by Richard Nilsen
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Historians like to take big chunks of time and give them names: Classical, Postclassical, Late Medieval, Romantic, and so on. Then they argue over it all, because any good academic historian knows that the names we give big chunks of time are misleading. But, as they say, whatcha gonna do?
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Take the Middle Ages. Middle of what? Homo sapiens developed something like — in a common low-end estimate — 300,000 years ago, putting the start of the Middle Ages somewhere approximately in the last 15/3000ths of human history. Not exactly the middle.
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But the dates we give the Middle Ages vary widely. It came after the Roman Empire. When did the Roman Empire fall? Well, you can say that the final collapse came in 1453 with the fall of Constantinople. For some people, that is already the Renaissance, squeezing out the Middle Ages entirely. But no one really believes the Byzantine Empire was genuinely Roman. They spoke Greek, for god’s sake. They were Christian.
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Usually, when we talk of the fall of Rome, we mean the Western Roman Empire and the sad reign of Romulus Augustulus, which came to an end in AD 476. But really, the Western Roman empire at the time consisted only of most of Italy and Dalmatia (later aka Yugoslavia) and a tiny bit of norther France.
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And you could easily argue that Rome ceased to be Roman after Constantine converted to Christianity and legalized it in AD 313. After that, the slow slide from Roman imperialism into Medieval feudalism began its ambiguous transubstantiation.
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It is the great paradox of scholarship: The more you read, the more your ignorance grows: The more you learn about something, the more you discover how little you know.
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So, when did modernity take over? It is a slippery question. I am reminded of the time, some 40 years ago, when I first drove west from North Carolina. I had never seen the great American West and eagerly anticipated finding it. It must be so different, I thought, so distinct.
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We were living in Boone, N.C., named for Daniel, who trod those mountains in the 1700s, when anything beyond the Blue Ridge was the West. When George Washington surveyed the Northwest Territory in the late 1740s, he was measuring out what became Ohio.
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So, when I was driving, I knew I had already pushed my own frontier past such things, and knew in my heart that the West began on the other side of the Mississippi River. But, when I crossed the river into Arkansas, it hardly seemed western. It didn’t look much different from Tennessee, in my rear view mirror. Yet, Arkansas was home to the “Hanging Judge” Isaac Parker and where Jesse James robbed trains.
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But surely Texas was the West, but driving through flat, bland Amarillo on I-40 was as exciting as oatmeal. The first time we felt as if we had hit the West was at the New Mexico line, when we first saw a landscape of buttes and mesas. Surely this was the West.
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Maybe, but we hadn’t yet crossed the Continental Divide. All the waters of all the rivers we crossed emptied into the Atlantic Ocean. Finally, crossing the Divide near Thoreau, N.M.,  we felt we had finally made it.
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Yet, even when we made it to Arizona, we knew that for most of the pioneers who crossed this country a century and a half ago, the desert was just one more obstacle on the way to California. In some sense it still wasn’t the West.
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When we got as far as we could in a Chevy, and stared out at the Pacific Ocean, we knew that there was still something farther: Hawaii, Japan, China, India, Africa — and eventually back to North Carolina.
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So, the West wasn’t a place you could ever really reach, but a destination beyond the horizon: Every point on the planet is the West to somewhere else.
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When we look to find the beginnings of Modernity, the horizon recedes from us the same way. Perhaps it began with World War I, when we entered a non-heroic world and faced a more sober reality.
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Modern Art began before that, however, perhaps with Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in 1913, perhaps with Debussy’s Afternoon of a Faun in 1894. Some begin with the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874.
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Politically, maybe it begins with Bismarck and the establishment of a new order of nations. Or before that, with the Treaty of Westphalia, and the first recognition of national boundaries as something more than real estate owned by the crown.
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You can make a case that Modernism begins with the Enlightenment in the 18th century, when a rising Middle Class began to fill concert halls and Mozart became an entrepreneur instead of an employee of the aristocracy.
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You can set your marker down with Luther, with Gutenberg, with Thomas Browne, Montaigne, Caravaggio — or Giotto.
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For many, Modernism began with the Renaissance, but when did the Renaissance begin? 15th century? The Trecento? Or did it begin further north with the Gothic, which is really the first sparking of a modern way of thinking.
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Perhaps, though, the Roman republic divides modern political organization from more tribal eras before. Or you could vote for the democracy and philosophy of ancient Greece. Surely the time before that and the the time after are distinctly different. We recognize the near side of each of these divides as more familiar than the distant side.
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You might as well put the starting line with the discovery of agriculture in the steppes of Anatolia and the river plains of Iraq. An argument can be made for any of these points on the timeline — and arguments could be made for many I haven’t room to mention.
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Which leaves us the ultimate question: Is Modernism over? Done with? Have we moved on, or is what we deem Postmodernism really just the next manifestation of the Modern?
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Perhaps the horizon should be recognized for what it is: a ever-moving phantasm. For those peasants digging in the manorial dirt in the Ninth Century, the times they were living in were modern. The first person recorded to use the term “modern” for his own age was the Roman writer Cassiodorus in the 6th Century. Each moment is the new modern.
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic. A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.  We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.  We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.
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 by Richard Nilsen
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My daughter is a scant five feet tall. She went to the University of North Carolina at the same time as six-foot-six-inch Michael Jordan. One day, they both got in an empty dorm elevator together. The door closed; one looked up, one looked down and they both spontaneously started laughing.
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Scale is important.
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Visitors to the Louvre in Paris are often surprised at how small Leonardo’s Mona Lisa is. And art history students who have studied Janson’s History of Art and known Theodore Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa on page 633 in a reproduction only five-and-a-half inches wide are taken aback when they see the real thing the size of a barn, one of the largest artworks in the museum.
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And no matter how many times you’ve seen Monet’s waterlilies in books, on computer screens or in slide shows, you are not prepared for the wallop they have in person at the Orangerie. They spread out across your vision from one peripheral side to the other.
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Scale matters.
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In 1972, Apollo 17 astronauts photographed the “Blue Marble” Earth from roughly 18,000 miles, giving us an image of the wet, watery ball we live on. It looks small and vulnerable — and it is, in the immensity of space. But it also gives a misleading impression of the scale of the planet.
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In 2008, I drove from Phoenix, Ariz. to Reidsville, N.C., over a weekend, a trip of about 2,200 miles, or roughly 1/11th of the circumference of the globe. I left after work on a Friday and pulled in to Reidsville on Monday morning. I was hauling ass, as they say. On the Sunday, I drove 900 miles. The trip was exhausting, but gave me a palpable sense of the size of the world. I could feel it, because I drove over it.
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In 1989, I flew from Phoenix to South Africa, a flight that spent some 40 hours in the air. The popular image is that if you dig straight down in your back yard in America, you eventually hit China, but this isn’t so. Directly opposite Phoenix on the Great Blue Ball is a spot in the Indian Ocean just off the coast of South Africa. So my flight was literally to the antipodes. (It took so long because in that apartheid era, I had to take an especially roundabout route to my destination: Phoenix to Philadelphia, changing flights to Frankfurt, Germany, changing again to a South Africa Airlines flight that, because of opposition to apartheid, was not permitted to overfly most other nations in Africa, and so, had to fly out over the Atlantic, refuel in the Azores, and cruise over the water all the way to Namibia before finally landing in Johannesburg.) It took Lindbergh 33 hours to cross just the Atlantic.
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Such a trip really gives you a sense of the scale of the planet.
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Before air travel, however, such a voyage would take months, not hours, providing an even more body-interior feel for the distance. In 1967, I took a trans-Atlantic ocean liner to Europe, and the monotony of the unchanging sea, day to day, made the earth seem even larger. My trip took four days and a bit. It took Columbus more than two months to cross the Atlantic.
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The point I am making with all this travel tales, is that scale, whether looking at Picasso’s Guernica, or watching the odometer while driving from Bangor to Seattle, is that scale is felt in the body, it is measured by human proportions. As Protagoras recognized in the Fifth Century BC, “Man is the measure of all things.”
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When we look out at the night sky and realize we are at the bottom of a seemingly infinite and dark well, we can be awed, but we cannot feel in our bodies the inestimable size of the cosmos.
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Yes, we can speak of it in abstractions. We can point out that Voyager I, now in interstellar space, is traveling at a speed of 17,000 miles per second — which would take about a second and a half to circle the Earth — and will cover 325 million miles in a year. Yet, at that speed, it would take it  some 45 thousand years to reach the nearest star. There is no way you can process that scale in your paltry human skin. We can talk in big words, like billions and trillions, but outside of abstract mathematical numbers, can you actually feel the difference between a billion miles and a trillion? They are meaningless words. You might as accurately call it a “gazillion.”
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Do not misunderstand me. Humans have been amazing at understanding the cosmos intellectually. We can calculate the orbit of a satellite within what seems like a few inches. But I am not talking here about abstract reasoning.
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There is a limit to the human imagination. We can calculate overwhelming numbers, but in terms of body knowledge — being able to physically conceptualize — such numbers turn into little more than words. We can use the math for engineering and for science, but we must recognize that our puny minds cannot get their arms around such boggling numbers. We are limited by the evolution of our human brains, which grew to process the daily income of sense data. We can feel the road under us as we speed along the interstate; we cannot feel the gap between Earth and Alpha Centauri. We can name it, but we cannot feel it. All trans-human scales are metamorphosed into a single size: Infinite, or might-as-well-be. It is what we feel when we turn our eyes up toward Orion or the Milky Way.
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

 

 

 

by Richard Nilsen

When Adlai Stevenson ran for president in 1952, he was tagged with being an “egghead.” It was enough to sink him in the election. No one wanted an egghead in the White House.
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But neither did anyone actually ask what an “egghead” might possibly be. We throw around the term “intellectual” as if it were widely understood. But the term means something very specific.
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It doesn’t mean someone who is very smart. Many smart people are not in the least intellectual. (Nor should they be — we need smart people who can actually do and make things, too.)
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It doesn’t mean simply someone well-educated or with a string of letters after their name. After all, Ph.D. is often just an acronym for “Piled Higher and Deeper.” Dogged drudge-work will earn you a Ph.D. if you are willing to put in the hours. (This is not to disparage those Ph.D.s who are intellectual — intellectuals often earn advanced degrees, but the degree itself is no guarantee.)
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When I was growing up, those who were considered intellectual were often called “nerds.” It was not a compliment. But nerd-dom has changed over the years, and now, nerds are almost never intellectual. Their heads are buried in video games or comic books. Yes, they can program like demons, but how much do they actually think about what they’re doing? Being able to do things civilians cannot does not make you an intellectual.
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We tend to think of intellectuals as those who know a lot of stuff. But at its core, being intellectual is not about knowledge, but about questions. An intellectual constantly questions things.
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Now, we all have questions. It is basic to being a human. But intellectuals are different in this respect: We all have questions, but intellectuals have questions about the questions. They examine the validity of our assumptions.
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Through most of history, we learned about the world from our elders, and our elders learned from their elders. This was a fine system for eons. And even today, the model most people have of the world is the one handed to them and reflexively accepted. This is our Umwelt, the picture of reality held in our psyche against which we measure things. It is not a very sophisticated model, and one that is frequently proved wrong, or at least unexamined.
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Consider three meals a day, or 8 hours of sleep. Take patriotism or gender roles. These are our “categories of thought,” and while they have served us well enough, they are still basically habits rather than realities.
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Let me repeat, this has nothing to do with intelligence. There are very smart people who use these categories of thought to accomplish much. In fact, the world runs smoothly for long stretches entirely because these people tend to run things. They are not intellectuals. No matter how smart they are, they have not that peculiar bent of personality that we can name as intellectual. (There can be a problem, though. Consider a complete non-intellectual who arrogantly and stupidly thinks his narrow vision comprises the whole world and has his finger on the nuclear button. I shudder.)
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But they are the vast majority of the human population throughout the world and throughout history. Problems occur when one set of assumptions bump face to face with a different set. Wars may start, people may die. But, inside the smooth running society, these assumptions keep the wheels greased — even if those wheels include patriarchy, slavery or 30-year mortgages.
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There are those, however, who recognize the categories of thought as things to play with. These are the clever people. They take our expectations and turn them upside down — usually to make us laugh or entertain us, but also to make us vote a certain way, or to make us sign on to a new religion. When they entertain us, they give us pleasure; when they manipulate us, they generally foster misery. Either way, they don’t question the categories, but merely rejigger them to effect.
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I think, for instance, of Quentin Tarantino. Clever as hell, but not what I could call an intellectual. He takes the tropes and memes of culture, mainly old movies — and mainly old bad movies — and turns them sideways and upside down, then fills them with clever dialog and makes bright, shiny new films that we admire for their sheen. But he has neither negated those tropes, nor even questioned them, merely juggled them — a new version of the vaudeville plate spinner. His ideas have no more substance than the deaths of the Crazy 88 in Kill Bill — ducks in a shooting gallery. He is damned clever.
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Tarantino is not thinking outside the box: He is stacking boxes.
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Intellectuals, on the other hand, attempt to see the categories of thought and examine them, asking if they are truly solid, or mere habits of mind to be transcended. These are the people who think, as they say, “outside the box.” Indeed, for the rarest of them, there is no box at all: They see most clearly, with no filter. At least, that’s the attempt. It is so hard to do, most intellectuals really only achieve the creation of new habits to be accepted and followed by later populations. Still, they persist.
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My avatar for the intellectual is Albert Einstein, who inherited the categories of Isaac Newton, and jumped outside the box to see the bigger picture. From inside
Newton’s box, you could never unravel the riddle of photons. Of course, outside the box, we are now lost in a welter of quantum mechanics, and it will take a new Einstein to see past the walls of our new cosmic box.
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These intellectuals fill the ranks of many fields. If you want to compare an intellectual filmmaker with a clever one, then put side-by-side films by Tarantino and those by Ingmar Bergman. There are intellectual mathematicians who constantly question prime numbers, there are political scientists who question democracy, doctors who question research, novelists who question class and race, poets who question language, historians who question evidence. We once had Structuralists debunking the biographical interpretation of literature, followed by the Post-Structuralist who deconstructed them, and the current crop of intellectuals who are fed up with political readings of everything from Lewis Carroll to Jacqueline Susann.
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Now, these three types of mind I have just outlined are not three discrete kinds of personality. They are points on a spectrum. On one end there are the common minds, on the other there are the intellectuals and in the middle are various shades of clever. I have made a chart (one of the popular tropes in our current culture, so frequent in board meetings) showing the relative numbers of each type and the range of the spectrum.
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It should be pointed out once again, that this is not a range from dumb to smart. There actually can be intellectuals who are not very bright, and there are ordinary people who can be very intelligent. It is not the level of brainpower we’re talking about, but the inclination to focus that power on one type of thinking or another.
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Further, societies cannot function if everyone questions everything all the time. There is little stability in intellectual thought. Yet, societies can fester if there are no intellectuals among its number. The proportions I have shown in my “Spectrum of Exthecation” are generally the right proportion for a functioning culture. (“Theca” is the Latin word for “box,” and so, “exthecation” is “outside the box.”)
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In a way, I think of the spectrum as running from truth assumers through truth users and on to truth seekers. Where do you fall?
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

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by Richard Nilsen
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I was asked to come and speak to a writing class at a local community college. When you write for the daily newspaper, you get such invitations. I always tried to oblige.
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As I spoke to the students, who ranged in age from teens to retirees — that is the way it often is in two-year schools — it became clear that I wasn’t saying what the course teacher had wanted me to say.
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I wasn’t trying to undermine her curriculum, but it was obvious from her comments that she had hoped I would talk about writing outlines, topic sentences, supporting arguments and perorations, all the usual paraphernalia of learning how to put words in order so as not to embarrass yourself to your reader.
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But, I’m afraid I had something different in mind. In fact, I started out by laying out only one rule for good writing. And it had nothing to do with not ending a sentence with a preposition; nothing to do with making notes and organizing your thought; nothing to do with spell-check or grammar.
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“The most important requirement for good writing,” I told them, “is having something to say.”
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It is surprising how many people sit down in front of their computer keyboard and assume that writing is somehow a substitute for having something to say, as if fancy words would bamboozle your readers with flash and mist.
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You can read online the two-hour speech that Edward Everett gave on Nov. 19, 1863 at the dedication of the soldiers’ cemetery at Gettysburg, Pa. It is a 13,000-word behemoth of rhetoric and panegyric. It was carefully wrought, organized in just such a way as to make impressive points at calculated intervals, rising to climaxes, falling back and rising even higher. It was a masterpiece of construction; unfortunately, all that great scaffolding rather hid the edifice behind.
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“Standing beneath this serene sky, overlooking these broad fields now reposing from the labors of the waning year, the mighty Alleghenies  dimly towering before us, the graves of our brethren beneath our feet, it is with hesitation that I raise my poor voice to break the eloquent silence of God and Nature. But the duty to which you have called me must be performed; — grant me, I pray you, your indulgence and your sympathy.”
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There were references to Ancient Greece, the glory of war and the bravery of soldiers, and a good deal of mention of blue skies and rolling green fields.
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It was a memorable performance — at least, that is what people thought at the time, although almost no one remembers it now, except in dim contrast with the words Abraham Lincoln then spoke, with a ratio of words, compared with Everett, of 1-to-50. Lincoln’s words barely fill half a page of typescript.
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The difference: Lincoln has something to say.
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What is surprising is how few people actually have anything to say. Oh, they jabber on endlessly, but it is mostly prattle. And it is mostly rehash of what others have already said. Original thought is a rare commodity.
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What does it mean, having something to say? It can be the recounting of a meaningful experience, it can be a fresh insight, it can be an opinion.
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There is a lie that is a cliche (how often they are twins), that opinions are like (I’ll use the word “noses” here to be polite, but you know the familiar wording) noses: everyone has one. But this simply glosses over the fact that almost no one has a true opinion, but rather restates some glib bromide that has been heard from someone else. These are not opinions, they are bumper stickers; they are T-shirt slogans.
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A genuine opinion comes from deep experience, probing consideration and formulation of thought within a coherent world view. You can tell the difference easily: If you imagine a meme on Facebook printed in fancy text over a picture of a cat, it is not an opinion. If it a quote questionably ascribed to Mark Twain or Albert Einstein of Mahatma Gandhi, it is not an opinion. If it favors one political party or candidate over another, it is not an opinion. Sorry. Dittoheads are disallowed.
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But I am overplaying opinion. Having something to say is much greater than merely weighing options in a dilemma and reaching a conclusion. In many ways, having something to say is more compelling when it is not trying to persuade us of anything, but to convey to us the experience of something. Or telling us a story. Or discovering something you had not previously known and now feel compelled to share. The compulsion is the all.
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Writing is a compulsion. You have something to say; it needs to get out, get down on paper (the legacy version — now we get it down in bits on a laptop screen). Good writing is an overflowing, like a fountain. Questions of creating an outline, or fretting over sentences with prepositions as the ending of, simply don’t come into play.
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When you have something to say, the order with which it spills out onto the page will almost certainly be the most effective order. Yes, you can arrange ideas rhetorically, and certainly, if you are not a natural writer, you may be helped by a course in creative writing. But writers are born, not made. Some people have a talent for mathematics, some for music, some for sports. You can teach people the rote version of any of these, but those with the inbred talent will find the best expression for any of these fields. I know that no matter how much I study trigonometry, I will never be a mathematician. I may get the gist, but never the pith.
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I suppose you can teach enough rudiments to non-writers so they will not humiliate themselves when they are required to write something down, but you cannot make them writers. And I suppose you can take a raw, unformed writer and make him or her aware of things they hadn’t considered and help them develop their natural ability, but you cannot take a lump and turn it into a gem.
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But even talented writers have to have something to say, or they are just spinning their wheels.
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Something to say requires a life paying attention, a life with an open chest, willing to soak things in. This is filling the well so it may be drawn on later. In the old days, writers like Thomas Wolfe or Ernest Hemingway sought out adventures, signing on to merchant ships; or taking cross-country road trips, like Jack Kerouac; or shooting lions; or stabbing a wife, like Norman Mailer; or leaving America and living out of trash bins in Paris like Henry Miller; in order to gain material for books. Not so much for autobiography, as for the sheer volume of experience that could inform their prose.
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The larger you are on the inside, the more pressure for the accumulated steam to escape in words, precious words, delicious words, excited words, needful words.
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This is having something to say.
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Like so much else, this is something I learned from my wife, who taught art for so many years to first-, second-, and third-graders. Too many art teachers spent their classes with the color wheel, or with masterworks of art history, or — much, much worse — project art, such as outlining your hand to make Thanksgiving turkeys, or with golden-macaroni Parthenons.
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But what my wife did was bring live animals to class and let the children play with them for 20 minutes or a half hour, asking them to sit quiet and observe the bunny or the hermit crab or the turtle; to feel their fur or carapace; to look them in the eye; even to talk to them. She might have them sit in a circle on the floor and put the rabbit in the middle of them and ask them to sit still and try to draw the bunny to them.
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Children respond to the animals so strongly that all you have to do is put a piece of paper in front of them after their exposure to the beasts, and give them some paint and brush, and they will be mad to paint their response to the experience. You cannot stop them from making masterpieces. You do not teach them technique, you fill their insides with something real, and they transmute it into utter expressivity. It is a miraculous thing to see.
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Educator Viktor Lowenfeld said that given sufficient motivation by experience, the children will find their “adequate means of expression.”
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It is the same with writing. You don’t need topic sentences (I snooze at the prospect), you need content. You need enough life in you that you become a conduit for it. It is written because it needs to be written.
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.


 by Richard Nilsen
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The more I learn, the less I know.
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This is common to most of us. Because knowledge grows arithmetically, but our awareness of how much we don’t yet know in any given field grows exponentially.
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The great E.O. Wilson without doubt knows more about ants than anyone else on the planet, but I would wager that he would tell you that if you put all his knowledge on one side of a balance scale, and all he doesn’t know on the other, that side would drop the weighing pan to the table, leaving his knowledge high and dry and swinging quietly in the air. He is more aware now than ever of just how much there is still to learn about ants.

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Fifty years ago, when I was taking college courses in everything I could think of, my ambition in life was to know everything. Literally. I wanted to absorb all that was known in this existence. There may have been a slight awareness of irony in this, but the ambition was essentially sincere. I plunged into ancient Greek, into astronomy, into Shakespeare, into mythology, into symbolic logic — and that was just my first semester; I had to get special permission for the extra credit hours. And in my leisure time, I read poetry, physics, political science and Aldous Huxley’s Doors of Perception.
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Needless to say, I couldn’t keep this pace going after the second semester. There was beer, combustible pharmaceuticals and a newly invigorated interest in the exciting volatility of female physiology. Still, I continued to take as wide a variety of courses I could get away with and still meet my requirements for the core curriculum. But it was after my degree that my real education began. In school, I read what was required of me, after, I read entirely what my curiosity ignited in me. I soaked up everything I could, but the more I took in, the faster the horizon of my knowledge sped away from me.
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by Unknown artist, oil on canvas, feigned oval, circa 1629

It bugged me. When poet John Milton was that age, he took six years off after getting his degree from Cambridge University and read everything that have ever been written up to that time — at least everything he had knowledge of.
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I doubt he read Chinese, but he did read Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French, Italian, Spanish, Dutch and even Old English, and while there were surely myriad books he was simply unaware of, other than those, he managed to read everything as far as he knew, that had ever been written. Everything.
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By 1967, that was no longer possible for me. By then, even scientists could no longer even read everything just in their own field. There was too much. Now, it is even worse. Words are being written faster than they can be read, faster than they can be cataloged, faster than voice-recognition software can translate them. We are buried under a vast refuse pile of publication and the gulls swarm, circling overhead, squawking.
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One then makes a choice — do you dive deeper into a single field, and learn all you can about ants, or about the use of the ablative case in late Roman literature, or perhaps the transfer of spin in subatomic particles, or do you attempt to skim the surface of it all and gather bits of flotsam from every field.
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As for me, I didn’t really have a choice. I have become less interested in any single particular, and more interested in the way all these particulars relate to each other. I made a distinction between what I called the “tree of knowledge” and, on the other hand, “fact confetti.”
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We all know fact confetti. In high school, we had to learn dates: 44 BC, AD 1066, 1492, 1588, 1776, 1848, 1914 — but they too often remained discrete bits of factoid unrelated to each other, except by needing to know them for tests. The snow of confetti piled up: subtrahend, pluperfect, atomic number, Bonaparte, establishment clause, hypotenuse, bicameral, manifest destiny, cosine, topic sentence, supply and demand, and something about my aunt and her pencil. It was a blizzard.

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Against this fact confetti, I set the tree of knowledge. In this view of learning, all the branches of human knowledge are connected, and you follow one limb out to its extension without ever losing track of the limb that balances it on the other side of the tree. It is the ultimate effect of trying to hold on to as wide an understanding as possible. You cannot know every fact, but you can grasp the structure on which all the facts are leaves.
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If you have a sense of the Renaissance giving in to the Baroque and to the Neoclassical and Romanticism, then you not only understand the history of painting, but also that of political philosophy, literature and even typography. The Bodoni typeface simply has to appear when it did. And by the flow from one era to the next, you can follow the pendulum as it swings from a kind of classicism to a kind of Baroque, or Romantic outlook, which governs all. Thus, 1492 isn’t merely Columbus, but also the Expulsion of Jews and Muslims from Iberia, the pivot into a world of nation-state, a growing urbanism, a gradual reawakening of European globalism. The years that soon followed, Erasmus wrote his In Praise of Folly, Machiavelli wrote The Prince, and Martin Luther’s German translation of the Bible was published. It is all tied together.
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If you understand the forces of the Reformation and its Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation, you can understand the difference between the paintings of Rembrandt and Rubens. You will not place them in the wrong century. It is all of a piece. Know the tree and even if you forget a detail, you can follow the branch out and rediscover what you didn’t know you remembered. It is not fact confetti, but a single glorious growth from rootstock to leaf tip.
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The truth is, that we need a framework for our knowledge; anything else is merely fact confetti. We enter that calculus class and hear a blizzard of terminology:  derivatives, tangents, quotients, functions, integrals, vectors. We might as well be studying Aeolian Greek. An overview would be helpful, so we would know where to hang these definitional tree ornaments.
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Scene at base of trumeau, south portal, west facade Notre Dame de Paris: Eve eats of the forbidden fruit and hands apple to Adam, while serpent is seen as part woman.

Clearly, the frontiers of knowledge are expanded by the first choice, by those who dare to pick apart the minutiae, get their Piled-Higher-and-Deeper and condemn themselves to a life in which the only people they can talk to are others who share the same fragments of existence. But a problem occurs when such profoundly learned people venture outside their own spheres. What can an entomologist have to say about the ablative case? Or a Dante scholar say about differential calculus?

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And it is the breadth of knowledge, not its depth that makes the tree of knowledge. We depend on specialists to add new growth to the tree, but it is important for at least some of us to focus on the whole and not the part.
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Obviously, the specialists cannot, and don’t need to. But someone does. Someone has to see the forest and not the trees, or the trees and not just one leaf or another. That is for those of us who have taken the second choice. Those whose curiosities cannot settle, who hover over every thought, every field, and wish not to write a peer-reviewed paper, but, like Denis Diderot, write an entire encyclopedia.
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In other words, not to know everything, as I once wished, but at least to see the shadow of everything and try to hold it in the mind even as the horizon stretches away from us.
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

 
by Richard Nilsen
In 1974, the surrealist comedy team, Firesign Theater, released an album titled, Everything You Know is Wrong. Surprisingly, they were right.
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Take China, for instance. We have been told that China is 3,000 years old, or 5,000 — take your number — as if the entity we today call China were unchanging in all that time. But in reality, the national identity of China has changed constantly.
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Looked at more closely, the history of China is one of various dynasties, varied national borders, conglomerations of multiple nations coalescing and dividing and joining again and absorbing territory from its edges, being invaded and ruled by non-Chinese emperors, and reasserting its Han ethnic identity, despite the large numbers of non-Han peoples now circumscribed by its current borders. China has not been static over those millennia. It has been a bubbling cauldron of instability and change.
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.You only have to look at the varied maps over time to see that what we tend to call China moves around the map of the Asian continent almost as much as Poland has moved around the map of Europe.
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If we thought about Europe the same way we tend to think about China, then there is no reason we shouldn’t say that France is 30,000 years old, because the cave paintings of Lascaux and Chauvet are that old, and the kind of naturalistic drawing evidenced in those caves is characteristic of European art as we tend to think of it.
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So, why do we think of China as an unchanging entity, but recognize France as having emerged from Roman Gaul and the Frankish kingdom of Charlemagne, and becoming France only slowly?
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Clearly, there is a bias somewhere here, a view that we have a more detailed understanding of what is closer to us, and a dim and uncertain view of what is “other” and foreign. “They” are unchanging, while we constantly evolve.
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But I don’t mean to be writing about China, but about what we consider knowledge. What we know is almost always wrong, or, if not wrong, always more complicated than we allow.
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I think of Cliff Clavin, the mailman on the TV show, Cheers, who was a nattering fountain of facts. “It’s a little known fact that smartest animal is a pig. Scientists say if pigs had thumbs and a language, they could be trained to do simple manual labor.”
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Clavinisms include a good deal of what we hear as “fact” on the internet, when we read “Top 5 Countries with the Most Fatalities on Everest” or “Top 5 Countries with the Most Women in Parliament.” They make up all the “Ripley’s Believe it or Not” cartoons (“An 8-year-old Ohio boy taught himself to drive by watching YouTube, and
he drove to McDonald’s for a cheeseburger with his little sister on April 9, 2017. He didn’t commit any traffic violations!”), and the basis of many frightening schoolyard myths that little boys impress each other with (“If you stab yourself with a pencil, you get lead poisoning.”)
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Needless to say, most such Clavinisms are either demonstrably false, or self-contradictory (the Ohio boy did commit a traffic violation: He drove without a license), or — more often — missing contextual complexity.
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And it is this complexity that usually stumps us. Almost any fact, taken individually, is refutable with enough context, because the world is not made up of discrete bits, but of a web of interrelations, and every bit complicates every other bit.
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It is why we can argue interminably over the cause of the Civil War or whether behavior is learned or innate. How many of each animal did Noah take on the Ark? Depends on which verses of the Bible you consult.
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Facts are the defense of the young. When we are so young that we still know everything, we can assert with confidence that marijuana is not addictive, or that abortion is murder. When we enter college, we are all Cliff Clavins. It takes a lifetime of being humbled before the complexity of the world that we come to understand how little we actually know.
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I remember well when I knew everything. I knew that war was unnecessary, that the maturity of my elders was equal parts exhaustion and cowardice, that evil in the world was merely a product of ignorance. Later, after drinking too shallowly of the Pierian Spring in college classes, I knew that everything was relative, and that there was no such thing as universal truth. I have recently been face to face with the fact that there is at least one universal truth, expressed in Brahms’ German Requiem: “Herr, lehre doch mich, dass ein Ende mit mir haben muss.”
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Recently, my wife would complain when she asked a question and I answered, as I increasingly did in later years, “I really don’t know,” or “I’m not sure,” and she would say, “You used to be able to answer all my questions. Why can’t you do that anymore?” The reason is that all the answers have become muddied. There is too much husk and not enough seed. How can you answer a question such as “Why did Napoleon fail in Russia?” without beginning with the Greeks and Scythians 2,500 years earlier? It is all connected. Each answer requires a book, and even the book is only a summation. “I don’t know” can also mean “I don’t know how to give an answer that doesn’t distort the case by oversimplifying.” And, “I don’t know because while I have the surface information, I don’t know the background well enough to explain it.”
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It can be easier to accept the Clavinism: The Romans had a room where, after eating too much, they would go to vomit (a “vomitorium” was really the exit portal of a sports stadium); Einstein failed math in school (no, he didn’t); Napoleon was short (he was average height for his time); we only use 10 percent of our brains (perhaps true for certain politicians, but not for the rest of us).
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Such factoids give us the illusion of knowledge. But, even when they are superficially true, they miss the swirling, gurgling complexity of the real world, the interrelatedness of history, the unknowability of parts of the cosmos.
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This is not a plea to surrender to ignorance, but rather a call to embrace humility. The ability to recognize that you don’t know isn’t an end, but a beginning: It is the prod to learn more. I am now 69 and I feel like I am barely turning the first page of a book.
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard and his wife moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

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