The American Scholar, Wendell Berry, Bion’s groups and no more Parrots

unknown plant growing from wall on seashore
Unknown plant growing in a wall at the shore, Kotor Bay, 22 July

Yesterday I reread the Emerson’s  ‘The American Scholar’ , thinking of Bion but also of Wendell Berry’s tremendous and for me hugely significant essay, ‘The Loss of the University’ (buy a pdf download here for $3 but there’s also a volume here.). Berry argues that with no unifying language (e.g. religion, poetry, literature) a university becomes a mere technical college where ‘skills’ can be taught to distinct professions, but the  making of human beings, which ought to be the  role of the university, ceases.

I think  it is absolutely true that making human beings is not the province of  modern universities and nothing could be further from modern curricula at all levels than asking students to think about what makes a good human being. We need  to imagine what the study of literature could do for  humanity.  Oh but what vision that would take.  ‘Without vision,’ writes Emerson, quoting the Bible, ‘the people perish.’

Trying to put together  some of these thoughts which really need a week  to emerge into something thoughtful and considered, and  here can only be  short lumpy little notes to self so I don’t forget I was interested in this…

This is an old idea – is it an ancient  Jewish story  about light being broken into fragments of sparks? –  but I was struck, because of the Bion thought about a group being, as it were, a human alphabet, a-z,  with everything you might humanly need spread about between or amongst individuals.  Emerson writes:

…the gods, in the beginning, divided Man into men, that he might be more helpful to himself; just as the hand was divided into fingers, the better to answer its end.

The old fable covers a doctrine ever new and sublime; that there is One Man,—present to all particular men only partially, or through one faculty; and that you must take the whole society to find the whole man. Man is not a farmer, or a professor, or an engineer, but he is all. Man is priest, and scholar, and statesman, and producer, and soldier. In the divided or social state these functions are parceled out to individuals, each of whom aims to do his stint of the joint work, whilst each other performs his. The fable implies that the individual, to possess himself, must sometimes return from his own labor to embrace all the other laborers. But, unfortunately, this original unit, this fountain of power, has been so distributed to multitudes, has been so minutely subdivided and peddled out, that it is spilled into drops, and cannot be gathered. The state of society is one in which the members have suffered amputation from the trunk and strut about so many walking monsters,—a good finger, a neck, a stomach, an elbow, but never a man.

Man is thus metamorphosed into a thing, into many things. The planter, who is Man sent out into the field to gather food, is seldom cheered by any idea of the true dignity of his ministry. He sees his bushel and his cart, and nothing beyond, and sinks into the farmer, instead of Man on the farm. The tradesman scarcely ever gives an ideal worth to his work, but is ridden by the routine of his craft, and the soul is subject to dollars. The priest becomes a form; the attorney a statute-book; the mechanic a machine; the sailor a rope of the ship.

In this distribution of functions the scholar is the delegated intellect. In the right state he is Man Thinking. In the degenerate state, when the victim of society, he tends to become a mere thinker, or, still worse, the parrot of other men’s thinking.

How to fix this broken state? Not that the  breakage into fingers itself is a bad thing – some specialisation is  good because we can’t be good at everything and need to practice hard at some few things…but as soon as we have broken into specialists, then a weird  compulsion to degenerate begins to be the main force. We saw this in the nineteenth century when  factory workers became ‘hands’. And we see it  when scholars know  little or nothing of the world, or accountants can’t see or care about the human cost of money movements, or politicians only care about politics and so on.

How to fix?

A strong vision of what it means to be human, to care about  the human world,  to practice humanity… once all this was cared for  in that corner of reality called ‘religion’  (and for some, I know, it still is…) An education that taught us to think of ourselves as one body would help.

The fable implies that the individual, to possess himself, must sometimes return from his own labor to embrace all the other laborers. But, unfortunately, this original unit, this fountain of power, has been so distributed to multitudes, has been so minutely subdivided and peddled out, that it is spilled into drops, and cannot be gathered.

To have the  human overview – ‘Man on the Farm’ instead of ‘farm labourer’ –  people must have ways of coming together,  gatherings.  As Wendell Berry argues, literature is a language that might perform such gathering for us.  For that to happen we’d have to give  parroting. Scholars would need to become humans amongst humans, speaking not to each other only in specialist lingo but to all in the universal tongue, Man Thinking:

the scholar is the delegated intellect. In the right state he is Man Thinking. In the degenerate state, when the victim of society, he tends to become a mere thinker, or, still worse, the parrot of other men’s thinking.

Alas, that has not got me very far.

Time’s up for today.  I’m starting to read  a new novel, My Brilliant Friend. Wish me luck.

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