29 April 2015

In Reading Jane Austen . . . Now?

The incentive to read the entire Jane Austen corpus began with my daughter’s enrollment in a Jane Austen course. I had been an English major—perhaps I still am one! All of my degrees have been in literature, and though for the past twenty-five years I have been a professor of education, I entered the field even as literary theory began to influence it. I might have even had something to do with that influence! I never stopped requiring novels as required reading, nor have I ever stopped reading novels. To me there comes regularly the absolute need to engage with . . . well, I would say fiction, but of late even that term has been called into serious question. Kendall Walton convincingly argues that fiction can be defined as works whose “function is to serve as props in games of make believe.” What is fictional mandates imagination. And what doesn’t mandate imagination, I wonder. Lately I have begun to understand most autobiography and (especially) memoir as such props and therefore, as works of fiction. That is, regardless of what the autobiographer or memoirist recounts, there is the assumption of a teleological end of the narrative that requires the ordering of experience as it did not exactly happen. The memoir and autobiography requires a high dependence on the powers of memory that certainly must be considered somewhat suspect: repression and displacement figure prominently in the human perspectives on reality, I think. Frank Kermode says in his autobiography of autobiography, “The amount of faking we are allowed is debatable . . . but faking all the same, though in our faking there must be something it would only be slightly absurd to call the truth. But it is the weather, the private weather, unpredictable as dreams yet recognisable as a climate, that the autobiographer must describe.” These genres of memoir and autobiography appear to me as  forms of fiction, and I have the need to discover in fiction (a category I have, thus, significantly expanded) insight (and pleasure) that derives from considering lives told in narrative form complete with tropes (that are figurative and not literal) rather than to contemplate the lives of others that are narrated as if the tale is not fiction and in the absence of tropes. As for tomes of philosophy, history, etc., I have learned that everything I know is unfinished and therefore everything that I have learned mandates the exercise of the imagination: fiction.
     And so I have been thinking about what I experienced while reading Jane Austen other than an expression of my affection for and conversation with my daughter; and especially why at this time of my life when all the people in Austen’s novels (and my daughter’s life) are young and beautiful and I am neither. Indeed, Austen’s fathers are foolish, foolishly vain, ineffectual and incompetent. I may at times enjoy some of these paternal character traits, but I think not all of them at once and certainly not (I hope) over extended periods of time. Except for Mr. Bertram none of them seem to be gainfully employed though they all seem to possess sufficient wealth on which to live without having to attend any office or offices. I am, I must admit, gainfully employed. Actually, the world of a Jane Austen novel has very little to do with mine—well, indeed, it seems to have nothing to do with mine! Why have I so enjoyed reading these novels now?

23 April 2015

On Retirement (Not!)

It is that time of year. (I am interested to what the word ‘it’ refers in a sentence such as the previous. Obviously, the word addresses the season, or the month to which the earth in its spin has arrived.  But the pronoun here doesn’t seem to have any antecedent, even if I consider that its antecedent, in fact, follows it. And so I think that ‘it’ in sentences such as the one with which I started this piece, refers more to my state of mind. “It” refers to whatever flows through my consciousness as a result of the specific time of the year—in this case, Spring and the approaching end of another semester and academic year on campus.) And though ends of the year always trouble me, this year in particular has caused me the experience of angst.
    Certainly, that time of life has arrived. For almost with whom I speak—even sometimes with myself—the conversation begins with the question, “When are you going to retire?” or “Are you retiring this year?” At this very moment the University campus is abuzz with the offer of a buy-out for a select group of qualified staff who would be willing to allow their present positions to be purchased for a specific quantity of monies (not all that much, actually, to my mind), and be terminated and head off in relative quiet into retirement.
      The easy question asks in retirement from what one would retire, and the easy answer is that retirement would be from a position at the University: no more teacher, no more books, no more student’s dirty looks. More, there would be no more meetings required to attend, no more involvement with the distasteful politics that emanate from the guardians of the educational silos and protected disciplines, and no further entrapment in the vines heavy with sour grapes. In the latter states there is something appealing, no doubt, to these offers. But I often (though not always) enjoy the students’ looks, and I have learned over the years somehow to avoid these academic ensnarements, or at least to find some way to distract myself from their tedium. I love the classroom, obviously, for I have chosen to spend my life in them.  
     Perhaps I am offended by the question of the presumption that my age demands that I consider retirement. I am, certainly, of retirement age. That is, my legal standard I have lived sufficient years to cease the obligation of going to work. The classroom is effort but I am lucky to say here that it has rarely been work. Perhaps I take umbrage at the idea that I have become (have always been?) ineffective and that retirement would relieve the classroom of what some might consider one more bad teacher. I resist the idea that I am tired, though at the end of a day and a week, well, I am fatigued, but whether the quantity of that fatigue exceeds qualitatively the fatigue I experienced when I was young (and in my prime!), I sincerely doubt.  Utah Phillips sings the plaint of another retiree,
He used up my labor, he used up my time
He plundered my body and squandered my mind
Then he gave me a pension, some handouts and wine
And told me I'm all used up
I am no longer a new pretty face, but I do not experience exhaustion. No, I am hardly used up: indeed, my curiosity continues to inspire my intellectual movement and I sense there will never be enough time; the materials pile up about me and I am constantly in the market for another desk and another bookshelf. I continue to haunt the book stores and the Reviews of Books that arrive regularly to my mailbox. I suppose more than a fear of not having a place to go, there is no other place I’d rather be than in the classroom. I have spoken with my dearest that it would be nice to have the option, but the reality remains that I am not finished and not ready (or prepared?) for retirement.

     And I will try to avoid those conversations that begin with the question, “Are you going to retire?” Arlo Guthrie once gave me the question I prefer, “Did you think of anything on down the line.” Hell, yeah!,

13 April 2015


For her own pleasures, Emma Woodhouse has consistently led poor Harriet Smith down false, illusory paths of love and wedded domesticity. First Emma had insisted that Robert Martin, a young, educated and respectable farmer, was not good enough for Harriet, and at Emma’s insistence, Harriet refused the suitor’s proposal. Next, Emma convinced Harriet that Mr. Elton, the local vicar, had become enamored of her and a proposal from him was imminent. Alas, it was to Emma that Mr. Elton proposed, and shocked and even somewhat appalled, she turned him soundly and roundly down. (Mr. Elton then left town in a huff only to return several weeks later engaged to a very obnoxious, but very wealthy lady). Harriet was left bereft. To Harriet’s rescue apparently arrives Frank Churchill who saves Harriet from an assault by a band of gypsies; Harriet takes his action as a sign of his affection for her. Emma had earlier thought herself enamored of this very Frank, and she experiences just a bit of jealousy as a result of Harriet’s assumption of Frank’s intentions.  Emma is relieved to know that she doesn’t in fact desire Frank, but Harriet . . . well, as it happens, Frank has been secretly engaged to Jane Fairfax, and poor Harriet seems again to have suffered rejection.  Learning that Frank has been already romantically committed, Emma expresses heartfelt (?) sympathy for Harriet’s loss, but the latter confides to Emma that indeed, she was not at all disappointed because Mr. Knightley (who has served throughout her life as Emma’s companion and conscience) has shown Harriet some attention, and Harriet expects that Mr. Knightley will make her a marriage proposal. At this news Emma suffers a strong bout of jealousy, realizing that she, indeed, has always imagined that Mr. Knightley, somewhat older (37 years old to Emma’s 20 years) would remain forever unmarried and her intimate, albeit platonic companion. Mr. Knightley returns from London, and just when Emma anticipates his announcement of his engagement to Harriet, and announces to Emma his love for her.
     But thrilled as she must be, Emma experiences considerable guilt over this latest disappointment to befall Harriet, and in order to relieve her own guilt, Emma sends Harriet to her sister and brother-in-law’s home in London so as to put Harriet at great distance from Emma and ease Emma’s disquiet.
     And the narrator writes, “Now Emma could, indeed, enjoy Mr. Knightley’s visits; now she could talk and she could listen with true happiness, unchecked by that sense of injustice, of guilt, of something more painful which had haunted her when remembering how disappointed a heart very near her, how much might at that moment, and at a little distance, be enduring by the feeling which she had led astray herself.”  And here is my question: Emma acknowledges her responsibility for the injustice of her actions suffered on Harriet by Emma’s insensitivity, even as Emma experiences inestimable guilt as a result of her vain and foolish actions. I appreciate Emma’s recognition of the consequences of her gross selfishness and solipsistic behavior on Harriet: Emma has played matchmaker for her own egotistic delights without consideration for any consequences her actions might have on others—and especially on Harriet.  Emma sought pleasure alone for Emma alone. Her sense of injustice and guilt are well deserved. And I am wondering what can be meant by that  ‘something more painful’ which Emma suffers. And I think that Emma here experiences for once—for the first time in her very privileged and egocentric life—some doubt about the integrity of her self; some concern that whatever pride she had once felt, whatever opinions she had held and of which she had boasted regarding the goodness of her character might not be justified; that her faith in the genuineness of her own essential self is questionable. The pain might derive from the realization that her existence has been based on a Winnicottian false self. She is not—has never been—what she has claimed to be to herself and others. Emma experiences here, not a failure of faith, but a loss of the security of the very ground on which she once felt secure;, the sense of a dangerous vertigo. Emma wonders not merely who she is now, but who has she ever been? The pains of guilt can be eventually relieved, and the wrongs of injustice inflicted may be eventually righted, but how to gain back a lost sense of a self that might have never been ever known? I think this latter might be the identity of that ‘something more painful.’

09 April 2015

Aging Thoughts

For some aging occurs physically: more joint pains, more stiffness in rising from chairs and sofas, less vigor when climbing stairs. I speak from some experience. Aging also appears physically in the drying of skin—the parchment-like appearance of the skin on my legs and arms, the sun spots and skin discolorations that record the history of the various vain sunburning episodes at the parks and beaches of my youth. 
     There are other physical signs of aging: beards that gray, waistlines that expand and sag, eyes that pop up over expanding and darkening bags. There is more but the list begins to depress me.
     However, there are also some milestones in time that mark my aging, and the two occur this year almost simultaneously. My older daughter turns 26 years of age and is now no longer covered by my health insurance. Notice of this termination came in yesterday's mail. This event marks one more move forward in her independence and one less care that I must and can proffer. Now, I can only worry but do little and hope that her soon-to-occur employment provides a wonderful health care option or that the Affordable Care Act remains intact. I sense a declension in my sense of being a father.
     And then the younger daughter turns 21 years of age and becomes an adult in the eyes of at least the bars. This, too, marks a move towards her independence and one more item about which I can worry. And still, how am I less the father?
     And so this aging process proceeds physically limb by limb, and emotionally neuroses by neuroses. I’m thinking of Joni Mitchell’s composition, “Song to Aging Children”: This is one.