Beyond Reason

On Poets and Madmen

Posted in Faith,Philosophy,Writing/Reading by Abigail on February 11, 2011

Now, if we are to glance at the philosophy of sanity, the first thing to do in the matter is to blot out one big and common mistake. There is a notion adrift everywhere that imagination, especially mystical imagination, is dangerous to man’s mental balance. Poets are commonly spoken of as psychologically unreliable; and generally there is a vague association between wreathing laurels in your hair and sticking straws in it. Facts and history utterly contradict this view. Most of the very great poets have been not only sane, but extremely business-like; and if Shakespeare ever really held horses, it was because he was much the safest man to hold them. Imagination does not breed insanity. Exactly what does breed insanity is reason. Poets do not go mad; but chess-players do. Mathematicians go mad, and cashiers; but creative artists very seldom. I am not, as will be seen, in any sense attacking logic: I only say that this danger does lie in logic, not in imagination. Artistic paternity is as wholesome as physical paternity. Moreover, it is worthy of remark that when a poet really was morbid it was commonly because he had some weak spot of rationality on his brain. Poe, for instance, really was morbid; not because he was poetical, but because he was specially analytical. Even chess was too poetical for him; he disliked chess because it was full of knights and castles, like a poem. He avowedly preferred the black discs of draughts, because they were more like the mere black dots on a diagram. Perhaps the strongest case of all is this: that only one great English poet went mad, Cowper. And he was definitely driven mad by logic, by the ugly and alien logic of predestination. Poetry was not the disease, but the medicine; poetry partly kept him in health. He could sometimes forget the red and thirsty hell to which his hideous necessitarianism dragged him among the wide waters and the white flat lilies of the Ouse. He was damned by John Calvin; he was almost saved by John Gilpin. Everywhere we see that men do not go mad by dreaming. Critics are much madder than poets. Homer is complete and calm enough; it is his critics who tear him into extravagant tatters. Shakespeare is quite himself; it is only some of his critics who have discovered that he was somebody else. And though St. John the Evangelist saw many strange monsters in his vision, he saw no creature so wild as one of his own commentators. The general fact is simple. Poetry is sane because it floats easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea, and so make it finite. The result is mental exhaustion, like the physical exhaustion of Mr. Holbein. To accept everything is an exercise, to understand everything a strain. The poet only desires exaltation and expansion, a world to stretch himself in. The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.

G.K. Chesterton, in “Orthodoxy”

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Posted in Uncategorized,Writing/Reading by Abigail on November 21, 2009

Word of the Day: evanescence
Means: to disappear gradually; vanish; fade away.


Posted in Personal,Writing/Reading by Abigail on November 3, 2009

I have realized that I close almost all my eHarmony matches based on the individual’s interest in books. Hmm.

I skip to that part of the profile. If “books? I can’t remember the last time I read a book…” then close match. Very simple.

I am clearly prejudiced.

Word of the Day: fete
a festive celebration or entertainment

The Inverse Proportion Between Mountain Climbers and Writers

Posted in Writing/Reading by Abigail on March 22, 2009

Why do writers write? Because it isn’t there.
– Thomas Berger

Jig and a Book

Posted in Faith,Philosophy,Writing/Reading by Abigail on August 6, 2008

What do you do when your biggest questions have been answered? Well, dance a jig or something. Since you can’t see my jig I’m currently dancing, I’m just going to post about the book that caused the jig. (Actually, the only time I “jig” is on the tennis court and that’s really more of a victory dance… which isn’t really condoned in tennis… very sad, as it’s the best part of my game.) It is Proper Confidence by Leslie Newbigin. The subtitle is Faith, Doubt, and Certainty in Christian Discipleship. Many of the questions I’ve posted on this blog I’ve viewed as, essentially, unanswerable. But he answers them! At least to my satisfaction.

So I’ll provide a rundown of the book and hopefully persuade you also to pick up this gem.

1) First it should be noted that this is a Christian book. That means he operates out of a worldview soaked in Christian assumptions and beliefs. For the non-Christian, I still think this book would be beneficial because it is primarily philosophical – and only secondarily theological – and deals with problems that affect the church only because first they affected our culture at large. He is well spoken and thought provoking.

2) The first point of the book: Christian epistemology requires a scrapping of classical Greek epistemology. This has a thousand implications – many of which are disturbing, all of which are interesting – but I’ll leave those inside the book.

3) His next topic is what happens when that scrapping does not occur and instead classical Greek epistemology holds sway, as it does today. As you might imagine, Descartes gets a lot of air time.

4) Nihilism is next.

5) He discusses different kinds of knowledge: intellectual versus personal, in other words, knowing a fact versus knowing a person, and the inherent risks of knowing a person.

6) Fascinatingly, he attacks the dichotomy between objective and subjective knowledge. He bases his thoughts off a 20th century Russian scientist turned philosopher. It is decently convincing and is core to the argument of his whole book. (I’ve never heard anyone challenge this dichotomy. Am I out in left field? Perhaps it is more common than I realize?)

7) But primarily he dismantles some of the core principles of modernity. In its place, he talks of personal knowledge, how a knower must “commit” to what he knows, and the inherent personal risk always involved.

Unfortunately, my above post is not particlarly well written and, conceptually, does this book little justice. Please keep that in mind. I view this post is as a bit of a conclusion to the many conversations occuring previously on this blog: interesting thoughts, but mostly unanswered questions. As he makes his points far better than I would, I am just pointing to this book. At only 100ish pages, it is an easy read! I feel like I could stop blogging now – because he actually answered the questions I thought couldn’t be answered.

And for the record, I’m still jigging.

The Seekers

Posted in Writing/Reading by Abigail on September 29, 2007

“Caught between two eternities–the vanished past and the unknown future–we never cease to seek our bearings and our sense of direction. We inherit our legacy of the sciences and the arts… We glory in their discoveries and creations. But we are all Seekers. We all want to know why.”

I have a book recommendation! “The Seekers” by Daniel J. Boorston (1998). It’s fabulous. It provides a philosophical framework excellent for those who’ve heard things but don’t know where to put them in the context of history. It starts with our oldest documented belief systems and hits Homer, Socrates,  Machiavelli, Calvin, Francis Bacon, John Locke, Kierkegaard, Hegel, and Einstein along the way. While it appears that philosophical questions are the weightiest questions we can ask, Boorstin is actually able to add to this weight. He has a written style which is compelling, easy, and thoroughly inspiring. He’s eloquent. If it’s possible to add to the grandeur of these concepts, he does.

Interestingly, he doesn’t shun evaluation. It seems it is politically correct to be “unbiased” but certainly this isn’t really possible. I assume he has this in mind, and he presents his viewpoints anyway, from time to time. This creates a far more engaging and meaningful experience.

The book generally flows chronologically, starting with Christianity and Islam (a higher way), then the way of the philosophers (referencing self for answers), abandoning the question all together (asking how instead of why), and last bewilderment (today’s “conclusion”). That trajectory could seem entirely depressing but the book ends positively. (Also, a reader doesn’t need to agree with the author.) At the end we no longer seek for meaning, but we find meaning in the seeking. We see Einstein on his death bed, asking for his formulas again. He did not find, but he had sought.

To put it mildly, I highly recommend this book. It is colorful, thought provoking, and a phenomenal example of good writing.

Heroes of the Imagination

Posted in Writing/Reading by Abigail on January 7, 2007

I told myself not to post until I had something worth saying (as opposed to my previous post). And I can’t do it.

I am about 26 pages into a book entitled The Creators: A History of Heroes of the Imagination. It covers all known history and tries to sum things up: an incredibly aggressive attempt but certainly not the first one. Let me qualify that a little. The author, Daniel J. Boorstin, has three books in a series. The first is entitled The Discovers, the second is this one, and the third is The Seekers. This one focuses on art while the first touches science and the third religion. But, he is wise enough to see that they don’t really separate so what you get in this book – the art-focused one – is all of the above: philosophy, religion, science, the whole gamut.

Yeah, so only 26 pages in. This is no time to report. But I am. Boorstin taught history for 25 years, was director for part of the Smithsonian, and has served as the Librarian of Congress. The book is amazingly easy to read and he addresses one of my favorite topics – the relation between philosophy and theology. Good man! Anyway, when I have something truly worthwhile to report, I will. Perhaps I should start one of those seriously nerdy pages which states which books you are currently reading. That could be embarrassing.


Posted in Writing/Reading by Abigail on November 27, 2006

One must be drenched in words, literally soaked in them, to have the right ones form themselves into the proper pattern at the right moment.

— Hart Crane