As I sit here beside my candle writing this meditation this evening, I am thinking over the day’s events. I, a pseudo-philosophical emperor, have been rebuked by a philosophical ex-President. This afternoon, I have been reading Barack Obama’s memoir ‘A Promised Land’. In his preface to the book, he explains how he came to write it after he left office in January 2017. He explains that he wrote his book in longhand because he feels that using a computer ‘gives even my roughest drafts too smooth a gloss and lends half-baked thoughts the mask of tidiness.’ There is a hint of humility in this which is endearing.
Perhaps I should take him as my model and write my meditations in longhand first, instead of using my own mini-computer, my I pad. Then, hopefully, I will be sure that my blog will not contain ‘half-baked thoughts’ under the ‘mask of tidiness.’ I hope it doesn’t. But that is for you to decide, dear reader.
If I decide to write out my reflections in longhand, perhaps I should use the same stationery as Mr Obama does: lawyer’s yellow lined paper. He may use these ‘legal pads’ to remind him of his earlier career as a lawyer and to put him at his ease before writing. My little I pad, which has travelled everywhere with me, certainly puts me at my ease when I open it to begin to write.
There are advantages to writing with a computer, which we are all well aware of. We are able to correct the text we are writing as we go along; to cut and paste words, phrases, sentences and even entire paragraphs or sections, moving them around the text at will. My handwriting is not of the best so I prefer writing letters, even personal ones, on my laptop or I pad. As Mr Obama says, whatever we write is given a ‘smooth gloss’ and a ‘mask of tidiness’ because we are seeing it in print on the screen, as I am seeing this meditation now.
Psychologically, seeing your words in print on the screen is a way of boosting your personal confidence. I have found this to be true. Most writers have issues with personal confidence. Seeing my words on my I pad screen in a lovely elegant font has often provided a boost to my confidence, more than my untidy scrawl on paper has! But then, Shakespeare’s handwriting was also an untidy scrawl so I am in good company, though I will never come anywhere near to his genius!
There are also advantages to writing in longhand, which can be a slower, quieter and more relaxed occupation than typing away on a keyboard. It can also give rise to reflection, as dear Marcus Aurelius obviously discovered when he was was writing his own meditations, which are the inspiration for this blog. Writing by hand can allow for time to stop and think. I am sure you can stop and think using a keyboard too, but there is always that tendency to want to quickly clatter away on a keyboard. I have to force myself to take my time. These days we see so much text on various devices that our eyes can become strained and our brains addled with text; and not only the text itself, but also the light on the screen behind it. Writing in longhand, therefore, could be a recuperative alternative.
There is a danger to seeing our words or the words of others in print on a screen, which Mr Obama has pinpointed. ‘Half-baked thoughts’ are given a ‘gloss’, an importance, an authenticity even, which they may not deserve. ‘Don’t believe everything you read in the newspapers’ says the old warning. In our own time, the warning might be ‘Don’t believe everything you read on a screen.’ Dear me: that warning could include this blog! However, I have always tried to be honest, sincere and truthful with you, dear reader.
The plethora of websites and social media create a miasma of fact, truth, half-truth, opinion, prediction, rumour and surmise on our screens, fogging our minds. The result is that it is often difficult to see clearly, to distinguish fact from opinion, truth from half-truth and a valid prediction from rumour or surmise. This is particularly true of social media.
I studied ‘O’ level Latin at school. The set text for the examination was excerpts from Book Six of Virgil’s epic poem ‘The Aeneid’, where the hero Aeneas, after escaping from Troy, on his wande
rings visits his ancestors in the underworld. A phrase from the epic poem has always stuck with me in translation: ‘Truth veiled in obscurity.’ Virgil might be describing our media rather than the mist-laden, dark depths of the underworld. To traverse the underworld and avoid falling into the dank river Acheron, our hero Aeneas has to tread slowly and carefully. To find our way through the miasma of the media to arrive at the facts and the truth, it is often necessary for us to read slowly and carefully too.
But, of course, often we don’t. We skim read quickly, especially if we are glancing at the news on a smartphone. This is the advantage of a smartphone, we have everything ‘on the go’, with the result that our minds are often ‘on the go’ too, reading too quickly and not digesting what we have read.
Reactions to the news on social media are also frequently made ‘on the go’, without thought, reflection, or reserve. Although it must be admitted that an initial response may be highly relevant. However, so many comments on Twitter and Facebook are knee-jerk reactions to events. They are often ‘too rash, too unadvised, too sudden’ as Juliet says of Romeo’s protestations of love in Shakespeare’s play, as was often the case with Mr Obama’s successor, and his endless tweets.
I have also recently been reading a collection of the letters of Leonard Bernstein (1918-90), the American music conductor, pianist and composer. His works include several symphonies, ballet scores, film scores and of course the music theatre pieces ‘West Side Story’ and ‘On The Town’.
Bernstein was quite close to the Kennedy family and conducted a special performance of Mahler’s 2nd Symphony, ‘The Resurrection’ with his orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, two days after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas on November 22 1963. (Incidentally, almost four years later, Kennedy’s younger brother, Robert, was also assassinated, and Bernstein arranged and conducted the music for his funeral Mass at St Patrick’s Cathedral in New York).
Bernstein also appeared at the ‘Night of the Stars’ a memorial for President Kennedy at Madison Square Garden in New York on the day after the concert he had conducted. There, he gave an address to the audience, which is included in this collection of his letters. In his address he mentioned John F. Kennedy’s final speech, which he was to have made in Dallas on the fateful day when he was murdered. In it President Kennedy would have put forward the precept that ‘America’s leadership must be guided by learning and reason.’ By ‘learning’ I presume that he meant not only appropriate reading and research, but also listening to others to learn from them.
I sincerely hope this precept will be adopted by the new incumbent of the White House. I was very impressed with Joe Biden’s inaugural address which to me encapsulated not only the ideals but also the soul of America. I hope his term will be guided by learning, reason – and a search for and respect for truth.’
Ave atque Vale – Hail and Farewell – until the next blog!
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