For two years I taught literature, reading and writing at a public university in one of New York City’s outer Boroughs. Of course having come out of a liberal arts “thinking” institution what I really thought (maybe hoped) I was teaching was new perspectives. Ironically, the challenge that most struck me was not administrative, nor class size or terrible grammar and endless hours of grading, the most pressing obstacle lay in creating a case for the value of “thinking.”
I state “case” because I regularly felt like my passions and beliefs, as well as my liberal arts education went on daily trial. I had originally come from a hard-scrabble immigrant reality, but my perception of reality had been altered by my education experience, and as an educator I felt the need to authenticate my progressive (core text) education with my students.
I was regularly reminded that the immediate world of the “average” student (citizen) with all its pressing, “real” concerns does not immediately open itself to “thought” in the liberal arts sense. We are a specialization, automation, struggling and hyper competitive society. The “learning time” of a student citizen is spent in the acquisition of “marketable,” and differentiating skills, while their “free time” is the opportunity to decompress from, or completely escape the pressures of competitive skill acquisition. The whole cycle is guided by an air of anxiety fostered in our national eduction philosophy, as well as the troubled economy and scattered society at large. I don’t think one can teach the humanities without listening to their students, and listening to the students calls for a deep inventory on the value of “thought” in the humanities sense, and then ultimately in how to most truthfully communicate this value to the students.
I need to add here that my students were quite smart and insightful. This made it even greater of a challenge. Their intelligence was one of realism. I needed to both acknowledge and sway their perspective, as well as my own.
Each semester I began with a close-reading of David Foster Wallace's commencement speech at Kenyon College, “What is Water.” He begins his speech with the parable of two fish swimming by an older fish which as it swims by asks, How is the Water?” The little ones swim on and only later ask each other, “What is water?” Didactic parable, cliche -- yes -- but Wallace goes on to deconstruct the artifice of commencement speeches, parables, and cliches, and then rebuilds them. Having so skillfully deconstructed them he has invited his listers into the form making, and as he communicates the truth beneath what had earlier seemed lofty or cliche, the listers follow him towards meaning making. Ultimately Wallace states that education is “less about teaching you how to think, and more about teaching you of the choice in what to think about.” To have agency is to be a meaning maker. And as more and more cultural institutions artfully vie for the citizens devotion and loyalty -- politics, religion, but even more so, corporate houses and pop culture designs, in the ever growing noise of institutional marketing the call to choose seems ever more muted.
The choice, for so many students today, is simply in how to most skillfully compartmentalize themselves and their lives in the face of the anxieties of their immediate world. The choice for many young teachers, facing their own set of related anxieties, is in how far are they willing step away from the ideal of learning-living-teaching integration model -- so easy is it today as an educator to simply become disenchanted, frustrated and aloof. Sometimes, “thinking” is the process of choosing what to keep and what to give away.
Wallace's insightful, no b.s, humorous and sincere tone resonated with my students, that is of course until they found out that Wallace killed himself. Then, that’s what everyone wanted to focus on. I can not blame them. There is a ‘text’ to ‘personal’ mystery, a ‘content’ to ‘context’ disjunction that opens itself at such a revelation, a mystery that the “thinking” mind wants to explore. The modern “thinking” mind draws little separation between the lofty and the sublime, the public and the personal. Such is a byproduct of a generation raised on reality television and celebrity stories. I, in all sincerity cannot judge this. My generation, the X’s who came of age on the cusp of the Millennials, were culturally educated by MTV, The Real World and Road Rules, and thus we crave hip, colorful, appropriately gentrified spaces to occupy -- think of artist collectives, or Facebook and Google working environments (bean bags, chill and chic prescription sunglasses, lounge happy hour with juice bars, untraditional working hours, colorful earth tones). I digress, I meant to make some observation of “thinking.”
I was excited to teach what excited me: I began with Wallace, then Kafka, O’Connor (Flannery or Frank), Platonov, Carver, Babel, Achebe Kundera, Elliot, etc... It is, essentially, the seven sisters freshmen reading list, a popular catalogue of classic stories peppered with some international obscurity. It is the “cool” thing in liberal arts. But, over and over my students came to me complaining that they could not find this relevant to their lives. After such reports I would tweak my lesson plans to give a greater introduction to the works, going deeper into the philosophical tenets of the stories, and into the universal reward of being able to utilize the tools of the thinking, writing mind. Induct, deduct, compare, contrast, relate, “give it greater shape,” I would say. “Breath life into it.”
To have the skills to decipher plot, to record the echo of a narrative, to infer characterization from setting, to understand the complex structure of a character, to be invited to participate in the co-creation of a narrative which gently guides you through action but leaves the moral implications up to the reader. These are “indispensable,” I would advise my students. “Indispensable for human agency.” Some would slowly gravitate to my vision, as I prodded further and further into their motivations for being in school, career, and other ‘relevant’ choice. Yet, they often felt only like visitors in my library, preparing to check out and return to the “default” education thinking mode as soon as the quarter, mid, or end semester exam periods began. The pressures of what they call “the real world” are much stronger then the ghosts of books and introspective thought -- vague, powerless, intangible.
“The real world:” Here I am reminded of the scene from the Matrix when Morpheus unveils to Neo “the desert of the real.” A barren waste land of human energy as only a power source nourished for consumption. The Matrix, I will add here, is based on a work by Jean Baudrillard, a french philosopher who warns of a modern society as a place existing in consumption and entertainment, devoid of meaning making -- the urge towards agency, in hibernation; the map towards meaning, defunct. In describing this new world he coined the phrase “the desert of the real.” Again, I fall into tangental thought.
I needed to find a way to invite, seduce, capture my students. I tried using myself as a conduit.
I pride myself on the fact that I am an immigrant, a former “at risk” student, that my tattoos all have mythological meaning and thought behind them, that I am a high-school drop out with credentials to my name, a top tier education, a masters degree, etc... I felt like these could help me bridge for my students the platforms of reality-setting discourse and humanistic thought. I had, and still do, believed that real “thinking” is indispensable in being human, in being free, and in the ability to have fun and play with the world.
Again, my students would, at times, meet me in the middle space I wanted to create, though rarely did this space become living for them, instead they lay their heads to the sound of another’s palpitation and breath, and then moved on. Maybe I planted a seed, I like to think. But then, maybe, they were bringing me somewhere as well.
They could not recklessly follow me, or I them. It was an issue of pragmatic bonds. For a moment, my class, or an individual student I was reading with would delve into the power of words with me and the ending of Andrei Platonov’s “Potudon River” would finally break through the events of the page: “Not every grief can be comforted; there is a grief that ends only after the heart has been worn away in long oblivion, or in distraction amidst life’s everyday concerns.” And my students would draw new understanding of the passage, enter it through a word or phrase that could unlock that middle space between their worlds and the world of literature, philosophy, metaphor. “Grief,” “long oblivion,” life’s everyday concerns,” all the sudden my students would give these new meaning, now only slightly guided by the story and letting their lives find a grip to the reigns. They would find new connections, and again they would return to the “real” world.
More and more I struggled to make thinking relevant. “Will this help me get a better job?” I was asked.
Thinking about it I had to encounter my own struggles with this question. I know the answers. I know the programed liberal arts answer, and the “real” answer. I know that the liberal arts answer exposes the “real” as something at best lacking, at its worst empty. I also know that the real, is real; it happens in real time, removed from the concerns of literature, poetry, and philosophy which concern themselves with the work of mans eternity.
“Unlikely,” I would answer. For gods sake, though I was teaching all these things I cared so deeply about, I also worked nights as a bartender to satisfy the demands of the real. I had to produce something consumable and all of my learning and thoughts on thinking are not that.
Here I acknowledge that this answer is not entirely true. We can find jobs which call for liberal arts skills, but these are few and far between and rarely afford a comfortable standard of living. We may also posit the argument that liberal arts skills will contribute to ones ability to perform better and have a greater understanding of ones job, but this argument does not lend itself to substantial evidence, no matter how much I may actually believe it. This was the litmus test of my “thinking,” and it only survives in embracing the privacies of my world, that I chose my private world despite and above the “real.”
“Unlikely.” And where does that leave us?
Ultimately, all I have as a conscious being is the ability to tell stories, to choose and create my narrative from the scattered world I am provided. Ultimately, after deconstructing both the “real” and the “lofty” I could only encourage my students to choose their own themes. To the question of “what is water?” I could only answer, “the desert.”
Oddly enough, and as “unlikely” as it may seem, when I answered with honesty, to them as well as myself, they followed. -- we could talk.
In a short entry in her Denktagebuch from 1956, Arendt offers a gnomic reflection on Antigone:
Ad Orff, Antigone: Als sei alles darauf angelegt, uns zum Ertönen zu bringen. Wir aber verschliessen uns, verstummen und klagen nicht. Antigone- die klagende, tönende menschliche Stimme, in der alles offenbar wird.
Ad Orff, Antigone: As if all was set out to bring us to sound. But we lock up, fall silent, and do not lament. Antigone – the lamenting, sounding human voice, in which all becomes revealed. (Notebook XXII, February 1956, Denktagebuch)
The entry first caught my attention because while Arendt often refers to literature (favorite authors include Kafka and Rilke), she rarely refers to specific musical pieces in her published work. Here she reacts to the opera Antigonae by Carl Orff.
Orff had composed for the Nazis, who received his Carmina Burana with incredible adulation, and underwent denazification after the war. Antigonae of 1949 is a minimalist work, first in the everyday sense that it sets Hölderlin's translation of the drama to song with little instrumental accompaniment. In this regard it highlights the translation's inherent musicality on the level of form (rhythms and rhymes in the text) and content (we see how at a number of moments the drama turns on references to singing, crying, tone, and lament). Orff's opera can also be described as minimalist in the more precise sense that when the orchestra does emerge, it often plays looping interludes that remind one of the repetitive avant-garde phrasings that Steve Reich would popularize in the 1960s.
Arendt often turns to art as a free space in which to voice philosophical and political questions in the modern age. Readers compelled by her approach might be inspired by the entry on Orff to look for other passages addressing music that would compliment her better known aesthetic analyses.
At a local level, the entry also raises a question: how would Arendt read Sophocles's Antigone? Patchen Markell offers one suggestion when he links Sophocles and Arendt in a “countertradition of thought about recognition” in his book Bound by Recognition. Markell casts a skeptical eye on the equation of identity and justice and offers an alternative mapping which is open to asymmetry and values finitude. In doing so he suggests a possible approach to this entry that notices the uncanny relation of the “we” and Antigone through the instrument of the voice.
The first line of the entry starts with the “we”– presumably the spectators of the opera and perhaps humanity more broadly – and centers on the German term “Ertönen,” which could be translated as “to ring out,” “to sound,” “resound,” or “chime.” It indicates expression, and even a move to freedom. In the next sentence though, this potential for liberation evaporates and “we” fall silent. It ultimately fails at the possibility, even apparent necessity of “klagen,” a term which contains the powerful double meaning of 1) “moan,” “lament,” “wail,” and 2) “litigate,” “file a suit,” “go to law.” Unlike us, Antigone's voice does ring out, she does lament, and in her lament she takes on the law.
Arendt describes Antigone's voice as the “human voice,” but her description leads us to think in the direction of the questioning of the essence of the human in first stasimon (often referred to as the “ode to man”). Roger Berkowitz connects the deinon (wondrous / terrible) in this ode to Arendt's concern over the “danger that we might so fully create and make our artificial world that we endanger that quality of human life which is subject to fate, nature, and chance” in his article in The Fortnightly Review.
In terms of the question of recognition, Arendt's note on Orff draws our attention to those sections of the drama where Antigone pushes against the inhuman, such as when the guard describes her shriek at the sight of her brother's unburried body as “a distressing painful cry, just like a bird/ who’s seen an empty nest, its fledglings gone.” Later, she sings a long lament to her tomb and dead family, as if those who remain alive are nothing to her. The minimalist loops of Orff's music might indicate something of the energy that insists on living when one has nothing to live for or is even condemned to death. These sections are strikingly different from the over-the-top triumphalism of Carmina Burana, which hounds popular culture in movies and commercials to this day. They suggest persistence rather than victory, or perhaps even a paradoxical continuation in an explicit condition of defeat.
Antigone is the voice, Arendt tells us. We seem to recognize it as our own, even if the total meaning of the “all” that would be the content of our realization remains out of reach.
I haven't read Mo Yan's books, but congratulations to him for the Nobel Prize.
That said, his supporters have a funny way of explaining why he won. In the WSJ, I read this:
Chad Post, director of University of Rochester's Open Letter Books, a press that specializes in literature in translation, said he saw Mo Yan give a reading several years ago. "What struck me is that he seems to have an almost playful approach to writing," said Mr. Post. "For example, he's written a novel called 'Big Breasts and Wide Hips.' This is a good and interesting person to honor. Mo Yan is engaged with the issues of contemporary China but his books are also full of sex and food."
Not exactly the reasons I would choose for selection.
On the other hand, critics are overly focused on Mo Yan's politics, which lean towards the authoritarian Beijing regime. The great Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei is quoted as saying:
For a contemporary writer to avoid the very clear issues of today's struggle is something that's not negotiable. I cannot separate literature from the people's struggle.
What is most remarkable about the press coverage so far of Mo Yan's prize is the focus on politics, sex, and food, with painfully little attention to writing. I hope that changes soon as some of us have a chance to read his books.
“Poirot," I said. "I have been thinking."
"An admirable exercise my friend. Continue it.”
-Agatha Christie, Peril at End House
We are pleased to announce that Yale University Press has named Arendt Center Senior Fellow, Wyatt Mason, Consulting Editor at Large for the Margellos World Republic of Letters, the Press’s highly regarded series for literature in translation. Mason will be responsible for commissioning up to five titles per year for the series, selecting translators and developing translations.
A prize-winning critic, translator, and essayist, Mason is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a contributing editor for Harper’s. His writing has also appeared in the New Yorker, New York Review of Books, London Review of Books, The New Republic, The Nation and GQ. Modern Library has published his translations of the works of Arthur Rimbaud, Rimbaud Complete and I Promise to Be Good.
Wyatt Mason, Senior Fellow at the Arendt Center, has a fantastic new essay on David Foster Wallace in this week's New York Review of Books.
Wallace, pace Mason, struggles to break through the, in Wallace's words, "five hundred thousand discrete bits of information" by which we are all daily barraged. All this information makes it incredibly difficult to reach readers, to make them think. "Wallace was an avant-garde writer. He believed that one of fiction’s main jobs was to challenge readers, and to find new ways of doing so." Mason details the formal rigor in Wallace's writing, all in the service of probing "at the most injured parts of being."
By the way, the article just before Wyatt's is Ian Buruma's excellent review of Christopher Hitchens' new memoir. So the first two essays in the NY Review are by friends of Bard and the Arendt Center.