Paths and superhighways

(I’m not sure yet where this essay is headed. I’ll keep working on it. Among other things, it shows my method of inquiry. Perhaps you’ll find it interesting for that. If you have comments, I’d appreciate hearing from you.)

Improvement makes strait roads, but the crooked roads without Improvement, are roads of Genius. --William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
Improvement makes strait roads, but the crooked roads without Improvement, are roads of Genius.
–William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

One of the secret strengths of the Ecole Normale, it must be admitted, is its ability to form independent beings, since it will take in wayfarers who turn away from the great superhighways. It was obvious that those who chose one of these would go far, but you must take into account a primitive need for freedom, for autonomy.

When I took my degree in mathematics, I too found myself in some sense on a superhighway, and my change of course and path, from the sciences to literature, I was not made in order to choose a different superhighway.

–Michael Serres, in his Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time with Bruno Latour. University of Michigan Press, 1995, 9-10.

horizontal white spaceThis entry began as a reflection into Serres’ use of “path” and “superhighway” to describe intellectual inquiry and careers. As a young scholar, he decided not to stay on the currently dominant superhighways.

That led me to sit with (in the meditative sense) photos of two types of landscapes, one with superhighways and the other with small roads and pathways. I felt the impression they made on my senses and was reminded of my experiences in these sorts of places. That developed my understanding of Serres’ metaphors in ways that go beyond the conceptual, engaging the psyche. Doing that helped me realize that perceptions through the senses, memories, the psyche and conceptual analysis all play back and forth to develop each other and expand understanding. It’s a way of learning: Begin with a metaphor, go into it in all these ways,  feel and see where it leads, illuminate the network of interconnections and nodes, expand them. At the basis is a contemplative attitude, receptive, respectful, curious, but also willing to test and challenge for veracity, accepting of the tension between the modes.

Note the differences between this method of learning and what we are explicitly taught in most schools. It’s more like the fine-grained wandering of pathways on a hilly landscape than a superhighway cutting through. (But note — see the photos below — that superhighways can also be beautiful.)

Then this morning I came across James Geick’s quotation from Blake in his Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman about strait roads and crooked, from the “Proverbs from Hell. The crooked pathways are the way of genius.

Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence.
From these contraries spring what the religious call Good & Evil. Good is the passive that obeys Reason. Evil is the active springing from Energy.
Good is Heaven. Evil is Hell.

The voice of the Devil.

All Bibles or sacred codes have been the causes of the following Errors.

1. That Man has two real existing principles Viz: a Body & a Soul.
2. That Energy, call’d Evil, is alone from the Body, & that Reason, call’d Good, is alone from the Soul.
3. That God will torment Man in Eternity for following his Energies.

But the following Contraries to these are True

1. Man has no Body distinct from his Soul for that call’d Body is a portion of Soul discern’d by the five Senses, the chief inlets of Soul in this age
2. Energy is the only life and is from the Body and Reason is the bound or outward circumference of Energy.
3 Energy is Eternal Delight

–from William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

Pathways and superhighways:

Country road
Country road

Swampy_But_Pretty_Bog_In_Fiordland_NZ

New Zealand countryside
New Zealand countryside
Shanghai freeways at night Photo by Sung Ming Whang National Geographic
Shanghai freeways at night Photo by Sung Ming Whang National Geographic
photo by C.T. Seward
photo by C.T. Seward
Interstate 10 southeast of Casa Grande, Arizona, 1967 Federal Highway Administration The new interstates that were built to connect the larger economic and populations centers by-passed the small towns business centers. Hotels, gas stations and restaurants relocated to the large interchanges.
Interstate 10 southeast of Casa Grande, Arizona, 1967
Federal Highway Administration
Los Angeles freeway interchange
Los Angeles freeway interchange
photo by ngerda

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