22 July 2009

Last night I had this dream. In the dream, I was searching through some writing on which I was working for a missing page; a page somewhere in the middle had become lost, and I could no longer work on the piece without that missing page. I remember leafing through the pages, turning over the last ordered one (as if the missing page had been typed on the back of it), and shuffling through the front pages as if the missing page were merely misplaced. Of course.

At the moment, I am not working on any writing, and so perhaps my dream represents either a writer’s block dream, or a writer’s dream, which may a redundancy! If the former, then I must feel in my writing life somewhat . . . stuck. I am afraid to sit down and struggle with almost anything that would require some intellectual effort. I think right now I don’t have any spare reserve to use for my writing. I am at best distracted, and at worst, well, incapable of devoting any imaginative effort to anything but daily functioning. So much seemingly that needs to be done that I cannot imagine even an hour devoted almost selfishly to writing.

But perhaps the latter is true, and the dream means that I am searching for a writing project, and that the missing page is the page I should be writing now. Perhaps even this is that page.

I once wrote a paper on S.Y. Agnon’s story “The Book That Was Lost.” In that essay I talked about how my reading is motivated by a vague search for the answer to an unasked question (a borrowing here from Thoreau’s (Walden). I argued there that the answer for my life was always in the book that was lost, and so I have made it my life’s quest to the search for that book. When I find it, I will know.

Of course I realize that any answer is useless without the right question, and as suggested above, the question is yet unknown and unasked.

No book I’m reading at present inspires me, though Taylor’s A Secular Age intrigues. The names and detail overwhelms me; I sense that Taylor is putting into the text everything he has been thinking over his entire life. But the substance of his thought: how we have “buttressed” the self, and therefore, made ourselves impervious to the mystery and unknown; created order for ourselves in order to improve ourselves because this improvement is not God’s work; created our ethics to facilitate our flourishing; and evolved a developing humanism in to which we have retreated from our attachment to God. God has become at best immanent, but at worst, irrelevant if not wholly absent.

I am also reading a book by Yirmiyahu Yovel, The Other Within, about the Marranos in fifteenth century Spain and Portugal. As I understand him, Yovel argues that our modern day self derives from this split. Alienated and alienating condition of the Spanish Jews forced to renounce their Judaism but incapable of doing so wholly.

I came across the word quiddity. It refers to the essence of a thing. I remembered that Joyce used it in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I’ve been thinking of that word with regard to stories—like Joyce’s Dubliners, which as I learned them, were about epiphanies. In each the main character comes to some profound realization that puts his/her life into a wholly different perspective; the character’s understanding of herself changes. Quiddities. The essence of the thing. Stories about essences. Of course, as a post modernist, I don’t believe in essence, but as a fragile human I think I do. That is, at the heart of everything is a complexity that is also an essence.

And I want the complexity of Henry James and Philip Roth. I am in awe of the psychological complexities evident in both, but the narrative complexity of Roth intrigues me. For example, in I Married a Communist, Zuckerman narrates from his position as a 64 year old successful writer but a recluse, and he narrates from his own experiences with Ira and Murray, even as Murray narrates the story of Ira that Zuckerman didn’t know about Ira.

On the one hand, the book reveals the complexity of character. In Ira what appears simple political motivation turns out to be a very complex response to a very personal and individual life. But the same seems true of Eve: her marriages as an attempt to escape her Jewishness, and her own entrapment in her attempt to escape leads her to the alliance which will produce her memoir, I Marrried a Communist (ah the complexity of that title to this story, Zuckerman’s novel, (I Married A Communist), even now excites me) which will effectively destroy not only Ira Ringold, but her self as well. Eve’s relationship to her daughter, Sylphide, herself an attempt to escape her Jewishness, Together, perhaps, Zuckerman and Murray write the story of the Jew in Modern America--

19 July 2009

Au Revoir Les Enfants

In fact, this film has become part of my syllabus in a course called Instructional Analysis, a graduate course I created and which I teach regularly in the Department of Education at University of Wisconsin-Stout. To analyze instruction is, to my mind, an autobiographical project: how one teaches is to a large part determined by how one was taught and how one was taught to teach. Until this material is analyzed, no significant change is really possible. In this course, we study a wide variety of strategies concerning the writing and reading of autobiographies. And to this purpose, we screen Au Revoir Les Enfants, a film directed by Louis Malle.

To my mind, this is only marginally another Holocaust film. The events of this film are not explicitly situated in the Holocaust, the way Schindler’s List is, but this film could not have taken place without the occurrence of the Holocaust. And what I want to suggest is that though the Holocaust underlies the film, it is not to my mind the subject of this film.

Film is a most manipulative medium. Film demands that the perspectives of the viewer be supremely controlled, and in film our ability to choose what we can see and how long we can gaze is wholly in the control of the movie makers. Editing attempts to influence our emotional . responses. Our choices in screening a film are severely circumscribed; we are least free in our responses when we screen a film and most available for manipulation.

I think autobiography is a manipulative medium as well, but in a slightly different manner. When a person writes his/her autobiography, they do so with a teleological purpose. When they begin writing, an autobiographer has an end in view. That is, the autobiographer wants you to see him/her in a specifically defined way; the autobiographer has her character in mind and desires to describe, to explain, to define, even sometimes to explore it for him/herself (Wayne Booth’s autobiography, My Many Selves,is a case in point) . But regardless, the autobiographer writes to portray her/himself to the reader mostly aware of who that self may be. Of course, the reader may interpret the autobiographer’s life in ways different than the autobiographer intended, but it is not the purpose of the autobiographer to write an open life—they are always hiding in very plain sight, to use Wendy Leeser’s wonderful phrase regarding the essayist, essays being a premier mode of autobiography.

And so, I want to suggest to you that the events of this film are about Louis Malle more than they are about the Holocaust, but that the Holocaust helps define the character Louis Malle becomes. And the Holocaust might even define the life Louis Malle has lived and the art he has produced, even when those works have nothing to do with the Holocaust.

Who we think we are is a story we tell about ourselves. Autobiographies are one version of this story.

10 July 2009

Piece of the Puzzle

I have finally finished The Brothers Karamazov. All 776 pages of Dostoevsky’s novel. And I can’t say I enjoyed the read very much at all, though once I got to page 400 I was committed to complete the task. I picked up the novel (fork-lifted the novel) because of a reference in a Tony Kushner one act play to The Grand Inquisitor chapter recalled to me that I had, indeed, never read The Brothers Karamazov, and that The Grand Inquisitor figured centrally in the thought of Western culture. Of course, it turned out that the grand inquisitor was a single chapter in a large book and occurred at the beginning of the novel. There were several (or one!) references to the Grand Inquisitor in the remainder of the book, but it did not at all figure significantly in the plot at all. The chapter does characterize one philosophical position presented in the novel, but I don’t think it warranted reading the entire novel to read the chapter. Indeed, I think the chapter sometimes appears as a short story in literature anthologies. There is an interesting parallel chapter many hundreds of pages later called “The Devil,” and I suspect I could develop some idea from the appearance and positioning of these two chapters, but I don’t have the inclination. And there isn’t an English teacher in the world who wouldn’t demand that Dostoevsky break up some of his paragraphs (which sometimes go on for pages on end) into smaller segments.

But, I sometimes think that life is a great big jig saw puzzle, and we keep fitting pieces together though honestly we haven’t the foggiest idea what the final picture will ultimately look like. And having read and finished The Brothers Karamazov, I feel as if I have fitted a piece into my own personal puzzle, and somehow something seems clearer.

04 July 2009

On Memories and Forgettings: Beginnings

My mother is losing her memory. She forgets many things. Oh, all the normal things: names, faces and places. They say it is irreversible dementia.

I note that my memory lacks some consistency as well. It is not dementia to which I attribute cause, but economy. That is, my thought processes work just fine thank you, and for the most part I can remember all of the characters in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. My sentences can still roll literarily on, and I can still follow the prose of Henry James, Roth’s Zuckerman novels of the 1990s, and the poetry of Shakespearean drama. I can listen equally attentive to the dialogue and silences of Harold Pinter’s plays. I can sing along with a good part of the corpus of Bob Dylan without having to look up the lyrics anywhere, and I know that Ty Cobb’s number was 29. And I don’t even know why I know that latter detail, but am very aware that there are a myriad more ‘things’ I remember and can call up in an instant anytime and anywhere.

But as I said, there are things I don’t remember, and I can’t remember some of the things I’ve forgotten. But I think that I’m not so much forgetting as conserving energies: there are things I need not recall to maintain the narrative of my life (I lied: Ty Cobb’s number figures in a book I read when I was twelve years old!). Eventually, I know how to recover what I think I’ve forgotten; I’m adept at research. I maintain the integrity of my narrative.

Perhaps it is a letting go: there are things that are no longer necessary to instant recall. Memory is not a quantity but a process of organizing what is available into narrative. One needn’t be suffering from dementia to lack narrative power, and loss of memory doesn’t necessarily mean dementia. It could be wisdom.

02 July 2009

On Conversation: A Beginning

Nothing so evident more in Old Times than the Pinter pause. There is so much silence in that play that I wondered how remarkably difficult to construct a stage performance with so much silence at its center. And in the performance I saw at the American Players Theater in Spring Green, Wisconsin, there wasn’t even a great deal of movement. Hence, a stage play with long moments of silence—very long moments—and little action.

And yet . . . this play seems to me to be about nothing but conversation. The characters all talk in a way to avoid saying anything, and whenever they get too close to honesty, they cease to talk. Their silences result from having happened upon a dangerous situation: one false move will set off the explosion that might destroy the delicate balance (ah, the Albee play) which maintains civility and social existence itself. Thus, I suspect, social existence is all founded on fear. Not falseness; the truth of our situation is always available to us, but we would not confront it.

Or perhaps it is that the silences in Old Times result from the incapacity of the characters to articulate their feelings and thoughts. We arrive at some place in our conversation and are stalled by an incapacity to find the words to speak further. Perhaps there is no way to speak honestly—no words which can finally express our thoughts.

Of course, I am reminded of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. There, Vladimir and Estragon keep talking to have something to do and to keep from having to confront the void. The problem with Vladimir and Estragon is that the more they talk the more they keep approaching the void in their conversation. Hence, the significance right now the first words of the play, “Nothing to be done.” If they do not talk, they are confronted by absolute emptiness, but if they talk they arrive always at that emptiness.

This is not an academic paper here. But I am starting to come round to that opinion myself. It is all about talk and conversation. All.