Saturday, May 8, 2010
(Continued from here. Here's the full Table of Contents.)
Now, if teaching were all there was to my job at the University of Michigan, I’d have been golden. Not true. If teaching were all there was to my job and the only thing I wanted to do, I’d have been golden. But not only was I expected to continue to publish scholarly work, I wanted to publish. I wanted to write and to share the ideas I’d developed since I’d gotten tenure; ideas about particular texts I’d been teaching as well as ideas about reading and about teaching literature. Here is where I came to feel lost again.
Since I’d written my first book and given up writing my second, my curiosity had led me to read, study and teach works of fiction and poetry well outside of my designated area of expertise in 20th century Latin American fiction, even as I deepened and altered my love for certain authors and texts within that tradition. The same curiosity had led me through an odyssey in philosophical study in which I had discovered and began to read carefully a pretty heterogeneous bunch: Spinoza and Deleuze, whom you’ve already met, 20th century American pragmatist philosophers William James and John Dewey, the 19th century German philosophers Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche. But also I began to dabble in the books of some scientists writing for a lay audience about chaos theory and about systems approaches to the life sciences. These and the familiar writers (Latin Americans like Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortázar, and Manuel Puig) or to me unfamiliar writers (Mary Shelley, Franz Kafka, Mary Oliver, Carson McCullers, among others) were the raw materials out of which the enormously enriching experience of teaching “Reading to Live” had been made and I wanted to share that in writing.
But as I set down to do so, I felt paralyzed. I felt once again the force of a bind between what seemed to me to be two mutually exclusive alternatives: write what I wanted to write the way that I wanted to write it or write what I was expected to write in the way that the conventions of academic literary scholarship expected me to write it. I wasn’t an expert in most of the academic fields to which the texts and ideas I’d been working with belonged. I knew that individuals spent lifetimes becoming experts in just any one or two of those fields and I didn’t have that much time. But, even more fundamentally, I didn’t want to become an expert in those fields. I felt that I shouldn’t have to become an expert in order to say what I had to say about them and to combine them in the way that I felt I uniquely could combine them.
I could understand and feel the practical value of reading what others had said when that was directly relevant to questions I was addressing, but the academic practice of surveying the conversations already existing in a field one wants to enter in order to legitimize one’s own contribution felt alien and forced. I resented this internalized expectation that I become an expert and the rejection of my ideas I anticipated on the grounds that I had not done so. And so once again I veered. This time, instead of veering in the direction of subordinating my desires to institutional, I availed myself of the relative security of tenure to ignore, not to say proudly flout, the expectations of my discipline in order to write what I pleased. I took Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki’s teaching – “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s there are a few” – as my motto (ignoring, at that time, the complexities of Suzuki’s teaching).
It wasn’t as easy to flout these expectations as I imagined, partly because I carried those expectations within me. But also because, questions of expertise aside, I simply didn’t know how to begin writing a book called Reading to Live. Whenever I started, I felt dissatisfied. The ideas that seemed so fresh and vital and compelling in lectures, moving to me and to others, felt stilted when I tried to organize them into a book outline or to set them down on the page. I tried taping my lectures, thinking that I could just transcribe them and that would be the book. But I discovered that what made the lectures work, for the most part, were all things that couldn’t be transcribed – pauses, cadences, increases and decreases in volumes, my own movement in the classroom. All I had left in transcription were the words and, well, they were okay, they certainly did their share in the overall setting of the lecture hall, but stripped of all the rest, they seemed lifeless and abstract, when not rambling and incoherent. Perhaps most decisively, and at so deep a level that it was hidden from me at the time, I doubted myself and felt presumptuous: Who was I to tell people how to read so as to live better lives? Especially when my own life was so messy and confusing.
I didn’t give up entirely, but I altered my approach. Instead of trying to convert the experience of the course into a book, I decided to simply try chronicling one of my own experiences of reading to live. I picked an author with whom I was very familiar, the Argentine novelist and short story writer Julio Cortázar. I’d included two chapters on Cortázar’s novel Hopscotch in my first book, so I felt that writing on him again would both satisfy the academy that I had credentials to write on Cortázar and give me with the opportunity to revisit a cherished author, who had been with me from the beginning, only this time from the vantage point of reading to live (rather than the various perspectives current within academic Latin American literary studies at the time). Even here there were several false starts and embarrassingly bad ideas, for example, a trip to Paris to Cortázar’s neighborhood and haunts, thinking that I might write my book about Cortázar as a novel. In fact, it was in Paris, when I discovered that I hadn’t the faintest idea of how to write a novel, while wandering the streets alone and bereft of direction in every sense of the word, that a possibility presented itself to me drawn from my brief experience studying Zen meditation. What if I approached writing on Cortázar as a Zen practice?
I was first drawn to Zen because some commentaries on Spinoza suggested affinities between the Dutch philosopher and Buddhist thought. At my first meditation class, the instructor told us that we should stop reading books about Zen during the five week course to allow ourselves to have our own direct experience of the practices. She was countering the tendency, especially in a college town like Ann Arbor, for beginning meditation students to protect themselves against the discomfort of the practice by addressing it primarily as an intellectual activity, a philosophy or a religion.
I discovered that, whatever Zen practice is, it is more and less than a religion, more and less than a philosophy and more and less than an intellectual experience. In that course, and in my subsequent practice with Zen, I was struck by how powerfully simply observing my physical, mental and especially, affective activity in the present moment exposed how much of my activity consisted in my over-developed intellect grasping to control the unfamiliar. Even as I found my intellect exposed and short-circuiting, I also found that the practice began to deliver an increased, and increasingly calm, awareness of my physical and affective states; of their arising, occupying my mind, and then moving on, without my doing anything but just observing them.
The Korean tradition in which I studied and continue to practice, emphasizes a variety of other contemplative practices alongside the seated meditation typically associated with Zen Buddhist practice. The practices build upon the basic rhythm of mindful breathing and cultivate the ability to release the grip of distracting, often stressful, thoughts and to unlock the complexity of one’s engagement with reality in the present moment. So I learned to drink tea with both hands, to eat an orange in silence, or to do walking meditation with my attention not on getting anywhere, but on the full experience of contact with the earth. I also learned that everyday physical activity such as preparing a meal, cleaning a toilet, or gardening can be made into a mindful practice. Even smoking a cigarette can be made into a mindfulness practice, as I learned one year when Haju Sunim, my teacher, “caught” a seminary student and me smoking a cigarette behind the Temple during a retreat (“when you smoke, know that you are smoking!”).
I initially felt the tempo of activities such as weeding a garden, clearing out and organizing a workshop, addressing and stamping envelopes, straightening a pile of lumber, conducted as practice, to be maddeningly slow and unproductive. My mind was anywhere but on my work. But over time, I gradually came to experience directly that the quality and efficiency of my work, my enjoyment of it, increased dramatically as I was able to give myself over fully to the task at hand. Certainly, approaching everyday activities as a Zen practice also has the effect of ordering priorities. If I am to drink my morning coffee with two hands, I must decide whether it is the coffee or the newspaper or the cigarette that is most important at that time. But I also regularly find that the overall quality of the experience and its results that comes from reducing the clutter of distracting thoughts irrelevant to the activity in which I am engaged, more than compensates for the perceived loss of a false sense of productivity.
Within the Chogye tradition reading, too, can be a form of Zen practice, though the kind of reading done only seems to underscore by contrast how far today’s academic reading is from a contemplative practice. For example, during one period of focused practice I was given a thirty page autobiographical text by a Korean Zen teacher and invited to read it one paragraph at a time, spending five days on each paragraph and recording each day, briefly and directly, my impressions of what I had read. On its face the text was not particularly remarkable in style or even in content. After the first or second day of reading through the same paragraph, I felt that I really had no more to say about it. So sometimes I read it again, but simply wrote that I felt I had nothing to say about it.
More often, when I simply observed my thoughts I noticed that they began by turning to the obvious or the “smart” things I’d already observed about the text, then they began a kind of restless turning in circles, eager to move on, but remarkably, when they finally came back, tethered to the text by the required re-reading, they found something else. At that point, I could no longer say whether my thoughts had found that something else in the text or in my self. I would say, instead, that I found that my thoughts were in a new space that was neither the text nor me, but the relation between text and me; and that that new space was in turn related to other things that had seemingly had nothing to do with text or me. In that new space my thoughts thrilled and played like a dog in a park, now chasing a squirrel, now sniffing a tree trunk, now rolling in dirt, now lying still at peace but alert and ready to move. It’s worth noting that the text was too long to finish reading at that pace during that practice period. This was my first direct experience of treating reading as a practice, the practice of an inexhaustible encounter without a predetermined goal and it remains a cornerstone of what I call reading to live.
Walking slowly through the streets of Paris, often literally lost and with no sense of where I wanted to go, and certainly lost with respect to my work, an idea came to me. What, if I imagined the whole of Cortázar’s literary production as earth – as field, forest, desert, beach – and imagined the process of reading him and writing about that reading as a kind of walking meditation or a three-foot hike? A three-foot hike is a meditative exercise in which one spends maybe 20 minutes “hiking” a three-foot patch of earth. One doesn’t cover a lot of ground, but one does discover a great deal that one might normally miss. I imagined that what I lost in a certain kind of productivity I would gain in awareness and enjoyment of my full engagement with a text. I hoped that such a form of reading would be a welcome corrective not only to particular orthodoxies that were in style among academic readers at the time, but to the broader academic imperatives toward productivity over exploration and discovery and toward specialization over broad relevance. Most of all, I realized that this sort of walking through the text was exactly the procedure I’d been unconsciously following in developing the readings I’d shared in my course.
I went out and bought four little brown notebooks, went back to my little hotel room, opened one of the Cortázar books that I had with me to a random page, read what was there and begin to write. It turned out, in terms of sheer volume, to be an extremely productive way of proceeding. Over the next four months I wrote some 350 pages, each day following the same method: take a book at random, choose a page, start to write, and just follow the writing and reading from there wherever it would take me, whether to other works by Cortázar, to memories or current events in my own life, to other works of fiction or of philosophy. I wrote informally and rapidly. I engaged with what other scholars had said about the texts in question when I found it relevant or interesting or both, which wasn’t very often. When I felt tired, or a particular vein felt tapped out, I’d put all the books back on the shelf and, if I felt like it, I’d start over with a new randomly chosen book and a new page. As time went on, I revised, sometimes combining sections, sometimes eliminating others. By the time I felt that I was finished, I had 99 sections, each chronicling a stroll through the field of Cortázar’s work. I called it Living Invention, or, The Way of Julio Cortázar.
I circulated it among some colleagues, some students, many friends and got very positive feedback about the book and how important and, some said, revolutionary it was. A few suggested some minor revisions, which I happily made. I felt very satisfied with myself, confident that I’d managed finally to get down on paper what had been so moving to me about reading to live. And then I sent it out to the editor who had published my first book. In a very friendly and respectful way, he replied that the press couldn’t really afford to publish monographic works (books on a single author). I sent it to another university press, and another. Each rejected the manuscript, complimenting me on the quality of my writing and the originality of my approach, but finally declining on the grounds that the work was too far outside the conventions of academic scholarship. One suggested I consider a trade press.
So I consulted with one of my friends, a published poet and short story writer who had read and liked the manuscript, and who, had a literary agent in New York. His agent also liked the book, but felt that its topic was too esoteric to market to a trade press. Finally, the owner of a local independent bookstore, who wanted to start a small press, read the manuscript and said that he wanted to publish it. It would be the second title published by the press. The press went under before it was even able to publish its first title.
Someone suggested that I’d find a more amenable publishing market and perhaps my ideal readers in Latin America After all, Cortázar was a Latin American writer and is to this day much more widely read there than in the United States. A former doctoral student of mine, fluent in Spanish and English and living in Argentina offered to translate the text into Spanish. He did so and I sent it around to a couple of Argentine novelist acquaintances of mine, both of whom complimented me on the work and put me in touch with publishers whom they knew personally, all of whom turned the manuscript down.
That book never got published. During the two years that it took to exhaust all those possibilities I kept telling myself and others that I didn’t care if it got published. I adopted a faux Zen attitude of detachment from results. With a false calm that at least convinced me, I accepted that the ultimate purpose of the whole experience might never be revealed to me. For all I knew, I said to myself and to others, the important thing had been the process of writing it and the joy it had brought to those who had seen it, and that was just fine with me. And it was. Until I realized that I did care, that I wanted to be recognized professionally for my ideas and that I was resentful and bitter towards what I called “the academy” for what I saw as its conservatism. Of course, looking back now, I think in some ways I had created a self-fulfilling prophecy. Worried that neither the academy nor the general public would accept my ideas about reading to live I wrote a book that neither the academy nor the general public would accept. But at the time, I didn’t see it that way. I just thought the academy didn’t get me and so, forget the academy. I would quit.
I informed my Department chair late in Spring 2003 that the following academic year would be my last. I would spend that year tying off loose ends and preparing to go off and live, as I’d often dreamed of doing, in a little town on the Oregon coast. In some ways, I thought to myself, I was back where I was when I went to graduate school. Only this time I’d have the courage to give up the perks of the academic life, make a living one way or another and, in the meantime, go on doing what I liked to do anyway, reading, thinking, writing, and talking with people. But I would do it, say, from behind the front desk of the little seaside hotel I imagined I’d be working at. Word got around, and during the academic year that followed I felt a rush of freedom and lightness, even a sense of superior cool when, as happened on occasion, some colleague or other would express his astonishment at the bravery of my decision.
But once again, the year didn’t pan out as I’d expected. I didn’t make any preparations for my new life and I didn’t tie off many loose ends. There was also significant insanity going in my personal life at the time relating to some of those unhealthy patterns I hadn’t noticed in the midst of my blinding clarity back in 1996. My ex-wife had moved to New York in 1998 and run out of money by 2001. She wanted to move back to Ann Arbor to be with the kids, and wanted to know if she could stay with us for a short time, just until she got on her feet. I said sure, secretly proud of my exceptional generosity and equanimity. But she was mentally ill and, given my longstanding need to suppress my own desires to attempt to make the bad feelings of others go away, the planned “short time” turned into four years. Which is to say, that as I contemplated this radical departure from the financial security of my university job I was not only supporting myself and my kids, but also my live-in ex-wife. I taught my courses, performed my administrative duties, and trembled at the thought of what would happen once I was off the academic dole.
Most significantly, and probably subconsiously to avoid thinking about the following year, I started painting. One day, my kids bored, I found a piece of plywood in the basement of our rented house and some house paints, and we just kind of threw paint around on the wood for a couple of hours. After they got tired of it and went off to do something else, I kept at it, applying layer after layer of paint, in patterns that pleased me. When I didn’t like something, I just painted over it, as many times as I felt like until I liked what I was looking at. How exhilarating!
This at last was what I was meant to do. I was tired of words, I told myself. I was a painter. And the evidence of it was the enthusiasm and tremendous productivity I displayed. Over the course of the year, I probably made about 150 paintings like this. Somehow someone got wind of this and I wound up even selling some of these paintings (though mostly to colleagues who, I think, bought the works out of a kind of curiosity). Not only was I getting to be creative, not only was I indulging my fetish of spontaneity and process, but I was getting some recognition and more money than I’d ever made off my writing.
But the other important thing that happened during that year was that I made friends with some new colleagues who, mostly by the example of their own enthusiasm and the warmth of their friendship, convinced me that there was a place for my kind of thinking in the academy. I just needed to rework some of the ideas into a form that would be intelligible to the editors of academic journals. Why didn’t I, they asked, write an essay for an academic journal on Cortázar and his concept and practice of invention? Another very close friend, who had applauded my decision to quit (having long harbored a similar fantasy) reminded me that all along the important thing in his mind was not whether I actually left the academy or not, but that simply by declaring my intention to do so, I had created the psychological space within me to make working as an academic a conscious choice, rather than a default result of decisions I’d made at a very young and impressionable age.
So I wrote the scholarly essay and, its publication encouraging me to conclude that I could communicate my ideas within the conventions of the literary academy, at the end of the year I un-quit. After all, I figured, I could paint just as easily in Ann Arbor as in Oregon (I even remember telling myself that with my eyes closed the sound of wind in the trees sounded like ocean waves breaking). Moreover, I could subsidize my painting with my academic job. This last consideration was especially important, as painting sales declined precipitously after the first few months. The same friends, in an effort to retain me, persuaded the dean of the university to give me a semester off the following year. I also had accrued a sabbatical semester so that all together I was looking forward to another sixteen months off, from May 2004 through August 2005.
Lots of time to paint and I imagined – why not? -- that I would develop another, more sober and academically plausible, version of my Cortázar book and that by the time I got back to regular teaching, I’d have that book in the right university press’s hands and my once promising career would be back on track. What happened instead (If I ever write a memoir Part One, at least, should be called “What Happened Instead”) is that the Cortázar book stubbornly resisted my efforts to recast it into acceptable academic terms.
What also happened was that in the process of preparing new courses to teach for the following year I began to develop a more complex and more intellectually grounded view of the kind of reading I’d done in the course of writing my unconventional Cortázar book. When I returned to work, over the following several years I taught some new courses. They included a series of graduate seminars on Pragmatism, Deleuze, Deleuze and Guattari, and Spinoza, some undergraduate courses on the short stories of various Latin American writers I’d really not studied carefully before and a new undergraduate course that explored the affinities between contemplative practices and careful reading by bringing both directly into the classroom.
The short story classes were important because the brevity of the form permitted, indeed forced, me and my students to read the texts slowly and carefully multiple times, much as I had had to do with the Zen practice reading a couple of years before. Likewise the course in reading and contemplation deepened my sense of the visceral levels at which the two activities were related. Into the graduate seminars I sometimes incorporated works by Zen-inspired thinkers like Mark Epstein and Stephen Batchelor who where themselves looking to integrate the insights of their own study of Zen with more conventional Western trends in thought like psychoanalysis, pragmatism, and existentialism. The seminars were valuable because they permitted or forced me and my students to painstakingly and deeply think through, at the side of the formidable authors we studied, some very basic questions about the ethics of intellectual activity alongside the other activities that make a life worth living. In short, and looking back, I think that these teaching experiences helped me to understand my passion for reading to live, whether Cortázar or anyone else. I began to assemble resources and reading experiences that helped me to articulate more cogently just what was going on in that process that I’d come to call reading to live.
Perhaps most important to this whole story, around this time I fell in love with and eventually became engaged to Claire. Loving and being loved bears profound and far-reaching implications on this work. For this experience of love, completely new to me, transformed and continues to transform me and my way of relating to everything in my life. It has shown me on a nearly daily basis how difficult and important it is to be in touch with and guided by desire; not as a craving for some external thing the possessio of which I thinkwould make me happy, but as the motivating force behind my full-on, creative engagement with my self and my world. As Samuel Beckett said, in Worstward Ho!, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
For all that I had studied as a scholar and that I learned as a Zen practitioner, for all that I thought I knew, nothing had prepared me for this thoroughgoing experience of sharing with another person and of wanting to share more, of desiring the vulnerability, intimacy and growth that this has brought me, even while fearing it. Through this love I have discovered dimensions of affect, desire and potential within myself that I had no inkling existed. I discovered in the woman I love, and through her in myself, an exquisitely precious combination of frailty, beauty, and breathtaking power. I’m no poet, not even a very good storyteller, and this experience of love is the sort of thing that artists communicate most effectively. But I think that my ideas about and practice of reading to live may, most of all, be practice for living a life of love. It may also be that an openness to the possibility of this sort of love, even if only subconsciously, is what we bring to reading to live. I’m certain that my own experience of and understanding of the nature and power of both reading and living has been deepened and intensified beyond words by loving and learning to be loved.
I developed the idea for a new book – A Book of Joys: Towards the Ethics of Immanent Close Reading. I published several of the draft chapters as essays or delivered them as papers at academic conferences, all of which bolstered my confidence and my sense that at last I’d come up with the right project. It was a book that honored the “extra-academic” lessons I’d learned by teaching “Reading to Live” and writing Living Invention, while at the same time conceding the value of scholarly conventions of specialization, complexity, thoroughness of research, and rigor. Over the course of the 2008-2009 academic year, while Claire and I were commuting between St. Louis, where she had taken a job, and Ann Arbor, where I was still doing mine, I shaped and all-but completed the work. I had one chapter to go, but I had a clear vision of that chapter and the rest of it felt solid, coherent, and complete.
I won a fellowship from Michigan allowing me a leave in order to complete the manuscript. My idea was that I could then present it as my long overdue second book as my part of my dossier for promotion to full professor. I was put directly in touch with an editor at a prestigious university press who, I was told, would be the right person to see the book through to publication. I sent him a proposal and he was indeed interested in seeing the manuscript. So in one week I sent off the manuscript, packed up my belongings, and moved with Claire to St. Louis. I was ready to enjoy the summer, figuring that the editor would get back to me sometime in August with the word that he wanted to publish the book and with suggestions for how to make it better.
What happened instead was a rejection (the fourth -- I'd already floated the idea for the book to three other academic presses). The book topic was interesting, I was brave and the book potentially sensational—but he could not publish it.
Once again, this time despite my best efforts to follow the conventions, the academy had rejected me, and not just the academy but an individual within it who I’d come to believe would understand and accept me. In fact, I think the individual did seem to get me and to point out in terms that were uncomfortably blunt that however interesting, brave, and potentially sensational my book might be, it could not be published by his university press. After getting over my considerable confusion and distress, I calmed down and called the editor to see if I couldn’t get a bit more detail about just what made the manuscript unpublishable. The editor explained that perhaps my mistake was in thinking of my primary audience as literature professors. The editor implied that perhaps they really didn’t want to hear what I had to say about how we as academics might read differently, but he also suggested that the sort of things I was saying about reading were being said by others outside the academy and that my words might resonate among that broader group of readers.
So I didn’t send out the proposal to another university press. Instead, I happened upon a couple of articles in the The New York Times about reading instruction in the public schools and, around the same time, heard an interview on the radio with a neuropsychologist who had recently published a book on the history and science of the reading brain. The articles lamented the shallowness of reading habits public school teachers were increasingly driven, by broader cultural, social, and economic forces beyond their control, to accept and even encourage in their students. Meanwhile, the neuropsychologist spoke about the importance of what she called “deep reading,” a skill not natural to human beings and so in grave danger of disappearing in the internet age if we didn’t urgently take steps to safeguard and cultivate it. A little research into the idea of deep reading led me to discover that ideas of deep reading and slow reading – very similar in their emphasis on attention and care – were circulating in the culture, particularly among people who were not professors of literature.
Reading these articles and listening to that interview, I suddenly had the feeling that the editor was right. I had been mistaken in trying to mold what was most interesting in my experience and ideas to fit the models of conversation and the topics of professional interest to literature professors, who in order to carry out their work exclude at the outset the kinds of questions and experiences I was bringing to the table. I suddenly became aware that I had spent years struggling to participate in a conversation taking place in a small room, while just outside the door a related, but different and broader conversation was taking place. Whether or not I’d be heard in that broader conversation was and remains an open question. What was not in question for me at that moment was that I was more interested in that conversation and that I wanted to participate in it. So with a lot of encouragement, I stepped out the door of that small room. I began to re-research, reread, revise and rewrite A Book of Joys: Towards an Ethics of Immanent Close Reading to turn it, into Reading to Live: An Experiment with Joy in Eight Readings, the book you hold in your hands. (to be continued)