22 May 2015

Just a Few Interesting Cliches


I awoke from a night of troubling dreams. Clearly, I have issues with which to deal. I say ‘clearly’ but there appears little about dreams that are clear to me though I acknowledge their meaningfulness. As with any competent (my word of the day) piece of literature, the dream demands some interpretation; and the dream teaches me about literature even as the opposite might be true as well, which might be something I learned long ago from Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams. Often the case is that though in the dream I appear to be in a familiar place, in fact upon awakening when I analyze the details they are not at all characteristics of that place! Proof that the latent content is aligned with but separate from the latent content. At some point in Walden Thoreau writes that he awoke to a question, and I believe that he is precisely correct: the dream is a response to a question my life poses to me, and the interpretation of the dream is an attempt to understand its construction and all its details as an answer to the question. Terry Eagleton teaches me that the text itself is a strategy to answer the question, and to understand the text requires that I reconstruct the question to which the text was answer.  Of course, since my life possesses a certain complexity, and my life inspires more than a single question, the answer is overdetermined. Come Watson, the game’s afoot!
            For example, in one of last night’s dream I returned to my office from a trip, or at least, the feeling the dreamer (me) experienced in the dream was that I was returning to the office building where I have worked for the past quarter century, but when I awoke and examined the details of the place, I realized that the dream had not reproduced my office at all. The feeling placed me in an environment that suggested my office, but the dream had produced a location that had elements of a variety of spaces in my life. In the dream I felt that I was in my office building, but in the details I am certain the building was not my office. And clearly the action of the dream--its plot—did not accord with placement in the office building at all. It was not my colleagues returning with me nor was the place at all meant for work; nor was I, in fact, returning for work; indeed, the dream had little to do with my work, though the architectural style (painted concrete bricks!) was endemic to a certain type of environment. As Freud taught, I can look at the details and realize their significance in and to the dream, but the dream is a construction (by whom or what, I wonder?) that has drawn those details from my life as an attempt to respond to something: to some question.
            And so I want to acknowledge that I start interpretation with the feeling of the dream (and of the text), which I understand an answer, and I work to find at least one of the questions to which the dream (and the work) is an answer, acknowledging that the dream and the text are overdetermined. Like the dream the text is produced under certain conditions and therefore, the interpretation demands that attention be paid to the conditions of its production: these are social, political, historical, psychological, etc. If as hermeneuticists say reality is what returns a coherent answer to an historically loaded question, then attention to history must be paid. Terry Eagleton, quoting Wolfgang Iser, says that a text is a set of instructions for the production of meaning, and that meaning is not an object but a practice of following instructions: “to organize various data offered  . . . by the text . . . we look forward, we look back, we decide, we change our decisions, we form expectations, we are shocked by their nonfulfillment, we question, we muse, we accept, we reject . . .” How I proceed depends on the prioritization of strategies and environmental and psychological elements in and of the present moment and the entire history that moment contains. So must it be with the dream.  Interpretation is an event that involves vigorous activity—perhaps that is why I get so tired!

17 May 2015

Life After Death


Dr. Bernard Sommer talked this past Shabbat evening about Jewish beliefs concerning the existence of life after death. I have some interest in this subject; indeed, in the second movement of Symphony #1  I discussed Jewish attitudes toward death in some length. Sommer asserted that the most authoritative resource for Rabbinic thought on essential beliefs of Judaism were to be found in the siddur because it was to the siddur that every Jew looks—or ought to look to—three times each day during prayer services. Indeed, three times each day and four times on Shabbat, the Jews recites the Amidah in which five times in the first paragraphs of the prayer there is mention of the life after death, and even of the resurrection of the body. No Jew who attends services would not several times daily come across these beliefs in the daily service. Even on Shabbat, when people enter shul at various times, the Amidah is recited twice: once during the morning service and once during the additional service, musaf. If a congregant arrives after musaf then they are attending services simply for the Kiddush luncheon! Hence, Dr. Sommer asserted that if we wanted to discover the text most authoritative for Jewish belief, the text in which the Rabbis placed the essential concepts of Jewish principle, then the siddur is that text, in the process, then, Dr. Sommer reduced the central authority of Tanakh (Torah, Prophets and Writings) and even of Talmud, the former that few read in its entirety and the latter studied by even fewer. I was intrigued.
          And then Sommer offered some rationale about why Jews might have abandoned or at least, discounted the idea of life after death as not exactly a Jewish notion. He said that the first reason concerned the emphasis that Jews have historically placed on the Bible to the exclusion of the other pieces of Rabbinic literature: the siddur and the Talmud. And since Tanakh has almost no reference to life after death, therefore this concept must have no place in Jewish belief. (In a second talk Professor Sommer showed why the Tanakh ought not to be considered authoritative.) Secondly, Sommer asserted, that because the Christians had placed so centrally in their dogma the concept of life after death that surely Jews could not hold such a belief. Discounting belief in life after death distinguished Jews from Christians. And the third reason why Jews have not held to the idea of life after death had something to do with the rationalism that arose in Judaism (well, in the entire philosophical world) during the 19th century. Since there was no positivist evidence for such an event, since it seemed so irrational a concept, surely it defied honest belief. I found his explanations interesting and somewhat convincing.
          Finally, Sommer talked about what Jews gained from belief in the concept of life after death. And he argued that it served two purposes: the first is that the belief affirmed the existence of God. The continued existence of the soul after death required no magic, but the resurrection of the body necessitated a Magician, with a capital M, as Sommer said. Life after Death, the resurrection of the body, confirmed God’s existence because the Rabbis posited that the body of each would be resurrected and returned to its soul. Secondly, life after death affirmed the importance of life here because life after death according to the Rabbi’s beliefs, involved the reintroduction of the soul back into the body, and life after death would therefore be a replicate of life here now. What life we live here we would then live there. We should pay attention to our present. Finally, life after death affirmed the centrality of the human individual. Each of us would get back his/her body and not some other body—yes, the body must be regulated and Talmud is filled with those regulations, but it was important—even central.
          And I appreciated Sommer’s talk very much, but I don’t think I can fully accept it: that is, I don’t know that the existence of life after death is integral to Jewish belief but rather, has been added for perhaps clear reasons. Because everything that the Rabbis said had commented on the Bible: Rabbinic literature explains, elaborates, and defines the original scriptures. Even if Sommers will argue (as I think he does) that the Bible is not God composed, that revelation was the command and the Bible was the elaboration by the Rabbis of that command, then the elaboration of the text has a context, and the idea of life after death has to be considered within that context. Thus, the question remains for me why would they develop the concept of life after death if, indeed, there is nothing in the original source that speaks of it; and make the belief so central as to put it five times in the central prayer for daily recitation. Because to my mind there is nothing in Torah that speaks of life after death: everyone who dies in Torah stays quite dead, but clearly the idea of the resurrection of the body is clear in the Amidah. And Sommer’s answers possesses legitimacy. The Rabbis’ explanation offers some rationale to me for the ‘why:’ The Rabbis were defining Judaism after the destruction of the Temple and the siddur is a late manifestation of that attempt and the institution of practice. Prayer (and the book) replaced the sacrifice. They could invent practice by a careful creation of text that has relationship to Torah but is not coincident with it. I do not think that they could ground the belief in life after death in Bible—rather, life after death is a derived belief based in necessity. Why it was necessary remains for me an open question. But the concept was part of the attempt to invent a Judaism post-Temple and they succeeded without question.

14 May 2015

Fifty Years On


Another year and another reunion. I remember when I arrived on the campus at Roanoke College in 1965 that in progress was the 50th reunion of the graduates of the class of 1915. I remember thinking to myself: Oh, Lord, these people are so old. I will never be that old. What I probably meant is that I could not imagine myself portly in shape, wrinkled in visage, returning after having lived a life when actually I had just begun the life I was to live. Ironically, I suppose, then it was not death I anticipated (even feared) but life. Though both groups wandered about campus a bit disoriented, those elders possessed a certain confidence having at least a life of fifty years behind them, while I walked directed but bewildered toward a life unknown that lay before me.
            And so now it is moment of the 50th reunion of my high school graduation. I possess pictures of myself and friend in caps and gowns; I know who these two were but I am only partly aware of who they are now. And I stand in my classroom before my students in exactly the same position that I stood 50 years ago before the returning graduates of Roanoke College. But I think that maybe something has changed; certainly the world has altered considerably and dangerously continues to alter. I read the news today, oh boy!
            But there are things that remain exactly the same and I think it is those things that trouble me. For then I didn’t know them as things . . . but when I consider them now I experience feelings I had then, and I suddenly understand my life so much differently. I think memories are often suspect, but perhaps feelings are always true and there is much to be learned from them.
            In any case, I am not portly though I am somewhat wrinkled. And I head now out to a yoga class so that I remain somewhat flexible if not supple.

06 May 2015

z"l

Absurdly, I thought that he would live forever, or at least as long as I would. But I am not sure why I held this idea: perhaps because he did look younger than his years told. He had been retired for a good while having had a heart attack early and deciding then not to die on the job. It has been my experience that when people retire the wrinkles on their faces efface and their skins become smoother and less leathery.
     And because for the past 16 years he had sat next to me on Shabbat mornings when he summered in Minnesota. Apparently one Shabbat I had taken his seat when he was wintering, in Florida and by the time he returned I assumed the seat was mine. And he never complained, not once, about losing his seat, well, or even about anything. He took great joy in life.
     And perhaps because people around him died—his wife, his brother, the men and women who sat in the in the row beside us and in front of us—and yet he remained always happy and hopeful.
     And maybe I thought him immortal because he so adored my own children who were friends and companions with his grandchildren. He took such great joy in the accomplishments of my daughters and offered them the affection a grandfather would give to his grandchildren. And my daughters l think loved him.
    Or perhaps quite selfishly, as long as Harold sat next to me I felt safe.
    I really did not think that Harold could or would die, and I will miss him.

29 April 2015

In Reading Jane Austen . . . Now?

The incentive to read the entire Jane Austen corpus began with my daughter’s enrollment in a Jane Austen course. I had been an English major—perhaps I still am one! All of my degrees have been in literature, and though for the past twenty-five years I have been a professor of education, I entered the field even as literary theory began to influence it. I might have even had something to do with that influence! I never stopped requiring novels as required reading, nor have I ever stopped reading novels. To me there comes regularly the absolute need to engage with . . . well, I would say fiction, but of late even that term has been called into serious question. Kendall Walton convincingly argues that fiction can be defined as works whose “function is to serve as props in games of make believe.” What is fictional mandates imagination. And what doesn’t mandate imagination, I wonder. Lately I have begun to understand most autobiography and (especially) memoir as such props and therefore, as works of fiction. That is, regardless of what the autobiographer or memoirist recounts, there is the assumption of a teleological end of the narrative that requires the ordering of experience as it did not exactly happen. The memoir and autobiography requires a high dependence on the powers of memory that certainly must be considered somewhat suspect: repression and displacement figure prominently in the human perspectives on reality, I think. Frank Kermode says in his autobiography of autobiography, “The amount of faking we are allowed is debatable . . . but faking all the same, though in our faking there must be something it would only be slightly absurd to call the truth. But it is the weather, the private weather, unpredictable as dreams yet recognisable as a climate, that the autobiographer must describe.” These genres of memoir and autobiography appear to me as  forms of fiction, and I have the need to discover in fiction (a category I have, thus, significantly expanded) insight (and pleasure) that derives from considering lives told in narrative form complete with tropes (that are figurative and not literal) rather than to contemplate the lives of others that are narrated as if the tale is not fiction and in the absence of tropes. As for tomes of philosophy, history, etc., I have learned that everything I know is unfinished and therefore everything that I have learned mandates the exercise of the imagination: fiction.
     And so I have been thinking about what I experienced while reading Jane Austen other than an expression of my affection for and conversation with my daughter; and especially why at this time of my life when all the people in Austen’s novels (and my daughter’s life) are young and beautiful and I am neither. Indeed, Austen’s fathers are foolish, foolishly vain, ineffectual and incompetent. I may at times enjoy some of these paternal character traits, but I think not all of them at once and certainly not (I hope) over extended periods of time. Except for Mr. Bertram none of them seem to be gainfully employed though they all seem to possess sufficient wealth on which to live without having to attend any office or offices. I am, I must admit, gainfully employed. Actually, the world of a Jane Austen novel has very little to do with mine—well, indeed, it seems to have nothing to do with mine! Why have I so enjoyed reading these novels now?
   

23 April 2015

On Retirement (Not!)

It is that time of year. (I am interested to what the word ‘it’ refers in a sentence such as the previous. Obviously, the word addresses the season, or the month to which the earth in its spin has arrived.  But the pronoun here doesn’t seem to have any antecedent, even if I consider that its antecedent, in fact, follows it. And so I think that ‘it’ in sentences such as the one with which I started this piece, refers more to my state of mind. “It” refers to whatever flows through my consciousness as a result of the specific time of the year—in this case, Spring and the approaching end of another semester and academic year on campus.) And though ends of the year always trouble me, this year in particular has caused me the experience of angst.
    Certainly, that time of life has arrived. For almost with whom I speak—even sometimes with myself—the conversation begins with the question, “When are you going to retire?” or “Are you retiring this year?” At this very moment the University campus is abuzz with the offer of a buy-out for a select group of qualified staff who would be willing to allow their present positions to be purchased for a specific quantity of monies (not all that much, actually, to my mind), and be terminated and head off in relative quiet into retirement.
      The easy question asks in retirement from what one would retire, and the easy answer is that retirement would be from a position at the University: no more teacher, no more books, no more student’s dirty looks. More, there would be no more meetings required to attend, no more involvement with the distasteful politics that emanate from the guardians of the educational silos and protected disciplines, and no further entrapment in the vines heavy with sour grapes. In the latter states there is something appealing, no doubt, to these offers. But I often (though not always) enjoy the students’ looks, and I have learned over the years somehow to avoid these academic ensnarements, or at least to find some way to distract myself from their tedium. I love the classroom, obviously, for I have chosen to spend my life in them.  
     Perhaps I am offended by the question of the presumption that my age demands that I consider retirement. I am, certainly, of retirement age. That is, my legal standard I have lived sufficient years to cease the obligation of going to work. The classroom is effort but I am lucky to say here that it has rarely been work. Perhaps I take umbrage at the idea that I have become (have always been?) ineffective and that retirement would relieve the classroom of what some might consider one more bad teacher. I resist the idea that I am tired, though at the end of a day and a week, well, I am fatigued, but whether the quantity of that fatigue exceeds qualitatively the fatigue I experienced when I was young (and in my prime!), I sincerely doubt.  Utah Phillips sings the plaint of another retiree,
He used up my labor, he used up my time
He plundered my body and squandered my mind
Then he gave me a pension, some handouts and wine
And told me I'm all used up
I am no longer a new pretty face, but I do not experience exhaustion. No, I am hardly used up: indeed, my curiosity continues to inspire my intellectual movement and I sense there will never be enough time; the materials pile up about me and I am constantly in the market for another desk and another bookshelf. I continue to haunt the book stores and the Reviews of Books that arrive regularly to my mailbox. I suppose more than a fear of not having a place to go, there is no other place I’d rather be than in the classroom. I have spoken with my dearest that it would be nice to have the option, but the reality remains that I am not finished and not ready (or prepared?) for retirement.

     And I will try to avoid those conversations that begin with the question, “Are you going to retire?” Arlo Guthrie once gave me the question I prefer, “Did you think of anything on down the line.” Hell, yeah!,