Thursday, December 21, 2017

Dec 21st, Dave Griffith: "What Makes a Life Significant?"

I’m going to do that thing that you’re never supposed to do; that cardinal sin of essaying, wherein the author out of either desperation to meet a looming deadline, lack of imagination, or just plain slavishness to a template given them by an old English teacher, begins their essay with a dictionary definition.

Since I know that I’m doing it, I might as well do as St. Augustine commands and “sin boldly.” So I’m going to begin with not one but two definitions, and I’m going to consult that most basic (i.e. lame, mainstream; i.e. “He’s so basic he...") of dictionaries, the Merriam-Webster.

Here goes: According to Webster, the word “advent” is defined as:

1: the period beginning four Sundays before Christmas and observed by some Christians as a season of prayer and fasting
2a : the coming of Christ at the Incarnation (see incarnation 1a(2))
b : second coming
3: not capitalized : a coming into being or use
      the advent of spring
      the advent of pasteurization
      the advent of personal computers

The second word is “Chautauqua”:

: any of various traveling shows and local assemblies that flourished in the U.S. in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, that provided popular education combined with entertainment in the form of lectures, concerts, and plays, and that were modeled after activities at the Chautauqua Institution of western New York.

I begin with these definitions because this is an essay on an essay on the advent of a place and an idea, and it is an essay on the advent of the essay.

First, the place. Chautauqua, NY, pop. 4,654: A town in western New York, about an hour southwest, as the crow, flies from Buffalo, that place of tragic football and chicken wings. The town is named after Chautauqua Lake. Chautauqua being a Seneca word with numerous attributed meanings: "the place where one is lost"; "the place of easy death"; "fish taken out"; "foggy place"; "high up” (it is located on a ridge 1,300 feet above sea level); "two moccasins fastened together"; and "a bag tied in the middle”. Looking at a map, the last definition is the most evident to visitors.

But Chautauqua is also the name of an Institution founded in 1874 on the northwestern shore of the lake by the inventor Lewis Miller and the Methodist minister John Heyl Vincent. It was to be a summer school, of sorts, for Sunday school teachers, a place where they could be properly trained and given an education not available to most women—the Sunday school teachers were almost exclusively women.

Its early curriculum centered on the Bible, but over the years the educational offerings expanded to feature daily lectures on art, history, education, science, politics, and the pressing social issues of the day. A robust slate of classes and demonstrations in a variety of subjects and disciplines taught by community members was later added. Even those who could not visit the grounds were invited to pursue a Chautauqua education through the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle (CLSC), a four-year course of reading whose aim was, according to Institution co-founder John Vincent:

To promote habits of reading and study in nature, art, science, and in secular and sacred literature and to . . . open the college world to persons unable to attend higher institution of learning.

CLSC students read the books and then took tests that were sent in to be graded. Those who successfully completed the course received a diploma. The concept was so popular that by 1900 there were over 10,000 local CLSC groups spread around the world that would convene to discuss the books. It is sometimes called the oldest book club in America.

Evenings at Chautauqua were, and still are, filled by musical and theatrical performances by entertainers who traveled the national circuit, and on Sundays, the entire community gathered in a large amphitheater, on the same stage where the likes Jacob Riis and later President Teddy Roosevelt would speak, for Christian worship led by an enormous choir.

That’s the place. Now for the idea.

Due to the growing middle class, and the increase in leisure time, Chautauqua became a lower-case “c” noun, an event or convening that could happen anywhere. Small towns across the country began holding their own chautauquas, inviting speakers to lecture, holding forums, and hosting concerts. At its peak in the early 19th century, it is estimated that there were several hundred chautauquas, in places as far away as Oregon and southern California, Maine and Florida.

Today, only a handful remain—Boulder, Colorado, Petoskey, Michigan, and Port Carling, Ontario—but the mother Chautauqua, as its known, in western New York, is the largest. In the spirit of transparency, it is where I work, and where I am writing from.

Rudyard Kipling was the first notable writer to offer his thoughts on the Chautauqua Institution, when in 1890 he published a work of “enhanced fact” (“faction” the Kipling Society of the U.K. calls it), titled “Chautauqaued” with the descriptive subtitle:


“Chauatquaed” was published in the Pioneer Mail, an English language newspaper based in Allahabad, India, where Kipling worked as an editor, and contributed amusing, but to today’s reader, jingoistic missives about his world travels.

The letters were intended to be humorous accounts of his escapades, and his letter from Chautauqua is no exception, as it is peppered with an arch, triumphalist, British ridicule for American middle-class social climbing, perhaps best exemplified in his phonetic mis-spelling of the word “Institution” (institootion) in order to call out what he saw as the intellectual poseurism afoot on the rural grounds.

In its dramatic structure and its use of fragments of other texts (lectures) and modes (the confession), Kipling’s piece were it published today might very well be called an essay. (Recall that David Foster Wallace’s essay “A Ticket to the Fair” bears this subtitle:

Wherein our reporter gorges himself on corn dogs, gapes at terrifying rides, savors the odor of pigs, exchanges unpleasantries with tattooed carnies, and admires the loveliness of cows

But this essay isn’t about Kipling, the Brit, it’s about William James, an American, who, in 1899 wrote much more profound and masterfully essayistic account of the Institution titled, “What Makes a Life Significant?”

Originally delivered as part of a series of lectures to school teachers at Harvard in 1900, it was later collected with the others into a book titled Talks to Teachers on Psychology. This publication history is important because it perfectly exemplifies what William J. Dawson and Coningbsby W. Dawson, editors of the 1900 anthology Great English Essayists described as the “genesis” of the essay as a form.

In their introduction, they write:
It will be readily perceived that the lectures of . . .
mediaeval teachers must have borne a strong resemblance
to the essay, and were indeed spoken essays. The
teachers themselves belonged for the most part to some religious
order; they were preachers, and their utterances naturally
bore the stamp of the sermonic mind. Here, again, is a
point in the history of the essay which is worthy of careful
note. If we find that the essay is still sermonic in form,
that it is in the nature of a secular homily or dissertation,
the reason is obvious; the essay in its European develop-
ment has been closely associated with the pulpit. Had
books been never so accessible in mediseval times, they
would have been of no value to the bulk of society, among
whom very few could read or write. The man was the
authority, not the book, and the clerk with his sermon in
the neighbouring church was the utmost culture which most
men could either attain or afford.
They continue:
[The lecture] was a medium of singular elasticity, and capable
of the widest variation. The scholar delivered a learned
disquisition, seeking to reconcile the teachings of some great
pagan like Aristotle with the teachings of Christ. The
enthusiast uttered an impassioned appeal, rebuking men
for their sins, and calling on them to repent. The comfortable
parish priest or jolly travelling friar anxious to
gain the good-will of his hearers, that he might be the more
generously entertained, often told a short story, relating
some fanciful legend, or described some scandalous temptation
of the Saints, the whole wittily touched and virile
with broad humour.
Dawson and Dawson continue on in this way for many more pages enumerating, much as essayists and scholars of the essay do today, celebrating the various modes and styles and capacities of the essay form. Again, this was the year 1900.

William James, being American, is not found in this anthology, though “What Makes a Life Significant?” would have been a perfect exemplar of their definition. And it is a perfect specimen for the readers of this forum for many reasons, not the least of which is that he puts himself into conversation with several other essayists and sermonizers. Tolstoy looms largely here, as does Robert Louis Stevenson (who is found in the two Dawson’s anthology), but he is also in conversation with the now-forgotten James Fitzjames Stephens, author of the anonymously published Essays of a Barrister, and Phillips Brooks, an Episcopal priest who gave a series of lectures at Yale in the late 1870s (later collected in a book of his sermons), though he is perhaps best known as the lyricist for the Christmas carol “O, Little Town of Bethlehem.”

But that is only a conventional trapping, a rhetorical move used in many different kinds of nonfiction writing that we do not consider essays. The clearest and most winning essayistic quality of “What Makes a Life Significant?” is that it develops around a personal reflection on his visit, a method that he admitted using as way into “do[ing] philosophy.”

He writes:
A few summers ago, I spent a happy week at the famous Assembly Grounds on the borders of Chautauqua Lake. The moment one treads that sacred enclosure, one feels one's self in an atmosphere of success. Sobriety and industry, intelligence and goodness, orderliness and ideality, prosperity and cheerfulness, pervade the air. It is a serious and studious picnic on a gigantic scale. Here you have a town of many thousands of inhabitants, beautifully laid out in the forest and drained, and equipped with means for satisfying all the necessary lower and most of the superfluous higher wants of man. You have a first-class college in full blast. You have magnificent music-a chorus of seven hundred voices, with possibly the most perfect open-air auditorium in the world. You have every sort of athletic exercise from sailing, rowing, swimming, bicycling, to the ball-field and the more artificial doings which the gymnasium affords. You have kindergartens and model secondary schools. You have general religious services and special club-houses for the several sects. You have perpetually running soda-water fountains, and daily popular lectures by distinguished men. You have the best of company, and yet no effort. You have no zymotic diseases, no poverty, no drunkenness, no crime, no police. You have culture, you have kindness, you have cheapness, you have equality, you have the best fruits of what mankind has fought and bled and striven for under the name of civilization for centuries. You have, in short, a foretaste of what human society might be, were it all in the light, with no suffering and no dark corners.
Upon departing the grounds, riding on a train to Buffalo, he writes of the “relief” he feels:
And yet what was my own astonishment, on emerging into the dark and wicked world again, to catch myself quite unexpectedly and involuntarily saying: "Ouf! what a relief! Now for something primordial and savage, even though it were as bad as an Armenian massacre, to set the balance straight again. This order is too tame, this culture too second-rate, this goodness too uninspiring. This human drama without a villain or a pang; this community so refined that ice-cream soda-water is the utmost offering it can make to the brute animal in man; this city simmering in the tepid lakeside sun; this atrocious harmlessness of all things, I cannot abide with them. Let me take my chances again in the big outside worldly wilderness with all its sins and sufferings. There are the heights and depths, the precipices and the steep ideals, the gleams of the awful and the infinite; and there is more hope and help a thousand times than in this dead level and quintessence of every mediocrity.
James is clearly dealing in hyperbole. The thrust of his essay is that humans could bring about a more peaceful and just world if we worked harder to understand one another’s subjective experience, and not discount the predilections and loves of others simply because they do not jive with some narrow doctrinal code.

And yet, his desire for darkness, is a relatable tendency and tension that other American artists have wrestled with for quite some time, from Coppola’s fresh-faced war hero, Michael Corelone, to Lynch’s Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, to Flannery O’Connor’s peg-legged Hulga who aims to corrupt the wholly innocent Bible salesman. These are artists fascinated with the pull darkness and evil have upon us humans. They are interested, each in their own way, in dramatizing how a culture that believes itself to be so upright and good, has become sentimental, vain, even narcissistic; falling headlong in love with its own goodness and moral intelligence--its skin-deep beauty, its compulsive duty to condemn injustice with drive-by, hot-take correctives, or worse, ballistic missiles and drone strikes—that good intentioned, peace-loving and decent people become tribal and vicious.

James’ move to try to see through the ephemeral to the mystical truth of things is, as Dawson and Dawson point out, very, very old. We see it in parables from the New Testament: obtuse revelations of who Jesus is, which are quite literally epiphanies, recognitions of his divinity.

But how does he, or anyone for that matter, move past our mean, blinding biases to arrive at such insight? Is it innate or is it learned? Is it a matter of circumstances beyond our control (grace, as theologians would have it) or is it freely willed, premeditated: I am setting out in search of God, or I am setting out in search of the real (Emerson’s “driving life into a corner” comes to mind).

The answer, I think, is his willingness to think essayistically, to interrogate his own ready-made answers, to attempt to understand their roots. He does not stop with an easy, broad-stroke indictment of the white, tea-totaling Methodists and the “bloodless,” incorruptible utopia they created. Instead, he questions, his hatred and disdain for such zealotry for orderliness; what he at first glance believed to be a kind of Chautauqua-branded and homogenized intellectual and religious groupthink. As the essay progresses, as the train moves closer to Buffalo and the industrial landscape with its laborers comes into view, he becomes aware of his own inability to embrace a basic truth: that all humans yearn for the same thing, a sense of purpose and meaning.

In the last paragraph of his essay, he writes:
…[N]o outward changes of condition in life can keep the nightingale of its eternal meaning from singing in all sorts of different men's hearts. That is the main fact to remember. If we could not only admit it with our lips, but really and truly believe it, how our convulsive insistencies, how our antipathies and dreads of each other, would soften down!
For James, the thing that must be interrogated is what we might call today his own privilege. He had an amazingly varied education, studying in schools in England, France, and Germany. He was well travelled. He came from a hyper-educated, intellectually-serious family—his younger brother, Henry, was regarded as one of the world’s foremost novelists. Reading his obviously, almost performatively, learned work, this background is of little surprise. What is surprising, though, is that by the end of the essay he comes to believe, “[t]he more we live by our intellect, the less we understand the meaning of life.”

This is a good lesson (for me at least) to consider, especially in this time of advent, a time of anticipation. It is very easy to treat this season in a perfunctory way. As someone raised Catholic, I believe that I know what is coming, so much so that I take for granted the opportunity for real change and rebirth that the season offers me.

James believes that the problem is not that we lack goodness deep down in our souls, or essential natures, or whatever you prefer to call it, but that we are often “too steeped in . . . ancestral blindness to discern it.” We are so thoroughly entrenched in our tribal allegiances and sectarian pride that we cannot even begin to countenance the possibility that someone else’s perspective, someone else’s lived experience could point us to a broader truth.

In a 2010 Harvard forum celebrating James, who was an alum of the university and later taught there, Cornel West remarked that James was a prophetic voice for the 21st century for championing what he called “non-market values like love, empathy, benevolence, and sacrifice for others.” What an apt message in this season dominated by mercantilism. What a great charge it is to essayists and artists of all kinds, everywhere; a charge to return to making things that have no purpose other than to illuminate and lift up.

In this advent season, in this season so often dominated by sermonizing and sentiment, assumptions of belief or its absence, might we we all work to create our own small chautauquas, spaces of rest and understanding, spaces that are welcoming to all, spaces created with the understanding that we are all pilgrims searching for more perfect sight and insight, love and belonging.


Dave Griffith is the Vice President and Emily and Richard Smucker Chair for Education at the Chautauqua Institution. He is the author of A Good War is Hard to Find: The Art of Violence in America.

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