Language is not a Small Victory

This post was written by Zach Stevenson, a Humanities Center student fellow

“Language is not a small victory. It was out of this last, irreducible possession that the Jews made a counter-world of words, the Irish vanquished England, and Russian poetry bloomed thick over Stalin’s burial grounds. And in a single book one woman managed to suggest what another such heroic tradition, rising out of American slavery, might have been—a literature as profound and original as the spirituals.”

Claudia Roth Pierpont on Zora Neale Hurston

I think of myself as someone who likes to learn. I enjoy reading contemporary American literary fiction, the New York Times and James Baldwin, become excited when I walk through a university campus and hope to have a career as a scholar of literature and culture. But even though I tell myself and others that I’m deeply interested in education and knowledge acquisition and the cultivation of wisdom, there are certainly times when school feels more like a chore than a precious gift. For instance, when I have an exam to finish by midnight but also two homework assignments to complete by the following morning. There are moments, that is, when my self-conception as someone who inquires fails to align with my workaday reality.

But not when I’m perusing my commonplace book. Aspirationally titled “Lines to Memorize,” my book of treasured quotations is nothing more than an ever-evolving list on my iPhone; the latest entry, inscribed just a week or so ago, is the late Bruno Latour’s instruction to not “isolate an image out of the flows that only provide them with their real—their constantly re-realized, re-represented—meaning.” As I comb through aphoristic gems from Aeschylus, David Foster Wallace, Marilynne Robinson and Ta-Nehisi Coates, the validity of my own pronouncements is confirmed to me. I do love to think, I do love to learn, I do love to read. Or another way of saying the same thing: When I reread what Ralph Waldo Emerson had to say about John Brown (“He saw how deceptive the forms are.”), or how Chinua Achebe describes Okonkwo in Things Fall Apart (“Perhaps down in his heart Okonkwo was not a cruel man. But his whole life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and of weakness.), abstractions like intellectual acuity, aesthetic dignity and moral seriousness acquire shape and form. I better understand what it is that I’m pursuing as the rewards of former journeys lie glittering before me.

I’m also struck that as I scroll through those excerpted sentences and paragraphs, I recall with vividness where I was when I gathered them. I begin to read James Baldwin’s matter-of-fact words to his nephew (“This innocent country set you down in a ghetto in which, in fact, it intended that you should perish.”), and soon it is early summer and I’m memorizing those same lines while waiting to load my Amazon packages into my delivery van. Or, it is early summer a year later and I’m killing time at my job as a park maintenance worker by texting friends about Marilynne Robinson’s startling assertion that “need can blossom into all the compensation it requires.” Do they really buy the notion that “to crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow”? Besides being a record of ideas I found moving or original or particularly forceful, then, my commonplace book also functions as a reminder of how those same ideas influenced my presence in the physical world. These are vital materials, these are words that taste good, and because of them I’ve shown up in ways that I wouldn’t have otherwise.

A few weeks ago, while driving up to Idaho for the Western Literature Association conference, I read a stirring Susan Sontag appreciation piece that A.O. Scott wrote for the New York Times Magazine. At one point in the article, Scott indicates a desire to move beyond Sontag as a symbol: “I don’t want to devalue the ways Sontag serves as a talisman and a culture hero. All I really want to say is that Susan Sontag mattered because of what she wrote.”

If you’ll allow me to mimic the movement of Scott’s prose, let me say this: I don’t want to say something cheap about the value of a liberal arts education, nor do I want to wax eloquent on the benefits of habitual reading. Instead, I just want to say that I’ve read some things, have been astonished by what I’ve read, and have assembled those astonishments into a document, and that every time I open that document I’m reconverted to the life of the mind.

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