The Sound of Truth

One of the major themes in Shaw’s Wisdom of the Idiots is the conflict between the wisdom of the Sufis and the knowledge of scholars. Indeed, one of the major appeals of this work is the distinction between wisdom and knowledge:


Sufi Ajmal Hussein was constantly being criticised by scholars, who feared that, his repute might outshine their own. They spared no efforts to cast doubts upon his knowledge, to accuse him of taking refuge from their criticisms in mysticism, and even to imply that he had been guilty of discreditable practices.

At length he said: ‘If I answer my critics, they make it the opportunity to bring fresh accusation against me, which people believe because it amuses them to believe such things. If I do not answer them they crow and preen themselves, and people believe that they are real scholars. They imagine that we Sufis oppose scholarship. We do not But our very existence is a threat to the pretended scholarship of tiny noisy ones. Scholarship long since disappeared. What we have to face now is sham scholarship.’

The scholars shrilled more loudly than ever. At last Ajmal said:’Argument is not as effective as demonstration. I shall give you an insight into what these people are like.’

He invited ‘question papers’ from the scholars, to allow them to test his knowledge and ideas. Fifty different professors and academicians sent questionnaires to him. Ajmal answered them all differently. When the scholars met to discuss these papers, at a conference, there were so many versions of what he believed, that each one thought that he had exposed Ajmal, and refused to give up his thesis in favour of any other. The result was the celebrated ‘brawling of the scholars’. For five days they attacked each other bitterly.

‘This,’ said Ajinal, ‘is a demonstration. What matters to each one most is his own opinion and his own interpretation. They care nothing for truth. This is what they do with everyone’s teachings. When he is alive, they torment him. When he dies they become experts on his works. The real motive of the activity, however, is to vie with one another and to oppose anyone outside their own ranks. Do you want to become one of them? Make a choice soon.’

As an English major at the University of Washington I was certainly made aware of the split between poets and critics, with a definite bias towards poets in most of the classes I took. I’m sure that bias still shows in the way I discuss poetry and novels here, with emphasis on what they mean to me and whether or not they help to see the world more clearly rather than on critical analysis per se.

That’s not from a lack of ability. By the time I entered Grad school, I had generally mastered the literary game. In three years of grad school, the only “B? I ever got was one in Filmmaking. Several English professors even asked me why I wasn’t pursuing my PHD and trying to move up to teaching at the college level.

Simply put, I wasn’t a good enough poet to get a job at a college and had absolutely no interest in literary criticism. I could barely stand to read a book of literary criticism, even those written by famous poets like Eliot and Auden. Like Joseph Duemer,
who also attended the UW, when it comes to poetry I prefer “the concrete as opposed to the abstract.?

I wouldn’t be posting Shaw’s tale, though, if I thought it merely applied to poets and literary critics since I doubt that many who visit here are interested in such things. It seems to me that the last two paragraphs of Shaw’s tale apply just as much to many bloggers, particularly political bloggers, who spend days arguing over the issues of the moment, more concerned with attracting readers to their blog than with actually getting down to the truth of the matter.

Caught up in their own opinions and interpretations, they have little time for facts and less desire to arrive at some kind of agreed upon truth. The way they throw the term “fact? around, one doubts they even know the difference between a fact and an opinion, much less the difference between a sound and unsound opinion. For most of them, a good opinion is the one that draws the most attacks and, in doing so, attracts the most readers because that’s the way most of them measure success.

4 thoughts on “The Sound of Truth”

  1. re: criticism and poetry…I was reminded of the profile of John Ashbery in the 11/08/05 edition of the New Yorker. The writer, Larissa MacFarquhar, described Ashbery reading: “He forms a first impression of a poem almost at once, and if he isn’t grabbed by it he’ll flip ahead and read something else.
    It’s the sound of the poem, though not literally so – it’s like the sound produced by meaning, which lets you know that there’s meaning even though you don’t know what it is yet… for him, poems are pleasurable tools. He wants a poem to do something to him, to spark a thought, or, even better, a verse of his own; he has no urge to do something to the poem.”

    I was thrilled by that description as it is close to much of what I feel. If I like a poem, it goes into a personal collection I consider GOOD POEMS. That’s enough for me

  2. I wrote my first poem while trying to write a five-page undergraduate paper summarizing and responding to a work of Hamlet criticism. I tackled the Ernest Jones argument that Hamlet suffered from an Oedipal Complex. I pulled three all-nighters in a row trying to write it and was on my eighth draft at 5 a.m. on the day the paper was due. I needed to finish writing it, type it up and catch a bus, all within two hours. But I had a problem. All I could seem to write was rhymed verse and not because of any effort to do so on my part. In fact, I was trying not to write in rhymed verse.

    In Hamlet dwellt a Claudius,
    Four-legged beast, not meek,
    Full-grown at birth, he is
    A satyr, so to speak.

    He is his brother’s mother’s son,
    As well his father’s brother,
    If men do not their brothers keep,
    They keep what is their brother’s.

    In thought, ’tis said, are all men
    To with their mothers lie
    And hide their babes in the wilderness
    Where nymphets will espy.

    And at a lonely crossroad
    Son and son of son and mother meet,
    Conspiring, know each other not,
    With bloody mother’s husband at their feet.

    Now the sphinx is flown into the sea,
    Quick corpses walking rot,
    Who could blame the girl for drowning
    For O, the hobby-horse is forgot.

    I typed it up, caught my bus, got to class on time and turned it in. A grad student was the reader for the course and he refused to mark it. The prof called me in and wanted to know if I had written it. I told him I thought two of the lines in the last verse were actually written by Shakespeare, but that the rest were all mine, at least to the extent that I was the one holding the pen when it happened. I told him it was spontaneous and involuntary and that I’d be happy to show him my earlier drafts. He gave me an extra week to complete the assignment and I did. I started over from scratch, summarizing and responding to a British critic whose approach to Hamlet departed from a famous line in a poem by T.S. Eliot. The critic’s argument was that a poetical response to Hamlet might be just as valid as a critical response.

  3. One of my favorite grad school classes allowed, or perhaps required, us to respond to a the works we were reading by creating our own art work that reflected that artwork.

    I did a little booklet of photographs that still sits on my bookshelf, even though I’ve long since thrown away all the papers I wrote during college.

  4. It is easier to edit than create.
    critics always outnumber poets.
    experience separates wisdom from knowledge.
    the sufi story of the calm pack of dogs that maul each other because a bone was thrown among them.

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