Category Archives: Reading–Personal Benefits

Libraries of the self: Or, are print books more ephemeral than e-books, and is it a bad thing if they are?

There’s a remarkable consistency in the way that readers write about their libraries.  Tropes of friendship, solace, and refuge abound, as well as metaphors of journey and travel that tell the tale of intellectual sojourn that books can occasion and recall for their readers.  Though I cannot recall the details of their first readings, I still treasure my Princeton paperback editions of the work of Soren Kierkegaard, the now ratty Vintage-Random House versions of Faulkner with their stark

Man made of books

white on black covers and yellowing pages,  my tattered and now broken copies of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and Other Poems, and his Selected Essays, held together by a rubber band, the band itself now so old it threatens to crumble into dust.  I keep these books now, not so much because of the information they contain.  Even the notes I’ve written in them aren’t all that entertaining and hold only a little nostalgic value:  I was a much more earnest reader as a younger person, but also duller, less informed, and more predictable, at least to my 51 year old eyes.  Still, these books are the talismans of a journey, and I keep them as stones set up to my memory of that journey, of the intellectual and imaginative places I’ve come to inhabit and the doorways I passed through to get here.  In that sense, a library represents both time passages and the attendant loss as much or more than they represent the knowledge and the information that has been gained.

Ariel Dorfman has a very nice meditation on the relationship between his library and his intellectual, political, and material journey in the September 23rd edition of the Chronicle Review.  In it Dorfman tells the story of his lost library, a library that he had to leave behind in Chile at the beginning of his exile.  The library was partially destroyed in a flood during his absence, and then partially recovered again when he returned to Chile in 1990.  As with many memoirs of reading, Dorfman understands the library as a symbol of the self.

Those books, full of scribbled notes in the margins, had been my one luxury in Chile, companions of my intellectual voyages, my best friends in the world. During democratic times, before the military takeover, I had poured any disposable income into that library, augmenting it with hundreds of volumes my doting parents acquired for me. It was a collection that overflowed in every impossible direction, piling up even in the bathroom and the kitchen.

It was a daily comfort, in the midst of our dispossession in exile, to imagine that cosmic biblioteca back home, gathering nothing more lethal than dust. That was my true self, my better self, that was the life of reading and writing I aspired to, the space where I had been at my most creative, penning a prize-winning novel, many short stories, innumerable articles and poems and analyses, in spite of my own doubts as to whether literature had any place at all in a revolution where reality itself was more challenging than my wildest imaginings. To pack the books away once we fled from the country would have been to acknowledge our wandering as everlasting. Even buying a book was proof that we intended to stay away long enough to begin a new library.

But, of course, Dorfman did begin a new library in his many years of exile, and his Chilean library was altered not only by the natural disaster of the flood, but also by the human transience whereby Dorfman himself changed and so changed his relationship with his books.  The changing shape of Dorfman’s library becomes an image of historical and personal change that must finally be embraced since it is unavoidable.

Six months later I had left Chile again, this time of my own free will, this time for good. I have puzzled often how I could have spent 17 years trying to go back and then, when I did indeed return, I forced myself to leave. It is still not clear to me if it was the country itself that had changed too much or if I was the one who had been so drastically altered by my exile that I no longer fit in, but whatever the cause, it left me forever divided, aware that my search for purity, simplicity, one country and one language and one set of allegiances was no longer possible.

It also left me with two libraries: the one I had rescued back home and the one that I have built outside Chile over the years and that is already so large that not one more new book fits in the shelves. I have had to start giving hundreds of books away and boxing many others in order to donate them to Duke University, where I teach. But no matter how many I get rid of, it does not look likely that there will ever be space to bring my whole Chilean library over.

And yet, I had already lost it once when I left my country and then regained half when that phone call came in 1982, and rescued what was left yet again in 1990 and can dream therefore that perhaps, one day, I will unite some books from Santiago with the thousands of books bought during my long exile. I can only hope and dream that before I die, a day will come when I will look up from the desk where I write these words, and my whole library, from here and there, from outside and inside Chile, will greet me, I can only hope and dream and pray that I will not remain divided forever.

It’s possible, of course, to lament our losses, and I suppose in some sense the vision of a library of the self is a utopian dream of resurrection wherein all our books, all the intellectual and imaginative doorways that we’ve passed through, will be gathered together in a room without loss.  But I also sense in Dorfman’s essay a sense that loss and fragility is one part of the meaningfulness of his books and his library.  I know that in some sense I love my books because they are old and fragile, or they will become that way.  They are treasured not only for the information they contain, but for the remembered self to which they testify.

I started this post thinking I would focus on the ways we sometimes talk about the ephemera of electronic digital texts.  There is something to that, and we’ve discussed that some over at my other group blog on the Digital Humanities.  At the same time, there is another sense in which e-texts are not ephemeral enough.  They do not grow old, they are always the same, they cannot show me the self I’ve become because that implies a history that e-texts do not embody.  While looking at my aging and increasingly dusty library, I feel them as a mirror to the person I’ve become.  Looking at my e-books stored on my iPad I see…..texts.  Do they mirror me?  Perhaps in a way, but they do not embody my memories.

If I give a book away to  a student, I always miss it with a certain imaginative ache, knowing that what was once mine is now gone and won’t be retrieved.  Somehow I’ve given that student something of my self, and so I don’t give away books lightly or easily.  If I give a student a gift card for iTunes….well, perhaps this requires no explanation.  And if I delete a book from my iBooks library I can retrieve it any time I want, until the eschaton, one imagines, or at least as long as my iTunes account exists.

Create or Die: Humanities and the Boardroom

A couple of years ago when poet and former head of the NEA, Dana Gioia, came to Messiah College to speak to our faculty and the honors program, I asked him if he felt there were connections between his work as a poet and his other careers as a high-level government administrator and business executive.  Gioia hemmed and hawed a bit, but finally said no;  he thought he was probably working out of two different sides of his brain.

I admit to thinking the answer was a little uncreative for so creative  a person.  I’ve always been a bit bemused by and interested in the various connections that I make between the different parts of myself.  Although I’m not a major poet like Gioia, I did complete an MFA and continue to think of myself in one way or another as a writer, regardless of what job I happen to be doing at the time.  And I actually think working on an MFA for those two years back in Montana has had a positive effect on my life as an academic and my life as an administrator.  Some day I plan to write an essay on the specifics, but it is partially related to the notion that my MFA did something to cultivate my creativity, to use the title of a very good article in the Chronicle review by Steven Tepper and George Kuh.  According to Tepper and Kuh,

To fuel the 21st-century economic engine and sustain democratic values, we must unleash and nurture the creative impulse that exists within every one of us, or so say experts like Richard Florida, Ken Robinson, Daniel Pink, Keith Sawyer, and Tom Friedman. Indeed, just as the advantages the United States enjoyed in the past were based in large part on scientific and engineering advances, today it is cognitive flexibility, inventiveness, design thinking, and nonroutine approaches to messy problems that are essential to adapt to rapidly changing and unpredictable global forces; to create new markets; to take risks and start new enterprises; and to produce compelling forms of media, entertainment, and design.

Tepper and Kuh , a sociologist and professor education respectively, argue forcefully that creativity is not doled out by the forces of divine or genetic fate, but something that can be learned through hard work.  An idea supported by recent findings that what musical and other artistic prodigies share is not so much genetic markers as practice, according to Malcolm Gladwell 10,000 hours of it.  Tepper and Kuh believe the kinds of practice and discipline necessary for cultivating a creative mindset are deeply present in the arts, but only marginally present in many other popular disciplines on campus.

Granted, other fields, like science and engineering, can nurture creativity. That is one reason collaborations among artists, scientists, and engineers spark the powerful breakthroughs described by the Harvard professor David Edwards (author of Artscience, Harvard University Press, 2008); Xerox’s former chief scientist, John Seely Brown; and the physiologist Robert Root-Bernstein. It is also the case that not all arts schools fully embrace the creative process. In fact, some are so focused on teaching mastery and artistic conventions that they are far from hotbeds of creativity. Even so, the arts might have a special claim to nurturing creativity.

A recent national study conducted by the Curb Center at Vanderbilt University, with Teagle Foundation support, found that arts majors integrate and use core creative abilities more often and more consistently than do students in almost all other fields of study. For example, 53 percent of arts majors say that ambiguity is a routine part of their coursework, as assignments can be taken in multiple directions. Only 9 percent of biology majors say that, 13 percent of economics and business majors, 10 percent of engineering majors, and 7 percent of physical-science majors. Four-fifths of artists say that expressing creativity is typically required in their courses, compared with only 3 percent of biology majors, 16 percent of economics and business majors, 13 percent of engineers, and 10 percent of physical-science majors. And arts majors show comparative advantages over other majors on additional creativity skills—reporting that they are much more likely to have to make connections across different courses and reading; more likely to deploy their curiosity and imagination; more likely to say their coursework provides multiple ways of looking at a problem; and more likely to say that courses require risk taking.

Tepper and Kuh focus on the arts for their own purposes, and I realized that in thinking about the ways that an MFA had helped me I was thinking about an arts discipline in many respects.  However, the fact that the humanities is nowhere in their article set me to thinking.  How do the humanities stack up in cultivating creativity, and is this a selling point for parents and prospective students to consider as they imagine what their kids should study in college.  These are my reflections on the seven major “creative” qualities that Kepper and Kuh believe we should cultivate, and how the humanities might do in each of them.

  1. the ability to approach problems in nonroutine ways using analogy and metaphor;
    • I think the humanities excel in this area for a variety of reasons.  For some disciplines like English and Modern Languages, we focus on the way language works with analogy and metaphor and we encourage its effective use in writing.  But more than that, I think many humanities disciplines can encourage nonroutine ways of approaching problems—though, of course, many professors in any discipline can be devoted to doing the same old things the same old way.
  2. conditional or abductive reasoning (posing “what if” propositions and reframing problems);
    • Again, I think a lot of our humanities disciplines approach things in this fashion.  To some degree this is because of a focus on narrative.  One way of getting at how narrative works and understanding the meaning of a narrative at hand is to pose alternative scenarios.  What if we had not dropped the bomb on Japan?  What if Lincoln had not been shot?  How would different philosophical assumptions lead to different outcomes to an ethical problem.
  3. keen observation and the ability to see new and unexpected patterns;
    • I think we especially excel in this area.  Most humanities disciplines are deeply devoted to close and careful readings that discover patterns that are beneath the surface.  The patterns of imagery in a poem, the connections between statecraft and everyday life, the relationship between dialogue and music in a film.  And so forth.  Recognizing patterns in problems can lead to novel and inventive solutions.
  4. the ability to risk failure by taking initiative in the face of ambiguity and uncertainty;
    • I’m not sure if the humanities put a premium on this inherently or not.  I know a lot of professors (or at least I as a professor) prefer their students take a risk in doing something different on a project and have it not quite work than to do the predictable thing.  But I don’t know that this is something inherent to our discipline.  I do think, however, that our disciplines inculcate a high level of comfort with uncertainty and ambiguity.  Readings of novels or the complexities of history require us to not go for easy solutions but to recognize and work within the ambiguity of situations.
  5. the ability to heed critical feedback to revise and improve an idea;
    • Again, I would call this a signature strength, especially as it manifests itself in writing in our discipline and in the back and forth exchange between students and student and teacher.  Being willing to risk and idea or an explanation, have it critiqued, and then to revise one’s thinking in response to more persuasive arguments.
  6. a capacity to bring people, power, and resources together to implement novel ideas; and
    • I admit that on this one I kind of think the humanities might be weaker than we should be, at least as manifested in our traditional way of doing things.   Humanists in most of our disciplines are notorious individualists who would rather spend their time in libraries.  We don’t get much practice at gathering people together with the necessary resources to work collaboratively.  This can happen, but instinctively humanists often want to be left alone.  This is an area where I think a new attention to collaborative and project based learning could help the humanities a great deal, something we could learn from our colleagues in the sciences and arts like theatre and music.  I’m hopeful that some of the new attention we are giving to digital humanities at Messiah College will lead us in this direction.
  7. the expressive agility required to draw on multiple means (visual, oral, written, media-related) to communicate novel ideas to others.
    • A partial strength.  I do think we inculcate good expressive abilities in written and moral communication, and we value novel ideas.  Except for our folks in film and communication—as well as our cousins in art history—we are less good at working imaginatively with visual and other media related resources.  This has been one of my priorities as dean, but something that’s hard to generate from the ground up.

Well, that’s my take.  I wonder what others think?

Read two poems and call me in the morning

I freely admit that we literary types are wont to say everything comes back to story and that words can change the world.  (We are also given to words like “wont” but that is another matter).  This is mostly just the self-aggrandizement that accompanies any disciplinary passion.  But I also really think there is something serious to the idea that stories can make a big difference to hearts and minds, and therefore our bodies.  This might be that this is because my father was a practicing physician, but also a storyteller, and somehow it seemed to me that these things always fit together in my mind:   The well-told story fixed something, put something broken back together, almost as literally as my father set a bone or wrapped a cast.

Some of you know that I have a growing interest in what is sometimes called the medical humanities, and I have been deeply interested in how the literary arts have been used in healing practices in everything from psych wards to cancer wards to Alzheimer’s facilities.  The recent lovely piece from Kristin Sanner in the  Chronicle Review, “The Literature Cure” is not quite so officially about the medical humanities, but it gets at this idea that somehow literature can be involved in our healing and our wholeness, even in the midst of dying and disease.  A few notes from Sanner,  on how her battle with breast cancer both changed her sense of literature and on how her commitment to literature changed her understanding of and response to her disease.

English majors and reluctant students of literature in my general-education courses often ask me questions like: “What exactly can you do with a degree in English?” “Why read all of these books from the past?” Before my cancer diagnosis, I would answer the English majors with practical examples. You could go into publishing or journalism, I told them, or go to graduate or law school. To the general-education students, I would answer with a vague “literature enriches our lives and makes us more well-rounded individuals.”

After my cancer diagnosis, my responses changed, becoming more universal and less practical. We read and study literature, I told my students, because it helps us understand how to live and how to die. It shows us how to persevere in the face of adversity, how to reach into our personal depths and find both meaning and will. It reminds us of the dichotomous fragility and tenacity of earthly living. It also teaches us how to care for those who suffer.

At a time when colleges and universities are making unilateral cuts to humanities programs, these reasons seem pertinent. Each of us, unfortunately, will experience adversity at some point in our lives. Many of us will find ourselves facing a tragedy, a trauma, or a loss that cannot be explained in simple terms. Conventional medicine and science may help us cope in a practical, physical sense—they may even cure us of our illnesses and pain. Religious faith will temper the suffering for some. But it is our universal stories—written, oral, and visual—that help us navigate through these adversities with grace and courage. For many of us, stories give us the hope that we may be able to bear the burdens of our afflictions and live fully, even as we are dying. Stories teach us that suffering and perseverance unify us as humans in a way that transcends race, religion, and class.

…………………………………………….

Throughout my battle with cancer, I have turned to literature and writing to make sense of this miserable and mysterious disease. Books help me understand that human suffering is universal. They have also taught me empathy—how to reach out to others who suffer. In a world where spite and hatred mark the rhetoric of so many, such an intangible attribute should be a vital, required outcome of every student’s educational experience.

Indeed.

Borders fantasies

Book lovers have always turned a blind eye to the god Mammon, remembering only with regret the fact that the house they live in with their truest love was bought and paid for by the leering uncle down the street. Jonathan Gourlay took up that ill-begotten relationship in a nice personal essay on the demise of Borders. For Gourlay, Borders was an opportunity missed whose demise was figured long ago in it’s decision to skip a flirtation with the labor movement and bend the knee to a corporatist ethos.

“For Borders, which first opened in 1971, the end began when it was sold to K-Mart in 1992. By the time I got there, three years later, only a few of the stalwart Borders believers remained to try to change the store from within. Within a few months of my arrival, Neil gave up and retired to play in his band, The Human Rays. I don’t know if the band was real or Neil just thought it was amusing to retire and join The Human Rays. His friendly management style didn’t jibe with the new owners.

“Neil’s replacement was a guy named Doug. Doug had the personality of a pair of brown corduroy pants. We all hated Doug. We hated him because he was not Neil. Underneath that hatred was a hatred of what Doug represented: corporate masters and the loss of our own identity. With Neil we labored under the impression that we were cool. Under Doug we just labored.

This romantic vision may have a grain of truth.  But it’s worth remembering that scrolls and codexes(codices?) required immense amounts of money–and so wealthy patrons who had to be appeased–to produce. And at some level when you come down to it a book is a commodity as surely as a coke can. So we like to imagine ourselves as counter cultural in our love of texts, but that romantic ethos is purchased at a price like everything else.

The promise of the Internet is in part the idea of thinking and writing and reading without the necessary intervention of the dollar bill. But is that too just a romantic fancy?

Reading and Redemption

I saw Atonement last night, the Oscar-nominated film based on Ian McEwan’s award winning novel. I’m kind of vaguely interested in what happens to novels when they become films, but more so in films and novels that are in some way about the process of reading and writing. I have no idea about McEwan’s novel itself—I hope I can get to it someday—but I found the conceptual interaction between visual and textual storytelling—between viewing and reading—very layered and complex in the film. To some degree compelling, but also troubling.

Because I get to these things about three weeks after everyone’s seen the film, I’m going to assume whoever reads this post has already watched the movie (fair warning if you think the ending is given away). The interplay between reading/viewing and writing/performing is there throughout the film, of course. The main character, Briony, is a budding novelist of 13 whose urgent hormone-driven plays are transparently presented as sublimated efforts to deal with her adolescent crush on a older young man, Robbie, who is in love with her older sister, Cecilia. This love of a young girl for an older man is perversely reversed when another young man about the age of Robbie rapes her young friend.

Briony has seen the rape, but using her well-practiced imagination, and perhaps revenging herself on Robbie for loving her sister instead of her, accuses Robbie of the deed. Briony’s decision to fabricate Robbie’s role is caught in the following clip. Too bad it doesn’t start just a bit earlier, where we see the two girls building a story based on their own fears, needs, and class stereotypes.

“Atonement” is, of course, about whether or not one can atone for the past. Can the past be repaired? Even to some degree, does Briony need to atone for the past? Can a young girl of 13 be held responsible for an act, however reprehensible, that can readily be understood as an act of immaturity rather than an act of adult malice? Even, can any action by a much older and much changed Briony count in any way for atonement of sins by the younger child she resembles but in no way repeats. Are our older selves, in so many ways discontinuous with the children that we were, even capable of repenting for sins that were in some very real sense committed by someone else? This distance is registered in the film by having actresses who are similar in appearance—at least in, implausibly, retaining the same haircut for approximately 60 years—but who are otherwise obviously very different people “playing” the same person. Again, this question of atonement is perversely registered in that the actual adult rapist “atones” for the past by eventually marrying the young girl he raped when she comes of age. While the true agent of brutality goes on to live out the Western mythology of human fulfillment in marriage, Robbie and Cecilia are forever separated by the sins of someone else.

For my purposes I’m interested in the layered question of whether writing and reading—whether an act of and engagement with the imagination—can atone for sins committed in the world. How does the imagination act on the world? This is most pronounced in the conclusion of the film where we cut to a latter-day television interview with an elderly and ill Briony, played by Vanessa Redgrave, who has just written her final novel, final because she has realized that she has incurable and progressive dementia that is gradually destroying her ability to remember and to use language.

We immediately understand as viewers that the movie we have just been watching is this last novel—rendered visually. We have been the reader/viewers of the novel, which is supposedly autobiographical. However Briony/Vanessa Redgrave informs us that the story didn’t really end as she left it in the scenes we had just seen. Robbie did not return from Europe to be with Cecilia. He died on the beaches of Dunkirk from sepsis. Briony is never reconciled to Cecilia—as the film had just made it appear. Instead, Briony had been too cowardly to find her sister and make the attempt at reconciliation. Cecilia character died in the bombing of London, living alone and estranged from her family because she had refused to believe that Robbie was a rapist and had refused to renounce her love for him.

The elder Vanessa Redgrave/Briony explains her decision to give the novel/movie a happy ending for two reasons—readers could not accept the reality, and because the imagined ending was an act of repair, giving Robbie and Cecilia a life of joy together—symbolized by life on Dover Beach—that had eluded them because of Briony’s deception.

The two reasons, I think, work in very different direction, and finally don’t completely hold together. I’m not completely taken with the notion of readers needing the happy ending. It’s true, of course, that Hollywood films and any number of romance novels make their way in the world on the hunger for uncomplicated fantasy. But is it the case that human beings are so unused to the idea that the innocent die while the guilty go free and live happily ever after that we refuse it in our literature? Indeed, isn’t it our literature that teaches us this repeatedly. It feeds the generally tragic sense of reader-geeks that their own nobility is tragically unrecognized in the world at large. It is played out by English professors who grump that their C students get jobs right out of college that pay more than they make as tenured professors.

Still, this notion does comport with the general tenor of the film. Briony’s sin is first and foremost an act of the imagination. She “sees” what she wants to see so that it will reflect her own story in the world. Her refusal to allow the world to be more complicated that her own seeing is the source of her original accusation. In a very real sense, Briony’s imagination is what she must atone for. Imagination is her original sin—her writing is, after all, a particular way of reading the world that refuses to let the world be what it is truthfully. Her imagination is a thirteen-year-old act of violence on the world, and results in very real violence to many people down the line.

And so, can we really buy the elder Vanessa Redgrave/Briony’s assertion that she is somehow redeeming the lives of Cecilia and Robbie, giving them what they couldn’t otherwise have in reality? Something she wants to understand as an act of generosity and even love. I’m not sure. To some degree this could be connected with the work of someone like Ernst Bloch who insisted that the utopian function of art was to say “And Yet” to life, to insist that “reality” did not have the final say if that final say was understood to be beyond the act of human agency, human shaping, human imagination. In the same fashion, if atonement is possible, it seems to me that atonement must be an act that includes the imagination.

Still, is this an act that the imagination can carry out in reference to our own actions in the past? No human action is every finished in and of itself. Rather, it is read and reread, and its meaning accrues and changes by the means and contexts through which it is reread. I sometimes tell students I prefer to understand God as a reader than a writer. Redemption is an act of reading and discovering the possibilities in a life-text that could not have been imagined by those individuals and other historical agents who brought that life-text into being in the first place. But I guess what makes me leery of this particular act is Briony’s act of self-justifying imagination. Can Briony atone for the failures of her imagination by another act of the imagination that further falsifies the lives of those that she has damaged, however “innocently” or unknowingly? I tend to think that this isn’t atonement but self-justification.

On the other hand, what we finally get from Briony-Vanessa Redgrave is not imagination as atonement, but a very different secularized Christian practice—Confession. Briony apparently tells the truth to the reader at the end of the story, and the reader/viewer is the only person in the position to forgive. Briony’s confession of what actually happened is, at least putatively, something that removes her own imagination as an agent in her own redemption. She no longer writes someone different from who she is, but says who she is and what she has done and failed to do, and what the consequences have been. The production of art that moves a reader is no compensation for the evil that produces it. But the frank confession of the truth is a work of art in which we recognize ourselves. We forgive her because we see in her all the unthinking dishonesties by which we have harmed others and ourselves. In her need for us, we recognize our own need for forgiving readers.

In Praise of Shyness, Solitude, and Oppositional Defiant Disorder (And All Other Personality Disorders Associated with Reading): Or, What’s Wrong With Being Disconnected?

A review posted on spiked-online.com, “Humanity, Though Art Sick,” discusses Christopher Lane’s new book Shyness: How Normal Behaviour Became a Sickness. Among other things it appears that Lane discusses the exponential pathologization of the human race at the hands of the American Psychiatric Association, with particular emphasis on the way shyness or a tendency toward introversion has gradually come to be seen as a deviation from human normality.

A couple of excerpts from Helene Guldberg’s review:

‘In my mother’s generation, shy people were seen as introverted and perhaps a bit awkward, but never mentally ill.’

So writes the Chicago-based research professor, Christopher Lane, in his fascinating new book Shyness: How Normal Behaviour Became a Sickness. ‘Adults admired their bashfulness, associated it with bookishness, reserve, and a yen for solitude. But shyness isn’t just shyness any more. It is a disease. It has a variety of over-wrought names, including “social anxiety” and “avoidant personality disorder”, afflictions said to trouble millions’, Lane continues.….

Lane writes: ‘Beginning in 1980, with much fanfare and confidence in its revised diagnoses, the American Psychiatric Association added “social phobia”, “avoidant personality disorder”, and several similar conditions to the third edition of its massively expanded Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. In this 500-page volume… the introverted individual morphed into the mildly psychotic person whose symptoms included being aloof, being dull, and simply “being alone”.’ Shyness now allegedly almost rivals depression in magnitude, a ‘sickness’ for which ‘almost 200million prescriptions are filled every year’ in the USA. Apparently, social phobia – shyness – ‘has become a pandemic’, says Lane….

The sad consequence of this state of affairs is that the range of ‘healthy behaviour’ is being increasingly narrowed. ‘Our quirks and eccentricities – the normal emotional range of adolescence and adulthood – have become problems we fear and expect drugs to fix’, Lane writes. ‘We are no longer citizens justifiably concerned about our world, who sometimes need to be alone. Our affiliations are chronic anxiety, personality or mood disorders; our solitude is a marker for mild psychosis; our dissent, a symptom of Oppositional Defiant Disorder; our worries, chemical imbalance that drugs must cure.’

In general this book—at least based on the review—seems simpatico with the recent essay by Eric Wilson in the Chronicle of Higher education (Yes, the essay that I generally dissed in an earlier post, but which I still think was topically interesting. According to Wilson:

A recent poll conducted by the Pew Research Center shows that almost 85 percent of Americans believe that they are very happy or at least pretty happy. The psychological world is now abuzz with a new field, positive psychology, devoted to finding ways to enhance happiness through pleasure, engagement, and meaning. Psychologists practicing this brand of therapy are leaders in a novel science, the science of happiness. Mainstream publishers are learning from the self-help industry and printing thousands of books on how to be happy. Doctors offer a wide array of drugs that might eradicate depression forever. It seems truly an age of almost perfect contentment, a brave new world of persistent good fortune, joy without trouble, felicity with no penalty.

Why are most Americans so utterly willing to have an essential part of their hearts sliced away and discarded like so much waste? What are we to make of this American obsession with happiness, an obsession that could well lead to a sudden extinction of the creative impulse, that could result in an extermination as horrible as those foreshadowed by global warming and environmental crisis and nuclear proliferation? What drives this rage for complacency, this desperate contentment?

I’m not sure that this amounts to a backlash, but anecdotally it does seem to me that there’s been a little more questioning of the notion that we ought to get rid of every hiccup in our emotional well-being. Recently a mother of one of my children’s friends told me they had taken their child off mood-altering medication. The child has responded with new confidence in class and by growing two inches in two months. Re. moods….Maybe there’s something OK about feeling that there’s something askew in a world where men and women are coming home maimed from a foreign war in which they’ve done far more maiming of women and children than our own country would ever politically endure in its wildest dreams or nightmares. Maybe it’s Ok for a teenager to feel that they don’t fit in so well with the in crowd. I think we think every such teenager is on the brink of Columbine. Maybe feeling a little disconnected will lead them to … read books. Hey, maybe it’s Ok to not feel wonderful, and maybe, just maybe it’s Ok to not want to join in with the gang all the time. Gangs, after all, are called gangs for good reason.

For my own purposes, I’m intrigued by the degree to which behaviours often associated with reading fall along the lines of…well…currently defined personality disorders. I mean, read the history of readers from Jean Toomer to Richard Rodriguez to Anna Quindlen. (To Pete Powers, if I had an autobiography out there that anyone would read). We are not, for the most part, the types who are great joiners. I mean, Joyce Carol Oates is one of my heroes. A person who spends her life alone in a room, apparently, about 14 hours a day, doing little more than disgorging words in to a computer.

Indeed, I remember as a college student reading an essay wherein Walker Percy says something like there’s nothing more alienating for a sad and lonely person than reading a book about happy people while sitting on a bus full of happy people. (Actually, I think there is something more alienating in my experience; attending a party full of happy people and not having anything at all on hand to read, not even a book about happy people). By contrast, the happiest thing in the world for such a person is to read a story about a sad and lonely person while sitting sad and lonely on a bus.

Percy didn’t make me want to go out and join a book group. He did make me smile and ask “How did he know?” I didn’t have to be with Walker Percy and share a hot toddy to know I was not alone, less alone than I often feel at parties with people sharing hot toddies. (Which, as I think of it, I never am since hot toddies are from Louisiana and I don’t think they know how to make them in Pennsylvania.)

This leap is full of logical fallacies, but it seems to me no accident that the apparent decline in reading of fiction and of levels of reading comprehension has accompanied the pathologization of solitude in American culture. It hasn’t just been the American Psychiatric Association. It’s been in business with business models that emphasize working groups rather than individual initiative. It’s been in religion and it’s been in the discussion of family values.

(Let me say that although I am a Democrat I nearly became nauseated when Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John Edwards proclaimed in their last debate “We’re all family.” Good Grief. It’s enough to make one think again about John McCain. Anything to escape the cloying grip of politics family style. We aren’t a village or a family. We are a big beast of a country, largely run by a military-industrial complex intricately intertwined with a system of global finance and corporate capitalism that even leading economists admit that they can’t fully comprehend. I would like to believe that our politicians realize we don’t want the country run by our Aunt Joe or Uncle Sue. No accident that John McCain spent five years alone in a brutal cell. He learned something all the joiners may never figure out).

Above all things, of course, the ideology of the internet–with its relentless drumbeat of connection, connection, connection–teaches us that lonerdom is peculiar and worthy of suspicion . Ever faster, ever more omnipresent, ever more inescapable. The compulsion to “friend”–the ubiquitous and sad new verb of our era–utter strangers. Even those that critique the internet as not really connecting us at all—as Lee Siegel apparently does in in his newest book on internet culture—even these critics exalt the ideal of connectedness above all else. Internet connection is bad, not because connection is worthy of thought or criticism, but because the internet purportedly does not provide true and authentic connection and community. Everyone and their mother exalts community and connectedness. What new pill or what technology or what community reading program will get us there? Whereas dictatorships control readers and writers by shooting them, we control them by pathologizing the behaviours that might lead…horrors…to hours spent alone doing God knows what.

Indeed, why read anymore at all to confirm the importance of your own solitude and sadness. Take a pill, you’ll feel better in the morning. Or join a book group.

At moments like this I feel like becoming a back-to-the-lander.

Let it be said, maybe we are too connected. Maybe we need more solitude. Maybe we need more silence without the relentless need to hear (or see on screen) the clattering voices of someone else, as if we are too afraid to listen to the clattering voices in our own imagination.

In this spirit, I have to confess that I am less than thrilled with the advent of bookglutton.com (though, in the spirit of America the connected, I’m planning on joining up), which I discovered on a blog at teleread.org this morning. At Bookglutton, you read books collectively online with others, viewing their comments on every page as you go along. Every book a blog. No longer the absorbed attention that borders on the mystical that we experience in traditional intensive reading, caught up in the alternative world created by another’s imagination. Instead, now, even reading books will be like attending movies where one-third of the audience converses on cell phones, another third texts friends on the opposite side of the theater, and the final third feels compelled to engage everyone around them with their commentary–as if they were afraid they might be sitting alone in the dark.

Am I alone in thinking that there is something pathological about this need to connect? Is it possible that a people who has lost the capacity for contented solitude, or even discontented solitude, who has not learned to embrace its own loneliness, is it possible that such a people is maybe just a little bit sick?

Now that you have finished reading my blog, write me a comment. Please. I am feeling disconnected. And lonely. And Sad.

I think I’ll take a pill. Or find someone to friend.

Passion, Politics, and English Studies; Or, What Hillary’s Tears Can Teach English Departments.

The New York Times today gives a serious turn to all the random speculation that Hillary’s tears—or more precisely, near tears—may have played a role in her victory in New Hampshire.

“Short, emotionally charged narratives — story fragments, of a certain kind — can travel through a population faster than any virus and alter behavior on a dime, they say. Under certain conditions, this behavior is especially infectious, research suggests, and anyone eager to play Monday morning quarterback on the New Hampshire vote should take them into account.

“’Any story that is short and powerful and throws into relief exactly the sort of issues people are thinking about at the moment they’re making a decision can have enormous impact,’ said Francesca Polletta, a sociologist at the University of California at Irvine who analyzed the effect of personal stories on the civil rights movement in her book It Was Like a Fever: Storytelling in Protest and Politics.

“Mrs. Clinton’s emotional reaction to a question about how she was holding up under the pressure was not only genuine, many voters apparently decided, but it formed a powerful response to an incident during the most recent debate, when her rival John Edwards sided with Mr. Obama in a pointed exchange to one of her questions. A mininarrative was born.”

The story goes on to show statistically that more undecided women voters lurched toward Hillary in the immediate aftermath of the debate. I hate to say “I told you so,” but in the aftermath I said that I thought the tears would give an immediate 5% bump to Hillary’s poll numbers, this despite seeing all the discussion among women and having a couple of personal conversations with others who were appalled and felt that Hillary had shown an unacceptable weakness that “put women back.”

You don’t need to have a degree in social pscyhology to understand this. You just need to have an elementary grasp of gender narratives in Western culture, and perhaps to pay attention to your immediate emotional instincts before worrying about what people might think if they knew you were feeling. I felt the pull of those tears. (And I’m not even a woman. Imagine.) Leaning toward Obama, and still leaning I must say, I felt that moment pull me back, and to some degree still pulling me back at least to the degree that I’m still willing to listen to what Hillary has to say.

I still think there’s a double standard in play here, and not the one typically assigned to political divisions between men and women. The sympathy vote for Hillary goes to her because, apparently, people thought Edwards and Obama were ganging up on her. I want to say, “Oh, Boo Hoo.” Edwards’s decision to gang up on Clinton was a political calculation that she had all the money, she had a lot of the establishment power, and if he were to have a chance she would have to go. In other words he treated her like he would treat any other man in the race. But many, mostly women, read it as two men ganging up unfairly on a woman. No doubt this could have been in play. But Republicans were ganging up on Romney because he had all the money, a lot of the establishment power, and he seemed vulnerable and open to attack because of the Mormon factor (a calculation for Huckabee at least) and the flip-flop factor (a calculation for everyone). Now if, as he sat down for coffee with potential voters, Mitt had let his voice quaver the next day about how difficult it all was, do we imagine he would be getting a sympathy vote. Somehow I doubt it, but not from women, and certainly not from men. Perhaps from Mormons and those with money. Or those given to changing their minds.

The reaction provoked by Hillary’s tears spoke to very deep gender stereotypes. I just got done performing the role of Alfredo in Verdi’s La Traviata. At one point late in the opera Alfredo publicly berates and shames the diva Violetta—basically calling her a wanton whore (important difference from the cultured courtesan she actually is). In our staging, during this moment Violetta breaks down in tears. All the men and all the women rush or lean in the direction of Violetta even as they shout Alfredo down.

[Hey, isn’t this a fabulous rendition of me singing one of the most difficult pieces in the repetoire (heh, heh).]

Anyway, it seems to me that something similar happened with at least some significant percentage of the undecided vote in New Hampshire. The combination of Obama and Edwards tag teaming and Hillary’s next day tears provoked a rush of female sisterhood and, probably to some degree, male instinct to protect the endangered female. I don’t know if it was planned or not, but the masterstroke of the Clinton campaign was to turn a feminine stereotype in to a political strength.

Still, all that aside, I am actually really interested in the important role of emotion in this election, and in our lives generally. I actually think it was fine that Clinton teared up, and that Obama gets the citizenry’s adrenaline flowing, if not their hormones. In dismissing Barack as a kid who is purveying fairy tales Bill Clinton misses—and bizarrely so, given his history as a politician—that human beings don’t live by reason alone, or by bread.  (Besides outraging the black community–read the blogs, Hillary, the black community doesn’t need Barack to fan anything in to flames)

It’s not just the economy stupid. It’s not just the most rational man or woman for the job. [If this were so, surely Gore would have won in a runaway, the rationalist in me says]. Human beings need to be inspired, they need to be moved, they need to transcend the instrumentalism that dominates their lives day to day and see that such day-to-dayness can be connected to something bigger than themselves. Obama does this seemingly by breathing. Hillary’s tears connected undecided women to some sense of transcendent sisterhood—and, of course, it helped tremendously that the Clinton folks had superior organization in the end.

[Insert huge unjustified conceptual leap of associational logic here]

Ok, well, what does this have to do with English studies? Probably absolutely nothing, I guess. But I’ve been reading a lot lately about the crisis in the discipline, the decline of English majors, the lost sense of purpose, etcetera ad nauseum. There are various things going on here, multiple forms of causation and so forth. Still, I sense a very big disconnect between the normative passions of the profession and the passions and desires of the electorate…er, rather, student body and prospective student body.

Indeed, the idea of talking about the passions of the profession seems to be almost an oxymoron. Isn’t passion the opposite of professionalism? I remember a meeting early in my graduate career at Duke where Stanley Fish said something on the order of “If you think you are pursuing a graduate degree in English because you love literature, you are in the wrong profession.” Well, there is a certain sense in which, as with so many things, Fish is precisely right in this formulation—but perhaps disastrously so.

The professionalism of the discipline functions at odds with the very things that brought people to the discipline in the first place. The profession, seeking the dignity of professionalism and the seriousness accorded academic subjects, necessarily negates the passions associated with literature. Think, for instance, of how readily we talk about having a passion for teaching, and how rare it would be to hear someone at the MLA conference talk about their passion for literature. Good reason for this. We in the academy generally think teaching is for amateurs, and thus something that you can love and be passionate about. Besides the fact that it wins you points with search committees–at least at some schools–whereas being passionate about literature gains you nothing. (“You’re Passionate about literature??? That’s sooo 1950s.”)

Students, however, and prospective students especially in this context, consider our majors not because it will make them better lawyers or middle-level managers, or because they want to be sophisticated cultural critics. In 7 years of running sessions for prospective students I regularly ask them why they are there, why they are even bothering to think about studying literature. In 7 years I have never had a student say even once that they are going to study literature because they want to be a literary critic or literary theorist, I have never once had a student say they are going to study literature because they want to have a dispassionate and philosophical grasp of the semiotic status of nose hair in Jane Austen, and I have never once had a student say they are going to study literature because they hope to study the conflicts in interpretation represented by contemporary cultural theory. Never once. Imagine.

They all say they want to study literature because they love it. Asked why they love it they say because it changed some part of their lives, because it helped them understand others, because it helped them understand themselves, and on and on. All the reasons that we, in our dispassionate dismissing of youthful idealism, have learned to sneer at secretly in our faculty lounges. By some miraculous and unimaginable twist of fate, such 17 and 18 years old had learned to read and get something out of literature and to somehow think it would make a difference to the world if they read more of it. Young people want to be inspired and to be moved, and at our peril I think we’ve dismissed that desire as beneath importance in our quest for professional status.

A couple of examples. As an undergraduate I was a history major and bored to tears by my history profs. Then I had Joe McClatchey, an unknown to almost anyone who didn’t have him as a student or who didn’t work with him at Wheaton College, but the person to whom I dedicated my first book.

Out of Western World Lit I, I remember almost nothing about the books we read (more at some later date on Pierre Bayard’s take on whether books we’ve forgotten can actually be counted as having been read). What I do remember is the day Joe McClatchey showed slides of various satyrs and other vaguely evil beings from Roman mythology. He suddenly shuddered visibly, turned away from the screen, and whispered “Unnatural!” He wasn’t acting. Now, all this is laughable to sophisticates in the current academy. But I was profoundly moved that there was something important to care about in books.

Another day McClatchey was reading Milton describing the fall of Adam in Paradise Lost. In the middle of the passage, Joe McClatchey teared up like Hillary Clinton and said, “I can’t go on.” He closed his book and leaving papers and books behind, fled the room. Again, incredulous laughter from the contemporary sophisticate, but we were all in awe. What it said to me as an undergraduate was, “Wow, there’s something more important going on here than getting a grade, and something more important than taking a class so I can get in to law school.”

Assess that, o ye provosts of the world.

At this stage of the game, of course, we’ve become so sophisticated that we’ve about decided that there is no such thing as “literature” and we have lost an object of critical investigation. May be. But I think we would do better, even in these late days of the English crisis, to recover our first love. To figure out why these things that we can only call “literature” with quotation marks to sanitize our embarrassment, somehow nevertheless move us and change us and teach us, all without and well beyond the teaching that comes from the latest theoretical or critical fad. We need more teachers with a passion for literature, a passion for reading that will match their passion for teaching.

It will, of course, take a great deal more than tears and shuddering to repair the condition of the humanities in the world. But by rediscovering that first love we might discover that our passion leads to conviction, which leads to action and changes in ourselves and in others. We might even discover that students can think that literature rather than our theories about it is relevant to the world.