Against Crispation

In memory of my education.

In his autobiography, The Seven-Story Mountain, Thomas Merton writes, “The logic of worldly success rests on a fallacy: the strange error that our perfection depends on the thoughts and opinions and applause of other men! A weird life it is, indeed, to be living always in somebody else’s imagination, as if that were the only place in which one could at last become real!”

Those sentences came to mind when I learned of the death of a high school mentor at the age of 92. I had sent that quote to him more than a decade earlier, on the occasion of his 80th birthday, by way of thanking him for helping me develop the resources to become, for better or worse, real in my own imagination, and to live there in the years since adolescence as vividly as my lights allowed (which hasn’t always been as vividly as one might have wished; but close enough, I pray).

Some such imaginative vitality, one hopes, should be the goal of education broadly, but in most circumstances that is clearly not the case. An epigram of Oscar Wilde’s that I came upon the pages of Adam Phillips’s Unforbidden Pleasures — “We teach people how to remember, we never teach them how to grow” — is a neat indictment of much of today’s data-driven pedagogical practice, which seems to take growth for granted. In response to which I can only reference what the literary critic Hugh Kenner said in an obituary for his own mentor, Marshall McLuhan: “What you’re taking for granted is always more important than whatever you have your mind fixed on.”

Another passage comes to mind, this one from Sarah Bakewell’s superb book, At the Existentialist Café:

In his essay, “On the Ontological Mystery,” written in 1932 and published in the fateful year of 1933, [Gabriel] Marcel wrote of the human tendency to become stuck in habits, received ideas, and a narrow-minded attachment to possessions and familiar scenes. Instead he urged his readers to develop a capacity for remaining “available” to situations as they arise. Similar ideas of disponibilité or availability had been explored by other writers, notably André Gide, but Marcel made it his essential existential imperative. He was aware of how rare and difficult it was. Most people fall into what he calls “crispation”: a tensed, encrusted shape in life — “as though each one of us secreted a kind of shell which gradually hardened and imprisoned him.”

Well, all too often we do, in ways that Murray Kempton perfectly characterized in an essay written to mark the centenary of the birth of H.L. Mencken:

“We all end up as packaged goods,” Westbrook Pegler remarked a little while before he died. The dreary road to the wrapping and bundling counter is probably inescapable: there is the hunt for the discovery of what works, then the erosion of curiosity about what else might work, then the disappearance of all curiosity about anything unfamiliar, and at last the prison of the safety of one’s own accepted manner. Yeats was a little way off the mark; the peril for the artisan no less than for the artist is not that his circus animals may desert him but that he will let slip past the time when he ought to turn them back to the forest.

The best legacy of education, perhaps, is knowing what to hold onto, and what — and how — to let go, so that one might avoid “crispation” and remain flexible and available to others, and — in the quartet of educational outcomes Gore Vidal once eloquently ascribed to L. Frank Baum’s Oz books — “imaginative, tolerant, alert to wonders, life.”