31 May 2012

Footnotes et al.

D.W. Winnicott says: “I shall not first give an historical survey and show the development of my ideas from the theories of others, because my mind does not work that way. What happens is that I gather this and that, here and there, settle down to clinical experience, form my own theories, and then, last of all interest myself to see where I stole what. Perhaps that is as as good a method as any.” I have quoted this as the epigraph of my book I’m Only Bleeding, and lately I think often of Winnicott’s statement. The footnotes in Winnicott’s Playing and Reality , for the most part, are explanatory. Though he appends a bibliography to his work, he actually quotes few authorities other than himself. I think there is something so Emersonian about it: the thinking man is always alone. Frank Smith once said something similar about the development of his knowledge: he argued “It is impossible to list sources for ideas contained in this book, but not because I want to claim all the credit for myself. The notion that ‘scholarly’ writing can always be tied neatly into a network of other people’s publications is academic fantasy. Real life is more complex. I have been influenced by many things that I have read, but a definitive list would have to go back to my youngest days and include a multitude of novels, biographies histories, and newspapers and magazine articles as well as formal texts.” Finally, what he argues is that the ideas in the book are his own, and that he cannot trace any single thread to any single source or even a series of sources. And Anthony Grafton, in his text The Footnote argues, “Footnotes guarantee nothing, in themselves. The enemies of truthand truth has enemiescan use them to deny the same facts that honest historians use them to assert. The enemies of ideasand they have enemies as wellcan use them to amass citations and quotations of no interest to any reader, or to attack anything that resembles a new thesis.”
Now, Winnicott and Smith and Grafton do not eschew footnotes—especially the latter, who gives historical groundings to the creation of the footnote and to its growing hegemonic power the footnote has acquired in contemporary academia. Ironically (on his part, I am sure), Grafton has grounded his text with a plethora of footnotes! And I believe that Winnicott and Smith acknowledge that when they write they assume responsibility for the words and ideas expressed without their having to buttress their authority with the words of another. Seneca says, “Let’s have some difference between you and the book . . . Why, after all, should I listen to what I can read for myself?” For a long time I have become too aware that my own selective use of sources serves mostly my own purposes: that is, I quote those who agree with my ideas (and therefore, offer support for them) or I cite those those who disagree with me to reveal the fallaciousness of their arguments. My footnotes most often serve in the effort of self-aggrandizement. Grafton rightfully asserts that the footnotethe exact citation of sourcedoes not guarantee anything, but at least the demand the footnote makes offers a certain legitimacy to the writing. Seneca wonders why the writing needs any external legitimacy. “Footnotes,” Grafton writes, “confer authority on a writer.” I append footnotes.
It is a curious fact that Seneca does not so much dispute as disparage this form of scholarship. He says, in Letter 33, “It is disgraceful that a man who is old or in sight of old age should have a a wisdom deriving solely from his notebook. ‘Zeno said this.’ And what have you said? ‘Cleanthes said that.’ What have you said? How much longer are you going to serve under others’ orders?” “Assume authority yourself,” Seneca asserts, and utter something that may be handed down to posterity. Produce something from your own resources.”  How Thoravian Seneca sounds; or perhaps how Senecan sounds Thoreau. Ironically, though Seneca argues against the aphorism, the knowledge of Thoreau and Emerson for many rests in the aphorisms that are drawn from their work. It would be an interesting study to discover if and how Seneca’s style avoids constructions that result in aphorism.
I think what Seneca argues against is the use of authority to buttress the idea of the writer. I have studied papers whose reference pages exceed the length of the article. Grafton’s book concerns the history of the footnote as the form was developed primarily by historians. The ubiquity of the footnote in all disciplines says a great deal about our models of contemporary scholarship. It is interesting to me that we Deweyeans always quote Democracy and Education to support our ideas about education or democracy, but there is not in Dewey’s text one footnoted citation nor a bibliography. Though I regularly quote from John Dewey, he rarely cites sources; Lewis Mumford’s Technics and Civilization has no footnotes, and Lionel Trilling names names within the context of an essay but never at the end of the essay appends a bibliography; his footnotes are explanatory for the most part, additional information to his own text, but not immediately relevant to the sentences at hand.  There is not a footnote to be found in Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own; the notes section at the end of my edition was composed by the editor. And yet these men and women are for me quintessential intellects.
Interestingly, Tony Judt’s book Past/Imperfect is heavy with footnotes, but his Thinking the Twentieth Century has no footnotes; the authors caution “The bibliography is not conventional since this book arises from a conversation.” We cite sources when we speak but we do not footnote. Maybe more complicated conversation would reduce the appearance of footnotes!

28 May 2012


Toni Morrison’s new novel, Home, relates the story of the return home of Frank Money who has been called to rescue his younger sister from the medical offices of a doctor who is medically abusing her. The doctor, interested in women’s wombs, was “constructing instruments to see farther and farther into them. Improving the speculum.” Having callously employed (an ironic use of the term here) Ycidra (known as Cee) as his specimen, he has almost killed her. It is no accident that his subject is a young black female, or that the doctor is a Southern racist still suffering from the Confederate loss in the Civil War. Toni Morrison has never ignored the context of history in her novels. That history always has at its center a virulent racism.
For Frank, the home is Lotus, a place that Frank and Cee had always hated, but to which they do return in the end for healing and peace. Cee must seek mending from the experiments of the doctor, and Frank has returned from the Korean War psychically damaged; his life has fallen apart; he must learn to re-engage in life. His journey to save his sister saves his own life as well.
Home recounts Frank’s life as he journeys to Atlanta where his sister has been trapped and is dying and then to Lotus where she will be cared for by the wise and venerable ladies who have lived in Lotus always and whose wisdom derives from the lives they have lived there. Italicized inter-chapters recount Frank’s life from his memory of it, but these chapters appear to be an oral recounting. Since the person to whom Frank apparently speaks is never identified, nor is the occasion of the narration made explicit, the reader becomes the presumed listener to his story. Frank’s story concerns his redemption, and the return not just to his family home but to himself as well. The town of Lotus, from which both Cee and Frank had long left and hoped never to return, becomes transformed into the place to which they must return to achieve some peace. The deaths in his arms of his friends in Korea become linked in Frank’s mind with his journey to save his sister, and his failure to help the former is balanced by his rescue of his sister, even as the cool, sterility of the doctor’s experiments is contrasted with the natural wisdom of the women who care for the rescued Cee. The novel balances the personal Returned from the war Frank is dying no less severely than is Cee: he has suffered the experience of war, suffers from post-traumatic stress syndrome even before it acquired that name, and has as a result, destroyed his marriage. 
The novel is framed by the memory of he and his sister having seen the disposal of a body of a black man into a shallow, hidden grave and the revelation towards the end of the novel that that body was the victim of a racist staging of a knife fight between a father and his son in which one had to kill the other or both would be killed by the savage, white audience. Having heard the story of the event and realizing that the body he had seen buried was the event’s loser, Frank takes the quilt that Cee had madetaught to quilt by the ladies who had  nursed her back to health by their love and their healing arts that leaned more to the natural than the antisepticand brother and sister dig up the bones and bury it properly and put up a marker that reads Here Stands A Man.  In burying the man they had once seen buried, Frank and Cee achieve some resolution to the violence of their lives and realize not peace but perhaps, some rest. The book concludes,
I stood there a long while, staring at the tree.
It looked so strong
So beautiful.
Hurt right down the middle
But alive and well.
Cee touched my shoulder
Come on brother. Let’s go home.
It is almost a resolution, but not really. Certainly, though, it is Morrison’s theme—going home—and one that has consumed my thought for years. In Symphony #1, I have explored extensively the experience of leaving and returning home; I was sensitive to Morrison’s perspective from the stance African-American history, understanding a little how history so powerfully determines our relationship to our homes, and therefore to our experiences of leaving and returning to them.  I think we are all hurt down the middle, but alive and well.

25 May 2012

Following Scripts

There is that sequence in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid after the two men and Etta, having escaped capture in the United States, try to start a new life in Bolivia. Soon, however, they grow bored: after all, all they know how to do is rob banks!!  They prepare to rob a bank.  First, they begin to scout out the target, but when they enter the bank, the friendly bank guard inquires if the two need assistance, Butch stares incredulously at the guard who speaks to them in rapid Spanish, a language that Butch does not understand. He can’t read the script. Butch’s face registers a shocked wonder that everything he and Sundance had known about robbing banks in the past will not suffice here in Bolivia: they are literally in unknown territory. No one here speaks English. None of their scripts will suffice. How can they rob a bank when no one understands what they say?
And so Butch and the Sundance Kid return home where Etta teaches them the basic Spanish script that they will need to enable them to rob the bank where everyone speaks only Spanish. Having been coached in the language, tested on their knowledge, and even having prepared a written script, the two enter the bank and call out threateningly in Spanish “This is a robbery,” and the customers in the bank respond . . .well, exactly as you might imagine frightened people might respond to two men who have declared that they intend to rob the bank and who are pointing guns: they raise up their hands and back away towards the far wall. But Butch forgets his lines, and with the Sundance Kid waiting with frustrating impatience, Butch reaches into this pocket for his script, finds his place and orders everyone to raise up their hands. With annoyance, Sundance calls back: “They’ve already go their hands raised. Skip on down,” he orders.” Butch reads the next lines from the script, “Arriba,” Butch commands, but again, Sundance says “They’ve already got them raised, Skip on down.” Reading again from his script, Butch commands them to back against the wall, but an exasperated Sundance states that they are already against the wall: “Skip on down!” he orders Butch. It is a funny scene in a rather perverse way.
This script they are using is the correct one, but it doesn’t match the action. Words and actions are out of synch, as in the scene in Singing in the Rain when the visuals and the audio go out of synch and the romantic scene between Lena Lamont and Don Lockwood turns to farce. Rather than inspire tears, the film moves the audience to laughter. In Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Butch in his frustration says to Sundance, “Ah, you’re so damn smart, you read it,” and heads behind the counter where the money is kept. It is the only script that will work at present.
The script is always the problem. From our beginnings we learn a whole variety of scripts that our culture(s) have over time developed; we maintain a whole library of scripts that we pull out and recite at what we think is the appropriate occasion, but too often it is the right script but for the wrong play. Or else we don’t have the script for the particular play at all and we have no lines to speak or we speak them inappropriately. At the realization that no one speaks English at the bank, Butch storms out. He has nothing to say, and he understands that whatever he says will not be understood, which might be the same thing, after all. 
And so I return to Zuckerman, as I have so often in my life. He says, “You get them wrong before you meet them, while you’re anticipating meeting them; you get them wrong while you’re with then; and then you go home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again. Since the same generally goes for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion empty of all perception, an astonishing farce of misperception . . . 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 know we’re alive: we’re wrong.” If we were always right there would be nothing to learn and no reason to move on.
I think what Zuckerman means here (and of course, Zuckerman is not Roth) is that we never have the right script, and neither does anyone else. We are forever speaking lines to a different character in another play, and the same goes for her. Maybe we never understand the script of the other because it is for a play with which we not familiar and certainly one in which we are not presently appearing.  We keep saying we understand, but we are wrong: there is more we should learn. The tragicomedy: “Let’s go.” (They do not move).

22 May 2012

What deer?

I am turning sixty-five years old this summer, and I think that this is one of those birthdays of equal cultural importance to those that occur at ages thirteen (Bar Mitzvah); twenty-one (legal drinking age in the United States); thirty (above which one can’t be trusted); fifty (half a century); and now sixty-five (the age set by Bismarck for workers’ retirement). My friend turns seventy-five this June, and though I recognize that this, too, is a significant milestone, I am not yet close enough to define how it might feel.
Of course, when retirement was established by Otto von Bismarck in 1883, few people actually lived to that advanced age, and so Bismarck’s offer to the workers was only a specious one: I doubt that he ever intended to pay much on his promise but the offer of a pension did quiet the political unrest then threatening Germany. Now, however, sixty five is the new forty and many of us anticipate not a few years left of productive labor. Alas, in this economy, many are forced to remain in the work force beyond their earlier expectations. As for myself, I cannot imagine what I would do in retirement that I don’t already enjoy doing in the work force, and so I do not anticipate any imminent departure from my labors. Dewey long ago suggested that if I enjoyed the work I did then it was not necessary to consider my effort work. I will continue, then, to play for several more years: as long as I continue to live and they continue to have me. I know not a few friends and colleagues (not always the same thing) who are beyond seventy and who still daily, productively and contentedly (despite the meetings) go to their offices.
Nevertheless: Seneca complains to Lucilius: “Put me in the list of the decrepit, the ones on the very brink!” Seneca sounds as if he is in serious decline and appears to be (uncharacteristically for the Stoic philosopher) fretting about it. I read on: in fact, this is not the case. Seneca continues, “Only my vices and their accessories have decayed: the spirit is full of life.” I suspect that Seneca refers in his mention of his decline only to the state of his physical robustness, and indeed, from his report it sounds as if though his faculties remain vibrant and intact, his ability to engage in sexual activity has been affected. Alas for Seneca, he lived a millennia before Viagra! But stimulated (a cruel word here, I think) by his physical state, Seneca reports in this letter that he intends to investigate with some care “what things I really am refusing to do and what I’m simply incapable of doing,” and then “to accept that those things that he is no longer capable of doing are really those things he no longer chooses to do.”
A great strategy I’d say. Turn the weaknesses into strengths, and pretend that what I can no longer accomplish I have not wished to accomplish. And to pretend to know the difference!  Of course, Seneca’s use of the verb ‘accept’ might be a bit misleading, to transform seems more in line with Seneca’s purpose, but then, I am reading him in translation.
I have spoken of a related concept in Symphony #1 when I  consider the effects of aging on my memory. There I wrote: “There are things I don’t remember, and I can’t remember some of the things I’ve forgotten. And I consider that I am not so much forgetting my life as conserving its energy: there are things I need not now recall to maintain the narrative of my life . . . I know how to recover what I think I’ve forgotten; I have the capacity to maintain the integrity of my narrative. Perhaps,” I considered, “forgetting is also a letting go: there are things that are no longer basic to instant recall. Memory here is not a quantity but a process of organizing what one requires into some narrative. One needn’t be suffering from dementia to lack narrative power, and loss of memory doesn’t necessarily mean dementia. Sometimes it might be characterized as wisdom. So with Seneca: he is measuring what he no longer can do and that which he no longer chooses to do! There might be wisdom in age.
But for some reason, Seneca reminds me of a joke I’ve included in the Third Movement of Symphony #1. Seneca would make disappear not only what he would not own but also that which he might claim. The joke, a bit more harsh that I consider Seneca’s reflections, portray the hubris (unwarranted though it be), the presumption of power (fascist though it seems), the subterfuge daily practiced by our government officials, and the subservience of those with less power to those presumed to have it. As with all good jokes, it is truer than it ought to be. Which is to say, I guess, that in a better world it would not be a joke!
A story is told: Vice-President Cheney and the Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfield, were out hunting one day. Perhaps it was a weekend when fortunately the world was at rest and there is not much to read in the newspapers. Suddenly, a deer saunters through a copse of trees and the two men fire almost simultaneously. Bambi slumps to the ground dead. The two men turn and slap each other on the back as men would do. Rumsfield, resentfully of slightly lower rank, tells the Vice-President to wait with the deer while he goes off to find someone to help them carry their trophy back. Not a few minutes later, Rumsfield returns with some under-secretaries, but Cheney is standing alone and the deer is nowhere in sight. “Where’s the deer?” asked Rumsfield. “”What deer?” said Cheney. “Wait a minute,” says Rumsfield, “didn’t we both come out here to hunt together?” “Yes, we did, my friend.” “And didn’t we both see a deer coming through that copse of woods?” said Rumsfield. “Yes, we certainly did, Don.” “And . . . and didn’t we both shoot that deer?” “Yes we did.” “And didn’t I say I would go and get some help, and didn’t I leave you here for just a few minutes to guard the deer?” “Yes, you did.” "So," said Rumsfield, “where’s the deer?” “What deer?”

18 May 2012


And so now every morning when I come out here to Walden, the black wait awaits me and its breakfast. The weather is now warm enough that it can sleep atop the table I had placed outside my door to protect the food bowls I had set out from inclement winter and early Spring weather. I think it sleeps well here, though I have noted the presence of a skunk searching out the scraps of food I leave for the cat. As I approach the cabin door the black cat jumps off of the table and, still injured, limps to the corner of the cabin behind the burning bush where it sits down wrapping its tail about its legs. The cat watches expectantly as I set my coffee cup on the shelf outside the entrance, open the door and reach over to grab my mug. I enter the cabin, gather the cat’s morning repast and then return to serve breakfast. The black cat waits patiently by the corner behind the bush. I push open the door carrying  a small container of soft rather foul smelling animal pieces in a assumed sauce and a bag of hard food. The cat watches carefully and talks to me as I work. I assume that it somehow is greeting me, whatever that means in a relationship between a feral cat and a housebroken human. I note a tick growing on its ear fat feasting on the black cat’s red blood. I would pull it off but, of course, the cat will not permit any greater familiarity much less a real touch. I slowly and carefully stoop to the ground, and pull the food bowls towards me. I cut the top off the packet of soft food with scissors I have stored and placed on a shelf by the door for just these occasions, and squeezing from the bottom of the container I empty the mix into the bowl.  The black cat watches intently, meowing steadily. Then, I reach into the bag of hard food and place a handful of it into the other bowl. I stand up, leave the emptied packet on the table for later removal, and head back inside. Within seconds, the cat has moved to the bowls for its breakfast. This morning it has moved into the woods behind the cabin for its morning ablutions; sometimes it simply climbs back atop the table for its bath.
It is a tentative relationship between the cat and I, neither friendship nor enmity. I purchase its food and responsibly daily feed it. The cat has become used to my presence though it still will not come within arm’s length. And though it will limp away when I exit the door, it customarily does not go far; and when I am far enough removed, the cat returns to its perch atop the table or to the soft bed I have place beside it. Seneca writes that wild animals run from the dangers they see and then, once they have escaped, worry no more. He assumes here they have little memory and live wholly in the present. I guess that to some extent I am yet a danger to the black cat for though I feed it daily it still runs at my approach. But it does not run so far. And it awaits my arrival and greets me. It has memory and lives not wholly in the present, but in the present perhaps it experiences some contentment. I am glad to be part of it. But I do remember when it was not crippled, and I grieve for its loss of freedom.