“Suspended, like a prehistoric fly”


The title of this post is from Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem “Black Cat” (“Schwarze Katze“). Although the cat in this photo (Pollux, guardian of the Dallas Institute) is orange, not black, the poem suits him at times and through time.

I was going to post a hawk picture (taken here in Dallas), along with a quote from Robert Penn Warren’s “Evening Hawk“–but the picture was too dark. The poem is magnificent and pairs well with the Rilke.

On Friday we celebrated the conclusion of the Tragedy and Comedy course at the Summer Institute. The joy and gratitude are still all around me, in the sunlight and coffee, in the well-packed books. In just a few minutes I head out to the airport to return to New York City. My cats await.

From August 2 through 7, I will be guest-blogging for Joanne Jacobs (as I have done in the past). Expect some pieces on languages, teacher education, literature, international education, pseudoscience, logic, and more. (If I write a piece on each of these subjects, there will be room for just one “wildcard,” assuming I post twice on one of those days. Let’s see what happens.) I may also post a piece or two here during this time–but look there first.

Like Pollux above, I am on a threshold, but I don’t know what’s on the other side (or on this side, for that matter). I have been applying for jobs for the fall, some within NYC, some elsewhere. Nothing definite has come through, nor do I know my chances. As the uncertainties grow, I open myself to more possibilities. I believe that something good and unexpected will come through.

But first: the flight.

“Thank God There’s Still the Dictionary”

That is an untranslatable line from Tomas Venclova’s poem “Sutema pasitiko šalčiu.” In my translation (in Winter Dialogue and The Junction), the line reads, for the sake of rhythm, “Thank God for the dictionary,” which misses some of the wit. I was never satisfied with my translation of that line, but the alternatives were awkward. In Lithuanian, it’s brilliantly terse and ironic: “Ačiū Dievui, dar esti žodynas.” This poem comes to my mind almost every day, so it seems fitting to bring it up at Thanksgiving.

I enjoy giving thanks but keep them scant when saying them out loud. This entry is much shorter than my thoughts.

I had a beautiful few days at the annual meeting of the National Association of Schools of Music, where I gave a talk on Monday. I will be thinking about the event and the conversations for a long time.

A few books have taken up residence in my life: Politics by Other Means: Higher Education and Group Thinking by David Bromwich; So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell (thanks to Cynthia Haven and, indirectly, Tobias Wolff for bringing it to my attention); and Taking the Back off the Watch: A Personal Memoir by Thomas Gold.

In addition, I have returned to a few favorites, including The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy and Reflections on Espionage by John Hollander.

I generally avoid mentioning my students on this blog, as I respect their privacy and try to keep my teaching separate from my writing. But something happened today that clinched my gratitude.

My tenth-grade students are reading Martin Buber’s I and Thou. For today’s lesson, I planned to discuss a few passages involving “confrontation” with the You, such as the one on p. 59 (of Walter Kaufmann’s translation):

When I confront a human being as my You, and speak the basic word I-You to him, then he is no thing among things nor does he consist of things.

He is no longer He or She, limited by other Hes and Shes, a dot in the world grid of space and time, nor a condition that can be experienced and described, a loose bundle of named qualities. Neighborless and seamless, he is You and fills the firmament. Not as if there were nothing but he; but everything else lives in his light.

After we read this and another passage, I had my students listen to Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” which has to do, in a way, with such a confrontation and is worth reading for itself.

My students (in one particular section) were full of ideas and eager to talk about the Buber. Then, when I introduced the Rilke poem to them, a few of them lost their certainty. They didn’t understand how a headless torso could see the person or what that might mean.

They grasped that this was an extraordinary encounter–that the statue’s radiance and life exceeded what the person (addressed as “you” in the poem) had known before, and that he had to confront his own partial life. Several students said this in different ways. They understood the meaning of Apollo; they could imagine how a headless statue might radiate from the inside. But how could it see anything?

I told them that one day they might come in contact with something–a piece of music, a book, a painting, or a poem–that seemed to see and know them. (That’s only an approximation of Rilke’s meaning, but I wanted to give them an entry.)

Then one student said solemnly, “I have a poem that does that. ‘Jabberwocky.'”

“I Want to Starve Them of This Credit”

School is closed until next week, so I’m rolling up my sleeves and rereading David Bromwich’s Politics by Other Means. I will be posting some commentary as I go along. I will be sparing, as my commentary cannot and should not stand in for the book. If you intend to read the book, please do so before reading these posts.

The book argues that and that both the right and the left (I’m simplifying here) have subordinated independent thought to group thinking in the name of “culture.” It proceeds to defend this thesis in a beautiful and uncompromising way.

I don’t always know why a book affects me. Here, I can see several reasons and something beyond them. First, the author has a refreshingly fierce (and humane) understanding of solitude. This book is closer to my Republic of Noise than any of the contemporary books I read for research. I am not boasting of any equality here; to the contrary, I know that Bromwich’s book would have informed and sharpened mine, had I read it a few years ago or earlier.

That leads to the second point: this book was published when I was a graduate student at Yale and in some ways unhappy. My unhappiness had various sources, one of which was the “professionalism” I saw around me, the kind that Bromwich lambastes in this book. People latched onto the latest theory as though it were their ticket to a career. I’d bring up a literary work, and the response would often be, “Have you read so-and-so’s article?” A young professor told me once, with a slight hint of condescension, that “close textual analysis” was my forte, as though that were quaint or narrow. (In his preface, Bromwich writes, “By 1990, it was possible for a senior editor of an established journal of literary history to admonish a young scholar who had submitted an article for publication: ‘You stick too close to the text.'”) I rebelled against these trends but didn’t fully understand them. This book would have helped me understand, and it would have given me hope.

There’s much more. The book calls me to hone my thinking, to use words more precisely, and to trust myself to stand alone. I say this not in self-disparagement. To some degree, these are already my strengths. But it’s easy to take one’s own strengths for granted instead of developing them to the fullest. I am not exaggerating when I say that reading this book led me to something like the final words of Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo“: “you must change your life.” Now, life has plenty of “archaic torso” mirages: often, things that seem life-changing do not prove so. Or rather, it is the will that fails, not the work of art. Can I live up to what I am learning here? We shall see.

So, on to the preface. The more Bromwich thought about his topic, and the more comments and criticisms he received from others, the stauncher he became. This passage is wonderful: “I have been told often by members of both camps [roughly, of the static right and insular left–DS] that my reactions are too negative. Calm reflection has made them more so. Both cultures are deeply sick, and it would be a good thing to rid ourselves of both.” Yes, indeed.

Such ridding must start with a resuscitation of language, which requires some initial asphyxiation. Bromwich points to the corruption of three concepts: culture, community, and professionalism. Each one can be used in an honorable or perverted sense–but the perverted sense, having won for now, flashes booty of the honorable sense just for prestige. Bromwich writes:

The reader is well warned concerning my prejudices, for, in the course of this book, they oblige me to use in a pejorative sense certain words that need not be pejorative. Culture is one of these. A great confusion now prevails between culture as social identity and culture as tacit knowledge acquired by choice and affinity. If I could use the word and be sure that people would understand the second meaning, it would appear in the following chapters frequently and without blame. At present, however, most people have in view the first meaning of culture; they use the word in the hope of borrowing a reflected prestige from the second. I want to starve them of this credit. I therefore write against the idea of culture and speak of it, in its likely current meaning, as an institutional lie.

If one could starve careless or corrupt word-users of the credit they have borrowed, and starve the corrupted words themselves, it would be like feeding on death, that feeds on men. It’s as worthy a deed as slaying Eurymachus and all of Penelope’s suitors. I’m all for it–until a part of me gets slain or at least badly stung in the bargain. That happens right after the preface, in the book’s epigraph:

The intelligence is defeated as soon as the expression of one’s thoughts is preceded, explicitly or implicitly, by the little word “we.”

–Simone Weil, The Need for Roots

Wait, I used “we” carefully! I even brought up its problems, on the fourth page of my book, and got slammed by a reader for doing so! Doesn’t that exculpate me?

My impulse is to justify my “we.” But I know that the impulse is wrong. It’s impossible, when writing about a societal tendency, to avoid all “we”–even Bromwich uses it–but if I were to write the book again, I’d starve “we” (and myself) of its credit.

This is invigorating, not disheartening. More soon.

Note: I made a few edits after the initial posting. For an index to the eight pieces on this blog that comment on Politics by Other Means, go here.