William Dean Howells

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While I would wish you to love America most because it is your home, I would have you love the whole world and think of all the people in it as your countrymen. You will hear people more foolish than wicked say, “Our country right or wrong,” but that is a false patriotism and bad Americanism. When our country is wrong she is worse than other countries when they are wrong, for she has more light than other countries, and we somehow ought to make her feel that we are sorry and ashamed for her.

— William Dean Howells, from a statement written on his 75th birthday and read to students in New York City public schools

Robert Pirsig

You are never dedicated to something you have complete confidence in. No one is fanatically shouting that the sun is going to rise tomorrow. They know it’s going to rise tomorrow. When people are fanatically dedicated to political or religious faiths or any other kinds of dogmas or goals, it’s always because these dogmas or goals are in doubt.

— Robert Pirsig


When I was an undergraduate in the 1970s, there were three books we all felt were essential texts: Slaughterhouse-FiveSteppenwolf (or The Glass Bead Game, if you considered yourself among the more discerning readers of Hesse), and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. To a 21-year-old Ohio hickboy, Zen seemed unlike anything I'd ever read. As I read more, I realized it wasn't really sui generis, but no matter—reading it for the first time was an expansive experience all too rare at university.

Pirsig died Monday in Maine. I've been tempted to reread Zen a few times, but I'm afraid the experience will be like rereading Kerouac as a grown man—what was so captivating about this when I first read it? Great books transcend the time of their authorship and the time of your first reading. Good books, sometimes, cannot accomplish that, and there's no reanimating that self you brought to the pages the first time around. Maybe I should have a little more faith.

The good of it

In America the imagination is generally looked on as something that might be useful when the TV is out of order. Poetry and plays have no relation to practical politics. Novels are for students, housewives, and other people who don’t work. Fantasy is for children and primitive peoples. Literacy is so you can read the operating instructions. I think the imagination is the single most useful tool mankind possesses. It beats the opposable thumb. I can imagine living without my thumbs, but not without my imagination.
— Ursula K. Le Guin

I recall a cartoon. A cave man contemplates something he has just created—the first wheel. By his side, a cave man colleague with skeptical expression says, "If you can't eat it or screw it, what good is it?"

In other cultures, do artists face the question of art's purpose? Or is that one more example of America's proud exceptionalism? The U.S. Petulant and his henchers seem to believe the purpose of art is to irritate them and their co-conspirators, so no more public money for that. Parents fret that their offspring will spring off in an artsy direction—toward poetry or painting or vocal performance or art history—and warn them to study something practical, so they have a fallback. Because everything that isn't good for something else is falling backwards from the American sense of worth.

Ars longa, sed iam stultitia.