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by Traude Wild

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How much is our life centered on securing ourselves from ever-changing circumstances? We want to be safe and feel in control of our life situations. Quite often, if we are honest with ourselves, we want to control other people in order to guard our safety. We build walls, distance and isolate ourselves, so we may be protected from uncertainties and the things we fear. However, instead of being protected, we become prisoners in the walls we have built.

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In order to regain our vitality, youthfulness and joy for life, we must have a willingness to step into the unknown and be changed by life itself.

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When I walked the 88 Temple pilgrimage – an 800-mile hike around the fourth-largest island of Japan – my steps into the unknown began before I left home. I wanted to be well-prepared and intended to hike up Piestewa Peak in Phoenix at least once a day. But several weeks before my departure, I became so ill and weak that I ran out of breath after walking 30 feet uphill. My physical problems intensified my major doubts about walking alone in an exotic foreign country. Voices whispered to me in silent moments: “You are not prepared enough. You are too old. You will get lost. You will not be able to communicate without knowing Japanese.”

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At my lowest point – when fears, doubts and my body’s weakness nearly overtook my consciousness – I took a pen and scribbled a drawing with my non-dominant hand. I called it “simply just walking.” It expressed my determination to walk the pilgrimage, regardless of my fears and the potential disasters.

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When I boarded the plane to Tokyo, I carried all the insecurities and doubts with me. I had to accept who I was, facing my vulnerability and fears. In my mind, I was ready to accept every experience I would encounter, even death. This may sound strange and I did not want to die at all. However, in reflecting back on this attitude, I realize that the intention to accept every experience helped me to start the pilgrimage without fear. It was like stepping through the entrance gate of a Shingon Buddhist temple where often a wooden beam was placed on the bottom of the gate. The pilgrim had to be careful not to touch this beam while stepping over it. I had to be careful not to give in to my fears and insecurities.

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I started the pilgrimage at temple number one, Ryōzenji, in Tokushima Prefekture. Stepping through the entrance gate, a world utterly unknown to me unfolded in front of my eyes. The sound of bells mixed with the voices of chanting pilgrims. All were Japanese. They wore sedged hats and white pilgrim’s outfits and walked naturally through the temple area. They knew how and where to bow, to purify their hands and mouth, to ring the bell and gongs, to light candles and incense, to donate name slips and money and, especially, how to chant.

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My friend Shigeo and I in front of the main Hall in Ryōzenji.

I, on the other hand, was totally overwhelmed and confused. I constantly made mistakes – forgot to bow, rang the small gongs in a bumbling way and stood in the way of other pilgrims without realizing it. My feelings of awkwardness and being out of place intensified with every temple I visited. Should I give up my intention to walk the pilgrimage like a traditional pilgrim? Following the pilgrim’s etiquette did not have any religious purpose for me. I wanted to use it for training in mindfulness. I could escape my self-imposed requirements and simply not do it.

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When I reached my lowest point, when my voice cracked while chanting the sutra and the feeling of being out of place made me want to disappear into the ground, a miracle happened. Another Japanese pilgrim suddenly appeared beside me, and we chanted the Heart Sutra together in a steady, strong voice. The Japanese words suddenly sounded grounding and assuring. They lost their strangeness. From that moment on, I continued with the rituals, and I loved it till the end of my pilgrimage. By simply just walking forward despite my strong feelings of awkwardness, my perception changed.

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Walking a pilgrimage is following a path to a destination. However, for me, the destination is never the goal. The goal is to be wherever I am right now. This was especially true in Shikoku. The 88 Temple Pilgrimage is a circle with no beginning or end. Although there is a physically marked path, it only becomes a path by walking it. The poet David Whyte states, “By walking, you make the path.” Each step is a step into the unknown. How do you deal with the uncertainties? You have to trust in life, be connected to silence and listen.

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During my pilgrimage, I often walked through remote areas with nobody around. Although I always looked for the little red signs, sometimes I could not find any marker and thought I had lost my way. Getting lost was one of my biggest fears.

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One time, on my way to a mountain temple, I had walked for hours through a dense cedar forest without meeting anybody. Nearly at the top of the mountain, I had to climb an iron ladder over an almost vertical rock. Not far away from this climb, I came to a crossroad with signs pointing in three directions – back where I was coming from, left and right. The signs had only Japanese words on them, which I could not read.

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I was sure I had lost my way. What should I do? My heart pounded stronger, and I felt light panic creeping up. I decided to stop, wait and go into silence. Suddenly, I heard a sweeping sound in the distance. I followed it uphill, and to my surprise, in the middle of the forest, there was a man sweeping the path! He assured me I was on the right way. My fears vanished in a second and were replaced by deep gratitude.

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But I faced my biggest time of uncertainty when I approached the entrance gate of Zuiōji. This temple belongs to one of the most traditional Sōtō Zen training centers in Japan. I got a permit to stay there for eight days. When I walked up to the gate in pouring rain, with heavy mist hanging over the treetops, the outer world seemed to reflect my inner one – not seeing farther than my immediate experience.

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I had read stories about foreigners staying in Japanese temples that made me shudder – they felt totally abandoned, crushed and lost. Maybe I was making a big mistake to come here. In my dripping wet red raincoat, I entered the kitchen, the only place I could find anybody. Two cooks were working there. One of them immediately spotted me, welcomed me with a big smile, and greeted me using my Buddhist name: “You must be Garyo-san! Welcome to Zuiōji!”

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Although I was the only foreigner and only woman, I was able to practice with the monks the traditional way of Zen. The stay in Zuiōji became the highlight of my pilgrimage.

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Saying good by to the over 90 year old

abbot of Zuiōji, Tsugen Narasaki Rōshi

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The walk into the unknown did not end with my Japanese pilgrimage. Back at home, I unexpectedly felt depressed and disoriented. Familiarity threatened to take away the freshness I had experienced in Japan. Over and over, I had to train and discipline my mind to stay alert in my familiar world, to be open and stay in resonance with life around me.

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While writing my book, the unknown became more of a fine aroma or a hardly felt breeze. However, this radically changed when publishing the book. Insurmountable obstacles seem to prevent me from putting the book into the world. Suddenly, I was confronted with a situation I feared most – I had to walk the last steps of publication on my own. Computer technology is an overwhelming world to me, like a dangerous jungle with many unexpected traps. I felt abandoned and helpless. However, I had to dare to take these steps, despite my insecurity and fear. With a friend beside me, I walked through the jungle of electronic book design and unfamiliar technical language. And at the end, a miracle happened – the book was accepted and published.

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A pilgrimage is not different from the journey of life. Whether we’re on an unfamiliar trail or simply waking up to a new day, we have to step out of our narrow space and into one of the most challenging and scary situations in life – the world of the unknown. To let this happen, we have to let go of the identity we hold onto and the stories we tell about ourselves and give ourselves away to the direct experience of life. This requires openness, vulnerability and a willingness to become intimate with silence. It is not easy to do.

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Rilke, one of my favorite poets, describes it in the following way:

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God speaks to each of us before we are, before he’s formed us –

then, in a cloudy speech, but only then, he speaks these words to each,

and silently walks with us from the dark: Driven by your senses,

dare to the edge of longing. Grow, like a fire’s shadow casting glare,

behind assembled things, so you can spread their shapes on me as clothes.

Don’t leave me bare. Let it all happen to you: beauty and dread.

Simply go – no feeling is too much –

and only this way can we stay in touch. Near here is the land that they call life.

You’ll know when you arrive by how real it is.

                         Translated by Leonard Cottrell

You can find more information about my pilgrimage in

SHIKOKU, THE 88 TEMPLE WAY: POETICS OF A JAPANESE PILGRIMAGE

available for Kindle or in paperback from Amazon.com or on my blog: simplyjustwalking.com

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Traude Wild, a long time member of Spirit of the Senses, who resides in both Vienna and Phoenix, has been a lecturer of art history and practicioner of Zen Buddhism. Her passion is walking, especially walking pilgrimages. Two of her books describe her walks in Ethiopia and Nepal. Her current book is  ‘Shikoku, The 88 Temple Way: Poetics of a Japanese Pilgrimage’.

 

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by Richard Nilsen
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In 1966, I invented the Gaia principle. Me. That the earth is a single living organism. But more on that later.
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First, of course, I’m not the only one to figure this out. At about the same time, chemist James Lovelock and microbiologist Lynn Margulis gave the idea its name, after the primeval Greek goddess of the Earth and the primordial mother of all life. But I beat them out and claim my primacy.  But again, later.
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It turns out, it is not unusual for ideas to pop up simultaneously and independently. Science and technology are littered with such examples. For instance, Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz worked out the calculus at the same time, although Newton called the process fluxions — which I think is a much catchier name. They did not get on, and Newton always felt that Leibniz must have cadged the process from his notes. (Leibniz didn’t).
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Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace came up with the concept of natural selection as the mechanism for evolution at the same time. In this case, the two worked it out between them amicably.
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These are the most famous examples of ideas welling up separately, but there are many more.
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Joseph Priestly and Carl Wilhelm Scheele discovered oxygen both in the 1770s. Both Nettie Stevens and Edmund Wilson submitted papers that formed the modern view of genetic gender determination 10 days apart. Takaaki Kajita and Arthur B. McDonald independently proved neutrinos have mass. Lothar Meyer and Dmitri Mendeleev each created the periodic table of elements — a year apart. The British Frank Whittle and the German Hans von Ohain each came up with the first jet engine, during World War II, on opposite sides of the conflict.
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I could go on: Within six months of each other, Jack Kilby and Robert Noyce each invented the microchip in the late 1950s. Benjamin Franklin invented the lightning rod in 1749 and Czech theologian Prokop Divis came up with the same idea in 1754, independently. In 1953, both Daniel Fox of General Electric and Hermann Schnell of the German company Bayer invented polycarbonate plastic. American Don Wetzel and British John Shepherd both invented the automated teller machine (ATM) in the late ’60s. In 1902, Leon Teisserence de Bort from France and German Richard Assmann discovered the stratosphere just three days apart.
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At least five people came up with a mechanism for television in the 1920s.
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Clearly, something was in the air, besides oxygen.
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The same thing happens in movies. They are called “twin films,” and Wikipedia lists 173 pairs of them: movies that share the same plot made at the same time by different studios.
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Among the most notable: Deep Impact and Armageddon in 1998; Tombstone and Wyatt Earp 1993 and ’94; Dangerous Liaisons andValmont in 1988 and ’89; Volcano and Dante’s Peak in 1997. Sometimes the pairing is quite specific: drag queens on a road trip across a continent to discover themselves — The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert in 1994 and To Wong Fu, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar a year later.
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Just last year, there was Sink or Swim and Swimming With Men, both films about a man in midlife crisis joining an all-male synchronized swim team. And Skate Kitchen and Mid90s, both about skate boarders, both with non-actor skateboarders and young heroes dealing with difficult mothers.
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It seems the zeitgeist is pregnant with something and then it all coalesces with the birth pangs around the world.
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Of more import are those significant upwellings of political synchronicity. Probably the most famous is the year 1848, when revolutionary movements exploded in some 50 countries worldwide, from Ukraine to Brazil. It seemed to come from nowhere and suddenly, it was everywhere. Unfortunately for history, almost all of the revolutions failed.
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A lesser confluence of revolution had occurred in 1830, in France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Poland, Portugal, Switzerland and Italy. In France, it brought the “citizen king,” Louis Philippe, that 1848 attempted to unseat.
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In our own time, 1968 was the focus of international disruption, protest and violence, not only with anti-war protests and civil rights unrest in the U.S., with the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., and the riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, but major strikes in France, crises all through Western Europe, the beginning of “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland, the Tlatelolco massacre in Mexico City, guerrilla war in Brazil, the Prague Spring and the Red Square Demonstration in Moscow protesting the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. There were uprisings in Poland and Yugoslavia, student revolt in Pakistan, and the climax of the Cultural Revolution in China. The whole globe seemed to be in paroxysm: Gaia was having a heart attack.
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 An aftershock hit in the years on both sides of 1989, with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the complete collapse of the Soviet Empire. There was a sense that it all seemed to happen at once.
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And today, all across the planet, there is a simultaneous rise of populist authoritarianism. We could soon look back and see this moment as another one of those global seizures.
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So, it can seem at times that the Earth is a single thing, that suffers global events, seemingly unconnected, yet simultaneous. A shadow, like an eclipse, sweeps across its lands.
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Now, back to me and Gaia. It was 1966 and I was a freshman in college taking an intro to biology class with Richard Carleton Ward, a teacher of peculiar manners and prejudices. I could write a whole chapter on him, the way he spoke out of the side of his mouth in a gravelly grunt, the way he bought conspiracy theories, his suburban house blocked from view in a bourgeois neighborhood by a jungle of bamboo, vines and weeds.  He wrote an article for the underground newspaper I was publishing in which he complained ferociously about students’ inability to spell the word, “spaghetti.”
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In his class, were assigned to write a research paper on a living organism, animal or plant, complete with footnotes and citations, and following the Kate Turabian style manual. Points would be taken off for failing to properly spell, capitalize, indent, space margins, and italicize.
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I am basically a very lazy person, and all this sounded like work. Doing research meant digging through the library for books, scouring theReaders Guide to Periodical Literature for articles, and — worst of all — cataloging the findings and writing the bibliography and footnotes.
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So, I decided I would be “creative” instead. Please remember, this was 1966, and “creativity” was a buzzword more in evidence than “clickbait” is now.
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To avoid all the tedious detail that research would entail, I hit upon the idea that I could invent a new organism — the Earth. Our textbook listed a series of five or six essential qualities that define life, and I applied them to the planet. I could easily make the argument that the planet respires, that it metabolizes — that all the inhabitants of the world could be seen as the same as the individual cells that make up our body: The macro rhymes the micro.
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I hit the height of cleverness discussing reproduction. I wrote that at my age, I hadn’t yet reproduced (“as far as I know,” I threw in to be coy), but that didn’t mean I couldn’t, and just because the Earth had not yet reproduced didn’t mean it couldn’t. And I proceeded to hypothesize how the planet could bud like a hydra, planting new “cells” on another great, round, rocky skeleton or coral stone elsewhere in the solar system. Mars, for instance. And thus, the planet could duplicate itself.
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And so, I proved, at least to the satisfaction of my crackpot teacher, that the planet we lived upon could be taken as a single giant hyper-organism. He gave me a B-plus and I managed to avoid all the serious work and pass the course. I therefore invented, out of abject laziness and sideways thinking, the Gaia Principle. Credit where credit is due. I will be happy to share the Nobel with Margulis and Lovelock.
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Years later, my wife, Carole, had a different way of looking at it, which makes even more sense. She was bothered by a politician making a speech and talking about how we live on the planet and need to take care of it — a worthy idea, for sure — but her take was that we don’t live “on” the Earth, but rather, we are the Earth, along with, and no different from the birds and bees and rocks and trees.
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And that is now my mantra: We don’t live on the planet; we are the planet.
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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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Sometimes you are in the mood for Chopin, sometimes you want the energy of Beethoven, yet again, you occasionally feel the need for the sonic jalapeño bite of Stravinsky. Music appeals to our moods. Many moods, many musics. But one composer seems to be just right for any mood: Johann Sebastian Bach. It doesn’t matter: depressed, joyous, expectant, busy, stressed — Bach helps cope with all these feelings. He is truly universal.
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So, it is surprising that he is so roundly misunderstood. One hears that his music is “mathematical,” as if it were worked out not from inspiration, but by algebraic formulae. Sometimes, it is expressed as if this very supposed regularity is what makes his music so satisfying.
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Yet, like so much conventional wisdom, it is wrong. The image of Bach as a staid old periwigged frown, writing his fugues and canons by strict adherence to rationality is almost the opposite of the truth. Bach is really nuts. I mean, really out there. But you have to listen rather than pay attention to the cliches.
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He makes the case, almost as a joke, in his Prelude and Fugue in C-minor from the first book of the Well-Tempered Clavier. The prelude begins like a machine, chunking out a repeated pattern of notes outlining a progression of chords. Even in the score, it looks mechanical:
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But don’t be fooled. Three-quarters of the way through the piece, he breaks out into exuberant goofiness, flying this way and that, bringing the prelude to a seeming conclusion, then changing gears once again and careening off in a new direction before doing it one more time, bringing this craziness to a cascading conclusion with a naked Picardy Third (ending in major rather than minor).
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This unpredictability and irrationality is the norm, not the exception. Bach is, after all, a Baroque composer and all things Baroque are wild and crazy. It is what the Baroque is all about.
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Think of a Baroque painter, such as Peter Paul Rubens. Take his painting of Abraham meeting Melchizedek, which hangs in the National Gallery in Washington. It seems to be a painting of a tapestry held up by putti. The tapestry shows the prophet and priest in a scene from Genesis 14: Melchizedek offers bread and wine. But there appear to be two servants carting jugs of wine up from the cellar — are they “real” or are they part of the tapestry? The painting is richly ambiguous. And typically Baroque. Real toads in imaginary gardens.
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The Baroque loves energy, swirling action, and emotion over clarity.
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Take John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Its sentences long and stanzas indeterminate outlining in meter to us the import of its myth and truth can uncertain us in transcendent confusion its meaning simple.
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Of Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat,
Sing Heav’nly Muse, that on the secret top
Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire
That Shepherd, who first taught the chosen Seed,
In the Beginning how the Heav’ns and Earth
Rose out of Chaos:
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That’s six lines before we get to the verb, and the thing goes on for another seven lines before we even get the first period. Now, that’sBaroque.
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The list of weirdnesses and excesses in Bach’s music is long — too long to feature here. But let’s take just one of them, in the Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 in D-major. It features solo flute, violin and keyboard, with the keyboard as primus inter pares. Seven minutes into the 10-minute first movement everyone else shuts up while the keyboard continues maniacally for the next three minutes, piling arpeggios on arpeggios, scales on scales, and bopping us over the head with new keys totally unanticipated — a pedal A, which should resolve to the tonic D instead wanders off into the key of B, via an excursion through the dominant-of-a-dominant F-sharp. He scrapes a dissonant B-flat against an A in the bass. I could go on, but unless you are a musician, you might be bored by the technical talk. Leave it said that this extended cadenza has no precursor in music history, no simple explanation for its existence even here, and must at first performance have befuddled both its audience and the rest of the musicians in the orchestra, sitting there, twiddling their thumbs while the keyboardist works up a good sweat.
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A more restrained composer would have kept the music from derailing, kept it within bounds. But Bach isn’t so restrained. He is off to the races.
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Looking at a Bach score is an eye-opener as well as an ear-opener. We think of his music as gloriously harmonious, yet you look at the ink-dots on the music staves and see them colliding constantly like neutrons in a reactor, heating up the music: Bach is the single most dissonant composer before Arnold Schoenberg. Of course, all that grinding and grating is smoothed out by the resolution of those dissonances, making the whole appear safe. They are anything but.
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Bach harmonized some 400 Lutheran chorales, many redone several times, each freshly rethought and re-harmonized. They can be impressively complex, with appoggiaturas, passing tones and suspensions in all four voices (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) constantly adding dissonance. If you were to play only the off beats, you could mistake the music for atonal — yet it is always caught, sometimes at the last moment, and saved for consonance.
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The term “Baroque” comes from the Portuguese “barroco,” which is what they called a misshapen pearl. It was applied to the art of the 17th and early 18th century by critics who did not mean it as a compliment. They looked back at the art of those centuries and saw a lack of form and proportion. The Swiss art historian Heinrich Wölfflin (1864-1945) wrote influential books describing the differences between the classic art of the Renaissance and the darker, sweeping art he called Baroque.
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Friedrich Nietzsche styled these two impulses in art as “Apollonian” and “Dionysian.” They are also called Classic and Romantic. All of art history is a pendulum swinging back and forth between the two. Bach’s idiosyncrasies were all tidied up and tucked in by the time Haydn and Mozart wrote. The sanity and proportion of these two was smashed by the Romanticism of Liszt and Wagner, whose excesses were pummeled again by Debussy and Stravinsky. Do we value order and mind, or do we seek emotion and energy?
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As William Blake wrote: “The cistern contains; the fountain overflows.”
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The sober Apollonian Modernism of the 20th century is now replaced by the Dionysiac Postmodern of the 21st. Back and forth.
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So, when we listen to Bach’s music, we should be alert to its headstrong waywardness. Who but Bach would crazy enough to write fugues for a solo violin? Trail out the conclusion of his famous Toccata and Fugue in D-minor well past the end of the fugue, in contrails of afterthought? Write an hour-and-half of 12 fugues on a single tune, turned upside-down, inside-out, backwards, slowed, sped — but all on that single tune, originally of only 12 notes in a span of only a minor sixth? Open his St. Matthew Passion with two orchestras and three choruses playing different music at the same time?
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So, never say to me that Bach’s music is mathematical. Or dry. Or rational. The man was nuts. Beautifully nuts.
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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’m just not in a lectual,” she said, in a rich eastern North Carolina drawl.
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Yet, as a militant atheist, she has many a theological question, which may contradict her self-assessment as not being intellectual.
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“I don’t read literature,” she says, “I just read books, you know, fiction.”
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She reads constantly and widely, including books about religion.
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She is smart as a whip. I’ve known her since taking classes with her in college 50 years ago. She may not count herself as an intellectual, but I think she underestimates herself.
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More to the point, it should be noted that being intelligent is not the same thing as being intellectual. There are many ways of being smart, and not all of them incline toward the academic.
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Further, there is many a Ph.D. of impenetrable obtuseness. You get a doctorate not only through brilliance, but sometimes just by dogged shoveling — that’s why they call it “piled higher and deeper.” And, in reverse, I could name scholars who have made significant contributions to their field who began as school dropouts. (This is not to denigrate most graduate degrees. Most who hold them weigh in on the high end of the quotient of intelligence. Just that there are exceptions.)
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The fact is, being an intellectual is a turn of mind, not simply a quality of intelligence. We tend to think of an intellectual as someone who knows a lot, especially in terms of science, math, history, literature, law, or philosophy, but facts don’t make an intellectual; questions do.
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We all have questions, but intellectuals have questions about the questions. If I were to create a definition of “intellectual,” that would be it: questions about the questions.
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I will fess up to being an intellectual, but I will also admit that I’m not especially intelligent. I’m smart enough, I guess, but when I hear a Steven Pinker or a Ta-Nehisi Coates, I shrivel in humility. Those guys are smart. I’m just above average.
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Yet, most of my little gray cells are focused on questions about the questions. Those that pique my curiosity are about language, about perception, about the relevance of history — things that are often taken for granted, but are far more complicated, far muddier than the general run of people — even smart people — are likely to credit. Many of my blog entries have been about these questions, or questions about these questions.
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People far more acute than me have tackled them also. I don’t claim to have found any answers — or answers about answers — but that has never been able to quell my eyebrow furrowing. What is the relation of language to experience? Why do so many people believe that thinking requires words? And why do we think what we see is a direct cerebral process? Can we trust eyewitness accounts? Why do we?
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I see the same process in my betters. I’m at the bottom of a mountain, on the summit of which stands Albert Einstein, but what led to his breakthroughs are exactly the same kind of questions about the questions that I have. Or that you can have.
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 The fact that I read Milton or Livy and my friend reads best-sellers is of no import. We are both reading what we enjoy, which is more to the point. She is by most measures smarter than I am. She is alive, awake and interesting. I am a drudge by comparison. Yet, I could not change if I wanted to — the turn of mind I have been condemned to is almost genetic. I did not choose it; it captured me.
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One should never be intimidated by intellectuals. One should rather pity them. My wife used to call me “the man who couldn’t have fun.” By that she meant that I don’t enjoy parties; I listen to classical music and am bored by most pop music; I have no talent for being silly, which she always enjoyed, playing phone games with her daughter, taking on new personae — Meemaw and Peepaw.
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I always argued back that I have lots of fun. Really. I have fun reading Paradise Lost or listening Wozzeck or watching C-Span’s Book TV. Really. Really I do. I can’t help it.
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The intellectual can get so balled up in a knotty problem that the world falls away — like when you are caught up in a really good book and when you stop reading you are surprised to find yourself in a chair with your feet up on the ottoman wondering where did Ivanhoe run off to.
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And, so balled up, that you forget to pay the gas bill, forget to meet your daughter at the taqueria, fail to notice the gas gauge on empty. So balled up, a curl of smoke escapes your ears as your forehead furrows and you consider whether the fibonacci series really does describe the swirl of a whelk shell. (It doesn’t. Really. Google my name and “Fibonacci fib,” a blog I posted in 2013.)
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I wish I were smarter and the questions I question were more tractable, but even if the normal world looks at me like I’m an antisocial weirdo, I never ever wish I were not intellectual. It’s too much fun.
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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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What’s the most beautiful sentence in the English language?
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In his epic TV series, The Singing Detective, author Dennis Potter has his hero ask a similar question: “What’s the loveliest word in the English language?” An answer is offered: “Love.” But no, you’re responding to the sentiment behind the word. What is the loveliest word “in the sound it makes in the mouth? In the shape it makes in the page?”
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His answer: “E-L-B-O-W.”
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You may have your own candidate. Mine might be “anaflaxis,” or perhaps “curmudgeon.” Both pleasant to say, “in the sound it makes in the mouth.”
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My nomination for the most beautiful sentence?
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Mr. Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls.”
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It is the opening sentence of the second chapter of James Joyce’s Ulysses. It is followed by a tasty list of those comestibles that Mr. Leopold Bloom especially savored. “He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods’ roes.” And then he brings you up short with the consummation of the paragraph: “Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.”
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If you get past the last bit without a distinct sensory, gustatory and olfactory assault, you aren’t paying attention.
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But it’s that first sentence I want to examine. It has a cadence to it: You can scan its metrics two ways. First, you can break it down into four brief bursts: His name, as if it were the first line of a song; then comes the two-beat “ate with relish;” another two-beat “the inner organs,” and the peroration in another two beats — “of beasts and fowls.”
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You can, however, scan it as two lines, a pentameter followed by a tetrameter. And if you do it that way, you can feel behind the rhythm the ghost of Anglo-Saxon poetry, each line interrupted by a caesura.
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Mr. Leopold Bloom // ate with relish
The inner organs // of beasts and fowls.
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Either way, it is a graceful mix of iambs and dactyls. All that is fine, and worth noting. But the real treasure is paying attention to where in your mouth you articulate the various consonants and vowels: You shift the sounds around in your mouth, front to back, roof to base, like you were savoring a morsel of tasty food. These are words that as you say them out loud, you practically chew on. Try it: Mister Leopold Bloom ate with relish, etc. Your tongue flies around, your lips purse, your teeth come together and separate, your jaw moves forward and back, in a fine simulacrum of mastication.
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This is one tasty sentence.
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You should also note how heterogeneous the sounds are. Few consonants or vowels are repeated. There are five “L” sounds, which move your tongue up to the palate; four sibilant “S” sounds; four “O” sounds, making your lips project, as if you were smacking them; four short “I” sounds drawing the tongue back in the mouth; four rhotic “R” sounds, which scrunches your mouth up in a contortion (admittedly, a different sound if you speak them with the Irish accent that Joyce would have used); three “T” sounds, moving that tongue to hide just at the back of the teeth; three “E” sounds, stretching your cheeks out wide to pronounce; two “M” sounds, making you go, “mmm,” like you really enjoyed that mouthful; two “N” sounds, drawing the aroma up into your nasal cavities; two “B” bumps, rhyming with the single “P” to keep your lips plosive. There are two different “TH” sounds, an eth and a thorn — voiceless and voiced dental fricatives.
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All the rest of the sounds occur only once. Which means, to read the sentence out loud, your tongue, lips and jaw get a workout worthy of Jane Fonda.
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So much for the gnathometry of the sentence.
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 I also want to point out that the sentence is not difficult to comprehend. It is, in fact, a fairly ordinary sentence, outside its poetry. And I mention that because I want to make the case for the book as a whole. It has a reputation. People who haven’t yet essayed it are apt to fear it like ebola. But, these days, now nearly a hundred years after its conception, we have grown used to many of its more idiosyncratic habits. Stream of consciousness has made its way to paperback bodice rippers and Tom Clancy munitionology. And after MTV, how simple seems the rapid cutting and multiple points of view. Joyce should not present any unclimbable obstacles these days.
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Which makes it all the more important to read the book. It is some of the best prose ever put to paper. Joyce’s writing is elegant, precise, musical and redolent.
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The entire final chapter of the book is one of the greatest monologues in literature, when Molly Bloom lies in bed next to her husband and recalls her love affairs, her life, her body, her mind and heart. It alone raises Ulysses to the level of classic. Everyone should read it and weep.
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But to enjoy the prose, you have to break yourself of the habit of reading solely for content. Speed reading Ulysses is flying over country where the driving would reveal cities, rivers, regional foods, national parks, and people worth meeting. The prose is meant to noticed. It is unsurpassed. The plot of the book is hardly more than an excuse for the writing.
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Joyce wrote the book over many years, writing and rewriting like a demon. It takes reworking on an obsessive scale to get just the right mot juste in every case. You can see that in the manuscript, worked over so thoroughly, it is barely legible.
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Ulysses was written at the end of the First World War and published in 1922 by Sylvia Beach and the Paris bookstore, Shakespeare & Co. Joyce was 40 years old and an exile from his native Ireland. It chronicles a single day — June 16, 1904 — in Dublin, Ireland as lived by three primary characters, Stephen Daedalus, and Leopold and Molly Bloom. It’s a simple plot. Not much happens of consequence, but we follow the events in the minds of the characters as much as through the words of a narrator. And we aren’t often told which.
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But what is of consequence is the language. You can pretty much read any page and nearly swoon at the beauty of the words, the rhythm, pitch and melody.
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Of course, that’s not what caught public attention first. The book has been banned in many countries, including the U.S. It was considered obscene. It had to be printed in Paris, and at least 500 copies were seized and burned by the U.S. Postal Service as they were confiscated in shipment. Another 2000 to 3000 copies were seized and destroyed by the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice in 1929.
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When Random House decided to take up the American publication, The publisher sued and in The United States v. One Book Called Ulysses, U.S. District Judge John M. Woolsey ruled that the book was not pornographic and therefore could not be obscene. Random House published the authorized American edition in 1934.
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We say “authorized,” because Ulysses has been much pirated. Even printed as an underground book by publishers of pornography, wishing to capitalize on its notoriety. I have an edition by Collectors Publications of Industry, Calif., which features pages and pages of ads at the back for such other literary gems as True Love Stories of a Wayward Teenager, The Incestual Triangle, Four Way Swappers, and The Debauched Hospodar. (Along with Henry Miller’s The World of Sex and Lawrence Durrell’s Black Book and The Story of O. They seemed to make little distinction between actual literature and smut, i.e., they knew their audience).
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My wife’s father-in-law was a poet who had studied with Robert Frost, and after a trip to Europe, he smuggled in a copy of Ulysses in the 1920s concealed by binding it in a cover for a Nancy Drew mystery.
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To read it now, after Fifty Shades of Grey and countless Jackie Collins tomes, it one puzzles over the ruckus. You can search the pages ofUlysses looking for the “good bits” and be disappointed. Judge Woolsey in his judicious judicial opinion famously wrote, “whilst in many places the effect of Ulysses on the reader undoubtedly is somewhat emetic, nowhere does it tend to be an aphrodisiac.” (Remember the mutton kidneys).
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 Woolsey’s opinion opened the door for Lady Chatterly’s Lover (or is it “Lady Loverly’s Chatter?”), Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer., and Allen Ginsberg’s Howl. It may be hard to define great literature, but you know it when you see it.
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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 am writing in praise of ignorance. I believe it is too often underappreciated, and I wish to underline its beauties and benefits.
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No, I am not being ironic. Erasmus was being ironic when he praised “Folly,” but here, I am dead serious. In his book, the Dutch humanist has the personification of Folly as a goddess who praises herself profusely, in ways that only underline her unworthiness. In my treatise, I am one who is profoundly ignorant who praises his own ignorance. And I am quite sincere.
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Of course, like many of us, when I was young, I knew everything. I certainly knew more than my parents, who were surprisingly clueless, considering they had been through the Great Depression and World War II. You would think they might have picked up a clue here or there, but no, when I was young, they were so far out of the loop, I had to make sure my friends were not too often exposed to them, for fear of horrible and miserable mortification.
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But as I have gotten older, I have come to know less and less. Or rather, the mathematical equation has changed. Yes, I have learned a great deal, both through book learning and through common experience, but while I have learned arithmetically, my ignorance has grown exponentially. The more I learn, the greater the percentage left to unknowing.
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Once, I might have believed that I had a handle on 80 percent of what was important to know (including which kind of shoes were cool), now the ratio has been reversed — and beyond — so that I would express it as one over infinity.
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The benefits of this are at least twofold.
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First, the recognition of my own ignorance has forced me into a state of humility. Being less sure of myself means I am less prescriptive to those around me. I have no business telling them what to do or think, when I am so clearly in the murk myself.
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My wife would chide me for this in later years. She asked me questions; when we were younger, I answered them lickety-split; in recent years, I often admitted, after a brief moment of pondering, “I don’t know.” This bothered her. “You used to know,” she would say, petulantly.
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Well, I used to think I knew. Now I’m not so sure. It seems as if all those factoids I rehearsed have been undercut as further research has made complicated what once seemed simple.
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It is certainty that causes most of the ills of the world, whether it is religious certainty or political certainty. It is certainty that put human beings through the gas chambers of Treblinka. It is certainty that hanged witches and that emptied the French city of Béziers in 1209 during the Albigensian Crusade when the leader of the attacking forces, unable to tell the heretic Cathars from orthodox Catholics declared, “Kill them all, God will sort them out.”
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In his report to the Pope, Arnaud Amalric, the abbot of Citeaux who ordered the massacre, wrote, “Our men spared no one, irrespective of rank, sex or age, and put to the sword almost 20,000 people. After this great slaughter the whole city was despoiled and burnt, as divine vengeance miraculously raged against it.”
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That’s what you do when you know for certain, when you believe you have a corner on knowledge. A little humble ignorance would have saved many lives.
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But ignorance has another important benefit.
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Before that, I should explain that I classify at least two types of ignorance. The first I call “pig ignorance.” This is ignorance that has no inkling of its nescience, but plows ahead in confident obliviousness. It is an ignorance of bluster and bullying — I think we all know who I’m talking about here.
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Donald Rumsfeld famously said, “There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.”
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The pig ignorant do not know that they don’t know. Social psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger published a famous study in 1999 that gave name to the Dunning-Kruger effect, i.e., that the ignorant do not recognize their lack of knowledge, but overestimate their abilities. (Conversely, the intelligent frequently underestimate their own abilities).
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This, of course, has been known for as long as there were people who scratched their heads over the confidence of the dumb. Shakespeare wrote in As You Like It, “The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.” Or, as Charles Darwin has it, “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.”
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The most famous formulation is probably that of Socrates, who concluded, according to Plato’s Apologia, “I am wiser than this man, for neither of us appears to

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know anything great and good; but he fancies he knows something, although he knows nothing; whereas I, as I do not know anything, so I do not fancy I do. In this trifling particular, then, I appear to be wiser than he, because I do not fancy I know what I do not know.”

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This is the Socratic Paradox, more simply stated: “The only thing I know is that I do not know.”
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And that brings us to the second great benefit of ignorance — the Socratic ignorance, not the Trumpian ignorance. And that is, in this form, ignorance is synonymous with curiosity. Our ignorance prods us on to learning. We want to find out what we do not yet understand.The world is a great inviting and seductive quest.
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This is ignorance with open ears and open eyes — in fact, wide ears and wide eyes. It is a voracious ignorance that sucks up everything it can, knowing it can never quench its thirst or satisfy its hunger. There is always more, and the more it takes in the greater its capacity.
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This is the ignorance I praise. It keeps life perpetually entertaining, keeps its bearer engaged, and in discovery, not only of what others already know, but of what is entirely new to our species. It is a horizon constantly expanding outward to fresh lands and fresh seas. Pig ignorance is smug; curious ignorance is open and eager.
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This second, curious, ignorance is a prime vivifying benefit to the individual; the recognition of our ignorance, and its consequent humility is a prime benefit to the world at large. Fewer people die.
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And so, I praise ignorance, my personal goddess, after whom I quest in the darkness..
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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 want to talk about education. Specifically: Mine.
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It is really only my own that I can speak about. As Henry Thoreau wrote in Walden, “I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well. Unfortunately, I am confined to this theme by the narrowness of my experience.”
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I don’t know if I can recommend my own course to others; all I can say is that it has worked for me.
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From my earliest years, I wanted to learn; indeed, I wanted to know everything. Literally: everything. (The older I’ve become the more I’ve faced the fact that the more you learn, the greater is the vastness of what you have yet to learn. Knowledge grows arithmetically; ignorance grows exponentially.)
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There is a story repeated in my family that when I entered second grade, I asked my parents, “Does this mean I get to go to college next year?” School has always been my briar patch.
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I cannot fix whatever is wrong with American schools — or American students (although I am pretty sure that whatever Besty DuVos has in mind is disastrously wrong), but I can recount my own transit through the grades from kindergarten through standing in front of a crowd in a silly robe and stupid hat to get my diploma handed to me. And really, beyond, because education for me has never stopped. There is little I get more pleasure from than tickling my little grey cells and expanding what is stuffed into my melon.
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Mine has been an entire life in a single direction: learning. Others wanted to play baseball, or drive fast cars, perhaps get married and have a houseful of wee bairns; I wanted to get my hands on another book, pore through it and achieve the greatest pleasure from it. Every book — or every class I took — stood not by itself, but as an addition to that I had absorbed before, until all that I had learned became a single great web of interrelated experience.
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In effect, this isn’t simply education, but paideia, the whole of it all rolled into a ball: education, history, culture, philosophy, literature, music, the arts, psychology, economics, law, physics, botany, politics — the whole undifferentiated, all of a piece.
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This has given me the permission — or the chutzpah — to write not only about art, but about music, architecture, dance, politics, history — even about typography. My assignment at The Arizona Republic, where I worked for 25 years, was critic “without portfolio.”
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To quote William Blake, “Less than all cannot satisfy.”
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It has all given me a rather peculiar attitude toward education: that it should make me more complete (and that it should be fun).
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But I’m afraid what I consider education is being left behind by a newer, narrower version: to provide skills to enter the job market. That is not education; that is training. Never have I considered how a class might help me get a job or make a career.
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Is there something subversive about my version? Perhaps.
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Back in the Pleistocene, when I taught photography and art at a two-year college, I told my class on the first day that I considered it my duty as a teacher to make them unemployable. They were to learn in my class the utter ambiguity and equivocality of everything, to learn to question every assumption, to scratch every itch of curiosity, no matter where it lead.
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Current education seems narrowly focused on the “how,” but I was intent on asking the “why.”
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If there is any central argument to my education it is that there has never been a goal, or at least, its only goal was itself. As a matter of fact, I have considered education — my own at least — to be a prophylactic against career, against the limitations of a single direction in my life. I wanted it all.
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I am not advocating that everyone learn the way I did, but that way fit me perfectly. While I have a modest college degree, most of what I have learned, I have come by on my own. My late wife maintained that all learning is self-taught. We are all autodidacts, although we may have been helped by a teacher here and there along the way.
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Even if you had a good teacher, you learned for yourself; if you didn’t internalize the lesson, it wasn’t really learned. How many memorized enough to pass the exam and then promptly forgot it all?
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I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. At the age of 70, this gives me unlimited opportunity for the years ahead. Who knows?
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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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