The Passions of Other Minds

We love the things we love for what they are. —Robert Frost, “Hyla Brook”

A couple of weeks ago I started a summer directed reading in the English Romantic poets with a somewhat shy but extraordinarily intelligent and kind professor. I’ve never done a directed reading by myself before–last semester plodding through Ovid in my slow and inexpert Latin I had a friend at my side to share translating, commentary, conversational duties–and being more than somewhat shy myself, I found our first meeting awkward. We both fumbled around trying to figure out how to talk about the Ancient Mariner and Tintern Abbey and the Lyrical Ballads. Partly because I came armed with a list of questions about the readings, our second meeting was smoother. At one point in our conversation, my professor started comparing Wordsworth and Blake, and I found myself suddenly bursting out with the question I always want to ask everyone, all the time: Why did you choose to study Blake? What is it about Blake that drew you on so irresistibly? Why do you love the things you love?

It’s a question to which, of course, there is no answer. There’s ultimately no accounting for what we love; what can we do but praise the things we love, and praise their dazzling, inexhaustible mysteries? But few pleasures equal the pleasure of hearing someone else praise the objects of her intellectual passions because such praise reveals whole vast and limitless worlds that we can never have alone. I love disagreeing with people about books because I long for someone who loves the books that I find dull or baffling to give me her eyes and ears, to unlock doors to which I myself have no key. I long to see something of what someone else sees, to know something of what he knows, that in some small measure I might come to love the things I do not yet know how to love. I have an indefensible, theologically flimsy theory that this is what a gift is in the spiritual and therefore truest sense: a passion, a deep capacity to love some aspect of the exquisite and infinite world, a form of, and therefore an invitation to, worship and adoration.

I love listening to my sister Kiskilili talk about the ancient world, about the unfathomable mystery of time, about the constant, inevitable loss of entire cultures and languages–that there are remains of such unimaginably old civilizations on this earth, that we actually have the tangible remains of their material cultures and their writings, that these human worlds once were and are no more. What could be more strange, more haunting? I love listening to Kiskilili talk about the pre-historic physical anthropology that borders her own field–the utterly mysterious advent of language, the early hominids, the extinct Neanderthals–those endlessly fascinating questions of who we are as humans and by what lost process we came to be. I love hearing her explicate the piercing hilarities of Donald Barthelme and Lorrie Moore because she has an infallible ear for the painful social observations of contemporary fiction that I lack, and she’s given me ways of seeing human relationships that I could never have come to on my own. I love Lynnette’s infectious enthusiasm for the theological and philosophical problems she works on, the nature of God, Christ, the Trinity, humans, the world, sin, the endless, fundamental mystery of atonement and salvation. I love hearing her explicate Augustine and Paul and Karl Rahner, considering the problems of works and grace, what it means to sin, to be saved, to create and alter the narrative of one’s own life, what it means to be in relation to God. Earlier this week I called my brother Ziff for his birthday, and he told me that his oldest son loves to play with numbers as Ziff himself does and is always inventing and solving math problems. I love the book reviews Ziff periodically does for the family–he’s constantly reading and writing about economics and politics and social policy, constantly, almost instinctively, it seems to me, building conceptual models in an attempt to account for and tease apart the complexities of social phenomena. Certainly these three of my siblings–and very likely all six of my siblings–have a passion for the sociological that I don’t share. I could never be a quantitative psychologist or anthropologist or social scientist of any kind; I wouldn’t make much of a theologian or an Assyriologist or a family and social historian or a medievalist or a film critic either, but through my siblings’ eyes I get to see something of what is endlessly fascinating about each these disciplines, something of the passion of these worlds.

Wanting to know why people love what they love is only one of several other questions I’m always dying to ask: I also want to know how they encounter and experience the divine. I want to know how they understand God and themselves and their own experience, by what process they make meaning of the pleasures and pains and irreperable losses of this world and this life. Sometimes I hold myself back from a truly intrusive and obnoxious inquisitiveness only by a thread.

Why do you love the things you love? How do you make sense of God, of the world, of your own experiences?

How do you live?

World–and worlds–without end.

12 thoughts on “The Passions of Other Minds

  1. 1

    Eve, what a thoughtful post.

    I don’t have time to answer your questions now, because such good questions require some thought, but I just wanted to say that I think this explains much of my participation in the bloggernacle:

    But few pleasures equal the pleasure of hearing someone else praise the objects of her intellectual passions because such praise reveals whole vast and limitless worlds that we can never have alone. . . to unlock doors to which I myself have no key. I long to see something of what someone else sees, to know something of what he knows, that in some small measure I might come to love the things I do not yet know how to love.

  2. 2

    Quite often when I’ve come to love a new academic subject, band or musical genre, video game, sport, dish to eat, artist, author, or whatever, it’s because I caught it from someone. I guess I’ve been really lucky in the people I’ve known and the awesome things they’ve exposed me too, because I feel like I’m able to get a lot of enjoyment out of so many things. One friend teases me claiming that I like everything. It’s far from true, but I mean, wouldn’t that be awesome if it were possible? To have a deep, sincere appreciation for everything there is? I think it must be a godlike quality, the ability to love that much.

    I can go on for hours about how cool astronomy is, if anyone wants to hear it (caught from my father.)

    I’m fascinated by bird flu, the virus itself, the history of flu pandemics, the things that might happen to us as a society if it hits us and turns out to be bad, etc. I was infected with this meme from Scientific American magazine, a meme itself that in turn I was infected with by my father.

    I love cats, their personalities, their worldview, their infectious contendedness. I can tell you cat stories and explain the coolness of cats at great length to anyone who cares to listen. (I think I caught this from the cats themselves.)

    Evolutionary biology is fascinating and so deeply explanatory of the world around us. I caught this love from Stephen Jay Gould and Charles Darwin.

    The threat of an asteroid impact is very real and preventable (if we act on it now). I am fascinated by the history of our growing realization about this hazard, and what steps we can do to avert it. (Caught from NASA’s NEO program.)

    Feeding wild animals behind my house is something I love to do. I’m getting to be a compulsive feeder of wild animals, in fact. Yesterday at Moe’s I was eating outside and two English Sparrows perched on my table and almost ate from my hand. I was charmed and delighted. I can tell you about that, and about all the birds, squirrels, chipmunks, racoons, neighborhood cats, possums, foxes, turkeys, coyotes, hawks, and other wildlife that I’ve seen here behind my house for as long as you care to listen. =) (caught from my Mother)

    I, too, love hearing about whatever things people love. What a great idea for a post!

  3. 3

    That’s very interesting, Tatiana. The father of most of Zelophehad’s daughters (that would make him Zelophehad, I guess) is also an astronomer and a devoted reader of Scientific American.

    And you’ll find many sympathetic ears here for stories of the coolness of cats. I’m not the greatest enthusiast, but Lynnette and Kiskilili are.

  4. 4

    Ah, tonight the new moon and Venus were very close together in the sky. I hope you saw it. I called and texted all my friends to go outside and look. 🙂 It was gorgeous.

  5. 5

    Tatiana, I also saw the new moon and Venus close together. I actually had to have my six-year-old son point it out to me. He asked me if perhaps it wasn’t a rocket ship that he saw going to the moon.

    Eve, I agree with you that I love to hear people talk about what they are passionate about studying, even when I don’t share that passion or understand the topic. For example, shortly after Christmas, I met Melyngoch at the airport for a few hours, while she had a layover on her way home. We played Trivial Pursuit and she told me all kinds of interesting things about linguistics that were surprisingly (to me) interesting, but that I of course only barely began to understand.

    I’m not sure I can even attempt to answer your questions though. I don’t know why I love the things I love. They’re just so fascinating.

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    Mark, I agree that the Bloggernacle offers some fascinating glimpses into the passions of others–although I have to confess that Nate’s obvious and wonderful enthusiasm for the law has yet to really grab me.

    Tatiana, wow, you have quite an eclectic collection of interests (in addition to your career in engineering, right?)

    Ziff, I agree. I can’t really explain why I love the things I love either. They just seem so inherently and obviously interesting to me that it’s difficult to believe other people aren’t quiiiite as captivated.

    BinV, thanks for the link to your work on poetry. You’ve obviously put a lot of thought into it. I don’t know that I’m much of a poet myself (beyond goof-off double dactyls) but I adore poetry, and you’ve got some particularly nice explanations of the sonnet up.

    I LOVE Sir Thomas Wyatt.

  8. 8

    Sigh…I would soooo love to study w/ya’ll. The romantics have their limitations (you can’t simultaneously merge with the cosmos and expect to keep a selfishly sturdy grip on your ego, guys, at least I don’t think so) but they are also lovely in many ways.

    Also, I’d pretty much happy read ZD’s glossing of a laundry list, you are all such fine writers. Reading your passions is even better.

  9. 9

    Janet, as always you’re so kind. I’ve got to tell you I loved your fabulous picture in BUST (which I ran out and bought yesterday)–and of course your wonderful commentary too. Now I can’t wait to meet you and FMHLisa and Emily and the whole crew in person!

  10. 10

    Why do you love the things you love? How do you make sense of God, of the world, of your own experiences?

    How do you live?

    What great questions. I love hearing people talk about their passions. (I once listened to an otherwise boring and annoying man for an hour because he became so interesting when talking about fires–the colors of smoke various materials produced, and so forth.)

    I especially like asking people the religion questions–I like learning how people work and why, and it’s interesting to hear why people believe differently than I do.

  11. 11

    One of my favorite times of year is Christmas time when the whole family gathers together and in almost every room of the house there is a conversation going on filled with passion and humor. It’s like you can float from room to room catching tidbits of what each member of the family is doing and studying.

  12. 12

    I’m often struck by how much more interesting various topics sound when they’re being discussed by those who are passionate about them. When Kiskilili describes the Hebrew Bible, for example, it always sounds so lively and fascinating–an experience I don’t often have, I must confess, when I read the text on my own. And though I’ve spent my life rolling my eyes whenever the phrase “family history” gets mentioned, just the other day–to my surprise–I actually found myself quite interested in some of the stories Elbereth was telling me about the various antics of our ancestors. I hope that education in the University of Heaven is like that, that you can learn from people who are infectiously enthusiastic about their areas of expertise.

    And Tatiana, I’m totally with you on the cats–I too can talk about the subject for hours. Cats are just endlessly delightful. (In fact, there’s one sitting next to me as I write this, trying to get me to pet him instead of typing.)

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