Teaching and Physical Presence

I don’t comment on blogs and online articles as much as I once did. But when I do, I am still left with a feeling of dissipation, which starts with the knowledge that I spent time and thought on comments that, in retrospect, seem limited, even foolish, and that did not get through to the other participants. I am left with the sinking thought, “Oh no, why did I do that?” The most recent example is the comment thread on Leon Wieseltier’s column “The Unschooled” (online title: “Education Is the Work of Teachers, Not Hackers”).

One of the main points of his piece is that students need actual teachers—not virtual teachers, not scripted teachers, not stand-ins for teachers, but teachers themselves, in the same room with the students. They are essential precisely because they give us something that daily life (online and offline) does not. Once we leave school (be it high school, college, or graduate school), we make our way through life without formal teachers, for the most part. It is our teachers who help us prepare for this independence.

Most of what I learned from teachers, I owe to their physical presence as well as their intellect. What sets the classroom apart from other situations is, first of all, of someone who not only knows the subject well but strives to bring the students into it; second of all, a focus on something interesting in itself, whatever its applications may be; and, third, the allowance for thoughts in formation. I will focus here on this last point and its usual absence from online discussion.

In the classroom, you can say something that is incomplete, flawed, or utterly incorrect. This can contribute to the overall discussion, as the goal is not to score points but to arrive at greater understanding. A teacher or professor welcomes errors or limited assertions as an opportunity to probe further. (This requires, of course, that the students participate conscientiously and thoughtfully, instead of speaking haphazardly or bluffing.) What’s more, once you have said something in the classroom, it vanishes; unless you have made a particularly memorable point, or unless the teacher has picked up on it, it does not follow you around. (This is a good thing.) It is possible, in such a discussion, to clarify terms on the spot; to interject questions; to return to the text or problem; and to glean things in the speaker’s tone and facial expressions. The teacher, who has a longer and broader perspective on the subject than the students do, is able to bring together seemingly disparate points and take the discussion further. Sometimes the teacher does most of the talking—in some of my favorite courses, this was so—and that does not degrade the discussion.

In everyday face-to-face conversations, many of these features may be present. Two or more people may well learn from each other in person. There is room for tentativeness, as most of what is said gets left behind. The point is not only to learn but to enjoy each other’s presence. The teacher in such settings may well be absent—and so topics may be broached lightly or in depth, with or without accuracy or probing.

Online discussions are a different matter. There, the participants often do not know each other; often they hide behind fake names. Aware that their comments may remain on the website forever, they try to be right and to defend what they say. Because this can be extremely time-consuming with little reward, they also try to do it swiftly, without too much thought. Such commenting is different from letter or email correspondence, which is based on mutual regard, including the regard of adversaries. In far too many online discussions, mutual regard is absent. Worse, a great deal of online discussion is about nothing at all, or about a dizzying cascade of topics.

I am glad that I spent years in classrooms with teachers. When online discussions discourage me (and they often do), I remember that there is a different way of discussing things, a different way of handling ideas that are in formation. This has to do with examining and correcting oneself, sharpening one’s language, and finding the right mixture of integrity and openness. It is similar to what George Kateb describes as “self-possession” in Human Dignity:

By that term I mean the awareness of oneself as susceptible to intimidation and mental capture. One must catch oneself if one is not to conform thoughtlessly to codes, customs, and practices; if one is not to yield to the self-imposed tyranny of compliant habit; if one is not to give in to the inevitable pleasures of simplifying ideologies and the agitation of shifting fashions. One’s dignity rests on the ability to resist being too easily ensnared, and to avoid being a target of solicitations. One has to engage in self-examination in order not to succumb to false needs and wants; one must struggle hard and with only a modicum of hope to discover what one truly needs and wants and thus to approach somewhat more closely to being oneself rather than being a poor imitation of oneself and hence an unconscious parody of oneself.

Such self-possession is far removed from self-justification or self-insistence; to catch oneself, one must have guides to one’s own folly. One can find such guides in books, but one also needs their voices and gestures and faces; the nod, the quizzical look, the ability to pick up on thoughts in the room and show where they might go. Physical presence is not a good in itself, but it contributes to the “spirit of liberty” (in Learned Hand’s sense).

This good is too important a gift to give up. If students do not know what a class discussion or lecture is, they may confuse online bickering, or even face-to-face shouting, with true exchange. Many already do.

“They Guided Me in My Sense of What Is Significant”

Thanks to Leon Wieseltier for his splendid column “The Unschooled” (The New Republic, December 31, 2012). He begins boldly:

WHEN I LOOK BACK at my education, I am struck not by how much I learned but by how much I was taught. I am the progeny of teachers; I swoon over teachers. Even what I learned on my own I owed to them, because they guided me in my sense of what is significant. The only form of knowledge that can be adequately acquired without the help of a teacher, and without the humility of a student, is information, which is the lowest form of knowledge. (And in these nightmarishly data-glutted days, the winnowing of information may also require the masterly hand of someone who knows more and better.)

The piece builds from there and speaks for itself. I want to take a little time with these first five sentences.

The very act of teaching has become taboo. A teacher is supposed to “drive” results–or else “empower” the students to initiate their own learning. A teacher who wants to teach something substantial is told, directly or indirectly, “that’s not how it works.” Students, too, are swept up in this credo; they don’t think they have to pay attention unless there’s a palpable payoff. Some regard listening to the teacher as a passive and outdated activity (or, rather, non-activity).

Not all students, educators, and policymakers have fallen for this. Many understand that education requires voluntary and persistent attention, the kind that William Wordsworth and Charles Darwin considered a virtue. In A Choice of Inheritance, David Bromwich describes this kind of attention:

[Darwin] gives attention to objects whose use is as yet inconceivable, and he cannot help exemplifying the value of such attention. As with Wordsworth, it seems to me difficult to do more than connect this with a virtue like patience. One watches an object closely, even when it does not fit an available story, because one trusts that it will matter. The practice is not a wager or a sound investment but the pursuit of a calling.

What if you do not have such a calling? Can anyone push you to exhibit patience that is not there? Can it be created artificially? My answer would be no and yes. Ultimately no one can be forced to take interest in something. On the other hand, attention itself can open up the interest, and impatience can close it off. To listen to a teacher is, at the very least, to consider a possibility. It is a good habit.

I have been impatient at various times in my life. In the first semester of my junior year of college, I plunged into political activity and social service. I thought my classes were remote from the crises and demands of the present. I was taking a fascinating lecture course on the history of the American West, but decided that it didn’t speak to current problems. I stopped doing the work.

Jay Gitlin, the teaching assistant, whom I revered (and who is now a professor and author), approached me in the snack area of the library one day. “You should read these books,” he said. “You will find them interesting. Read Cabeza de Vaca.”

“But–” I tried to explain to him that I was worried about various pressing problems of the moment.

“These books have more to do with your concerns than you may think,” he said. “Just read them and see.”

He was wise and kind, and he let me make my own choices. I chose to do the wrong thing (slip impossibly behind in the class) but knew that I was wrong and appreciated his gesture. I must have recalled this conversation hundreds of times over the years.

Even then, at the nadir of my general patience, I wanted to listen to him, my teacher. I treasured his advice although I didn’t follow it; over time, I treasured it even more. Today I am indebted to him for the understanding that came out of that conversation, which led to the understanding that things may matter in oblique ways, or show their mattering slowly (and that Cabeza de Vaca is well worth reading).

This brings me back to Wieseltier’s words: “Even what I learned on my own I owed to them, because they guided me in my sense of what is significant.”

Accuracy of Imagination: Part 2

seizethedayYesterday I examined William Duff’s Essay on Original Genius (1767), with particular attention to the phrase “accuracy of imagination,” which I first encountered in David Bromwich’s A Choice of Inheritance. Today I will consider how “accuracy of imagination” plays out in Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day. My students finished reading it last week; we had memorable discussions of the ending.

The briliance of this novel has to do with the elusive Dr. Tamkin (among other things). There are plenty of ways for a writer to get Tamkin wrong; Bellow somehow got him right. But whom did he get right, and how did he do this? I will attempt an approximation of an answer.

As I stated yesterday, Duff perceives “accuracy of imagination” as a requirement of philosophical science, where “allocations of ideas will be perfectly just and exact” and “no extraneous ones will be admitted; it will assemble all that are necessary to a distinct conception and illustration of the subject it contemplates, and discard such as are no way conducive to those purposes.” Extending this to literature, I see it as a quality of inevitability—the sense, as one reads, that there is nothing makeshift, extraneous, or compromised.

Seize the Day is the story of a pivotal day in the life of Tommy Wilhelm, a middle-aged man who has lost almost everything, or so it seems—family, dreams, job, money, and pride. He has moved into the Hotel Gloriana on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, the same hotel where his father lives. In this same hotel resides the psychologist Dr. Tamkin, who has convinced Wilhelm to speculate in lard with him—and to hand over his remaining seven hundred dollars. Unlike Wilhelm’s father, who has no sympathy for him, Tamkin claims to understand what’s wrong with him and to know how to set things right. Wilhelm doesn’t trust him, doesn’t believe his stories, yet can’t resist placing faith in him. He loses, of course, and this loss propels him to the beautiful and surprising ending.

Who is this Tamkin? He is neither this nor that. He has tinges of Nikolai Gogol’s Chichikov and Vladimir Nabokov’s Quilty but is distinct from them, insofar as he can be distinct at all. Enthusiastic, optimistic, involved in everything, a shrewd wheeler and dealer, yet somehow removed from everyday urgencies, somehow out of reach; full of ludicrous stories and warm understanding, of lies mixed with truth; preposterous, infuriating, endearing, yet vague and easy to lose, this Tamkin could be the stretch of sordid hope—the hope that we know we shouldn’t have but have anyway—yet is too lively to be reduced to that. He is America itself, one might say, but there’s also something Russian and Jewish about him. A “tamkin” is a tampion (a wooden stopper for the muzzle of a gun, or a plug for the top of an organ pipe), but it also suggests the Russian word “tam,” “over there.” (This is morphologically improbable—“tamkin” would not be formed from “tam” in Russian—but the suggestion is still there, as I hear it.)

What is the effect, then, of Tamkin’s disappearance, just when the stocks have fallen and Wilhelm has lost all his money? My students spent some time discussing this. (I just realized, to my dismay, that I left my copy of Seize the Day at school—so I will have to go with memory and whatever quotations I can find.) When Tamkin and Wilhelm leave the brokerage office for lunch, the rye has risen and the lard is holding steady. Of course, Tamkin takes much longer with lunch than Wilhelm would like. When they return to the office building, they see the blind Mr. Rappaport coming out. Rappaport asks Wilhelm to take him across the street to the cigar store. Dismayed, Wilhelm assents. When they return, the lard and rye have fallen, and Tamkin is nowhere to be found.

Wilhelm tries to control himself, to keep from showing tears. He hears someone ask him, “…going away?” Apparently Tamkin had told the man that he (Tamkin) was going to Maine for  summer vacation; the man thought Wilhelm might be going too. Wilhelm enters the restroom and sees a grey straw hat with a cocoa-colored band; he thinks it might be Tamkin’s. (It isn’t.) He returns to the hotel and manages to enter Tamkin’s room; Tamkin is gone, but his pills and books are there. In all of this, Tamkin is still there and not there; there are hints of a physical presence, but he is gone from the hints.

Wilhelm approaches his father for help; his father wants nothing of it. He calls his wife; his wife wants nothing from him but money, and finally hangs up on him. He heads out into the street again and sees a large funeral at a chapel. There, in the pressing crowd, it seems to be Tamkin who is “speaking so earnestly, with pointed shoulders, to someone under the canopy of the funeral parlor.” Then he thinks he spots him at the canopy-pole, “that damned Tamkin talking away with a solemn face, gesticulating with an open hand.” Wilhelm tries to follow him, but he gets pushed and drawn into the crowd, into the chapel, where he forgets Tamkin and instead gets swept into something that I won’t reveal here, since it would be ruined out of context. Several of my students approached me to tell me how moved they were by the ending; one student was disappointed in it. But the ending would be nothing without Tamkin.

It is “that damned Tamkin” who led him there, in more ways than one. My students recalled Tamkin’s earlier words about the “true soul” and “pretender soul”: “In here, the human bosom—mine, yours, everybody’s—there isn’t just one soul. There’s a lot of souls. But there are two main ones, the real soul and a pretender soul. Now! Every man realizes that he has to love something or somebody. He feels that he must go outward. ‘If thou canst not love, what art thou?’ Are you with me?” He goes on to say, “The true soul is the one that pays the price. It suffers and gets sick, and it realizes that the pretender can’t be loved. Because the pretender is a lie. The true soul loves the truth.” All of these truisms spiral down the drain to nothing—or almost nothing. There’s a sliver of substance here, enough to entice Wilhelm.

There is also the eclectic diction. Tamkin’s elusiveness lies not only in his disappearances, not only in his combination of nonsense and wisdom, but also in the strange concoction that is his speech. This is especially clear in the poem he gives Wilhelm—a dreadful four-stanza jingle that is just peculiar enough to be interesting. I will quote the first two stanzas:

If thee thyself couldst only see
Thy greatness that is and yet to be,
Thou would feel joy-beauty-what ecstasy.
They are at thy feet, earth-moon-sea, the trinity.

Why-forth then dost thou tarry
And partake thee only of the crust
And skim the earth’s surface narry
When all creations art thy just?

My students did a good job of pointing out the bad grammar and false archaisms. (They didn’t notice the false archaisms right away, but slowly they caught on.) Beyond the grammar, the bad rhymes and rhythms, and the absurd “Why-forth,” there’s the carelessness with meaning. If it is wrong to “tarry” and “partake thee only of the crust,” what is one to do, then? Hurry up and eat it all? (That’s precisely what Tamkin has been refusing to do.) How does one “tarry” and “skim the earth’s surface” at the same time? But the most perplexing question is: why do I come back again and again to this terrible poem? I come to laugh, yes; I come for the sheer perplexity of it; but I also come to figure out what on earth it is.

The paradox of Bellow’s “accuracy of imagination” is that it has captured a supremely vague entity—or rather, something in between the vague and the specific. I don’t trust Tamkin one bit, but like Wilhelm, I think I glimpse him in a crowd. For reasons I can’t explain, I draw closer to find out; I do not find out, but in all of this I have been interested, even seduced. Despite Tamkin’s garish presence and maudlin meanings, despite my loss of an imaginary seven hundred dollars, there’s a blessing in this seduction.

Accuracy of Imagination: Part 1

duff

Catarrhally clogged and dizzy, I am enjoying the slowness of these first few days of break. Yesterday I read William Duff’s Essay on Original Genius (1767) with excitement. I was drawn to it by David Bromwich’s book A Choice of Inheritance: Self and Community from Edmund Burke to Robert Frost (1989). I will not discuss the latter at length, as I would not do it justice. Duff’s essay I will discuss today.

In the second chapter of A Choice of Inheritance, Bromwich examines the changing meanings of “genius” over the centuries—from Edward Young’s conception of genius as complete and natural originality, to Wordsworth and Darwin’s intertwining of genius with interpretation and history, to a more specialized sense of the word, and then back to a sense of genius as something mysterious, separate, and natural. Despite this seeming reversion, what matters is the “displacement of the idea of nature by an idea of history” (24).

Bromwich devotes an intriguing paragraph to Duff, drawing attention his phrase “accuracy of imagination.” According to Bromwich, Duff retains some of Young’s idea of original genius but stops short of denying genius’s link with tradition. Duff perceives “accuracy of imagination” (a phrase he appears to have invented) as the gift of philosophical genius; Bromwich sees this as a “hint of a convergence between the ideas of genius in science and in art.”

The idea of “accuracy of imagination” interested me so much that I wanted to find out what Duff meant by it. His essay consists of two parts; each part, of five sections. The first part examines the ingredients, indications, and modes of genius; the second focuses on original genius and its various manifestations—in poetry, art, music, oratory, architecture, and philosophical science. Genius, according to Duff, need not be wholly original; yet the most sublime genius, poetic genius, is marked by originality.

At the outset, Duff associates genius unequivocally with invention: “To explore unbeaten tracks, and make new discoveries in the regions of Science; to invent the designs, and perfect the productions of Art, is the province of Genius alone” (5). Yet, as we find out later, such invention can take many forms.

Genius, according to Duff, has three ingredients: imagination, judgment, and taste. They exist in different proportions, according to the nature of the work, but imagination assumes primacy, and none of the three can be absent. If genius were to consist of imagination alone, then “there is scarce any means left us of distinguishing betwixt the flights of Genius and the reveries of a lunatic” (23-24).

In poetry, according to Duff, imagination comes first, then taste and judgment; in philosophical science, imagination still comes first, but judgment follows as a close second. Because imagination, judgment, and taste influence each other, the philosophical imagination is different in nature from the poetic imagination. The former is distinguished by “regularity, clearness, and accuracy”; the second, by “irregularity, vehemence, and enthusiasm.”  They need not always be separate, though; Duff regards Plato as both philosopher and poet (104):

Of all the Philosophers of antiquity, Plato possessed the most copious and exuberant imagination, which, joined to a certain contemplative turn of mind, qualified him for the successful pursuit of philosophical studies, and enabled him to acquire an extraordinary eminence in those various branches of Science, to which he applied his divine Genius. He is the only prose writer, who in Philosophy has dared to emulate the sublime majesty of the Mœonian Bard. He was indeed animated with all that ardor and enthusiasm of Imagination which distinguishes the Poet; and it is impossible for a person, possessed of any degree of sensibility, to read his Writings without catching somewhat of the enthusiasm.

This is indeed what has drawn me to Plato over the years—the combination of exuberance and reason. One might also find a combination of poetic and philosophical imagination in the poetry of John Donne (whom Duff does not mention) and the philosophy of John Stuart Mill.

When it comes to “accuracy of imagination,” Duff has two contrasting things to say. On the one hand, as mentioned before, he regards it as the gift of philosophical genius. On the other hand, he concurs with Longinus, who maintains that sublimity is inconsistent with accuracy of imagination—that (in Duff’s words) “native grandeur of sentiment which disclaims all restraint, is subject to no certain rule, and is therefore various and unequal” (164). It is not only that genius must risk error in order to rise high; it is that the very freedom of genius brings inconsistency. (I will comment more on this in a later post.)

But Duff makes ample room for genius that is not original, or not entirely original. For one thing, even poetic geniuses begin by imitating their predecessors: “one who is born with a Genius for Poetry, will discover a peculiar relish and love for it in his earliest years” and “will be naturally led to imitate the productions he admires” (37). The other arts definitely rely on predecessors: “There never arose an eminent Painter, Orator, Musician, Architect or Philosopher, in any age, completely self-taught, without being indebted to his predecessors in the art or science he professed” (263). Thus original genius in these fields is not independent of the past. Poets, by contrast, are better off, according to Duff, if they don’t have much of a past; he gives reasons for this toward the end. (This, to me, is the least convincing part of the essay, though parts of it make sense.)

Duff allows, likewise, for genius that is not so much inventive as interpretive or even imitative. Here, on p. 74–75, is one of the most striking passages of the essay:

We may farther observe, that Genius may, in a very considerable though much less proportion, be displayed in the illustration of those truths, or the imitation of those models, which it was incapable originally to discover or invent. To comprehend and explain the one, or to express a just resemblance of the other, supposes and requires no contemptible degree of Genius in the Author or Artist who succeeds in the attempt. Thus we allow Maclaurin, who has explained the Principles of Newton’s Philosophy, and Strange, who has copied the Cartoons of Raphael, to have been both of them men of Genius in their respective professions, though not men of original Genius; for the former did not possess that COMPASS of IMAGINATION, and that DEPTH of DISCERNMENT, which Were necessary to discover the doctrines of the Newtonian System; nor the latter that fertility and FORCE of Imagination, that were requisite to invent the design, and express the dignity, grace and energy, displayed in the originals of the Italian Painter.

Duff goes on to say that genius can be found in the mechanical arts—that a watchmaker and carpenter show genius when they bring special elegance into their work. “So diversified are the forms of Genius,” says Duff, “and so various its modes of exertion” (75).

What I find remarkable is that Duff allows for many kinds of genius without treating them as equivalent. He does not say that everyone is a genius; genius, no matter what form it takes, stands apart from ordinary life and production. Even so, he makes fundamental distinctions between various kinds and degrees of genius. These distinctions are not absolute; “original” genius often relies on tradition, and the acts of interpretation and imitation may involve genius.

There’s a hidden paradox in Duff’s argument: this very diversity of genius may encumber it and bring it down. At the end of the essay, Duff argues that the poetic genius (in particular) fared best in ancient society, where it was unfettered by manners, criticism, distractions, tradition, and so forth. He admits that he has no proof for this, yet he offers Homer and Ossian as evidence. If this is so, then the great abundance and multiplicity of genius may trample down certain kinds of genius. Ah, well, some may say, but new kinds may come forth. Yet if the highest form of genius suffers (and Duff appears to regard poetry as the highest), what happens to genius as a whole?

I will leave that question aside for now and return to the phrase that first drew me to Duff: “accuracy of imagination.” What is it? Duff perceives it as a requirement of philosophical science, where “allocations of ideas will be perfectly just and exact” and “no extraneous ones will be admitted; it will assemble all that are necessary to a distinct conception and illustration of the subject it contemplates, and discard such as are no way conducive to those purposes” (33–34).

I would say that such “accuracy of imagination” has a place in poetry as well, though there it’s a different kind of accuracy, or rather, an illusion of accuracy. (I return here to Bromwich’s idea of a “hint of a convergence between the ideas of genius in science and in art.”) When reading a poem, one wants to sense that it could only be that way, that nothing in it is makeshift, extraneous, or compromised. In my next post, I will discuss that kind of “accuracy of imagination” in Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day.

The Tyranny of Relevance

highschool2 The polarization of education discussion is sad—but even sadder are some of the points of consensus. Across ideologies, educators insist that education should be immediately and obviously relevant to students’ lives. Those of a narrow utilitarian bent maintain that a lesson should have a specific, explicit, measurable objective and that students should be constantly working toward that goal. Students should know exactly what they are learning and should always have a “task” to perform; by the end of the lesson, they should be able to demonstrate attainment of the objective. By contrast, “student-centered” educators hold that the lesson should shape itself around the students’ opinions, interests, needs, and desires. Though opposed on the surface, the two camps commit the same error: they reduce education to what can be immediately grasped and used.

Of course education should be relevant to students’ lives; of course students should not be endlessly frustrated in their search for meaning. But what sort of meaning? Promoters of relevance have taught children to expect quick connections to their lives, whether they are making a “text-to-self connection,” completing a “Do Now” exercise about a childhood memory, or “sharing out” at the end of the lesson. As a consequence, when students don’t see the direct application to their lives, they not only stop paying attention, but start disrupting class or ask for something interesting to do. On the one hand, there is something honorable in this protest; on the other, it can be shortsighted, especially when the students don’t wait to see what a book or lesson holds.

The students did not create this situation; they were brought up in it. They have been taught, day after day, to expect their learning to apply to real life. The idea that a theorem could be interesting for its elegance or its relation to another theorem—that is remote from their consciousness. A few students enjoy patterns, possibilities, shades of meaning; they enjoy coming to understand things that were dense or distant before. But many hold to the doctrine—which the Church of Present-Day Relevance preaches—that the teachers are supposed to make things clear, fun, and useful this very minute.

Some of the best subject matter takes time to understand; shallow relevance distracts from it. Yes, a teacher should strive for clarity and vitality of instruction, but students must still bear with things they don’t grasp right away. For instance, John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty (which my eleventh-grade students will be reading soon) could shake up their assumption (or the assumption of some) that the most popular ideas are the best. That is only the beginning of what they might find in Mill. Yet to find this and other things, they will need the patience to take in his phrases and sentences. They will not immediately see relevance (of which there is plenty) in the following: “Precisely because the tyranny of opinion is such as to make eccentricity a reproach, it is desirable, in order to break through that tyranny, that people should be eccentric.” The syntax is not all that difficult here; the challenge lies in the logic and in the words “tyranny” and “eccentricity,” which hold different meanings here from the ones the students know.

When I was in school, things weren’t that much different. Students would often ask, “Will this be on the test?” and stop listening if the answer was no. I was mocked (more gently in high school than in earlier grades) because I took interest in class. Teachers who didn’t explain everything—who expected the students to do some thinking—were often less popular than the ones who made everything clear. In those respects, not much has changed. The main difference is that the uninterested students were a little more open to becoming interested. Today, bolstered by the education system itself, they demand quicker satisfaction. Without knowing it, they are playing into a trend. We have, on the one hand, a drive to make instruction concrete and measurable within each lesson, with a tight sequence of tasks; and, on the other, teacher evaluation rubrics that favor teachers whose students select the materials and initiate the lesson’s activities. What’s missing is the idea that there’s something worth learning over time, something that the students don’t see or know right away.

That things worth learning may or may not be found in class. In the photo above (from my high school yearbook in my junior year), I am the girl in the middle. We are in U.S. History class. The girl with the glasses wrote “glee at learning” over my head and “absolute boredom” over hers. (I was indeed gleeful in that class; I adored the teacher, and it was there that I read Hofstadter for the first time.) But she wrote a lively paper on Roger Williams—I remember dimly how unconventional and funny it was—and today she is the author of four novels. I can’t speak for her, but the boredom in class may have given her some room to roam in the mind. I do not mean that the teaching or curriculum should be boring. But a little boredom from time to time may be better than continual activity and “text-to-self connections.” At the very least, it allows for some quiet and imagination; it holds the possibility that things will get interesting slowly.

Locke and Beads

This afternoon I went into the classroom prepared (relatively speaking) to lead a discussion on the second chapter of John Locke’s Second Treatise of Civil Government. For the past month, they had been reading Hobbes and Machiavelli; now we were going on to Locke, Mill, and Paine. Today I wanted my students to consider why Locke expected objections to his argument (regarding “man in the state of nature”), and how he responded to them. Things did not go as I planned.

Some students were talking persistently. Only a few had done the reading. So I stopped, as I have done before, and said that we had to address what was going on.

Students had different insights into the problem. One student said I was too gentle in my manner and that students took this as permission to keep on disrupting class. Another said that it wasn’t my fault–that the students tended to follow each other and needed to take responsibility instead. Still another said that they were teenagers and that teenagers naturally tended to rebel. I disputed the last claim, pointing out that the majority of students in the room were consistently participating thoughtfully, and that others were choosing whether or not to do so. I suggested that the reading might have a lot to say about this. Locke, I told them, made an important distinction between liberty and license–and this distinction applied in the classroom as well.

While I was speaking, I heard a clatter. A student cried out. A dark brown bead from my own necklace–my favorite necklace–had fallen to the floor. More beads followed. All the students in the front row (of the large two-row semicircle) immediately helped me gather the beads. Every time they spotted another one, they pointed it out or picked it up for me. Within minutes, we had collected them all. One or two were broken, but those were the large ones, which I could glue together later.

It was mid-afternoon, and while all this was going on, the sun was streaming in and making some of the beads glitter–the faceted ones.

I told my students why it was my favorite necklace. It had been given to me by the teachers attending the 2012 Sue Rose Summer Institute for Teachers at the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture; they had presented it to me in the ceremony at the end of the course. Then I told them what was already obvious: what they had shown in gathering the beads, they could show in class in general. While telling them this, I too was learning: these students have goodwill and a desire to learn but get sidetracked by various things. What’s more, many of them have been dedicated to this class all along.

We turned our attention to Locke. I asked them to consider the meaning of the sentence at the start of Section 6, “But though this be a state of liberty, yet it is not a state of licence: though man in that state have an uncontroulable liberty to dispose of his person or possessions, yet he has not liberty to destroy himself, or so much as any creature in his possession, but where some nobler use than its bare preservation calls for it.”

These words became a necklace reassembled; for a minute or two, the class held still and considered what they meant.

Daydreams, Lectures, and Helices

What do daydreams, lectures, and helices have to do with each other? Quite a bit.

One of my favorite parts of Dante’s Purgatorio is at the end of Canto XVIII, when Dante starts dozing off. Here is Allen Mandelbaum’s translation of those lines:

aaaThen, when those shades were so far off from us
that seeing them became impossible,
a new thought rose inside of me and, from
aaathat thought, still others–many and diverse–
were born: I was so drawn from random thought
to thought, that, wandering in mind, I shut
aaamy eyes, transforming thought on thought to dream.

I read this as a tribute to daydreaming (though Dante is on the verge of sleep and a nightmare). To be “so drawn from random thought / to thought” (in the original: “e tanto d’uno in altro vaneggiai”) is to have an expanse and few restrictions; I love this kind of expanse, though of course I can’t have it all the time.

As I have said elsewhere, that is one thing I enjoy about lectures: they not only take my mind to unexpected places, but they send it wandering off to the side and back, or backwards and forwards. While listening to a lecture, I may do with my mind what I please; if the lecture is very good, then my mind is as though in a dance with it, sometimes spinning apart from it, sometimes drawing close. If the lecture is bad (or dreadfully dull, as lectures sometimes can be), then my mind can go off on its own. This, too, has its benefits.

Lecture or no lecture, I need time to let my mind go where it wishes. A few days ago I took out a textbook of three-dimensional calculus and started reading the chapter on vectors. The vector equation for a helix immediately made sense:

helixr(t) = cos t i + sin t j + t k

where i = <1, 0, 0>, j = <o, 1, 0>, and k = <o, 0, 1>. (These are unit vectors along the x-, y-, and z-axes, respectively.)

If you omit the z-axis, you can see that you have the vector equation for circular counterclockwise motion:

r(t) = cos t i + sin t j

Adding the component t k turns the circle into an upward spiral.

I toyed with this in my mind for a while. The next day, I encountered a helix again, when reading Taking the Back off the Watch: A Personal Memoir by the astrophysicist Thomas Gold (1920–2004). Before the helix passage, there was a wonderful comment on the possibilities for thought during a dull lecture:

A dull lecture is like an experiment in sensory deprivation. You are sitting in your seat, you can’t leave the room because that would be too rude, you are carefully shutting out the incoming information because you have decided you don’t want to hear it, and your mind is now completely free from external disturbances. It was during this lecture that I suddenly saw how all the facts of the case would fall together.

Yes, during this dull lecture he figured out why a sound entering the cochlea produces a “microphonic potential”–an electric potential that both amplifies the sound and mimics its waveform. He took his theory to Richard Pumphrey, with whom he had been investigating this matter; they published their papers in 1948. But that’s an aside here (though interesting in itself). I bring this up because his words about the lecture rang true, so to speak, in my mind. Then, a few pages later, I came upon his description of an experiment with a helix and an eel.

The eel can move forward along a sinusoidal curve, both horizontally and vertically. Thomas Gold and the zoologist Sir James Gray found that it could move swiftly and easily through a sinusoidal tube. Sir James Gray posited that the eel could therefore move through a helical tube; a helix, after all, is the addition of the vertical sinusoid to the horizontal sinusoid in three-dimensional space. Thomas Gold disagreed; he was convinced that the eel could not move through the helical tube. He was right.

Very well. But I was momentarily intrigued with the problem that would be elementary to mathematicians: is the vector equation

r(t) = cos t i + sin t j + t k

equivalent to the addition of two traveling sinusoidal waves, one horizontal, one vertical, in three-dimensional space? I grasped that it was but spent a little time explaining it to myself. Yes, and the two sinusoids must be a quarter-cycle out of phase with each other.

The first traveling sinusoidal wave has the equation r(t) = cos t i + t/2 k.

The second traveling sinusoidal wave has the equation r(t) = sin t j + t/2 k.

So, unless I’m missing something, these sinusoids are twice as scrunched as the resultant helix, their sum.

These have been my daydreams, or a fraction of them, over the past week or so. There were no lectures involved, but there were memories of lectures and the liberty I found in them.

Note: I corrected one term after the initial posting.

Index to Comments on Politics by Other Means

This is mainly for my own convenience; maybe some readers will find it helpful. Nine of my recent blog pieces comment in some way on David Bromwich’s Politics by Other Means: Higher Education and Group Thinking, an extraordinary book that has been on my mind and in my life. I decided to list the entries here, in chronological order, so that I could link from them to this list (instead of linking from each one to each of the others).

1. “David Bromwich’s Politics by Other Means,” October 27, 2012.

2. “What Is Dialogue in the Classroom?” October 30, 2012.

3. “I Want to Starve Them of This Credit,” October 31, 2012.

4. “Is Teaching a Calling?” November 1, 2012.

5. “What Community Was This?” November 2, 2012.

6. “The Danger of False Confession,” November 4, 2012.

7. “Lists of Names Do Not Think,” November 9, 2012.

8. “Tradition Without a Last Word,” November 11, 2012.

9. “A Way to Think for Myself As If Under Their Eyes,” November 17, 2012.

A Few Thoughts About Thomas Hardy’s “The Going”

All week I have been thinking about “The Going,” and so I will walk through it now. This will be neither a thorough analysis nor (I hope) a ghastly “think-aloud.” It is just a preliminary gesture, but one that I put together in my mind.

The poem has to do with a woman (his estranged wife, Emma) who left suddenly through death. The speaker laments not only her loss, but the loss of the moment when he might have known she was leaving. Because he did not know she was leaving, he was not allowed the moment’s significance or sorrow.

I have been drawn to Hardy’s poetry lately (by which I mean over the past few years, and stretching back farther). They have the ghostliness of loss. They hint at something of Donne (in my ear) and anticipate something of Auden—but they have an idiosyncratic mixture of song-like cadence and stark individual expression. As I read them over and over, I find myself taken into certain words and phrases.

In  this poem, the verse is accentual, with alternating stanza patterns. The first, third, and fifth stanzas begin with the question “Why” and follow the pattern (of stress counts per line): 4 4 4 4 2 2 4. The even-numbered stanzas give no answer, but instead reflect on something that the question brought up. Their stress count pattern is 3 3 4 4 2 2 4. Both stanza types have the same rhyme scheme: ABABCCB. The “Why” stanzas are somewhat stylized; the reflective stanzas, while close in form, contain a more private and unusual language. The rule does not always hold but describes the overall gist.

Here is the first stanza:

Why did you give no hint that night
That quickly after the morrow’s dawn,
And calmly, as if indifferent quite,
You would close your term here, up and be gone
aaaaaWhere I could not follow
aaaaaWith wing of swallow
To gain one glimpse of you ever anon!

The word “quite” may sound, to the modern ear, a little stilted after the adjective “indifferent,” but that’s due to our tone-deafness, not any enhanced modern sensibility. I will discuss “quite” more at the end; it has rich meaning and was still used after the adjective in Hardy’s time. It’s use in that position was already somewhat archaic (it seems) but still had meaning and resonance.

But look at the second and third lines of “The Going”: “That quickly after the morrow’s dawn, / And calmly, as if indifferent quite….” The words “quickly” and “quite” form the outer ends of a series of symmetrical alliterations and assonances. “Dawn” and “calmly” contain the same vowel sound (and prominently so); “dawn” and “indifferent” punctuate the “d” sound. The sounds of these lines suggest something enclosed, wrapped up—the one who departed, or the one left behind, or the closed-up “term” itself.

Now the second stanza:

aaaaaNever to bid good-bye
aaaaaOr lip me the softest call,
Or utter a wish for a word, while I
Saw morning harden upon the wall,
aaaaaUnmoved, unknowing
aaaaaThat your great going
Had place that moment, and altered all.

There are the stunning lines “while I /  Saw morning harden upon the wall,” and “That your great going / Had place that moment, and altered all.” I pause over “That your great going / Had place that moment, and altered all,” which suggests time, place, and motion all in one—a moment that physically exists and is gone, and in going takes something great away, but without the speaker’s knowledge. He saw “morning harden on the wall” (also a unity of thing, time, and motion) and was oblivious to the greater and more terrible unity.

The third stanza cries:

Why do you make me leave the house
And think for a breath it is you I see
At the end of the alley of bending boughs
Where so often at dusk you used to be;
aaaaaTill in darkening dankness
aaaaaThe yawning blankness
Of the perspective sickens me!

What a contrast—between the “end of the alley of bending boughs” and “The yawning blankness / Of the perspective.” It is a contrast not only between the memory and the loss, not only between the hope and the disappointment, but also between a lilting, lyrical language and something vacant and strange. Without knowing it, the speaker is emerging into his own life, which to him seems desolate but rings fiercely.

The next stanza evokes memories of the departed one, who used to ride horseback “Along the beetling Beeny Crest” and would “rein” near the speaker (not “reign”—I believe the homophone is significant) and “muse and eye” him “While Life unrolled us its very best.”

aaaaaYou were she who abode
aaaaaBy those red-veined rocks far West,
You were the swan-necked one who rode
Along the beetling Beeny Crest,
aaaaaAnd, reining nigh me,
aaaaaWould muse and eye me,
While Life unrolled us its very best.

Now, “to beetle” in this context is “to project or overhang threateningly”; “Beeny Crest” is a cliff in Cornwall that overlooks the sea (cf. Hardy’s “Beeny Cliff”). Thus the “very best” of life already has something foreboding in it—a precipice and a woman who only “reins” nigh him but does not stay. It’s the “red-veined rocks” and the “swan-necked one” and the “musing” and “eying” that make up this good Life unrolling. Now life is unrolling again (as we see in the final stanza), but in a different way, and with different lyric.

The next stanza is to me the saddest:

Why, then, latterly did we not speak,
Did we not think of those days long dead,
And ere your vanishing strive to seek
That time’s renewal?  We might have said,
aaaaa“In this bright spring weather
aaaaaWe’ll visit together
Those places that once we visited.”

The plea seems already an admission of defeat; the speaker knows that there would have been no new places to visit, that the best they could have done would have been to “visit together / Those places that once we visited.” And yet, isn’t that what long-term spouses do? Does it really suggest an end to love? That frail hope that something might be renewed through revisiting—is it really that frail? But here the speaker recognizes, for the first time, that the failing was not only the woman’s, but his as well. “Why didn’t we think of doing that? It would have been so simple,” the stanza suggests. There’s a poignancy and a gentleness in the last three lines, the words that could have been uttered by either one but were not: “In this bright spring weather / We’ll visit together / Those places that once we visited.”
This seems to point toward a reconciliation, which the final stanza only partly provides. Yes, it seems that the speaker has accepted the state of things—but this does not prevent or ease his final cry.

aaaaaWell, well!  All’s past amend,
aaaaaUnchangeable.  It must go.
I seem but a dead man held on end
To sink down soon. … O you could not know
aaaaaThat such swift fleeing
aaaaaNo soul foreseeing—
Not even I—would undo me so!

There is the matter-of-fact “Well, well! All’s past amend, / Unchangeable. It must go.” It sounds like someone shaking his head and getting on with his day. But that isn’t quite the point; it’s his own life that seems about to go; he seems “but a dead man held on end / To sink down soon.” Then comes the brilliant unraveling of the final lines, which have a complex grammatical structure. “You” here is the subject, “know” the main verb; then, the subordinate clause “such swift fleeing … would undo me so” has the participial phrase “No soul foreseeing,” which modifies the “fleeing”—and then the phrase “Not even I,” which in turn modifies “No soul foreseeing.”

Thus the speaker is included among all souls, none of whom foresaw the swift fleeing, which in turn has undone the speaker—an event that the one addressed could not have foreseen. There are two levels of foreseeing: foreseeing the fleeing itself, and foreseeing how it would undo the speaker.

Now back to the word “quite.” One finds it in Shakespeare where rhyme does not require it, for instance, in Henry VI, Part 1:

Lords, view these letters full of bad mischance.
France is revolted from the English quite,
Except some petty towns of no import:

“Quite” derives from the adverbial form of the Middle English “quit, quite,” which meant “free, clear.” It originally meant “thoroughly” but came to mean “somewhat.” It is related to “quit” and “quiet” and even to “while”; it derives from the Proto-Indo-European root *qwi- “rest.” One can hear all of those tinges of meaning in Hardy’s “quite” in the first stanza. It is about quitting, quiet, utter removal, and thoroughness, all of which come up in the final stanza again.

I have read no criticism of this poem, so I don’t know to what extent these observations overlap with what has been said before. I like to think about poems on my own before reading what others have to say, unless the criticism is especially compelling in itself (in that case, it takes nothing away from my own thinking, but instead spurs thoughts). I was looking forward to laying down these thoughts all week, and know that they are just a beginning.

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