By Stacey Egger
It is one of the beauties of a human being that he cannot construct his interior—his thoughts, memories, convictions, feelings—in a way that is detached from the world and the people around him. Artistic and intellectual influences facilitate, speed, and color an individual’s coming-to-know, and they are one of the most natural and effective ways to communicate knowledge to others. We like to share what we love, and for this reason small, isolated communities tend to develop their own ecosystem of shared artistic and literary taste. This little cultural tide pool makes communication easy, as whatever new things fall in shine in the same light and reflect the same colors. The more a small community shares common images, experiences, and meaningful artistic and intellectual influences, and the more refined, specific, and detached from outside forces these tastes are, the more quickly and precisely it is able to function as a unit, to communicate and to pursue truth together.
This essay’s previous installment emphasized the dangers of personal taste’s withdrawing us from others. Yet it is this same faculty that can foster the greatest level of closeness in a community. This can manifest itself in many ways, but it is certainly evident, and relevant, in an intellectual community on a college campus.
The development of a language of shared taste within a small community is similar, on a much smaller scale, to a system of mythology and imagery shared by an entire culture, a lost experience in the modern world. Cultures that possessed folk tales and popular mythology familiar to all of their members had the advantage of the depth and ease of communication of ideas facilitated by these shared images. Works of art, literature, and philosophy employed these images, tapping into an web of associations already constructed in the minds of their viewers and readers. In a small community of college students, a Sufjan Stevens album or a novel by David Foster Wallace can serve as similar touchstones, the origins and holding-places for the ideas, conversations, and truths sought and acquired by the members of the community over time. On the other hand, this analogy demonstrates the difficulties of communication that can arise when the individual must take his conclusions out of their incubating context. When we approach a work of literature or art that was produced for an audience steeped in a common mythos, it takes a great deal of work for us to get down to meaning that was readily accessible to those for whom all of the images had immediate significance and associations. When we read Dante or Shakespeare, it takes a long time for us, with the help of extensive footnotes, to get down to meanings immediately apparent to their contemporaries. Cultural richness made their expressions of meaning incredibly rich, and this imagery was shared by the culture at large. For us, however, who do not share this imagery, it takes time and effort to understand ideas that could be so easily and richly conveyed in their time.
We live in a world beyond this loss, the loss of a greater cultural mythology and language. And here is the importance and beauty of smaller communities of shared taste, which function as microcosms of this richness of imagery and association, binding their members together in discourse that has the ease and depth of shared imagery and artistic associations. To be intellectually fair, then, we must accept the difficulties of such a community alongside its benefits. If we enter this type of close intellectual community we are naturally isolating ourselves and our discourse from those who are not inside. We are also isolating the conclusions we reach, because our way of coming to know them and thus our way of understanding them will be grounded in and colored by the palette we have shared to paint them.
The ease of this closeness, therefore, does not come without a cost. We have all, likely, gone home and found it more difficult to relate to our old friends and peers and even our families. More than just an inconvenience, this can be seriously discouraging. In our communities here, it has seemed easy and obvious to find something resoundingly true and have those around us get it. Trying to export this information can be a disheartening experience. A phrase that has a wealth of association and background in our academic and cultural circles, we find, does not contain these associations, or perhaps any at all, for our uncle who asks about the term paper we are typing in the living room at Christmas.
The ease with which we are able to know and communicate within such a fostered community of taste will correspond directly to the difficulty we have in translating this knowledge to those who are not in that community. This is not some kind of flaw in the system; it is the system’s natural balance. The exceptional benefits of communication that this kind of a community of taste offer are received along with the “language barrier” with the outside world that accompanies them. It is natural that, having reached strong and resounding conclusions within such a body, we should feel misunderstood when we go outside and those associations are not shared, and seem so difficult to share.
By drawing attention to these difficulties, I do not meant in any way to critique this kind of community. Quite the opposite. When the chafe we feel with the minds of those outside is recognized as a natural result of this kind of intellectual community, responsibility and intention should take the place of despair. Recognizing the “language barrier” that a community of taste can form, it is crucial to evaluate whether the reasons for difficulty in a conversation, or a straight-out disagreement, are based in fundamental divisions over truth, or merely these taste-centered difficulties. This distinction between matters of taste and truth helps us to identify those differences which are legitimate and crucial to attack (read: “hills to die on”), and requires us show charity in conversations which may require, instead, the effort of translation. There are evil ideas in the world, and these require all of the disdain and hatred that we have.
Those with whom we feel friction merely because they happen not to have been enrolled in the courses we have been enrolled in and known our most definitive friends, we should love, and in the spirit of this love, we should work earnestly and joyfully to share the blessings that we have been given by the communities from which we have received so much. Not only is this effort of translation the learner’s responsibility, it is beneficial to his own intellectual honesty. The process of transplanting our contained and well-watered ideas into the great outdoors challenges their solidity and hardiness against valid threats they may have been sheltered from, and only by surviving this process can they reach full maturity.
To rightly evaluate what we see around us, we must be aware of our own vantage point. To love others rightly, we must know them, and to know them rightly, we must know ourselves. A small, isolated, richly developed community is a beautifully effective place for a person to learn, but the things he learns are not complete until he is able to take them out of the safety of their nest and bring them to maturity in translation. We need not lament, then, the distance we feel from those outside our communities as we grow closer to those in our communities. We must simply know that it will be our task to lessen it. Most importantly, we must not feel disdain or anger towards those who, not having chosen to move into the house next door to us and follow us from moment to moment, have not been trained in the precise culture and language that has arisen so particularly to our place. To do so would be to choose a grave path of isolation, absurdity, and arrogance. This is the most serious pitfall of such a community, and threatens the destruction of the beauty and goodness that the community offers. Instead, thankful for the blessings we have received from our community of learning, we should count it a joy to share in love what we have come to know.
Stacey Egger is a sophomore studying history.