from’ so that it conveys the sense of separation, something that was embedded being removed from its original surroundings.

The first thing I would like to consider is abstraction in relation to numbers, which strikes me as being fundamental to the discovery of mathematics. To help us here we might imagine, in the style of Wittgenstein, a couple of ‘primitive societies’ whose use of number differs from our own.

In the first, counting is only ever done in the presence of objects: these people have no notion of mental arithmetic or ‘counting in your head’ – to say ‘1, 2, 3, 4’ when there is nothing there to count would seem to them as bizarre as if I were to say ‘monkey hat potato bicycle’ out of the blue, with none of these things being present. For them, numbers are not at all abstract – they are a property of concrete objects, unthinkable apart from them.

The next society takes the view (not unreasonably) that only similar things can be counted: sacks of wheat, say, or earthenware oil jars in a storehouse can be enumerated, but if someone is confronted by a dozen objects all different, he will point to each in turn and say ‘one, one, one…’  on the grounds that they are all different, so don’t amount to anything together. After all, no-one can say that a jar of oil is the same as a sack of wheat, can they? That would be absurd! Then one day someone, in a flash of inspiration, sees that although the objects are different, the ‘ones’ are the same, so a second teller is introduced to count the number of times the first says ‘one’ (perhaps by making marks on a slate). He is then able to say ‘there are twelve ones there’.

This will give rise to a joke, a riddle: ‘why is a monkey like a hat?’ to which the answer will be ‘because they’re both one!’ (at which all laugh heartily). (You might even imagine quick children demonstrating this to their slow parents – monkey = 1; hat = 1; 1=1, so monkey = hat! – and the parents being amazed at their children’s sagacity – ‘the things they learn in school these days!’). (Come to think of it, that might be the solution to the Mad Hatter’s riddle, ‘why is a raven like a writing desk?’ – Lewis Carroll (or rather C L Dodgson) was a mathematician)

But what interests me here is that this is the beginning of abstraction, to see that one of anything is equal to one of anything else, at least as far as counting goes – it is the dawning of the realisation that you can carry out operations with numbers without reference to what they are ‘numbers of’.

Full abstraction is the emancipation of number: it is no longer the property of objects, it is something in its own right. Nobody asks ‘what does 1 stand for here?’ or on being told to add five and five, demands ‘five of what?’ And it is when you reach that stage that you begin to discover the amazing things that you can do with numbers, the complex network of relationships that exists between them.

Another interesting thing has happened here: we have extended the meaning of ‘existence’, discovered a new order of reality. Numbers seem to exist just as surely as ravens and writing desks – if not more so – yet not in the same way. We feel sure that the propositions of arithmetic, and all the other properties of numbers, hold good always and everywhere; if all knowledge of them was lost, we feel sure they could be discovered again and that they would be the same – in fact, they seem to be unchanging and imperishable. It is little wonder that Pythagoras and his followers made a religion of them.

Which gives rise to some interesting speculation: what other properties can we abstract from their original setting and treat as things in their own right? will those exist in the same way that numbers seem to? and will they form part of a complex network of relationships that stands to them as mathematics does to number? In particular, is this something that we can do with language and words?

Could be worth investigating further, maybe. But meantime, at least you know why a raven is like a writing desk.