March 11, 2005
Richard Mitchell Interview, Pt. 6art 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5 Part 6 Part 7 Part 8
Styles: Do you think that as more people acquire the ability to make statements for themselves, we can have a better world?
Richard: I doubt it very much, and I would go back to Socrates. I don't think it's my business or yours to seek a better world. In some sense, I hope the world will be better, sure, but it's not my charge. My charge is to be better, and if yours is, and a million other people, then maybe the world will be better, whatever we mean by that, but there is this to be said--the world is continuously dying.
If we made this world a better place tomorrow, what would that matter? What about the day after tomorrow?
I have a feeling it will go its old way, and certainly the philosophers of the past were, I think, notable for their disdain of the world and all questions as to whether or not it was better, because better is a word that goes with good, and they ask themselves, "Where does goodness reside?" and answer it in a very interesting way.
We cannot ascribe goodness or badness to minerals or to trees or even to animals. Goodness is somehow related willing. The tigers don't want to be bad; they don't want to be good; they just want to be tigers; they just tiger around.
Whereas, only you and I can will one thing rather than another. The question is not even whether we can do it; we can will. You and I can will one thing rather than another, so that goodness is an attribute, if it is an attribute only of some human being, only of some individual.
So to assume the world could be better is to assume certain things about the world that are very far from demonstrable. There is, in a sense?ah, you see this is again how language makes the world, but tricks us. There is no world?the world is a word. We say the word, and because we say the word, we believe we have brought an entity into being, or that we are pointing to an entity which is?what is the world?
Do we mean planet? Do we mean all the people on it? Do we mean all the people on it at this time, or at some other time? What the hell do mean by the world? And we treat the world as thought it were an individual, capable of goodness and badness, then we start talking nonsense.
Styles: But as we create ourselves as better forms of ourselves--through writing, through reading, listening, talking, language itself--we create something of value, good for ourselves, and as we can live in our own good worlds, we can perhaps have one in common with others.
Richard: I would hope so, but I don't think that I follow the logic that would require it.
Styles: Writing is clearly a force that can take us away from the world, or into the world, and yet, we live in speech first. A baby and a mother, the children playing together. The philosophers, the religious leaders that start our culture, don't write--Socrates, Jesus. What's the relationship of writing and speech, keeping these people in mind?
Richard: Well, let's say bringing these people into mind in a little while, OK, because I am terribly interested in that relationship, but I am even more interested in the difference, partly because it's a practical interest, partly because it can help students who want to learn to write.
And one of the things that make writing hard is that it isn't speech. It lacks all of the marvelous accessories, the vices of speech; you know, the gestures, the tones of voice, everything, even those things that are non-literate in a way; the hmms and the ahhums, so that, in a sense, speech is natural and writing is artificial.
Furthermore, writing is not speech written down. It's yet another thing, and has its own importance, but the larger and perhaps more important difference between writing and speech has to do, I think, with audience. He who writes, in a sense writes for the world; writes for somebody who doesn't exist, maybe writes for himself in some way.
But the speaker is speaking face to face with another human being, and this is why Socrates and Jesus didn't write. And I would add, and I guess I did, that Jesus also didn't enter into dialogue in the way in which Socrates does. Even when Jesus has a conversation with people, it's not dialectic, as Socrates practices it.
A man comes to him and says, "Master, what shall I do to be saved?" and he says, "Well, surely you've read the prophets." This is not dialectic, and when Jesus speaks, he speaks directly to individuals, and I think he's always making the point that frankly I find very congenial, that the meaning of things is in a person. "You happen to be that person; I am talking to you, but the meaning of things is not in tradition or in orthodox law. You've heard it said of old times that you shouldn't commit adultery. I've got first news for you," he said. "All you have to do is think about it. Where does this sin reside? It resides in the will of you, one person. It does not reside in the tables of the law; it does not reside in the world of language, for that matter; it resides in your will." You as an individual person, which is what makes him so terribly unusual.
I know it is popular to say that, well, Buddha and Socrates and Confucius and Lao Tse and Jesus--they were all very similar people. They all preached versions of the same thing, and we ought to think of them as a kind of committee serving in the same cause.
Is it really true? Of these people, it was Jesus only who actually took the accusing tone that he takes, "You, you, I'm talking about you," and providing very harsh, not precepts, but immediate advice to some person.
Even Buddha--the eightfold way--everybody knows the eightfold way. I think the first step is right thinking. Well, OK, oh good, I'm for right; what do you mean by that? Jesus didn't deal in that kind of abstraction, and at the same time though, remember, what he did deal in still had to be dealt then in language; there is nothing else. And it is as though he was saying to those who listened to him, "Say these things for yourself, and give them a test."
There's a marvelous passage in, I think it's John, it's surely John, of the famous scene where Jesus has brought some woman taken in adultery, and the committee who brings her along, says, "Well, what do we do with this one, Master? She's caught in the act and you know the law."
It's one of those tricks that is so often the case in the Gospels, and Jesus is described at that time as bending over, sitting on a bench or something, and writing in the sand. This is the only time in which Jesus is described as writing, by the way.
Styles: Very interesting.
Richard: And he says, "Oh, well, yes, sure, I know the law. Of course, you should stone her." And I guess they reached out for their stones and he says--I can see him doing it, sort of a double take like Columbo, "Oh, uh, just make sure that he who is without sin among you be the first to cast a stone."
Notice what he has, in fact, done right here. He has changed an institutional arrangement into an individual arrangement. "Yes, I do know the law, of course, that's in our institutions; we know that. By all means, let's carry out the law. Let's also go inside of ourselves, and he, the one of you who is without sin, but just make sure that he casts the first stone, somehow, it seems better that way."
And the men who brought the culpritess are obviously decent and thoughtful men; they must be because everyone says in himself, "Ah, well, I am not that one" and little by little they drift away.
This is, of course, it seems terribly remote from considerations of literacy, but I don't think it is. I think that the end of doctrine of literacy is that same kind of self-knowledge. If we don?t have somebody like Jesus around to give us exactly the right clue, at exactly the right time, well, where will we find such a person nearer ourselves?
And we do that by making statements, and statements about statements, and exploring their meaning. There is, of course, all kinds of speculation as to what he was, in fact, writing in the sand there. I think Robert Graves thinks he was drawing a picture, not writing at all, and whether or not this is an act of what we think of as normal literacy by Jesus, I don't know.
Posted by witnit at March 11, 2005 5:20 PM
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