27 May 2015

To the top of my bent

I read in The Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel that a provision of the K-12 budget items passed by the Joint Budget Finance Committee this week allows that “anyone with a bachelor's degree could be hired and licensed to teach English, math, social studies or science in Wisconsin and that any person with relevant experience — even a high school dropout — could be licensed to teach in any other non-core academic subject in middle and high school, according to the provision. Of course, Republicans compose a majority of the JFC.
          And I am sitting here (today working at a coffee house) about to begin my forty-fourth year as a teacher and I’m wondering, “How much can one man stand before he says, Enough, and begins to talk back?”  Czeslaw Milosz (1981, xiii) writes: “A man may persuade himself, by the most logical reasoning, that he will greatly benefit his health by swallowing live frogs; and, thus rationally convinced, he may swallow a first frog, then the second; but at the third his stomach will revolt.” This proposal demeans the work in which I and my colleagues have invested our lives, in order that the proudly ignorant Republican majority can continue their blind mission to dismantle the public school system and put in its place a series of privatized schools without any allegiance to the public space that the public schools have historically represented to (and for) society and have offered to the citizenry for the past century and a half. Of course the schools are not perfect nor is every teacher Mr. Chips. And neither is every teacher Miss Jean Brodie. (It strikes me that the Republican majority might not recognize the allusions. Of course!) Indeed, most teachers (and I was teaching before Mary Czaja was born and so I have seen a great many schools and a great many teachers; I have helped to prepare more teachers than Ms. Czaja might have ever talked to in her life. Her proposal indicates a remarkable ignorance of the work of teachers, of the work of education, and even of the history of the United States. I know that it was not her teacher’s fault that she knows so little.
          I can’t argue intelligently with a proposal as absurd as the one passed by the Republicans of the Joint Finance Committee; really I can’t engage in such idiocy. And I won’t stoop so low as to feel it necessary to defend my profession from people who are not ashamed to display their ignorances. I will not discourse on the complexities of the teaching profession and the realities of learning. I will not address the impossibilities of the profession and the courage of those who undertake it. (For the interest of the Republicans, I have just used a rhetorical device called apophasis.) It hath made me mad! But God hope that Ms. Czaja does not have to see a physician who has completed 9th grade biology, 11th grade chemistry, and read at least Arrowsmith and has seen a few seasons of Dr. Kildare and/or Gray’s Anatomy.
          Harry Truman (for Ms. Czaja’s sake, Harry Truman was a President of the United States) once said,  “Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a Republican. But
I repeat myself."

22 May 2015

Just a Few Interesting Cliches

I awoke from a night of troubling dreams. Clearly, I have issues with which to deal. I say ‘clearly’ but there appears little about dreams that are clear to me though I acknowledge their meaningfulness. As with any competent (my word of the day) piece of literature, the dream demands some interpretation; and the dream teaches me about literature even as the opposite might be true as well, which might be something I learned long ago from Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams. Often the case is that though in the dream I appear to be in a familiar place, in fact upon awakening when I analyze the details they are not at all characteristics of that place! Proof that the latent content is aligned with but separate from the latent content. At some point in Walden Thoreau writes that he awoke to a question, and I believe that he is precisely correct: the dream is a response to a question my life poses to me, and the interpretation of the dream is an attempt to understand its construction and all its details as an answer to the question. Terry Eagleton teaches me that the text itself is a strategy to answer the question, and to understand the text requires that I reconstruct the question to which the text was answer.  Of course, since my life possesses a certain complexity, and my life inspires more than a single question, the answer is overdetermined. Come Watson, the game’s afoot!
            For example, in one of last night’s dream I returned to my office from a trip, or at least, the feeling the dreamer (me) experienced in the dream was that I was returning to the office building where I have worked for the past quarter century, but when I awoke and examined the details of the place, I realized that the dream had not reproduced my office at all. The feeling placed me in an environment that suggested my office, but the dream had produced a location that had elements of a variety of spaces in my life. In the dream I felt that I was in my office building, but in the details I am certain the building was not my office. And clearly the action of the dream--its plot—did not accord with placement in the office building at all. It was not my colleagues returning with me nor was the place at all meant for work; nor was I, in fact, returning for work; indeed, the dream had little to do with my work, though the architectural style (painted concrete bricks!) was endemic to a certain type of environment. As Freud taught, I can look at the details and realize their significance in and to the dream, but the dream is a construction (by whom or what, I wonder?) that has drawn those details from my life as an attempt to respond to something: to some question.
            And so I want to acknowledge that I start interpretation with the feeling of the dream (and of the text), which I understand an answer, and I work to find at least one of the questions to which the dream (and the work) is an answer, acknowledging that the dream and the text are overdetermined. Like the dream the text is produced under certain conditions and therefore, the interpretation demands that attention be paid to the conditions of its production: these are social, political, historical, psychological, etc. If as hermeneuticists say reality is what returns a coherent answer to an historically loaded question, then attention to history must be paid. Terry Eagleton, quoting Wolfgang Iser, says that a text is a set of instructions for the production of meaning, and that meaning is not an object but a practice of following instructions: “to organize various data offered  . . . by the text . . . we look forward, we look back, we decide, we change our decisions, we form expectations, we are shocked by their nonfulfillment, we question, we muse, we accept, we reject . . .” How I proceed depends on the prioritization of strategies and environmental and psychological elements in and of the present moment and the entire history that moment contains. So must it be with the dream.  Interpretation is an event that involves vigorous activity—perhaps that is why I get so tired!

17 May 2015

Life After Death

Dr. Bernard Sommer talked this past Shabbat evening about Jewish beliefs concerning the existence of life after death. I have some interest in this subject; indeed, in the second movement of Symphony #1  I discussed Jewish attitudes toward death in some length. Sommer asserted that the most authoritative resource for Rabbinic thought on essential beliefs of Judaism were to be found in the siddur because it was to the siddur that every Jew looks—or ought to look to—three times each day during prayer services. Indeed, three times each day and four times on Shabbat, the Jews recites the Amidah in which five times in the first paragraphs of the prayer there is mention of the life after death, and even of the resurrection of the body. No Jew who attends services would not several times daily come across these beliefs in the daily service. Even on Shabbat, when people enter shul at various times, the Amidah is recited twice: once during the morning service and once during the additional service, musaf. If a congregant arrives after musaf then they are attending services simply for the Kiddush luncheon! Hence, Dr. Sommer asserted that if we wanted to discover the text most authoritative for Jewish belief, the text in which the Rabbis placed the essential concepts of Jewish principle, then the siddur is that text, in the process, then, Dr. Sommer reduced the central authority of Tanakh (Torah, Prophets and Writings) and even of Talmud, the former that few read in its entirety and the latter studied by even fewer. I was intrigued.
          And then Sommer offered some rationale about why Jews might have abandoned or at least, discounted the idea of life after death as not exactly a Jewish notion. He said that the first reason concerned the emphasis that Jews have historically placed on the Bible to the exclusion of the other pieces of Rabbinic literature: the siddur and the Talmud. And since Tanakh has almost no reference to life after death, therefore this concept must have no place in Jewish belief. (In a second talk Professor Sommer showed why the Tanakh ought not to be considered authoritative.) Secondly, Sommer asserted, that because the Christians had placed so centrally in their dogma the concept of life after death that surely Jews could not hold such a belief. Discounting belief in life after death distinguished Jews from Christians. And the third reason why Jews have not held to the idea of life after death had something to do with the rationalism that arose in Judaism (well, in the entire philosophical world) during the 19th century. Since there was no positivist evidence for such an event, since it seemed so irrational a concept, surely it defied honest belief. I found his explanations interesting and somewhat convincing.
          Finally, Sommer talked about what Jews gained from belief in the concept of life after death. And he argued that it served two purposes: the first is that the belief affirmed the existence of God. The continued existence of the soul after death required no magic, but the resurrection of the body necessitated a Magician, with a capital M, as Sommer said. Life after Death, the resurrection of the body, confirmed God’s existence because the Rabbis posited that the body of each would be resurrected and returned to its soul. Secondly, life after death affirmed the importance of life here because life after death according to the Rabbi’s beliefs, involved the reintroduction of the soul back into the body, and life after death would therefore be a replicate of life here now. What life we live here we would then live there. We should pay attention to our present. Finally, life after death affirmed the centrality of the human individual. Each of us would get back his/her body and not some other body—yes, the body must be regulated and Talmud is filled with those regulations, but it was important—even central.
          And I appreciated Sommer’s talk very much, but I don’t think I can fully accept it: that is, I don’t know that the existence of life after death is integral to Jewish belief but rather, has been added for perhaps clear reasons. Because everything that the Rabbis said had commented on the Bible: Rabbinic literature explains, elaborates, and defines the original scriptures. Even if Sommers will argue (as I think he does) that the Bible is not God composed, that revelation was the command and the Bible was the elaboration by the Rabbis of that command, then the elaboration of the text has a context, and the idea of life after death has to be considered within that context. Thus, the question remains for me why would they develop the concept of life after death if, indeed, there is nothing in the original source that speaks of it; and make the belief so central as to put it five times in the central prayer for daily recitation. Because to my mind there is nothing in Torah that speaks of life after death: everyone who dies in Torah stays quite dead, but clearly the idea of the resurrection of the body is clear in the Amidah. And Sommer’s answers possesses legitimacy. The Rabbis’ explanation offers some rationale to me for the ‘why:’ The Rabbis were defining Judaism after the destruction of the Temple and the siddur is a late manifestation of that attempt and the institution of practice. Prayer (and the book) replaced the sacrifice. They could invent practice by a careful creation of text that has relationship to Torah but is not coincident with it. I do not think that they could ground the belief in life after death in Bible—rather, life after death is a derived belief based in necessity. Why it was necessary remains for me an open question. But the concept was part of the attempt to invent a Judaism post-Temple and they succeeded without question.

14 May 2015

Fifty Years On

Another year and another reunion. I remember when I arrived on the campus at Roanoke College in 1965 that in progress was the 50th reunion of the graduates of the class of 1915. I remember thinking to myself: Oh, Lord, these people are so old. I will never be that old. What I probably meant is that I could not imagine myself portly in shape, wrinkled in visage, returning after having lived a life when actually I had just begun the life I was to live. Ironically, I suppose, then it was not death I anticipated (even feared) but life. Though both groups wandered about campus a bit disoriented, those elders possessed a certain confidence having at least a life of fifty years behind them, while I walked directed but bewildered toward a life unknown that lay before me.
            And so now it is moment of the 50th reunion of my high school graduation. I possess pictures of myself and friend in caps and gowns; I know who these two were but I am only partly aware of who they are now. And I stand in my classroom before my students in exactly the same position that I stood 50 years ago before the returning graduates of Roanoke College. But I think that maybe something has changed; certainly the world has altered considerably and dangerously continues to alter. I read the news today, oh boy!
            But there are things that remain exactly the same and I think it is those things that trouble me. For then I didn’t know them as things . . . but when I consider them now I experience feelings I had then, and I suddenly understand my life so much differently. I think memories are often suspect, but perhaps feelings are always true and there is much to be learned from them.
            In any case, I am not portly though I am somewhat wrinkled. And I head now out to a yoga class so that I remain somewhat flexible if not supple.

06 May 2015


Absurdly, I thought that he would live forever, or at least as long as I would. But I am not sure why I held this idea: perhaps because he did look younger than his years told. He had been retired for a good while having had a heart attack early and deciding then not to die on the job. It has been my experience that when people retire the wrinkles on their faces efface and their skins become smoother and less leathery.
     And because for the past 16 years he had sat next to me on Shabbat mornings when he summered in Minnesota. Apparently one Shabbat I had taken his seat when he was wintering, in Florida and by the time he returned I assumed the seat was mine. And he never complained, not once, about losing his seat, well, or even about anything. He took great joy in life.
     And perhaps because people around him died—his wife, his brother, the men and women who sat in the in the row beside us and in front of us—and yet he remained always happy and hopeful.
     And maybe I thought him immortal because he so adored my own children who were friends and companions with his grandchildren. He took such great joy in the accomplishments of my daughters and offered them the affection a grandfather would give to his grandchildren. And my daughters l think loved him.
    Or perhaps quite selfishly, as long as Harold sat next to me I felt safe.
    I really did not think that Harold could or would die, and I will miss him.