28 August 2015

No ouch!

Well, I went ahead and ripped the bandage off—I pulled myself off of Facebook. I have had enough of peering into the exciting, happy lives of every one else. I might say that over the years that I have kept a Facebook page only twice did I learn something that actually affected me, and both times I probably might have found the news out anyway: I did not need Facebook to become informed. If the claim is made that Facebook has made the world smaller, I would respond that for me Facebook has made the world too large. On the one hand I get posts from people who I do not even know. Some time in some past I must have either added them as friends (of which I might have been in need) or they are friends of my friends and somehow their posts end up on my page. There are too many people. On the other hand, the posts from people I might appreciate hearing from either will not ‘friend’ me—my daughters, for example—or refuse to have a Facebook page in the first place. The people I would see are too far away.
          Of course, the people who won’t friend me (thank goodness I mostly say) nevertheless remain in constant contact via text messaging or less often, phone calls. The former seems to be the preferred mode of communication, though how one engages in serious conversation about complex issues poking about on that tiny screen with my thumbs baffles me. The space allows for mostly a full sentence or two, but sometimes I like to extend my talk. Thoreau says that sometimes he must place the chairs on opposite side of the room to allow space for the discourse to roll out, but the little space for text messages on my phone tends to roll me up.
          I am separating from social media and it feels like I am entering a monastery (even more isolating since I am Jewish) where silence is the order. I am anxious (in its several meanings) to see how the silence affects me.
          But I am also preparing to re-enter the classroom. Meetings (argghh!!) begin this week and classes the next. It will be a very slow start because the Jewish Holidays happen to fall on just those days that I teach. This new year seems the most appropriate time to remove myself from Facebook. The classroom and its inevitable connections is for me a preferable way to communicate, and of those who are farther away . . . well, we have always found a way.
          I look forward to the structure the classroom provides me. Not a terribly disciplined person, or at least at this moment without a discipline to direct me, I anticipate having somewhere else to go, a phrase I learned from a dear friend who has no Facebook page. The classroom offers me community, purpose and an environment in which to consider the issues that have long concerned me both professionally and personally. When I enter the classroom I feel at home.

18 August 2015

Moral Equivalents

In Judah Halevi’s The Kuzari,  the King of the Khazars questions the Rabbi regarding the Jewish faith. The King is particularly curious about the Karaites, a sect of Jews who hold to a single interpretation of Torah. The Karaites believed that Tanakh (the Torah:Ta; the Prophets-naviim; and the Writings-ketuvim) was the authoritative text and that the entire Oral Torah—the Mishnah and the Talmud--on which Rabbinic Judaism was based was irrelevant since not the direct words of God or God’s immediate representatives. The Rabbi tells the King of the Khazars, “The Karaites possess a book which contains a fixed tradition on one of the subject just mentioned, and which allows no differences on readings, vowel signs, accents, or lawful or unlawful matters, or decisions” (168). The King admits to knowing nothing about this sect but adds, “I see, nevertheless, that they are very zealous.” I think by zealous the King refers to the Karaites single-minded devotion to a directed (and dictated) way of life.
            But the Rabbi refutes this attribution of zealousness and therefore, the devotion of the Karaites. He says that those who “speculate on the ways of glorifying God for the purpose of His worship, are much more zealous than those who practice the service of God exactly as it is commanded. For the Rabbi, the Karaites have accepted the easier path to worship for they merely follow orders, as it were—though of course, those orders—literal as they might seem, still require interpretation. Written language always requires a speaker. But for the Karaites there remains only a single voice of authority and therefore, I suppose, a single text of authority. For the Rabbis, the text is always open to interpretation and that is a human enterprise.
            And then Halevi’s Rabbi makes an interesting analogy: he says that the Karites are like those who live in a town where they are safe and without opposition, whereas the others are like stragglers in the desert, who are not certain what might occur in the future. In the desert one is fully exposed and vulnerable. Using images of battle the Rabbi says that such stragglers “must provide [themselves] with arms and prepare for battle like one expert in warfare.” And those arms and battle preparations represent the intellectual equipment for textual interpretation based as those tools must be on an overriding ethic to care for the widow the orphan and the stranger in our midst, for once we were strangers in Egypt and God took out the Israelites with signs and an outstretched arm. But the imagery of battle recalled to me William James talk on “The Moral Equivalent of War.”
            In that talk James advocated for a national conscription that would enlist young citizens in a ‘war’ against Nature: against the forces natural and unnatural that breed the hardships, inequalities and injustice that beset the world. This conscription would offer the country numerous other benefits: make visible the imbalances and injustices to which the luxurious classes now are blind and/or indifferent; provide insight into man's relations to the globe he lives on; and to the infinitely available and hard-wrung source of man’s higher life. “To coal and iron mines, to freight trains, to fishing fleets in December, to dishwashing, clotheswashing, and windowwashing, to road-building and tunnel-making, to foundries and stoke-holes, and to the frames of skyscrapers, would our gilded youths be drafted off, according to their choice, to get the childishness knocked out of them, and to come back into society with healthier sympathies and soberer ideas. They would have paid their blood-tax, done their own part in the immemorial human warfare against nature; they would tread the earth more proudly . . .” This conscription, an early form of VISTA and Americorps, would prepare our youth for a life of service and not of selfishness, of community rather than self-centeredness, of concern for the social good rather than the private gain. James avers that  “As the soldier is disciplined and trained for some albeit public good, so would the citizen be so trained. Such a conscription, with the state of public opinion that would have required it, and the many moral fruits it would bear, would preserve in the midst of a pacific civilization the manly virtues which the military party is so afraid of seeing disappear in peace. We should get toughness without callousness, authority with as little criminal cruelty as possible, and painful work done cheerily because the duty is temporary, and threatens not, as now, to degrade the whole remainder of one's life.” Despite the sexism implicit in James’ charge, his call for a moral equivalent to war insists that this emphasis would produce better teachers and even fathers and mothers.
            Well, it might be a far stretch, but for both the Rabbi and for James (as well as for John Lennon), life doesn’t come easy, and requires strength, endurance and training to achieve some haven in the wilderness. For the Rabbis of the Talmud, the promised land was the realization of the foundational ethic, and struggling with the text was the means by which to travel and from which to seek arrival. James knew that it was the teacher who could provide the tools and means that would provide direction and succor to achieve the higher life.  “ . . . the mind of him whose fields of consciousness are complex, and who, with the reasons for the action, sees the reasons against it, and yet, instead of being palsied, acts in the way that takes the whole field into consideration--, so, I say is such a mind the ideal sort of mind that should seek to reproduce in our pupils.” Halevi’s Rabbi claimed that the stragglers in the wilderness must in their wanderings “look for a fortress where they can entrench themselves.” And I think that what is important in Halevi’s sentence is the verb “to look.” These stragglers must be constantly in search of a place of comfort though they are never assured of finding one nor, indeed, of it being a permanent refuge. Indeed, finally these wanderers must construct their own refuge; they are, after all, in the wilderness. The Karaites, however, “lie down on their couches in a place well fortified of old.”
            I think interpretation is this march through the wilderness. We must find our own way but with tools and means with which to direct and ease our paths.  

16 August 2015

Another Day

Perhaps all of this speculation about autobiography with which I have recently been concerned has made me somewhat reticent to acknowledge my passing birthdays. I mentioned the day in passing in a post from August 2013 and can find no reference to it at all in 2014. In 2012 I acknowledged my 65th year. I do not know how to record the day other than to simply mention its presence; its events are mundane, of course, because it is only another day, in fact. It interests me that in the index of the complete journals of Henry David Thoreau there is not a single entry marked ‘birthday.’ In all of his writing Thoreau did not make reference to his birthday, and so of course there is no place to go to discover an explanation for the silence. But I suspect that for Thoreau the anniversary of the day of his birth was not unlike every other day of his life: Walden closes, ”Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.” And thus, his birthday required no notice different from any other day of the year: every day was a day of birth.
          Today on my birthday I think of Seymour Glass. In his diary he wrote, “I’m a kind of paranoiac in reverse. I suspect people of plotting to make me happy.” So I’ll recognize the Birthday and I’ll avoid the Happy.

09 August 2015

Study as Revelation

Geoffrey Hartman says that writing an autobiography “tempts us to invent a clear, even traumatic (therefore fallible) point of origin, instead of considering that we may have drifted into our identity, or that we continue to construct it.” I appreciate his caution; I have long considered that autobiography represents a type of fiction in which the narrator assumes an immediate identity with the implied author, a writer who exists in an absolute relationship with the work’s protagonist. In an autobiography, the narrator describes a life that the implied author has lived and from that life creates a protagonist who lives that life. Wayne Booth’s autobiography, for example, My Many Selves, offers the author’s portrait representing a fragmented self that the work will attempt to bring together into a somewhat unified Self. In the work he will describe at least a self that could be considered resolved, explained, given a unity from the separate selves the unified self defines. Of course, it is only in discourse that this feat can be accomplished and this discursive self¾the protagonist¾represents a construction of the implied author and is not identical to him. I hold that this work is fiction that draws on different materials. Michel Leiris writes that the autobiographer might be compared to the toreador whose art is to stay alive while exposing himself to the greatest danger. “The bull’s horn transforms danger into an occasion to be more brilliant than ever and reveals the whole quality of  . . . style just when he is most threatened.” The autobiographer exposes himself to the public but does so in a style that is meant to be admired: to place himself in view gloriously. Without the danger there is no need for style, but without style the toreador is simply a butcher. Style defines the nature of the act.
            Hartman acknowledges in A Scholar’s Tale that his attempt to write a life remains a fiction. Of course,  one doesn’t describe a drift as merely aimless drifting without acknowledging, albeit implicitly, a trajectory or plan. Construction is exactly what the narrative accomplishes but this construction must be distinguished from the raw materials any more than a building is defined by its concrete, steel and glass. Neither is the autobiography is identical to the process by which it is composed.
            One question Hartman raises concerns his immersion in study. The critic wonders how he might ever realize answers to the questions presented to him (and by him) by the literature with which he is engaged. He considers, that if the Torah was truth, then its study ought yield well, answers, but, in fact, through his study of Torah Hartman seems foiled in his attempt to understand and realize answers. He offers the example of God overhearing Sarah laugh on being told that at 90 years of age she will bear a child. Hartman wonders how he is to understand a God that is “infinitely far away” and yet close enough to hear Sarah’s laughter.
            But Hartman says that he had been comforted by his reading of Judah Halevi’s Kuzari. I had read the book years ago, and Hartman led me back to it: I found comfort in that which had once comforted Hartman. The Rabbi answers Al Khazari’s questions concerning the God of Abraham. The Hebrew God is a personal one and not a transcendent one: the Rabbi says that when Moses spoke to Pharaoh, Moses announces that he has been sent by the God of the Hebrews. This God is “the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” That is, this is a personal God. Halevi recognizes that this is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who had led the Israelites out of Egypt with an outstretched arm: this is a God tied intimately to the people’s daily life: in the desert God fed them daily.
            And the Rabbi says to Khazar that though the Israelites experienced God first hand—through the miracles and the revelation at Sinai--subsequent generations knew God through an uninterrupted tradition, “which is equal to personal experience.” That uninterrupted tradition to which the Rabbi refers is textual study!
            Hartman says that Halevi’s statement eased the incipient critic’s seemingly impossible desire (desire is by definition impossible) for truth by offering an approach to revelation through the uninterrupted tradition of literature! Though he was not there at Sinai, Halevi says that study achieves Truth as equivalently as the original revelation: “It was an intense period,” he writes, “in which I felt that not to be thinking, feeling, writing, was sinful.” And so to be engaged in these activities became an almost religious engagement and he wonders if this was “a verson of the perpetual prayer compulsion I later read about?” I wonder if Hartman refers here to the Jesus prayer in Salinger’s Franny and Zooey?
Study begins with question that leads to the text.

04 August 2015

Some Thoughts on Irony

I have been thinking a great deal about Jane Austen. Well, more specifically I have been considering her novels, all six of which I read during this past Spring semester. William Deresiewicz claims that people either love or hate Austen. Mark Twain is one of the latter. “Every time I read Pride and Prejudice, I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shinbone” (19). I am intrigued: why does he choose to read her again? But I think I am one of the former, and I am considering that what I love about reading Austen is that she immerses me in irony that I have long considered my lifeline to the world. Perhaps what I identify with is not the life of the characters, lives with which I cannot honestly identify, but with the dawning awareness of each of them that irony—an ironic stance--might serve them best. The heroines and heroes accept their stance in uncertainty. Claire Colebrook, in her book Irony says, “Irony must recognize that we can never overcome singular viewpoints and achieve a God-like point of view; we are always subject to a cosmic joke. For any idea we have of ourselves or our world will be part of a process of creation and destruction that we can neither delimit nor control.” Or as Isaiah Berlin says in his essay, “The Pursuit of the Ideal,” “We cannot legislate for the unknown consequences of consequences of consequences” Berlin says that every solution to a situation creates a new situation that presents a new set of issues to be considered but this time in an environment and in conditions significantly altered. Freud suggested a similar idea in “Analysis: Terminable and Interminable,” when he acknowledged that the resolution of one emotional issue makes possible the appearance of still another.
            So it seems to me with all of literature. The changed circumstances of our lives results in an altered reading of any book. I think this is one of the ideas in Italo Calvino’s if on a winter’s night a traveler. “I too, feel the need to reread the books I have already read . . . but at every rereading I seem to be reading a new book, for the first time. Is it I who keep changing and seeing new things of which I was not previously aware? Or is reading a construction that assumes form, assembling a great number of variables, and therefore something that cannot be repeated twice according to the same pattern.” Anna Karenina, which I am presently rereading, is a different text than that which I read twenty years ago. I know different things and have different sympathies as a result of the changed circumstances of my life. Furthermore, no text can express our intentions completely and directly and without contradiction¾and therefore, a text only gestures toward—makes available—its incompleteness. Every text is ironic, then, even the ones that remain spoken—and to learn to recognize that irony offers a perspective on the world that seems to me important and therefore, valuable. Maybe that is why I am so drawn to Ishmael’s Bulkington: he knows life exists in the quest for what will never be known. Maybe this is what draws me to Dylan, and repeatedly to an early composition, “Bob Dylan’s Dream.” There he sings, “I wish, I wish in vain/ That we could live simply in that room once again./ Ten thousand dollars at the drop of a hat/I’d give it all gladly/If our lives could be like that.”  The key word there is ‘simply,’ but the irony here is complex: our lives can never be like that.
            Developing a capacity for irony is to develop the capacity to make happen an experience of irony in one’s self and in another. Irony inheres in an acceptance of doubt, but in that acceptance exists possibility. And that is what I think I might have meant when I once said to my daughter’s that my legacy to them would be a sense of irony. Because it seems to me that the openness that irony enables makes possible a world that though unstable might also be more authentic. For me the world contains no truth—there is no reality behind the language I use—no object other than the words I use to describe it. Irony suggests that for everything that is said more yet exists. And, therefore, I need never feel stuck anywhere or anytime. The ironist accepts that there is always more: the Rabbis say I need not complete the task, but neither am I permitted to abandon it.
            What is the point? I’m not sure I know. But the ironist is always growing; and is always in process. The ironist never stops learning even though everything that is learned she knows is only partial. Schlegel has suggested that irony can also be considered the simultaneous presence of two meanings between which it is impossible to decide. In such a situation, all possibility is open and infinite. To be an ironist is to enjoy life to its fullest because whatever fullest means is unachievable. And so the ironist keeps on keeping on. I mean, finally, it’s life and life only.