The Gift of Not Enough

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the role of scarcity in our lives.  Economists often argue that this idea is exactly what their discipline exists to study.

I think that all great art is about scarcity, too.  We rarely think of Michelangelo or Frida Kalho as having any traffic in the dismal science.  But perhaps we should.

Having a set of constraints, whether they be artistic conventions, expectations of genre, or limitations on materials, gives the artists something to perfect, subvert, or even ignore.  All of these choices become meaningful in the context of what’s come before.  Without those expectations, there cannot be the element of surprise or delight or shock.

It reminds me of a scene in a movie that I’ve come to loathe, Dead Poets’ Society:

Mr Keating asks his student Neil Perry to read aloud from the preface to their textbook on poetry.  After Neil reads the author’s attempt to give students a formulaic way to appreciate poetry, Mr Keating orders the class to tear out the introduction.

The fictional Professor Prichett’s method of teaching appreciation by plotting importance on the y axis and perfection on the x axis does sound really terrible.  Mr Keating uses this as the counterpoint to his preferred method, which is to teach students to “think for yourselves” and “savor words and language.”  These are high goals, indeed, and likely ones that almost any teacher of language or literature aspires to instill in her students.

But maybe the introduction also included lessons about meter and poetic registers and other genre-specific expectations.  These might indeed have been very useful, especially if the author had pointed out how poets used them to great effect.  In other words, Professor Prichett is a straw man in the argument against the understanding of the formal dimensions of poetry.

Thinking for yourself starts with intellectual humility.  Savoring words and language starts with understanding the ways that other great minds have used and changed them.  Mr Keating taught his class that their feelings, their “barbaric yawps,” were superior to the real art and discipline that goes into creating immortal works.  He taught them that their authenticity is what made their efforts great.

This romantic rubbish has of course infected all sorts of educational institutions, including the permanent class of education reformers.  Here’s my favorite send-up of this scene and its utter and banal ubiquity in our culture:

But what it fails to take into account is scarcity.  The point of haiku is that it has seventeen syllables and three lines.  That’s all you get.  Working within those definitions is a challenge and can yield beautiful results because it forces you to cut out every word but the essential word.

I’m not arguing that art has to follow the rules.  To the contrary, I’m arguing that sailing through the straits is the only way to get to the open sea.  Failure to navigate them correctly leads to a return to the starting point or shipwreck.

BTW, if you’re interested in watching a good movie set in a prep school, I’d recommend The Emperor’s Club.  It presents the whole business of learning and teaching seriously, taking stock of the formative value of both academic and moral instruction.

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