Why I Write (III)
Bill Long 7/28/07
Thanks to George Orwell's Essay "Why I Write"
In the hundreds of essays I have written on these pages, I seek to redefine knowledge by four types of essays. Let me say that I don't "redefine" knowledge in each one; but I hope that the cumulative effect is to get you to think about why and how the field in which you work "has it all wrong." I do so, as I said, by four types of essays.
I. Type # 1--The Expositional Essay
I was trained in the exegesis of sacred texts. Exegesis is nothing more than a big word to describe the process of interpreting and explaining a text as it is. It is based on historical and grammatical knowledge, on the structure of the language, on the ability to limn what ideas are going on "in the text." Exegesis usually goes "word by word" or "phrase by phrase" but sometimes it seeks to explain the whole passage under consideration. Exegesis is thus a "close reading" of texts. I think that a "text" can be almost anything in life--a leaf, a person whom an artist paints, a piece of written material, an encounter with someone which you are trying to describe. It is close and precise description of the matter at hand.
This is what I try to do in my biblical essays, my Shakespeare essays, my "words" essays, and often my reviews of historical works or biographies. I try to go "one word at a time" or "one fact at a time," hold it up to the light, look at it from different angles, try to suck all the meaning out of it that I can, and then present it in an attractive and helpful form for you. Just as Margaret Mead said that the world is changed not by multitudes but by a small group of dedicated people, so I believe that the "knowledge world" is changed not by taking on the "big concepts" of a civilization but by giving intensive attention to texts. Who knows but that the entire Linnaean classification system will come crashing down (or be revised) simply by (re)looking at a leaf. Take the time to look closely at life, to let it open up for you, and then describe in as precise and careful a means as you can the process of meaning opening up to you. This is the genesis of knowledge transformation.
II. Type # 2-- Connecting Hitherto Unconnected Things
Here is where you need a breadth of knowledge that only comes from studying a lot of areas and living fully and reflectively in the world for some time. Knowledge expands and the world is seen differently when people "connect the dots" in previously unseen ways. I think, in fact, that one of the "gifts" that autistic children/adults will bring to our society is that they force us to slow down and begin to connect things in ways we haven't previously done. Speak to any parent of an autistic child. They will tell you not only of the tremendous and heart-wrenching frustrations and weariness they sometimes feel but also the ways that living with an autistic child has opened up new worlds of understanding to them, allowing them to "connect" stray bits of knowledge in ways they never would have done previously.
But the type of "connecting" knowledge I give in these essays is primarily of connecting "fields" through my study of religion, history, words, literature, philosophy, politics and other things. I write many of my "words" essays because words allow me to open up the world, to see the world, in ways I previously haven't done. Words give you names for things, and names let you enter into the essence of a thing. Once you have done that you are in a position to connect words in special ways.
Sometimes I study the dictionary (usually the Unabridged or the OED; sometimes Latin and Greek or other language dictionaries). I have often written about "near neighbor" words, i.e., words that appear directly after each other but have no "connection" to each other. It is like neighbors who live next to each other in any suburban or urban neighborhood. We often have no connection to each other, but we often find a way to connect simply because we are close to each other. Why not try to connect knowledge in this way--through "near neighbors" in words? It can lead to some hilarious results (see Billphorism 233).
III. Type # 3-- Personal Experience
My personal experience-type of essays are not meant simply to give you more details about my biography. They often give an "angle" on a prominent person whom I have met or know that comes out of my personal connection with them. They help, therefore, to "see" that person in a new, different or enhanced light. My essay on "Remembering Bernard Rimland" on this page is an example of this, though I have dozens of these scattered among my essays. But I am also trying to do something else through "personal" essays. I am trying to illustrate that knowledge of the world and self-knowledge are connected seamlessly. Or, to put it differently, they arise out of each other. We see the world as we do because we are they type of people that we are. We notice things around us because of our education, social location, natural enduements and experiences.
When I was trained as a writer and academician, one of the most important rules was to "keep yourself out" of your writing. You were a "scientist" of sorts--you were just letting the "data" speak for itself, even though everyone was aware that you were organizing the data in your own way. But I think this is a cramped way of writing, an unrealistic and, frankly, erroneous way to connect the knowledge-dots. We write like we do because of who we are. Personal essays, or personal references in essays, are not always appropriate or helpful, but they are rarely out of place. Thus, I want to encourage the return of this kind of writing to all of our investigations.
IV. Type # 4--From Details to Big Principles, with Humor
Life isn't just a series of expositional essays of sacred, or significant, texts. Sometimes you have to venture out to other and bigger topics. When I do so, I often try to inject some humor into the essay, as in my advice to Starbucks now that their stock price has tanked. But in other instances it is in trying to understand the worlds out of which people came and the thought/word worlds that still control how we speak. I close this essay with a thought that I may turn into an essay some day.
Two of the people that most influenced the modern world are Carolus Linnaeaus and Sigmund Freud. They both gave us a language for things--the former for the natural world and the latter for the world of the psyche. Both were incredibly smart and productive men, and both drew deeply on the worlds of Classical Greece/Rome (Latin) for their inspiration. I think that Linnaeus was smarter than Freud--the latter just let a few mythological categories from ancient Greece define much of his work, while Linnaeus used the whole classical dictionary to "see" the world anew.
In any case, what I aspire to in these essays--and the way that you pick up from them and apply it to your knowledge quests--is to reorient our knowledge world. Well, that is a big order, isn't it? Maybe that is why I am thinking of entitling my third autobiography (I have already written two; actually, Linnaeus wrote five), "Bill Long and the Art of the Impossible.." or "Bill Long and Redefining Failure.."