Sunday, May 9, 2010
(Continued from here.)
I wasn’t always a professor of literature. I started out as a pretty normal person, a kid growing up in a suburban neighborhood in the Midwestern university town of Madison, Wisconsin, the youngest by far of four children born to a Spanish-born couple that had come to Madison via Cali, Colombia and Portland, Oregon. My father was a professor of biochemistry and my mother a housewife. Our family room, where we spent most of our evenings, had built-in bookcases lined with books in different languages and from a range of different disciplines: encyclopedias, novels, works of philosophy, scientific textbooks, biographies and autobiographies.
There was much unhappiness and tension in our household when I was growing up, many arguments in that family room. I did not seriously explore the books on those shelves until college, but already as a child I drew comfort from staring at them in an unfocused way. Perhaps it was the combination of order and disorder in the shelves themselves: the neat parallel lines of the firm wood shelves themselves spiced by the great variety of sizes, colors, textures, and languages of the books. I see myself lying on the thick carpeting in front of the fieldstone fireplace where my dad usually had a good fire going in winter. I lay there and whatever else might be going on, whatever tense silence or explosive argument might be in the air, the very sight of the dark wood of the shelves peppered with books drew me in and away from my worries and comforted me.
From an early age my mother and my siblings read to me and, once I knew how, I was encouraged to read for myself and I took to it with great relish. I was not a very discriminating reader at that time, nor a precocious one. I wasn’t one of those future academics who at an oddly early age were reading Moby Dick; more like Inky: The Seeing Eye Dog. I especially liked sports books, biographies of famous athletes and novels about basketball players. (My other great escape from the tension in the household was listening to Milwaukee Bucks basketball games broadcast on a little red and white, dice-like transistor radio I kept by my pillow). But really, I would read or at least try pretty much anything. I had older siblings who also enjoyed reading and so sometimes they would read to me or lend me the simpler books that they were reading for high school classes or for their own enjoyment.
This lasted until around the time I hit puberty. At that point I discovered girls and competitive team sports. I was too shy to act on my discovery of girls. But I threw myself wholeheartedly into sports, especially basketball and soccer. Yet even in high school, when I devoted most of my energy and attention to sports, I never fully abandoned books and writing. It was, as you might imagine given the way cliques fall out in high schools, a not entirely comfortable combination of interests. I had my sports friends with whom I shared my enjoyment of athletics, while keeping my bookish self under wraps and I had my bookish friends in front of whom I played down my love of sports. Only very, very rarely did I experience the opportunity to share with others the whole range of what brought me joy in my life and feel that they accepted it. Now that I think about it, it was neither the sports nor the books, nor the collision of disparate interests and groups of friends that felt difficult. It was my passion for them, it was the unwieldy feeling of my desire. No doubt most teenagers suffer their desire as unwieldy. Maybe in my case the social divergence of the paths my desires took exacerbated my sense that they were too much.
When I got to college, I maintained my love of sports, but my competitive career had ended. On the other hand, the wider and more diverse intellectual and social world of the university—in my case the University of Wisconsin at Madison (as compared to my small Catholic high school) -- provided ample social rewards for returning and deepening my love of books and writing. In fact, by my second year in college, reading had become the most enjoyable activity in my life and the core of my self-image. So much so, in fact, that I switched into Comparative Literature as a major, just so that I could spend more of my time reading (and because, at that time, the Comp Lit majors seemed cooler and more attractive to me than the Poli Sci majors).
It’s true, with that switch I had to write papers about what I’d read. But that didn’t seem like too high a price to pay. Besides, it offered the compensating pleasure of being told by my professors that I was smart and good at it. Beyond this, I rediscovered a hidden pleasure, forgotten since childhood, in creative writing, mostly poems and some stories. I just loved that I could make something out of words, could make words do things to people like feel happy or sad or think differently about something, or even make them do something they wouldn’t normally do.
Already in this way of describing my love of writing, I can see how blurry the boundary was between what I loved for its own sake and what I loved because of its effect on others. This struggle to feel and to become more comfortable expressing my desire (including the desire – rather than the compulsive need – to help others) remains present in my life. In fact, most of the readings that follow, the literature and the philosophy that have inspired those readings, speak in painful and inspiring ways to that tension between self and world of which mine is just a subspecies.
But in any event, books and creative writing were in fact what I did. In the very cool autobiographical movie I would run in my head at the time, walking the leafy autumn pathways along the lakeshore in Madison, I was becoming a poet. Of course, few poets can make a living just by writing poems. The lore of poetic history is populated with stories of writers starving, working odd jobs, making do in steadfast pursuit of their creativity. I certainly wasn’t brave enough to just strike out on my own as a poet upon graduation, washing dishes or landscaping or whatever it might take or traveling or living abroad teaching English in a foreign land. Meanwhile, as I said, my professors were telling me I was good at the study of literature and should go to graduate school.
So I got myself into a graduate school thinking, naively as it turned out, that I’d take the fellowship that was offered and read more books for a couple of years, move from my Midwestern hometown, away from my family, to Durham, North Carolina (even this choice was partly made because of my love of the college basketball teams – Duke, North Carolina, North Carolina State -- on what is called “Tobacco Road”) and write more poems. When the fellowship was up, I figured, I’d drop out. I imagined that by that time I’d be brave enough to support myself with some kind of job that would give me time to read as well as give me what I idealized as the kind of “real life experience” that I could mill into poems and stories of my own.
But if, or when, the time came, I didn’t recognize it and, in any event, I sure didn’t drop out. I enrolled in Duke University’s Graduate Program in Literature in the fall of 1987. At that time Duke was a very high-powered place in academic literary studies. The very first week I was there, a conference was being held called “Theories of Narrative and Narratives of Theory,” featuring speakers like Terry Eagleton, Gayatri Spivak, Fredric Jameson (the head of my new program), Jonathan Culler, Henry Louis Gates Jr., and Stanley Fish – most of the biggest names in the world of literary studies.
During orientation week, a fellow first-year student asked me if I was a Marxist. I replied “what’s that?” I really didn’t know, or maybe I was really nervous and couldn’t come up with an answer. It certainly seems to me now a shocking expression of ignorance– what college graduate doesn’t know what Marxism is?! But then something odd and, eventually, telling, happened. Rather than laugh at me or mock my ignorance, he looked at me with a kind of self-castigating admiration and said, “Oh, yeah, of course, I see what you mean.” I had no idea what had just happened in that exchange and was to shy to press for clarification. But after a few weeks of classes, I was able to understand that he had invoked a category of identity – “Marxist” – as though its meaning were self evident and then asked me whether the category applied to me or not. By asking him “what’s that?” I had inadvertently questioned the definition of the category that he was taking for granted. I had unwittingly stumbled into critical thinking. But I didn’t know I was doing that, I thought I was just asking a simple question.
It turns out it was nearly impossible to ask a simple question at Duke and have it received as such; just as it was nearly impossible to express a simple, like or dislike for some piece of literature without an elaborate intellectual rationalization to justify it. On the contrary, it felt to me as though the very idea of taking joy in reading – if it merited any attention at all -- was to be analyzed and theorized until the feeling shriveled up and shrank away in shame into some dark corner. I learned to say that something was “really interesting” when I meant I really liked it or really didn’t like it. And the joy I felt when I read– if I accidentally confessed it –was to be diagnosed as a symptom of my addiction to the dangerously deceptive palliative of aesthetic enjoyment and interpreted and treated accordingly. In place of the joy of reading, I developed the more muted pleasure of producing acute ideological critiques of works of literature. I learned to show how books simultaneously protested the oppressive social conditions in which they were produced and unwittingly betrayed their complicity with them.. Openly enjoying the surface of the text gave way to suspiciously interrogating it: “C’mon, we know you’re holding back buddy, cough it up, talk! We have ways of making you cooperate.”
Of course, that’s an overly dramatic, one-sided, not-very-nice and by itself not very helpful way of telling the story. It’s not that the people in my program were doing anything wrong or that it wasn’t satisfying in its own way or that there isn’t value in that sort of reading of texts. On the contrary, I think it’s perfectly reasonable, even desirable, that intellectuals tend to the connections between their particular interests and their society. I learned then and still today believe that there’s much more enjoyment to be found in reading when we go beyond just “loving” or “hating” a book and take the time to scrutinize with care the hidden assumptions that attend a text and shape our experience of it.
It might be truer and more helpful to cast my experience as a parable of a young man interacting with an institution. In other words, as a kind of coming of age story, just as Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials or Roberto Arlt’s Mad Toy, which I will discuss in later chapters are coming of age stories; just as, in fact, Spinoza’s Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect could be read as a kind of coming of age story. As a young man, perhaps like others, I had a fragile sense of my own desires and as an institution, Duke’s Graduate Program in Literature, like other institutions, had a rather strong sense of its desires, or perhaps “purposes” would be a more accurate word.
Even or especially beyond my academic, intellectual, and professional life, I experienced this difference in strength of purpose as an unbearable tension between a compulsion to do whatever I felt like doing and a compulsion to fulfill what I understand to be the purposes or expectations of someone or thing outside myself whose approval I craved. In general, I responded to this tension by veering spastically between the heartless indulgence of pleasures and the equally heartless fulfillment of obligations. In either case, though, the point I want to stress is that I was numb and unaware of the role that my own affirmative, creative desires, whether with respect to myself or others, played in motivating my actions. It seems to me now that an awareness of desire can be sufficient to guide me in acting to fulfill my own needs and to contribute in a reasonable way to fulfilling the needs of others. But at that time, I had no practice in identifying desire and so I swerved back and forth between internally and externally directed compulsions, without ever wondering about, let alone identifying, what I really wanted or how I wanted to be.
Looking at it that way, when I arrived at Duke, I veered in the direction of fulfilling the expectations of others. This may not have been a bad thing in and of itself. Perhaps it is just a description of one kind of education: one exercises one’s sense of one’s own desires by testing them against the stronger or more solidly fixed desires of a teacher or institution (think of the pupil in “The Karate Kid” impatiently waxing the implacable old master’s car). And it could be that, at least for me, veering in the direction of fulfilling intellectual obligations was a necessary corrective to a native fear and mistrust of the intellect.
Growing up with a stern, intellectual father and a warm, emotional mother, I opposed intellect to emotion and associated intellect with a repressive, authoritarian sternness. Perhaps veering toward meeting and exceeding intellectual requirements was a part of trying to come to terms with my intellectual capacity, to see if I could deploy those faculties without becoming violent, or repressive. I am certain that I became addicted to the approval I received for meeting outside expectations. It was addictive because at one stroke it both entailed losing touch with any desires I might have that ran contrary to those expectations and compensated for that loss.
In any event, regardless of the possibly dys-functional or semi-functional dynamics that led me to and through graduate school, I did gain tools, abilities, and even habits of mind that continue to serve me well, even as the uses to which I put them and the interests I seek to serve with them have shifted. Back then, the compensation for becoming an adept at the intellectual and institutional game of academic literary studies was that I finished my doctorate four years later, in 1991. I was able to land an excellent tenure-track job, first at UCLA and then, in the Fall of 1992, at the University of Michigan. At that time, I still loved to read. But writing about what I read had become a chore to be carried out with mechanical efficiency, occasionally with some intellectual flair detached from the beauty of the book, but never, ever with joy. I read, often literally with a pen and paper in hand, mostly with the aim of writing some article or conference paper the appearance of which on my curriculum vitae would garner me more praise and thus help keep the demons of self-doubt at bay for another round.
Despite the absence of joy, and probably because of the security, I didn’t really pause to question this arrangement. My academic career had gotten off to a very promising start with a book already published by a hot university press to mostly favorable reviews, and with lots of requests to give talks and write articles and with the promised land of tenure just around the corner. What’s more, I’d received two prestigious external fellowships that, taken together, afforded me a year off to write a second book, substantial portions of which I’d already completed, and which was a variation on the formula that had gotten me success in my first book. So there I was: in May 1995, not yet thirty years old, turning in a very promising body of scholarship to be evaluated for tenure and looking forward to sixteen months of time to write another book, uninterrupted by teaching or administrative obligations of any kind.
And that’s when the first crisis erupted, not from outside, but from within me. Why exactly that happened in that moment and in that way will probably forever be too complex for me to fully understand, let alone explain. But the way I remember it is that I finished watching a movie (I still remember it was Boys on the Side) and it made me cry. That a movie would move me to tears was neither unprecedented nor remarkable. But what happened next was both. I walked from the living room sofa to the dining table, where I had neatly piled a stack of manila folders containing copies of all the publications and works in progress that I had recently submitted to the chair of my tenure committee. I looked at that stack, the material embodiment of eight years of work and life, counting graduate school, and thought to myself: “none of this has ever moved me to tears, not what I have read and not what I have written.” I recently watched Boys on the Side for the first time since that night and found myself relatively unaffected by it, bringing home the point that I hadn’t cried that day because of the movie. I think I was crying, mourning really, for the lost desiring, the lost feeling inside me.
If my life really were a movie, what would probably follow that instant would be a montage in which, spurred by this epiphany, I transformed my life – late spring would give way to summer, summer to fall and then to the long gray Michigan winter, and then, as bright green leaves began to bud on the trees of Ann Arbor, as crocuses and snowdrops and tulips shot forth from the still cold ground, we’d see a new me: physically, emotionally, spiritually and intellectually fulfilled in my work and in my life. But my life is not a movie and that’s not what happened.
What happened instead during those sixteen months from May 1995 to September 1996 is: 1) I got tenure 2) my wife of six years and I separated and reconciled twice and then split-up for good (we had two children, a girl and a boy, 5 and 4 years old at the time); 3) I stopped working on my second book and started reading whatever I felt like reading – novels from outside my field that I’d long wondered about, works of philosophy that I’d long felt like a fraud for referencing as though I’d read them when I’d only read about them, biographies of and articles about sports figures, especially Dennis Rodman; and 4) near the end of my leave, I started preparing to return to my teaching and administrative responsibilities. I struggled to prepare a course my department had asked me to teach for the Fall of 1996, “Comparative Literature 240: Introduction to Comparative Literature.” The course was a requirement for majors but also designed to draw in non-majors looking to satisfy their humanities requirements and thus boost our enrollments.
I struggled to prepare the course because I felt once again the familiar tension between my desire and external expectations. After what I’d felt and experienced throughout the preceding year, how in the world could I stand before a group of students and provide an introduction to my discipline that would simultaneously entertain the non-majors, not disillusion the majors, and boost the enrollments and visibility of Comparative Literature at the university? What could I tell them? That Comparative Literature was a discipline where books and the love of them go to die? Or that I had no idea what really distinguished Comparative Literature as an area of study and that, even if I did, I didn’t really believe in the value of such distinctions, at least not when weighed against their cost in the form of hyper-specialization and the detachment of advanced scholarship from desire, feeling, and the mess of daily life outside the academy?
Enter Spinoza and the words I quoted in my Introduction. When I read them, I’m somewhat embarrassed to confess, the first image that came to my mind was of the sort of encounter I’d already had many times with colleagues at work or at academic conferences in which someone asked you or you asked someone “what are you working on?” The answer was always something very specialized, often couched in a technical vocabulary: “Oh, you know, I’m working on the intersection of Spivak and Bhabha’s theories of postcoloniality and 19th century Latin American political writing.” I imagined Spinoza responding, “Well, you know, I’m working on finding out whether there’s something which, once found and acquired, will continuously give me the greatest joy, to eternity.”
Put into a contemporary academic context, Spinoza’s answer seems naive if not ridiculous. It is at once lofty and non-specialized and directly aimed at daily life. I certainly didn’t have the chutzpah to say so, but secretly, it’s what I decided I did want to devote my work and life to. And, in this wider context that I’m entering now with this book, I don’t think it seems pretentious or ridiculous at all. Who wouldn’t want to find more joy in their life, let alone a continuously flowing fountain of joy? The question I set to myself at that moment and that, in one way or another, via a very tortuous and erratic path, I have been courting since that time is: what role can reading play in Spinoza’s search for a stable source of joy? More succinctly how can we read to live?
Spinoza had already helped me in another way, indirectly. I found my way to Spinoza by reading a book about Spinoza by the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze. On pages 22 and 23 of his book Spinoza: Practical Philosophy, Deleuze paraphrases Spinoza:
That individual will be called good (or free, or rational, or strong) who strives, insofar as he is capable, to organize his encounters, to join with whatever agrees with his nature, to combine his relation with relations that are compatible with his, and thereby to increase his power. For goodness is a matter of dynamism, power, and the composition of powers. That individual will be called bad, or servile, or weak, or foolish, who lives haphazardly, who is content to undergo the effects of his encounters, but wails and accuses every time the effect undergone does not agree with him and reveals his own impotence. For, by lending oneself in this way to whatever encounter in whatever circumstance, believing that with a lot of violence or a little guile, one will always extricate oneself, how can one fail to have more bad encounters than good? How can one keep from destroying oneself through guilt, and others through resentment, spreading one’s own sickness, indigestions, and poisons? In the end, one is unable even to encounter oneself.
More than anything that I read or that friends and family said to me around the time that my marriage was in its final throes, it was this passage that cleared my head and heart and permitted me to see that the marriage had to end. It was, precisely, a “bad encounter” and I was becoming “bad, or servile, or weak, or foolish” by staying in it: “destroying myself through guilt, and others through resentment.” It’s not that others hadn’t said this to me, or that I hadn’t thought this myself. But somehow, through a process that I am still trying to understand, Spinoza’s words were the ones that opened my eyes to this dynamic in my own life.
Of course, for me these moments of clarity seem frustratingly impermanent. That passage gave me the clarity necessary to make a move, to try something different. But in the midst of the clarity that permitted some movement, I also remained unaware of many other sources of suffering and obstacles to joy, and so remained paralyzed and stuck in many other patterns. Some of these would become clear to me on later occasions and more changes would ensue. I am sure that yet others still remain for me to discover, to painfully acknowledge, and to clumsily attempt to address. But none of this clouds the shining clarity of direction and practical impetus that reading provided in that moment, nor does it diminish the importance and value of actions it enabled me to begin to take to change my life and make it more joyful.
I thought about this as I muddled, dazed, through a mire of insecurities and uncertainties in the face of the course I was to teach. I thought more deeply about my experience of reading over the course of the previous year. I recalled the rich banquet of affect those novels had offered me, the shatteringly lucid and practical insights I was surprised to find written by philosophers who, after all, were – like me -- just human beings trying to figure out a confusing existence; I recalled even the fun of reading and writing something intelligent about a sport I loved.
I also thought about the personal pain and difficulty of the year and about how I didn’t know how I’d have made it through, such as I did, without reading. I wondered if this could be my introduction to comparative literature, a course centered on narratives of crisis and how reading such narratives can provide us, in the words of the American philosopher and critic Kenneth Burke, “equipment for living.” I thought about Spinoza’s project: Why couldn’t I say that I had been and was lost and that I used books to comfort me, to challenge me, to help me understand how I’d lost my way and how I might find it again? I certainly couldn’t come up with anything else to say at the time so that’s what I went with.
As it turned out, such thoughts on the basic value of reading for life were a good match for a lecture hall full of eighteen to twenty-two year old college students, most of whom were not literature majors. For them the answers to fundamental questions of value -- “Why read?” “What is this good for?” -- were by no means obvious. These became the guiding questions for the course that, over the next seven fall semesters, would evolve into “Reading to Live.” It was as if I had turned Harold Bloom’s title, How To Read and Why into a question and responded with an emphatic: “Read to live!”
Over the course of those seven semesters, I kept some texts the same because they spoke to me anew each summer as I prepared for the upcoming semester. But others I changed because the particular ways in which I felt lost and the kinds of books that I turned to changed. I tinkered with other aspects of the syllabus, the kinds of written work I’d ask of the students and even the methods of evaluation. No matter what texts I taught and whether or not I repeated them, my lectures were different every fall, in part because my life was different every fall, but in part because I was discovering different thinkers who were shaping and altering the way I thought about even my most cherished texts.
The course grew in size and popularity and the evaluations, for the most part, tended to be enthusiastic. Most of the Comparative Literature majors seemed to appreciate the opportunity to come back to examine afresh their own motivations for majoring in Comparative Literature in the wake of several years of studying literature, criticism, and theory. The non-majors, who made up the vast majority of the enrollments, seemed energized by the invitation to read literary works in relation to their other, more primary, interests in life. I think everyone, myself included, felt braced by the challenges of acknowledging uncertainty in life; inspired by the prospect of reading not so much to resolve that uncertainty (let alone to learn how to classify, judge, or critique literature), but just to go more deeply and openly into that uncertainty and so make it less paralyzing and even, at times, the ground for trying something different. I’m not sure how much any of us really learned about Kafka, or Marx, or Nietzsche, or Puig or any of the authors and texts we studied. But I feel fairly confident that most of us felt transformed by our contact with these texts and, aware of those transformations and inspired to carry them out of the classroom and into our daily lives. “Reading to Live” remains easily the most challenging and satisfying teaching experience I’ve had in my nearly two decades as a university literature professor. (to be continued)