Literary Tonglen: Reading the Gateway to the Great Books of the Western World
I spent a few hours last night integrating what I had learnt from grade one of the Gateway to the Great Books. Seeking and making connections between stories, images, themes, feelings. Sensing forwards and backwards into experience for meaning.
The key to it leapt at me from the ABC's monthly magazine, Limelight, to unlock the first grade of readings in the Gateway to the Great Books. Limelight notes brain studies that reveal that, while people are reading books, the brain lights up as if it is actually engaged in what the reading describes. In other words, reading is not escaping reality but practicing it!
Now in that light, consider what grade one's stated purpose is:
The introduction states that the first grade is for readers either limited in life experience or about the age of 11 and 12 years old. The readings are adventure stories, stories of sea and nature, stories of heroism and teamwork, and stories that give rare entree into exclusive social millieux of the great and living dead.
We imagine the adventures at sea and land of working men. We see the ordinary challenges of daily life in a new light. We read adventures that draw out our inner resources. The great adventure stories, far from being idle daydreams, imperceptibly infuse new courage into undertaking daily difficulties. Havings stretched ourselves to live the extraordinary adventures in books makes common challenges more doable.
Not only that, but many of the readings introduce us to great men - Caesar, Lincoln, Xenophon, Socrates, Jesus, Solomon, Napoleon, Aristotle - and introduces us also to their great ends. So imperceptibly the first grade provides a critique for our own ends, means and motives. How do we compare to the greatest of the past? By contact with them we are enlarged.
On the deeper philosophical level of greatness, the first grade first introductes us into the Platonic Form of the Good. It does this through the obvious Platonic reading of the allegory of the cave in 'Republic', but also through fine literary criticism pieces of a general nature.
Why, we ask ourselves, do we need literary criticism? The introduction to the Gateway answers: literary critics direct us to the best, which is another way of saying they show us the most good quality beauty, in books. Not only that, they draw out the precise nature of the good through definition, demonstration, and comparison. So the beauty of a work is augmented by the good judgement of the critic, and refined by the true discernment of the critic. The critic reveals the complete Platonic form of the Good by describing the truth and goodness inherent in the beautiful work of imagination. Best of all, good criticism challenges our own judgment to improve in the light of their judging. The good, true and beautiful make up the Form of the Good, and literary criticism demonstrates this and whets our desire to become better acquainted with It.
Thematically many of the grade one readings pit social morality or natural justice against individual choices. Inevitably individual choice fails, but in doing so it shows us our natural limits as human beings.
I could imagine no more useful and freeing tragedy than one which shows precisely and overwhelmingly the exact nature of the limits by which human nature is circumscribed, and shows no more than that.
The overall impression of the first grade of the Gateway to the Great Books is that they provide a gradual course in what I call "literary tonglen". Tonglen is the Buddhist practice of giving the ease and joy you have away and taking the pain and suffering of others into yourself. So literary tonglen is the process of educating the heart to consider and align and share with the sufferings and joys of others. Literary tonglen is the process of becoming a full human being, for better and worse, richer or poorer, til death parts us from the brute world.