Friday, May 30, 2008

Tolstoy's "What is Art?"

In What is Art?, Tolstoy rejects Aestheticism: he does not believe art should be understood in terms of "beauty" or "pleasure." Instead, as he suggests repeatedly, "the chief characteristic of art is the infection of others with the feelings the artist has experience." "True art" is only when the artist expresses a feeling to the viewer/listener/reader. He writes:

"A real work of art destroys, in the consciousness of the receiver, the separation between himself and the artist, nor that alone, but also between himself and all whose minds receive this work of art. In this freeing of our personality from its separation and isolation, in this uniting of it with others, lies the chief characteristic and the great attractive force of art."

Tolstoy also sees a moral thrust to art, and his particular religious sensibilities infuse his view of art. For Tolstoy, art should encourage "the growth of brotherhood among all men--in their loving harmony with one another." He writes a great deal about "Christian art," and so this book is of more interest to one sharing Tolstoy's peculiar Christian view (as I mostly do) than to one who doesn't.

There is much in this book that I do not assent to (I think his definition of art is far, far too narrow, and he thus dismisses anything that doesn't fit his narrow definition). Tolstoy also spends too much time documenting and critiquing aesthetic theories he disagrees with and art he doesn't like ("upper-class art" or "counterfeits of art," he calls it); it is necessary to the book, but as I read the negative (arguments about what isn't art and why) I was mostly looking forward to the positive (arguments about what is art and why).

I primarily assert the prerogative of the individual reader. If I do accept some of Tolstoy's view (for there is still much I do not), it is because I do, not because I think others should. I would rather stand with Tolstoy, demanding meaning in art and seeking its moral purpose, but I don't expect everybody to view art in this way.

Stupid Summer Project: The Strongbox

George (alone, thinking to himself): I think that Ginger Ale at the coffee shop is just Coke and Sprite mixed together. How can I prove it? I can't, dammit.

George: The, ah, actor that played Jesus made some odd choices.

Comment: a really strong episode: solid plot lines, good scenes, great dialogue. A lot of funny lines, and each of the characters has great delivery here.

Stupid Summer Project: The Cartoon

Kramer: ...and then about George dating a Lady-Jerry.

Kramer: What do I need to talk for, huh? What, to blab to the neighbors about how George has a new femme-Jerry friend? Or to tell everybody at the coffee shop how George is all mixed up in a perverse sexual amalgam of some girl and his best friend? See now, I've done all that.

Kramer: Well, it's Frank and Estelle's reaction to hearing about George's man-love for a she-Jerry.

Comment: Kramer is really great in this episode, just fabulous. J. Peterman fits into the show very well: he's eccentric like Kramer, just with a different sort of eccentricity. I've figured out what's annoying and entertaining about Sally Weaver: in her appearances on the show, she's always thwarting Jerry. Jerry is rarely thwarted--even when he is, it's mild, and he generally gets past it pretty easily. If Sally Weaver was always annoying George, it would just be another thing (just think of how often George is thwarted over the course of the show, and how badly). But there's something different going on when there's a character that can disrupt Jerry consistently.

In this episode, Jerry says "See that's funny...because it's real." I've said something like this far too many times. I wonder just how many of my common expressions are either from Seinfeld or The Simpsons. Do I even ever really speak for myself?

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Not coming up Milhouse

I was happy. But because I ordered an obscure disk, instead of getting it on Wednesday, getting it back in the mail Thursday, and getting a new disk to watch on Saturday with my wife, the disk I ordered specifically to watch while she's away won't get here at all until Saturday. So I guess she will get to watch Treasures of the Twilight Zone with me.

I just thought you deserved the update.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Against Utilitarian Compromise

Leo Tolstoy in What is Art?:

"[...] the indubitable truth, that all compromise with institutions of which your conscience disapproves--compromises which are usually made for the sake of the general good--instead of producing the good you expected, inevitably lead you not only to acknowledge the institution you disapprove of, but also to participate in the evil that institution produces."

Monday, May 26, 2008

Reading (and remembering) Wordsworth

Reading Wordsworth's poetry is a pleasure. He seems to rhyme with casual linguistic ease, and he crafts lines that are both utterly simple and wholly unique. He has written so many lines of poetry that are for me so distinctly Wordsworth, so original and memorable, but when I consider why, I find myself looking at a rather simple phrase.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Coming Up Milhouse

When I was in grad school, I was home by myself most of the days and I stayed up late at night, and I watched a sickly amount of the Sci Fi Channel. I mean, it was just ridiculous how much I watched. Outside of, you know, my school work, my days revolved around The X-Files, The Twilight Zone, and the other more silly things that were on the network at the time. Sometimes I thought Rod Serling was off in the shadows narrating my life (well, not really narrating: just introducing some episode in my life then coming back afterward to provide some esoteric but fairly obvious commentary).

Now this week my wife is leaving town for a few days, so I get the chance to move to the top of the Netflix queue a disk that she would not possibly ever watch with me. So, I've chosen Treasures of the Twilight Zone. Here's what Netflix has to say about the disk:

"Three rarely seen, most-requested episodes of the original 1959-1965 series are presented uncut in this collection: "Where Is Everybody?" represents the series' premiere episode; "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" is the Oscar-winning 1963 short subject (from France) that Rod Serling acquired and presented (as an episode) just once; and "The Encounter" features George "Mr. Sulu" Takei in an episode that was banned from later syndication."

So I've got that going for me, too!

Friday, May 23, 2008

"artist of the idea"

In Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, Mikhail Bakhtin makes an interesting point on ideas in literature when he calls Dostoevsky a "great artist of the idea." According to Bakhtin, Dostoevsky did have his own monologic ideas, and some of these ideas made their way into his novels. However, once in his novels, they became a part of the dialogic work. These ideas are not the author's ideological statements, but a part of the dialogic aesthetic of the polyphonic novel (and in Dostoevsky, these ideas are not separable from the character holding/speaking these ideas).

Essentially, Bakhtin makes a distinction between the way Dostoevsky as a thinker and Dostoevsky as an artist represented ideas. This distinction is between "straightforward monologically confirmed ideas," and what Bakhtin calls "images of ideas" or even "idea-images."

I accept this distinction, though it is not total (for example, Bakhtin shows that polyphony is a part of Dostoevsky's other writing, too). I also find it useful in understanding my own pleasure in reading in general, and my own pleasure in reading Dostoevsky.

Against Rigidity

My Reading Declaration in Brief
Chapter Two: Against Rigidity

"Thus Dostoevsky portrayed not the life of an idea in an isolated consciousness, and not the interrelationship of ideas, but the interaction of consciousnesses in the sphere of ideas (but not of ideas only)."
Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics

I find as a reader I ought to avoid universal, absolute pronouncements about literature. The great diversity of writers means that I will always find a writer who will shatter any totalizing statement. Say there are no ideas in literature? Then you will miss much of Dostoevsky: even Bakhtin, who focused on Dostoevsky's aesthetic, recognized the importance of ideas in his novels and examined how Dostoevsky's aesthetic portrayed those ideas. Say one shouldn't look for symbolism in literature? Then avoid Hawthorne, who practically begs his reader to find symbolism in his short stories. Do you have a precise definition of what great poetry should be? No doubt there is a great poet in history who not only defies your definition but probably writes poetry that is precisely the opposite of your definition, but that is no less great.

I have preferences. I try hard to recognize these as my own preferences, and to not universalize my notions into any totalizing theory. I know that whatever my notions and preferences, there are writers who will defy them, and still be great. And that is also why what I offer here is not a prescription for others, but my own Declaration of Reading.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Cosmology and Poetry: George Herbert

I'm always intrigued to read poetry that mentions new scientific discoveries. There are some brilliant poets who show a particular gift for wrestling with the tensions of a new cosmology replacing an old one (for example, In Memoriam A. H. H. is such an enduring poem for me because Tennyson explores his friend's death and his own religious doubts in the context of geology and evolution).

There is always tension when a new cosmology challenges an old belief. These tensions sometimes surprise in poetry. George Herbert's poem "Affliction (5)" begins:

My God, I read this day,
That planted Paradise was not so firm,
As was and is thy floating Ark; whose stay
And anchor thou art only, to confirm
And strengthen it in ev'ry age,
When waves do rise, and tempests rage.

It's an interesting first stanza, and I can't quite reconcile it with the next three stanzas (yet). "My God, I read this day" suggests Herbert is now, in his own age, learning of scientific models of the universe, the "this day" a strong contrast to the ancient texts which describe Eden and Noah's Ark. But the second line is stunning:

"That planted Paradise was not so firm,"

In one beautiful, concise, eloquent line, Herbert expresses all of the anxiety new scientific knowledge can inspire in the faithful. Literally, that an old cosmology of a firm earth is replaced by the model we now recognize, of an earth floating in space and hardly at the center of it all. But so, too, is faith no longer "planted," no longer "firm": the new cosmology challenges the traditional religious cosmology, challenging articles of faith.

But the last four lines turn to God for support. There is dual meaning: God supports the faithful through whatever troubles arise, and God still guides the earth even as it spins about in the void. In a confusing, doubtful world, in a world that seems shaky, Herbert turns to images of God such as "Ark" and "anchor" that supports despite the "waves" and "tempest."

Stupid Summer Project: The Reverse Peephole

Jerry: Cheapness is not a sense.

Kramer: ...Keep the big bills on the outside.
Jerry: That's a five.

Comment: The moral devolution of the characters is complete. In an earlier season episode, we learn that Elaine is morally opposed to fur: she makes a big scene at a party over a fur coat. Also in an earlier episode, we learn that Elaine's moral stances affect her dating choices: she broke up with a guy she thought was great because they disagreed on abortion. But in this episode, Elaine finds out that her boyfriend David Puddy wears a fur coat. She's upset by this. Jerry says "And of course you find fur morally reprehensible." Elaine responds, "Eh, anti-fur, who has the energy anymore? This is more about hanging off the arm of an idiot." At this point in the series, Jerry, George, and Elaine have lost any sense of morality beyond selfishness when others break the social order to annoy them. Kramer still has an zany sort of ethos, but is he what's left of our moral center? Elaine has changed: she is now just as selfish and shallow as Jerry or George. I'm not objecting to this shift, just observing it.

There are some good things in this episode. George is just the sort of person to save all his coupons and such in his wallet, and Kramer and Newman are the sort to reverse their peepholes to check if anybody is ready to ambush them with a sock full of pennies.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Reading McCarthy's "Blood Meridian"

The power of literature is largely in imagination. Reading allows me to escape myself, to experience the world for someone, somewhere, somewhen else. The stories we read are largely imagined by the authors, and re-imagined by the readers. Reading takes us away from our own narrow experiences and into another experience.

But when I read, I do not set myself aside. I am a vegetarian, and when I read descriptions of animals being hunted or eaten, I became conscious of myself. I am a pacifist, and when I read depictions of violence, I become hyper-aware: what is happening, why is it happening, how is it being represented, etc.

And that is the paradoxical power of literature. Even as it can take you away from your Self, it thrusts you deeper into your Self.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Stupid Summer Project: The Dealership

Elaine: Isn't that from your act like 10 years ago?
Jerry: It was a good bit in the '80s and it's still relatable today.

Jerry: Hey, can I have my dollar back?
George: It's wrinkled. It's worthless.

Comment: This is one of the few episodes that takes place entirely away from Jerry's apartment or Monk's coffee shop. It's not as enjoyable as the other of these episodes (in a Chinese restaurant, a parking garage, Jerry's parents' home in Florida), but it still provides laughs. While George Costanza is still a wonderfully funny character, the later "angry and paranoid" George is not as enjoyable as the earlier "neurotic and paranoid" George.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

"Responsible Appeasement"

"The word appeasement has been almost unspeakable since 1938, when it became the specific label for the acceptance by Britain and France of Hitler's annexation of Czechoslovakia. Yet the root meaning of the term points to what all good government does most of the time, namely, accepting the sacrifice of what would be ideally desirable rather than fight a war about it. This approach is agreed by all to be right in every case where such a sacrifice works and it is possible to avoid hostilities."

--John Howard Yoder, in Nevertheless

Let's go further to point out that merely talking to your enemies can in very few instances constitute "appeasement."

Reading For Oneself

My Reading Declaration in Brief
Chapter One: "Reading for Oneself"

"it's not poetry we need in this class war."
Tony Harrison, v.

Whatever you read, however you read, whenever you read, you should read primarily for yourself. Whether that means you read for pleasure or for education, for moral edification or for aesthetic analysis, for spiritual nourishment or for entertainment, for career necessity or merely to pass the time, you read for yourself. Your experience with the book is going to be largely solitary. You do not have to justify your reading to anybody else. You do not have to explain how or why you read to anybody else. What you choose to read is for you, and you needn't feel guilty if anybody else disapproves. And if you are ever required to read something, you should still read for yourself: the person requiring you to read cannot gain anything from your time with the book, but you can, and in a year it will not matter to that person whether you read a particular assigned book, but it may still matter to you.

We are not alone as readers. We can share, discuss, argue, teach, learn. But that is separate from the experience of reading (though it may be a part of the book lingering with you long after you've put it down). It is unlikely you can help anybody else by reading--there are much better ways to help others. And we read as individuals: in the great variation of humanity, we find many ways to do most everything, and that includes reading.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Grading as Craft

I tell my students that in writing, there is not always a precise, narrow, correct way to do something. A sentence can be revised, reworded, reordered in all sorts of way to convey the same idea (but the slight alterations change the nuance just enough). Should your thesis statement have a plan of development? Depends. Should you paraphrase instead of quote? Sometimes. Of course I can give advice on what situations might make a plan of development beneficial, about what sort of scenarios might call for a paraphrase instead of a quote. But because each writer, dealing with unique material, in a unique situation, is going to have to adjust the "rules" or writing to fit his or her subject and meaning, it's difficult to give absolute rules (general rules of quality writing, yes: precise comprehensive rules to explain exactly how to express any particular thought, idea, or information in order to conform to those general rules of quality writing, no). Each writer has to make all sorts of judgment call throughout any paper on how best to convey meaning through language.

Alas, the same seems to go for grading papers. You can use a rubric, attempt to make the evaluation as objective as possible. But when evaluating a paper, you have to make all sorts of judgment calls. How severe is a particular organizational problem? What is the magnitude of this failure to clearly identify a source? You have to measure quality on some sort of scale (though even words like "measure" and "scale" distort how unscientific this can be). Sentences can be awkward, but some sentences are a little awkward, and some are very awkward. Paragraphs can be disorganized, but some paragraphs are a little scattered and some paragraphs lack any clear focus or direction. So, what is the difference between "awkward" and "very awkward" for the paper's grade? How many more points should be deducted for "very disorganized paragraphs" than "slightly disorganized paragraphs"? And what, after all, makes disorganization in a paragraph big or small, anyway?

Unfortunately, I still vex over these things. Though one strives for a fair grading system for each student, I find the best thing I can do is not compare papers. I really have to try evaluate each paper individually, to assess how any writing problems in particular hurt that paper, and try to quantify precisely to what degree particular issues should affect the grade. To be fair to each student, I really must look at each paper somewhat uniquely. I try to evaluate each aspect of the paper (intro, thesis statement, organization, paragraphs, sentences, thesis development, focus, grammar, support, use of secondary sources, proper MLA citations, blah blah blah). I no longer just add up any total from each aspect, but try to bring that all together to evaluate the paper as a whole. But it is a craft, not a science. I look to the department rubric, I try to devise a system, I try to quantify what each aspect of the paper should be worth, I try to determine what constitutes a minor problem or a sever problem, but as a teacher, I have to make all sorts of judgment calls.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Creative Reading: Visualization and Imagination

When I read, I don't require authors to provide me with many visual details, for my mind is already going to do the work of visualization. When I read, I visualize scenes, characters, and events in vivid detail. I do it unconsciously but deeply.

When I think back on Dostoevsky's The Idiot, I can picture the balcony of Prince Myshkin's apartment. I can see Rogozhin's dark home. I see in clear detail the park in the suburb the characters walk through. And here's the beautiful thing about reading and imagination: though it is Dostoevsky who conjures this park, who was likely describing a real park, my visual representation of this park exists only in my mind. I cannot convey what I see: if I put it into words, you will begin to see your own park. We won't see the same thing.

I don't always remember characters' names, but oh, how I remember them. I can visualize the look on Rogozhin's face when he attempts to murder Prince Myshkin. I have in my head the way the characters each smile, frown, laugh, cry, walk, talk. I cannot describe to you the physical details of each character's face: what I visualize is the aura of each character's essence, that essence that exudes from his or her very Being, that pours out, that emanates. The essence of Prince Myshkin, of Rogozhin, of Nastasya Filippovna is what I actually visualize in my mind. Is this a particular gift of Dostoevsky, who claimed to penetrate the depths of the human soul, and who was able to express these depths with his own creative and aesthetic genius? Perhaps.

Reading is a creative activity. An author conjures a character, a scene, an event. But you, the reader, imagine it. And that is why, though we can talk about what we read, reading is such a deeply individual activity. My Prince Myshkin, my Rogozhin, my Nastasya Filippovna, though given to me by Dostoevsky, are now mine alone. I participated in their creation.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Stupid Summer Project: The Strike

Jerry: Are you reading my VCR manual?
Kramer: Well, we can't all be reading the classics, Professor High Brow.

Jerry: That's not a French cuff shirt, you know.
George: I know, I cut the button off and poked a hole with a letter opener.

Comment: George makes up "The Human Fund" to avoid giving real Christmas gifts! Elaine sacrifices for a free sub! Kramer goes on strike! Festivus miracles!

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Stupid Summer Project: The Apology

Jason Hanky: Alright, George, Alright. I'm sorry. I'm very, very sorry. I'm so sorry that I didn't want your rather bulbous head struggling to find its way through the normal sized neck hole of my finely knit sweater.

Puddy: Puddy.
Kramer: Is, ah, David Puddy there?
Puddy: This is Puddy.
Kramer: Well this is Kramer.
Puddy: I know.

Comment: how much new life did David Puddy inject into the final season of Seinfeld? He had a couple of spectacular episodes in season six, and then he became a classic regular in season nine. A great character, played beautifully by Patrick Warburton. Puddy is my favorite supporting character in the entire show's run: he's full of laugh out loud moments.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

A pacifist watches Dexter

In Dexter, Dexter Morgan is a serial killer that only murders other killers. At the end of season one, Dexter muses on how horrified those around him would be if they knew the truth. But then he reconsiders--they might actually approve of what he does. He uses violence to stop bad guys--he keeps other people safe. He fantasizes about people cheering for him, cheering for his violent deeds. They cheer him, tell him they love him. As he walks, they surround him as if for a parade, a hero's welcome. Surrounding it all is red, white, and blue confetti.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

These Books

I've been cleaning up a room and reorganizing books, and I have a few scattered thoughts about these paper objects in my home.

--I've sometimes thought of taking some time to read all of the Introductions and Forewords and Afterwords of all the books I have. That would be an education in itself, right? All that context and history and biography and criticism. It would be a worthwhile experience, I think.

--I don't know why I was buying some of the books I bought between ages 17 and 22. I have no intention of ever reading many of them. Now I only buy books I could possibly ever want to read. Of course, someday I might look back at books I bought in the last year and say "What was I thinking?"

--If I had the space, I might organize books by...anything. Author. Subject. Whatever. Instead, I organize books by size and shape. That's the way to efficiently use space. And they're vertical or horizontal, wherever they can fit.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Torrential Downpour: Hawthorne

Random Paragraphs on Hawthorne
I've always thought Hawthorne one of the great masters of the short story form. Some of his stories read like episodes of The Twilight Zone ("My Kinsman, Major Monineux," "Wakefield," for example), which I consider a compliment, anyway. There's something like a Rod Serling structure (with the critical beginning and ending of the story) and Rod Serling narration.

Tomorrow in lit class I'm planning something a little different. With the exception of poetry, we rarely read more than one work by the same author; for the purposes of a general education lit course titled "The Human Experience in Literature," it is best to cover a lot of different writers. But I do think students may be able to see trends across a single writer's works, so we're reading "The May-Pole of Merry Mount," "The Minister's Black Veil," and "Young Goodman Brown" for the same class period. They are rather similar in subject matter and theme, and they feature Hawthorne's characteristic tone and narration. To provide students with a broad experience with literature, it is also useful to show how we can read multiple works by one author.

Re-reading "The May-Pole of Merry Mount" is providing me a different experience than in the past. Yes, "Jollity and gloom were contending for an empire," and the gloomy Puritans cannot have any of the reader's sympathy. And yet it seems the revelers of Merry Mount maintain a joy that cannot possibly be sustained. And perhaps Hawthorne, despite the obvious hatred of the Puritans, recognizes this: "Once, it is said, they were seen following a flower-decked corpse, with merriment and festive music, to his grave. But did the dead man laugh?" Merry Mount is joyful, and yet the life of Merry Mount is somehow inauthentic, incomplete. There is both joy and sadness to human existence; as Chief Bromden describes McMurphy's laughter in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, "but he won't let the pain blot out the humor no more'n he'll let the humor blot out the pain." But of course the Puritans are also incomplete, and so unappealing for their lack of joy and their insistence on forcing their joylessness on others.

In the past year, a great deal of my thought has been given to the contrast of Javert and Valjean in Les Miserables. Javert distances himself from humanity by his harsh stances: he cannot believe in redemption, and he cannot believe in forgiveness. It strikes me that in stories like "Young Goodman Brown" (where Brown's recognition of the common sin of humanity makes him bitter and distances himself from his faith and human connections) and "The Minister's Black Veil" (an even more obvious story of a man separating himself from humanity because of his view of sin) we again see Javert's view. But we must recall in Valjean's example forgiveness, redemption, selflessness, and humanity.

Literature offers us imagination: it gives a chance to escape ourselves, to imagine we were someone or something or somewhere or somewhen else. It allows us understanding of humanity by showing us humanity. Still, I read as myself: whenever I encounter animals being killed in fiction, I become consciously aware. In "The May-Pole of Merry Mount," I become conscious of myself when it is said that the revelers hunted animals to wear their skins, and I become conscious of myself when Endicott orders a bear shot.

Though I find Hawthorne a short story master, I've never read any of his novels. Perhaps I'll but The Scarlet Letter on my summer reading pile.

Oh, well
I bought Derrida's Writing and Difference today. There goes the summer.

And here summer comes
At most, I have 25 exams and 89 papers to grade in the next two weeks, and it will be summer.

At Reginald Shepherd's Blog: "A dichotomy is commonly made between aesthetic expression and aesthetic construction, in which the two terms are set in opposition as ways of proceeding in art. One is either exploring the possibilities of one’s medium or one is expressing one’s emotional and psychological state. One is either following formal necessities or emotional necessities. I find this dichotomy to be false."

Reassigned Time addresses some of the common complaints professors make about their students. Which do college professors complain about with more vigor: university students or university administration? I'd say it's a toss-up.