Shared Sensibilities

Rochelle Gurstein captures in lovely prose a handful of thoughts I have attempted, with less eloquent results, to express myself.  “The Perils of Progress”, a brief essay appearing in The New Republic, opens with a story about “a lecture by an exquisitely sensitive, painfully alert poet friend of ours about how we live today” which elicits tired labels contemptuously applied.  As Gurstein puts it:

These days, even a few well-considered, measured reservations about digital gadgetry apparently cannot be tolerated, and our poet friend was informed by forward-looking members of the audience that she was fearful of change, nostalgic, in short, reactionary with all its nasty political connotations.

And this presumably from a learned and sophisticated audience.

Gurstein goes on to challenge the same NY Times editorial by Steven Pinker which drew some of my own comments some time ago.  She observes that in …

… disputes about the consequences of innovation, those on the side of progress habitually see only gains. They have no awareness that there are also losses—equally as real as the gains (even if the gain is as paltry as “keeping us smart”)—and that no form of bookkeeping can ever reconcile the two.

Gurstein concludes with some poignant reflections on the materiality of the book and the difference it makes to the experience of reading and the reader’s relationship to the author.  The essay truly is worth a few minutes of your time to read.  Also reading the few comments posted in response to Gurstein’s essay tends to reinforce her concerns.

At one point in the essay Gurstein spoke of Pinker’s “stacking the deck against” her sensibility.  That word, sensibility, struck me.  This is I think near to the heart of matter.  What Gurstein and others like her attempt to defend and preserve is not merely a point of view or a particular truth.  It is more subjective than that, but is not merely preference.  It is not at all like a preference, which, I suspect, is precisely what those who do not understand it will try to label it.  It is, well, a sensibility — a certain disposition or way of being in the world.  It is an openness and a sensitivity to certain kinds of experience and to certain dimensions of reality.  Because of this it resists description and facile reduction to the terms of a cost/benefit analysis.  Consequently, it can be difficult to convincingly defend a sensibility to those who know nothing of it.  Maybe it is best described as a “seeing the world as” or, perhaps better still, a “feeling the world as.”  A sensibility is a posture toward life, a way of inhabiting the world.

What all of this groping for words may have at its center is the experiential quality of a sensibility, and experience is, after all, incommunicable.   Unless, that is, two people share the sensibility and then words may even seem superfluous.  In this sense, those who share a sensibility, share the world.  Those who lack or fail to appreciate the sensibility Gurnstein articulates know only to shake their heads in condescending bemusement.  What those, like Gurnstein and her poet friend, who grieve the passing of a culture that nurtured their sensibility fear may be the onset of a long loneliness.


Nota bene: This post was first published in early July of 2010. I re-publish it today because the Gurnstein essay had been on my mind, because I think it makes a point that bears repeating, and because I imagine that my audience is now quite different than it was nearly a year and a half ago. I have edited some of the temporal references accordingly.

6 thoughts on “Shared Sensibilities

  1. “What those, like Gurnstein and her poet friend, who grieve the passing of a culture that nurtured their sensibility fear may be the onset of a long loneliness.”

    Thanks for reposting.

  2. Interesting that you used the word “sensibilities.” It is a common word found in the essays of “Notes on Metamodernism.” Have you had a chance to read some of them?

    As always, I enjoy your reflections.

    1. I have actually, recently looked at the post on “The Awesome” that I think I arrived at via on of your tweets. It is definitely an interesting project. I’m not sure what to make of it yet, but I’ve enjoyed the pieces I’ve read so far. I get the sense they’re gesturing in interesting directions.

  3. “a way of being”…I love that phrase. Before Christianity had that name it was called “The Way”. I still remember, from my college days, 40 years ago, when a group of us volunteered to help local people who lived in poverty (this was a rural area). We visited an old man who lived in a tiny shack in the woods. He cut his own wood to heat his place, using an old saw and sawhorse next to his front door. One of our group asked him if he would like us to sharpen his saw for him (it was quite dull). He replied “No, then I would cut the wood too quickly.” Obviously, his way of being in the world was different from modern society. But what a refreshing way to live. The fact that I still remember this brief moment 40 years later is an indication of the impression a different “sensibility” makes. It’s also why we still read Shakespeare and listen to Beethoven. God gives us a million different ways to know, share and express our love for each other. If you receive a hand-written stamped letter from someone, you probably think it was prepared with more love than an e-mail, even though it may say the same thing. It’s the reason we prefer candle light to light bulbs (I could go on forever). May God Bless the “sensible” ones–we all need them.

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