A hero is someone you admire to the point of losing sleep over. A hero is one the ancients were tempted to worship, with the ardent hope that some of the strength from his dead body would seep into the ground and make their crops fertile. A hero, you admit, is better than you are, and you make that confession even with joy, because you take delight in his greatness…
In 2016, my family spent a golden summer in Italy: June on a lush, volcanic island in the Bay of Naples. Needless to say, life on that island, girdled round with beaches and fishing villages, is slow, serene, and saturated with sunshine. At the center of the island rises a mountainous cone, terraced with orchards and vineyards. The previous autumn, when my friend and I were looking for a house, we made the fortuitous mistake of booking a villa over halfway up the mountain. We also decided, stubbornly, not to rent a car. Our villa could only be reached by a road, which was so narrow and steep that some taxi drivers refused to haul us up. And so, every day, we had to walk down the mountain—with any number of the five little kids we had between our two families—to the town below to get groceries. We filled our backpacks with pasta, jars of tuna, market-fresh produce, bottles of oil, and, most laborious of all, those big six-packs of bottles of water. And there were bottles of wine, too. Before I arrived on the island, my friend warned me that the roads were very steep. “How steep?” I asked. He replied, “So steep that it’s as hard to go down as it is to go up.”
Although the hauling of daily sustenance was tedious, our consolation was that all the roads leading up to the villa were lanes through paradise. Ischia in the early summer bears large, gnarled lemons, the size of grapefruits, as well as oranges, that issue a perfume that fills the whole kitchen as soon as you cut into them. Our favorite way down was by a shady lane that was skirted by tall stone walls. Leafy branches extended up and out from the enclosed orchards to form a canopy overhead. We often peaked between the gates to admire the limbs of those trees, hanging low with heavy, colored fruit. Climbing on the outside of the crumbling walls were wild capers, as well as passion fruit vines, whose buds explode in June into carnevale-esque flowers of exuberant color and daring design. They look like they were designed in Venice by a mischievous Italian god.
The entirety of our stay was an immersion in a world of surprise. Ischia is the kind of island whose local legends boast Odysseus stopped there for a time. Off the northern coast, there are rocks that protrude from the sea—some of the many crew-members who got eaten or turned to stone. But even to this day, the elemental conditions of the island have a mythic quality: The sea at sunset takes on a unique blend of colors, so that if you saw them in a painting you would think they had been executed by poetic license. On one evening walk in particular, we followed a narrow road (a two-lane road for Italians, but more narrow than an American sidewalk!), which wound its way along the periphery of the mountain, through vineyards and orchards and olive trees. On our right, the steep mountain fell precipitously away into an expansive view of the sea. It was dusk, but the light seemed to be slow to fade, and it must have been ever so slightly hazy, because, a year later, when my friend and I were recalling that evening, we kept using the word “soft” in a desperate attempt to recall the quality of light.
Then there were the beaches. One beach, in particular, had a narrow shore of ugly grey sand, but that did not matter because the water had a hue—and I could barely believe that my eyes were reporting what they saw—of greenish blue, giving the water a gem tone. As we were swimming, we kept joking that being in this water is what it would feel like to bathe in a liquid emerald.
And the food! Campania—the rural region that frames Naples—is what most of us think of as typical “Italian,” given that so many twentieth-century immigrants came from there. It is lasagna country, the home of pizza, and produces a fresh mozzarella made from the milk of water buffaloes (seriously). The cheese tastes like ordinary mozzarella, except it is softer, wetter, and creamier. You eat it with tomatoes and a pungent basil, whose leaves are oily and shiny. Italian produce seems to hold the energy of the sun suspended within it, such that you could almost say it tastes bright. In fact, in my memory the whole summer has a bright color to it: the electric red of tomatoes, aggressive yellow of lemons, dazzling blue of waves. Toward the end of our visit, I wrote my friends a letter about what it felt like to live there:
We’ve had a delightful time in Ischia. Next Monday, we’ll leave the island in route to Rome, although we will be delayed in Sorrento for a couple of days. The kids want to see Pompeii, and I want to hike, at least a bit, of the Sentiero degli dei. On Ischia, I tried my hand at painting, and James and I have made pizza in our forno. I also made Sicilian lemon granita, which was very well received. Being here has been refreshing, almost elemental, to bathe in the sea and in the sun. In the meantime, it seems like you could subsist merely by eating the lemons and tomatoes.
I begin this book, on the humanities, with a description of travel, because I think the experience of being immersed in a world of surprise, like I was on Ischia, and the experience that you can have when reading a “great book”—for lack of a better term—is fundamentally analogous. This “wandering” kind of travel I have described is different from our everyday, mundane kind of travel (such as we do for business or to see families)—moving within the well-worn ruts of airport security lines or predictable interstate routes. The wandering sort of travel brings a rich experience, saturated in wonder. In traveling to an exotic place, like Ischia, your senses are keenly alive: You have a mingled sense of adventure and awe, confusion and danger. You are suspended, immersed in wonder, enjoying an ecstatic experience in which you figuratively stand outside yourself. None of the ordinary dullness hangs about you. You cease worrying about your routine cares.
And yet, although it is hard to believe—even for me now as I write this—toward the end of our summer, we were worn out with travel. We longed to go home. As I wrote my friend in the same letter quoted above,
I hope you are well. We’ve been thinking about you all a lot, and we are looking forward to seeing you in August. We’ve been gone long enough that the most exotic thing in the world is coming home.
Thus, when we travel we regain a sense of the adventurousness of the ordinary. As I travel and discover the diversity of the world, its breadth and variety, I begin to feel a keen aching in the depth of my own heart. When I am suspended in wonder, when all around me is strange and I am elated and confused, I become, once again, affectively vulnerable, capable of renewal, of longing for greatness again. It is for this reason, I think, that medieval authors often associated traveling with the discovery of the depths of the self. As Caroline Bynum put it, medieval spiritual writers demonstrate “interest in the inner landscape of the human being.”[i] The Carthusian spiritual master Guigo I wrote, “See how ignorant you are of your own self; there is no land so distant and so unknown to you, nor one about which you will so easily believe falsehoods.”[ii] Seven hundred years earlier, Saint Augustine also marveled at the “immense capaciousness” of what he calls “the huge court of my memory”:
In my memory are sky and earth and sea…along with all the things that I have ever been able to perceive in them and have not forgotten… Great is this power of memory, exceedingly great…a spreading limitless room within me. Who can reach its uttermost depth?… Here are men going afar to marvel at the heights of mountains, the mighty waves of the sea, the long courses of great rivers, the vastness of the ocean, the movements of the stars, yet leaving themselves unnoticed and not seeing it as marvelous that when I spoke of all these things, I did not see them with my eyes, yet I could not have spoken of them unless…[they had] been inwardly present to my sight.[iii]
Augustine marvels at how the whole world is contained within: stars, wind, sun, hills, valleys, oceanic depths. Encountering the world’s breadth, then, can lead to a discovery of my depth. Why? Because one way we can perceive infinite realities is through an experience of a multiplicity that approximates the infinite. As Aquinas put it, no created thing can represent adequately the profound depth of God’s simplicity: “[W]hat is one and simple in God was necessarily represented in created things in different ways and dissimilarly.”[iv]
So far, I have said that travel can lead to a re-perception of reality: That is, a new ability to perceive afresh “something more of the depths,” as Frost put it; to look with a sense of longing, to be penetrated with a sharp sense of desire, to find reemerging within you a hunger you thought you had lost or perhaps never knew you possessed. In this experience, I am—potentially—melted down and recast. Through such a deep experience —so different from my ordinary routine when I have a too easy command over everything—I am shocked awake.
But now we come to a major question: How is this profound sense of travel like the experience of reading? That is the subject of this book.
First, though, another word on travel. In particular, I want to contrast a “deep” or “rich” experience of travel with the “flattened” experience of moving: In the terms of one anthropologist, we are talking about “transport” as opposed to “wayfaring.”
“Wayfaring” is being “immersed in the landscape, attuned to its textures and features,” while in the case of transport, as Tim Ingold puts it, the traveler “is [passively] moved, becoming a passenger in his own body.”[v] What neuroscientists have discovered—such as May-Britt and Edvard Moser, winners of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Medicine—is that as we move through a new environment, the brain physically burns markers onto cells in the hippocampus and entorhinal cortex, almost like a pencil makes marks on graph paper, creating a cognitive grid of spaces in our minds. Nicholas Carr, a science and technology writer, has compiled interesting evidence to suggest that there are ways of moving, especially by means of navigational devices, such as GPS, that do not leave deep traces within our brain. For this reason, Mr. Carr suggests we should be suspicious of GPS. It is not simply the latest tool for promoting traveling, but functions as a substitute for the traditional navigational process: “By taking control of the mechanics of navigation and reducing our own role to following routine commands—turn left in five hundred yards—the systems end up isolating us from the environment.”[vi] As a result, it would seem, we fail to create cognitive maps within our brains. In fact, as everyone knows, when you travel somewhere by GPS, you cannot remember how to get back. In fact, you sometimes cannot recall how you got there. Your memories of the landscape are vague.
But the situation worsens. As technological aids make experiences of wayfaring and navigation less and less common, there is a risk that our hippocampuses are shrinking. The hippocampus is also the region of the brain responsible for long-term memories. Thus, some research psychologists, such as Veronique Bohbot, worry that senile dementia will begin creeping back to younger and younger ages in our culture, on account of the atrophy of the hippocampus brought on by the loss of navigational experiences.[vii] It is extraordinary then that Augustine perceived such a relationship between “travel” and “memory,” anticipating neuroscientific research by 1500 years!
However, as I have suggested, I am not primarily interested in technology; rather, I am using the “rich” experience of “travel,” as I described at the beginning of this Introduction, as a kind of metaphor for “deep” knowledge, as opposed to the “flattened” experience we have when being transported or employing GPS. By cutting out “wayfaring,” we cut out “deep” knowledge and experience. Our brains are becoming, quite literally, flattened out, shallow. The danger in our society, then, is of great flattening, a loss of “rich experience,” as well as a related loss of “rich” or “deep” knowledge, the prolonged memories with the power to create whole networks of memories. Can this metaphor help us think about “deep reading”? Is there a reading equivalent to cognitive “mapping”?
It would seem that the answer is, “yes.” However, it is not just our knowledge of landscapes that is becoming flattened out. We also find a corresponding flattening of souls, a flattening out of what kinds of lives we imagine possible and of our capacity to admire the true depths of magnanimous spirits. Allan Bloom is the most eloquent—and grumpy—spokesman warning us against this flattening of soul. Writing in the 1980s, he famously lamented that
our students have lost the practice of and the taste for reading. They have not learned how to read, nor do they have the expectation of delight or improvement from reading… When I first noticed the decline in reading during the late sixties, I began asking my large introductory classes, and any other group of younger students to which I spoke, what books really count for them. Most are silent, puzzled by the question. The notion of books as companions is foreign to them. Justice Black with his tattered copy of the Constitution in his pocket at all times is not an example what would mean much to them. There is no printed word to which they look for counsel, inspiration of joy.[viii]
Bloom continues, suggesting that these reading habits have left imaginations unfurnished with examples of heroism, or even with a real concrete sense for evil: “Having heard over a period of years the same kind of responses to my question about favorite books, I began to ask students who their heroes are. Again, there is usually silence, and most frequently nothing follows.” And finally, he adds:
Following on what I learned from this second question, I began asking a third: Who do you think is evil? To this one there is an immediate response: Hitler. (Stalin is hardly mentioned). After him, who else?… And there it stops. They have no idea of evil; they doubt its existence. Hitler is just another abstraction, an item to fill up an empty category.… Thus, the most common student view lacks an awareness of the depths as well as the heights, and hence lacks gravity.[ix]
In the remainder of this chapter, and indeed throughout this book, I will propose that humanistic studies, broadly understood, the liberal arts, and particularly the careful study of the so-called “great books,” promise at least a partial cure for the loss of such rich knowledge. Careful readers do not just look at all the words in a text, letting their minds drift downstream, moved along by the current of plot or argument; rather, they “study,” that is, when they have finished reading, they feel obligated to be able to reconstruct their mental experience. They can close their eyes and walk through the book they have read, section by section. In such an experience of deep reading, they burn a “map” of the text into their minds (like the brain does in the entorhinal cortex). More importantly, such textual mapping is not just a series of horizontal memories that can be arranged in the appropriate sequence; rather, it is able to yield a vertical experience of reading. As opposed to “flattened” experiences, great books can provide us with an experience of radical depth. Throughout this book, in many different contexts, I will try to capture that idea of an experience of “depth” by the metaphor of “falling”—the dizzying feeling you would experience if the ground fell out from under you, or that experience of vertigo that Dante experiences when he rides on the back of the monster Geryon in Canto 17 of the Inferno. An abyss opens within you and you fall inward. It is an experience of depth analogous to the “rich experience” of traveling with which I began.
For an illustration of “falling inward,” we turn to Homer. In his epic poem Iliad, the hero is Achilles. That much is obvious from the first line. But after that, every book brings surprising revelations. Our reading experience continues to deepen. For instance, when we first meet Achilles in Book I, he seems a rather “ordinary” hero: he is hungry for honor, irascible, and proud, as is any man of worth in the ancient Greek world: Diomedes, Agamemnon, Ajax, even Idomeneus. When Agamemnon insults him in a public assembly, Achilles, like any hot-tempered man accustomed to violence, reaches for his sword to kill the insolent man who has offended him. This hot-tempered anger is what the Greeks called cholos: Related to “choler” and the “choleric” temperament, cholos is the hot, adrenaline rush that cries out when you are punched. It is very understandable.
What is less understandable is the transformation that begins to take place: Achilles’s anger begins to “metastasize,” as Gregory Nagy puts it.[x] His anger transforms from a hot-tempered cholos, which likes to fight, into a cold, enduring wrath that longs to hate (menis). Indeed, the word menis is not used in archaic Greek to refer to human anger; rather, it describes the internal suffering of gods who feels the cosmic order has been broken. Achilles, then, is drawn into a profoundly unhuman experience, even before the end of Book I.[xi]
When we come upon Achilles next, this powerful sullenness is beginning to express itself and take over the hot-tempered anger. Agamemnon sends an embassy to try to persuade the great man to fight. The embassy sees Achilles, sitting on the bank of the sea, weeping, while singing songs about heroes of old, heroes who won a name through deeds of glory:
…they found Achilleus delighting his heart in a lyre, clear-sounding,
Splendid and carefully wrought…
With this he was pleasuring his heart, and singing of men’s fame.[xii]
But it soon becomes clear to the embassy through a magnificent speech of anger and passion that Achilles feels limited, frustrated, and imprisoned by the capricious commands of the general to whom he has, by a sick twist of fate, been forced to submit.[xiii] Achilles is superior in strength, mind, leadership, courage, skill, and beauty, but he remains the subject of a small-souled man. When Achilles is denied the ordinary “honor” appropriate to a man of strength, he begins to realize that perhaps mere honor is not what he wanted in the first place. Famously, Achilles was offered the choice of a long life, which would find its consummation in a sleepy and peaceful old age, or a short life, that would be marked by fame and honor. Now he realizes that such an offer is a cheat. What Achilles wants is eternity, but this is shocking, because it is the lot reserved to divinity. In fact, none of Achilles’s friends seem to recognize the root of the problem. They keep asking him to lay aside his cholos, revealing that they think Achilles is suffering from a sprained ankle, when in reality he has spiritual bone cancer.[xiv]
Nine books later we meet Achilles again. This time he is staring at the shield that his mother, Thetis, commissioned. Homer wants us to see this shield as a magical object, made by a god at the request of a goddess. Achilles watches and listens, as the images depicted on it move, sing, dance, and play. The humans upon it scream, shout, laugh, dance, and murder. The surface of the shield is a moving world-image. Appropriately, Achilles’s men are terrified by this “charged object” (more on this in Chapter 2). But, strikingly, Achilles’s response is not terror, but a fresh bout of the old cholos.
Trembling took hold of all the Myrmidons. None has the courage
to look straight at it. They were afraid of it. Only Achilleus
looked, and as he looked the anger came harder upon him.[xv]
Achilles stares at the shield and feels again the sorrow of what he has been denied: eternity. At this point, even if it were offered him, kingship, honor, ripe old age—all would be insufficient. All of these things are just fragments of the Infinite. And so as Achilles stares at his shield and finds the world spread out before him, in its joy and terror, dance and song, love and hate. He is reminded that any choice he makes is confined and restrained. All he can have, even if he grasps a big arm full of it, is a miniscule portion. And so Achilles falls into a deep, painful, outraged, enduring longing.
This is what I mean by “falling into” a great book. When you read about a hero, you cannot but encounter a soul that has depths. And as we, living in a flattened world, encounter a soul of depth and longing, we begin to feel an admiration creep into us, a secret hunger, that leads us to lose the taste for the merely ordinary around us. And if we keep this experience of longing in mind, then we realize how clichéd our ordinary use of “hero” is. In reality, a hero is someone you admire to the point of losing sleep over. A hero is one the ancients were tempted to worship, with the ardent hope that some of the strength from his dead body would seep into the ground and make their crops fertile. A hero, you admit, is better than you are, and you make that confession even with joy, because you take delight in his greatness. You would gladly make this hero your master on account of your admiration. Encountering a hero is an experience that does not sit well in a democratic age. To admire the hero is to admit he possesses depths you do not. Or, as Soren Kierkegaard put it, to lose sleep over him or her because you have so much admiration:
There were many thousands in the Greece of the time, and countless others in later generations, who knew all the victories of Miltiades, but there was only one who lost sleep of them [Themistocles, as related by Plutarch]. There were countless generations that knew the story of Abraham by heart, word for word. How many did it make sleepless?[xvi]
We could add: There were hundreds of Greek warriors who knew the songs of old, but only one who sat on the beach and sang them. In other words, we could describe the idea of “having a hero” in this way: To possess a fierce desire, a longing, that his depth will become mine. To hope to become the hero of your heroes. A hero is a man whose deeds call out within me a desire for grandeur.
This essay is an excerpt from Jason Baxter’s Falling Inward: Humanities in the Age of Technology (184 pages, Cluny, 2018), and it is published here with gracious permission from the author.
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.
[i] Caroline Bynum, “Did the Twelfth Century Discover the Individual?”, in Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Ages (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982), p. 87. Emphasis added.
[vi] Ibid., p. 128.
[vii] Ibid., p. 135.
[ix] Ibid., pp. 66–67.
[xiii] Ibid., IX.308–429.
[xiv] Cf. ibid., IX.260.
[xv] Ibid., XIX.14–16.