Golden Days

“On the whole, they say, people got what they expected. The generals and the military were very hard hit. A certain kind of women and children were devastated. . . . But, as in any catastrophe, there were the crackpots who hadn’t paid much attention; the ones who, in a sense, went on playing poker through the quake. They were the dumb ones, the sissies, the . . . hedonists who were too enchanted by their own lives to get excited by Death descending.

“The ones I know who lived were the ones who had been making love, or napping, or fixing dinner, when the End came, or the ones at the beach—who still talked about the great crystallization of the sand, the ones far out windsurfing who dove beneath the waves and felt the whole Pacific turn lukewarm, the ones whose boats were out on the far side of Catalina when it happened and hove to, sailing back out of pure curiosity. And, of course, all of the scrabbling canyon weirdos, who saw the whole global collapse as just another brush fire.”

Carolyn See (1934-2016), Golden Days (McGraw Hill, 1987), 192-193.

Living in the past

“The reading of jestbooks could be, and was, justified on the ground that they were pills to purge melancholy and thus (since the Elizabethans were firm believers in psychosomatic medicine) could improve one’s physical health. Similarly, because the reading of history was recommended as perfectly safe and useful, it was possible to take up with a clear conscience any book, however fantastic, that had the word ‘history’ displayed on its title page.” Richard Altick,  The English Common Reader: A Social History of the Mass Reading Public, 1800-1900 (1957; rpt. Columbus: Ohio State U P, 1998), 42.

It’s the same principle as looking at photographs of kittens, and supports me in reading history as escape/distraction. I would like to urge my favorite sci-fi/fantasy writers to subtitle their works with “A history of . . . .” Would it work just to write in my own sub-titles? “An alternative history of Regency England.” “A History of Riverside.” “A History of the Hidden Land.”

Tempest-uous Spring Planning

I will be teaching The Tempest in the spring. I thought I had taught it sometime, maybe ten years back, and had some assignments to draw on. But as I search my files, it appears that I haven’t taught it since I was in graduate school.

Oh-kay. Well. I’m sure it will be fine. Advice would nonetheless be welcome. Even more welcome would be suggestions of one or more short stories with which I could pair the play: stories with thematic connections, or in which characters refer to The Tempest, or are acting in it, or reading it at school, something like that. My idea, if I can get a suitable story, is to read it first, in order to generate questions about its allusions that could be solved by reading the play itself. Thus, I’m not picky about genre. A story that belongs to the SF/fantasy genre, or aims at a YA audience, would be fine. Even fan-fic, so long as it’s tolerably literate and has a recognizable story structure.

Ideas? Anyone? Bueller?

What is poetry good for?

Many things, of course; building vocabulary is one.

When I was in high school, I encountered Lorca’s poetry via two books, two exposures in different classrooms. A translation of one of his poems appeared in my literature anthology for English class, and my Spanish teacher had a volume of Lorca’s collected poems on a shelf from which we got to choose a book, one day when we were allowed some free reading time (looking back, I suspect my teacher hadn’t prepared the day’s lesson, but at the time, I found it a delightful change to the usual routine). I loved his poetry; I bought my own copy of the facing-page collected poems; they led me on to Lorca’s other work, and to other Spanish-language poets, notably Neruda and a few of the members of the Generation of ’98.

And so, many years later, when I listen to call-in shows on Spanish radio, I can follow the ones about relationships without difficulty. I soon lose the thread of the shows about politics, mortgages, and health problems, but it’s remarkable how well poetry prepares a person for conversations about emotion. Corazón, lácrimas, amargura, cariño, amor: these words stuck with me. They stuck because I loved the poetry; even if I had read about mortgages, at that age, I doubt I would have carried the lines and words in my head.

Why am I listening to these shows? Because I like languages; because I want to hang onto the ones I have; because I haven’t given up on learning one or two more before I die. I have no purpose in mind. I just enjoy the process, the feeling of growing mastery over another language. In at least one way, this activity is counter-productive: it distances me ever further from the mass of my students, makes it even harder to understand what it is that they don’t understand. I think I am a better teacher of the things I struggled to learn than I am of the topics that came easily to me. Studying languages could perhaps lead to a second career or interesting volunteer work as a translator, interpreter, or guide. I have no such ambitions. Nonetheless, since the possibility is there, I would say, Poetry does too make things happen.

Has it ever made something happen for you?


Mehr ändert es

Concerning Marburg, I could tell endless anecdotes, but it is impossible to write them down—and this not only has to do with external reasons. All over, there was not much wisdom required . . . , only a certain amount of composure (which was not always easily available). Besides, there was more foolishness than wisdom. At Marburg, I am living among people who are not of our origin, and whose conditions are very different—but who, nevertheless, think exactly as we do. This is wonderful, but it implies a temptation for foolishness; the temptation consists in the illusion that there is a ground to build upon—although individual opinions (however numerous they may be) simply do not count. Only this voyage liberated me from my error.

Erich Auerbach, writing to Walter Benjamin from Florence, 6 October 1935.

Quoted in Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, “ ‘Pathos of the Earthly Progress’: Erich Auerbach’s Everydays,” in Literary History and the Challenge of Philology: The Legacy of Erich Auerbach, ed. Seth Lerer (Stanford UP, 1996), 13–35 (p. 16).

Cats who encourage tidiness

I complained about Glendower awhile back. Now Reina has developed the chewing-on-paper tendency. She used only to chew post-its left sticking out of books that had been re-shelved. She loves to hide on bookshelves, behind the books; we have open-frame shelves that make it easy for the cats to tunnel behind the books, since if we push books to the wall, (a) they fall down since the walls aren’t necessarily plumb, and (b) enormous amounts of clutter accumulate on the space in front of books. I didn’t so much mind the post-its getting chewed. I do mind having to clear my desk every time I leave the room, because now she’ll attack a whole stack of paper and chew all the corners off and fling confetti around the room. I need more drawers or cupboards, closed storage.

She is curled in her bed looking like butter wouldn’t melt, but I need to go do other things, so the current batch of print-outs must be hidden lest they be shredded before my return.

Lawrence Durrell, morning writer

Watching The Durrells in Corfu prompted me to return to the novels of Lawrence Durrell, which I enjoyed when I was in my teens (I moved on to them after devouring Gerald’s memoirs, and was surprised to find them so different; but I loved the lyricism). It was very strange to re-read books that I once knew so well, and to have a completely different perspective on them now. When I was young, I was definitely an immasculated reader: able to read in sympathy with a male narrator. Now, not so much. And now I am not only older than most of the characters but also older than the author of the Alexandria Quartet. That also changes my perspective, as does being trained as a literary critic. As a teenager, I was completely uninterested in the political intrigue of the Quartet, which distorted my understanding of the work. Now I see better what Durrell was doing, and while I admire his female characters less, I see why, as a writer, he needed them to behave in certain ways.

I am particularly skeptical about Leila, the older woman whose vanity, after smallpox ravaged her once-beautiful face, kept her veiled on her Egyptian country estates rather than moving from Alexandria to Paris or London. I think she would have said “the hell with what people think,” moved anyway, dressed exquisitely and been accepted as a jolie laide. But then, I am the product of ’70s feminism, and in my London and Paris, there are women who veil. And the novelist needed her on the scene, as both mother and former lover; she wouldn’t have been effective as an emotional force in the novel if she were in Europe living her own life.

I moved on from Durrell’s own work to biographies and to Michael Haag‘s study of literary Alexandria during/between the World Wars, where I found this quotation about the way Larry worked while living on Cyprus in the late ’40s:

“With his teaching day beginning at seven in the morning, Durrell would rise at four-thirty and over a mug of black coffee add a few more lines to his novel, writing in longhand in his ‘Caballi’ notebook so as not to disturb his sleeping household, before driving thirty miles round the shoulder of the coastal range and onto the plain of Nicosia. In those dawns and in the lengthening shadows of his return drive to Bellapaix he was composing his novel in his head; these were the passages he set down by candlelight the following morning in ‘The Caballi’. At weekends he would type out the fifteen hundred words he had written there; it was a slow process of distillation. ‘Never have I worked under such adverse conditions’, Durrell wrote to Miller in October, but also ‘I have never felt in better writing form’.”   Michael Haag, Alexandria: City of Memory, pp. 319-320.


Maintaining perspective

I’m participating in the TLQ group again. The last two weeks have had suggestions for thinking about maintaining perspective in the face of trouble which, taken together, have prompted me to post my thoughts here rather than in the comments there, because they turned out to be a long preamble to a tale.

Taking care of oneself, and having a home life that is separate from work life, provides space. As JaneB noted, sometimes it’s easier to connect with family (children/spouse) than with one’s own self/ house/ pet/ non-human preoccupation. So pay attention to the people or critters you live with. If you live alone, take care of yourself as you would a friend.

One thing I notice about academics who are very productive is that they don’t seem to entertain doubts about the importance of what they’re doing. They don’t say, “Well, I’m not curing cancer,” or “well, not that many people really care about this.” They think they’re making a difference to the world, and that includes the people who do literary research in earlier periods. Some of them may justify such work by the idea that it makes them, or other people, better teachers, but whatever way they find to think about it, they think their research matters. They think it makes the world a better (more interesting, better-informed, more thoughtful, more enlightened) place.

We’re trained to question everything, including rhetoric and values. But maybe we’re overdoing the questioning. Maybe we need to give ourselves some answers. “My work is important because . . . ” and “Though small, my audience is significant because . . . ” and even just “I love my work and I can get paid for it, so someone thinks it’s significant and I think it’s a good thing to do work I love.”

And indeed, it is a good thing to do work you love. I know there has been a shift in advice for young people, so that it’s now less “Find your passion” and more “Find something you’re decent at and can stand, get really good at that, and see if it becomes your passion, or if you can pursue your passion as a leisure activity.” Even if we give that advice to our students (and heaven knows following your passion to grad school in the humanities is not such a good option these days), why should those of us who are already academics belatedly follow it? Why take on Puritan notions (or are they Romantic?) about suffering and not having fun? Why be a tortured writer (artist, academic) if it’s possible to choose to be a happy one who has fun with writing, who dances with the Muse in the moonlight, who gets to have conversations with famous long-dead writers (artists, whoever)?

So what do you love about your job? I hope there’s something. I love research and writing. I have a lesser but still notable love for teaching so long as I have at least minimally engaged students. I don’t mind committee work so long as I feel it is productive.

What I don’t like: I dislike the climate of anxiety that has clouded LRU for the past few years: less and less money, low enrollments, re-shaping programs, low faculty morale. I don’t like trying to gauge how much I, personally, need to worry.

What I am doing: I am trying very hard not to get sucked into other people’s anxieties. Some of them are very real, especially for those who are single or partnered with other people who work for LRU. Since I am fortunate enough to have “married out,” I think it’s better for me to avoid taking on the anxieties that many of my colleagues feel. I sympathize. I acknowledge that they have real things to worry about. But I, personally, don’t have to worry in the same way they do, so why should I torment myself with their worries? I’m going to do me, and let them do them. This is not saying I have no worries. This is saying I want to assess the things that I need to worry about and not worry about ones that aren’t my individual problem.

I’m also consciously saying, “The work will still be there tomorrow, and now it is time to get some exercise/sleep/relaxation/food—to have a life that is more than work. The students can wait another day or two for their papers. The world will not come to an end if I file that form next week instead of tomorrow.” Along with over-questioning, I think we’re also over-conscientious. Sometimes there are hard deadlines. Other times, we expect too much of ourselves. How much of such expectations comes from our job guidelines, how much from feeling competitive with other colleagues (if you made it through a Ph.D., you are probably fairly competitive, at least about some things), how much from early training in being a good girl?

What I wonder about: can I make people pay rent in my head? That is, if I’m thinking about something that annoys me, can I find a way to make those thoughts productive? Can they spur me to do something differently? Can I learn from people I’m angry at or jealous of?

Finally, I’m reminded of a few bits of advice. Long ago, I had my own copy of Women in Academe: Outsiders in the Sacred Grove. (I gave it to a friend who, a couple of years later, quit a tenure-track job. Hmmm.) I re-read it last year. It’s dated, and yet not nearly so dated as you might expect. The advice given, about focusing on research and networking, is excellent, and I wish I had paid more attention to it when I was in the early years of my career. I was more interested in work-life balance, at the time, when I should have been thinking about work. Anyway, I will paraphrase, since I no longer have the book to hand: what is important is that you get your work done, and make sure that you and your family are fed, rested, and loved. What is not important is that you cook all your own food, clean your own house, or make your kids’ Halloween costumes by hand. Ms Mentor has similar advice: “Be good to yourself. . . . Do not diet—starvation will make you grouchy and boring. Buy frozen foods; cherish the microwave. . . . BE ADEQUATE, NOT PERFECT. Tape that motto to your fridge. . . . Routinize. Simplify.” (Emily Toth, Ms Mentor’s Impeccable Advice for Women in Academia [Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1997], p. 75)

Insights that come with age

I am re-evaluating the late-middle-aged to elderly women in fiction, and sometimes in life, who waft multiple layers of scarves (probably silk chiffon) behind them, and send their companions/daughters/whoever back to pick them up or get another one. In fiction, the scarves seem to indicate a charming femininity that the younger narrator or POV character feels she lacks, and of a certain type of privilege (the sort that has a companion, daughter, or someone to go fetch another scarf).

An Alice Adams story I love, “Home is Where,” features one of these ladies (“lady” seems more the mot juste than “woman,” in this context). The narrator writes, “My mother is one of those women who, having been great beauties, forever retain that air . . . . All my life I had watched her performances with a defeated, angry envy, as I too deferred and waited on her. . . . Now she came in, scarves floating around that faded golden head”  (159). Granny in The Fair Adventure is another floaty-scarf lady (maybe it’s a Southern thing).

I always used to take the narrator’s word for it.

Now I think that lady is suffering from hot flashes. Instead of constantly taking off and putting on layers of clothing, she loosens or snugs up a scarf or so. If the scarves waft elegantly, so much the better; one doesn’t want to mention personal matters that are none of anyone’s business.

Adams, Alice. “Home is Where.” Beautiful Girl: Stories by Alice Adams. New York: Pocket Books, 1978. 155-177.