21 August 2006

Musing About Musing

Friday night at dinner, my husband and I discussed my notes on James Daniels’ workshop regarding leisure. Ever the engineer, he thinks it sounds great, but he’s also concerned that if we become out of balance, our children’s processing speed will be affected (that was said tongue-in-cheek, but does accurately express his concern).

After our discussion, I felt that I should look again at the balance Mr. Daniels discussed that was traditional to education. We need both ratio, or discursive and analytical ability, and intellectus, or the ability to be still and contemplate. This needn’t be an either/or proposition.

Ratio is achieved in a Christian classical education by the rigor of our studies of Latin, logic, rhetoric, math, history, literature, theology, and science.

Intellectus is achieved in a Christian classical education by taking time to think, read, and discuss deeply ... by taking time to contemplate and appreciate a work of art ... by simply taking time.

In our present culture, the pendulum has swung toward the ratio side of things. Our American way of life is all rush and hurry, deadlines and goals, busyness and to do lists, information and analysis.

Lest my dear husband (who is one of my faithful readers) think that I’ll overcompensate and cut down on ratio as I seek to increase intellectus, I offer the following rambling thoughts:

In ancient Greek mythology, the daughters of Memory were the twelve Muses. The Muses were responsible for inspiring creativity in music, epic poetry, dance, theatre, the writing of history, etc. (more on this when I get to the next workshop by John Hodges). When an artist was “in the zone” it was thought that he was being visited and inspired by a Muse.

In English, the word muse means “to be absorbed in thought” (v.) or “ an instance or period of reflection” (n.) [ye olde Apple widget, again].

And thus, we have muse, with connotations of creativity and deep thought. I think there is a connection between muse and recreation or, maybe it would be more clear if I wrote it thus: “re-creation”. We aren’t creators in the ex nihilo sense that God is the creator, but we are made in his image and, to use Tolkien’s term, are created to be sub-creators. We don’t create out of nothing, but we imitate our creator when we take his raw materials and change their form, giving them structure, and in the process re-create something beautiful, just as Adam was told to tend the garden, making it even more beautiful than it already was. This is true recreation.
The opposite of muse is amuse. The prefix makes all the difference. That one small vowel changes the word to mean the opposite - without creativity, without deep, reflective thought. The French origins of the word are telling and carry connotations of causing oneself or another to stare stupidly by means of entertainment or deception [ibid.]. (There’s something to reflect on the next time you find yourself awaking from a television-induced alpha-wave stupor during a commercial and you can’t remember what show you were watching.)

I know that word meanings change through the course of time, but I find tracing the etymology of a word to be fascinating and helpful toward understanding and questioning the presuppositions I soak in simply by living during the time period I do. As I contemplate how we got from point a to point b, I begin to see the culture I live in differently. I think that, as we track these kinds of changes in word meanings and usages, we can begin to get a feel for the direction in which cultural presuppositions have shifted through time.

In our culture today, when our work is over and we have downtime, we want to watch television, sit and play a computer game, or read a novel that demands no thought or creativity from us. We want to amuse ourselves: check out, veg, zone - call it what you will.

One of my favorite films comes to mind. In the 90’s remake of Sabrina (starring Julia Ormond, Harrison Ford, and Greg Kinnear), Sabrina has spent a year in Paris. She arrives home in New York and changes Linus’s life. Linus is a work-a-holic; he lives at the office, has no friends, and deep down he resents it. Sabrina teaches him to live, to enjoy life, to begin to relax (and as a result, he falls in love with her, but, hey, it’s Hollywood). The interesting thing in light of this discussion is that, as we watch her in Paris, learning to live well, Sabrina isn’t plopped in front of a television set, she doesn’t spend her time playing video games, or in cyber-cafés. She develops friendships, she learns to contemplate and observe life through a camera lens, she spends time “listening to the river” from her favorite bridge, she shops for fresh vegetables at the local marché, and she writes both in a journal and real letters home to her father. She learns to speak French. She tells Linus about her favorite walk in Paris in such detail that we know it’s something she did often and that she paid attention. Linus asks her to a typical evening on the town: dinner, drinks, and a Broadway show. Instead, in one of my favorite scenes, she introduces him to Moroccan food and after dinner, as they sit quietly and talk, she plays with and enjoys the scent and texture of fresh rose petals. This is living well.

(I would like to point out that, yes, this is a scene from a film, but, as a fan of film, I can’t watch one without spending time thinking about it and discussing it with those who watched it with me. We treat films like literature in that we look at story structure, foreshadowing, character development, themes, and lots more. There’s nothing passive or thoughtless about it.)

All this to say that I don’t want to replace ratio with intellectus in our schooling, but to marry the two. And if, in the process, we have less time for amusement, so be it.

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