Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Stupid Summer Project: The Statue

Jerry: Kramer?  Kramer?  It's Jerry.  Jerry!  From next door.  Nevermind where I am.  Yes, Jerry Seinfeld!

Kramer: Just make love to that wall, pervert.

Comment: The early season episodes really get at the tragicomic destiny of George Costanza.  He finds an object that will redeem a mistake from his past, loses the object, gains it back after an ordeal, only to see it break in the stupidest way possible.  

This episode features a common motif of the show: the conflicting self-interest of friends.  When one character stands to benefit from an event which hurts another character, they argue about what should be done.

But truthfully, I've seen this episode too many times to receive any particular pleasure from it now, and will try to avoid it in the future.

Monday, March 30, 2009

art to the marrow

a contrapuntal essay

If literature is just for pleasure, I don't need it: I can seek better pleasures elsewhere.

If literature is just for the appreciation of beauty, I don't need it: the world is full of great beauty uncreated by man or woman, and I can appreciate that.

If literature is just for the exploration of ideas, I don't need it: ideas don't require literature for exploration (and there is, after all, plenty of nonfiction to read).

This is not to say that literature doesn't offer pleasure, appreciation of beauty, exploration of ideas. It does offer those things to me, but that alone might be insufficient for literature's dominant place in my life. So why do I read literature?

For language. All poetry is ultimately "about" words, about language itself. Literature offers language in ways creative and energizing (aside: I'm just beginning to learn Italian, and finding the joys and challenges of immersing into a new language). And for stories. Centuries of human history (I think of Homer. I think of fairy tales) speak to the human desire for entertainment through narrative. But still for something else.

I sometimes tire of a detached, analytical critique of the aesthetic. I sometimes tire of the way we often talk about literature. For what I want literature to offer me can't quite be approached on those terms.

I want literature that reaches to my sinews, to my very marrow. I want literature to reach me in the depths of my soul, and to touch the heart of how and why I live. I want it to teach me, but to teach me not just intellectually, morally, but spiritually, passionately. I want to feel the literature in my very being, for it to grasp onto the core of a lived life.

This is not a common experience, and sometimes it is not felt immediately. It is not all literature which reaches me so strongly. King Lear does. My body and soul leap with energy when I encounter King Lear, or even when I simply talk about King Lear. King Lear has told me something I can barely put into my own words, that I can only encounter in the play and hope others can too. Dostoevsky, too, touches me with rare depth. Weeks, months, years later, the characters and images from Dostoevsky's great novels continue to haunt me, to call to me in moments both quiet and loud. Since reading Demons, a certain image of those two characters who had gone to America will enter my mind. I don't even remember their names or personalities, but I see them laying and suffering in a small dark room, and I see them later living in the same building but simply not talking to each other, because of what they shared. Why, from that entire book, is that the image that clings to me? I cannot say. Since reading The Idiot, I feel all the darkened places where Rogozhin and Prince Myshkin meet. Their meetings may work at an intellectual level, but I don't think those darkened places: I feel them. Some lines of Wordsworth's poetry cling to me and periodically emerge. Perhaps Wordsworth was my "first poet," and thus will always be there for me to measure all other poetry against.

I demand much from literature, and though I rarely find what I demand, I don't know whether I've found it until much time is passed. Wordsworth's language cries to me still. Shakespeare and Dostoevsky make demands of me, requiring me to examine and re-examine myself. And I need them to. I seek in literature the very stuff of life.

This essay is, a bit abashedly, Romantic. I offer no program of reading, no literary theory, nothing useful to understanding or appreciating literature. In fact I am writing about that which (for me) transcends such ways of thinking and reading. I don't wish to cheapen what reading literature can and has offered me. It demands the romanticized language I'm using: reading literature has been a spiritual guide to my soul.

Synecdoche, New York

Synecdoche, New York reminded me of things.  In its casual acceptance of the absurd, it reminds me of Mulholland Dr.  In its story of the confused conflation between the artist's life and his work, it reminds me of Moulin Rouge!.  In its willful and playful abandonment of realism, it reminds me of both those films.

But to say these films remind me of each other is not to deny their intense uniqueness.  Charlie Kaufman, David Lynch, and Baz Luhrmann are each Auteurs worthy of the label, their works always recognizably original and creative.

Friday, March 27, 2009

torrential downpour

Internet Culture
Given that I've never sent a text message and joined Facebook about three weeks ago, I had assumed my students were much more technologically aware than I am.  However, today I found out a large majority of my students have never heard of Twitter, LOLcats, or Rickrolling.  Since I read a lot online, I apparently keep up with things better than they do--even things some in the media tell me they are experts about.  But certainly there is an internet culture, about which those "in the know" are casually familiar, and those on the outside have never even heard of.

Moving away from novels
Once I finish Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, I'm off novels for a while.  I'll be reading drama, non-fiction, and poetry.  This novel makes me not want to read novels.  Maybe that could be a blurb on future editions: "This novel makes me not want to read novels."  But I have a lot of non-fiction I want to read, and I enjoy reading drama a lot, so it's a fine thing.

Mostly Vegan
It was about a year ago I went mostly vegan with the intent of doing it for a year.  A year later I'm 59 pounds lighter than I was.  I will mostly maintain my current lifestyle, but I'll allow for more exceptions.  Possibly many more exceptions.

The Club
It was about three years ago I started this blog, which I'd mostly call a colossal failure that I continue to work on.  But apparently late March is a time when I do lasting things, so it's a good time for swearing off novels for a while.

The Stupid Thing I Believe
I sort of believe that if there is no God, then "everything is permitted."  It's not that there aren't foundations of morality away from religion; it's that if the universe is random and nothing has inherent meaning, if death is the end of individual existence and there is no afterlife, then those foundations are built on nothing, and it doesn't matter if you follow them.  I think I only sort of believe this.  My feelings for my son make me think maybe I don't believe this.

It can't be a treat to be married to me
I shared much of the above thought with my wife this morning, about ten minutes after I woke up and while she was brushing her teeth.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Sergius in _Arms and the Man_

When reading Bernard Shaw's Arms and the Man, one might respond negatively to Sergius. He does, after all, attempt to cheat on his fiancee, he's demeaning and domineering (even to the point of violence) to the servant Louka, and he comes of as a hypocrite.

But I sort of like Sergius. Rather than calling him hypocritical, I see him as conflicted over ideals like "Honor," "Nobility," and "Heroism," under great pressure to maintain an image that he doesn't quite believe in. But more than that, I just think he's funny. He's a cad, but an amusing, harmless sort of cad. His seduction of Louka is hilarious--he attempts to kiss and grope his fiancee's maid, and when she responds by speaking disrespectfully to him and about Raina, he lectures her about the honorable behavior of a "gentleman" and the proper behavior of a maid. Louka's response is classic:

"It's so hard to know what a gentleman considers right. I thought from your trying to kiss me that you had given up being so particular."

It's not that I necessarily find Sergius sympathetic (though it is possible to do so--he is wrestling with the same doubts about stated ideals as Raina). It's just that I find him amusing, not the least bit detestable. If I read the play hating Sergius, I might not be able to laugh at him.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Compositional Radical

Today I told students not to be afraid to include new ideas in the conclusion.  If I had told them not to be afraid to stand on the ceiling, they'd have been no less shocked.

Perhaps other college composition teachers share this experience.  Many students have been taught rules on writing throughout their education, then get to college and find teachers telling them it is OK to break those very rules.  I don't think I'm a radical on composition theory (I'm almost certainly not), but when I tell students it is OK to use the word "I" in a paper, they look at me like I am telling them cats have wings.

I don't want to be a sprig on a barrel organ

At Salon, Gordy Slack talks to Alva Noe about "why you are not your brain."

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

King Lear on TV

See Ian McKellen as King Lear in PBS's Great Performances on Wednesday night.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Stupid Summer Project: The Stranded

Elaine: Have you noticed, people don't use straws as much as they used to for some reason.

George: One of the guys in my cell threw a piece of gum at him.
Jerry: Oh, we all hated him.

Comment: Jerry's "Oh, Kramer, uh-huh" can be used to understand a lot of silliness.

Julia Louis-Dreyfuss is really funny; I even watch The New Adventures of Old Christine, but then I'm a sitcom rube.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Torrential Downpour

Animal Rights and “Righteousness:” further exploration on reason and faith in the secular
Another bit not intended as a developed argument, but an attempted articulation of swirling thoughts. This is why I write (even for a little read blog): working out ideas in writing helps me feel more grounded.

In an earlier exploration of Animal Rights, I suggested that even in this secular argument, it is irrational leaps of faith that guide thought and action (I don’t see a good rational argument that animals should be regarded as equal to humans, though I’m also not sure there’s a rational argument that humans are superior and can thus use animals in any way we see fit). I think the residue of religious sensibilities in this secular argument run deeper than that. From reading the writing of some vegans, vegetarians, and animal rights activists, I get the sense there is a belief in and desire for a secular version of “Righteousness,” an inner purity that separates one from the impure.

For Gary Francione, the demarcation for purity runs between vegans and everybody else; to be vegan is to be “pure,” and to consume any animal products at all puts you on the other side of the purity line (Francione: "There is no morally significant difference between meat and dairy [...] There is as much (if not more) suffering in a glass of milk as in a pound of steak "). I obviously think there is a morally significant difference, and I would put that line between meat eaters and vegetarians: I see a fundamental difference between consuming the flesh of killed animals, and not consuming the flesh of killed animals. On the issue of animal treatment in this society, I think vegetarians and vegans share more in common than vegetarians and meat eaters. But maybe that sentence itself betrays the fallacy of such a "line" of fundamental separation; the better graphic symbol is probably a set of intersecting circles.

I recognize a religious desire for Righteousness in my own vegetarianism; it is more about avoiding complicity than bringing about change (and thus if I ever do go completely vegan, it will be because my own conscience demands it, not a desire to fulfill somebody else's standard of moral purity), though I doubt other vegans and vegetarians have the same view. But the desire for inner Righteousness, an inner purity, is not exclusively religious and drives many secular conflicts. Republicans and Democrats sometimes seem to demand "ideological purity" from their members on particular issues (notably abortion). Whenever we ask a question like "Is So-And-So racist/sexist/anythingist?" we're assuming a line of demarcation between the pure and the impure (and perhaps implicitly overshadowing unconscious assumptions of racism/sexism/anythingism, and of institutional racism/sexism/anythingism). Again, I see the residues of religious issues in secular arguments.

Review of The Face on Your Plate: The Truth About Food, by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson (LA Times).

Christopher Hitchens on Karl Marx today (The Atlantic).

Eric Margolis on war in Afghanistan (Common Dreams).

I generally don't like audience interaction/participation in theater; I've got the weird feeling the actors are treating me like a rube and they think they're better than me (The Onion).

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The logic of militarism

I'm pulling this quote from Andrew Sullivan out of context, but I think it is worth it:

"It's also important to note that war crimes happen in every war - and that the way to judge a society is how it handles such things."

Follow the logic here: since war crimes are an inevitable part of war, the way to judge a society is on how it treats war crimes when it chooses to go to war.

I think to reach this conclusion over the inevitability of war crimes is insane (or, if you prefer, highlights intrinsic acceptance of militarism). To me, the inevitability of war crimes in war calls into question the effectiveness and morality of warfare, and suggests the way to judge a society might be how much of its resources it devotes to warfare, the efforts it takes to avoid war, and how and why it chooses to go to war. To a pacifist, Sullivan's statement is a bit like saying that if you let your kids throw rocks at passing cars, they'll inevitably hit a few pedestrians, but what matters is that you tell them to avoid hitting pedestrians, and punish them if they do.

But if you accept (or support) warfare, and you accept that warfare inevitably leads to war crimes, you're left with the conclusion that what matters is how the society treats the inevitable war crimes. When you've accepted a culture of militarism, you don't reach the conclusion that war itself is the problem.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

John Updike's poetry

The March 16th edition of The New Yorker contains some really great poetry by John Updike. The poems on dying are elegant, thoughtful, moving.

See also Nicolaus Mills' "John Updike's Goodbye" in Dissent.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

"Be like me a little" (or, does Oskar let the right one in?)

Spoilers and all.

Let the Right One In plays on the vampire tradition that the vampire must be invited into a home, and the motif of meetings at doorways and windows repeats throughout the film. However, I believe that letting the right one in refers to an internal conflict--to badly oversimplify, to "let the right one in" is to resist the evil within oneself.

Let's take a brief gloss at some key images and moments throughout the movie that might support this understanding.

--one of the first images we see is the distorted reflection of Oskar as he looks out the window. He is in the process of practicing to murder some school bullies (he is also doing such practice the first time Eli appears to him, further supporting this interpretation). Given that he collects news stories about murderers, it is fair to believe we are watching a killer develop.

--Eli tells Oskar that he must fight back against the bullies.

--Oskar does fight back, hitting the lead bully in the ear with a stick. After doing so, his face has a look of ecstatic pleasure.

--When Oskar first comes into Eli's apartment (and learns for certain she is a vampire), he is touching her hand through the glass on her door. She keeps moving her hand around, and he keeps following to try keep covering it).

--Eli tells Oskar that she is like him: he has murderous desires. She tells him that he must repress these--she kills because she has too (her consumption of blood is usually portrayed as an animalistic compulsion). She tells Oskar to "be like me a little."

--Eli offers Oskar some money--he disgustedly rejects it, knowing it comes from her victims.

--After Oskar saves Eli (not entirely intentionally helping her to kill her potential killer), Eli thanks him and leaves, and again we see the the image of Oskar's reflection through the window as he touches the glass. At this point it is difficult not to see the parallel--Oskar touching the hand of his reflection in the glass, Oskar touching Eli's hand through the glass. She is, in some ways, a reflection of himself.

--What follows is the most frightening scene in the film: an even more dangerous bully joins the earlier gang of bullies, and Oskar is seriously threatened. He is not in a position to fight back, and he passively acquiesces to the violent threat. He is saved by Eli, and their eyes meet and they smile at one another.

--The final scene (Oskar on a train, signaling Morse code through a box that may contain Eli) suggests Oskar is Eli's new mortal servant.

After developing this interpretation, I'm still left with a lingering question: did Oskar "let the right one in"?

He did not violently defend himself--yet he was in no position to do so. But Eli's rescue was extremely violent, and if he now works as her mortal servant, we know he will likely be asked to perform rather nefarious deeds (we've already seen Eli's previous mortal servant committing murders and disposing of bodies). But maybe letting in the violent side is, within the film, the "right one." Or maybe letting the right one in refers to Eli's choice of Oskar.

I'm posting this fresh, without tainting my ideas with the ideas of others; I'll now check out some reviews and see what other angles have been taken.

Reading Manohla Dargis' NY Times review, I recall that Eli kisses Oskar while there is still blood on her lips. Dargis points out that "Eli seizes on Oskar immediately, slipping her hand under his, writing him notes, becoming his protector, baring her fangs."

Other reviews: Roger Ebert, Carina Chocano , Angela Kaelin, Ben Kenber (who writes, "Of course, there will be more moralizing over what Eli has done and how Oskar should (in the eyes of many) respond to it." Perhaps that's what I'm doing, though interpreting the movie as an internal conflict isn't exactly "moralizing," and at any rate Eli seems to offer moral advice to Oskar), Jonathan Kiefer, Roger Moore

Literary Studies and the Humanities (or, it's all interdisciplinary)

a contrapuntal essay

Teaching in the Humanities, I find that there is nothing I read that isn't potentially relevant--even concretely useful--to my profession. Reading John Howard Yoder's The Politics of Jesus (second edition) suggests to me that debates within literary criticism also exist within theology.

There is the larger issue of the relevance of historical understanding of the contemporary context around the texts. Yoder does cite historical context of the gospel writers' words ("historical and literary-critical grounds" (42)), and this seems proper for a historical (and theological) understanding of the work (as aside: while the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's "seminaries and colleges generally teach a form of historical-critical method of biblical analysis, an approach that, broadly speaking, seeks to understand the scriptures and the process of canon formation with reference to historical and social context," the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod "teaches Biblical inerrancy, the teaching that Bible is inspired by God and is without error. For this reason, they reject much--if not all--of modern liberal scholarship"). I think a scholarly, critical understanding of historical context for biblical texts is enlightening for our understanding.

I'm not, however, convinced this historical understanding is necessary for literary criticism, by which I mean criticism of artistic works like fiction, drama, and poetry. Historical context may enlighten an understanding of a given work, but it may also be distracting from understanding a particular work, taking attention away from the text itself and to extra-textual information about the author and his/her society and times. For example, I think of Romeo and Juliet not as a great love story, but as a story of civil war and family rivalry--the feud between the Capulets and the Montagues dominates the text, really, and the relationship and destruction of Romeo and Juliet are problems inherent to the family feud. Perhaps I could follow the path historically (Shakespeare living and writing during the reign of Elizabeth Tudor, the Tudor dynasty being the one that came out of and ended a long period of English civil war, etc. etc.). Perhaps that historical and political understanding influenced Shakespeare (in fact, I think it probably did). But if I start following the path of history back to the War of the Roses, I've moved away from Romeo and Juliet, and there is plenty within Romeo and Juliet to encounter on its own (I'm a defender of the play: I think if Shakespeare had written nothing but this play, it alone would be a masterpiece to justify Shakespeare's place as a titan of English poetry).

Here are some passages from Yoder's book that are relevant to literary criticism, and my own views.

"Hans Conzelmann [...] likewise argues that although it is part of the scholar's task to seek to evaluate his documents and reconstruct the events behind them, the first interest of the student of any text must be what the author of the text means to say" (4).

I think this claim depends on the reason the "scholar" is reading. For an historian or theologian reading a text, an understanding of intent is useful if not necessary. But for reading literature, I mostly reject the necessity of authorial intent. I certainly don't think my first "interest" as a "student of any text" is the author's intent; my first interest as a (let's try the term on) "literary critic" is to engage with the text. If I move away from the text itself to an attempt to understand the author's intent, then I am not interpreting the text as it is, but the text as it may have been intended to be. But perhaps a "reader" of literature is not the same thing as a "scholar" as Conzelmann or Yoder would define it.

"What it means that every reader of a text has and owns a specific perspective, as over against seeking or claiming some kind of quasi-neutral 'objectivity,' is itself part of the continuing debate among scholars about proper method" (14).

I certainly embrace subjectivity over objectivity in literary studies, and this is much easier in literary studies than in other fields. Biblical exegesis is a lot like literary criticism--it engages in close attention to the text to understand it. But theology has consequences--that literary interpretation of the biblical text is used to support or create theological positions. What are the consequences of subjective interpretations of literature? No negative ones that I can perceive. If person A has a vastly different understanding of King Lear from person B, that hardly matters to person C--it's doubtful either person A or person B will use their differing interpretations of King Lear to set up a system of belief for person C. It's just fine that in reading literature, we don't attempt a "quasi-neutral 'objectivity," and it doesn't matter that there is no such thing. We are free to engage with the texts as individuals, and our subjective understandings mostly lack consequence.

"The prerequisite for appropriate reading of any text is the reader's empathy or congeniality with the intention and genre of the text. We do not ask someone hostile to the discipline of mathematics to read a mathematics text expertly. To read a text of the genre gospel under the a priori assumption that there could be no such thing as 'good news' (whether as a true message or as a genre) would be no more fitting" (14-15).

I'm not certain this is true. I suppose in some sense it is: if Person A believes novels are a waste of time and shouldn't be bothered with, I probably needn't read Person A's review of Moby Dick. But a reader lacking "empathy or congeniality" for a field may find important critical insights while engaging with the text. Marx was certainly hostile to capitalism, but that doesn't mean he didn't find keen insights into how capitalism works. I'd be interested in reading a hostile outsider's critique of texts from fields like Economics, or Psychology--that critique might bring with it useful insights.

In reading Yoder's The Politics of Jesus, I've found passages that could directly be applied to and debated within literary studies. But as a reader and teacher, I hardly need such explicit connections to make my reading relevant to my teaching. I often find much of my pleasurable reading coming up during discussion, during lecture, in teaching composition and in teaching literature. I don't always know that what I've read will come up, but then during class, it suddenly springs to my mind, and organically fits into what we are up to. The reading from my "personal" life is never entirely separated from my professional life--but then, my professional life is not entirely separate from personal life, either. My sense is that English teachers tend to love reading on a personal level, and go into the profession because of that love.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

On Reading and Influence

There are interesting posts going up everywhere on the most influential writers to particular individuals (see To Delight and to Instruct, Not of General Interest, and So Many Books). It is an interesting topic. I certainly know what people, what classes, what experiences have formed me; before sharing what writers have influenced me by their writing (and my reading) alone, I need to reflect seriously.

When I think of writers who have influenced me, I take quite seriously the meaning of "influence." To claim that somebody I have never met but have read had an impact, I am suggesting that the writer affected my understanding of myself, humanity, or the world, even to the point of altering my behavior. I am saying I wouldn't interpret reality the way I do if I didn't encounter this writer, and that it is possibly my actions have been influenced by this writer.

I'm surprised to say that as a reader of poetry, no poet has had such an influence. My favorite poets (Wordsworth, Shelley, Milton, Hughes, Harrison, Duffy) have not actually changed me (other than making me love poetry). And there are several writers that did influence me at one time, but whose influence has, I think, waned. Stephen King, Sinclair Lewis, Ernest Hemingway, Alexandre Dumas, Jean-Paul Sartre--at one point they did color the way I viewed myself and the world I lived in, and I can even recall moments when I behaved the way I did because of these writers. But I don't know that any of these writers are responsible for how I currently live and think (though I cannot discount that their influence has left a permanent imprint).

And that leaves the writers who permanently formed me, who who still linger with me, who still have the power to influence how I interpret events, interact with people, and consider my identity.

The writers of the four gospels. I know that nothing I ever read will impact me the way reading the Bible on my own as a teenager impacted me. The gospels provided the metaphors by which I view the world, bolstered my liberal politics, taught me to seek God, taught me to seek a meaningful life, showed me how to behave in the world. It is the Jesus I encountered alone in these four stories that profoundly influenced me.

The writer of the book of Ecclesiastes. And nothing taught me the futility of existence, the randomness of the universe, the emptiness of life, the unimportance of the earthly world, quite like this book.

Henry David Thoreau. "Life Without Principle" still informs my view of work and how I spend my time.

Martin Luther. I read Luther during a formative time of life, though I cannot say for certain whether it was Luther's writing or Luther's biographers (Roland Bainton in particular) that taught me. It is not just Luther's understanding of Christianity that affected me; learning about Luther's life (particularly from my history teacher, John Buschen, and from Luther's biographer Erik Erikson) helped me to understand myself.

John Fowles. I still feel The Magus and The French Lieutenant's Woman frequently. Not least of all, Fowles taught me about Hazard, about random chance in our lives. He taught me much, much more, including how to read.

John Howard Yoder. Yoder is the writer that permanently grounded my pacifism in Christ.

William Shakespeare. For one work: King Lear. It is one thing to try express nihilistic ideas; it is another altogether to experience Lear. To read Lear is to immerse oneself into a cosmos, one of vast open space vulnerable beneath the large indifferent heavens. It is not to think so much as to feel intuitively. Oh, it makes me think, certainly. But the better thoughts it provides me are not articulated in words, but in images, in emotions, in tones. To even explain how I feel King Lear cheapens it; what Lear immerses me into cannot be put into any other than Shakespeare's own words.

Fyodor Dostoevsky. Among the influences specified here, there is obviously a powerful influence of Christianity. But so too is there a powerful influence of existential, atheistic, nihilistic doubt and disbelief. It is Dostoevsky who occupies, in my mind, that realm that is not in between these extremes, but is both at the same time.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Writing and Audience

Intended Audience obviously has a great impact on writing form and style. I write regularly at three different blogs, and have a very different conception of who may be reading each.  I don't simply write a brief essay on a topic, then post the essay wherever the content fits; I have a very different tone and style at each blog.

Consideration for audience can be a challenge in a composition course; students, I think, tend to see themselves writing for the teacher.  That's why (inspired by my brother) I'm now asking students to read their in-class informal writings aloud.  It is not that I want to intimidate them (although some are obviously frightened by the prospect), nor that I want them to learn how to read aloud (though they may).  It is that I don't want students to think they are only writing for me.  Knowing that they may be reading their responses aloud, they may write differently.  They may gain a better sense of  public identity as a writer.  That seems important to how we use language.

I'm hoping students engage more deeply with their writing (particularly tone, style, form) when they are "performing" not exclusively for a teacher, but for each other.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Rejecting Militarism

Peter King writes about Larry Fitzgerald's USO tour to Iraq:

"In every stop on the four-player tour [...] of U.S. military bases in Iraq, the playoff hero told the crowd some version of this: 'Thank you. If it wasn't for you doing what you do, I wouldn't be able to do what I do. I just want you to know how much I appreciate all the sacrifices you're making -- and I'm not alone.''"

I know many people believe this: that the U.S. military occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan are necessary for Larry Fitzgerald to make millions of dollars catching passes. But I see it as a non sequitur that perpetuates a militaristic culture that glorifies war. This is why I can't share in Nathan Schneider's hope that

"There must be a way to honor such sacrifices as war brings out in people while abhorring the pointless insanity that occasioned it, abhorring it so completely that it can never possibly happen again."

I think this sort of mythology (that soldiers occupying a foreign nation make our necessary lifestyles possible--a belief many hold as a secure article of faith, one that is difficult to refute, yet also difficult to prove) contributes to a culture that sees warfare as necessary and honorable. The conventional wisdom that we are able to live our lives as we do because of soldiers grants a necessity to warfare that I do not accept. I want to reject militarism at all levels.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Teaching, Literature, and Ideas

From Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find:"

“Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead,” The Misfit continued, “and He shouldn’t have done it. He thrown everything off balance. If He did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him, and if He didn’t, then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can--by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness,”

I usually start discussion of this story with this passage, and allow the conversation to branch away from the story itself into a broader discussion of ideas. What is the Misfit saying? That he sees religion as an all or nothing proposition, and that if there is no God, there is no basis for morality. This can lead to a discussion of Pascal's wager, Dostoevsky's "Everything is permitted," and a whole host of philosophical and theological subjects. I can ask if students consider religious belief an all or nothing proposition, or what it means to be somewhere in between. At one point I ask students, what prevents you from killing other people? Or more specifically, if there is no afterlife, what prevents you from killing other people? I'm interested to hear students' arguments about where morality might be grounded, about what grounds human actions.

I typically focus class discussion on the text (this semester, I'm finding students really respond to "character," expressing like or dislike for these imaginary characters, and offering insightful comments on fictional characters' minds and actions). But for a brief period, discussion is not focused on the text, but on the thoughts this text can inspire. I hope students are reflecting on what grounds their lives. That certainly doesn't mean I'm preaching (for what it's worth, after this discussion I doubt students could confidently know whether I'm an adamant believer or a staunch atheist), and I try to leave the discussion open. But I don't think it is wrong during a literature course to ask questions that probe students' assumptions and values, to ask them to share their ideas and consider their own lives.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Torrential Downpour

This blog is about "life in ideas." Sometimes that means attempting to write serious and developed analysis and commentary; often it is an informal diary of my own life in reading and ideas. I prefer to write the former, but find I still need the latter. I'll try to alert you when it is the latter, so you know what posts to skip.

Books and Reading
I was recently telling my wife how amazed I was at the ability of any novel, even a bad one, to entirely suck me into its world. While I'm reading a novel, I can visualize so much of it in detail. She pointed out that I'm a visual person, and that others do not necessarily read that way. And indeed, that's true: others may not visualize events of fiction clearly. Individuals' minds operate in very different ways--again suggesting to me that a solitary, objective method of reading is neither possible nor desirable.

I have so much unread fiction and drama around my house, it seems unnecessary to buy more such books until I put a bigger dent in what I have now (with exception: I still buy fiction and drama for professional use). But there is plenty of poetry and non-fiction out there that I'm still going to buy.

I have come to detest looking at my Riverside Anthology of Literature. I've taught from it for so long, and so next semester I'm giving it up. I'll teach short stories from an anthology exclusively devoted to short stories, and make my own poetry unit out of handouts, links, and attachments. It will be fun to choose utterly whatever poetry I wish.

I assigned Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find" for this week, but didn't want to drag that detestably bulky Riverside Anthology of Literature home to read it. I left it in my office, assuming I had an anthology at home with the story in it. I did--an anthology of 50 Short Story Masterpieces. Now, I don't read a lot of short stories. When I read fiction, I prefer to get sucked into a novel's world, and I also read a fair amount of drama, poetry, and non-fiction. But opening up this book and looking at the table of contents, I suddenly have a desire to just sit with this book and read short stories for a while. It's something like serendipity.

rambing, undeveloped thoughts on reason, belief, animals, and rights
This is not intended as a developed argument, but an attempt to articulate some swirling thoughts I've been having.

I've become convinced that it is wrong to kill animals for our uses. I have not, however, become convinced that it is wrong to use animals for any human uses (but I can be convinced: I obviously made the transition from meat-eater to vegetarian over an idea, and a commitment to living according to convictions. If I am convinced, I would go vegan instead of mostly vegan). I became a vegetarian by reason: when learning about the intelligence of animals, I decided the animals' lives are worth more than the pleasure I could derive from eating them. But I haven't been compelled by the same reason to suggest that it is always wrong for humans to use animals.

Part of this is a matter of "faith." For what reason do we believe human beings have rights? Perhaps because a state grants human beings rights. Perhaps because a creator endowed all human beings with inherent dignity. But there is no act of reason that convinces me that human beings have rights--reason could just as easily lead me to an existential nihilism in which "everything is permitted" and nothing has any inherent value (see Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamozov for exploration of "everything is permitted," or for that matter Flannery O'Connor's Misfit). As it happens, I do believe all human beings are imbued with dignity--because of my religious belief. And it is my commitment to pacifism and vegetarianism that has led me to move away from existentialism--away from the belief that we should create our own meaning, and toward the belief in absolute moral principles.

It is not by reason that I am led to the belief that all human beings have "dignity" or, if you prefer, "value." And so by reason I am also not compelled to assign animals an inherent "value." Again, this is because by reason alone, I might be led to believe there is no inherent value in anything, and that "everything is permitted." If it is a self-evident truth that human beings have rights, that self-evident truth is a leap of faith. It is a belief that human beings have rights, dignity, value. So too is it a leap of faith to claim animals have rights, dignity, value.

Now, as it happens I do not believe that "everything is permitted," I do believe that human beings have inherent dignity and rights, and I do believe that animals have inherent dignity and should not be slaughtered for our purposes. And though I would consider myself an "animal rights" advocate, I am a little uncomfortable with the term. What "rights" does an animal have? Well, a right to live. A right to freedom? Perhaps--and if I can be convinced by reason that an animals has that right inherently, I would become vegan (well, I'm already "mostly vegan"--I eat cheese sometimes, but most days I am completely vegan. And I like that better).

What is my rambling getting at? Not, I hope, merely my own justification for eating cheese sometimes. It is that there is a tension between reason and belief even for the most secular of arguments. I think there is a tension between reason and belief in discussion of animal rights. Right now, I'm living in that tension.

Monday, March 02, 2009


Why did I not realize that the witticism "A hard man is good to find" is sexual in nature until about an hour after I quoted it to a class?  I had envisioned a "hard man" being a tough, rugged fellow that drinks a lot.  And why did the students not just start laughing at me?  And why did I attribute this quote to Oscar Wilde, when apparently it was said by Mae West?

As my wife said, I've had quite a day.