30 March 2013

Disasters All

Again I return to Philip Roth. Would he were living next door rather than down on the shelves in my basement!
I consider these passages now from The Human Stain, the final volume of the American trilogy that began with American Pastoral and here concluded. Zuckerman is imagining Coleman and Faunia alone in Coleman’s house one lovely summer evening, “each of them protecting the other against everyone elseeach of them, to the other, comprising everyone else. There they dance, as likely as not unclothed, beyond the ordeal of the world, in an unearthly paradise of earthbound lust where their coupling is the drama into which they decant all the angry disappointment of their lives.” There they dance, naked, both savior and destroyer of each other. At this point of the narration Zuckerman knows that both Coleman and Faunia are dead, and he asks, “Who are they now?” And he responds: that in death they are the essence of singularity. Nothing affects them and they can affect nothing. They are beyond care and caring.
“Who are these drastically unalike people, so incongruously allied at seventy-one and thirty-four? They are the disasters to which they are enjoined.” That description stops my breathing. One meaning for the word ‘enjoin’ is “to join together.” In a related sense ‘enjoin’ can also mean “to attach oneself to.” Given the relationship that exists between Coleman and Faunia these definitions make sense: the relationship between Coleman and Faunia represents for each an attachment to something in the world that is actual and real. In the world filled with lies, deceptions and ignorances, to make anything more of their relationship is to render it false. “He’d said to her, ‘This is more than sex,’ and flatly she replied, ‘No, it’s not. You just forgot what sex is. This is sex. All by itself. Don’t fuck it up by pretending it’s something else.’” Coleman was looking for some transcendent meaning to their relationship and Faunia would know it only for its immediacy and physical reality.
I can accept this definition, of ‘enjoin’; however, the OED notes that this meaning of the word ‘enjoin’ is obsolete. I do not suspect that Roth had carelessly chosen the word ‘enjoined,’ because in this context its use is not customary. He must have searched for the perfect word.
The second definition for the word ‘enjoin’ is “to impose (a penalty, task-duty or obligation.” In contemporary terms the OED suggests that this definition of ‘enjoin’ means “to prescribe authoritatively and with emphasis (an action, a course of conduct, state of feeling, etc.).” In this sense of ‘enjoin,’ the relationship between Faunia and Coleman is somehow prescribed, mandated, authorized: but who, I wonder, has issued the order? And for what reason?
And a third definition of enjoin means “to prohibit, forbid a thing; to prohibit a person from a person or thing.” In this instance, the relationship of Coleman and Faunia is one comprised of two disastersand Zuckerman wonders what life isn’t in the end a disastera relationship to which they are forbidden but in which they engage nevertheless. Forbidden, I suspect because two disasters joined can lead to no good. That engagement will lead to their violent deaths. Why are lives disasters? And Zuckerman answers: “Because we don’t know, do? How what happens the way it does? What underlies the anarchy of the train of events, the uncertainties, the mishaps, the disunity, the shocking irregularities that define human affairs.” Any attempt, Zuckerman says, to assume knowledge renders experience banal and is mere platitude: like the statement ‘everything will be alright,” when in fact we just don’t know. “What we know is that, in an unclichéd way, nobody knows anything. You can’t know anything. The things you know you don’t know. Intention? Motive? Consequence? Meaning? All that we don’t know is astonishing. Even more astonishing is what passes for knowing.”
And so I look out this morning at what I don’t know and understand completely how I can only be a disaster because I act with very, very limited knowledge, and even what I believe I know is suspect. In our relationships we are the disasters to which we are enjoined.
Zuckerman, of course, has opted out, and that is one answer.

23 March 2013

Random, Repetitive Thoughts

There is something sterile about education today and deadening to the teachers who choose to engage it. In few classrooms are teachers responsible for teaching that learning has no end, or that learning ought to engage students in the mire and the muck of life rather than keep them secluded from it. A better awareness of this adventure might prepare students for the lives they will inevitably live in the world. To the innocent faces of my students who would avoid the world’s hardness and trust in a world where they might easily rest their heads, I would proffer the ironic smile of Parmenides. In his essay on George Santayana, Lionel Trilling says that Santayana’s critique of the American poets or of his Harvard friends who ‘petered out’ was made not because they “were worn out by American life, not that they were hampered by economic circumstances, or perverted by bad ideals.” Rather, Trilling argues, Santayana accused that they ‘petered out” because “they 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.” These poets and artists who had ‘petered out’ would rather escape from the mess that is the world than engage in the challenging confrontation with life. Santayana thinks admiringly of the smile of Parmenides, the philosopher’s knowing response to a young Socrates who had voiced complaint about the “ideas’ of filth, rubbish, etc. with which he [was] surrounded in the marketplaces and which he would avoid.” Parmenides recognized that to be wise Socrates must accept his engagement in all ideas that derive from the world because that is finally where we must live and from which all ideas arise. Experience might not be pleasant but it is certainly real.
I’ve been watching reruns of Scrubs, a television situation comedy that ran from 2001 through 2010. It is the opening sequence on which I want to focus right now: for in it the main characters serially pass to each other an X-ray sheet that intern J.D eventually hangs on a backlight box and that names the show’s title. In the background the opening jingle declares, “I can’t do this all on my own. No, I’m no superman,” and refers clearly not only to the series of doctors who have passed along the X-ray photograph, but to the nature of the entire medical profession. It is an interesting admission that suggests that despite the comedic aspects of the show all will not be well enough. I’m no superman. Indeed, in season Four, Resident Director Dr. Cox, standing before a new contingent of interns, offers what was supposed to be a supportive pep talk. Instead he intones: “Everyone of you is going to kill a patient. At some point . . . you will screw up, they will die, and it will be burned into your consciousness forever.” Needless to say, he terrifies the neophytes, and none of them attend the celebratory introductory pizza party that welcomes them to the profession! I teach that episode to first year students in the teacher education program at the university who arrive to class with some vague, romantic motive for becoming a teacher, and who hold some idealized image of the work teaching entails. That episode serves as my smile of Parmenides.
Our educational standards today intend to mask the risk and difficulties that are engaged in being a teacher. Our objective in education has become not to learn, a pursuit that demands the commission of error after error, but to be right, a state that assumes no mistake! As Thoreau suggests, the acceptance of uncertainty is the hallmark of intelligence, and it ought to be the teacher’s work to prepare students in their understanding to be at ease with ambiguity. In Philip Roth’s American Pastoral Zuckerman says, “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.” Dewey somewhere says that an experiment whose results turn out as expected has been a badly designed experiment: there is nothing to think about if everything worked as planned. There is nothing to think about in success except the past. The teacher might stand in the front and offer the smile of Parmenides.
In education we almost always aim to be right, but I do not think that that is how learning occurs. Learning requires problems, even insolvable ones. Everyone of you is going to kill a patient. When Ishmael heads out to sea it is because he is a seeker, and it is in the life at sea that he searches for “the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all,” he asserts. In Cape Cod Thoreau picks up a stoppered bottle yet half full with red ale that had washed up on the shore, and lifting it, as did Hamlet contemplating Yorick’s skull Thoreau says, “But as I poured it slowly onto the sand, it seemed to me that man himself was like a half-emptied bottle of pale ale, which Time had drunk so far, yet stoppled tight for a while, and drifting about in the ocean of circumstances; but destined erelong to mingle with the surrounding waves, or be spilled amid these sands of the distant shore” (92). Here there is no muffle but only the clear and singular of sound of life’s tragic view that today’s classroom obscures behind a plethora of answers, numbers and instruments of measurement.
I think that the sterility of contemporary classrooms organized by strict objectives and methods of assessment avoids the messiness of the world and cannot prepare students for the difficult business of learning and teaching: I am a teacher and, at present, a teacher of teachers. Once (if not always) I was a high school English teacher. Doubt and ambiguity were my métier; it was my entrance into thought and my strength in method. But today, we hide our fears of chaos and disorderof the certainty of uncertaintybehind all of the numbers and common core standards and instruments of assessments we employ to protect us from the void. We have stopped teaching for the ease of management and the safety and comfort of certainty.
            It’s partly what I consider on this sabbatical.

16 March 2013

Comment Violence

It is terribly gratifying to discover that someone is reading my blog. I speak out into the void searching out my way, and it comforts me when I receive a response that suggests either than the void is not so or¾and this might be saying the same thing, that there are others out here in the void, too.
Daily now I receive urgent and often complimentary communications from out there/in here regarding a particular blog posting I have written, though just recently someone suggested my spelling errors detracted from her/her reading pleasure. Mea culpa. Interestingly, sometimes the comments themselves contain serious spelling and grammatical errors. For example. today’s comment from Miami adult store is grammatically obscene.
I suspect that these comments come from the interests of too many who aren’t really reading my blog. The question concerns me how is it that they can post comments that are so meaningless and irrelevant to my blog posting? I suspect that these commentators are using their comments to advertise something: Miami adult store; Viagra generique Canada; horst insurance library; naughty adult profiles; and my favorite, transvaginal mesh lawsuit! What is that? I’m afraid to click on it for fear of corrupting my very innocent computer! I’ve received advertisements for genital warts cures, painless root canal work, and reviews of cigarettes: I do not smoke. Usually the comments have nothing to do with the post, or are so vague that they have nothing to do with my ideas.  Sometimes they are so badly written they have nothing to say about anything.
What mechanism allows these apparently mass communications that use my blog to advertise some product that has nothing to do with my posting and of which I have not approved nor given permission? Isn’t this yet another example of the incivility of our modern age? Whoever you are: cease and desist!

10 March 2013

Liberal Arts and Philosophy

Ah, the fate of the liberal arts in the United States wears heavily on my mind. I have two children still in school and a whole generation moving through the public schools and colleges. In his memoir Native Realm , Czeslaw Milosz describes friend, Boleslaw Micinski, the philosopher-poet who acquires the nickname Tiger because “of his rapacity in argument, which reduced others to the status of grass-eating animals.”  Milosz writes: “For me, Tiger incarnated a truth that Europe was discovering anew: that philosophy, despite the university departments, is not mere speculation; that it both nourishes itself on everything within us and impregnates our whole being; and that if it does not help us to judge a man, a piece of sculpture, a literary work, it is dead." I believe that he means that unless we must understand that our basic beliefsour stance in the worldderive from philosophy, and that unless we accept that idea and unless we teach from that position, then philosophy is dead.
And what would it mean to think that philosophy is dead? The possibilities are too enormous and frightening to consider. We would become automatons, mere shitting, eating and fornicating machines in the service of something we would never know. But with the death of philosophy even our leaders would be nothing but empty shells functioning on some motives even they might never comprehend. In one of the most perceptive views of the United States that I have ever read Milosz writes: “Americans accepted their society as if it had arisen from the very order of nature; so saturated with [nature] were they that they tended to pity the rest of humanity for having strayed from the norm. If I at least understood that all was not well with me, they did not realize the opposite disablement affected them: a loss of the sense of history and, therefore, of a sense of the tragic, which is only born of historical experience.” The problem with US citizens is that they do not accept (they do not know!) that they are a product of history and that they are immersed in it whether they like it or not. Americans lack the sense of the tragic, and therefore they behave in ways that do not reflect the least understanding of others or even of themselves. Americans know nothing: think of Republicans! And therefore, they do not experience history. Like Gatsby, they think of themselves as the child of God pursuing an unattainable Daisy Fay, beating on, “boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” And I fear that we might end like him, floating lifelessly in our own unused swimming pool, shot dead by an ignorant and jealous gas station mechanic.
The liberal arts are essential: because without them we render ourselves unimpregnable and sterile.  

03 March 2013

Plenty of Light Left

King Solomon was said to own a ring on which was engraved the words “This too shall pass.” Whenever events turned against him and he suffered in depression he would look at the ring and receive comfort. This too shall pass. But when fortune seemed favorable to him and his kingdom again he would look at the ring: “This too shall pass.” Solomon’s ring reminded him of the ephemeral and temporary nature of life. He was wise to attend to the ring because from it he would know to ever be prepared for a turn of events. He was always expectantly ready though not always pleased.
     In Waiting for Godot Vladimir says, “The tears of the world are a constant quantity.” When one stops her weeping, then somewhere another begins to cry. On the one hand, this sentiment suggests that the level of unhappiness in the world never decreases. On the other hand, Vladimir suggests that the level of sorrow never increases either: it just stays constant though it occupies different sites. Nevertheless, Godot seems to me to express some Solomonic wisdom: if the tears of the world are a constant quantity, then this too for me, at least, shall pass.
A clichéd expression states “Where one door closes another opens.” This statement too expresses hope that all shall be well again, the latter a phrase from Julian of Norwich. Though both the expression and the sentiment from Julian of Norwich acknowledge a world where the tragic occurs and it is necessary to remember that all shall be well again.
And so I’ve been reconsidering Dylan’s song “Not Dark Yet.” For years it has been the bleakest of songs:
I was born here and I’ll die here against my will

I know it looks like I’m moving, but I’m standing still

Every nerve in my body is so vacant and numb

I can’t even remember what it was I came here to get away from

Don’t even hear a murmur of a prayer

It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there. 

And, no, it isn’t dark yet! There is still plenty of light here and now and though, there comes a time at the end of the day and a life when it is a comfort to turn off the lights and lay in the dark, that time is not yet. 
     No, dear daughters, it isn’t dark yetnot even closeand next week already we celebrate Daylight Savings Time and gain another hour of light. Celebrate!