Monday, September 13, 2010
If you've been following Reading to Live, you might want to switch your subscription or bookmarks since I expect I'll be doing most of my new posting over here.
Reports from the laboratory where I conduct experiments in reading, writing, and living.
If you've been following Reading to Live, you might want to switch your subscription or bookmarks since I expect I'll be doing most of my new posting over here.
Though I’ve been away from this for almost two months, I’m not ready to give it up. However, my reading and writing inclinations have undergone a surprising turn during that time. Whatever path the writing in this space takes, it will have to account for this unexpected turn.
Claire and I planned to spend most of our summer bouncing around New York. Besides being close to her family, there were archives she wanted to consult in conjunction with a couple of articles she was writing, and I had work to do on a project I had previously announced here with an overblown sense of epiphany. We've thought about this region of the country as a place we might want to settle some day, but I'd never spent any extended time there. So we wanted to experiment with living there for a while, not in but within easy commuting distance of New York City.
So we left in late June, spent about a week staying with her grandparents in Ellenville, NY, a sad, dying (or undying) town nestled beautifully, poignantly at the foot of the Shawangunk Ridge
|Me on my 45th Birthday|
I've been on the road for the past couple of weeks hence no new posts. But I'm getting resettled now and will post again soon. Thanks for checking back!
I have sometimes wished, when talking to other literature professors or graduate students, even some unusually bright undergraduates, that I had, like them, been reading precociously in my teenage years. Some of the people in academia that I have come to respect most, not only for their intelligence, but for retaining their humanity and compassion, share the experience of having read in high school Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky, and Sartre, among others. Some academics say this with the same air of faux embarrassment and poorly concealed pride with which they throw up their arms in helplessness when confronted with a mathematics problem more complicated that “2 + x = 4. Solve for ‘x’.”: “Oh, I just don’t get numbers!” But the people I have in mind – just a few really -- don’t brag about it. On the contrary, they say it almost sheepishly, certainly with a little regret – as though it indicated an adolescence that was unhappy and perhaps also a little off balance. Maybe they seem not quite at ease with the choices they made in that time, or at least wish that different choices had been available to them. Still, though it seems to be part of a painful memory for them, and though I feel bad for them for that painful time, the feeling still asserts itself: I wish I had been like you.
I’m not even sure what I imagine them being like exactly. It’s not a precise image, and I doubt very much it corresponds to how anybody really felt. But it’s something like this: they are dressed with a modest, but definitely individual style, in clothes that haven’t cost much, if any, money. They are alone much of the time, perhaps in the lunch room, off by themselves. But not because nobody will sit with them, though some people – like me – might both want to sit with them and be afraid to sit with them; and not because they hate people, hate us, but just because they would simply rather be reading their book and that’s easier to do if you are sitting alone. They have found something, these inhabitants of my imagination, some sort of place of calm belonging, something that feels, in my imagination, like being really at home. In my imagination, they exude a kind of unself-conscious confidence and self-sufficiency. I know this isn’t how they felt inside – after all, they were adolescents like the rest of us. But it’s how they appear in my imagination and maybe it’s what gets under my skin about them, what makes me not be able to resist looking over my shoulder one last time as my friends and I leave the lunchroom. Boy or girl that person somehow magnetizes my attention and my desire. I want “that” -- what they seem to have, and that includes the fact that they don’t seem to be trying very hard to have it or to hold on to it.
Let me clarify that this is not a memory of anything or anyone I every actually remember seeing in my high school. It's an imaginary reconstruction of the past of some people I have known in which I take the detail of their having read precociously and use it as the basis to build a character I then insert into my own real memories of high school. This is not the nerdy kid abjectly sitting alone eating a sad lunch. This is not the self-consciously posing James Dean or Christian Slater-in-"Heathers" loner, over dressing the part and, in fact, inviting attention. This might be my friend Gaurav, a former undergraduate of mine, sitting alone at a table in the far corner (alone and in the corner only because that is the best place to read because of sound and light). Perhaps he has already eaten and the lunchbag or, more likely, lunch tray are pushed off to the side. He leans slightly back in the hard metal chair (because it is more comfortable), but not so far back that the front legs come off the floor (because that would be ostentatious). He is wearing jeans, a tee-shirt, and a plaid flannel shirt that is partly unbuttoned. He is not wearing black Chuck Taylor sneakers, nor Chuck Taylor sneakers of any other color, but rather some relatively low-budget, now-dingy white, low-top athletic type shoe.
By contrast, I too am a confident, self-sufficient adolescent – so long as I am on the basketball court, soccer field, or surrounded by a group of classmates in the aura of whose universally acknowledged coolness I can bathe. These things are like drugs for me, I guess. And when I’m not on the court, field, or in a group, I am anxious, constantly measuring myself and finding myself wanting. I can only feel good about myself when something or someone outside me – a coach, fans, other kids – are reflecting back at me that I am, in fact, worthwhile. So even on the court, field, and among friends, though I am not anxious, I am not really at home because it – whatever it is – will end. It’s more like I’m at a nice hotel – the kind you get for discount rates at academic conference, important not only because they are luxurious and perfectly located in great cities, but because you could never, ever afford to stay there if you weren’t paying convention rates. I can’t afford to stay there, but I tell myself that I’m not bad at acting like I can.
Whatever makes me feel “at home”, it certainly isn’t books. I try, because of course I want the approval that comes with being a good student, I try very hard. I try. I'm not talking Baudelaire, just, like Catcher in the Rye -- edgy-lite, not that I'm even at a point where I make that sort of judgment. I just start reading because I am supposed to and I am Nothing if not The Boy Who Does What He is Supposed to Do. I start all the books that are assigned in my English classes, but even when I like the book enough to keep turning the pages -- maybe, now that I think of it, especially when I like it enough to keep turning the pages -- I just get so anxious, more anxious the more I get into the book. I’m afraid of missing something outside the book, and it’s so lonely inside a book. By which I guess I mean that nobody in the book is telling me what a great guy/basketball player/soccer player/student/son I am. So before too long, the hunger mounts, the jones overwhelms me and I put the book down and go out to the driveway to shoot some hoops where the constant pounding of the ball on the pavement promises, and the consistent enough swish of the ball through the net delivers for me the message that I am great, that I am at home. That’s the closest I come to being at home in the way that I imagine that kid sitting alone with his fraying paperback copy of Notes from Underground seems to be.
Where I feel this horrible combination of trapped inside the hell that is my own self-loathing and cravenly oriented towards the external sources that alone can keep those demons at bay, this kid seems mysteriously self-sufficient, powered by some hidden fuel source, some internal drive. Like I say, I have no idea if they really were or not, or if it felt like that or not. But now I imagine that the power they were driven by was their own desire and that the home they quietly enjoyed was that of unself-consciously allowing themselves to feel and be led by that desire. I don’t mean a desire for anything in particular, that’s more the kind of thing I was governed by: a desire for approval, for an end to anxiety, self-doubt and self-criticism. No, theirs wasn’t that sort of desire. Rather it was just a desire to be, to continue to be, unfolding themselves steadily in time and space, neither greedily nor parsimoniously, but just naturally. As though they’d 1) dispassionately surveyed the field of possible activities: put make-up on, talk about the Next Game, talk about My Car, talk about That Boy, talk about The Play, Get Stoned Behind the School, read Thus Spoke Zarathustra; then 2) calmly studied the tilt of their inner terrain and identified their inclination and 3) aligned (2) with (1).
So I feel a little jealous of those friends who have had such stories to tell me. Not, as I used to believe (and as even sometimes provokes the story), because they got such a head start on me in reading The Books That Must Be Read (I didn’t read Nietzsche in high school, or college, or even graduate school). Okay maybe I am a little jealous of that too. Even when I know the person – like my dear Claire – very very well so that I would expect that this knowledge of the person’s actual life would get in the way, still even then my mind instantly casts them in this quiet imaginary drama in the lunchroom: casts them as the impossible me I wish that I had been instead of the impossible me that I was.
And that me has the home of books or, more precisely and critically importantly, that me has the home of his own desire. And that is where the jealousy arises: not of Claire or of anyone else who might share with me a probably somewhat painful recollection of reading Being and Nothingness at the age of 16. It’s not even jealousy I’m realizing now. It’s sadness, pain, mourning for that me that I hadn’t been, for the one I had already lost touch with that by the time I hit the soccer field and basketball court, by the time I secured the needed friendships. That me, the one that felt naturally and unselfconsciously at home in his skin, and in his skin in the world, that is what I project onto the not-lonely kid reading alone at the lunch table and so if I am jealous I am jealous that he or she managed to get to that age with the capacity to make themselves feel at home, from the inside, still intact.
What do they know of tennis -- or, for that matter, any other sport -- who only tennis know?In Beyond a Boundary, his autobiography, the late Trinidadan critic, playwrite, historian, novelist, teacher and activist C. L. R. James asked “What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?” James somehow manages to tell, simultaneously (and terrifically absorbingly), the story of his life, the story of cricket in the West Indies, and the story of West Indian decolonization. The Guardian justly rated the book one of the top sports books ever (# 3).
Andre Agassi’s Open is not at a level with Beyond a Boundary but it does share with James’s work – and with all excellent sports writing – a deep awareness that the game contains, not only itself and its own laws and practices, but in some mysterious fashion, all of life. The title itself announces this awareness by punning the name of a kind of tennis tournament (U.S. Open, for example, where Agassi begins his story) with the quality of being to which Agassi aspires, from which he often suffers, and which he certainly brings successfully to his writing. From the scoring vocabulary of the game to the dynamics of service, return, and volley, from the solitude of the player on his or her side of the court to the tension between what is ideal (perfectionism) and what is possible (fatigue, injury), Agassi maintains an awareness of the deep meanings immanent in the game he lived with for so many years. At the same time, he knows when to let up on that awareness and let the narration of a match just be the narration of a match. The opening chapter, in which he recounts his penultimate match, a five-set marathon at the 2006 U.S. Open against Marcos Baghdatis is some of the very best sports writing I have ever read.
From that beginning, which is, of course, also the end of his career. Agassi returns us to another kind of beginning: his childhood in Las Vegas, son of an Iranian immigrant casino worker and ex-Olympic boxer and a mid-western American mother. Having tried and, in his eyes, failed to produce tennis prodigies out of his first three children, Agassi's father, Mike, trains his sights on young Andre. From the age of 7, Agassi is made to spend hours each day on the home-made tennis court in the family's backyard, swatting at balls hurled at over 100 miles per hour from "the Dragon," a terrifying contraption engineered by his father to simulate impossible angles (and no doubt responsible for Agassi's reputation as one of the finest service returns in tennis history). 2500 balls a day, at a net that his father had raised six inches higher than regulation. The balls were allowed to accumulate on the court to make the whole enterprise more perilous. There is great drama and tension, father son wars, and Agassi movingly conveys the point of view and feelings of a small child in the situation: loving his father, craving his love, but despising what he is made to do. His mother, though a more marginal figure, plays a role simultaneously comforting Andre with her calm passivity, and enraging him with her calmly passive refusal to stand-up for him.
A Serious Man
Over the course of the rest of the book we learn about some of the already superficially familiar events of Agassi's life, which is to say his career (for a major part of the story is just how inseparable those were for him): his emergence as a prodigiously talented, but somewhat underachieving, professional at the age of 16, his colorful, if not ostentatiously rebellious, clothing and hairstyles, his marriage to and divorce from Brooke Shields, his rise to the top, fall, and rise again. Open skillfully weaves these known quantities into the fabric of a bildungsroman, or novel of formation, so that the behind the scenes views we get do not appear sensational or opportunistic but rather just, well, open. Seeking to understand himself through this narrative, Agassi seems to go pretty far in trying to face up to the reality of his life and choices, even the ones that weren't, until the publication of this book, public knowledge, such as his addiction to crystal meth or his wearing a hairpiece throughout the height of the "image is everything" phase of his career.
Ultimately, the story has a happy ending, for which I was glad because I identified strongly with Agassi throughout the work -- from his life-long struggle between obligation and desire to his love-hate relationship with his father, from his loveless first marriage to the spasmodic alternation between self-contorting conformity and self-distorting rebellion to the sharp paradox of perfectionist self-loathing: "the piece of shit the universe revolves around." But in the end, Agassi finds -- as I have -- the love of his life in Stefanie Graff (a/k/a women's tennis great Steffi Graf), a romance which the book nicely constructs as a kind of fairy-tale destiny, complete with portents. Moreover, Agassi, the high school dropout, devotes considerable resources of money, time, and energy to founding and running a school for at-risk kids in Las Vegas and, of course, writes this book. I should note that he doesn't write the book alone as his acknowledgements duly point out. He sought the help of Jay Moehringer, author of The Tender Bar, and the two of them collaborated in marathon sessions over the course of a couple of years in a process that sounds more like therapy than anything else.
I used to read a lot of sports biography and, especially, autobiography when I was younger. I remember in particular the utter fascination that a trio of such works – by Wilt Chamberlain (Wilt: Just Like Any Other 7-Foot Black Millionaire Who Lives Next Door, 1973), Kareem Abdul Jabbar (Giant Steps, 1987), and Bill Russell (Second Wind, 1979) – held for me. The three centers dominated the NBA and faced-off in titanic clashes for a decade and a half. First Russell’s Celtics vs. Chamberlain’s Warriors and later Lakers, then Jabbar’s Bucks against Chamberlains’ Lakers (I was lucky enough to see a Jabbar-Chamberlain battle when I was about seven). In my memory, I read all three of these books at around same time, when I was about eight, though the publication dates show that this would have been impossible. I almost certainly read Wilt's at that time. But I probably read Bill Russell's around the time I started high school, and Jabbar's around the time I finished college.
But I think I collapse those times because the books themselves so powerfully evoked for me the memory of the games themselves, in which all three giants coexisted more or less in the same place and time. I don't think I ever saw Bill Russell play live (he retired in 1969, when I was just four), but I saw enough of him and certainly studied and knew enough basketball history to feel as though I had witnessed his epic battles with Wilt. And I definitely saw Wilt vs. Jabbar, both on television and, on one lucky occasion, in person at the Dane County Coliseum in Madison, Wisconsin, where my father took me to see one of the three exhibition games that the Milwaukee Bucks would play there each season. The numbers alone were impressive to me from the height and size of the players to the team and individual statistics that chronicled their unsurpassed domination (Kieran Egan would have a field day with Romantic fascination with the mega ergon of hoops).
But what the books evoked, in particular, was the part of those games and battles that was about more than those games and battles; more than Russell’s impeccable timing and defensive play against Chamberlain’s size, strength, and offensive skills. There were moralistic overtones that fed my youthful hunger for meaning in black and white, good and evil. Russell, self-sacrificing team player against Chamberlain, transcendent individual talent. In the ethos of the basketball world in which I grew up this made Russell the Good Guy and Chamberlain the Bad Guy. There were all kinds of subtleties and not-so-subtleties that I didn't pick up on at the time, the main one being the role that race and racism played in superimposing these dramas on a sporting event. And Jabbar, for that matter, would complicate matters, especially after his conversion to Islam – he was against Chamberlain so he must be a good guy, but he was surly with the press and angry about something so he was probably a bad guy: it was confusing.
They Certainly Were Giants
But the important thing is not that I did or didn't fully understand what was at stake. It is that even at that young age I knew that much more was at stake than just who won a basketball game. I knew, even if I couldn't have articulated it in all its complexity, that Important things were at stake with every loose ball, every basket scored, every blocked shot, every outlet pass: things that had everything to do with life itself, with what it means, with the impossible to answer questions about how to live it, about what makes it good and bad.
Agassi's book provided me with an enjoyable stroll through some of the most exciting moments in tennis history, a stirring narrative of a boy becoming a man, trying to make a decent ordinary life out of extraordinary circumstances that he both does not and does choose, and with a surprisingly revealing mirror of my own life and many of the issues that continue to vex me. But he also illuminated for me a path -- like a set of stones set out across a stream -- that I'd forgotten about in my life, or relegated as a marginal, unimportant B-grade fact in my own life in literature: my love of sports writing and, particular, sports autobiography. From the gargantuan memoirs of Wilt Chamberlain to the sophisticated social commentary of C. L. R. James to the deeply affecting story of Andre Agassi, the passion of my reading life has come as much from these tales of sports, which are also tales of life in the world, as from anything else.
What do they know of reading who only reading know?
When I was in graduate school in Duke University’s Literature Program from 1987-1991, discussion and study of postmodernism was all the rage. It helped that the Program’s director, Fredric Jameson, was then in the process of composing his own magnum opus on the topic, Postmodernity, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. This focus on postmodernism necessarily entailed study and discussion of modernism, modernization, and modernity as well. One of the books, actually originally published in 1983, that I remember a number of grabbing up and reading at the time was Stephen Kern’s, The Culture of Time and Space, essentially a study of the transformation of the experiences of time and space among Europeans and Americans (from the US) in the period from 1880 to 1918, traced through developments in science, technology, philosophy, the social sciences, and the arts. Recently I returned to Kern’s book in order to regain my bearings in this period, which is a critical one for the book project I’ve resumed on writers of immanence in the River Plate region of South America (Uruguay and Argentina, especially Buenos Aires and Montevideo) in the first half of the 20th century. Unlike many works that circulated in the heyday of the postmodernism debate of the late 80s, I suspect, Kern’s book has aged well. Kern, a historian now at Ohio State University, tells a compelling, readable, and originally and lucidly organized history of a sea change in conceptions of time and space that affected the material and cultural environment as well as everyday consciousness.
Kern organizes his book into two main parts, one devoted to time and one devoted to space. Sandwiched between them, as a transition, is a chapter on speed. The book concludes with two chapters examining first, the July Crisis of 1914 that led to the outbreak of World War I and then the Great War itself from the vantage point of these transformations in time and space. The “Time” part of the book is divided into four chapters: “The Nature of Time,” “The Past,” “The Present,” and “The Future.” The “Space” part of the book is likewise divided into four chapters: “The Nature of Space,” “Form,” “Distance,” and “Direction.” I’m a sucker for neat organizational schemas, though in my own hands they frequently suggest an premature schematization of my materials and thinking, particularly an inadequate attention to the details of those materials that might disrupt the schema. But this isn’t the case, I found, in Kern’s book, where the well thought, informed plan usefully places a great range of heterogeneous materials under a set of illuminating lenses, while helping Kern to avoid repeating discussions of his central concepts.
Within this framework, Kern convincingly shows how inventions in technology (from the telephone and wireless telegraph to the bicycle, automobile, and airplane) and the arts (from modernist narrative to cubist painting and futurist sculpture), as well as discussions in science (biology, and the birth of quantum physics), philosophy (primarily Nietzsche, Bergson, and William James) and the social sciences (especially Freudian psychology, but also anthropology and sociology) at once registered and intensified a transformation in the experiences of time and space. Cinema, as both technological invention and budding art form plays a central role in Kern’s story.
Kern main argument is that, with respect to both time and space, this was a period in which hierarchized notions of time and space as fixed, absolute and, essentially passive backdrops to human activity gradually gave way to more leveled understandings of time and space as relative, heterogeneous, and actively shaping and shapable forces in human life. But Kern’s argument is appropriately nuanced, taking due account of countervailing tendencies of art, thought, and feeling with respect to time and space as well.
Moreover, Kern, in his Introduction, convincingly sets forth the rationale for giving privilege to these categories and materials, while recognizing that many of these same materials might play a different role in a story told from the vantage point, say, of class struggle, or the history of colonialism and imperialism. The absence of methodological dogma is refreshing.
Umberto Boccioni, "Unique Forms of Continuity in Space" (1913)
I’m not sure how original his thesis will appear to be to specialists of any of the fields of human endeavor surveyed by Kern. Certainly, in literary studies, his treatments of Proust, Joyce, Conrad, Stein, and others offer fairly well-established arguments about the techniques and novelties of these writers. I suspect that historians of art, technology, science, and philosophy might feel the same way. But what is original and useful in Kern’s book – and what is marvelously aided by the structure of the work – is his fluid interdisciplinary approach, which brings developments in all these areas together into a single story (or intertwining set of stories) and so gives a thick, rich portrait of the overall feel of life in the era.
And his final two chapters, on the July Crisis and World War I, provide both a gripping narrative and an original perspective on these extensively studied events.
Robert Delaunay, "Eiffel Tower" (1910-1911)
The Culture of Time and Space does not require a Ph.D. or advanced training to be profitably read. His clear prose and, again, intelligent form of organization both of chapters and within chapters, makes the book both easy to read and informative. Kern focuses on Europe and the United States, but the facts of colonialism and imperialism in the period (of which he takes account) make the book relevant for readers with an interest in Latin America or Africa as well. It’s one of those books that perhaps has been lost in the shuffle of academic fashions, but should very much still be essential reading for anyone with an interest, whether general or specific, in this period. Any such reader will find in Kern’s work a superbly informative picture of the birth of the twentieth century.
A study on what texts can tell us about the personalities of their author has prompted some critical reflections. Again today, you can find them over here.
Today, you can find my blog post over here. While you're there I encourage you to explore some of the really great work that's up at the site.
Why are teenagers so damn sure they are right? What is fascinating about ghosts? Why was I obsessed with the Guinness Book of World Records in middle school? Kieran Egan's The Educated Mind touches on these questions in persuasive and humorous ways, even as it develops a well-researched, erudite model of human cognitive abilities and a practical sensitivity to the implications of these for individual development and education. I first read this book back in 1997, and just recently taught it again in a Philosophy of Education course. I've been surprised by the absence of discussion of Egan in literary critical and theoretical circles (surprised because so much of his argument turns on literary and philosophical materials widely known to and discussed by those in my discipline). And I've long wanted to talk about it with others. It's one of those books that I find so highly persuasive that I'm left wondering -- what's the catch?
Egan is an Irish-born educator, raised and educated in England, who currently is Professor of Education at Simon Fraser University. He is the author of fourteen books of which The Educated Mind, published in 1997, may be considered the most important in that it elaborates in a single work a comprehensive version of Egan’s theory of education; a theory that he has subsequently evolved in a practical direction through the Imaginative Education Research Group and through such publications as Teaching as Storytelling, An Imaginative Approach to Teaching, Teaching and Learning Outside the Box and other works.
What interests me in The Educated Mind is Egan’s idea of “kinds of understanding.” A kind of understanding, for Egan, is a set of cognitive tools we employ to engage and to make sense of ourselves and our world. He describes in detail five of these: mythic, romantic, philosophic, ironic, and somatic. As individuals our ability to develop each of these kinds of understanding is tied to linguistic development and so higher at certain ages and in certain cultural situations than in others. But Egan emphasizes that every healthy human being has the capacity for all of these kinds of understanding and that, while the acquisition of each one entails some decrease in our facility with previous ones, the previously acquired kinds of understanding remain incorporated and transformed within the newly acquired ones.
For Egan the kinds of understanding are most important for their implications for educational theory, curricula, and teaching, which is very interesting, but not what I want to focus on in this post. Nor am I particularly interested in talking about his argument that in developing these five kinds of understanding human individuals recapitulate the discovery and development of these kinds of understanding in the species as a whole. I can say more about these two important dimensions of Egan’s book if anyone is interested. But I am more interested in his “kinds of understandings” in themselves as ways of grouping human capacities. These overlapping groups of capacities are available to all of us, particularly in adulthood, and useful, each in its own way, depending on the situation we find ourselves in, the challenges they present, and the sense-making purposes we may set for ourselves.
The characteristic tools comprising Mythic understanding,
which correlates learning to speak and so is predominantly active from ages 2-7, include the capacity for forming binary oppositions and mediating them (ghosts mediate between the binary "live" and "dead"; clothed, talking animal characters like Peter Rabbit between the categories "nature" and "culture"),for abstract thinking, metaphor, rhythm and narrative, images, stories and affective meaning, and humor. Egan compares the capacities characteristic of Mythic understanding to “the tools of the poet.”
Between Nature and Culture
Romantic understanding Egan characterizes as a “somewhat distinctive kind of understanding supported by an alphabetic literacy bent to the development of rationality.” Running roughly from ages 7 to 15, it serves also as a transition between Mythic and Philosophic understanding.
Some of its distinguishing characteristics include a fascination with limits of reality, extremes of experience, and contexts for daily life (think of The Guinness Book of World Records or the mega ergon of Herodotus’s Histories),
World's Tallest Man
an interest in individual transcendence within reality (having heroes, stories of heroes), emotionally inflected knowledge, delight in unexpected associations, and descriptive rational investigation.
Philosophic understanding (perhaps beginning around age 15, with no definitive end point): “the central feature of Philosophic understanding,” Egan writes, “is systematic theoretic thinking and an insistent belief that Truth can only be expressed in its terms.”
Enter teenagers. Its central characteristics include a craving for generality, a shift in interest from great events and heroes to social agents in the shaping of reality, strong sensitivity to the lure of certainty, a predilection for general schemes and anomalies, pattern making. A key condition for the development of philosophic understanding, both historically and for individuals, Egan argues, is the establishment of communities committed to fostering it.
Teenager Being Right
Ironic understanding, which accompanies linguistic self-reflexivity, “gains the theoretic generalizing capacity of Philosophic understanding while keeping ironically in check the easy belief that truth resides in general schemes.” The tools or capacities comprising Ironic understanding include, as I mentioned, self-reflexivity, openness to self-contradiction, openness to possibility, flexibility, recognition of some validity in all perspectives. In talking about Ironic understanding, Egan persuasive runs through the ways in which it can incorporate each of the three prior kinds of understanding, undercutting their vicious excesses and enlarging the scope of their virtues. And this leads him to a nice distinction between “alienating irony” and “sophisticated irony” (I take it, since he seems always at pains to match matter and manner and so in this section on irony is keenly linguistically self-aware, that he uses the adjective “sophisticated” to make reference to the Sophists).
“The former results from the achievement of reflexiveness that undercuts and suppresses general schemes, romantic associations, and mythic stories. (The common suppression of earlier kinds of understanding that we recognize in ourselves and in other people echoes – recapitulates? – the common polemical attacks on intellectual predecessors in our cultural history; perhaps it is stimulated by a kind of shame at earlier unsophistication.) This alienating irony rejects the validity of any perspective, believes in no metanarratives, sees all epistemological schemes as futile; in short, it doubts everything.
Sophisticated irony is different in that it succeeds in achieving reflexiveness without suppressing Mythic, Romantic, and Philosophic understanding. By preserving the earlier kinds of understanding as much as possible, we may develop a kind of irony that enables its users to recognize validity in all perspectives, to believe all metanarratives, to accept all epistemological schemes, to give assent to every belief. Well, that puts it simplistically, of course. This openness to possibility is not credulity or simplemindedness but, rather, the result of a flexible, buoyant recognition of a multivocal world, within and without. Put incautiously, as above, sophisticated Ironic understanding might seem cheerfully open to self-contradiction: committed to foundationalism on the one hand and antifoundationalism on the other; to traditional epistemology and the Enlightenment project as well as to Niezschean insights and to the postmodern project. But the sophisticated ironist enjoys an abundant consciousness of varied ways of understanding, and can appreciate a varied spectrum of perspectives while concluding that some are better or more valid or more helpful or more beautiful than others in partricular circumstances and for particular purposes. . . . .
e.g. Philip Roth's Operation Shylock
The product of alienating irony is impotence; sophisticated irony is liberating and empowering.”
Interestingly, Egan follows his account of these four types of understanding with a brief account of Somatic understanding, which involves pre-linguistic, physical understandings for which we may not have adequate verbal means of expression. “The Somatic,” Egan writes, “is a somewhat distinctive kind of understanding that sequentially precedes the Mythic, coalescing and accommodating with each subsequent kind of understanding as they develop on the Somatic foundation.” Egan means to emphasize that “very young, pre-language using children have an understanding of the world. This is not an ‘animal’ perception; it is a distinctively human ‘take’ on the world. It is constituted of how we first make sense with our distinctive human perceptions, our human brain and mind and heart and whatever else our bodies can deploy in orienting themselves.” In short, here he is talking about “a knowledge from the body, beyond human words.”
I can’t resist noting here that he uses an anecdote concerning Vladimir Nabokov to illustrate the point. He recalls that in his later years, Nabokov would insist, for interviews, that all questions be submitted in writing. He would then write out answers and he and the interviewers would read these prepared interviews. Egan recalls that in one such interview, one of the presubmitted questions was “Why do you insist on this peculiar interview procedure?” Nabokov replied, “Because I think like an angel, I write like a competent craftsman, and I talk like a fool.” Nice.
The last three chapters of the book include a humorously staged discussion (Chapter 6) between himself and the readers of his book in which he entertains objects and requests for clarifications, and then two chapters on “Some Implications for the Curriculum” (Ch. 7) and “Some Implications for Teaching” (Ch. 8). I haven’t really followed Egan’s career closely since this book came out in 1997. But I see from his website that he has published a number of works, many of them practical interventions in the field of Education, building upon the foundation laid here. Moreover, he’s developed the Imaginative Education Research Group which operates a website stocked with materials that teachers at all levels can use in order to present academic content in ways that also exploit and develop the age-appropriate kind of understanding of their students.
But I’m still most interested in Egan’s model for two reasons. First, as a way of thinking about the different kinds of understanding operating in criticism. I mean not only that certain kinds of understanding seem to predominate in certain individual critics, but also that perhaps truly excellent criticism makes use of all these kinds of understanding. Secondly, I’m interested in the kind of light that this model could shed on my own life story. As I’ve begun to think more deeply about particular periods of my life it’s interesting, comforting and perhaps even wise to recast what I might be inclined to see (with regret or embarrassment) as insufficiency, blindness, mistake, or defect instead as a normal expression and exercise of a particular kind of understanding. It might have been working a bit off the chain, unchecked by others kinds of understanding, or misapplied to the situation or purposes at hand. On the other hand, some of those same moments or even others involving what I think of as successes or achievements might also be seen through this lens as moments in which a particular kind of understanding was working at a high level and, though perhaps unbalanced by other kinds of understanding, succeeded anyway because I was operating within a situation that rewarded that kind of understanding.
I’m in something of a quandary. I think I wrote the wrong book. In view of the comments here and elsewhere that I’ve received on the parts of the book I’ve posted thus far, and, especially, of some conversations with Claire, I’m feeling strongly that what I thought was one book may actually be two, very different kinds of books. I want to share what I mean by that.
“Reading to live,” as a book project, grew – as those of you have read these posts – know, out of a significant period of personal and professional crisis, uncertainty and struggle. The power of that experience and perhaps also of the course “Reading to Live” that I taught for many years at Michigan lay, I think, in its honest, open exploration of my life and of the role not only of reading but of language, text, and books in it. Sometimes, I’d come to lecture feeling despondent. I’d share that feeling and the events that I felt were prompting it openly with my students, reflect on what the reading for the week said to me about that despondence and, somewhat more generally, about feelings like that and events like the ones I was experiencing. At other times, I’d feel joyous and buoyant and, likewise, I’d try to share all that honestly with my students. I tried to find and communicate points of connection to their own life: experiences and feelings of transition, of risk, loss, uncertainty, creativity, and so on. I don’t think I ever told them how they should read or how they should live, not because of any virtuous restraint but just because I was much too absorbed in reading to live my own life.
But between then and now, that ongoing and strictly speaking unfinishable process of living, feeling, reading, and reflecting became a Book Project. Then, given my desires to be heard, and to be heard in academia, to advance my career and given what I understood it to take to do those things, that book project took the shape of something like a manual or guide to a way of reading. As I produced several essays, often immediately motivated by other topics or invitations, for scholarly journals – on Cortázar, on Felisberto Hernández, on Borges, and on Philip Pullman – I started to view these essays as expressions of that method of reading that I wanted to the book project to advance. I also started to view the gathering and revision of these essays as a short cut to the completion of that book. I pulled them together, revised them sincerely, and superimposed on them a neat (too neat, really) structure of two parts and chapter titles. I revised some more in the belief that perhaps it wasn’t a book for academics but rather for a more general readers. Always, I felt plagued by the sense (and resentful of several editors views) that my book was somewhere in between.
Yet I’m thinking now that might have been because there are two different books in that book. If I’m being honest with myself, I don’t think all those essays (now chapters) really belong together in a book, at least not the book I have written. The essays on Pullman, Williams, and the Korean poet Yi Saek are really just occasional pieces in which I worked out my relationship to particular texts at a given moment in my life. The essays on the Latin Americans – Borges, Felisberto, Cortázar, Arlt and Quiroga – were really part of something else. They were the outgrowth of a particular set of courses, graduate and undergraduate, in which I taught these writers, on the one hand, and, on the other, various philosophies of, for lack of a better word, immanence. So I see the very corpus of Reading to Live, at the moment, as motivated by valid but quite contingent and probably, when taken together, incoherent set of drives and interests.
Perhaps more importantly, at the moment, I see a sharp difference in approach and tone between the Prelude and the rest of the chapters of the book. The Prelude is a story, fairly honestly told about a segment of my life and the role of reading and books in it. The rest of the chapters are literary critical essays shedding some light on a particular text. Certainly, in these chapters, as I incorporated them into the Reading to Live book project, I gestured toward bringing myself and my own frail and unfinished life into the reading and I tried to press these critical essays into the service of an overarching argument about how to read and the importance of affect in reading. But at the moment that gesture and that effort feel like artifices, like a kind of surface patina laid over critical essays that weren’t really meant to be what I was asking them to be. And, at the same time, I was short-circuiting my own efforts to express what was really powerful about my experience teaching reading to live, which in some ways I enacted in the Prelude.
Talking with Claire the other day, after she had just read and said something very nice things about my Prelude, she asked me why I wasn’t writing a memoir. Not reading to live, not a method of reading, or how to book, or a self help book; not the announcement of some putatively original way of reading (as if reading to live were really an original idea), but just the story of my life in books, a reading life. The Prelude might serve as the seed ground for such a work, which would obviously be expanded, delving into particular periods of my life, and showing the joys and troubles of those times, and the role that language, text, book, and reading played in them. I was scared of the idea and resisted it at first. To begin with, I dreaded the thought that I was not done, that I had yet to start again. But, more deeply, I confronted the doubt that anyone would be interested in that story; that the story I could tell was interesting or important enough. Then I started to cry. Then I got excited about the project and lots of ideas came to me. It made me think that the course had been successful because I was living honestly and openly more than because I was teaching any explicit method of reading. I think my students had always been saying that all along. Thank you Claire, for helping me see and accept this.
A couple of days later, thinking about what was actually in the current book project, I realized that there is a book in there. But it’s a book I’d always felt loathe to write because it felt insufficiently ambitious. It’s a book about certain patterns I discovered in the writing of some Latin American authors from the Southern Cone. Nothing earth-shaking, but some solid and I think original readings of some important (and in some cases still over-looked) authors, buttressed by a philosophical commitment to an idea of immanence (drawn from Spinoza, Pragmatism, and Deleuze) and to the implications of that idea for how we understand selves, knowledge, language, affect, and ethics. Perhaps the model of criticism that Edward Said offered in his last work can help guide me in that.
So all this is to say that I’m excited to explore the possibilities of these two other books, which both are and aren’t the one that I’ve written and begun to share on this blog. I’m also a little embarrassed that this process is so rough and erratic. I’ve always resented people who ask me to read something and then, five minutes later, or a day later, whenever, tell me that they’ve already changed it up and so I should wait for the next version. I’m abashed and sorry to be playing the role of that person now. But I’m not sure if there’s any point to continuing to post sections of the Reading to Live book manuscript on the blog, though I’m open to doing so if it might be helpful to me as I reorient my efforts or because others are finding the materials helpful. So please let me know what you think about that.