December 2009 Archives
The baby got here safe and sound (after 20+ hours on Greyhound), and we've been enjoying his cheerful company. It's turning out to be a quiet holiday for us: we did manage to have one of my favorite people in Lincoln over to dinner (a feat; we are not natural-born entertainers), but other than that, our festivities have involved packing books into boxes and checking in at the new apartment, which was signed, sealed, and delivered last Friday (hurray!) and is now hung floor to ceiling with sheets of plastic while the workers do their magic.
The draped plastic billows and blows in the fan's wind, and a thin fog of plaster dust veils the air. The apartment's actually kind of cool and beautiful like that, especially at night with the parking garage's lights beaming eerily through the darkness. I mean, not a look I'd want to keep. But cool.
Mostly, we're just catching up and kicking back. I'm so glad we didn't hustle up to a family Christmas in Chicago that my biological mother wanted us to attend. It would have been frantic. Quiet and slow = good.
In work news, I've gotten fascinating responses from a university press (about a book) and from a scholarly journal (about an article). In both cases, one of the two outside blind readers--part of a process designed to ensure objectivity--loved the manuscript, while the other one loathed it.
What's worse, the university-press editor told me that the positive reader's report about the book doesn't count; it was too "effusive." What matters to the editorial board is the report that ripped the project up. Sigh. Even after all this time--and knowing academics up close--it's still kind of demoralizing. One feels stupid. One feels the pain of one's best efforts bashed. But "revise and resubmit" is our bread and butter, and we all have to learn to take criticism impersonally. C'est la vie.
I'm supposed to draft, revise, and polish an intro for the book over the holidays--20 new pages in 2 weeks--and I'm not loving that prospect. Familia and all.
Honestly, I'm trying to take stock right now, and the fact is, I'm feeling scattered, fragmented, stretched too thin: modernist lit, Latin@ studies, creative nonfiction, writing a novel, editing a collection of other people's essays (and that doesn't begin to address the committee load here). Most people with an academic position explore and master one field in a deep, focused way. In English, folks generally tend to be scholars or creative writers, not both. Plus, I'm genuinely interested in pedagogy (newsflash: not all professors are--are you aghast?), so I read a lot about that, as well as occasionally publish little pieces about teaching strategies that work.
I'm doing too many different things, and none of them deeply enough to feel a calm, confident sense of real expertise.
For example, I recently received a really nice invitation to be on a panel at the Modernist Studies Association conference. Okay, fine, lovely to be asked. But honestly, the MSA conference, which I've attended twice before, makes me feel wildly anxious. Everyone is veddy, veddy scholarly, über-technical, and thoroughly saturated in Modernist studies and high theory. Among them, I feel unwashed.
Similarly, a journal editor invited me to write about polyphonic feminisms. People: I didn't know what polyphonic feminisms meant. I had to look it up.
So why did I say yes to both? I don't know. I am thinking that through.
It doesn't make sense. When what I'm sure I long to do is sit quietly and dream up stories and write them, and I have a dayjob that lets me do that, why do I keep committing to things that stretch me beyond my expertise, make me anxious, and destroy my sense of calm? (I'm not exaggerating. Calm: destroyed. You can ask James.) Am I that genuinely interested in the material? Do I--despite my protestations--actually relish the intellectual challenge? Or am I driven by the anxious fear that if I say no to anything, the invitations will all dry up?
Ah, yes: what an academic contemplates on Christmas Eve. Merry, merry. Deck the halls.
Vastly more compelling is my immediate dilemma. The presence of Grey, who is both something of a bon vivant and a militant vegan, makes planning festive holiday menus a challenge--but a challenge to which I'm attempting to rise. My mission, should I choose to accept it, is to convert my insanely swoony New Orleans-style bread pudding into a vegan version. (The whiskey sauce alone requires an egg and 8 tablespoons of butter.)
I'll report back to let you know how the EarthBalance and egg replacement powder work out.
In the meantime, I wish you the happiest, warmest, friendliest of holidays. (And if the holidays happen to be sucking for you right now, go here.)
Peace on Earth, sweet people. Thank you for being with me for another beautiful year.
Now, while the attainment of 84 would seem to demand diamonds, rubies, a yacht, etc., Ingrid wanted nothing of the sort, and because she's a voracious fan of mystery novels--and because she so enjoyed Elizabeth George's excellent craft text Write Away a couple of years ago--we sent her P.D. James's new book, Talking About Detective Fiction.
If you like mystery novels at all, then you know who P.D. James is--the current leading lady, the grande dame, all that. When asked why the human desire for murder mysteries is "seemingly unending," she replied,
The human race has had an appetite for mysteries from the earliest writings and no doubt tales of mystery and murder were recounted by our remote ancestors round the camp fires by the tribal storyteller. Murder is the unique crime, the only one for which we can make no reparation, and has always been greeted with a mixture of repugnance, horror, fear, and fascination. We are particularly intrigued by the motives which cause a man or woman to step across the invisible line which separates a murderer from the rest of humanity. Human beings also love a puzzle and a strong story, and mysteries have both.I'm not sure it's true that murder is the only crime "for which we can make no reparation," but I look forward to reading the book. Marilyn Stasio calls it "incisive," and its "style . . . clean, thoughtful, and full of grace."
If you've got an aspiring mystery writer in your circle, Talking About Detective Fiction might be just the ticket. And the proceeds go to the Bodleian.
We were on 12th Street, on our way back from our final, official walk-through of the apartment we're buying next week. The walk-through is the buyers' final opportunity to make sure everything's ship-shape; our realtor met us there with the keys and his reassuring manner.
Gentle readers, it shrank. The apartment we saw at nine o'clock this morning is not the apartment I've been mentally renovating for two weeks now. What are we to do? The corridor that was definitely at least ten feet long now takes barely two steps to cover. The vast expanse of open-concept living area has shrunk to a modest purgatory of a room.
Maybe I'm just getting cold feet.
I have to say that our realtor has been very nice and knowledgeable throughout the whole process, and since realtors live and die by referrals, I do recommend him. Maybe the fact that he was a career middle-school teacher helps him calm down jittery clients. Maybe the fact that he knows Lincoln backwards and forwards--or that he's apparently semi-psychic--helped him suss out what we wanted before we could even articulate it. In any case, if you need a realtor, Stan Knapp is solid.
Speaking of psychic, did I not just quote Patricia Highsmith on here? And now a new biography is available. (Doesn't she look sly? And I personally have to admire her: "From age 8 she wanted to kill her stepfather,” says her biographer. “She was born to murder. She had the mind of a criminal genius.")
If you're planning to give books as holiday gifts, Penguin has a little line of British classics, from Jane Austen to Jane Eyre, with beautiful cloth covers. My favorite is The Picture of Dorian Grey with the silvery peacock plumes (although the Great Expectations with the chandeliers is nice, too).
I'd already had a very quiet, friendly talk with Terry Tempest Williams, but we got separated, and I ended up at a table with these two men about my age. One was very nice, very modest, and quite interested in other people--not at all what you'd think from his books, given that he was Bret Easton Ellis. The other one was Michael Chabon, who kept tossing his mane around and making over-large, bony-wristed gestures. I wondered what Ayelet Waldman saw in him. Then I remembered exactly what Ayelet Waldman saw in him, and I wished I'd been sensible enough to marry a writer who'd gush publicly, so to speak, about my skills in the boudoir. My sandwich kept falling apart. I'd used too much mustard. Bret E.E. was very friendly and inquiring.
I woke up and lay there in bed, wondering if it was hard for writers like Ayelet Waldman and Vendela Vida: absolutely fine, talented writers in their own rights, yet attached to meteoric superstar literary Wonder Boys--sort of like being Mary Shelley, only not.
Then, as I lay there staring upward, I remembered my desolation last year over Bread Loaf. Then I remembered my stunning realization, last night, that 50 is the next major birthday port-of-call for me. Then I thought that I should probably stop remembering things, because obviously I was on a roll I shouldn't be on, and got up to start the day.
Now, on to you. Something useful for my writer friends. If your friends and family members, prompted by the dictates of the holiday season, are wondering why you're so stubbornly reclusive, remind them of the wisdom of Patricia Highsmith (The Talented Mr. Ripley):
I have Graham Greene's telephone number, but I wouldn't dream of using it. I don't seek out writers because we all want to be alone.
I trudged and gallumphed home through the little drifts with my face wrapped up like one of the sand people on Star Wars. So cold! Horizontal snow! It's not quite at white-out stage yet, but I'm definitely flashing back to that part when Ma ties a rope from the house to the barn to go do the milking.
My marvelous, beautiful, dear old friend Jill wrote to request my reading list for the modernist women's lit course, about which I've been generating so much overheated blather on here, so I thought I'd pop it on here. I'll leave off the scholarly readings and just give you the juicy books, which are listed in chronological order:
My personal favorites are Hurston, Rhys, Mansfield, and Latimer, in no particular order. They're all knockout. And of course Woolf is important and how could you not read her? But sometimes her prose feels stuffy and tight, a bit cautious. (How can I say that about such a groundbreaking writer? I don't know. I mean, of course I'm glad she broke the ground she did. But personally, I just like something with a little more rawness, a little more sensuality. A gut-punch. A French kiss.)Katherine Mansfield, Stories (1910-1923)
Gertrude Stein, Tender Buttons (1914)
Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse (1925)
----, A Room of One’s Own (1929)
Nella Larsen, Passing (1929)
Margery Latimer, Guardian Angel (1929, 1932)
Jean Rhys, Voyage in the Dark (1934)
Meridel Le Sueur, Ripening (1927-1945)
Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937)
Actually, I'll post the little syllabus-commercial, too--you know, the part at the beginning that makes it sound like we're going to be having all kinds of intellectual fun together?
I know, I know: it sounds like a thrill ride, doesn't it? I hope Jill thinks so.During the last twenty years, an astonishing amount of recovery and reconfiguration work has been done by feminist scholars on women’s texts of the modernist period. In 2009, we no longer have to argue for these texts’ and writers’ validity, contributions, or value.
What kinds of new questions can we now ask about these texts, as informed by our own scholarly interests (ecocriticism, postcolonialism, narratology, performance, trauma studies, spatiality, etc.)? What interesting patterns emerge when we read diverse women’s texts of the period in conjunction with each other? What happens when we read women’s modernisms across boundaries of nation, sexuality, canonicity, religion, physical ability, race and ethnicity, and class?
Let me just say a word about Jill. We met during our first year of college when we were both 16 (she's one month younger than I am, to the day)--a time when, honestly, we should not have been left unsupervised. Those were raucous days. She was hopelessly glamorous and exquisite, like the subject of a Tamara de Lempicka painting, and knew how to smoke and dress. A very few years later, she was kind enough to share a house with me, walking distance from the campus, and I remember that her kitchen hygiene was significantly more advanced than my own, to our mutual chagrin. She once dated a boy I later dated, so I suppose we had similar tastes. We both married and divorced rather young.
She's witty and smart and went on to get her doctorate in art history--with, if I'm remembering correctly, a thesis on Suzanne Valadon and a dissertation on Elaine de Kooning (but I could be screwing that up)--and now she's an esteemed museum curator. In fact, I think she's my only female friend from college (am I forgetting someone?) who went on to become an academic--in the arts & humanities, no less. (Our male pals who went on for Ph.D.s generally got them in the pocket-protector disciplines.)
Jill and I aren't close; we don't get in touch often. We've seen each other only a few times over the years, and we occasionally email. But I just like her so much, and admire her, and old friends are still the best kind, I think. Last summer, after she attended a college reunion I couldn't make it to, I got to have a long phone conversation with her, and not only did she give me the acerbically funny scoop on the crimes and misdemeanors of our old crowd, but just hearing her voice was a joy.
And now she makes time to read modernist lit? For fun? My hat is off.
This weekend has been devoted to graduate students' manuscripts, both scholarly and creative, both Pine Manor and UNL, and I must say, I'm a lucky teacher. They're just off-the-hook brilliant. (The weekend's also been devoted to rectifying a recently observed chocolate deficiency in my diet, but enough about that.)
I'm excited that so many of my students are writing about Margery Latimer. Remember my worries? Well, several students are writing really excellent, smart papers about her work, pointing out things I never thought of. Ahhh. Sigh of relief. Other students are writing about Nella Larsen, Virginia Woolf, Meridel Le Sueur, and others. Some of the papers are definitely conference-worthy. I didn't know a graduate lit course could be this much fun!
Today's the 6th, which means James and I have 8 days left until we sign on our new apartment. The closing's set for 10 a.m. on the 14th, and I can't help counting down the days. Our living room and hallway are already starting to fill with boxes and miscellaneous items I can't understand why we own.
And young Grey's getting ready to take his finals, after which he'll be heading west to spend his holidays here, and our flamboyantly fake little purple Christmas tree is already up and lit. Sparkly. (After years of doing the whole go-out-to-the-tree-farm-and-personally-select-one-for-slaughter-and-rope-it-to-the-car thing, I'd had enough.)
All told, December and January should be lively, chaotic, and fun.
For unlike the great powers of old, we have not sought world domination. Our union was founded in resistance to oppression. We do not seek to occupy other nations. We will not claim another nation’s resources or target other peoples because their faith or ethnicity is different from ours. What we have fought for — and what we continue to fight for — is a better future for our children and grandchildren, and we believe that their lives will be better if other peoples’ children and grandchildren can live in freedom and access opportunity.Sitting there listening and watching, I was like, "Nuh-uh. He did not just say that." Because of course, "[o]ur union was founded" precisely by means of the successful attempt "to occupy other nations." That's exactly what happened. The founders of the United States did indeed "claim another nation's resources"--and not just the resources of the first nations of the North American continent but also the human resources of multiple African nations. They claimed these resources--land, materials, and human labor--by means of lethal force and the imposition of tremendous suffering.
Yes, "our union was founded in resistance to oppression"--for some. Not for all. For some, it was founded precisely upon oppression, to the point of genocide.
And really, to say "we have not sought world domination"--does that square with every epoch of American foreign policy as you remember it? If our government and/or populace has ever wanted to be the single superpower in terms of military and economic might, doesn't that count as "domination"?
Come on, Barack. I'm all on board with the restoration of the United States' moral position in the world via the re-abolition of torture and so on, but let's not erase or distort our national past for the exigencies of the moment. Your speeches matter. Don't pretty stuff up.
As a teacher of literary modernism, I'm familiar with the notion that World War I, The Great War, functions as the "absent signifier" in much literature of the period--Eliot's Waste Land, and so on. The war was so centrally, so painfully, on everyone's mind that literature and art were profoundly about the war even when they never mentioned it explicitly.
War and torture have been very much the absent signifiers in my work for the last eight years--perhaps always. I've been struck by the corollaries between sadistic child abuse and torture (and the long-term trauma both cause), and I have long been obsessed with learning about both--understanding the psychology that motivates and allows such acts, understanding what can be done to prevent them. Elaine Scarry's book The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World has been very important for me in this regard (as has all the work of Alice Miller).
Similarly, I'm swayed by the argument that callousness toward any living being can be employed toward and amplified into a similar and destructive apathy toward other people. We wouldn't be able to rationalize or ameliorate the emotional difficulty of wartime killing by reducing the enemy (through language and imagery) into animals and insects if we didn't, as a culture, already believe that it was all right to kill animals and insects with impunity. The Quaker and Buddhist visions of radical pacifism attract me.
Now here we are, on the verge of sending 30,000 more young people into violence. Bob Herbert writes in yesterday's Times:
Years ago, on the eve of the U.S.'s initial invasion of Afghanistan, and again on the eve of the invasion of Iraq, I felt alone (in my certainty that invasion would solve nothing), crazy, and desperately sad. Everyone seemed to support war. There was so much fear in our country then, and I silenced myself, thinking I must be wrong, naive, foolish. Now I'm similarly tempted to think, Well, if Obama thinks it's necessary, with all the inside information he has, and with his lefty commitments, then it must be necessary. After all, what do I know? I'm an English teacher.
It would have been much more difficult for Mr. Obama to look this troubled nation in the eye and explain why it is in our best interest to begin winding down the permanent state of warfare left to us by the Bush and Cheney regime. It would have taken real courage for the commander in chief to stop feeding our young troops into the relentless meat grinder of Afghanistan, to face up to the terrible toll the war is taking — on the troops themselves and in very insidious ways on the nation as a whole.
More soldiers committed suicide this year than in any year for which we have complete records. But the military is now able to meet its recruitment goals because the young men and women who are signing up can’t find jobs in civilian life. The United States is broken — school systems are deteriorating, the economy is in shambles, homelessness and poverty rates are expanding — yet we’re nation-building in Afghanistan, sending economically distressed young people over there by the tens of thousands at an annual cost of a million dollars each.
But my true tendency in this regard is toward moral absolutism: Thou shalt not kill. Period. Ever. Gandhi, Jesus, Dr. King, Mother Teresa. Which divides me from all my just-war, pragmatic friends--and even divides me from myself, when I think of what I'd do, without hesitation, to someone who tried to hurt my son, or in other morally vexed situations. It's an issue that confuses me.
Because I didn't want to keep this huge concern, which compels me so obsessively and which matters to all of us, an absent signifier here on the blog, I thought I'd share my current private reading list with you, in case you're interested:
Political scientist Darius Rejali's Torture and Democracy (Princeton UP, 2009) investigates the connections between forms of torture and forms of government. It's a harrowing read, and huge. It's taking me forever to get through it, in part because it is so upsetting and I have a painfully vivid imagination. I have to set it aside sometimes.
Ethicist Jonathan Glover's Humanity: A Moral HIstory of the Twentieth Century analyzes wars and genocides in terms of the various psychological mechanisms that enable people to kill other people--and looks at what kinds of moments disrupt the human ability to do so.
Political scientists Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri's Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire (Penguin, 2004) is the most hopeful of the lot, because Hardt and Negri see possibilities for global networks that resist the state of permanent war and offer truly democratic alternatives.
Not exactly light reading, but they're helping me understand the things that most baffle my heart.