Powered by Blogger.

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.


Reading One: Enjoying (on William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow”) [Section 1 of 2]

Monday, May 10, 2010

(Continued from here.)

I once had a problem with my daughter Eva. She was almost eleven years old and loved to read. That wasn’t the problem. The problem was that for homework Eva’s teacher wanted her to write in a journal about what she read. It’s not that the teacher wanted Eva to write anything sophisticated, just to talk about what she loved in this or that passage of a book of her choosing. She didn’t have to write a lot, a page or two a week would do. Fifteen minutes a day. But each day when I reminded her, she made this face, scrunched up her eyes and nose, and said, “I’m busy. I’ll do it later.” And then the night before it was due, simply: “I’m not doing it.” Eva was attending a so-called “open school” where one of the central beliefs is that a child ought to participate actively in her learning, select “home” activities that are fun and engaging. I reminded her of this:

“But Eva you picked this assignment together with your teacher. I mean, you chose this. And besides, you love to read.”
“Yeah,” her voice rose, “I love to read, Dad, read, not write about it.”
“But maybe it would be good to discover what you love about it, no?”
“That’s not how I read,” she countered, “I just read it, finish it and I’m done.”
“But,” I offered, “don’t you want to be able to talk with others about what you’ve read, to tell your friends about books you’ve liked, just to share the good feeling, and maybe even to get them interested enough to want to read it too?”
“I just wanna say that ‘this book is great, you should read it.” And with that, she stalked off into her room.

Of course, getting a child to do something they don’t want to do is not an unusual situation. At this very moment, parents all over the world are facing something similar and solving it, or not, according to their own resources, values, and the pressures of the moment. I might naturally have turned for advice to more experienced parents, or to the innumerable parenting manuals available today, or, even to works specializing on child development, psychology or education. But I didn’t consult any of these resources. Instead, I responded with my own resources: a combination of love for my child, my own experiences as a reader, and my ideas about reading drawn from years working as a literature professor.

That work as a professor included an experience that in some ways resembled Eva’s struggles. I was part of an interviewing team searching to hire a faculty member in Latino studies. The person we were interviewing was a rising star in the field and had finished a book manuscript on some writers she was characterizing as diasporic Puerto Ricans. Her very valid point was that if one saw them this way instead of as just Americans one would see something previously unseen in their writing. Among the authors she discussed was William Carlos Williams.

Now to be truthful I didn’t know a whole lot about her field, or about the other writers she worked on and I don’t in fact know very much about Williams. I’ve read a biography and some of his books, but I’ve never carried out a scholarly investigation of Williams’ writing. That’s probably why when I heard the name I got excited. One of my favorite poems of all time is Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow” and I was curious to know what she thought of it as an “expert.” I expected that she’d unfold for me some new intensely joyful corner of this poem. So after the other committee members, specialists in her field, talked with her about theory and culture and the canon of American studies, it was my turn.

I said, “This isn’t really an interview question. I just really love “The Red Wheelbarrow” and wonder what you have to say about it.”
She paused and replied, “I haven’t thought about it.”
I persisted, “Do you like it?”
She was enthusiastic: “Oh yes, of course! I love that poem!” And then, after a pause and with less enthusiasm, she concluded, “it just doesn’t fit with the rest of the stuff in the Williams chapter.”

I was disappointed, and though I kept it to myself, I felt as though she had failed or worse, actively committed some transgression. If she loved a text but couldn’t find room for it within her theoretical paradigm, there must be something wrong with her theoretical paradigm and something wrong with her, too, that she would sacrifice a beloved poem for the sake of methodological neatness (or worse, academic fashion). But as time passed, I realized she was not the problem. Nor do I think I was the problem.

I simply wanted to have a certain kind of conversation about a poem, but that conversation couldn’t really get off the ground within the circumstances in which I was trying to have it. By that I mean not only the setting of an academic job interview, but the conventions of academic training and of professional reward. The experience became an index pointing me back to my own feeling of the increasing intolerability of what had come to feel like a mutually exclusive set of imperatives. One must either read for fun or read for professional success; read for joy or read for work, read for love or read to think, in short, the very same set of oppositions that seemed to be governing my daughter’s impasse in her homework.

John Dewey (1859-1952)
Around the same time, I ran across a passage from John Dewey’s book, Art as Experience. I wasn’t looking for any solutions in Dewey, but rather just allowing myself to be led by my fascination with his clear and concrete way of talking about art. I emphasize that because it often happens with reading to live that encountering texts without pre- calculation often leads to surprisingly relevant insights. Dewey was an American philosopher, an heir to the so-called Pragmatist tradition expounded by William James earlier in the century. I had loved James’ style of writing and his informality, but had turned to Dewey because, in part, he wrote directly about art.

The particular passage that struck me was part of Dewey’s discussion of the ways in which art and our experience of it challenges certain assumptions that philosophers might make when looking at the world. In this case, Dewey was looking at theories of art as illusion, dream, escape, or play. Dewey objected to these theories not because art cannot be all of these things, but rather because art is so much more than all of these things. In fact, art, according to Dewey is the experience of the boundary dissolving between these things and their supposedly mutually exclusive opposites of reality, waking life, imprisonment, or work. Seeing it this way, in turn, led Dewey to question the much more fundamental philosophical dichotomy between subject and object, or self and world.

When we view art as an “escape” or a “release” from reality, Dewey believed, we implicitly suppose “freedom can be found only when personal activity is liberated from control by objective factors.” We implicitly take what Dewey called “experience” – the ceaseless exchange of matter and energy of a live creature growing in and with its surroundings – and we first freeze it in time and then split it into two opposed and mutually exclusive halves. On one side is the live creature, which we call a “subject” or “self,” together with its desires. On the other side, the surroundings, including other subjects, which we call “objects” or “others,” together with the limitations we perceive these surroundings impose on us. Therefore in viewing art as an escape from reality we implicitly pretend to isolate our “self” from everything that we perceive as “outside” of and oppressive to it. “Play” then becomes the name for what we can do when we suppose ourselves to be free of objective limitations. “Work,” by contrast, becomes the name for what we do the rest of the time, when we numbly or sullenly submit to those limitations – or attempt to manipulate them from a utilitarian distance -- and thereby protect our “self” through a detached intellectual posture. All the while, we forget that we made these distinctions and opposed them to each other.

But for Dewey, “the very existence of a work of art is evidence that there is no such opposition between the spontaneity of the self and objective order and law.” True, Dewey admitted, “the contrast between free and externally enforced activity is an empirical fact.” However, he added, “it is largely produced by social conditions and it is something to be eliminated as far as possible.” It is a sad mistake to see this social and historical condition as natural and immutable. And perhaps even sadder to see it and just let it be. After all, as Dewey points out, “children are not conscious of any opposition between play and work.”

Of course, here I remember thinking “Well he doesn’t know my kid.” But I see that it wasn’t until the structure of school, the importance of grades, and the assigning of homework entered her life that Eva started to experience the difference between learning as play and learning as work. She was, after all, nearly eleven and already much exposed to, this opposition between play and work, and also to my modeling of it. Dewey’s point is that there’s nothing natural or given or unchangeable about this and art can be a way to rub away at this stark opposition. It invites us to participate in and experience as integrated what have become for most of us two mutually exclusive ways of engaging a world of existence that we have divided into two mutually exclusive parts.

I’d like to recast this opposition between play and work into a slightly different vocabulary. The philosopher Neal Grossman devotes a chapter of his commentary on Spinoza’s Ethics to the latter’s theory of desire and emotion.

I want to draw your attention to a few pages in Grossman’s Healing the Mind because of their affinities with the problem at hand. Grossman emphasizes the critical role that the cultivation of the nonjudgmental awareness of affect plays in Spinoza’s Ethics. In emphasizing this role, Grossman pauses to describe what he calls “social schizophrenia” or “the split or incongruity between inner feelings and outer behavior.” His argument is that from early childhood we are trained, subtly and not so subtly, to constrain not only our affects but our awareness of those affects so that we will be able to behave in conformity with social expectations. Moreover, Grossman argues, we have been trained so thoroughly that we take our training for nature, and so have strong unconscious view that “such schizophrenia is necessary and normal and that a person who has not succeeded in separating his ‘personal’ life from his ‘professional’ life is in some sense immature.” Grossman goes on to enumerate the devastating consequences of this dynamic for individuals, for societies, and for the planet as a whole but also movingly insists that since this dynamic is not in fact natural but rather devised by human beings we also have the freedom to devise alternatives.

All of this dovetails nicely with Dewey’s ideas on work and play and its associated oppositions. What is particularly striking about this part of Grossman’s argument is that he brings the chickens home to the academic roost. Within the academy, Grossman points out, the phenomenon of social schizophrenia manifests itself as an opposition between reason and analysis on the one hand and affect and appreciation on the other. “The triviality,” Grossman writes,
of most academic research lies in just this point: the kind of analysis given by people who are not personally connected with what they are analyzing – and academics are especially trained to be this way – is necessarily shallow and will at best belong to . . . to the ‘true but useless’ category. . . . Analysis that is separated from inner life is precisely the schizophrenic split that is the root cause of humanity’s collective death wish.
Grossman’s reflections on social schizophrenia and its academic manifestation help to clarify the problems Eva and I had experienced and that Dewey’s reflections on work and play elaborated philosophically. How could I write affirmatively of the joy of loving and thinking that engaging books roused in me without stalling my career? How could I work within the academy in such a way as to make a space for that sort of writing, for myself and others with less institutional power, and still leave other colleagues and students free to do their work the way they saw fit? Why did I have to love privately and think publicly? How in the world did we get to the point where it seemed possible to really do either of these things – loving and thinking – without the other?

We are ensnared in a series of oppositions arising in our minds and related to their enforcement by social institutions and practices: play and work, self and other, subject and object, desire and obligation, affect and intellect. The naturalized hold these oppositions have on our way of experiencing and thinking about the world is the source of much suffering. The suffering arises not from the oppositions themselves but from the fact that we take them to be reflections of the way the world really is, independently of our views of it. We could, for example, see them as mental tools we have devised to accomplish certain purposes and which we should feel entirely free to set down for the accomplishment of other purposes.

Conversely, the erosion of these oppositions and the loosening of their grasp on our experience and thought play a major role in reading to live and in my understanding of what reading can be. And, by extension, in my understanding of the way that reading can be a practice of cultivating joy and freedom in our lives. The question might be simply how to heal. How do we recover from our compulsive, addictive dependence on these oppositions? How do we dissolve or elude the imaginary barrier on either side of which we conceive these dichotomous terms stand? It is perhaps no accident that Grossman’s argument comes in a commentary on Spinoza, because Spinoza provided what is for me perhaps the most compelling and inspiring methods for responding to this problem. Spinoza offered in his Ethics an encompassing and complex view of God, nature, human nature, and how, in particular, humans can move toward greater freedom.

But at the heart of this broad and profound vision is the following simple advice: 1) your emotions and feelings are signs that you are inevitably engaged in the world, for better and for worse; 2) your emotions and feelings provide you with information about the current state of your engagement, particularly whether you are being nourished or harmed by it; 3) attempting to ignore or repress your emotions and feelings does not make them go away, it only deprives you of important information; 4) observing your emotions and feelings and studying their relationship to the actual state of your engagement with the world is already in itself a nourishing, joyful, empowering act and can, moreover, lead you to begin to reconfigure your engagement with the world so as to maximize your nourishing encounters, and positive emotions and feelings, and minimize you harmful encounters, and negative emotions.

The more we become aware of our emotions and feelings, which means first and foremost becoming aware with our bodies (Spinoza’s term for what our bodies feel, for example pleasure or pain, is “affections,” contemporary neuropyschologists like Antonio Damasio in Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorry and the Feeling Brain call this “emotion”) the more we come to understand the complex network of cause and effect which not only impacts our bodies but also leads us to form ideas (whether adequate or inadequate) about what is going on with our bodies. These ideas are what Spinoza calls “affects” and contemporary neuropsychologists call “feelings.” As we develop this understanding and awareness, we begin to realize that while our affects may be responses to external events, i.e. you might really yell at me and my body might really tense or freeze up and sadness might really arise in my mind, our affects are not caused by those events.

Grasping this subtle distinction subtle distinction that our affects are responses to, but not caused by external events, not only rationally and intellectually, but with our whole being, is the lived practice of Spinoza’s Ethics. In so becoming aware of our affects and comprehending them, we increase our freedom in the sense that we increase our ability to behave according to choices grounded in this awareness and comprehension rather than in blind enslavement to our attachment to passing pleasures or aversion to passing pains. We can come to understand these pleasures and pains not as problems to be solved but as information about our dynamic relation with some part of the world. We find that we need not, must not, repress our affects, especially painful affects, in order to free ourselves of their roller-coaster effects. We can learn to experience, be aware of, and understand our affects and use the information they provide to make more joyful choices.

Specifically, for Spinoza, we apply reason to the information they provide to form what he calls “adequate ideas.” The term “adequate” here, for Spinoza, means something like “accurate,” but with an important specification. An “adequate” idea of some thing or event for Spinoza is accurate when it allows us to grasp, at least partially, the chain of cause and effect, which led the appearance of that thing or event. Or, in Spinoza specialist Steven Nadler’s paraphrase:
“an adequate idea of x is an idea that makes possible a full explanation of x. It shows how x is related to its total causal and logical grounds and reveals the absolute necessity of x and everything about x. Inadequate ideas, by contrast, are ‘mutilated and confused.’ . . . Inadequacy is thus a matter of ignorance or a ‘privation of knowledge.’ . . . One knows something about the thing, but not enough to be able to state truly why it is such.”

A similar insight concerning the importance of understanding affect lies at the heart of Buddhist thought and practice. The Buddhist psychotherapist Mark Epstein reaches a comparable point when he writes “the emotions [Spinoza’s affects, Damasio’s feelings] that we take to be so real and are so worried about do not exist in the way we imagine them. They do exist, but we can know them in a way that is different from either expressing or repressing them.” This, according to Epstein, is the shared aim of Buddhist meditation and psychotherapy. Stephen Batchelor likewise observes, for example, of the way in which awareness of the experience of hatred can defuse it: “To stop and pay attention to what is happening in the moment is one way of snapping out of such fixations. It is also a reasonable definition of meditation.”

Stopping and paying attention to what is happening is also a reasonable way of summing up what Spinoza advises we do with our affects in his Ethics. Spinoza’s formal definition of “affects” as “affections [his term for what our bodies feel, recall] of the body by which the body’s power of acting is increased or diminished, aided or restrained, and at the same time ideas of these affections.” For Spinoza an “affection of the body” can be understood as an event that impacts that body. It may be as simple as drinking a glass of water or having a gust of wind blow against your face or as complex as receiving treatment for cancer. With that in mind, Spinoza appears to be saying that an affect is that change in our body’s power to act plus an idea of what it is that has changed. That much just sounds like a slightly more technical-sounding version of what I’ve already described. But what does he mean by “power to act” and, for that matter, by “body” and “idea”?

The phrase “power to act” here is a particularly loaded, complex, and exciting one in Spinoza. For just as the definition of affect depends upon it, so it in turn depends upon Spinoza’s understanding of the relation of particular, finite, or singular things (such Eva or myself) to what he calls, interchangeably, “Substance,” “God” or “Nature.” The power to act is like a lynch-pin, or hinge between Spinoza’s vision of how the universe hangs together and his vision of how our feelings work to nourish or harm our ability to live well in that universe.

For Spinoza, things like you, me, and the mulberry tree out the window are, in the words of Nadler, “a partial and limited expression of one and the same infinite power of God/Nature/substance, manifesting itself in the case of minds through the attribute of Thought and in the case of bodies through the attribute of Extension.” Nadler continues: “Every particular mind, then, is a finite expression of God or Nature’s infinite power through thinking; likewise, every particular body is a finite expression of God or nature’s infinite power in matter and motion. This finite quantum of that infinite power that constitutes each thing is what Spinoza calls conatus, a Latin word that can be variously translated as striving, tendency, or endeavor.” According to Antonio Damasio, we may translate conatus into contemporary terms as “the aggregate of dispositions laid down in brain circuitry that, once engaged by internal or environmental conditions, seeks both survival and well-being.”

The conatus then might be seen as a specific expression of our “power of acting” (or as Spinoza also refers to it “force of existing”). What an exciting concept! It tells us that we all carry within us a power to act that is a portion of Nature’s, or God’s if you prefer, much larger, in fact infinite– power to act.
It’s impossible for me to resist the temptation to say straight away that keeping a human being connected to his or her power to act is of the utmost ethical importance, and conversely, that I can think of no greater tragedy than to come between a human being and his or her power to act. But it’s really even better than this because the conatus constitutes the essence of each particular finite thing: “The striving [conatus] by which each thing strives to persevere in its being is nothing but the actual essence of the thing.” That is, the particular conatus that we have is what makes each of us,and every other singular thing, what it uniquely is and allows us to distinguish it from other things. In other words, our nature is Nature’s and that is infinite.

Our conatus, or power or striving to persevere in our being, “while always ‘on’ and steady,” as Nadler points out, “does not remain unmodified throughout a person’s lifetime, but is constantly subject to change. In particular, the power can enjoy an increase or strengthening or can suffer a decrease of diminution.” What Spinoza calls an “improvement” or “deterioration” in the condition of a particular thing includes the strength or weakness of conatus, this capacity of each thing to preserve itself and resist or elude those outside forces that would tend to destroy it.

And this is where our affects come in. An affect is neither the cause of such a change, nor the new state of that capacity. Affect refers to the transition to the new state of conatus, as well as to the idea (or, we might say mental experience) of that transition. For example, Joy, according to Spinoza is “a man’s passage from a lesser to a greater perfection.” In other words, joy arises when our ability to act in accordance with our essential nature has been increased.

What is completely counterintuitive and even shocking in Spinoza is his definition of strength or power as the capacity of “being affected in a great many ways or capable of affecting external bodies in a great many ways.” We are in our culture used to defining strength as the ability to resist or to manipulate the outside world. But Spinoza here complicates this conventional definition. He makes strength or power into a relational term: a term of measure whose quantity depends entirely on the extent and force of the affective relations in play. The greater our capacity for affect and for affecting the greater the strength or power involved. It means, to put it very directly, that someone sobbing can be showing great strength.

Spinoza divides affects into two types: passions and actions. The most important difference between a passion and an action stems from the way we think about the cause of the affect in question. An affect is a “passion” when we view the cause as external to us. It is an “action” when we view the cause as lying within us, whether or not we “take action” in our everyday sense of the term. For Spinoza, action is freedom. So how do we change our thinking so as to transform passions into action?

We change our thinking by finding what we share with what we are passionate about. This process of finding what Spinoza called “common notions” is what I call reading to live. It is not just passionately enjoying a book as the external cause of a passively activated pleasure (an affect of passion in Spinoza’s terms). It means recognizing myself in the book and in the reading of it as being fundamentally powerful because I am moved and because the book, its author, and the world beyond are all part of, and moved by, the same power that moves me. To understand this is what Spinoza called “forming a clear and distinct idea” of our affect. As he said, “a passion ceases to be a passion as soon as we form a clear and distinct idea of it. . . . The more an affect is known to us, then, the more it is in our power, and the less the mind is acted on by it.”

So it started to seem to me that the issue with Eva, and with me, is that we identified ourselves with our passions. As Batchelor observes of a passion, “By identifying with it (‘I really am pissed off!’), we fuel it.” Especially when the passion is positive we can become attached to it and fuel it further by clinging to our identification with it. Eva and I attributed an external cause to our pleasure, which prevented us from acting fully, in Spinoza’s sense of the word “acting,” and thus, from fully enjoying reading. Following Spinoza’s argument, understanding our pleasure and that its cause lies within us might enhance our enjoyment. Eva was attached to the reliable pleasure that it appeared to her came from passively reading a good book. She was reluctant to risk losing this passion in the attempt to extend the pleasure of reading that book beyond the immediate experience of reading and thereby to transmute her passion into action, her pleasure into joy arising from recognizing that she and the book were joined in ways that increased her ability to exercise her power to act

For Spinoza, every action arises as the result of the transformation of a passion, and that transformation always occurs as the result of the willingness to take the risk of extending our awareness beyond the immediate experience of the passion and its dictates. It feels like the risk we are taking is that of losing our love of reading. When Eva postponed doing her homework, when I procrastinated writing an article or veered between doing whatever I felt like doing or sullenly submitted to what I perceived as externally imposed demands, it was out of the fear that our actions would tarnish the attractiveness of the object of our passions, which we incorrectly believed was the cause of our joy.

I live best when I live joyfully and I live most joyfully when I seek to understand that web of cause and effects that is my existence embedded in a universe, my relations with which I only partly control. When I cultivate awareness of and grasp the productive operations of my own desire, as well as how the lure of my sad passions lead me away from that desire, I am in that instant ”taking action.”
In other words, the act of understanding itself, is active joy for Spinoza. It might not be the euphoric high or rush (“passive joy”) when fate appears to toss an external object across my path that enhances my power to act. But unlike that joy, active joy draws upon my awareness of the impacting event and the ensuing passive joy, and upon my capacity to understand that passive joy, in order to transmute passion into action. I don’t just know that certain things make me feel joy or sadness, but I know, or at least know more about, why and how they do, how they are composed and how I am composed such that they do. And from there, perhaps, I can come to cultivate those relations that increase my power to act and reduce those which decrease it. Which is to say to enhance my freedom and joy. (To be continued)


  © Blogger template The Beach by Ourblogtemplates.com 2009

Back to TOP