“Instructions for use: Open anywhere and if it irks you, try another page.” Eva Brann
I have dog-eared so many pages of Eva Brann’s stout and wonderful collection of maxims — Open Secrets/Inward Prospects: Reflections on a World and Soul — the book’s interior is beginning to resemble a parchment-hued stop sign. These little gems of observation are rich in wit, sometimes ironic, sometimes filled with pathos. Brann is the kind of scholar whom you can just imagine sitting at Plato’s side, her every comment a whetstone to the master’s mind. If they’d used nickels in Ancient Greece, Brann would have given him a run for every single one.
I had the delight of meeting Eva at a seminar my father held in his home some years back. The two had met through John Agresto, a former political science professor of mine, who at the time was the president of St. John’s College (the “great books” school.) Brann, a member of the faculty since 1957, was leading a discussion of Melville’s Billy Budd. Imagine attending a class of your favorite college professor, relishing it all the more for the decades passed between classes.
Brann collected these “5000 articulations” jotting two to three per page over the course of thirty years. The 33 chapters are organized around such topics as: Nature: Sightings; Politics: Privately Public; Ages: Very Young to Pretty Old. Here are a few from my peregrinations through her sightings and insights:
“There is nothing like the awkward grace of a boy embarrassed by his own gallantry.”
“The innocent bad manners of occurring intertwined in public and then stopping to talk in a friendly way to your teacher: It’s like talking to a bicephalous creature.”
“Middle age: a faintly incredulous recognition that roots have established themselves in the soil of daily life, the plant has assumed fixed contours, and its reliable fruit tastes like blessed tedium. Then stirring of longing for a glorious uprooting; grandeur and battle. Do other people get over their youth?”
“Some philosophers give you the sense (I’m thinking of Nietzsche) of writing from deep personal non-experience — especially of normal women, freshborn babies and decent men.”
At St. John’s professors are called “tutors” in order to signify that “learning is a cooperative enterprise carried out in small groups with persons at different stages of learning working together.” Reading Eva’s book is indeed a cooperative enterprise. You cannot help but sense that she writes from deep personal experience. You cannot help but be grateful to her for fixing her gaze so intently upon life and having the dedication to record it all for us to ponder and muse.