DOUBTFUL

So Kevin Reybauld led me to Jeanne d’Arc, who also was interviewed here. Her post, was about

My problems with the engineering students had to do with their arrogance and shallowness. Those were universal traits in the students I got from the engineering department (and I’ll throw business majors into that category, too), and I think when I read Armey’s remarks, he reminded me so much of my old students that I had to lash out. I had quite a few pre-med students as well, and a lot of them shared that arrogance (the extreme shallowness was less of a problem with potential doctors), but there were exceptions.

And

My other problem with engineer wannabes was their shallow thinking. To put it in the bluntest terms, not one of them had ever read a challenging novel, essay, poem or play. They had reached their late teens without ever having thought a serious thought, without ever having challenged their own immediate perceptions in any way. Their understanding of human behavior was straight out of sitcoms and the cheapest, most exploitational movies. Black and white. Them and us. Good and evil. Unless they have aged better than I expect, I don’t think any of them would be capable today of understanding that there was anything odd about the notion of a “war” on “evil.”

started me thinking, and, as happens sometimes, a light went on in my head.
I went back to Dawn’s post on parenting, which said

When I look back at those first months of Lily’s life all I can remember are just snapshots of moments. I was so exhausted and overwhelmed. I feared sundown for the first month because I knew I would be tired and in need of sleep, but Lily would be wide-awake. We spent many nights in the rocking chair, her looking up at me out of the corner of her eye, nestled at my breast, me reading every child care manual I had – over and over.
Lily grew, as all children do and soon she will be three. We don’t see eye to eye on most things and she tests my boundaries every chance she gets. She is frenetic, stubborn, ornery, devilish, smart, sweet, manipulative, interesting and thoughtful. Sometimes I think she hates me, sometimes I think I am the only person she loves. Sometimes I want to tape her mouth closed, sometimes I want to cry because she is so insightful and bright.

which led to Devra’s reply where she said:

But I wonder if they weigh the mistakes they’ve made against the positives & find they’re somehow lacking. I can’t imagine that a loving parent would say they ‘regret’ having children, but I wonder if there isn’t a small voice inside asking “Are you sure you made the right decision?”
If you’re a parent, are you allowed to wonder if you’re the last person in the world who should be trying to raise children? If you’re a parent, are you allowed to doubt yourself? How do you get past that terror? How do you get through each day without thinking you’re fucking it all up?
And what do you do when you do fuck it all up?

Now, I admire the hell out of both Dawn and Devra (except for the whole Dawn stalking me thing, but she’s accepted the restraining order with a certain grace that bespeaks experience…), but there’s a thread here I want to try and follow, and to bring out for your consideration.
It’s about self-doubt, and self-criticism, and a perception that maybe traps us an endless loop of self-criticism and self-doubt. Look. Doubt, and a willingness to change are critical to any kind of progress. Some measure of introspection and self-questioning are a part of any adult. But when they become the dominant strain in one’s philosophy or spirituality, I think there are consequences, both personal and political, that are serious and negative.
Jeanne’s post centers on the difference between someone she considers ‘literate’ and ‘deep’ (Dick Armey’s words, not hers, but they fit here), and someone who deliberately isn’t.
Now, I’ve got a foot in each world. Many of my friends here in L.A. are poets, writers, and artists, many are engineers and businessman (the artists have better parties). Maybe that’s part of what makes me so weird. But one thing that I do see is that the relentlessly self-critical attitude (and yes, I do mean to tie this in both to ‘critical theory’ and to Maoist ‘self-criticism’) is one that brings with it a certain set of bags, and a certain philosophical worldview…and hence, I’ll argue, a certain politics.
That politics is based on an inherent doubt and distrust…of authority, of the future, of our fellow citizens…and it results in an increasing bureaucratization of risk, the paralysis of over-analysis and a worship of a perpetual, inclusive process over result.
But inside…where it counts…we are left insecure, unconfident, anxious.
And part of what I see in today’s society – and part what I am sure drives people toward religious fundamentalism – is the corrosive self-doubt that has become the reflexive position of a modern thinker. This doubt cuts to the core issues deepest in our lives.
Dawn doubts if she can be a good enough mother.
Devra doubts if she should be a mother at all.
And in reaction to that pervasive doubt, some people choose a mad kind of certainty.
I’ll turn to John Gardner’s On Moral Fiction for a response.

The language of critics, and of artists of the kind who pay attention to critics, has become exceedingly odd: not talk about feelings or intellectual affirmations – not talk about moving and surprising twists of plot or wonderful characters and ideas – but sentences full of large words like hermaneutic, heuristic, structuralism, formalism, or opaque language, and full of fine distinctions – for instance those between modernist and post-modernist — that would make even an intelligent cow suspicious. Though more difficult than ever to read, criticism has become trivial.
…
In a world where nearly everything that passes for art is tinny and commercial and often, hollow and academic, I argue – by reason and by banging the table – for an old-fashioned view of what art is and does and what the fundamental business of critics ought therefore to be. Not that I want the joy taken out of the arts; but even frothy entertainment is not harmed by a touch of moral responsibility, at least by an evasion of the too fashionable simplifications. My basic message throughout this book is as old as the hills, drawn from Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Dante, and the rest, and standard in Western civilization down through the eighteenth century; one would think that all critics and artists should be thoroughly familiar with it, and perhaps many are. But my experience is that in university lecture halls, or in kitchen at midnight, after parties, the traditional view of art strikes most people as strange news.
The traditional view is that true art is moral: it seeks to improve life, not debase it. It seeks to hold off, at least for a while, the twilight of the gods and us. I do not deny that art, like criticism, may legitimately celebrate the trifling. It may joke, or mock, or while away the time. But trivial art has no meaning or value except in the shadow of more serious art, the kind of art that beats back the monsters and, if you will, makes the world safe for triviality. That art which tends toward destruction, the art of nihilists, cynics, and merdistes, is not properly art at all. Art is essentially serious and beneficial, a game played against chaos and death, against entropy. It is a tragic game, for those who have the wit to take it seriously, because our side must lose; a comic game – or so a troll might say – because only a clown with sawdust brains would take out side and eagerly join in.

And some of those people with sawdust brains walk up the stairs of burning buildings into tragedy, because they choose life over death, and hope over doubt. They aren’t all engineers, some of them are poets.

5 thoughts on “DOUBTFUL”

  1. Date: 09/29/2002 00:00:00 AM
    Such distinctions in majors are not totally accurate. After all, it was the Physicist Gell-Mann who lifted the term “quark” from Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, a book that few, if any, English students read. I think that it is rather a case of personality types. Some people have more empathy than others and therefore become more interested in understanding other points of view.

  2. Date: 09/27/2002 00:00:00 AM
    When I read Jeanne d’Arc’s comments about engineering students, all I could think was, “Gee, most of the liberal arts kids I met were the same way, only different–arrogant because they assumed they knew it all rather than that they didn’t care.”I think kids are often shallow. We often get over it as we get older. But I’ve met enough people who think Sartre holds the wisdom of the ages, that Marxism is or ever was viable, that if you don’t like poetry you’re just plain stupid, to know that careless generalizations are just that.Having met many engineering student types who are bookworms who read all kinds of non-technical stuff, and fiction, I find myself wondering if some of her engineering students weren’t just haughty and didn’t feel like talking to her about it.

  3. Date: 09/27/2002 00:00:00 AM
    It is like anything else, AL – too much of anything can be bad. Too much doubt is paralyzing. Too much confidence is rcklessness. I would submit that Bush and company could do with some sense of self doubt.Frankly, I am more comfortable with self doubt. It doesn’t keep me from acting, but it does make me think about what I am doing, have done, and what I could do better.

  4. Date: 09/27/2002 00:00:00 AM
    As I alluded to in email, self-doubt & self-criticism are a good start for any person seeking self-awareness (IMHO) … but navel-gazing in lieu of necessary action (as opposed to navel-gazing leading to action) ishardly useful. But I’m not sure where post-modern literature comes into it. ;)

  5. Date: 09/27/2002 00:00:00 AM
    gene lyons wrote that reading too much of post modern literature is like watching a basketball game where the players have become too cool to play the game by the traditional rules, intentionally double dribbling and missing the basket. he’s also written that Orwell was wrong: at its best, sport isn’t war minus the shooting: it’s art minus the bullshit.

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