Monday, March 31, 2008

Little Downpour

I lack a certain pointless discipline (1)
I'm planning on moving away from reading Dostoevsky's long novels and experiencing a lot of shorter novels by a variety of authors. But this weekend at a bookstore I couldn't resist picking up Dostoevksy's The Eternal Husband and Other Stories because 1) I hadn't read any of the stories before, and 2) they are translated by Pevear and Volokhonsky. I just can't stay away from the master.

I lack a certain pointless discipline (2)
The last time I went vegan, I started five days earlier than my planned date because I was too excited. This time I was planning for April 1st as a firm date to remember, but I got too excited and began March 30th. I'm always too excited to reform my life. It feels good.

Christian Humanism and Pacifism
It strikes me that if Christian pacifism focuses solely on the eschatological meaning of peace, it misses out on the more concrete command of Christ: nonresistance as a show of love for one's neighbor. Christ's command to love one's neighbor, to love one's enemy, to put others above oneself, is to me a recognition of the dignity of all human beings. Christian pacifism is also a practical ethic, and Christian pacifists should join with others in the work of peace.

Deus Absconditus
For some reason Fowler in The Quite American reminds me of John Fowles' oeuvre. Fowles was a committed atheist that apparently felt the need to come back to the idea of God continuously in his art. Fowles focuses so much on the God who absconded: it is the absent God, not the nonexistence of God, that Fowles writes about.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Torrential Downpour

Two thoughts on John Donne's Divine Meditations
1.Donne's religious poetry includes serious doubt and questioning. Divine Meditation #7 begins: "At the round earth's imagined corners..." Immediately there is the recognition that a scientific model of the earth does not match the biblical model of the earth. And #7 ends with "Teach me how to repent; for that's as good/ As if thou hadst sealed my pardon, with thy blood." If? In Christian theology, forgiveness of sins was sealed with the blood of Christ, yet here Donne suggests some doubt of that. In #9, Donne questions religious doctrine on sin/reason and on forgiveness/wrath, then takes a pose of humility...but leaves the questions hanging there. And in #13, he says of the image of Christ on the cross, "And can that tongue adjudge thee unto hell,/ Which prayed forgiveness for his foes' fierce spite?"

2. Donne has two poetic careers: the early songs which were often rather bawdy, and the later religious poems. But he never really left the sexual imagery behind, did he? Divine Meditation #14, perhaps the best one, contains some powerful imagery of God overtaking the poet, and ends with the request for God to "ravish" the speaker. #18 deals with finding the Church on earth, and suggests that the true bride of Christ would be "open to most men."

I realized something absurd: in the past ten months, the only novels I've read in their entirety were by Dostoevsky. I've encountered no novelists but Dostoevsky since I finished Gregory Maguire's Son of a Witch last May. None! Now I've certainly read a good deal of drama, poetry, and non-fiction in that time, and Dostoevsky does write rather long novels, so it's not like I haven't been reading a lot. But that's still a little weird to me. So from now until September, I'll only read novels that are around 200-300 pages long, and each novel I read has to be by a different author (I'm starting with Graham Greene's The Quiet American). And of course I'll continue to read drama, poetry, and non-fiction.

Mostly Vegan
The preparations are happening: on April 1st, I'm again going vegan. I'm not going to make a public deal about it (most of my friends and family don't read this blog), but I'm taking the step. I'm "mostly vegan" because I might take it easy with honey, and because on special occasions that are a bit outside my control, I may be a mere vegetarian (like my sister's wedding). But starting April 1st, I'll mostly be consuming fruits and vegetables. I'm very excited.

Theory and Reading
Reader-Response Theory, in my opinion, essentially allows me to read a work of literature in any way I choose. How can I limit my modes of reading to one? I read any work as a Humanist, as a Marxist, as a Feminist, or as a devotee of any other theory I've ever encountered. We can hold multiple thoughts, multiple frameworks, multiple ideas in our heads. I can read a book both as Harold Bloom would want me to and as a Marxist would want me to at the very same time.

The only theory I have little time for is Aestheticism (as I've suggested before). The work must mean more to me than appreciation of art for its own sake; I'm not nearly so interesting in exploring the aesthetics of any work as the ideas of the work. Perhaps I'm a bit of a Moralist as a reader. But that, too, is what Reader-Response is about: recognizing our own subjective modes of reading. My lack of interest in an Aesthetic approach to literature is my own, and I recognize that others do not, need not, should not read literature just the way I do. One of my great frustrations is when people universalize their personal modes of reading, claiming everybody should read literature the same way they do, turning their subjective preferences into literary rules.

Teaching "King Lear"

I love teaching King Lear. Just love it. I struggle to make it a discussion: instead I usually read significant passages and expound on their greater meaning and significance. I feel a bit like either mad Lear or the Fool, running around in front of the class yelling and frothing and laughing. Such fun.

"When we are born, we cry that we are come To this great stage of fools."

Individualism and Communalism

Solomon Asch in "Opinions and Social Pressure:"

"Life in society requires consensus as an indispensable condition. But consensus, to be productive, requires that each individual contribute independently out of his experience and insight. When consensus comes under the dominance of conformity, the social process is polluted and the individual at the same time surrenders the power on which his functioning as a feeling and thinking being depends."

I had a drunken bar discussion long ago about the freedom of an existentialist to choose to belong to a religious group. Again I am reminded: communalism and individualism are not mutually exclusive concepts. A strong community is made up of free individuals.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Yoder's "Nevertheless"

In Nevertheless: the Varieties and Shortcomings of Religious Pacifism (Revised and Expanded Edition), John Howard Yoder does not explore the biblical or theological grounding of a pacifist stance. Instead he examines different forms such pacifist stances can take. Most chapters are structured similarly (though later chapters cover other types of pacifism more briefly): Yoder explains a particular nonviolent stance, followed by:

"Axiom" the underlying principle driving this stance

"Shortcomings" fair and reasonable arguments against this stance

"Nevertheless" why despite its shortcomings this stance is still a respectable, valid stance (later Yoder writes that "In each case we were able to criticize but not really to refute")

"After All" how war advocates also use the logic of this particular pacifist stance, but in a deeply flawed and terribly destructive way.

Perhaps the strongest arguments in the book are in the "After All" portions. Yoder shows that despite any shortcomings of a particular pacifist stance, it is still preferable to any equivalent violent stance. For example, in the chapter called "The Pacifism of Utopian Purism," Yoder writes:

"This utopian pacifism trusts less to an irrational leap of faith than does the rhetoric which tells us that by forcibly making refugees, we are defending self-determination; or that by supporting a puppet government, we are enabling democracy to grow. There is no more utopian institution than an idealistic war. [...] War is utopian both in the promises it makes for the future and in the black-and-white way of thinking about the enemy, which it assumes."

A pacifist can read this book and find easy counters to any war advocate's objections; the war advocate often uses arguments similar to the pacifist, but in manner that frequently ignores the way in which war dehumanizes, and in a manner that justifies deadly destruction (as Yoder writes, "every serious critique one can address to the pacifist, if taken honestly, turns back with greater force upon the advocate of war").

But with Yoder, the point is not to win an argument: if all that happens after reading Nevertheless is that I'm able to pull out a stronger argument and counterargument when debating a war advocate, then my pacifism is empty. A religious pacifist reading Yoder should come away with greater conviction, greater spiritual commitment, greater desire to put belief into action and practice. While Yoder asks that "each type of pacifist reasoning be respected in its own right," he also writes that "the moral commonality of all of them is greater than the systematic diversity."

My enemies are my neighbors and I am commanded to love them.

OCD and ideas

Though he wouldn't define it as such, Martin Luther is a person I consider to have lived a life devoted to ideas. Yet if you read biographies on him, you learn that in the latter parts of his life he was often sick and in serious pain.

For my I don't think there was ever a better novelist than Dostoevsky. He had epilepsy throughout his life.

Even if we are devoted to art, to ideas, to God, to anything beyond our material existence, we still have these bodies and these afflictions. We can't pretend that the physical pains that a person endures doesn't affect his or her life in ideas.

But what of mental afflictions?

I have obsessive-compulsive tendencies along the pure obsessive variety. Last summer I had obsessive fears that I'll be arrested for something I didn't really do and be taken to prison away from my family (this has got to be some pent up guilt about something, right?). Those fears have largely passed and now seem immaterial and distant--but at the time they consumed my mind, dominating my day to day thought, and they do occasionally (and briefly) pop up again. Lately certain words that I don't like to think keep popping into my head though I don't want them to--that's the form it's been taking. I can't control my own thoughts--the words just pop into my consciousness without my control.

Today something else is happening. I had a bad dream last night--I dreamt that I went to work and left my son at home in his crib, thinking my wife had taken him to daycare, and not realizing it until I was a half hour from home. It was a horrifying dream--I felt relief when I woke, and I checked on him still. And today, though I have distinct, specific memories of taking my son to daycare, though I even have material evidence that I was at the daycare facility, though I can think on the specific details of everything I did with him this morning, somehow my dream is lingering. Somehow I fear that I've botched things badly. That I forgot him. That I imagined taking him to daycare. Somehow the dream I had is more real than the reality I experienced this morning.

So that's my cross to bear--I get obsessive and consumed with thoughts I don't want to think about, thoughts that really attack and drain on me.

But...isn't neurosis part of a life in ideas, too? Would a Woody Allen movie be quite the same if he didn't have certain psychological hangups? Would Seinfeld even work if not for the insecurities and paranoia of George Costanza? What of the literature of Poe, of Hemingway? Aren't all our psychological hangups and disorders just a part of it all?

Friday, March 21, 2008

Footnotes > Endnotes

I'm currently reading Nevertheless: The Varieties and Shortcomings of Religious Pacifism by John Howard Yoder. It's a fascinating book, as I would expect from Yoder. Furthermore, the notes to the chapters often contain insights and illustrations as important and interesting as those in the chapters themselves.

Alas, the book has endnotes, not footnotes. This means that either I'd have to flip to the back of the book each time I reach a note marker (a tedious exercise), or I need to wait and read the notes for each chapter at the completion of each chapter (which sometimes separates a note from its chapter context), either way keeping a second bookmark for the notes. I choose the latter because it's easier, but certainly I wish I could easily glance at a footnote each time the author wishes to provide a note.

Let us all agree: footnotes are superior to endnotes.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

This movie is fun.

I Heart Huckabees

A little cheesy, a little obvious. But isn't it also all about life in ideas?

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

From Shaw's "The Devil's Disciple"

"Into the merits of these idealizations it is not here necessary to inquire: suffice it to say, without prejudice, that they have convinced both Americans and English that the most high minded course for them to pursue is to kill as many of one another as possible, and that military operations to that effect are in full swing, morally supported by confident requests from the clergy of both sides for the blessing of God on their arms."

"I see little divinity about you. You talk to me of Christianity when you are in the act of hanging your enemies? Was there ever such blasphemous nonsense!"

Monday, March 17, 2008

Violence and Watching (2)

Gabriel McKee in Religion Dispatches:

"Liberal viewers who oppose the death penalty, for instance, still expect the black hats to get killed in the final shootout. As much as we contend that no one deserves to die, we all throw our personal ethics out the window when we enter a movie theater. We’re all hangin’ judges."

Indeed. I'm a committed pacifist, but I watch Big Love wishing Bill would just solve his problems by killing his father and most of the male members of the Grant family. And that's not even a terribly overtly violent show: think of how I watch Deadwood, Rome, The Sopranos, Dexter.

The problem isn't, I think, whether a nonviolent person can enjoy violent entertainment; after all, in a film no actual people are killed. The problem comes when television and film reflect a particular narrative to us, a narrative that tells us violence solves problems. Too many people imbibe this fictional narrative of what McKee calls "redemptive violence," which may lead them away from the conclusion that in the real world violence causes deeper problems, and toward the conclusion that violence is an effective and moral way to solve problems. But it is neither.

Friday, March 14, 2008

All of Western literature is but a retelling of Don Quixote

Re-reading Shaw's Arms and the Man, I'm struck by how familiar the story really is. It's the story of the confrontation between an Ideal and Reality.

I've read it in Don Quixote, in Madame Bovary, in Death of a Salesman, in M. Butterfly. I've seen it in Main Street, I've encountered it in Faulkner and Steinbeck. It's in "Dulce Et Decorum Est" and a lot of other war poetry. It's even in The French Lieutenant's Woman, though treated a bit differently. I suppose it pre-dates Cervantes: you can sense it in Chaucer. And if you want, you can add to the list of books about it.

Over and over we see these characters deluded with a fantasy, with an outrageous ideal, with a cherished image. And over and over again, we see the comic and tragic consequences when these characters are forced to face reality. I suppose it's a natural theme for literature, for made up stories.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Poetry in our lives

Be sure to check out The Guardian's "Great poets of the 20th century" series.

Monday, March 10, 2008

What does violence mean?

See also: "What does peace mean?"

Peter King recently wrote about his USO trip to Afghanistan. It's mostly what you'd expect: an incredible experience being in a war zone, his experience talking with the soldiers, etc. After writing about one soldier that died, he writes about "guys [that] jump out of planes and hunt Taliban soldiers for a living." He writes about a guy that reminds him of Rambo, of another guy "as tough as they come." He writes,

"One of them talked about mowing down Taliban troops as they walked into death.

"'We heard on their radios later that we got 75 of 'em,' one of the Rangers said. The platoon members joked about what bad shooters the Taliban soldiers were, and if they had been any good, how many more of our side would be dead or wounded."

Later King describes a ceremony for a soldier that was killed. At the end, he writes about his trip to visit the military in Afghanistan that "They don't sell tickets for the experience of a lifetime, but if you can do it somehow, I'd highly recommend it."

During all this writing, King speaks nary a word critical of war. He doesn't challenge military values. Yet near the end of his column, he manages to do what he frequently does in his columns; he criticizes violence in film:

"While waiting for the flight out of Bagram on Sunday night, we watched the worst movie of all time. Death Sentence, with mindless killing until everyone in the world was dead. You're better than that, Kevin Bacon. I think."

Peter King talks about visiting with soldiers that were "mowing down" 75 real human beings. He speaks of two soldiers that were killed and being mourned. He doesn't condemn war. He doesn't suggest war is a bad thing. He doesn't show horror at real life killing.

But he doesn't like a movie that had a lot of killing.

Self and Confrontation in Teaching

While discussing Stanley Milgram's "The Perils of Obedience" today in class, I highlighted the following two passages:

"This may illustrate a dangerously typical arrangement in a complex society: it is easy to ignore responsibility when one is only an intermediate link in a chain of action."

"Thus there is a fragmentation of the total human act; no one is confronted with the consequences of his decision to carry out the evil act."

After reading these passages, I asked a direct question:

"Are you responsible for sweatshops?"

I'm comfortable asking this question, and after a little discussion on the subject, I asked another question:

"Are you responsible for slaughterhouses?"

This question makes me slightly more uncomfortable. I'm challenging students on their consumption of meat, but as I teach at a school with a lot of students with an agricultural background, I may be challenging more than that. Furthermore, I made passing reference to disapproval of rodeos, knowing several of my students not only enjoy rodeos but likely participate in them (this reference was relevant to the conversation).

I do feel strongly about treatment of animals, but I also recognize that a college class on English composition is not the place to really make major issue of treatment of animals. I brought it up because I felt it was useful to the discussion (what does the Milgram experiment mean in our world today?), and I truly enjoy this type of discussion, but afterward I'm a bit uncomfortable and sheepish. Should I really be talking about my vegetarianism when I'm supposed to be teaching students how to read and write better?

Furthermore, my emotions are tied into it. Just as when I teach literature I love, I sometimes blast past discussion and start running around the room raving with joy, I don't bring up treatment of animals as an objective theoretical question. Thus, I respond to students with energy and emotion that might not quite fit with my typical demeanor (which is energetic, but with the requisite detached irony to focus on analysis), and is not directed toward the course objectives.

Is it worth it, in a discussion of obedience, trust, and situation, to confront students on their tacit complicity in some of the world's problems (or my own, for as I tell them, I rarely read the labels on items I buy, either)? To help students become better readers and writers, am I better off avoiding such thoughtful confrontation, or is thoughtful confrontation precisely useful to make students better readers, writers, and thinkers? For as Mark Edmundson writes in "On the Uses of a Liberal Education: Lite Entertainment for Bored College Students,"

"A willingness on the part of the faculty to defy student convictions and affront them occasionally--to be usefully offensive--also might not be a bad thing."

By being "usefully offensive," am I forcing students to think critically--and personally--about the essays they are reading, and the paper they will be writing?

I hope so.

Links Catered to You

For people who observe cliches and notice the overuse of "drinking the Kool-Aid" (Boston Globe).

For people wondering when injecting humor into your teaching goes a bit far (The Onion).

For college teachers that complain too much about their students (Inside Higher Ed).

For those who want to know why John Milton is a fabulous poet (The Guardian, via ALD).

For those who want to know how Homer started it all (Washington Post).

For those concerned about a president that claims to worship a Lord that was tortured, yet vetoes legislation that would outlaw torture (Common Dreams).

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Animal and Human Advocacy

I sometimes see people dismiss or criticize animal advocacy with a "humans first" argument. Basically, some people ask why we should bother advocating for animals when there are so many human problems that we need to deal with. Shouldn't we use our resources (time, money, work, arguments, energy) for helping solve human problems?

I can easily debunk this excuse:

We can do both.

Trying to help people does not require one to eat meat. We can advocate for better treatment of animals even as we advocate for helping people. We can work toward better treatment of animals even as we work for better treatment of people. We can devote energy to both.

You might respond, "Well, all the resources you used for helping and advocating for animals could have been used for helping and advocating for people." That's true. But all the resources you used for CDs, DVDs, jewelry, concert tickets, sporting event tickets, beer, extra clothing, restaurant food, or any of the other things you don't really need but you consume for your own pleasure could have been used to help or advocate for people too. Why hold somebody's unselfish advocacy against him or her, when you could more reasonably criticize people's selfish consumption?

The problem isn't people using their resources to help animals instead of people; the problem is people (most of us) that don't use our resources to help anybody.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Life in Ideas: "the greatest existentialist of our generation," 2000-2008

If there is an idea that has mattered to me, it is existentialism. But I do not know that I am still an existentialist.

A hostile universe? You bet. Hazard? Yep. Free Will? Absolutely. I'm still comfortable with much of existentialism. But...

I no longer call myself a "Christian Existentialist."
That's what I've called myself for years, never quite defining it in a satisfactory way. I now call myself a "Christian Humanist." I believe all human beings are imbued with dignity, that redemption is never beyond a person's reach, and that I must treat all human beings accordingly.

I no longer believe we create and/or choose our own morality.
I've never quite believed that "Everything is permitted," but I have believed that each individual may create or choose his or her own morality (which, when you think about it, isn't terribly far off "Everything is permitted"). But my commitment to vegetarianism and pacifism reveals a belief in a higher moral order. I am not a pacifist and vegetarian merely because that is the morality I "choose:" I am a pacifist and a vegetarian because at a deeper level, I believe that is morally right.

I no longer believe we are individuals isolated from other human beings.
I was once comfortable with the belief that humans were isolated from each other, alone with no connection. I now see meaningful connection between people.

I do not think life is absurd.
Here's the thing about Absurdist literature: it is so noticeably absurd. Real life has plot. Real life has meaningful human relationships. Real life has meaning. It is governed by chance, but there is meaning in that, not absurdity.

Is this enough? Am I an ex-existentialist, or is this merely a new part of my evolving existentialism?

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Loving what you do

Next up in lit class, I get to teach Tony Harrison's "v." (probably my favorite 20th century poem) and David Henry Hwang's "M. Butterfly" (probably my favorite 20th century play).

I always look forward to exposing students to these works, but teaching literature you love can be a challenge. Lit classes thrive on discussion, so I have to resist turning class into a proselytizing lecture ("This is why this poem is so brilliant. Don't you get it!?!").

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Larry David, Dexter Morgan

Larry David (the character) is a keen observer of social custom and human behavior. He doesn't quite fit into society, however, and many of Curb Your Enthusiasm's shenanigans occur because Larry consistently acts abnormally and/or breaks the rules of social custom.

Dexter Morgan is also a keen observer of social custom and human behavior. He has to be: he's a serial killer lacking human emotion, and so he must fake normality. He can act according to the rules of social custom, and general appear to be a normal human being, because he works so hard at faking it.

Season Finale = Chaos

SPOILERS--there are Big Love season one spoilers here.

When you watch a cable television drama, you must know this when you prepare to watch the last episode of the season: all bets are off. Anything, utterly anything, can happen. This goes double for the season one finale.

Lies and secrets were a major theme of season one of Big Love. The big secret, of course, is the family's polygamous lifestyle, and it's a secret that requires frequent lying. Within this larger context of secrecy, members of the family have many smaller secrets they keep from each other, and lies they tell to maintain their secret. We see the effect of "living a lie" on all the characters, including the children; we see that living with a major secret almost creates a culture of secrecy in which characters, used to a life of lies, are comfortable (but uncomfortable) lying to each other. One wife racks up massive credit card debt, secretly. The husband has an "affair" with one of his wives. They must lie to everybody in the outside world, and within their inner family, they are unable to tell the truth to each other.

With their secret exposed, they now have no explicit reason to continue lying. What's theme going to be? Of course there's still massive potential for conflicts and storylines, and I suspect the characters will continue to live with "smaller" secrets and lies even with their "big" secret exposed. But the theme must shift and evolve, as I suppose any good show must allow for.