Looking Along the Beam

Thanks to Luo, I am now feeling much more hopeful about "Fencing Bear at Prayer" as a project. Indeed, Luo has given me a wonderful way to conceptualize it: "What you're doing in this blog is more like what a 'real' medieval/monastic writer would do, perhaps? Writing is like wandering in a dark forest of words and thoughts. We dabble, linger, constantly get lost, but also run into the marvelous. I assumed that this blog, with its monologue and contemplation, was part of your academic project, in which the aesthetic and personal experience is an important subject?" To which I can only reply: "Yes! Yes! Yes! But..."

But how much does the aesthetic and, even more to the point, personal experience belong in an academic project, if at all? This--I realized as I walked into campus with Joy this morning to mail in my passport application, pick up the gadgets that I ordered to go with my new toy, sort my emails and update my homepage--is precisely the question that I have been struggling with, not to mention the primary reason that my academic writing has stalled. Not only for whom do I want to be writing, but from what perspective? As with so many things, C.S. Lewis has already described the problem perfectly in his "Meditation in a Toolshed."

Standing one day in his toolshed, Lewis noticed a beam of sunlight streaming in through the crack at the top of the door. Looking at the beam of light, he could see small motes of dust dancing in it, but nothing else. Everything outside of the beam was pitch-black. "Then," as he describes it, "I moved, so that the beam fell on my eyes. Instantly the whole previous picture vanished. I saw no toolshed and (above all) no beam. Instead I saw, framed in the irregular cranny at the top of the door, green leaves moving on the branches of a tree outside and beyond that, 90 odd million miles away, the sun. Looking along the beam," Lewis observed, "and looking at the beam are very different experiences."

Lewis goes on in his meditation to note that it is the peculiarity of most "modern" thought to privilege looking at the beam over looking along it. Scholars in particular are wary of stepping into the beam because they fear losing their much vaunted "objectivity" or, worse, being misled into believing that something exists (God, beauty, honor, love, pain, thought) for which there is, from the perspective of looking at the beam, objectively no proof. Alas! It is for this very reason that so much academic writing is, let's face it, soul-crushingly dry. That's what it is supposed to be: soul-less, objective, seeing only the beam from the outside, not using it to see by from within.

Not that there is no value in looking at the beam of religion or art or sport or love. Far from it. As Lewis noted, when looking along the beam, he could no longer see the beam itself, much as we do not see the air we breathe or the life that we ourselves lead. But the atmosphere is no less real for all that we cannot see it unless we are outside of it (like astronauts) nor are our lives meaningless viewed only from the inside. Ha. It's hot (93 degrees F, according to my Blackberry) and I'm sitting outside with the puppy (tongue lolling, chasing bees) and I'm having a difficult time looking at, rather than along Lewis's argument. I don't want simply to agree with him, although I do. Rather, I wanted to use him to make a point about what I saw this morning, looking at rather than along what I've been trying to do with my work.

Looking at what I'm trying to do, as Luo was able to, I realize that I am caught, perhaps unsurprisingly, in the very dilemma out of which much of the material that I study as an academic arose: do I write, like a monk, commentary on the Scriptures out of my own experience? Or do I write, like a scholar, systematic descriptions of the truths on which those experiences are theoretically founded? Practice or theory? Experience or truth? Ah, but I'm a scholar, you see. Not a monk. Not even close to a monk. Or even, given my gender, a nun. No matter what I do, I will not be, in fact, practicing anything like what the authors whom I study wrote about. I'm married, for goodness' sake. That is my order. Plus, I live so very much in the world, with all of its temptations, anxieties and delights.

But that's really a red herring. Or, worse, just an excuse. Because, after all, what I say, at least here on my blog, that I want to be writing about is my experience, not something I've observed from outside, whether it be monasticism or, indeed, marriage. That's why I am so jealous of Elizabeth Gilbert (who, by the by, has some excellent things to say about expectations and "compulsive comparing" in chapter two of her new book): she gets to read the scholars while still really living what they describe, while they, like me, just sit on the sidelines, looking at life instead of living it. Except that I do, I realize, get to live the life of a scholar while Gilbert doesn't (for which she occasionally apologizes when quoting their work); it's just that I can't see the light of scholarship from within, the light that I look along to see what others are experiencing from within their own beams.

As Lewis notes: "You can step outside one experience only by stepping inside another." So which experience do I want to step inside: that of the monk or that of the scholar?


  1. I'm reminded of the statement Einstein made about how he came to the insight that became General Relativity. He imagined what it would be like to be moving along side a photon moving as it does, at light speed. What would he see? So there's yet another way of approaching the beam of light. Taking the implicit, (therefore dangerous) metaphorical leap, are you really dealing with a dichotomy?

  2. I have been thinking that being a scholar, or more precisely an "intellectual," may be the most self-afflicting thing in the world. "To be" a scholar is to step into an existential status, but the very act of intellectual reasoning must be a gaze from outside. So, "being a scholar" seems by definition ironic, because it is stepping into an experience that always requires the the very act of stepping out. Also, dialectic reasoning is intrinsically reversible thus can always be used to turn against itself, so being a scholar is entering into a perpetual circle of identifying the dichotomy, overcoming/transcending it, and entering into a new one. We must accept the fate of constant self-doubt and self-denial. I have been thinking if I want to become a scholar or a monk, too! I found myself perhaps born a scholar-type person (in its neutral, not sublime sense), because I can't help gazing at my most mundane experience and immediately theorizing it (I feel maybe you too? You are both living and reflecting upon the experience in this blog. I myself can't really tell if you're prioritizing one over the other?). My ideal would be to become a monk via being a scholar. The very desire of being something I am not and the anxiety about this unfulfillment make me both and neither, as I dare to hope! Sorry for my babbling! I confess I'm excited to find my name in the blog, to which I often turn for answer and comfort.


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