Foretelling

I have been on a Dickens kick since March, reading his novels and travel writings that I had never gotten around to in the past. He was, in many ways, a journalist: a consummate observer of human behavior, appearance, society. It struck me, reading American Notes for General Circulation (1850), how prescient he was about the USA.

Portrait_of_Charles_John_Huffman_Dickens 1843

Dickens, 1843, portrait by by Margaret Gillies

In 1841, Dickens was just 30 years old but well-regarded in England and in “America,” where he traveled with his wife for six months. His observations tend not to demonstrate the best about 1840s Americans, though he also reflects on the “good character and general friendliness” of the people here. He remarks at how free education means that almost everyone is literate–every non-enslaved person, that is.

What amazes me is his wrap up, where he concludes his book with a kind of warning to Americans, a warning about our inclination toward doubt in our fellows–our lack of trust, about hyper-partisan political ideology and its poor results, about the ruin slavery will visit on the nation, and about the sad tendency to reward/admire “smart men” over moral, kind, generous, or intelligent ones. He additionally blasts this infant nation for its insistence that trade (and capitalism) matters more than just about everything else except the vaunted concept of personal freedom, which of course is belied by the existence of slavery.

He expresses alarm at how the average American conducts his day and offers suggestions on how Americans could improve overall public and personal health:

…the custom of hastily swallowing large quantities of animal food, three times a-day, and rushing back to sedentary pursuits after each meal, must be changed; the gentler sex must go more wisely clad, and take more healthful exercise; and in the latter clause, the males must be included also.

About distrust of facts, politicians, and experts:

One great blemish in the popular mind of America, and the prolific parent of an innumerable brood of evils, is Universal Distrust. Yet the American citizen plumes himself upon this spirit, even when he is sufficiently dispassionate to perceive the ruin it works; and will often adduce it, in spite of his own reason, as an instance of the great sagacity and acuteness of the people, and their superior shrewdness and independence.

Americans maintain too much pride in their shrewdness and distrust, Dickens claims:

…any printed lie that any notorious villain pens, although it militate directly against the character and conduct of a life, appeals at once to your distrust, and is believed.

So long ago, and yet here is a visible trait of the “American character”:

‘There’s freedom of opinion here, you know. Every man thinks for himself, and we are not to be easily overreached. That’s how our people come to be suspicious.’

Another prominent feature is the love of ‘smart’ dealing: which gilds over many a swindle and gross breach of trust…and enables many a knave to hold his head up with the best, who well deserves a halter; though it has not been without its retributive operation, for this smartness has done more in a few years to impair the public credit, and to cripple the public resources, than dull honesty, however rash, could have effected in a century. The merits of a broken speculation, or a bankruptcy, or of a successful scoundrel….are considered with reference to their smartness.

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I need add nothing here that Mr. Dickens hasn’t said already…170 years ago.

NOTE: Project Gutenberg provides this text, including its 1868 postscript, online here.

Ways of reading

Conversing about books with a colleague recently, I began to reflect on how readers of literature read. The topic had come up earlier in the day when several students came in for tutoring on literary-analysis papers. In addition, a student in the Education program was devising a curriculum for third-graders; the lesson focus was about “different ways of reading.” I have always loved to read, and I never spent much time considering how I go about it. It just seemed natural to me…and then I encountered academia’s approach to reading and had to reconsider the way I devoured fiction.

My coworker consumes novels the way a literature professor does. He savors passages, re-reads earlier chapters in a novel to find connections with later parts of the book, and looks up references and allusions to be sure he understands the deep context of a literary text. He asks himself questions about what he’s reading. The questions keep him reading and engaged with the words on the page.

That method is how I read poetry. But it is not how I read novels or non-fiction books; those I read at a clip, almost inhaling them, seldom stopping. I read them for pleasure, for fun–I even absorb sad novels and memoirs this way, in a mad whirl of reading enjoyment, caught up in the events and characters and setting of the book in my hands. This is not to say I never look up words, places, references, but generally I do so after I have finished the book. I guess I examine such things in retrospect.

brad-hammonds-flikr-books

brad-hammonds-flikr-books.jpeg

The downside of reading fiction using my own “natural” method is that I tend to come away from a book with a strong sense of whether it was wonderfully-written or moving or amazing, but I cannot explain why it has that effect–how the author managed to get me to  believe in the characters or the world she created with her words alone. When I am reading for fun or information, however, there isn’t any need for analytical levels of cognition. If I forget a detail, I can go back and look for it later. Or forget about it. No great loss.

There are other methods of reading–certainly more than two ways to “get into” a book! The conversation about reading strategies (what feels natural to a literature-consumer, how readers savor a good book, questioning not just the text but also the self reading the words) piques my interest. I suspect some connection with consciousness and cognition, aspects of human-ness I have mulled about in previous posts.

Well, enough for now. I am signing off–to read a good book!

Imaginative, not imaginary

I have been thinking about the place that a poem makes in the world, the place that a poem is in the world. My recent reading on C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series (see the tail end of this previous post) has led me back to a few of his essays. He felt that good stories–whether fantasy, mythology, allegory, science fiction, or epic narrative–take the reader to threshold spaces that are imaginative, not imaginary.

I think that poetry offers what Plato calls psychagogia— “an enlargement of the soul” in C.S. Lewis’ definition, or see John Joseph Jasso’s dissertation chronicling it as “the idea that rhetoric can lead souls to their own betterment; that is, guide them in an ascent along a metaphysical hierarchy through beauty, goodness, and truth to a fuller participation in being.” Poetry provides such enlargement by permitting the reader to imaginatively undergo transformation via images and places the poem offers, to experience the turn in the poem’s rhetoric, to feel ‘along with’ the poem’s nature. The poem is a threshold at which the reader stands and makes the choice of whether or not to enter.

Granted, that seems a rather allegorical way to think of poetry, but not, I think, an unwarranted perspective.

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Lewis, by training a medievalist, believed that we need to read “the canon” or, essentially, any and all great literature of the past, in order to have “something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion.” (This is from his 1939 sermon “Learning in War-Time.”) I love reading modern and contemporary literature; but I agree with him that through reading the work of the past, we cross a threshold into a new (to us) perspective. I do not know what the past knows; I have to explore, read carefully, infer, and take nothing for granted. I must take the role of observer before donning the garb of critic. For me, it’s as important to approach literature with beginner’s mind as it is to approach the garden with beginner’s mind. Perhaps this is one reason I have always enjoyed reading history: The past is a place I do not know well and therefore have to find a way to enter into anew.

Lewis continues by noting that the person who reads literature of the past “has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.” Given the times in which we live and the nonsense pouring from the microphones of our age (which are legion), it takes a good deal of sorting to find the beautiful and the good–which do exist–amid the resounding chaos. I do not recommend a full retreat into reading Beowulf, the Illiad, or Tolstoy, but tempering my intake of current media with poems and stories reminds me that I ought to question my basic assumptions and the basic assumptions and perspectives of others, including people who lived long ago in eras and cultures about which I know very little.

A good read inclines me toward the imaginative. Whatever arts it may take to get me there, past the imaginary and into imagination, whatever aesthetic form it takes, I am grateful.

baynesNarniaPauline Baynes’ illustration: Narnia’s lamppost in snow.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Responses

The semester is over, and the juncos have returned to my back yard. One thing I have trouble assessing after teaching my class is whether the students have made any inroads into learning the difference between a fact and an opinion, and argument and a disagreement, an interpretation and an analysis. But a response can be any of these things.

Recently I have been entertained by Rebecca Solnit’s responses (as opinion). She’s made a bit of an earnest-minded internet buzz with her brief essay concerning Esquire magazine’s “80 Books All Men Should Read.” [As an aside, I really enjoyed her early book Wanderlust: A History of Walking.] Her opinion piece on Lithub is smart and funny, and she irked many readers; yet I do not see how anyone can argue with her final paragraph:

…that list would have you learn about women from James M. Cain and Philip Roth, who just aren’t the experts you should go to, not when the great oeuvres of Doris Lessing and Louise Erdrich and Elena Ferrante exist. I look over at my hero shelf and see Philip Levine, Rainer Maria Rilke, Virginia Woolf, Shunryu Suzuki, Adrienne Rich, Pablo Neruda, Subcomandante Marcos, Eduardo Galeano, Li Young Lee, Gary Snyder, James Baldwin, Annie Dillard, Barry Lopez. These books are, if they are instructions at all, instructions in extending our identities out into the world, human and nonhuman, in imagination as a great act of empathy that lifts you out of yourself, not locks you down into your gender.

Roth, Caine, Miller– “just aren’t the experts you should go to” if you want to understand half the human species; I love that tongue in cheek understatement. I also love her list of “heroes,” although it doesn’t hurt that she names among them many of my own heroes. She says she reads and re-reads work that she has opinions about–and admits her opinions may not align with the generally-accepted opinions. Which is fine, since she reminds us, quoting Arthur Danto, art can be dangerous, risky, uncomfortable, as long as it means something.

She does raise the point that “[y]ou read enough books in which people like you are disposable, or are dirt, or are silent, absent, or worthless, and it makes an impact on you. Because art makes the world, because it matters, because it makes us. Or breaks us.” In this way, she reminds us that readers are people who may have perspectives that vary from one another, particularly as to the social, psychological, or artistic merit of a piece of literature. Lolita, for example. That’s one book she mentions that evoked considerable response from Lithub commenters.

Rebecca Solnit’s response to her detractors–or “volunteer instructors,” as she calls them at one point–and her willingness to walk around the Himalayas with a medical team (recounted in a recent New Yorker piece) count as reasons her work has moved to the top of my to-read pile of books. I think I will start with Men Explain Things to Me and A Field Guide to Getting Lost.

 

Online reading, online learning

I blog, therefore I am part of the digi-technological consciousness.

Here’s a situation Descartes might have had fun imagining…have we invented our own “evil genius” in Boolean or algorithmic forms? I won’t venture there, as I am not tech-savvy or social-media savvy enough to philosophize around tech aspects of modern culture; though, yes, I do use portal systems when I teach; I do use (limited) forms of social media for communication and to publicize my work; I do take part in the networks community online; my poems and essays appear in online journals; I read blogs and online journals although in general I prefer paper, especially for book-length works.

It isn’t as if I don’t consider the intellectual challenges these communication platforms offer. It would be silly to ignore them. They are not going to go away any time soon. One question is, however, to what extent should I employ or embrace them?

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Recently, I’ve had a poem published in Carbon Culture Review, an online and print journal that states, as part of its mission, that the publication “advocates a creative, thoughtful and visually appealing dialogue about our complex relationship to technology. We strive to promote the work of those who employ technology and utilize technological designs and terms in art and literature.” The Intersection of Technology + Literature + Art, says the masthead; interdisciplinary in scope–that’s something I find fascinating, so I’m happy to report a rather atypical poem of mine has found a place in the new issue (“21st Century Research”).

I read Chronicle of Higher Education online and have linked to several of its essays in past posts. Lately, I find much of interest in Hybrid Pedagogy, a fairly new digital source about technology, teaching, radical re-thinking of the educational framework, and exploring the possibility of intentional, compassionate connections between teachers and students–even in the digital world. Here’s a recent essay that appeals to me: “Teaching as Wayfinding.” I am still wrestling with the challenges of how to create a genuinely interactive and personal learning space in the classroom, let alone via distance education. There is so much to learn, and welcoming interdisciplinary synthesis into the discourse of the humanities offers intriguing potential.

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Speaking of the interdisciplinary: I am pleased to report that The College of Physicians of Philadelphia chose one of my poems, “How the Body Works” as an honorable mention in its Poetry Month contest celebrating medical/health themes in poetry. [You can also check my Events page for information and tickets.]

The College, a professional medical organization founded in 1787 (same age as the U.S. Constitution), is also the site of the Mütter Museum, which has a terrific slogan: “Are you ready to be disturbingly informed?” The College boasts a library of historic significance.

It’s a great venue for a reading, and if you are in the area, please join us. My brother says the food is really good, too–the ticket price includes a dinner. How festive is that!?

Brains on literature

Here’s a brief article that references a small study of how the human brain responds to reading poetry:

http://www.exeter.ac.uk/news/featurednews/title_324631_en.html

“Some people say it is impossible to reconcile science and art, but new brain imaging technology means we are now seeing a growing body of evidence about how the brain responds to the experience of art. This was a preliminary study, but it is all part of work that is helping us to make psychological, biological, anatomical sense of art.”

Here’s another short write-up from The New York Times on a somewhat similar topic, research into how reading literary work (specifically fiction, in this experiment) improves social skills–empathy and the ability to interpret other people’s feelings in particular.

http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/10/03/i-know-how-youre-feeling-i-read-chekhov/?_r=2&

The article says that “after reading literary fiction, as opposed to popular fiction or serious nonfiction, people performed better on tests measuring empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence.” The psychologist researchers are from my alma mater, The New School for Social Research, and their work connects intriguingly with theory of mind studies.

What makes literary fiction challenging to read is the same thing that makes it so richly rewarding to the human brain: critical thinking is required, inference, active engagement with the text, the need to recognize and validate other points of view than one’s own and, often, to speculate on motives and meanings:

In literary fiction, like Dostoyevsky, “there is no single, overarching authorial voice,” [David Comer Kidd] said. “Each character presents a different version of reality, and they aren’t necessarily reliable. You have to participate as a reader in this dialectic, which is really something you have to do in real life.”

Interdisciplinary understanding of the importance of the arts to human consciousness, learning, and compassion: Am I surprised?

In which I discuss the theme of death in literature

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Victor Brombert offers an octogenarian’s reflections on death, literature, and the creative process (storytelling, history-creating, poetry-inspiring) in a recent Chronicle of Higher Education. I found his musings of interest partly because I have best beloveds who are octogenarians and partly because Brombert is a dyed-in-the-wool humanities professor (professor emeritus of Romance and comparative literatures at Princeton) whose thoughts on mortality cannot help but have been shaped by his long associations with such texts, as well as by his long life and his experiences. “After Omaha Beach, where I discovered that I decidedly did not have a heroic vocation, I also discovered between the hedgerows of Normandy how repellent the smell of dead cows and dead men can be, how repulsive the sight of half-burned tank drivers finished off by machine-gun bullets, their bodies folded over the turrets, or of gunmen and mechanics who had tried in vain to crawl out of escape hatches,” Brombert recalls; then, he reminds himself that he had considerable warnings about war’s savagery–through literature–citing Montaigne and The Iliad. In fact, he says that “the theme of death stood for me in a special relation to literature.”

About death’s “special relationship with literature,” my education agrees with his. Before I ever had much experience with death in the immediate small circle of my own life, I had encountered it in the books I read voraciously. I knew death could be gruesome, sentimental, slow, quick, painful, transformative, pointless. But I was very young, and I did not, could not, fully understand with what I was engaging: the very question of being and non-being, of what comes “after” and if there is an “after,” and if those words as we know them (temporally) mean anything at all.

Brombert says: “I began to understand that all art and the love of art allow us, according to André Malraux’s famous pronouncement, ‘to negate our nothingness.'” His reading, his studies of art and humanist thinking, “elated” him. He felt drawn to Montaigne, whose essays he calls “flexible and meandering” and whose reflections on mortality seemed affirming in that death itself was “subject to laws of transition, passage, natural progression, or process.”

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Brombert recognized his job as a teacher of literature was a kind of giving voice to the dead. Here, I think of Hofstadter’s conclusion about human consciousness: that it is shared, carried on–in part–by living human beings after the bodily death. Is that troubling, or comforting? Some excerpts:

[W]riting itself was implicitly suffused with the theme of mortality, especially narratives and storytelling in general (the example of Scheherazade of One Thousand and One Nights came to mind) as ways of eluding or delaying the inevitable.

Plato set the tone in the Phaedo when he had Socrates tell his disciples, before drinking the poison hemlock, that true philosophers concern themselves with nothing but dying and death, that philosophy is in fact the study of death. This seemed to me rather excessive.

Though never losing sight of his mortal condition, Montaigne is primarily intrigued by the processes of life, the mutations from day to day, as he watches his own decline and feels, as he puts it, that he is dissolving and slipping away from himself (“Je fons et eschape a moy“). His concern is not with essence or being but rather with transition: “I do not portray being, I portray passing” (“Je peints le passage“). Throughout, his Essays affirm the need to live to the fullest. Yet, in a deep sense, his thought seems prompted by the recurrent sense of the transitory and the perishable.

Kind of dovetails with the concept of impermanence, no?

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On a closing note, and back to my favorite topic of poetry….Billy Collins has claimed that “the theme of poetry is death.” Like Brombert’s assessment of Socrates’ claim, I’m inclined to think this statement is a bit exaggerated. There’s merit to it, however. Worth thinking about.

Collins’ poem “The Dead” offers one way of thinking about death in a poem; this link will take you to a clever animated version of this poem.

And there’s a nice example of paronomasia: animating the dead!

Gopnik enters the English major fray

The New Yorker‘s columnist Adam Gopnik contributes his views about why the English major does or doesn’t matter in the blog accompanying a recent issue. He says, in response to apologists (like me) who contend that English, literature, and the humanities generally contribute to a person’s life experience in subtle, long-term ways:

Well, a humanities major may make an obvious contribution to everyone’s welfare. But the truth is that for every broadly humane, technological-minded guy who contributed one new gadget to our prosperity there are six narrow, on-the-spectrum techno-obsessives who contributed twenty.

Then he points out:

Nor do humanities specialists, let alone English majors, seem to be particularly humane or thoughtful or open-minded people, as the alternative better-people defense insists. No one was better read than the English upper classes who, a hundred years ago, blundered into the catastrophe of the Great War. (They wrote good poetry about it, the ones who survived anyway.) Victorian factory owners read Dickens, but it didn’t make Victorian factories nicer. (What made them nicer was people who read Dickens and Mill and then petitioned Parliament.)

Okay, he’s a bit broad and snarky there–but that’s his style. And nonetheless, Gopnik argues for space in society–if not necessarily in the academy–for the study and discussion and obsession with books and literature. He claims that “the best answer I have ever heard from a literature professor for studying literature came from a wise post-structuralist critic” who said the reason he was a literature professor was because he had “an obsessive relationship with texts.”

I would agree with that reasoning, though I am not a post-structuralist, so far as I know.

I believe that education ought to allow us to follow our passions to whatever logical or surprising ends appear. In light of the huge expense of a university education in the USA, however, perhaps the best question to ask is how to motivate citizens to pursue education individually (see my post on autodidacts). Gopnik calls the estimable Dr. Johnson “the greatest English professor who ever lived,” though he never taught in a university and though his title of “doctor” was honorary, and reminds us that other antecedent writers-on-literature, such as Hazlitt and Sydney Smith, “had to make their living doing something else narrowly related.” Colleges at least offer some employment and a modicum of respect to the humanist interpreters and researchers among us, but we need not be employed by the academy to exercise our obsession with books. That can be done on our own.

Dr. Johnson

Gopnik adds this lovely, wise sentence near the close of his column, and I wish I could convey the value of his idea to every college student I advise: “You choose a major, or a life, not because you see its purpose, which tends to shimmer out of sight like an oasis, but because you like its objects.”

Poems, stories, paintings, sculpture, dance, philosophy, books, books, books…I don’t know my life’s purpose, but I know the “objects” that entrance me.

Here’s something lovely

…from Maria Popova at the Brainpickings site: book loving and writing and art and literacy and library connect to produce this event/display at the New York Public Library. I was in the city just last week–rats, I missed this. (But I did see Ken Price at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and spent part of a lovely afternoon at Untermyer Park again).

~ Please click on the links! (I know they’re kind of hard to see on this theme)~

MEANWHILE…

I’m on blogging hiatus again while I get accustomed to my work week and while we prepare for the Goschenhoppen Folk Festival (or on Facebook here) this coming Friday and Saturday. Not a time to get much writing done, nor much reading.

A festival participant prepares apples for drying

A festival participant (19th c) prepares apples for drying

Young apprentices (18th c) at work

Young apprentices (18th c) at work

Spinning & flashing

While traveling, I finished Octavio Paz’s The Bow and the Lyre and also Dave Hickey’s The Invisible Dragon, two very different books that I’m still churning around in my mind as they intersect on the subject of beauty in the arts.

Hickey’s work has been much more controversial than has Paz’s; but then, he addresses a completely different audience in his book (most specifically art world critics, a contentious bunch to begin with). Both writers spend some time on the idea of rebellion in art, and there’s much to consider on just that topic alone. But I feel as though I need to re-read both books and jot down my thinking because–well, they cover so much that relates to my interests. I cannot keep all of this information, and all of these concepts and revelations, in my mind at once.

My brain’s spinning.

Which is a good thing. To spin is to draw and twist into a thread, to gyrate, whirl, “to evolve, express, or fabricate by processes of mind or imagination” [Merriam-Webster], to twirl, roll and yaw, speed along, etc. When the brain does these things, neurons are firing happily. The brain also needs meditative rest, true, but the whirling of intriguing thoughts is a better activity than the grating stir of anxieties or the dull repetition of too-familiar routines.

About Paz. All of the essays in The Bow and the Lyre are good, but some are better than others–and some just appeal to my interests more than others. The glib aphorisms I complained of earlier turn out to be forerunners of quite thorough explorations into the “what” of poetry and of being. I came away amazed at the breadth of the author’s knowledge, the depth of his close reading, his philosophical forays and his artistic analysis and his creative intuition. We should be glad our Nobel laureates are of this caliber.

Furthermore, coincidentally of course, Paz (writing in the late 1950s and early 1960s) cites Heidegger, who was alive at the time; proto-phenomenologist Husserl; and Deleuze–a philosopher who’s on my to-read list. Also many others, some of whom are Mexican or Spanish poets or dramatists with whom I have little or just passing familiarity, and most of whom are poets and philosophers I’ve read (whew, so I didn’t get too lost in his examples).

My favorite chapter is the one on Image in the poem, but I admire his thinking in so many of these essays. Paz discusses the much-acknowledged need for tension in the poem, a topic I thought I’d already read enough about, but his approach strikes me as particularly clear and apt. Robert Bly has written about the “leap” in a poem (see his small gem Leaping Poetry) and the suggestion of the twist or surprise in a poem is not new. Paz considers the poem as a kind of rebellion because the poem is always outside of the expected cultural norm, because the poem is slippery and cannot easily be pinned down–else it fails. There is also a startling-ness to the good poem–his translator employs the word “fulgurant,” an obscure but specific word meaning amazing in an impressive way–suggestive of a flash of lightning.

The tension need not be so flashy. It can be subtle, but the poem has to have earned its ‘turn.’ How does that happen? Paz says that tension is created in tandem with the reader: the reader is an integral part of the poem. What occurs in the poem (in terms of form, imagery, metaphor, meaning, rhythm, wordplay, etc.) will be unexpected even though the reader anticipates it. In fact, the reader desires the surprise, wants the unpredictable, and the poem will be weaker for the lack of it. It’s like watching a fireworks display. You anticipate the noise, “chrysanthemums” and “fountains,” but you’re never quite sure when exactly the rocket will spew forth its light or what form the explosion will take.

The reader expects change and transformation from the poem, expects puns, twists, leaps, juxtapositions, and all the rest. The reader feels that thrill from a poem when the expectation is justified but the delivery of the surprise nevertheless startles. Paz would say that is a revelation.

And this is only one tiny aspect of this deep and intriguing book. No wonder my head spins, and I feel transformed!