It happened for me in seventh-grade English class. My teacher, Mr. Taussig, was an older gentleman. He had driven a tank in the Battle of the Bulge, which feat of courage helped to offset the fact that he looked like Mr. Magoo.
For many months he dragged us line by line through Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and Julius Caesar. His teaching method hardly varied. He would read a single line or speech at a time, tell us what the archaic words meant, explain when the syntax became hard to follow, and perhaps add a few historical details to clarify certain references. He would ask if we understood, and then move on.
Romeo and Juliet was pure torture: I hadn’t the slightest interest in all that lovey-dovey stuff. The only respite came when I had to memorize and recite Romeo’s “But soft! What light through yonder window breaks?” speech, which afforded me an opportunity for a little histrionic clowning.
Perhaps because I was already a news and politics junkie, I found Julius Caesar marginally more intriguing—these were great men ruling a great empire, after all—but even that did little to prevent me from daydreaming about my next Little League game.
And then it happened. Perhaps it was in Act III. I can’t remember. It might have been something as simple as Casca’s haunting “Speak, hands for me!” It could have been Mark Antony looking down at the slain Caesar:
Pardon me, Julius! Here wast thou bay’d, brave hart;
Here didst thou fall; and here thy hunters stand,
Sign’d in thy spoil, and crimson’d in thy lethe
O world, thou wast the forest to this hart;
And this, indeed, O world, the heart of thee.
Suddenly I could hear it, the music of the language, the muscular, rolling cadences of the blank verse, the rich, extended metaphors, the promiscuous wit of the wordplay. I had been a reader since I was a small child, but this was the epiphany, the conversion. It was also, in a sense, the birth of a vocation: a hunger that has never left me for language that holds both mystery and meaning.
Looking back, it is difficult to imagine that epiphany taking place in any other circumstance than the plodding close reading Mr. Taussig, bless him, imposed on us for weeks on end. It was like being held under water for so long that I developed gills.
That type of teaching seems to have disappeared from the face of the earth. These days texts are taught in units, complete with a predetermined set of themes to be discussed and a list of “learning outcomes” to be dutifully checked off. The art of close reading—of dwelling within the text at leisure—has been all but lost.
In his classic book Leisure: The Basis of Culture, philosopher Josef Pieper notes that “leisure in Greek is skole, and in Latin scola, the English ‘school’.... ‘School’ does not, properly speaking, mean school, but leisure.” He goes on to say that the Greeks did not have a unique word for the more utilitarian notion of work: instead of saying, as we do now, that “we live to work,” they said “we are unleisurely in order to have leisure.”
At a time when “leisure” is more likely to conjure a type of clothing or the frenetic activity we undertake during our vacations, Pieper’s book is a reminder that the word has meant much more than mere idleness.
How do leisure and learning go together? Pieper points out that contemporary understanding of the labor involved in learning is at odds with the historic roots of our culture. Ancient and medieval thinkers divided our intellectual capacities into ratio and intellectus. The ratio is the more familiar to us: it’s all about deductive reasoning, abstraction, and discursive thought. The intellectus is more intuitive and receptive, more of a beholding than a thinking.
Pieper goes on to say that our notion that truth can be discovered only through Herculean effort is without precedent in the ancient world. According to Thomas Aquinas: “The essence of virtue consists in the good rather than in the difficult.” Or, as Pieper puts it: “The highest moral good is characterized by effortlessness—because it springs from love.”
Here it is necessary to introduce another word that most of us find difficult to relate to, and that is contemplation. Forget the image of some gaunt, tortured saint on a pallet in the dark night of the soul. The poet Richard Wilbur offers a much simpler and more beautiful way of grasping contemplation when he says that “the world’s fullness is not made but found.”
To the ancients, the act of contemplation was fundamentally about opening ourselves up to a beholding of what is, to receiving the world as gift. Or, you might say, it’s about placing yourself in the path of epiphany.
That’s why contemplation is a lot more like play than work. Pieper quotes Aquinas, who draws the following observation from the Book of Proverbs: “because of the leisure that goes with contemplation,” the divine wisdom itself is “always at play, playing through the whole world.”
It’s worth recalling that Pieper’s book was written in the immediate aftermath of World War Two. As he looked around him he could see two seemingly opposed forces—capitalism in the West and communism in the East—find a strange sort of convergence in the cult of efficiency, the lionization of work, and an almost religious belief in the power of humanity to control and manipulate its environment.
This is the world we inherit, and it is killing us.
I think about these things in part because when you edit a literary quarterly you often encounter people who advise you to give up on such an outmoded and burdensome enterprise: why publish long stories and essays and poems that no one will read in the age of Twitter and blockbuster movies? There are even those far less jaded and more gracious souls who applaud me for publishing such a “scholarly” journal.
Whether cynical or sweet, the implication is that what you will find in these pages is difficult. In part, this stems from a populist strain in our cultural history that sees fine art and literature as elitist and exclusivist. In reply, you can point out innumerable examples of great artists who came from poverty and no education on the one hand, and on the other the ways that art can inspire and liberate the disadvantaged, but it’s an uphill fight.
But the problem isn’t just the stubborn persistence of a know-nothing populism. It’s that for many people the very leisure and contemplation that art requires (and invites us to) are alien if not incomprehensible things.
There are countervailing forces and signs of hope out there. I’ve taken some comfort from the rise of the Slow Food movement and the other movements it has spawned, from Slow Travel to Slow Church.
You might recall that Slow Food was founded in Italy as a protest against the introduction of fast food to places like the Spanish Steps in Rome. What saved the Slow Food movement from being a mere publicity stunt—a mere celebration of long meals—was that it placed the way we eat in the context of sustainable agriculture and the conviction that good food emerges from the richness of diverse cultures.
You might say that all real culture—from eating habits to artistic masterpieces—is slow. In a recent commencement address the writer Leon Wieseltier praised the tradition of the liberal arts, which were founded on leisure and contemplation. He told the graduates of Brandeis that the new “information era” came with dangerous consequences:
In the digital universe, knowledge is reduced to the status of information. Who will any longer remember that knowledge is to information as art is to kitsch—that information is the most inferior kind of knowledge, because it is the most external? A great Jewish thinker of the early Middle Ages wondered why God, if he wanted us to know the truth about everything, did not simply tell us the truth about everything. His wise answer was that if we were merely told what we need to know, we would not, strictly speaking, know it. Knowledge can be acquired only over time and only by method.
Wieseltier concludes by saying: “Perhaps culture is now the counterculture.”
The hard truth is that when we have only external information we are literally skimming the surface rather than entering the depths. Cultural critics like Neil Postman and Sven Birkerts have shown that the current media culture prevents us from developing inwardness, privacy, and hence individuality—making us more prone to shallow, mass trends and ideologies.
The irony here is that good art, like good food, offers a smorgasbord of pleasures to reward those who are willing to take the time to enjoy them. It has been said that ours is a culture addicted to pleasure, but often we are more driven and austere than hedonistic, rushing blindly past the feast set out for us.
In the end, Pieper says, leisure is impossible to understand apart from religious worship (a theme he develops in his book In Tune with the World). “There is no such thing as a feast ‘without Gods.’” Leisure is the acknowledgment and celebration of being as gift; it honors the divine by setting aside time and space that are deliberately not used for immediate gain.
In that sense, festivity does require sacrifice, the relinquishment of personal interests, in order to enter into the sacred space that brings us together. That some of the most vocal advocates of the utilitarian ethic are those who call attention to their religiosity is yet another irony of our times.
A work of art is itself a gratuitous act: it doesn’t feed or clothe a soul. But art does invite us to the feast, without which we cannot be fully human. Think of art as something like the Native American dreamcatcher. It is like a net thrown out to catch not only our dreams but our conscious minds. It stills and slows and centers us, opens us up, and enables us to do what we were made to do, which is to love the world.