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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.


How I Spent My Summer Vacation

Thursday, September 2, 2010

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

in the Eastern Catskills. From there, we moved into an apartment we sublet in Kingston, New York. About 20 miles and 40 minutes east of Ellenville, Kingston is a historic town set on the top of a steep hill rising from the shores of the Hudson River. After a month in Kingston, we went to Brooklyn, where both of Claire’s sisters and some dear friends of ours live, and stayed there for a stultifyingly hot, wonderful week in the Prospect Park section. Then from Brooklyn, we drove northwest to Claire’s hometown, the incomparable Ithaca, NY,
where we rented a little cottage on Cayuga Lake for a week.

Then, sometime in late July, my reading finished, I set to begin to write and I found myself unable to finish even a paragraph, so bored was I by my own project. A bunch of other stuff was going on too: my kids weren’t speaking to me except to ask for money, their mother, my ex-wife, was sending me abusive e-mails, and Claire and I were staring down the rapidly approaching barrel of another academic year in which I’d be commuting weekly from our home in St. Louis to my job in Ann Arbor, Michigan. All in all, I was feeling weighed-down, numb and close to depression. Around that time was my 45th birthday. Claire had prepared a wonderful day for me and, while I was certainly grateful and able to enjoy much of it, I also threw several fits over the course of the day, like a small child overwhelmed by the stimulation.

Me on my 45th Birthday

Patiently as always, over the course of the next week, Claire accepted my apologies and listened to me try to unravel the source of my anger and frustration. I don’t remember the blow by blow and it probably wouldn’t be that interesting anyway. But what I recall emerging with clarity from that dark messy combination of sulky depression, numb aloofness, and infantile tantrum was Claire’s question; why are you writing that book if you aren’t interested in it? This question, when explored in further conversation, not to mention in my individual therapy, helped to reorient me in some deeply important ways.

Among other things, Claire was pointing out that I had spent so much of my adult life making sure that I was fulfilling my responsibilities to others that I seemed almost compulsively to seek out and construct projects that would permit me – now – to avoid exploring the question of what I might want to do if I weren’t devoting myself entirely to the fulfillment of others’ real and imagined needs. What if I didn’t have a project? What if I could observe more minutely my visceral inclinations, both transient and lasting, the better to sift out the one from the other?

This went hand in hand with my therapist trying to help me adjust my attitude toward the upcoming year of commuting. While understanding of my dread of the impending separation from Claire and the physical and emotional drain of commuting, he hoped, I think, that I might come to see this year as a means by which I could achieve a transition toward a more satisfying vocational and professional situation for myself, one that also allowed Claire and I to live and work in the same city. After all, he pointed out, you are only going to be up there in Ann Arbor three days a week, you just have to teach a couple of classes, do a little administrative work, draw a decent salary, and use the rest of your time and energy to explore what else, if anything, you might want to do with your life and to put yourself, practically, in a position to do it.

On my birthday, Claire and I had gone into this excellent little used book store in Kingston called Half Moon Books. We both got a lot of stuff. As an afterthought, almost an impulse purchase as we got ready to leave, I strolled past the sports section and picked up a book by Gary Pomerantz called Wilt, 1962: The Night of 100 Points and the Dawn of a New Era. I had never heard of the author or the title. But readers of my June review of Andre Agassi’s Open  will recall that reading that book had released for me some deep memories of my early childhood and adolescent love of sports and sports writing. Indeed, Wilt Chamberlain, one of the dominating basketball players of the 1960s and early 70s, figured largely in those memories. At the end of July, in the wake of these conversations with Claire and my therapist, in the ruins of yet another couple of book projects that I realized I didn’t want to write, faced with the unreasonably and even embarrassingly scary prospect of just contemplating my own desires, I picked up this book. I read it in two days, the only book from that binge of books purchased on my birthday at Half Moon that I have read. The book provoked a rush of memories, stored trivia, personal experiences and excitement and it led me to want more of the same kind of thing. So I did a quick search to see what basketball books people had written and been talking about lately. I made a top ten list and marched back to Half Moon, delighted to find that three of the top ten were there, used, on their shelves.

Those three books – Pat Conroy’s My Losing Season, Adrian Wojnarowski’s The Miracle of St. Anthony, and Darcy Frey’s Last Shot – I devoured over the course of the next week. By that time, we’d left Kingston and the Catskills behind and were in Brooklyn. There, I took advantage of the proximity to go to Strand in Manhattan. There I picked up David Halberstam, Playing for Keeps, Ira Berkow, To the Hoop, Jack McCallum, 07 Seconds or Less, David Halberstam, The Breaks of the Game, John Feinstein, A Season on the Brink, Phil Jackson, The Last Season, and Terry Pluto, Loose Balls. As I’m writing today, about a month after that visit to Strand, I read both Halberstam books, Berkow and McCallum, and I’m just about done with Feinstein. So I still have Jackson and Pluto to read, but I’ve also checked out another 8 books on my growing basketball reading list from my local library. In sum, in the past five weeks, I’ve read nearly 9 books about basketball. I can’t remember the last time I read 9 books in five weeks. More importantly, I can’t remember the last time I read so avidly, enjoyably, or was so stimulated by what I’d read.

Over the course of this same period, I’ve been remembering a lot about the role that basketball, which I have played, coached, and followed, has played at different times of my life. I’ve experimented with trying to explore some of this in writing and, perhaps most enjoyably of all, I started playing pick-up ball regularly again.

This last is something I hadn’t done since around 1995, with a brief one month except around 2003. I’m thinking that maybe I’d like to try to get into coaching a middle-school or high school team, and to writing about basketball (I might even write down my thoughts about some of the books I’ve been reading). But I don’t know for sure. I still don’t really know what I want to do with my life, I don’t know when or even if my kids will ever speak to me again to share some happy or sad feeling, I don’t know how Claire and I will resolve the uncertainties of our work and living situations. But I know that the past four weeks of playing, reading about, and talking (thanks for that, too, Claire, for listening to me talk about basketball) basketball have made all these other uncertainties feel less daunting and oppressive, have made me feel less cramped and numb; lighter, more open to other joys and desires that have nothing to do with hoops, more accepting of myself, and ultimately, more joyful, and optimistic.


A Little Vacation

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

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!


A Reading Life: The High School Chronicles, or, On Not Being That Kid in the Lunchroom

Saturday, June 12, 2010

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.


On Reading Sports: Andre Agassi's Open and Other Literary Works

Thursday, June 10, 2010

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.

A Serious Man
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.

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).

They Certainly Were Giants
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.

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?


The Birth of the 20th Century: On Stephen Kern's The Culture of Time and Space: 1880-1914 (Harvard, 2003)

Friday, May 28, 2010

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.

Umberto Boccioni, "Unique Forms of Continuity in Space" (1913)
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.

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.
Robert Delaunay, "Eiffel Tower" (1910-1911)
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.

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.


What can we really know about authors' personalities from their works?

Thursday, May 20, 2010

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.


Some thoughts on science and the humanities

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

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.


On Kieran Egan's The Educated Mind (Chicago, 1997)

Sunday, May 16, 2010

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,

Between Nature and Culture
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.”

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.
World's Tallest Man
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),

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.”
Teenager Being Right
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.

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.
e.g. Philip Roth's Operation Shylock
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. . . . .
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.



Friday, May 14, 2010

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.


Site Feedback Welcome

Thursday, May 13, 2010

I've been toying with the look and functionality of the blog pretty much since I put it up, trying to get it to look the way that I want it to and to work the way I imagine you might want it to.

So, while you obviously can't tell me how I want it to look, you definitely can tell me how you'd like it to work. I'd love to hear which elements are working for you, which ones aren't, and what you wish was there that currently isn't, and what you wish wasn't there that currently is.



Keeping the Faith?

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Philip Pullman, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ (Canongate, $US24.00)

Oops, the prize-winning author of the celebrated and popular adolescent fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials has done it again. If the three volumes of His Dark Materials, with their Blakean, sympathy-for-the-devil perspective on creation and the fall (not to mention their depiction of God as a usurping authority gone senile and frail, not to mention the portrayal of organized religion as murderous, furtive zealotry), didn't piss off every Christian religious on the planet, then his latest offering, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ ought to take care of whoever is left.

Like with many books that offend, this one may come to offend by its title alone, thus doing the offended the service of not actually having to read, let alone formulate engaged objections to, let alone come to grips with and perhaps be changed by the offending item. It's easy to imagine the righteous in a tizzy over the book, and then, when asked if they'd read it, prissily turning up their noses while declaring that obviously they didn't read it, they wouldn't read it, they didn't need to read it -- Look at the title! Look at the author!

Well that may suit their purposes. But I did need to read it because, well, Look at the title! Look at the author! And I'm glad I did and suspect that most readers who have ever been both intrigued and honestly troubled by the figure of Jesus Christ, be they fans of Pullman or newcomers, will be glad they did as well. In fact, in part, I’m glad that I did in part because Pullman’s account is a good deal more complex than the title would suggest.

In September, 2009, Pullman announced on his website a book dealing with Jesus (where His Dark Materials had left him out of the picture) and exploring Pullman’s fascination with the two parts of Jesus’ name and the difference between them as well as issues of canon formation of how The Story of Jesus comes to win out. Pullman has made good on the promise, offering a compassionate, subtle, and engaging narrative exploration of, ultimately, human nature: its capacity for love and goodness, as well as for frailty and anger, its aspiration for permanence and transcendence and the cultural tensions these can give rise to between spontaneity and organization, history and truth. And it does all this by introducing, in the very first lines, the following conceit: “This is the story of Jesus and his brother Christ, of how they were born, of how they lived and of how one of them died. The death of the other is not part of the story."

In fact, apart from the outrageous invention of “his brother Christ,” and numerous consequences that flow from that invention, Pullman’s novel (?) follows the plot (?) of the canonical Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke fairly closely. So all the moments familiar to readers of those stories appear in Pullman’s book as well: Mary’s conception, the birth in the stable near Bethlehem, the visit of the three wise men, the wandering and trials in the desert, the short but popular career as an itinerant teacher, preacher, and healer, the triumphant return to Jerusalem, the agony in the garden of Gethsemani, and of course, the betrayal, trial, and crucifixion.

All these greatest hits from the gospels appear in Pullman’s novel, but somewhat unfaithfully rendered since, of course, Pullman has divided the protagonist of the gospel stories into two parts, twin brothers. Jesus is born first, strong and healthy, while second-born Christ is sickly and crying. As children, Jesus tends to get into trouble that Christ, seemingly miraculously, manages to get him out of. Jesus learns to be a carpenter like his father, Christ spends all his time at the synagogue studying. Christ is admired by the adults of Nazareth, but, Pullman tells us, needing say no more, “the children of the town preferred Jesus.” All of this is humorous enough but mostly innocuous and inconsequential.

Pullman begins to unveil the complexity and force of his invention when idle curiosity leads the unremarkable Jesus out to the Jordan River to see a wandering preacher, John, that people have been talking about. Christ tags along behind and watches from a distance. As John baptizes Jesus (who plainly refuses John’s entreaties that Jesus baptize him), Christ “saw a dove fly above them and settle in a tree. It might have been an omen. Christ wondered what it might mean, and imagined what a voice would say if it spoke from heaven and told him.”

Christ seems to be motivated by a concern that his brother’s passionate and impulsive goodness be preserved both from the manipulation of others and Jesus’ own lack of concern with prestige or legacy. But this motivation leads him to perform several unsavory roles in the events that follow. He plays the role of Satan tempting Jesus to perform miracles in the desert (just after the baptism) in a chapter that made me laugh and wince at what Pullman was getting himself into as his Jesus dismisses Christ with exactly the words that the Jesus, in the gospel of Matthew, uses to Satan. Jesus even throws a rock at Christ. At the other end of the story, Christ will be led to betray Jesus to the local authorities and then, after Jesus’s crucifixion, to exploit their physical resemblance pretending to be the resurrected Jesus in order to secure the final “miracle” that will guarantee that Jesus’ life and works will give rise to a new church. In between, urged on by a mysterious stranger, Christ will secretly shadow his brother, recording his words, chronicling his deeds, and providing imaginative embellishments that, Christ feels, will lend more lasting force to the story.

Christ may be motivated by concern for his brother and his brother’s mission, but the stranger introduces another reason that seems to gird Christ’s will when it wavers, as Pullman appropriately shows it doing so, before the more distasteful deeds the stranger calls upon him to perform. This higher calling, the stranger explains to Christ, is that he should be the word of God. “There are dark days approaching,” he warns, “if the way to the Kingdom of God is to be opened, we who know must be prepared to make history the handmaid of posterity and not its governor. What should have been is a better servant of the Kingdom than what was.” He sums this up for Christ: “There is time, and there is what is beyond time. History belongs to time, but truth belongs to what is beyond time. In writing of things as they should have been, you are letting truth into history. You are the word of God.”

I greatly enjoyed – laughing out loud and shaking my head at the prospect of the outrage they would cause -- the inventiveness of some of the encounters that Pullman’s novel imagines. I also find Pullman's critical genealogy of the church and scriptural canonization thoughtful and persuasive, if not unexpected. But I think what I liked best about the novel was the surprising complexity of the character of Christ. He may be a scoundrel in the title and a spoiled goody-two-shoes as a child, he may do things that the gospels attribute to Satan and to Judas, but he is also, ultimately, a very human being, confused in motivation, fearful, susceptible to a smooth-talker bearing reassurances and promises of long-lasting security, and weak-willed. In fact, I think it’s the latter qualities that lead to the former, more spectacular, qualities and it is the way that he combines these in a single character that makes Pullman’s novel more than just the snarky, smug attack on Christianity and organized religion that many will, unfortunately either assume it is or take it to be. We create and latch onto transcendent entities like gods and hierarchical, authoritarian institutions, he seems to say, because we are frightened, confused, and vulnerable (which is not to say that we must inevitably act out our fear, confusion and vulnerability in this way).

When Pullman says he is interested in the dual nature of Jesus Christ, readers might, like I did before I read the book, take him to be referring to the human and the divine. And that might well be what Pullman meant. But what he has actually laid out in his novel is something like the dual nature of human beings. On the one hand, “the good man Jesus”: healthy, strong, self-sufficient, simple, humble, passionate, short-sighted, compassionate, unselfish, and human. On the other hand, “the scoundrel Christ”: sickly, frightened, needy and therefore concerned with calculating means of survival, permanence, and transcendence, and human. And, bad as he is, I can’t help but identify with him and like him, even as I aspire to be more like Jesus.

In His Dark Materials, Pullman taught me to appreciate the devil and, in the process, to find the history embedded in the official Truth and, one step further, the truth in the stories that make up history. So I was prepared to have sympathy for everything that the official story casts as diabolical in The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ and I was prepared to share in the scorn I presumed Pullman would heap on the vainglorious would-be divinity of Christ. The surprising and impressive thing is that Pullman turns out be more consistently Blakean (and Miltonian) in his diabolical sympathies, and Blakean (and Miltonian) in more interesting ways, than I had even thought to begin with. In other words, what I wasn’t prepared for, and what delighted me, was to be put in the position of sympathizing with the devil even when he is Christ, even when he is like me.


The Course as Work of Art

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

I thought it'd be nice to break-up these predigested, if still very much improvable, chunks of my book manuscript in progress, with something more current. A few days ago I posted a quotation from Lionel Trilling's essay on "The Teaching of Modern Literature." Much of the essay describes Trilling's desire and efforts to present the materials in that course in a way that would shake-up his students. He paraphrases his and his colleagues' stance once they'd decided to give the course:

Very well, if they want the modern, let them have it -- let them have it, as Henry James says, full in the face. We shall give the course, but we shall give it on the highest level, and if they think, as students do, that the modern will naturally meet them in a genial way, let them have their gay and easy time with Yeats and Eliot, with Joyce and Proust and Kafka, with Lawrence and Mann and Gide.

I love the frankly aggressive tone there. Who doesn't want to hit students in the head with a book from time to time? He then goes on to say that the only way to give the course was to do it honestly:
to give it without strategies and without conscious caution. It was not honorable, either to the students or to the authors, to conceal or disguise my relation to the literature, my commitment to it, my fear of it, my ambivalence toward it. . . . And so I resolved to give the course with no considerations in mind except my own interests.

Bravo! But what follows as a quick elaboration of his own interests takes my breath away. A concatenation of interests that make dizzying theoretical connections without ponderously spelling them all out and thus, as so many more contemporary works do, somehow managing to appear to do the work for you without having clarified anything at all:
And since my own interests lead me to see literary situations as cultural situations, and cultural situations as great elaborate fights about moral issues, and moral issues as having something to do with gratuitously chosen images of personal being, and images of personal being as having something to do with literary style, I felt free to begin with what for me was a first concern, the animus of the author, the objects of his will, the things he wants or wants to have happen.

Nice. Anyway, Trilling goes on to list and gloss some of the books he had students read as a kind of historical back-story, or preparation for the encounter with modern literature (I gather from the essay that the course was a two semester course and he gives us a run down of what he included in the first term). When I hit this point in the essay, I got excited -- making readings lists that I won't ever get all the way through would be one way to describe my approach to the art of studying and teaching literature (I don't want to exaggerate or be falsely modest: I've read a hell of a lot of books in my time; I just can't remember most of them). Trilling's list included parts of Sir James Frazer's The Golden Bough, Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy, Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Mann's Death in Venice, Nietzsche's Genealogy of Morals, and Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents. I like the way that Trilling lays bare the feeling and thought that went into this particular assemblage of texts. It's certainly not the only or even the best list of books I can think of with which to get students ready for a shattering encounter with modern literature -- but I can think of much worse, and Trilling makes a persuasive case, as I'm sure he made a persuasive course.

Anyway, my mind then jumped to one of the most memorable course I took as an undergraduate in Comparative Literature at the University of Wisconsin - Madison. I was a fairly recently convert to comp lit, having started college aimed straight for a pre-law Poli Sci degree and then law school in order to become as much like my venerated older brother as possible. So when I took this particular course, I have to say I was very, very excited to have reading lists and to have ways of talking about books, but I really hadn't gotten very far down any literary reading list. Enter Professor David Hayman and his course on Flaubert and Modernism.

I will seem to be contradicting myself when I say I don't remember much of what I learned in that course. I remember Professor Hayman alternately thrilling and annoying me. He was a Joyce and Beckett specialist as I recall and his anecdotes of quaffing pints with Beckett in Paris or Dublin made me feel simultaneously closer and farther away from the great inner circle of literary genius. We had to write weekly page long essays on everything we read and then he would choose a student who got to read his or her essay aloud. Except you didn't know when you read yours whether it was going to be because he liked it or hated it. I read mine aloud once. He liked it. Another boy had to read his twice. Professor Hayman hated them both times. I felt bad for the boy, but also a great sense of relief and superiority.

The thesis of the course, as I recall it, was that you can find the seeds in Flaubert for everything that will subsequently flower, a few decades later, in modernism. I don't think this is a particularly startling thesis. But the way that Professor Hayman got this across to us in the course was, for me at the time and still to this day, fairly marvelous and inspiring. He paired a text of Flaubert with a modernist text. So, for example, we read Flaubert's Sentimental Education and then Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; Flaubert's Three Tales with Gertrude Stein's Three Lives, Flaubert's Bouvard and Pecuchet with Beckett's Mercier and Camier. We also read Flaubert's Madame Bovary, The Temptation of St. Anthony, and Salaambo, though I can't remember what we paired them with. And we read Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier and Mann's Death in Venice, but I can't remember what Flaubert those were paired with (I recently wrote to Professor Hayman to see if he could refresh my memory).

What do I like about this course? I liked that it provided us with a solid run through the major works of a single author (Flaubert). I liked that it provided us with a substantive, if not comprehensive, slice through a major literary movement (modernism). I liked that it drew on texts from multiple traditions. I liked that it articulated the drive behind its reading list in theoretical terms (centered on the mechanics of modernist narrative techniques). In short, I felt, as I was reading, that I was 1) working hard; 2) learning a great deal; 3) passing some sort of weird but very very important test; and 4) doing all of the above for a reason that, while possibly narrow in scope, made good sense. Most of all, what I liked was the symmetry of the pairings -- especially sweet in this regard was the duo of Three Tales with Three Lives.

Trillings reflections on his course, and my own recollections of Professor Hayman's course remind me of how a great course, a great syllabus, a great reading list, can -- perhaps should -- itself be a work of art.


Reading One: Enjoying (on William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow”) [Section 2 of 2]

(Continued from here.)

I did an experiment of my own in cultivating awareness and comprehension of a passion of mine - the first of the eight experiments that make up this book. I’m still not an expert on William Carlos Williams. I just love the poem “A Red Wheelbarrow.” Frankly, I love Williams himself, though I don’t know much about him. I love that he was a doctor and a poetthat he never stopped being either and, as far as I know, never wanted to. I love him the way I love the American poet Frank O’Hara for typing up poems on the typewriters in retail stores in Manhattan during his lunch hour and calling the result “Lunch Poems.” Indeed, Williams wrote the poem in question in about two minutes during a house call, looking out the window at the bedside of a young girl patient for whose life he feared.

But I wanted to understand how and why I loved this poem. I wanted to bridge the uncomfortable institutional silence that prevented that job candidate and me from talking about this poem during her interview. I wanted to do more than just love this poem, I wanted to understand my love and in that way to love more powerfully. So I just sat down and wrote longhand several pages responding to the question: “How do I love this poem?” I wanted to construct an adequate idea of the affections I experience in reading this poem and so to transform my joyful passion-“I love this poem”- into an action ”I cultivate the joy that this poem arouses.”

First, here is the poem.

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

Exhilaration arises at the poem’s apparent simplicity. Sixteen simple words, bare and stark, merely an observation, just a glance, one look at a gardening implement and this is a poem, and a celebrated anthologized poem. The language isn’t fancy or stylized. It is simple. An uncomplicated expression that makes me feel to my core. No quick cuts and dazzling dialogue necessary to intrigue and awaken the jaded. At an outsider art show I once overheard a visitor say, “I could have done this and called it a painting.” The gallery owner standing next to the person said, “Sure, but you didn’t.” Williams did it. Henry Miller writes in Sexus that “Every day we slaughter our finest impulses. That is why we get a heartache when we read those lines written by the hand of a master and recognize them as our own, as the tender shoots which we stifled because we lacked the faith to believe in our own powers.” Anybody could do it. And some people do. Williams did.

My first response to this twenty or so years ago, a response that still arises to this day every time I read this poem, is a simultaneous rush of pain for the tender shoots I have stifled and of gratitude for Williams’ inspiring model of simple courage required to do it. But love also arises with the recognition that the poem is only apparently simple. Williams doesn’t simply say: “Look, I see a red wheelbarrow with rain on it next to some white chickens.” That report itself is made more than bare bones, is given flesh and mystery by the way in which Williams reports, by the “so much depends,” by the line breaks, by the word “glazed.”

At first glance, Williams appears to tell me “so much depends” on ordinary objects, like red wheelbarrows, being there. Maybe this seems obvious enough, but if it is, it’s one of those obvious truths that I can never seem to hear enough. After all, what would crumble to dust in my hands, heart, and head if my world were suddenly drained of ordinary objects: a pencil, a plate, a window pane, a chair, a plum, a cooking pot? Yet do I notice, really notice, such things and feel grateful for them? Not grateful that I possess them, but grateful that they simply are; that they are there making up the material fabric of the universe, quietly weaving themselves into the spiritual and intellectual and emotional fabric of the universes I make for myself and others?
As I wrote that day I noticed that had shifted the emphasis from the value of the object itself to the value of my seeing the object in some particular way; from the object to the relation between me and the object. This is impact of the line breaks.

Four stanzas of two lines each. In each stanza, the first line has three words, and the second has one. In this way Williams prompts us to read his words. He invites us to slow down and read in a new way. It’s just a simple sentence:

“So much depends on a red wheel barrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens.”

Written out in a line from margin to margin I don’t think I’d read it the same way. It would just be a proposition about some bit of the fabric of the universe. Then I could agree or disagree, if I were even interested enough in it to take a position. But by breaking the lines the way he does, turning a one-line proposition into an eight-line poem with a pattern, Williams does more than just draw special attention to the proposition. He makes us slow down. By doing that he invites us to do what the poet has done and what the poem implicitly suggests is a good thing. It invites us to see the red wheelbarrow and that so much depends on it. On the red wheelbarrow itself, on my slowing down, and on my seeing the red wheelbarrow.

I love this because Williams has worked the creative or generative side of words. We can think of words as relational events that at once create and mark an encounter between ourselves and the world. Often, perhaps even typically, we use language as if words just represent things in the world and don’t do anything to us and that we don’t do anything to the world with them. But Williams now is making them do something to things in the world, including us, and inviting us to read his words with an adequate idea of this creative relational function of language in mind.
The poem encourages me to follow Williams in bringing this red wheelbarrow forth in language.

Recently scientists have come to see the processes of self-generation and self-perpetuation carried out by living systems as a form of cognition, or knowing. We tend to think of cognition as involving accurate mental representations of things out in the world as they “really are in themselves,” but these scientists have redefined cognitive processes in terms of material interactions between the organism and its environment. In these interactions, the organism, in the words of scientists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, “brings forth a world” according to a continual, minute level assessment of its own state, the state of its environment, its needs and the potential for harm or growth implicit in each unfolding moment. Cognition thus includes perception, emotion, and behavior and, for human beings, with our highly complex nervous system, language. From this point of view language is central to how it is that we human beings maintain ourselves as living organisms because it brings forth a world, rather than merely represents it.

This is an important point that bears emphasis. When we use words as though they represent things out there in the world, we tend to treat both those things and words as though they were objects, fixed and static. When we use them as Williams does here, we actually participate in the making of a dynamic, potentially endless fabric of relations whose threads connect and pass through all fixed and static things or identities. And this is to say that an adequate idea of language entails understanding its constitutive force in the creation of a universe of relations much like the universe described by Spinoza in his Ethics, or by contemporary scientists in a number of disciplines for whom, increasingly, the world is best understood as an integrated system of interrelated parts, parts that are themselves a part of further interrelations. The interconnectedness of things and all that this implies, all that is joyful and inspiring and painful and terrifying about it, is what comes to matter most when we understand our use of words in this way.

A student once pointed out that the one word that really does seem just a bit out of place in this poem of very simple words is “glazed.” I think that’s connected to this shift from the object to seeing the object, to my relationship with it. “Glazed” describes a kind of addition to the surface of the red wheelbarrow. It’s where the red wheelbarrow meets the rain and their meeting makes a glaze. But if that’s the case then glazed also describes the moment of my optical encounter with the red wheelbarrow. This glazed surface, which I might imagine for myself as somewhere between completely reflective and completely transparent, is what my eye meets when I look. Glazed then also emphasizes the surface of the wheelbarrow over and above its three dimensional volume. It’s not so much that I can’t imagine or, could not see the whole wheelbarrow. It’s that this word draws my attention to its surface. In this sense, I think of this poem as a way of saying, “Yes!” in response to a question. But the question isn’t “is there a red wheelbarrow?” The question is “Do you see that a red wheelbarrow exists, and do you see that it matters, do you see what depends upon it?” As important as the object, and indispensable to grasping the importance of the object, is grasping my relationship to the object, my recognition of my participation in the existence of the object. Indeed, I’d go one step further and assert that at this particular moment in the reading the very categories of subject and object no longer have any meaningful purchase on the experience.

But "glazed" takes me beyond the optical encounter with the surface. The translucent glistening of the surface makes the surface not only visible but also palpable. When the poem makes me slow down, I feel as if my eyes have touched. Through "glazed," it is as if I can almost feel the cool, slippery surface, and seeing feels like touching. “Glaze” is the artificial, the fictional, in that sense of fiction that refers to our powers to bring forth and to make something new out of the web of life in which we are a strand. Glaze is the made thing that exists and by so being stands for the connectedness of things, of wheelbarrow and rain and eyesight and touch. In that sense, glaze stands for the connecting that we do when we read to live.

It becomes, then, a matter of texture. That's where the chickens come in. I just love those white chickens that seem to punctuate the poem. I think it is because "white," besides being just a color with its optical contrast and harmony with red, becomes a texture – feathery – in contrast and harmony with the surface of the wheelbarrow. I start to wonder if the feathers of the chicken are also wet and if so how? Surely it is differently than the way the wheelbarrow is. So I am drawn in to play along these varied surfaces and I think this is so simple and just so nice. And like all play, it is also not so simple and still so nice.

I am lost at play,. For once I am happily relieved of the usual categories of subject and object, self and other, and so forth. Instead of a seeing eye, a red wheelbarrow, glazed with rain water, beside some white chickens, there is a single undulating, dynamic fabric of being woven from the relations among these things. These things, after all, only appear as things apart from me when I step out of the playing and separate them out from one another as things with names.

We may experience the poem as a prayer or incantation. We may experience the poem as magical in the way that it uses the vehicle of verse poetry to draw intense focus upon a single instant of the ordinary seeing of an ordinary object upon which in the moment of reading, so much does depend. So it’s a poem made of magic words. Like all incantations these sixteen magic words make themselves true by being said, they bring into being the conditions in the world that they describe. But we can experience all words as magic words, at least in the sense that even when they are pretending just to describe a bit of the world they are doing something to the world.

To speak more precisely, I’m arguing that we might gain something valuable in our relationship to words if we accept that all words express relations in which we do something to the world and at the same time, have something done to us. Part of the magic is in the increase in our capacity to act that comes with acting in accordance with an idea of the potency of language. In other words, the magic is in transforming a passive, passionate appreciation into an active understanding. Certainly, nothing could more excite a person like me who has devoted most of his life to words than to hear that they are all magic, and magically powerful.

Now Williams’ words scurry around the page like elementary schoolchildren bustling to get in line during a performance. They arrange themselves in an orderly single horizontal line, like the one I set out a few pages back, stretching across the page, each one exciting on its own, but also now, with their unique mysterious powers fully restored, the overall magic intensifies. Because now that horizontal line of words isn’t an ordinary proposition claiming to represent truly a piece of the world. Now their movement, which is nothing more than an effect of the encounter called reading, brings forth not only the force of an ordinary object like a red wheelbarrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens, and the force of the act of seeing, but also the force of what I might dismiss as ordinary language and the force of my relationship to the universe moving inside and outside of me. The reading makes the ordinary extraordinary and shows me how it is done so that I can do it too, in reading the poem but also on my own, when I have set his book and his words down and picked up a pen to write my own.

In so doing the reading also shifts us back from extraordinary to ordinary. The poetic function, in most cultures an extraordinary function of seeing and making, ceases to be solely the property of the poet as an exceptional genius. What else might I have expected from an extraordinary poet who never stopped being an ordinary doctor, writing poems on his prescription pad between visits? It is extraordinary to bring the extraordinary back to the ordinary. By the end of the whole operation, even the categories “ordinary” and “extraordinary” (like those of “subject” and “object” previously) just don’t seem to matter much anymore: there is just the breathtaking composition of forces at play, of impersonal powers exercised, capacities flexed.

Such a reading activates the capacities of the poet and communicates them to the reader, like a gift. In that sense the reading makes me feel gifted. And so I am, in fact, to the degree that I am aware of the gifts of a red wheelbarrow and of the facts that I can see it and bring it forth in language. To the degree, in other words, that I form an idea of this encounter. That is the feeling of exhilaration I experienced when I first encountered this poem, The term poetry comes to us from the Greek word poiesis, which means “making” in a broad sense of the term. Reading Williams’ poem had made me able to say I am a poet in the sense that in reading – though I do not literally compose a poem – I activate my own creative powers in language. I make myself: autopoiesis.

I want to finish my story about Eva by sharing with you a passage from a book she chose, with certain words she underlined (which I will italicize) and the few lines she wrote to explain why she’d underlined those words. We found a passage in Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. The book centers on the adventures of a young, headstrong girl named Meg whose scientifically gifted little brother has mysteriously disappeared. In a climactic scene in the novel, Meg encounters her brother Charles, apparently possessed by this emotionless brain called IT. When we get to the scene that Eva chose, Meg is at the end of her rope, unable to think of a way to rescue her beloved brother:

She could stand there and she could love Charles Wallace.
Her own Charles Wallace, the real Charles Wallace, the child for whom she had come back to Camazotz, to IT, the baby who was so much more than she was, and who was yet so utterly vulnerable.
She could love Charles Wallace.
Charles. Charles, I love you. My baby brother who always takes care of me. Come back to me, Charles Wallace, come away from IT, come back, come home. I love you, Charles. Oh, Charles Wallace, I love you.
Tears were streaming down her cheeks, but she was unaware of them.
Now she was even able to look at him, at this animated thing that was not her own Charles Wallace at all. She was able to look and love.
I love you. Charles Wallace, you are my darling and my dear and the light of my life and the treasure of my heart. I love you. I love you. I love you.
Slowly his mouth closed. Slowly his eyes stopped their twirling. The tic in his forehead ceased its revolting twitch. Slowly he advanced toward her.
“I love you!” She cried. “I love you, Charles! I love you!”
Then suddenly he was running, pelting, he was in her arms, he was shrieking with sobs. “Meg! Meg! Meg!”
I love you, Charles!” she cried again, her sobs almost as loud as his, her tears mingling with his. “I love you! I love you! I love you!”

Eva and I sat at the kitchen table. And I ask her,
“What words jump out at you, Ev?”
Almost without hesitation she circles the phrase “Slowly his mouth closed. Slowly his eyes stopped their twirling. The tic in his forehead ceased its revolting twitch.” So then I ask her,
“Why do these words jump out at you, do you think?” Eva stumbles a bit,
“I don’t know...they just do...it’s like...’slowly his mouth closed’...” and then Eva falls silent but she slowly closes her mouth. And then she stands up and begins to twirl her body around.

Here’s what she wrote for her homework: “I like the way the author said ‘twirling’ and ‘slowly his mouth closed’ because it makes me so excited that I want to do the movements instead of just thinking ‘I’m reading this, wow whoopee, what the heck!’” What better demonstration could we have to show that even descriptive words do something to the world? When she had finished her homework Eva danced around the room repeating the words and then, still chanting the magic words, she skipped off to her bedroom to reread the book. She’d been transformed by the magic. She was spellbound. In that moment, the author and Eva and I had worked together to bring words to life, to give words dimension and depth and feeling and flesh. May she always be so enchanted and may she always – may we all always -- be so graceful in communicating her enchantments, be they literary or otherwise.

Of course, in that moment, Eva wasn’t thinking all the things that I’ve just written above. She was, rather, we were, simply doing them. And doing them as she did can be joy enough for any of us. But we can take the extra step, the risk, of understanding the joy of that practice and thereby make it an enduring source of active joys.

I’m reminded of how the physicist Richard Feynman responded to an artist friend who teased Feynman that his scientific understanding of the world left him unable to appreciate the beauty of a flower. Feynman acknowledged that he might not be as aesthetically refined as his friend, but still insisted that he could see the beauty his friend saw. What’s more, he went on, “I can see much more about the flower than he sees. I can imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside which also have a beauty. I mean it’s not just beauty at this dimension of one centimeter, there is also beauty at a smaller dimension, the inner structure.” Feynman employs his imagination and his scientific powers to understand, deepen, and enrich his enjoyment of the beauty of the flower.

To give an idea of the endless communicative potency of such readings, I would like to add a brief coda. When Claire discussed with me her suggestions for this reading, she recalled her own childhood love of L’Engle’s work. She explained that she used to read L’Engle’s journals as well, in which the author discussed the importance of love, particularly the Christian notion of agape, to her fiction. Claire pointed out that in this particular scene, which is tense with the apparent hopelessness of Charles’ prodigious scientific gifts being governed forevermore by the affectless, lifeless IT, Meg breaks down. Meg has always considered herself quite ordinary and relatively powerless. In this scene, she confronts quite dramatically the limits of her power as a subject, that is, as an agent who might consider herself the author and executor of a calculated plan to manipulate the object world around her. All plans have fallen apart. Meg herself has fallen apart.
But, as Claire pointed out to me, what rushes in when Meg falls apart is the potency of affect, unleashed from the bounds of a world of subjects and objects. Crucially, Meg understands this. She forms an idea of the affects she is experiencing and of their true power. And it is at that moment that the love pouring forth through and beyond the bare outlines of “Meg” absolutely overwhelms even the awesome, prodigious powers of IT,which are still bound and limited by the inadequate idea of possession (and, by extension, of the categories of subject and object that possession still implies). Spinoza could ask for no better example. And so the reading, and the joy, goes on.

My reading of Williams’ poem, emerging within the context of my academic experience and the challenge of helping someone else love not only reading but thinking about reading, has introduced some of the basic concerns of this book: the nature of affect, in particular of joy and love, and its relation to thought, in particular to reason, in the process of joyfully living a series of encounters, of which reading is one, while embedded in a world of relations that we do not fully control nor understand. This book is an attempt to describe and practice a way of reading that shares Spinoza’s vision of the world and partakes of the ethic of joy, which that vision led him to advocate. Part of what makes Spinoza’s Ethics so moving and inspiring is his acute sensitivity to the fragility and uncertainty of our existence in the universe, taken together with his generous, painstaking attempt to communicate a life that accepts that uncertainty and builds from it a capacity to act and to experience joy. Reading to Live sees reading as an opportunity to experiment with and become aware of the nature of all kinds of encounters, including the most mundane, in all their material, affective and intellectual richness. Then, through such experiments, to nourish those encounters that augment joy; that is, those that enhance our ethical power of acting.


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