Is Poetry Sometimes Informative in a Special Way?

The Case of “Dover Beach”

In the previous “Durkheim Anomie” post we saw the following lines:

“In Durkheim’s view, traditional religions often provided the basis for the shared values which the anomic individual lacks. Furthermore, he argued that the division of labor that had been prevalent in economic life since the Industrial Revolution led individuals to pursue egoistic ends rather than seeking the good of a larger community.”

Along these lines, the great English critic Matthew Arnold senses the rise of an anarchic anomie nightmare world coming into view as the old anchors such as religious beliefs crumble away:

Dover Beach

by Matthew Arnold

The sea is calm tonight.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.
Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Ægean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Matthew Arnold was an English poet and cultural critic who worked as an inspector of schools. He was the son of Thomas Arnold, the celebrated headmaster of Rugby School, and brother to both Tom Arnold, literary professor, and William Delafield Arnold, novelist and colonial administrator.

Born: December 24, 1822, Laleham, Staines-upon-Thames, United Kingdom
Died: April 15, 1888, Liverpool, United Kingdom

Essay 35: Education and the Need for Enchantment

Max Weber (1864-1920) and Émile Durkheim (1858-1917) are considered the two fathers of modern sociology at the highest level.

Weber sees the modern world as the zone of “Ent-zauber-ung:” where ent means removal of, Zauber means magic or enchantment and ung means the process of.

He sees our world as “dis-enchanted.” Everything is scientific or profitable or unwelcome. This makes modern life a productive engine of sorts but extremely desiccated and arid and leads to what Durkheim calls “anomie” (the sense of being adrift, directionless).

We argue in this book that education should be seen as the “last exit” to enchantment before the “grind of life” comes down on the student after the “moratorium” of college.

What is enchantment? Enchantment is that special feeling about something, some topic, field, math problem, painting exhibit, novel, movie, debate, that there’s something there that “makes it all worthwhile” and like a great piece of music, “gets to you” and flies under all cynical radar. The best kind of enchantment can last from age 19-95, if you live that long.

Think of a math or physics problem or novel or painting that gives the student “permanent uplift.”

The pedagogical dimension of enchantment works like this: the student encounters a puzzle or conjecture or story or depiction that constitutes a “healthy obsession.”

After interaction with this phenomenon, he or she can “walk backwards” to the 900-page textbook and go to those pages that are relevant, this making the textbook more like a dictionary that serves as a handy reference book and not as a daunting, exhausting endless “Mt. Everest” of names and equations or faces or dates. The student can “conquer” textbooks by enchantment and only enchantment. Without that engine or motor for the mind and will, one is weighed down and demoralized in advance.

Let’s do two quick examples:

Heraclitus is supposed to have said, “you can’t step into the same river twice.” Zeno says you can’t really cross the street because first you have to reach the midpoint, then the next midnight, and so on forever. You never complete your crossing (see Joseph Mazur’s book, Zeno’s Paradox, from 2008).

Such ancient paradoxes are still perplexing. Great thinkers like Bertrand Russell, Whitehead, Frege, et al wrestled with them many decades.

It’s also puzzling that certain math or logic questions open up “oceans” of analysis. Why might that be? Is that enchanting or depressing?

The last chapter of Tolstoy’s War and Peace masterpiece is a set of reflections on history itself. It’s very enchanting as he wrestles with this “caprice machine” called history.

Enchantment gives you the first steps towards what we call “pre-understanding,” a prerequisite for all deep study.