“Here one must leave behind all hesitation;
here every cowardice must meet its death.
For we have reached the place of which I spoke,
where you will see the miserable people,
those who have lost the good of the intellect.”
I walked through the mountains today. The weather was damp, and the entire region was grey. But the road was soft and in places very clean. At first I had my coat on; soon, however, I pulled it off, folded it together, and laid it upon my arm. The walk on the wonderful road gave me more and even more pleasure; first it went up and then descended again. the mountainous world appeared to me like an enormous theatre. The road snuggled up splendidly to the mountainsides. Then I came down into a deep ravine, a river roared at my feet, a train rushed past me with magnificent white smoke. The road went through the ravine like a smooth white stream, and as I walked on, to me it was as if the narrow valley were bending and winding around itself. Grey clouds lay on the mountains as though that were their resting place. I met a young traveller with a rucksack on his back, who asked if I had seen two other young fellows. No, I said. Had I come here from very far? Yes, I said, and went farther on my way. Not a long time, and I saw and heard the two young wanderers pass by with music. A village was especially beautiful with humble dwellings set thickly under the white cliffs. I encountered a few carts, otherwise nothing, and I had seen some children on the highway. We don’t need to see anything out of the ordinary. We already see so much.
[Robert Walser, “A Little Ramble” (1914). Trans. Tom Whalen.]
I need to vent. I met with a freshman student at the University Writing Center (my place of employment) this morning and our consultation was a very frustrating one.
The student brought in a paper for me to “check for grammar.” Her paper began by stating the problem of increased food prices, and that one of the major causes of this was poor people. By feeding poor people all over the world, she argued, these people are living instead of dying, and therefore increasing the world’s population, which is subsequently increasing food prices. “We” should not help the poor because they are going to get diseases and die anyway. She listed Haiti as an example because they have too many poor people. Her paper ended by stating that we should only help the poor during natural disasters such as floods or earthquakes.
So, putting my own personal opinion and ethics and grammar aside, I first tried to explain why her conclusion was illogical … because, according to her argument, instances of floods and earthquakes are when we should especially NOT help the poor, since this is when people are more likely to get diseases and die. Therefore, floods and earthquakes are good because they kill more people and decrease the population and make food prices drop. She agreed, and then asked what would be a better exception to giving poor people food. I spent a good deal of time trying to explain why that really isn’t the point … but she didn’t get it.
I then tried to broach the issue of “audience” and how her argument would probably offend many people, but she didn’t seem to care. I even tried to “personalize” the problem: “If one of your sisters or brothers lived in Haiti, no one should help them?” She said that she would help them.
I eventually convinced her to re-frame her argument as a question of “What is the best way to help/feed poor people?” rather than “Should we help poor people? No.”
God help us all.
Wow. That’s just … wow. Scary.
If I had been asked in my early youth whether I preferred to have dealings only with men or only with books, my answer would certainly have been in favor of books. In later years this has become less and less the case. Not that I have had so much better experiences with men than with books; on the contrary, purely delightful books even now come my way more often than purely delightful men. But the many bad experiences with men have nourished the meadow of my life as the noblest book could not do, and the good experiences have made the earth into a garden for me.
Here is an infallible test. Imagine yourself in a situation where you are alone, wholly alone on earth, and you are offered one of the two, books or men. I often hear men prizing their solitude, but that is only because there are still men somewhere on earth, even though in the far distance. I knew nothing of books when I came forth from the womb of my mother, and I shall die without books, with another human hand in my own. I do, indeed, close my door at times and surrender myself to a book, but only because I can open the door again and see a human being looking at me.
[Martin Buber, “Books and Men.” Pointing the Way: Collected Essays, 1957. Trans. Maurice Friedman.]
The proposal, put slightly differently, is that our attitudes toward food—which nourishes and sustains us, which binds us most fundamentally to place, family, market, and community—provide a measure of our respect for what Russell Kirk called the “Permanent Things.” We are not just what we eat but how we eat. The cultivation and consumption of our meals are activities as distinctively human as walking, talking, loving, and praying. Learning to regard the meal not merely as something that fills our bellies and helps us grow, but as the consummate exercise of beings carnal and earthbound yet upwardly and outwardly drawn, is a crucial step in the restoration of culture.