27 November 2011


In Roth’s American Pastoral, Zuckerman twice in the opening chapter offers an hypothesis about the motive for Swede Levov’s request for a meeting with the famous author. Given the intimations in the letter Swede sends, Zuckerman believes that the Swede, who the writer believed had lived a charmed life, intends to reveal some hidden secret, some ‘shock’ that he had in his life experienced. “I was wrong,” Zuckerman announces. At dinner nothing at all is revealed, and the conversation remains on a mundane, superficial level to which Zuckerman can barely attend and to which he can contribute little if anything. Thus, having probed about for some entry into the Swede and his motives, Zuckerman concludes that, in fact, there is no substratum to Swede Levov. The Swede is all surface. “There’s nothing here but what you’re looking at. He’s all about being looked at. He always was . . . You’re craving depths that don’t exist. This guy is the embodiment of nothing.” As far as Zuckerman is aware, there is no substratum to Swede Levov. And after this assertion, the chapter closes: Zuckerman writes, “I was wrong. Never more mistaken about anyone in my life.” The novel, of course, explores the depths of Zuckerman’s wrong judgment.
I am intrigued by Zuckerman’s admission twice that “I was wrong.” I wondered why Roth would have his character twice announce this error, the first time when he expected revelation from his conversation with Swede Levov, and the second time in not thinking there was anything in Swede to reveal.  Nothing exists between these two possibilities. That is, between the double assertions there is nothing to be known: wrong when we expect something and wrong when we don’t expect anything. Since both presumptions are based in what we think we know, then whatever we know is wrong. “You get them wrong before you meet them, while you’re anticipating meeting them; you get them wrong while you’re with them; and then you go home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again.” The fact is we are always wrong.
Zuckerman doesn’t know what to do with this realization. In a scathing indictment of his own profession he offers an alternative scenario of the writer who closes himself off in a soundless cell and invents people out of words and believes that these inventions are more real than the real people “we mangle in ignorance every day.” Pretending reality does not create it. And Zuckerman acknowledges that “The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That’s how we now we’re alive: we’re wrong.” That would be scann’d.
I guess when we are wrong, which is always, we have something else we can learn learn, even though to learn does not mean that we will then know anything and not be wrong. Of our knowledge of others we will always be wrong and wrong again. But this stance, perhaps, is a way for us to keep on keeping on. Of course, we are assured of nothing, neither in this awareness can we take comfort, but at least in the acknowledgment of our ignorance we may remain curious and become compassionate.
I think another answer comes in the third volume of Roth’s American trilogy, The Human Stain. Zuckerman there asserts a certain knowledge of the relationship maintained between Coleman and Faunia. And Zuckerman writes, “How do I know she knew? I don’t . . . I can’t know. Now that they’re dead, nobody can know. For better or worse, I can only do what everyone does who thinks that they know. I imagine. I am forced to imagine. It happens to be what I do for a living. It is my job. It’s now all I do.”  We imagine and we take our imaginations for knowledge of reality. We live in the world But we do not know: Nobody knows. Zuckerman, at least, remains painfully aware what it is that he doesn’t know and mindful of how he manages that basic and fatal ignorance. “I am forced to imagine. It is my job.” This is the stuff of tragedy, after all, isn’t it? Oedipus does not know but asserts certainty. George Bush asserted certainty but did not know. Nobody knows. We suffer these days from an ignorance of imagination and a failure to understand how all that we know derives from it. We assert what we know, but we are always wrong. 

23 November 2011


There has appeared outside of my cabin a black cat. It had stalked the backyard for weeks sensing, I suppose, the presence of our two well-fed cats living within the house. Of course, whenever I enter the backyard either on my way to or from the cabin the black cat would scurry away in fear. I was opposed to adopting yet another cat that would require food and shelter and veterinary care. After almost twenty-five years of cats, I had resisted the adoption of the two new ones we eventually acquired at the pleas of my daughter vowing I would assume no responsibility for their feeding or care. I even swore to myself they could not sit in my lap and shed all over my clothes.And so I tried as best I could to avoid the black cat that stalked the backyard. But once a week or so ago I carelessly (and thoughtlessly) tossed an unfinished plate of fairly unpalatable food into the brush outside the cabin. And very soon the black cat appeared and lapped up the fare. Actually, over about three days he returned and savored the remains of what I had considered inedible.
     The cat continued to return to the brush under the now bare tree searching for a next meal. I would see it sitting out where it had earlier eaten, or it would sit outside my cabin door staring in, not unlike the house-bound cats sitting at the windows looking out. They, however, are warm, and winter here is icumen in. And I couldn’t bear its suffering. I brought some food out to the cabin and began to feed the animal knowing that this would now condemn me to feed it daily. Oh, I know nature is red in tooth and claw, but I think that if there is sin, then what we humans have done to the animals of the earth is sinful. Perhaps this one is a feral cat, but there are too many mistreated animals roaming about the outdoors abandoned by people who have grown weary of caring for them or become too poor to feed them. There is a long, sordid history of our cruel massacre and exploitation of the animals of the earth. I suppose I am part of that crime.
     In the beginning, the Bible says, all of God's creations were vegetarian, and the lamb and the gazelle were not afraid to lay down with the lion. God blessed Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and said to them: "I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be food for you. And to the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air and all the creatures that move on the ground--everything that has the breath of life in it--I give every green plant for food. And it was so" (Genesis 1:29-30). And all was good.
     But after the flood, God relented and permitted the eating of meat. "Then God blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them, "Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth. The fear and dread of you will fall upon all of the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air, upon every creature that moves along the ground, and upon all the fish of the sea; they are given into your hands. Everything that lives and moves will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, now I give you everything." After the flood God seems to sigh and to acknowledge reluctantly that humans have been, and will continue to be hopelessly, innately immoral and venal. The permission to eat meat—the hunting and killing of animals—is the result of this recognition. After the flood Noah’s first act is to plant the vineyard and get ragingly drunk and his son, Ham, does something unnamable that results in Noah’s curse upon him and his descendants.
     I am usually a vegetarian. But tomorrow is Thanksgiving, and I will sit at a full table at the center of which sits a roasted turkey and I will eat its flesh. It is my yearly acknowledgement of God’s sigh.
    But I will leave a full bowl for the black cat and hope that the temperature does not drop too severely.

21 November 2011

Old Friends

There are certain songs to which I never grow weary of listening. It is not that they appear new with each listening; rather, when each I hear some familiar chord in my soul sounds. These songs are old friends with whom I share my thoughts, my fears, and my confidences. These are the songs that make me feel at home though often they speak of alienation and aloneness. I suppose that the category under which these compositions might fall is Desert Island Songs—and the category traditionally includes those works (songs, albums and novels usually) that I would have to have with me if I were to be marooned on a desert island. Well, I am not marooned on a desert island. I am here and it is now. And there are certain songs to which I never grow weary of listening. I will offer a sample of three that have sounded recently on my iPod:
For forty-five years or so I have listened to Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row.” I will probably listen to it for another forty-five years. The song has always evoked the sense of the world in which I think I live and of the people who populate that world. Desolation Row is where Lady and I live out our lives, and with each hearing I recognize better another part of the scene. “All these people that you mention/Oh I know them, they’re quite lame/I had to rearrange their faces/And give them all another name.” I have not searched for the faces, though I am certain that they all have other names. And I have never tired of looking at the life on Desolation Row nor the behaviors of its residents. Alas. I am one. And behind Dylan’s nightmarish vision I delight in the intricate guitar accompaniment of Charlie McCoy that delights and surprises me with its steady and unpredictable movement that comments intricately on the poem.
For the same amount of years I have listened to Eric Anderson’s “Thirsty Boots.” For me this is a song of struggle and solidarity though not at all one of triumph. Anderson offers respite to his weary friend long on the road: “So why don’t you take off your thirsty boots, and stay for awhile.” But implicit in the offer is the acknowledgement that soon he must be going out again. For some reason I associate this song with the failed candidacy of George McGovern to whom I looked for a way out of hell, and when I hear the song I am reminded of the struggle and my place in it.
Finally, there is Bill Staines’ song, “Show Me the Road,” both in his own version and that of Harvey Reid. Here it is a single phrase to which I am drawn. He sings, “Show me a sign, tell me a reason/Cold winds have scattered these seeds I’ve sown.” In these lines spoken to the universe I hear not a demand but a plea. The supplicant seeks some sense of hope that all his effort has not been in vain. Explicit here is the reality of the cold, harsh winds and the despairing suspicion that our efforts will not bear fruit. Despite our work and intent, our seeds are blown about by cold wind, do not land on fertile soil, and will not grow roots. In these lines I hear resignation but not despondency, and in these lines as well an acknowledgement of our struggle and its cost. Sometimes, I take some comfort I am not alone.

18 November 2011

Shutting Down

We were running this morning. I don’t know what the medicine I’m taking is supposed to be doing, but I am certainly running and feeling better than I have in months. Lately, when they say ‘take this,’ I take it and don’t ask too many questions. I know this response is a lapse on my part of good sense, but when I think the medicine will save my life (of course, I’m being melodramatic, of course) well, I prefer not to know too much and follow their recommendation. In this case, I have no idea what the medicine is meant to do, but it seems to be achieving whatever it was meant to accomplish.
So we were running this morning and today was his day to complain. And yes, he had a few harsh comments to make about the state of the world, the national and local scene, and even his intimate familial web. This is not the best of all possible worlds though it is the only world we possess. Today’s was a typical discourse with which after twenty years we are both familiar. Running enables this kind of release, and our friendship permits it. After about a mile I said, “It sounds like you are ready for Mexico.” He laughed for an answer, and I think I understood. He leaves for Mexico in about three weeks time for a two-week withdrawal. Of course, I’ll miss him, but he’ll return refreshed to refresh me.
Sometimes I feel like I need to emotionally and physically shut down. Close up. Make myself unavailable. Withdraw from human contact so that I question no one and no one questions me. To whisper nothing in nobody’s ear. I am in the midst of a retreat. This withdrawal represents for me a movement along the continuum towards the autistic proclivity of my personality. I think this shift serves to allow me to protect a battered ego, gather up depleted energies, and even renew my imagination. The present book project draws to a close, and it comes time to fill the cup again until it runneth over. I want space enough and time. Almost without my notice the books to be read begin to accumulate: everywhere I go in the cabin and the house there are newly purchased books in a random assortment of categories waiting to be read. The UPS man (yes, it is always a man) and I greet each other on a first name basis, and he even sometimes asks why I need so many books. I tell him it is to make sure he has a job and that I remain sane. Or insane, as the case may be.
I love my Lake of Innisfree and my cabin of clay and wattles made.
“And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow . . .”

13 November 2011

All the News That's Fit?

For a week or so now the front pages of the newspapers have been filled with the allegations against Herman Cain who has been accused of sexual harassment, and the scandal at Penn State that has now cost Joe Paterno his job, the kidnapping of a baseball player in Venezuela, and the sudden divorce of Kim Kardashian after 24 days of marriage.  Oh, yes, there have been steady reports on the financial crisis in Europe and the fall of the Berlusconi and Papandreou governments in Italy and Greece respectively, but I hear in these reports a tone of derision and contempt. As if our economy isn’t in shambles and our behavior can in no sense be adjudged complicit with the economic turmoil now besetting Europe. As if we have managed our affairs with skill and concern for the welfare of our citizenry. As if our policies are above reproach.
But the front pages remain consumed with sex scandals. Themselves absurd, newspapers are replete with absurdities. George Bernard Shaw noted that “Newspapers are unable, seemingly to discriminate between a bicycle accident and the collapse of civilization.” Henry David Thoreau held a very low opinion of newspapers. In his journal Thoreau advises, “Do not entertain doubts, if they are not agreeable to you. Send them to the tavern. Do not eat unless you are hungry; there’s no need of it. Do not read the newspapers.” For Thoreau, the newspapers were filled with idle gossip that was not worth the paper on which it was printed or the time it would take to even glance at it. He said,  “I do not know but it is too much to read one newspaper in a week.” Of course, a single newspaper contains all of the week’s news, though sometimes (but not always) the names do daily change. American writer A.J. Liebling said, “People everywhere confuse what they read in newspapers with news.” For Thoreau, the news took one away from what was, in fact, important: the wealth of the day. After all, who wants yesterday’s papers, and yet that is what newspapers offer: the events that occurred yesterday and will certainly happen tomorrow again. Thoreau bemoaned the time spent on the news asserting that our attention to them was a symptom of the emptiness of our internal lives. He says, “In proportion as our inward life fails, we go more constantly and desperately to the post-office. You may depend on it, that the poor fellow who walks away [from the post office] with the greatest number of letters, proud of his extensive correspondence, has not heard from himself this long while.” Sometimes all a person knows is what he reads in the Daily News.
A story is told: Once, a foreign journalist came to America to do a series of articles on the quality of life of the workers. After all, the United States has served as the Promised Land for countless dreamers and believers. Give us your tired and your poor, your sick of heart. Of course, it took the reporter some time to find a worker, most of the jobs having been either transferred out of the country or become non-existent in this most recent economic crisis. Finally, at a local Wal-Mart store, the correspondent approached what the company likes to call an associate.

“Do you find your job rewarding?” he asked.
Ah, that is very good. And what is your home like?”
“Oh, it is affordable, spacious, and clean.”
Indeed, the journalist was becoming not a little envious. “And during your time off, how do you spend your leisure.”
“Oh, we go often as a family to theater or to the opera. Several evenings a month I attend evening classes, and on the weekends I spend a great deal of time with my family, my friends and colleagues.”
“Do you read the newspapers?”
“Well, of course, I do,” the associate responded indignantly, “How else would I know how to answer all of your stupid questions?”

11 November 2011

Parmenides after Trilling

For the most part I have come to understand, education today has little to do with learning, which is a continual and difficult process that must be boundless. Education today seems rather to have everything to do with achievement, which has a measure and an end. Learning means that there is no answer, but in education the answer is ubiquitous. Evidence for this exists everywhere in the structures of the school. There are finite classes that are bound by beginning and ending dates, at the former one is given a syllabus and at the latter a grade. Every class is structured to arrive at a conclusion that will lead clearly to the next day and follows immediately from the previous one. “What did I do wrong” is the question posed and not “what did I learn?” And at the semester’s end another check mark is made to the credit audit report and another step towards graduation is said to be completed. And it is on to the next class.
I wonder in what class students are taught that learning has no end and that learning ought to engage them in the mire and the muck of life rather than keep them from it. I have known them both, in fact, have appreciated my engagement in the rare air of philosophy and the rank remains of the world. Perhaps it is that I have lived a life of privilege and enjoyed the luxury of endless learning that inclines me to the former. In my life though I have often struggled I have not suffered. And perhaps that has led me to Thoreau more than Melville, though of late it is often to the darker side of Thoreau and Mt. Ktadn that I am attracted. I think Thoreau finally might have understood Moby Dick though he might have hated its implications.
In his lovely essay on George Santayana that seems to have been a review of a publication of his letters, Lionel Trilling expresses an admiration for Santayana’s ability to define himself in this American world. Trilling says that Santayana’s critique of the American poets who retreated to Europe, or of his Harvard friends who ‘petered out’ was “not that they were worn out by American life, not that they were hampered by economic circumstances, or perverted by bad ideals; it was that they did not know how to grasp and possess . . . did not know how to break their hearts on the idea of the hardness of the world, to admit the defeat which is requisite for any victory, to begin their effective life in the world by taking the point of view of the grave.” I think what Trilling refers to here is Santayana’s acknowledgement of the inability of these ‘poets’ to accept how difficult living in this world must be, and how that difficulty led to a certain tragic view of life that was wisdom. Finally, from that acceptance all goodness might come.
Thus it is that Santayana considers the smile of Parmenides, an ironic response to a young Socrates who complains about the “‘ideas’ of filth, rubbish, etc. with which he is surrounded and which he would avoid.” Parmenides and Santayana recognized that to be wise Socrates must accept his engagement in all ideas that stem from the world because that is finally where we must live. It might not be pleasant but it is certainly real. Perhaps my scherzo is a response to this view of the grave, especially as it follows the marche funebre.
And so I think my involvement in education has led me to appreciate that smile of Parmenides as in the classrooms I experience too many who would avoid the world’s hardness to find where they might comfortably rest their heads.