Ravitch book, The Language Police Sees Major Remedies Needed
New Book Charts Dangerous Trends in Corporate Textbook World
While describing its stranglehold on American education, Diane Ravitch also cites one sure remedy for the ills now built into the writing, editing, and choosing of textbooks for our public schools: let individual teachers make their own choices.
Her new book, The Language Police, notes that currently most teachers have no choice as to what texts they can use. From kindergarten to 12th grade most schools have them assigned from above. School officials and committees decide for whole districts, or state departments of education do so for entire states. Citizens of course have input – but the current process leaves kids as if guinea pigs, lab rats, and Rorschach tests – and schools as battlegrounds – for groups pressing conformities from left and right.
As if a New Version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers
Ravitch describes how America’s competing special interest groups, especially in key larger states, weigh in at every stage of textbook adoption. She shows how the corporate text publishers have carried compromise and fear of controversy into rigorous lists of things to avoid. Publishers and the standardized test makers entwined with them have learned to make massive reductions in permitted vocabulary, lest anyone be offended by anything. And they’ve delimited whole areas of human experience as taboo.
If a child, for instance, is from an urban area, no text may tell stories of other kids in mountains, or forests, or on prairies, lest city kid feel left out by cultural, social, or natural differences. If a child is from a small town, similar rules apply: no text or test may cite anything that may ever let anyone feel any less privileged in any way. No one may ever cite war, smoking, nudity, pregnancy, rap, rock’n’roll, drugs, abuse, race, alcohol, disease, witches, divorce, farms, dinosaurs, or dozens more possibly skittish areas.
Ravitch says no wonder literacy declines across America. Teachers have learned to skirt so many areas, and avoid so much real life, to stress instead the generalized and generic. Like that Don Siegal 1956 film about the small town in California where people one by one lose all passion and humanity, American schools now inflict the same banality on all.
Essaying Differences Uses No Texts – Ever!
The Language Police describes this worsening as corporate text publishers and standardized test makers abet it. A few large states place such huge textbook orders every year that publishers can make money only if they go along with the pressures for circumscribed vocabulary and reduced experience. Ravitch says letting teachers pick their own texts can end the committee-&-corporate processes now acceding to paranoia and fear. Choosing individually could let in the fresh air of wider literacy and humanity.
She does not consider college and university texts. At those levels professors and instructors have more choices – though higher education shows illnesses in its textbooks similar to those she cites for K-12. Community colleges, state universities, and the elite research schools all show similar spirals into specialization, with everybody divided into departments, all learning to be oblivious of all others.
College and university texts further isolate and elaborate specialization. By these texts every department delimits its turf, each flaunting jargon as if it held substance – the same feint in consumer culture that David Reisman called “niche differentiation.” The tenured class gets paid well to edit and annotate texts so every field feeds but one imagination: sub-dividable, segmented, modular, incremental, hierarchical. Higher education material comes in new, improved forms every year, following the K-12 texts Ravitch notes escalating their own ever-new puffery of inter-textual graphics, charts, bulleted items, marginal addenda, and chapter-ending idiot questions. Even in paperback all editions get more glossy and laminated, more expensive, and every year heavier and heavier, too.
Conceits of closure float all this enterprise. As Ravitch says of K-12 texts, “every . . . question has an answer, and [experts/texts] know what it is.” Ditto for college texts. In thrall to neat relationships and conclusions – specialization closure – faculty now seldom risk open, personal, or individual questions. They rather fit syllabi “professionally” to replicate the workings of corporate texts. More grade by multiple-choice. The messiness of humanity – never mind literacy – needn’t intrude: literacy has long sunk into composition ghettoes, its personnel proud of their own step-by-step, modular exercises.
Essaying Differences says: no textbooks, ever. Students instead cite their own cultures, seeing and quoting each other as if our cultures were texts, and we seamlessly part of them. We perform. We all live by props: clothing, cuisine, body art and body language, transport, coiffures, and landscapes. Our neighbors – all “others” – do, too.
Essaying Differences says we can see into these performances by citing further culture illuminating them: movies and music, or poets and writers such as Ravitch suggests in concluding her book. We can test our themes and values – and begin to connect to “others,” even as too many experts and comfortable academics say we cannot.
Philip Balla, Essaying Differences Proprietor, May, 2003
Thomas L. Friedman Begins to See Lies in Things we Most Want to Believe
His Newest Book Sees Manufactured Hatreds
Thomas L. Friedman’s newest book, Longitudes and Attitudes, turns on regimes in the Middle East stewing in cycles of corruption and privilege. Friedman seethes at how such regimes deflect attention from themselves by funding a growth industry of mosques, madrasas, and schools that redirect people’s frustration onto hatred for the West, and on that local Western outpost, Israel.
Its 379 pages burn with the question: “How could they do this to us?” – not only kill the 3,000 of 9-11, but also hate us so, as if our culture were materialist, and we in it all humanly empty.
Friedman feels personally challenged because prior to 9-11 many of his – happier – New York Times columns celebrated how the engines of our material progress also carry an enlarging humanity with openness to change, tolerance for differences, and mixing of race, ethnicity, and religion. His 1999 The Lexus and the Olive Tree argued for globalism as if our institutions of business, government, and education all vitally furthered this openness, progress, and democracy.
Tarnish in Globalism’s Shining Luster
Friedman has long acknowledged many peoples around the world balking at our globalism, and disliking us, and he has always explained this by how our government has made its many pacts of convenience with dictatorships. But, except for this generalized and recurring admission, he has never gotten specific about our propping up of evil regimes, especially in the oil-dependent Middle East. Even in his new book he never mentions the Carlyle Group, for instance: that transnational, hydra-headed investment portfolio underlying the fortunes of both the Bush and bin Laden families.
More than Enron, World Com, Anderson Accounting, or Jack Welch’s golden parachute from GE, this Carlyle Group belies globalism’s underside. Dictatorships don’t just accidentally get our aid. The worst regimes in the world have long gotten massive U.S. financial credits and military aid to prop up their privileges and suppress their people – as strategic part of our government serving the interests of our most powerful multinational corporations.
The dictatorships get supported. The rich get richer – Bushes and bin Ladens together. By the logic that buoying their boats lets ours rise, too, our government and corporate America keep revolving doors open. All our biggest agribusiness, oil, arms, insurance, construction, drug, media, and aviation firms keep their lobbyists, lawyers, and CEOs routinely rotating between public office and private enrichment. But something else has been happening as the corporate interests have cozied our regulatory agencies. Millions of Americans formerly in the middle class have found themselves dead-ended into a part-time, minimum wage economy. And democracy? Friedman deals with it no more than he does the Carlyle Group, but fewer Americans vote. With millions cut from health insurance, public services reduced, and environmental rules gutted, our homelessness, drugs, obesity, road rage, and prison populations increase.
Why Do the Educated so Trust their Scenarios?
Even if he doesn’t go into details of the dictatorships in bed with our corporate elites, or how fealty to the wealthy affects the rest of us, Friedman in Longitudes and Attitudes does begin to see how globalism may lack some of the magic its hucksters ascribe to it. The internet, he notes, yes, speedily bridges people everywhere. But too often this wonderful communication highway changes nothing, he admits; too easily it allows too many but to perpetuate originating prejudices.
If Friedman would go on in noticing false advertising, he could note similar mythologies and exaggerated promises in our higher education system. Like the internet, it seems magical, as our universities draw all the best internationally to them. Like corporate elites, they seem genteel, suave, sophisticated, as their many specializations impress with technological and other eruditions. But if he looked further, Friedman would see funnier, stronger, more-hidden values also at work.
As in the obvious business side of corporate America, our higher education system divides itself by departments. All keep strictly separate from each other. From within any one of them, virtually no one links to fields outside. Higher math, chaos and complex system physicists may reference widely – but most all other academics get tenure and promotions by staying verbally, imaginatively, and methodically in specialization. Richard Rorty calls these “ascetic priest” conceits, where social scientists and so-called humanists pose neutrality while reducing themselves to narrowest frames of reference. All perform as if no one were involved personally in anything, as if life, like their textbooks, accrued in neat units.
The Lies that Promise Empowerment
Good and evil reside in each of us, as in the preacher in Night of the Hunter with “HATE” and “LOVE” tattooed on his knuckles. Our authorities, however, like to imagine themselves neater. They can believe their systems deliver empowerment, as Eve and Adam believed, too, in the beguiling embrace of closure. We fall for lies that easily: lies from corporate America, from politicians, Hollywood, advertising, the new information highway, and our schools.
Sometimes we enter packaged promise systems briefly – like going to a film or reading a book. When we know it’s brief, we know we’re testing performances. Much of Thomas L. Friedman’s urgency in Longitudes and Attitudes comes from the play of his learning or not learning how much the gods have lied. Globalism? Politicians serving it? Regionalists or nationalists resisting it?
“You can’t download understanding,” says Friedman of what he’s learned in Longitudes and Attitudes: “You have to upload it, the old-fashioned way – with exchange programs, outreach, diplomacy, real communication, and one-on-one education.” He could specify another old-fashioned way: literacy itself. Essaying Differences takes literacy one notch further, where we admit we inhabit mixed bags – our cultures. As we all perform in them, we can see ourselves against “others” admitting to urgencies, pains, joys, and questions as Friedman displays.
Philip Balla, Essaying Differences Proprietor, June 2003
“Love and Hate at San Francisco State”
My first job at San Francisco State began a couple weeks before the 9-11 attacks. I’d just come back to California, which I’d not visited in decades. But I’d been born here. That was in another era, when not even freeways existed, nor computers, nor national television. No one had then thought of the term Silicon Valley, a place still in the 1940s of so many sleepy small towns and ranches. No one among the old, family-owned fruit farms, almond groves, and tomato fields of the Central Valley had yet heard the word agribusiness. Through the 1950s, however, and beyond, everything changed, across America as well as in the Golden State. By the late summer of 2001 our quaint old republic had long since morphed into empire. My native state had grown so large, and so key to empire that, were it a separate nation, it alone would rank as the seventh-largest economy in the world. California more than any place led the way as the epitome of the new sprawl culture: automobile-based, with cul-se-sac subdivisions, shopping malls, and eight- and ten-lane freeways all teeming with traffic. And yet, though all had changed, the same menthol-like aromas from the tall, shedding eucalyptus still wafted the air. Fields of mustard grass and cedars often enough still stretched off to the same brown ranges of hills that had enchanted the long-gone Edwin Muir, Mark Twain, Thorstein Veblen, Frank Norris, and Raymond Chandler – as they had the Spanish had before them, and native American Indians before that. The rules of poetry had not changed. So where millions of suburban plots subdivided their Eichler and other modern homes in zinc cyclone, cinder block, and redwood fencing, older aromas latent from my earliest, otherwise forgotten years yet drenched them in ever-ongoing vining, effulgent draperies. The same old ivy twined up billboards, pylons, and utility poles. I’d come back to California imagining myself different for the intervening years, travels, and chapters of life, but everywhere even the newest fences went on variously blooming with scented infusions of fuchsia, anise, bougainvillea, jasmine, camellia, and rose. They said something about time: that, like sentences, it doesn’t just go forward, but contains multiple layers that ever collapse back on themselves.
I liked it how my own years of travels had ended up back on the Pacific rim, how an older California invited further considerations over the larger empire’s promises. I had not returned rich. I had no job. But the dot.com recession was just starting and, as the economy dipped, more people were going back to school, giving me, new arrival, immediate teaching work.
The work at San Francisco State gave me a couple sections of English composition in the humanities department. Beginning just prior to the September 11 attacks, they were adjunct jobs, part-time and temporary positions such as those that for years now all across America regularly if irregularly floated thousands of similarly under-employed Ph.D.s such as myself. We who worked the subsistence levels of corporate American teaching had no more money, or job security, than the hundreds of thousands of immigrants without papers who coast-to-coast picked the fruit and vegetables, or the greater numbers of minimum-wage working poor who dished the assembly-line burgers, played guard for private security firms, clerked shopping mall registers, and cleaned offices, hotels, and motels. But with our advanced degrees and the motley book collections we periodically sold and reassembled, in many ways we traveled the same roads as the rest of America’s underclass. 43 million of us now worked and lived without health insurance, and our numbers were growing. Perhaps it helped that we outside institutional privilege had at least some serendipitous predecessors: in the nineteenth-century these included John Chapman who planted his apple seeds, Stephen Foster who picked up his tunes, Emily Dickinson who stayed around the house, and Walt Whitman who perambulated as he loafed and counted his contradictions. In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries I’d have liked a real job, with windowed office and year-round paychecks. Lacking that, however, I still had, for what it was worth, the blessings of a road yet similarly open as that which gave the music to B. B. King, Robert Johnson, and Woody Guthrie, or the great photographs of Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, and the others Roy Stryker hired on to roam the land. James Agee knew that road, from Fort Saunders Hill in Knoxville, Tennessee, to the tenant farmers of Hale County, Alabama, to the West Virginia river in his screenplay from a Davis Grubb novel where two orphaned kids float their way to safety from their hunter. James Wright knew this road from where it dipped into the Ohio River at his native Martins Ferry. Elizabeth Bishop knew it where it clipped across Central Park. Theodore Roethke felt it with the pistons’ push and shove from a night train riding him prone in his Pullman berth across a Midwestern landscape of sleeping villages and hamlets. One could do worse than to know the open road in America. One could even pick up some of the oldest, best wisdom, as did Preston Sturgis’ director character who, along with his Veronica Lake girlfriend, relearned something too many forget, in Sullivan’s Travels.
My own road came full circle, like the travel clip that begins with camera panning the harbor, many scenes elsewhere, and eventually return to same harbor. San Francisco State lay within sight of the Pacific Ocean. Its tropical landscaping beguiled me. I relished the recollection that fellow collegiate itinerant and Denial of Death author Ernest Becker had taught here back in the ‘60s, before the reactionary Hayakawa administration got rid of him. Demographics had changed since then. SFSU, like the entire state of California itself, now had more blacks, Hispanics, and Asians than whites. This multiethnic brew augured charm to match that of the lush, effulgent landscaping.
Students in my two sections took the course because San Francisco State required it of them. All SFSU students had to take this or an equivalent course in the different colleges, all theoretically to prepare them for a mandatory junior year literacy and writing exam called JEPET. In a perennial statistic bearing some morbid humor, 40% of those taking JEPET always failed it. Stretching related humor still further, the public schools of California had been declining in funding for many years now, and declining in many other ways, ever since the Jarvis tax revolt of the 1980s. So while students went on failing JEPET in large numbers even after two and three years of college, new freshmen continued to enter all the campuses of the California State University system with yet worsening literacy deficits. Annual tests given to the state’s high school graduating seniors showed more than half them getting their diplomas – and headed for college – without having reached even minimal literacy standards.
My classes began at 8:10 a.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays. So I was teaching that September 11 morning the hi-jacked planes exploded into their targets. Crawling out of bed just after six Pacific Time, I’d heard the initial news on the radio, when fairly perplexed National Public Radio announcers reported the first crash. They volunteered the fact that weather couldn’t account for what had happened: it was a clear, sunny day over New York Harbor and all the eastern seaboard. They sounded more perplexed fifteen minutes later when the second crash came. By the time I got off the MUNI train in south San Francisco, and into my classroom, students were arriving with later news – of a crash into the Pentagon, and another in rural Pennsylvania. SFSU administrators soon canceled all university activity, but by then I’d had time to talk with my students about the fact that some people from somewhere could hate the United States so much as to launch so vast a destruction.
Apparently I offended some of my students.
Not long earlier I had been living for over a decade abroad. While this expatriate sojourn let me see the popularity millions held internationally for American culture – our music, film, cosmetics, fast food, fast sports, and clothing – I could also see resentments. The U.S.A. represented change on a global scale – massive, total, and irreversible change. Our marketing and advertising, corporate agriculture, energy harnessing, and global outsourcing of jobs all figured a fantastically re-shaped world. Like some giant rhizome, one single international megalopolis culture was growing, already with more than two dozen separate, monster urban environments, each of them swollen to more than ten million persons. Scores of smaller, formerly provincial towns had also enlarged to multimillion-person conglomerations on every continent, in every climate, though not necessarily with water and sewage systems, health facilities, schools, transportation service, and jobs to match the flood of new arrivals. No part of the world was spared. Village life, traditional culture, and local economies everywhere succumbed: sucked dry, exploited, and often totally abandoned. From North Africa deserts to Southeast Asia tropics, from the plains draining the Himalayas to the grassland deltas of Amazon rain forests, everyone felt the one-way pull of a singularly powerful, synchronized, black hole migration. The World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, corporate CEOs and their wickedly clever accounting firms could look at all this new conglomeration of resources and labor and cut quickly to their own bottom lines. A fair number of otherwise isolated poets and writers were recording these changes, too, though not in the reduced ethics of corporate arithmetic. The writers saw their stories from the perspective of families and individuals, as Steinbeck had seen the Joads in The Grapes of Wrath, whose land and social webs were stripped away from them, abruptly, and by a similar amount of faraway design. The weather of the ‘30s played some key role in the making of the Dust Bowl, along with farming practices ruinous in the High Plains. But many traditional cultures around the world possessed wiser, centuries’-older knowledge of their lands. And though many tribes and peoples could subsist in some self-sufficiency, and cope with climatic oscillations, they, too, have more recently succumbed, as the Joads before them. Privileged modernity has proved too invasive and destructive for too many antiquarian clusters. Often now even frequently fertile, highly productive rural landscapes have gotten flooded simply for the hydroelectric dams our energy-sucking lifestyles require. Virgin forests have been felled, ores mined, and nuclear, chemical, and petroleum poisons dumped where people like the Joads, but of many other colors, have lived. And if writers, playwrights, and poets around the world turned their attention to these scenes, they too often got themselves variously imprisoned, physically attacked, exiled, and sometimes killed for pointing out the damages everywhere being done: Ken Sarawewa in Nigeria, Amanda Toer in Indonesia, Naguib Mafouz in Egypt, Irina Ratushinskaya in the Ukraine, Mahmoud Darwish in Palestine, Khalil Hawi in Lebanon, and more.
No American officials directly arranged the persecutions of these who, for their cultures, acted as canaries in coalmines. Their own local elites banned, imprisoned, tortured, and exiled them – and in Sarawewa’s case had him hanged, soon following a trump trial. Cold War real politik had earlier arranged these regimes. Some leant to Moscow, others to the west. But when the Cold War ended, local dictatorships stayed on. If CIA and KGB financing withdrew, powerful transnational corporations continued to finance, arm, and otherwise subsidize them – especially the oligarchies of oil-producing states Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Indonesia, Iran, and Iraq. After the Cold War, the corporate multinationals continued working in a virtually seamless web with Downing Street, the Pentagon, the U.S. Congress, White House executive agencies, the World Bank, and European Union offices in Brussels to prop up the dictatorships, underwrite their nepotism, and train their secret police, death squads, and military special forces. If a few human rights advocates cried foul, too many of the rest of us benefited in lifestyles that seemed only to warrant our own further obliviousness.
In addition to some people working in human rights, a few journalists knew the score. The BBC World Service, the Christian Science Monitor, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and Deutsche Welle, for instance, all to important degrees stationed reporters abroad, and featured probing features from them. In America, however, news belonged to an ever-narrowing band of commercial interests. It had become “infotainment.” An enlarged celebrity culture more and more became the focus of “news.” Feature and commercial programming fused to serve entitlement scenarios for most-cleverly-designated age, race, gender, and class demographics.
Two simultaneous trials in the same New York City courthouse scarcely a year before 9-11 underscored this profound intertwining of commercial and public interest. In one a trial was underway where witness after witness testified as to the mortal intentions, potency, and determination of a previously scarcely known America-hating group called al-Qaeda. Based in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, and circulating with ease around the world, and with extensive financial resources, this group had sponsored the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanganyika for which this federal trial of arrested suspects was being held. Shocking as the information was that was coming out of these legal proceedings, U.S. media assigned virtually nobody to cover it. They were, instead, all next door, in the adjoining courtroom. Dozens of sound trucks parked outside for this other trial, festooned with television monitors for all the networks, miles of cable, and scores of reporters and photographers milling about. This huge contingent was covering the trial of “Puff Daddy” Coombs, a big, black, hip hop celebrity who had gotten into some Harlem night club altercation along with some pistol that either was or was not in his possession. The media had its appetite aroused for Mr. Puff Daddy not only because he was big, black, rich, and famous, but also because he had been accompanied that night by a film star and recording industry girlfriend who was not black, but even richer and more famous than himself. This Hispanic beauty, Jennifer Lopez, had just secured herself into the public imagination when she had worn a silken, supple dress to the most-recent Emmy awards. This tantalizing brevity of fabric had all the cameras focused on her as its neckline plunged past collarbones, opening farther south, still opening to belly button and below, to vortex at what might have been Miss Jennifer’s pubic line, were it not for the further depilatory magic there. On its way south, the two widely parted curtains of this fabric also featured a breath-taking feast of skin between her breasts. To the sides of this open field her inner globes shone symmetrically bare, nipples barely hidden just where slight hems of fabric buoyed on them. Throughout the Emmy awards Miss Jennifer bore a smile as sweet, nonchalant, and gracious as this dress of hers billowed open in insouciant plunge. The media riveted in. Commercial ratings rose. So the Puff Daddy trial promised more than mere sequel in sensationalism of guns, gangsters, and nightclub moll. Americans had learned since Day One of our holy Pilgrims, and again throughout Hawthorne’s cautionary tales, and in roughly a million Hollywood films, that if sex aroused, it also had to challenge, invoke, and call for justice. Tabloid journalism helped. Everyone understood that sex guaranteed pay-off in narrative evil and turns of melodrama all headed to finalities of undoing, failure, cruelty, and betrayal. Miss Jennifer had dared the gods. She had not just advertised her charms at the Emmys, but had challenged the great scriptwriter-in-the-sky. The East Africa bombers’ trials next door had no such cliché scenario. Those foreigners had done whatever they’d done for reasons of their own history, not for the fairy tale predictabilities for which our media were primed.
When 9-11 hit, I began class for both my sections by describing most of us Americans as stupid about too much going on in the world.
A week or two after 9-11, San Francisco State responded by soliciting suggestions for a program in multiculturalism. I jumped. I had one. Over many years in central Europe I’d developed something I called “Essaying Differences.” If any time called for it, this was it.
To be on the safe side – I was, after all, only an adjunct, temporary employee – first I went to an administrator I’d met prior to beginning my teaching at SFSU. This man, while elderly and crippled, yet dressed with great care. He occupied elegant offices, staffed with courteous black and Hispanic secretaries in an outer office, and a tall, Oxford-accented young Englishman as his own personal appointments person. Altogether they administered what San Francisco State called its office of faculty development. I’d found this place shortly after my arrival in the city, before I had jobs anywhere, when I was first checking in at all the area’s main academic institutions to find places that might be sympathetic to my “Essaying Differences.” Because it would challenge professional habits all acquired who aimed for full-time, tenure positions, I wanted to check in with this administrator again before writing up my proposal and submitting the 17 copies required. Also, did my adjunct status disqualify me? The elderly, wheelchair-disabled, impeccably tailored gentleman remembered my “Essaying Differences.” He had liked – or found pertinently amusing – the way it went against some of the most entrenched academic conventions. He instinctively felt on this, my second visit to his offices, that common sense of course recognized me now as part of the San Francisco State community. But he studied the official call for proposals, to be sure, and concluded yes, I should submit mine.
At this time San Francisco State, as most all other institutions of higher learning in America, already operated various programs in multicultural studies. These had occasioned debate, with conservative faculty opposing multiculturalism for watering down the classical canon. The liberals, however, won. Their victory showed itself Pyrrhic, however, in the fact that no Chicano, La Raza, Black, Native American, Asian American, or Women’s Studies program ever presented anything new beyond obviously new veneers. Instead, they replicated the oldest entrenched habits of traditional disciplines. Dividing and subdividing into sections, areas, and departments, they posed as advances, but each of these newly empowered specializations kept its isolation from the others. Each delimited its own jargon. If they had any common denominator, it was the tenured-enhancing vocabulary of Lacan-Derrida-Foucault-Kristeva “theory,” and their easy-to-ape “deconstructionism.” My program would challenge these and all other turf entitlements. Mine asked faculty to model skills so students could locate themselves more widely. By three steps for instructors to take, “Essaying Differences” would stress ways to see the multiple and overlapping themes we inhabit, and enable abilities to link up with “others” by the varieties of cultural “stuff” that at one and the same time both express and hide our themes.
The first of these three steps: that instructors cite their own out-of-class reading. They normally never did this. As professionals they had learned to confine themselves to specialization for a reason, and for the same reason they’d long had students also learning to become consumers of knowledge by staying within fields that never touched other fields. Though sincerely posing as neutral and “objective” even the most impartial experts hid another agenda – a theme no one ever stated or could admit: the love of closure. This urge, like gravity itself, pulled all into it. In every department, however inviolably separate from the other departments, however differing by jargon, method, and formulae, all specialists modeled the myth that things add up, that they have bottom lines, conclusions, order, and boundaries. A mass fiction, it worked wonderfully so that well-meaning adults could forever portray maturity as dutiful arrival into guild specialization, shorn of the contrariness of loose ends and shameful subjectivity. Perhaps it did no harm for so many to annex knowledge into awaiting orthodoxies. Perhaps we could go on ceding public platforms to sophisticated enclosures. We could keep the curtain up on the fictions hidden in expertise – the Wizard of Oz could go on promising whatever, while primarily satisfying base narrative needs. We might indulge this surreptitious retreat logic, except it is no accident that, like specialist academics in their departments, nationalist demagogues the world over thrive on the same conceits. Listen to them. Listen to the prevalence of tell-tale “should” vocabulary. When authorities of any kind take for granted their sheltered and conclusive autonomy areas, they belie their fictions with the language of “have to,” “must,” “ought,” and “it is necessary.” “Others” – other people, other information, other questions – scarcely fit in such imaginations. When we expect niche closure, the very prospect of “others” can provoke anxiety. For imaginations locked into closure fiction, “others” can augur fear and – old story – stir up maddened, hate-filled people. Demagogues will arise for them. (“Ours” always appear more polite, charming, and correct.) And from suspicion, fear, and paranoia then ensue the trundling trains of hostility, war, murder, mass murder, and genocide. It all follows the mythology that says we are and of a right to be safe, enclosed, finished. If we don’t see and test this script as the fiction it is, we lock ourselves into repeating it. But it could change. Instructors could invoke other themes if, first and foremost, they could signal their own ongoing questions. If they admitted their own outside-of-class reading into class – pertinent to course material – they could tease some freedom from the trap of the safe and the established.
Second challenge of “Essaying Differences”: that instructors model analogies to other disciplines – to other academic specializations or to the wider culture of landscapes, foods, architecture, film, music, cosmetics, transportation, and clothing.
Third, my program proposed that faculty listen to students, and quote them – refer back to things they said, or to thematic concerns that they raised by other hints. Students might try to show themselves as but dutiful consumers of course material, exhibiting the banking theory Paolo Freire decried, where they perform as empty vessels awaiting information deposits. They might articulate more explicit concerns, or otherwise reveal themselves: in essays they have written, in oral discussions, or in body language, grunts, groans, and exclamations. Instructors can key to individual issues, questions, quandaries, contradictions, and values. Whenever faculty add relevant themes in any student to course material, they automatically end the monopoly of closure’s fiction. They replace it at least with, say, the latent themes of community, fellowship, and human inclusiveness. And if students highlight other, specific themes, teachers referencing them put course material in new perspective.
Even before the terrorist hijackers arrived with the devastation of 9-11, of course I knew normal faculty had comfortable habits far contrary from those I imagined. Their systematic divisions of the humanities had long ago turned upside-down all the original risk-inviting principles that originally underlie the tenure system. But I got the go-ahead from the elderly official in charge of faculty development. I wrote my proposal for “Essaying Differences,” spelling out the stipulated categories of advantages for San Francisco State faculty and students. I detailed a weekly syllabus and printed up the required 17 copies. I sought the routing signature of the dean of my college – the humanities dean – but I turned to her, too, for anything she felt might bear on this new world of post-September 11 academia. Everyone was saying, after all, that after 9-11, “things would never be the same again.”
She ignored my e-mails.
I learned that, in the local machinery of San Francisco State, for her to OK continued routing of my proposal, first my department head had to recommend his OK.
I went to his office, and found him unavailable, either due to religious holidays he stayed home to observe, or for meetings his secretary said he was in. One day on going to his office I found him in, but his secretary handed me back my proposal, and informed me the department chair had declined to recommend it for further SFSU routing. She pointed out to me that he’d attached a brief note to my returned proposal, saying that, as I was a temporary hire, and he could not predict my hire even as an adjunct for the next semester, he could not vouch for this or anything from me.
When he received me in person in his office, he expressed the same regret as he had in his note. He’d not read my proposal, nor felt any need to. Something else had come to his attention. And so he proceeded to read aloud to me from a letter one girl had recently written to the humanities dean. This girl had just dropped my class, and did so charging that the university harbored an instructor completely unable to respect SFSU students. I had, she announced, used the occasion of 9-11 to assault her and all fellow students as “stupid.” I had turned what should be a class in writing into some wild agenda of my own. I was disregarding the abilities of my students and showing disrespect for her and her peers in a way that she would not abide.
The girl cited my remarks from 9-11, as if they had been directed personally at her and the other students. She did not mention how, in the week after 9-11, I returned everybody’s first essays, and hers got a “C.” When she had seen this grade, she promptly came to me and, distraught, informed me that she had never in her life gotten a “C” on any essay – never, ever, she kept repeating. As she was highly upset, in tears, I asked her first, please, to calm down a bit, and we could talk. Her essay had had perfectly fine mechanics – grammar, spelling, and punctuation. It presented clear viewpoints of her own, with orderly organization. But it lacked evidence. She’d had no specifics from the book we’d been discussing in class. Rather than citing it either directly or indirectly in her essay, she had instead tacked off into generalizing opinions. I knew we’d have to talk, office hours perhaps, about the importance of focusing on specifics, and keeping ideas and opinions tied to them – especially when the assignment called for attention to a particular author we’d been discussing in class. I also knew, however, that her writing followed her personality. In class she, more than anyone else, always had her hand up, always eager to speak, to volunteer her views. So the “C” didn’t just shock her for being unprecedented. It more likely embarrassed her, who had been so sure of herself, happily and continuously piping up in class. I’m not sure how long it took her to go from feeling first shocked, then under-appreciated, but she quickly turned to the offensive, quitting the class and writing her denunciation.
The department chair didn’t have a copy of the girl’s essay that had occasioned her “C.” Her letter never mentioned this, the proximate spur to her indignation. When I mentioned this to the department chair, he didn’t need to know any particular cause for her anger. Her passion itself presented a transcending issue. So eloquently did she advance victim scenario and upset feelings that the department chair felt obliged to read aloud to me. He read slowly, periodically lifting his eyes from her text to peer at me. Claim to injury counted automatically for the fact of her feeling it. I was, or had been, her instructor, charged as the department saw it with the development of so many neutral, impartial, and objective skills, and here she was who somehow had been made to feel emotion and emotionally. The department chair again and again paused in reading aloud lines from her letter, again and again looking up at me to convey the massive betrayal of herself as a person which she had taken from my 9-11 talk to the class about likely causes for the terror attacks that day.
Soon after this a couple of the tenured faculty paid a classroom visit to my courses. Their job: to insure professionalism in the English department of San Francisco State University. They had gotten copies of the letter from the girl expressing insult to her. They had reason to suspect one of the temporary, adjunct faculty might be violating one of the most important of the professionalism ethics by which they lived – that extracurricular subjectivity might be interfering with professional delivery of programmatic skills. And though one of these tenured women was breezily hip in demeanor – a full head of cascading, wavy blond hair to punctuate her talkative, gesticulating personality, and the other was grim and stern, with a shaven head to match small, bony figure – both united in their task. They found what they feared.
I finished fall semester, 2001, and didn’t teach at San Francisco State for another year, when I came back not to the English department, but to the College of Business. They needed someone at the last minute to fill-in for a tenured faculty person who suddenly had reason to take a sabbatical from his communication courses. About this time, beginning winter term 2003, friends of mine in Silver Spring, Maryland, sent me a copy of an essay which two academics, Patricia Somers and Susan B. Somers-Willett, had published in the preceding fall. Their essay, “Collateral Damage: Faculty Free Speech in America After 9/11,” recounted some of the after-effects which came to American academia in the year after the 9-11 terror attacks. 150 different legal proceedings ensued during this year, all across the map. Somers and Somers-Willett went into detail on three of these pending, ongoing adjudications. They also described the general climate of university administrations everywhere becoming frightened of faculty or staff exercising opinions – in any setting, even off campus – that might ever appear even remotely unpatriotic. In a brief history of post-WWII American university life, they described how administrators everywhere had come to see students in market terms – as consumers. Somers and Somers-Willett showed how commercial, corporate America had come to loom as large in public and private university priorities by the Reagan era, just as the Department of Defense had begun shaping things in Eisenhower, post-Sputnik America. The last good discussion of “corporatization” of university life that I knew of had come in 1977, when the Sierra Club published Wendell Berry’s The Unsettling of America. In it Berry had described how the land grant system of schools in the U.S. – all those Techs, Aggies, and States – had evolved over many years to serve not small farmers, but agribusiness interests. Somers and Somers-Willett extended the Wendell Berry thesis to the full spectrum of American corporate research investments: in addition to them, scores of philanthropies, foundations, and other institutions had brought billions of dollars of research donations and special-interest funding to American higher education. University administrators, as Somers and Somers-Willett claimed, now absolutely feared upsetting this mix of great corporate money sources which all schools had become highly dependent upon. They feared frightening away their consumer components – the students necessary not only for tuition fees, but also to fill the physical infrastructure and the teaching loads that subsidized graduate the students who did the undergraduate teaching. Such grad students were still euphemistically called “teaching assistants,” when really they and armies of other temporary, ill-paid adjuncts now did half of all the undergraduate teaching in America. For sheer efficiency of bottom-line finances, universities needed these masses of grad students as they needed the tens of thousands of H-1B-visaed Pakistanis, Indians, Taiwanese, and other foreigners who staffed all their corporate research projects, group studies, and other outside-funded activities.
In 1979, in The North American Review, Vine Deloria published an essay well-anthologized since, “Civilization and Isolation.” In it he looked at how American and other western intellectuals furthered the cutting-up of knowledge, confining it to ever more-discrete disciplines. Specialist areas became more and more measurable numerically, statistically, by data, formulae, causal theory, system interpretation – what Deloria called “uniformitarian principles.” These developments all allowed greater mastery through technology. This process also institutionalized human fragmentation – the “isolation” of his title. More importantly, it brought about the outlawing of emotion and personality. Conceptions of life and the universe “as a giant machine that operates according to certain immutable laws,” said Deloria, let us feed “the intense desire to objectify, to render human activities in mechanical form, and to accord respect by discovering similarity and homogeneity.” He aimed his critique at the institutional machinery of intellectuals. It could just as easily describe commercial society – where we all fit the demographics whereby marketers identify us, and advertisers target us. The fragmentation and compartmentalization Deloria feared for intellectuals in his 1979 essay now blended perfectly into the profit motives that drove the larger culture
Somers and Somers-Willett did not delve particularly into how corporate academia mimics prevailing commercial values, except for their stress on how university administrators fear anyone ever giving offense to the larger corporate patriotism. They could have looked at the mimicry that schools and commercial sponsors share, something like that between dogs and their owners who begin to resemble each other as they age together. Textbook publishers, for instance, target student demographics, ostensibly to serve them. These corporate suppliers hew to the scientifically arranged, highly segmented, formulaic, and step-by-step programmatic units that Deloria said intellectuals were retreating into themselves. But the corporate textbook publishers so well adapted themselves to fragmentation, isolated division, and excessively chronological and numerical subdivision that they in turn began to govern classroom activities and syllabi, not just serve them. University departments everywhere had come to feed the profits of these publishers by requiring students to buy more and more slick and heavy packages at greater and greater mark-up in prices. The publishers paid a few thousand dollars here and there to tenured faculty at community colleges and state universities nationwide, for editing and annotating services. Faculty thus profited from constant rounds of revising the corporate product. The publishers could reissue their product line frequently enough to make previous editions rapidly obsolete, so students could not sell back their used texts, and had no choice but to buy the ever-new revised versions at new-book prices. Corporate academia in collusion with their textbook purveyors had come to follow the wisdom of Detroit, back when it had perfected the issuing of fantastically-different styles every year, with incredibly minor engineering changes under the hood.
The publishers never lapsed obviously into hucksterism – this was college, after all, so no “New and Improved!” on any textbooks. But they helped English composition, social sciences, and others humanities to appear increasingly erudite, further divided and sub-divided by jargon and methodology, and ever more deeply set in turfs unintelligible and taboo to each other. But this is a story that antedates Deloria’s cry of foul. Edmund Wilson saw it coming in “The Fruits of the MLA.” Poe saw it a hundred years before that in “the Masque of the Red Death.” And wise souls long before them saw it all in the Tower of Babel. Somers and Somers-Willett, bless their hearts, just brought this old story up to date, recapping it, locating the climate where, even before 9-11, administrators had become anxious never to upset the nexus of student-consumers and corporate sponsors. Their essay gave attribution to various writers who had before them noted how corporate academia ha settled into the division, sub-division, and delivery of specialist information – and to doing so impersonally, by so many “knowledge packets,” so much “bounded knowledge.” Where Deloria saw this serving “isolation,” Somers and Somers-Willett saw it perfected in:
a strategically-packaged product sold to consumers (students) and delivered by an interchangeable series of customer-service representatives (graduate students, adjuncts, contingent faculty, and decreasing ranks of tenured faculty), none of whom should offend consumers or potential consumers in any way.
Intimidated, expected to know their places and follow marketplace ethics, people in corporate academia learn to beware of digression. They learn to suspect deviation from carefully bordered specialization. Venturing outside prepared script leaves one open to charges not only of wasted time, but professional impropriety. Worse, departure from the impersonal leaves one prey to the pitfalls of the personal – a world tangled and sinister in ways ever as great as Hawthorne and his pilgrim forebears imagined lurking in the primeval forests surrounding their puritan outposts. Except things have gotten worse. Everywhere college and university administrations have grown larger staffs to handle complaints of harassment, discrimination, and any and all suspicions of arbitrariness. The girl student of mine who got a “C” on her first college paper – her first-ever-in-her-life “C”– knew not for long to be upset, but to express professional injustice at having to endure a mere skills delivery person bad-mouthing her culture.
When the two tenured faculty visited, each to one of my two classes, they found, as it truly turned out, grievous lack of professionalism. In one case, something came up where the entire class was having trouble with one long sentence by the poet Auden. They were getting confused for some complications in a subordinate clause, so I asked them first to pay attention to the dominant clause – the sentence’s subject-verb-object logic. Speed readers know that if you want to get the dynamics of English syntax, you can aggressively hurry through lines, and retain comprehension if you key to subject-verb-object basics. Relative clauses, adverbial phrases, appositives, similes, and prepositions all recede in importance, so one can tag them as minor details, especially when their syntax troubles. When I asked what was the subject-verb-object in the Auden line, and none could say, I quite visibly flinched. I spoke with some perturbation, posing the fairly-anguished rhetorical question as to how so many could go so far in California public education with so little basic literacy.
My observer for that class reserved her greatest rebuke for this incident – that an instructor would ever demonstrably show feeling in class – and not only that, but direct feeling back against students. Coming into the class having read the denunciation the indignant student had leveled against me, this observer was prepared for the possibility that students might be made to feel uncomfortable, that they might be exposed to an instructor discomfiting them by his indulging in his own exasperation.
Both observers wanted to stress to me the value of teaching English comp at San Francisco State through the system its faculty had carefully developed over the years. Exactly as the national textbook publishers had English grammar and composition instruction books arranged in unit-by-unit progression, each divided into neat pedagogy delivery sections, so did the SFSU English department have its own discrete instructional packets developed to cover each and every situation that could ever come up in compositions in English. When the class showed its ignorance at subject-verb-object, I ought simply to have stopped, obtained the relevant packet, and administered the relevant skills delivery as that module programmatically presented. It didn’t do any good for me to point out to the observers that, when the subject-verb-object incident came up, one girl in the class gaily volunteered that “I used to know that three years ago!” The students had all been taught these things – or, more accurately, they had all been exposed to the same yearly doses of formulaic English teaching, repeatedly, over all their years in California’s public schools. This information got delivered everywhere in the same standardized, impersonal modes, always from the inevitable cycles of new, revised, and expanded textbooks – or, at SFSU, in sophisticated modules of paper handouts with their sample exercises and quiz questions. Interchangeably with each other, all their English teachers over the years had presented the same erudite and time-fixed “knowledge packets” and “bounded knowledge.” The texts had gotten more, more covered in impressive plastic laminate, more visibly authoritative in ever-more discrete subdivisions of material set off in font varieties of boldface headlines, and with cartoons, too – but the material never stuck. It didn’t matter that the teachers brought sincerity, determination, patience, and the best intentions in the world. Many had renewed and kept their English-teaching expertise up-to-date by attending recurring specialist conferences. Working as hard as they did in English departments of course isolated from the other departments, they agonized over how literacy rates worsened. The two tenured women who visited my class, and the chair of the English department, and the humanities dean, all keenly regretted the fact that 40% of the students continued every year to fail this junior year literacy and writing exam. They went right on failing despite the preparation courses for JEPET that they had to take, despite the erudite knowledge modules and systematic exercises that so pleased those in the English department who had devised them.
The chair of the English department, the humanities dean, and the two tenured observers all had reason to anticipate the likelihood that, in my classes, I might touch what was for them the Pandora’s box of feelings. I’d volunteered it. It lay at the heart of my “Essaying Differences” program. Seeing students – and instructors – as people possessed of values, issues, and concerns all mattered more to me than anything else. These things mattered to good liberal and conservative educators, too, but academic orthodoxy had long relegated humanity to specialized departments of “the humanities.” Sociology, psychology, history, and anthropology all imitated the pure, physical sciences in presenting humanity as something to quantify, to portray by charts, graphs, statistics, and governing theories of differing jargon to explain all data. All could study these things “objectively,” impersonally – and position oneself always above messy loose ends or subjectivity that might be prickly, deceptive, elusive, and impossible to pin down. Academics loved measuring things – by multiple-choice testing. Their standardized exams could be systematic, impersonal, and measurably fair. For these reasons literacy had long been vacating “the humanities,” sequestered in the step-by-step erudition of English composition experts. In these English specializations, however, the same orthodoxy prevailed for being scientifically systematic, incremental, and – above all – impersonal. At the beginning of the school year, in fact, an occasion had come up that invited my comment on all this – especially on the cult of impersonality. Before classes began all of us instructors, privileged tenured along with temporary adjuncts, were attending a first-of-the-academic-year faculty meeting. And the issue of plagiarism came up. Invested academics had a purist view of this, as if plagiarism were a shocking party-crasher that bumbled into correct and honest academia for some strange, uncalled-for reasons. I viewed it contrarily – as evidence of teaching where nobody was involved personally in anything. No wonder it might intrude when professors scarcely knew the names of their students, let alone any of their inner concerns. In a revolving-door world of impersonal skills delivery it made sense for students to “borrow” material wholesale from others. Rather than student depravity, this seemed to me another sign of diploma mill ethics. And what ethics could any university have where administrators and tenured elite fattened at the expense of part-timers? What ethics could any university have where “humanities” professionals abandoned literacy, dooming it to yet another isolated, specialist ghetto? But plagiarism came up, as a scandal to privileged, polite society. In the meeting held just before the beginning of the school year, this issue animated these instructors more than any other – as if the bulwarks of higher education were under epidemic assault. They waxed indignant, collectively “shocked, shocked” – as if the engines of smooth-running, virtuous information acquisition could so casually be sullied.
I didn’t say anything during the meeting – I was the new guy. But afterwards I approached the humanities dean, who’d emceed the meeting, and told her I had a program which could deter plagiarism. I mentioned my “Essaying Differences.” She suggested I memo her, summing it up. So she soon knew that I wanted students to acknowledge each other in class, and to quote and otherwise reference each other in cycles of ongoing essays. She knew I believed literacy could grow if people connected by their actual themes, issues, concerns, and feelings.
When I memoed her, I made it an open memo. I mentioned students quoting peers as a way to end the plague of plagiarism. I also mentioned how strategies to do this ran counter to habits built into the current tenure system. I didn’t elaborate on “impersonality.” Somers and Somers-Willett hadn’t written their article yet, so I hadn’t heard their take on how corporate academia packaged “bounded knowledge.” I could have cited, but did not, people like Edmund Wilson, Paolo Freire, Adrienne Rich, and others who had urged more links between public and private. But I said enough. Before 9-11, before the girl student wrote her letter denouncing lack of professionalism, my own memo made clear my lack of respect for things the tenured cherished.
If you visit the campus of San Francisco State University these days, amid its beautiful palm trees, hydrangea, hibiscus, camellia, jade, cypress, and eucalyptus, you can see everywhere canvas banners festooned from lamp posts bearing the slogan “Love is Stronger than Hate.” The university president with great fanfare – and at considerable cost – put these up in the weeks following 9-11. They were going up when I was having my visit with the English department chair. Along with discussing the “C” that the girl neglected to mention (or not discussing it – he wasn’t interested), I asked the chair if he didn’t feel it his place to speak out against this official and officious sloganeering. For one thing, as slogans inevitably do, this one lied. As anyone who has lived in the real world knows, hate can burn at least as hot as love.
The English department chair, however, didn’t see anything wrong in flying sanctimony. With its emphatic period concluding its five simple words, the president’s slogan asserted a truth more powerful than the words themselves – the truth of closure. The president was ordering everyone to bottom line, finality, and conclusion. His pay, roughly a quarter million dollars a year, entitled him to inflate the value of his opinion, too. More importantly, in a world of specialized departments fragmented, sequestered, and isolated from each other, someone had to affirm some ethical fiction which, from now on, everyone would see flying everywhere, beyond debate. That’s the great thing about closure.
America represents empire now to the rest of the world. If corporate academia belongs to this empire, and furthers it, Caesar would approve. A good part of all of us wants order. Outside of it, there is much fear to feel. Beyond neat enclosures, beyond the demographics where marketers and advertisers see us as interchangeable parts of groups, beyond the polls where politicians see us as units among other special interests, beyond all our statistical categories, we risk odd spill-out from all the inarticulateness gnawing within us. Caesar would answer such dangers with police, as Somers and Somers-Willett have shown that, since 9-11, 150 colleges and universities in America have attempted to lock down free speech issues by recourse to police, courts, and legal proceedings. The president of San Francisco State University himself called the San Francisco district attorney’s office after groups of Palestinians and Jews got in a shouting match with each other on campus in the aftermath of 9-11 – an embarrassing confrontation directly under his slogans proclaiming love stronger than hate. Fears, grudges, animosities, envies, regrets and related feelings have a funny way of bubbling up and festering in people. The American empire grows more powerful, but humanity keeps roiling underneath in unruliness. K-12 school boards, superintendents, and education offices across the 50 states have gone on applying ever more sophisticated management techniques to this humanity with increasing dosages of more expensive, more plastic laminated, and ever-heavier corporate textbooks. School principals have aimed to soothe the deepest feelings in pupils by contracting for vending machines in the schools to keep kids fixed on their favorite corporate sugar products. Along with servicing kids’ sugar highs (and profiting from it), principals are also administering annually increasing dosages of pharmaceuticals which they have to dispense to keep epidemic levels of restive and violence-prone kids ever more sedated. But the fears go on, threatening to explode. The U.S. government answers them with military might. The states address them by more and more prisons. Architects draw away fears with hermetically sealed office buildings, cul-de-sac subdivisions, and gated communities. But, still, not everyone fits. Masses of homeless fill the cities. The fact that fears remain suits Hollywood fine, which profits hugely from them through titillating scenarios of death and violence, and of course reducing sex to demonology. Detroit profits from the threat of menace in the land, too, through marketing its huge, high-center-of-gravity SUVs. So now drivers negotiate demonic landscapes with upraised middle finger, road rage increments of speed, and red-light running. All across the empire, the monster grows.
In our oldest story, that of the Garden of Eden, both Eve and Adam honored the devil for one perfectly good reason – for the possibility that they could have closure. Genesis had previously shown these two already with a magical key reserved for them: the power to name things – all the animals, all of creation. The devil arrived to offer them fuller finality of imagination, as if they could embrace all imaginatively, as if by ingesting something (an apple, a textbook, political slogans, or other consumerism – it’s all the same) mere humans could possess final vantage points of knowledge – in a word, closure.
We might go on berating Caesar – all the politicians, all those who run commercial and corporate culture, and all who serve them. We might flip the coin and imagine Jesus and Christianity as an alternative. Or by the same token, Mohammed and Islam, Buddhism, Talmudic wisdom, and Zen might equally serve as Caesar’s reverse. Maybe so. But as soon as we let ourselves start flipping that coin with its apparent alternatives, we may only be reenacting that first, primal story. Maybe one side of that coin really differs from the other, but how can we be sure if we pick up that coin with our perennial longing for closure? Don’t we always find ourselves going from authority to authority, only to find in the end that they make the same promise? Cynical about this all-too-human predicament? The story of the Garden of Eden remains our oldest story because none of us can never entirely shed the urge it describes. It doesn’t go away. It repeats itself in university “course” after “course” – as if, in traveling them, we were launched on different routes. Escape this story? It recurs in our desire for perfection, for explanatory system, ultimate road map, belonging, and sinecure. The president of San Francisco State with his slogan, “Love is Stronger than Hate,” shows once more the power of our need for stories – or, for him, the power of the one story into which he thinks he’s paid to order all.
Other stories? Do we, or can we, inhabit other themes, values, and scripts besides that of closure? Essaying Differences says yes. An instructor who brings one’s outside reading to bear on course material automatically pricks the bubble of closed systems and invokes another theme – that of our questing, unfinished, seeking humanity. An instructor who connects course material to activity in other academic fields, or in broader public culture, automatically steps aside from the tyranny of specialization for new perspectives and vantage points. And an instructor who quotes one’s own students automatically baptizes at least one more theme: either that of community, or more specific values in any student. It can all connect.
Wars need not go on. Nationalisms need not circle the wagons again and again around peoples. Academic departments need not continue to set imaginations in their corporate divisions. These inevitabilities have gone on till now because they derive from the oldest theme. They helplessly repeat that oldest story that the devil built into us. We’ll never be free of that story: our very humanity posits all our other themes in relation to this first, original one. But when we see these others, we can begin practicing living with “others” – all nationalities, all of us in our varieties of clothing, in buildings opened by any number of bay windows, porches, terraces, and gardens, in kitchens savory with regional foods, in musical forms that quote earlier loved ones, in films that draw from widening neighborhood, and landscapes redolent of aromas from all the earth’s trees, rivers, ponds, and soils.
Joseph Brodsky’s Love of Language
The Garden of Eden
When a baby is born, learning begins in a shock. No fetus ever asks for this sudden pummeling into the birth passage, the difference in cold as it emerges, and all that new air opening out in massive unfamiliarity. A baby can again withdraw, later, into sleep. Memories from the umbilical realm can return. There, where no change intrudes, sleep can soothe with the peace of primordial belonging, the order of recurring systole and diastole, the comfort of being simply an organism. Blame birth which upset all this. Birth betrayed our original, harmonious, protected, vegetative version of ourselves. It dropped us blue and bloody, gagging for air, ending fusion with biologic space and replacing it with the abrupt upset of time. Birth gave us consciousness of an invasive present, with Edenic womb receding into the past. Eventually, as time comes to us in its increments, we can set ourselves on any number of those yellow brick roads signaling their ways into promises called the future. Authorities on all sides will guide us to the mastery, predictability, and orderliness whose gates they guard. We call these authorities parents, priests, pedagogues, and politicians. Because they preside over the safety of guarantees, traditions, rules, regulations, and formulaic steps, we can love them for propping up these assurances around us. They give us teams, families, clubs, communities, religions, and nationalities. They remedy that first, originating trauma: our expulsion from womb and into the gaping vastness around us.
The poet Joseph Brodsky more than anything loved to toy with how we deal with the fact of the primordial vastness within and without us. All cognates of the term space delighted him. The cosmos itself he saw as obstinately unfriendly, bleak, non-human. We might be born in it, meet and mate and die in it, and yet the ever-churning laws of the universe over-arch obliviously of us. As a result, his verse continuously forwards his varying tests of meter against the relentless operations of space – to apply our own all-too-human senses of time to its timeless engines. He saw vocabulary as a parallel game. Words have meaning not only for their mimetic relation to objects in space, but more importantly also as part of the metricalities of time and its shifting sensations we feel. Words alone cannot catch our awareness of ourselves trapped, pummeled, and dwarfed in the non-human workings of cosmic laws. Words coupled with music, however, can. So if language delighted Joseph Brodsky, it did so always in contexts – space chief among them, and music our answer to space. This nexus invites examination of space and music’s corollaries: infinity and repetition. Thus he enlarged his poetic vocabulary. He kept returning to terms from geology, astronomy, physics, chemistry, botany, zoology, paleontology – all the natural sciences – so that even when he peopled it, space – like dictatorships – remained palpable but ominous, ineluctable. Space goaded – like totalitarian vacuums, or like institutional inertia – but it now did so from points prompting alternatives. We can carve out our brief, little physical lives, mixing our inherited social legends with the private relationships we may find. Puny us – the puniness Faulkner rang in his Nobel acceptance speech – may not be able to transform space particularly, but we may be able to position parallel humanity – by the musicality, or art, of our consciously chosen patterns, recurrences, debts, overlappings, and recombinations.
Attuned to misfit between big cosmos and little humanity, Joseph Brodsky loved images in his poetry to meet and clash in incongruities. He loved testing the oddity in our humanity, the sport of our conceits and cocksureness – to the point where his playfulness with linguistic registers could resemble Marx Brothers pastiche. High-brow and low-brow often clunk together as if in slapstick combinations. This drove our best critics to discomfit even as they admired him. But his mixed bag of references continued. As if it were a matter of ethics, linguistic oddities poked even into elegies and love lyrics – so by erudite zaniness he might keep up his guard before the awful, indifferent cosmos.
This love of language of his, more than anything, let him refuse to submit to prevailing forces. If our linguistic resources get us as close as we’re going to get to divinity, most of us nevertheless don’t get there. For profound truths that we can cite –“reasons” that we are ever trotting out – we usually don’t take the care, or the joyful effort, to see and name the particularities around us, let alone to locate such subtleties and nuances in their larger, neighborly contexts. Most of us, instead, do the opposite. We follow the example of our authorities who keep imaginations and language dutifully tied to whatever protects them. Follow the money as a lovely rule suffices in the tracing of how most of us compromise, constrict, and lessen ourselves. Like the good professors in their departments, we, too, fit language and range of reference to whatever organization pays us. We, too, withdraw into the idioms and linguistic manners of whatever social class, market demographic, or other power hierarchy supports us. We call this reality. Deferring to it, we make excuses. We use terms, phrases, slogans, and expressions not only to fit in, adjust, and conform, but also to rationalize. We love to justify, to list causalities – perhaps telling stories in doing so, but stories reduced to explanation. “That’s the way it is,” we say, or, “That has been our history, which you, the outsider, cannot know.” Joseph Brodsky had no patience for such imaginative – and linguistic – constriction. If he liked to cite scientific terms in his verse, he did so for the perspectives that terms in one field could open unto other, apparently unrelated fields. He had no patience, either, for the purism of folk roots, traditional culture, or other pop ethnicity: he knew how, lurking in such costumes, the most lunatic horrors could repeat and repeat. He knew how language circling the wagons of “That’s the way it is with us” could perpetuate Palestinian & Jew, Pakistani & Indian, Serb & Bosnian, Hutu & Tutsi, Ogoni & Yoruba, Azeri & Armenian, Russian & Chechen, Greek Cypriot & Turk, Northern Irish Catholic & British Protestant, and all murderous, righteous, vicious cycles like them. Received forms of language pathetically easily ratchet into such fanaticisms, but with a bit more care other language could free us from them, too. With a healthy disrespect for prevailing authority, we might find language away from orthodoxy, explanations, and reasons. Thus he urged members of a graduating class at the University of Michigan to buy themselves good dictionaries, and use them, and so lessen the need for the costly cures of mental health professionals.
Joseph Brodsky knew of George Orwell’s observations in “Politics and the English Language” – that our slogans, jargon, dead metaphors, passive voices, and abstracted terms all lurk about, waiting to spiral us into their deadlier gravities, their no-exit black holes. The poet from Peter’s city on the Neva knew, too, that for language to show its miracle side we can never forget our proximity and vulnerability to the vast, indifferent scheme of things. The flaws built into our very humanity dictate that we will always to some degree be in thrall to systems, logic, rationality, and coherence.
Poetry, or good language, he always believed, could touch the magic in us, tease miracles out of banality, and buoy up surprises – but always in contexts. As math charts and traces the abstracted lines of space, so the classic configurations of verse – rhyme, meter, parallels, balance, and hierarchy – keep us located in the larger pulls as we feel them around us. Classic prosody energizes and empowers verse as math configures and relates the physical sciences. So he exulted in the geometries of verse, with rhyme riding its accentual feet in stanzaic landscapes. Poetry for him could never separate from the tug and structures of these linguistic harnesses. Freedom for him, as for Houdini before him, depended on initial givens of weight and friction. The heights of humanity cannot distance themselves from the depths of unpleasant facts, such as how easily we give in, acquiesce, accommodate, and conform. Little boys and small countries will please bullies. Subordinates will kiss bosses’ posteriors. The pulse will quicken before celebrity. Schools full of professors, like schools of fish, will put individuals to swarming in clusters.
Still, as long as we have artists with some humanity in them, we needn’t defer merely – as Robert E. Lee put it, finally surrendering the Army of Northern Virginia – “to overwhelming numbers and resources.” We needn’t add such justifying gloss as Neville Chamberlain put on at Munich as he bowed to Hitler’s bluff. But most of us, prone more often to our herd-like instincts, will mouth logic, and present the exigencies of facts, and we do so for the same reason Eve ate the apple. Explanation by ultimate knowledge always tempts. Views over causality always seduce. The lure of total safety and final shelter epitomize wishful thinking, of a piece with the wish of our bruised and stunned infant selves to return to the womb’s peace, warmth, and comfort.
If this Nobel laureate and high school drop-out enjoyed humanity and all the “loose ends” of vulnerability, this gift ensued from an equation. On one side we can put little us, prey to the ravages of time and the betrayals of change. One the other side we can put our abiding temptation for the fullness of closure. In Genesis, when the serpent tempted Eve, it informed her God reserved the tree of knowledge for Himself. To know the universe, its laws, and all the workings of goodness and evil could but promote and elevate us above our own humanity – it would have us substituting our solipsism for God.
Solipsism says everything is an extension of oneself. If we take the universe and presume a comfortable relationship with it – one where “we know” how things fit – we inflate our expectations. To the degree that we presume expertise, we acquire systems of thought till we no longer notice that we merely inhabit them, treating our imaginative positions, paradigms, and views like wardrobes we take for granted. If this set of clothes seems to deliver an orderliness, and expectations for the world around us, it will seem natural and logical to us – not invented and arbitrary – in the way that tribes, ethnicities, and nationalities can feel correct or righteous within their cultures. Fitting inside may entitle us to dismiss everything outside, as the ancient Greeks viewed all non-Greeks as those speaking but “bar-bar” – barbarians. We still do it. We wall off “others” today in our modern, super-educated, corporate America. Our advertisers sell empowerment mythologies by the age, class, and other identity factors they and celebrity agents market to us – all packaged by consumer styles for every demographic. Our university professors teach this same corporate imagination by modeling their own dispassionate “objectivity”: all departments mutually-isolated from each other by specialized jargons, all consuming information in accord with corporate texts ever more modular, segmented, divided, and sub-divided – and all ideas and experience multiple-choice testable.
“Poetry Makes Nothing Happen”
The poet W. H. Auden preoccupied himself for years with the question of why poetry – the arts, civilized manners – couldn’t do more to mitigate evil. In his January 1939 memorial poem to William Butler Yeats, he opined his famous dictum that “Poetry makes nothing happen.” But Auden himself since boyhood had, among other qualities, a mechanic’s or engineer’s love of gears, levers, fulcrums, and other awesomely effective machinery he knew from the mining landscape around his native York. He loved the geometry, force fields, and physical interrelationships of linear causality. The inner working of a poem in many ways follow the logic of complicated machinery, especially with parts in one area vectoring, tugging, and answering parts in another. Thus he trusted in the logic of cause-and-effect. He could ask in all sincerity, if poetry has power, why so many “well-versed” souls turn out impotent in horrendous times. At the time of Yeats’ death, one year before Joseph Brodsky’s birth, Russian poetry, for instance, yet counted at the top of world literature. Educated Russians famously read, knew, and memorized an outpouring of literary gifts in the forms of symbolism, futurism, acmeism, and folk traditionalism. But at this very time these same people inhabited some of the worst history in the world: mass murder, prison archipelagoes, political tyranny, and systematized terror – and all this before the September 1, 1939 outbreak of the yet-deadlier paroxysms of WWII. It agonized Auden to ask himself: if Pasternak, Akhmatova, Mandelstam, and Tsvetaeva were so great, and treasured so widely, why did they in fact have so little practical effect?
Joseph Brodsky answered this question by essentially not answering it – by understanding that all the miracles, gifts, and transformations of art yet occur in that larger context – the dumb cosmos, space, the physical universe – which ever dwarfs us. And yet we always have two choices: to fit ourselves to the world of larger facts around us which we may honor and join, or to rebel. Language as a form of rebellion never guarantees our getting the upper hand over circumstances. Eve in the Garden of Eden erred first in entertaining that possibility – of acquiring godly power. We have gone on repeating it ever since when we imagine joining power systems. We can of course, do this – but when we do, we infect ourselves with the elevation conceits built into hierarchies, bureaucracies, consumer demographics, folk movements, and school departments. These entropies all mimic the workings of the relentless universe. They all distance us from the oddities and stories of our humanity, from what the Russian-American poet loved as the arts of “loose ends.”
Language has peculiar properties – grammars, etymological roots, derivations, cognates, puns – that enable things always to evoke other things. The poet listens, not to buy into ultimate power, closure, and what Eve sought, but to trace the lines among our emotional debt packages. Artfully made, the webs of these lines form poems, each centered on some primary emotion radiating through them. As a very young man, before he ever seriously imagined writing any verse himself, Joseph Brodsky worked in Asiatic Russia on geologic surveys. In their primitive, mechanical ways the Geiger counters he used on those field trips intimated to him something about what he would soon feel also to be the magic of language – how words don’t just mimic hidden, buried, or otherwise latent truths, but proceed in their own ways reverberating, echoing, rephrasing, mirroring, matching, conjuring, and illuminating different sides to an ever-shifting humanity. Our variously-nuanced emotions vary by their different angles of refraction. It’s the feeling out of them that counts – the process, the journey – not the destination – not any finality, ultimate truth, or bottom line. Many years later, after he won the Nobel prize, he came across the linguistic fact that verse itself, from the original Latin, meant precisely this activity of circling back again and again, etymologically for no other purpose than the human one of checking and rechecking – looking over and again at views, tactile emotions, sounds, smells, tastes, and further creases in the registers of humanity.
Too many teachers have no sense for this, the human ethics of response. Especially in “higher education,” in America and throughout the world, too many serve humanity inverted. In departments isolated from each other, too many have replaced the wider values and stories of humanity with an opposite ethics – that of accumulation – a sophisticated information consumerism grinding along in dispassion, “objectivity,” and tunnel vision. This inverted form of humanity does serve a most powerful human value – our greatest temptation: our love of closure. But it reduces all other values to those of power, mastery, and control. The comfortable corporate specialists who serve these devices now mimic those educated Russians of whom Auden long ago despaired, memorizing their poets in cultivated isolation.
Eve did what she did. Adam followed. The serpent did its job. We have the consequences – flawed humanity as our starting place. As we proceed, we carry with us bundles of questions, anxieties, fears, anticipation, and other issues all submerged and loosely tied as themes in us. These themes lie at the center of every individual – to any degree we believe in people having ethical centers. Related themes inform rich as well as poor, black and white, urban and rural. The fact of literacy says that to marvelous degrees we can discern and discuss all these things in each other – we can find and link similar humanity across all political borders, across all landscapes – river valleys, mountain ranges, lakes, plains, tropics – everywhere. Literacy says yes, teachers could model these connecting arts, starting with noting the various rich, incomplete, and evolving themes surfacing and re-surfacing in students. They could connect these to other students, and connect them, too, to their own out-of-school readings, to the immediate course material, and to other disciplines – everything in the “humanities” – all history, psychology, anthropology, political science, philosophy, art history, history of science, musicology, stage design, literature, sociology, ethnic studies, gender studies, urban studies – everything. E. M. Forster must have been anticipating this, for he presaged Essaying Differences when he urged a philosophy of life in but two words: “Only connect.”
An old acquaintance in 2002 published a memoir; this was someone I had known as Peter Birkerts in the ‘70s. We both still lived in Ann Arbor, Michigan, then. I kept in touch with Peter for some years later, as he was well on his way in a literary career in Boston. But there he began signing his name Sven on the reviews and essays for which he soon began earning national distinction. The years passed. And now his memoir, My Sky Blue Trades, returns to his student and getting-started time back in Ann Arbor. It narrates a youth in Detroit suburbs, when he still felt the tug between an American identity he wanted, and another identity – a Latvian Sven – lingering in his family’s Old World past.
His family, as his memoir shows, bore many secrets and silences which both tantalized and impinged on an otherwise happy boyhood in his 1950s and ‘60s suburbs north of Detroit. One large part of Peter – I’ll use the name he asked friends to call him – longed to shed the Latvian identity because it so contrasted with the simple and sunny mythologies of “I Like Ike” suburbia. Old World roots, contrarily, had too many serpentine strings attached. The dualism persisted, however, and My Sky Blue Trades shows him grappling with it through boyhood, adolescence, and university years – Peter both drawn to and repelled by the palimpsest layers of his family’s past. His father apparently had no such problems. Though born in the strangest of Old World circumstances, Peter’s dad neatly resolved his own originating issues. He became an American architect entirely focused on the clean, geometric designs which so fit the straightforward world of Doris Day, Lawrence Welk, plastic wrap, Tupperware, tract houses, and crabgrass-free lawns. Millions of vets and their baby boom families aspired to this homogeneity nation-wide: a white-bread America united in the streamlined styles of cars, toasters, frozen-food packages, and drive-in restaurants. Madison Avenue had us all placed in our separate demographics – frats, greasers, Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, housewives happy with their automatic washers, coonskin-capped boys, and smiling girls twirling hoola hoops as they sported their buckle-back bermuda shorts, saddle shoes, and peddle-pushers. Four years older than Peter, I knew this same world in suburbs elsewhere adjoining Detroit, where my parents, too, had shed their respective pasts for cul de sac subdivisions, neon strips, clover leafs, and spacious parking lots moating those earliest incarnations of climate-controlled supermarkets and shopping malls.
Peter didn’t resolve things so easily as his father. My Sky Blue Trades shows an affluent but painful youth as he early felt some falsity in his family accommodating such clear-cut roles as if directly out of Life magazine. Peter describes these popular scripts and cliché poses and calls them mythologies. Unable to deal with the personal debts, guilts, and compromises that stretched back from the Old World, his family members all assumed what he later understood as performance guises. But Peter learned to play, too – thus the importance of an all-American boy’s name for him. He exulted in his childhood readings of the Hardy Boys sagas and in his own imitative larking about the wood lots, lakes, creeks, and meadows of the new suburbia that was then still residually rural. Later he bought into the angry young man persona fed by rock’n’roll, long hair, and fists-punching-the-air of the Vietnam era. Peter fit perfectly, his memoir shows, into the sequential niches of our mass culture. The first two-thirds of My Sky Blue Trades follows the tracks of how, in our yearning for mythologies, we find them in roles packaged for us.
The memoir peters out – I can’t resist the pun – in its final one-third. He makes one error that subverts a story that has been wry and poignant till then. The misstep comes just prior to the beginning of his university life. Still in high school, he and a chum seize an impulse one night to drive over to Ann Arbor just to see the house where they know that a distinguished faculty poet lives. Late though it is when they get there, they see a light yet burning in one room of Donald Hall’s place. They knock at the door. Hall receives the boys courteously, gives them something to drink, and for a while regales them with tales of real poets – including anecdotes from his own times years earlier with the renown Dylan Thomas. The boys leave, buoyant, eager for their own university life. And with this incident his story ratchets up interest for more of what may happen with the poet Hall upon Peter’s matriculation at Michigan. But his narrative drops Donald Hall. Although Peter enrolls at this fabled university, and graduates from it, he has nothing further to say about Hall or anyone else teaching him. He divaricates – branches off. My Sky Blue Trades divagates into drugs, music, all-night bull sessions, skipped classes, incomplete grades, and sex, but ignores all education putatively going on. Doesn’t even mention the Hopwood creative writing award he won as an undergraduate. Not only does Peter drop the beacon that Hall has signaled – and any influence of any other professors – he also drops the theme of identity tension that until now has preoccupied him. His story trundles on in chronologies of bittersweet wanderings, employment dead ends, and abortive relationships, as if now he were swallowed up in counterculture mythology as wholly as his family had been in their suburban roles. A meeting with the transplanted Russian poet-in-residence of the mid-‘70s, Joseph Brodsky, occurs, but extra-curricularly, and Peter seeks this meeting only after he has finished his undergraduate career, when he lives in the campus’s second-hand and used-book shop periphery. Joseph Brodsky would figure vitally for him – his first published article dedicated to Joseph – but the memoir provides only a couple anecdotes. Neither anecdote connects with the theme from the book’s first two-thirds. Neither locates Joseph as any light upon any imaginative transit of Peter’s between the values of innocent American and more problematic Old World.
By jettisoning Hall and all other instructors – by short-circuiting the fact that we grow by resolving the pulls of those we perceive above us – Peter emphasizes regression. He aborts the dynamics of stories and story-telling central in each of us. His own story ends instead in consumerism – a scenario of himself joining so many other baby boomers in demographic niche – as if a generation could grow merely by everyone buying into tie-dye, bell bottoms, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, back packs, water pipes, tofu, underground papers, and cult films. So the two anecdotes of Joseph Brodsky jar for their disconnect, in parallel with the set-up and dropping of Donald Hall. Joseph Brodsky’s verse famously posited New World locales and incidents within the mesh and gravities of Old World themes. Notoriously this verse of his introduced notes discordant to a journalistic, socially-conscious, confessional, and free verse American literature. It did this partially by how Joseph laureled old – ancient – classic forms. He also forced wider perspectives often by clunking-together excesses of heterodox reference. Every one of his poems, too, invited the challenge to ourselves that are all implicated – even in evils, processes, forces and histories good Americans like to imagine severed by 1776 signature. We start out, he says over and over, subscribed to myths, lies, imaginative evasions, and false orthodoxies. We never jettison them – certainly not as easily as my parents and Peter’s imagined they could in their happy suburbia. This Russian emigre instead and always delighted in a necessary tension – in us and in art. He loved verse to court not only the newest and freshest truths for each of us of emotional discovery, but the equally compelling pathways of how we also let cliché, formulae, and repetition pull us. It’s a complicated world out there.
Peter’s sink into the generational malaise of the ‘70s takes up the last third of his book. As narrator, he is of course free to shift. He can ignore the influence questions that he initially set up for Donald Hall, and pretend this issue didn’t exist for other institutional academics, or for the Russian poet who arrived in Ann Arbor between Peter’s junior and senior years. He can subside into the bubble culture of the time. This both distances himself from the thematic pull of the book’s first two-thirds and absolves all his instructors from any bearing on him – on either his developing or floating self. But Peter doesn’t use the present tense to emphasize the drift of getting lost and being lost. He writes of these things twenty-five years afterwards, and does so having perspective on those times – a perspective he emphasizes by using past tense to look back on them. But still he drifts, even in past tense. He allows the clouded miasma to remain. Its narcissism sticks.
Acknowledging more of Donald Hall, Joseph Brodsky, and other U-M instructors need not have falsified his life then, nor pretended more about his energies, attentions, or capacities at the time. Even before he goes to Ann Arbor as full-time undergraduate student, we know two things about his draw to the place: 1) literary personalities such as Donald Hall act as magnets for reasons he anticipates pursing; and 2) the intellectual aura emanating from Ann Arbor also represents Old World culture in tandem with a Latvian-Sven heritage tugging at him even in youthful float of suburbia U.S.A. The latency of this gap between classic old culture and our new consumer scenarios gives primary force to My Sky Blue Trades’ first two-thirds. Why couldn’t Peter sustain it?
We might say, looking back for him, that perhaps it was the very characters who drew Peter to Ann Arbor who failed him. One of his two anecdotes about Joseph Brodsky, for instance, concerns Peter’s and his sister’s first meeting with Joseph. In those days Joseph was still at a primitive level in speaking English, and one aspect of his progress had him asking everybody please to inform him as to choice nuggets in the linguistics of sex. So when he in turn met Peter and his sister, Joseph delighted in learning of their ethnic heritage, and railed in ribaldry with the one mocking sexual vernacular that he happened to know from Latvian. He’d apparently made a small career back in Russia learning all he could in the idioms of sex – from any and all tongues accessible to him in that otherwise closed socialist sphere. But this sideline didn’t amuse Peter or his sister. The memoir shows their discomfit – as if this incident sufficed to freeze Joseph out of ongoing narrative. Eventually though (the memoir doesn’t describe this), Joseph and Peter would cement a warm friendship. The former would win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1987. Shortly before that the latter won the National Book Critics Circle award for criticism – and would go on to further critical renown. But in the middle 1970s Peter wasn’t close to what would be his Sven self, let alone ready for any sex guffaws in Latvian. He was as perplexed as most of us Midwesterners in the face of Joseph’s frenetic linguistics – to say nothing as to the wide and wild palette of reference already then appearing in the English translations of his verse: allusions to sports, classical mythology, landscape, mathematics, history, clothing fashion, interior design, botany, zoology, geology, complex systems physics – and sexual puns, too, glaring and subtle. His registers clashed: high and low, elegant and vulgar. Lines rhymed and buoyed in musicality of meter. But when in the middle ‘70s he reached into his bag to pull up the one scatology he knew from Latvian, Joseph was touching Peter, not Sven. He was touching an American who, like most of us, dwelled more deeply than it seemed we could know in a culture that had us in its grip.
David Reismann described this culture. He had done so more presciently than anyone else at the time or since, when in 1950 he published The Lonely Crowd. This classic made him instantly famous. But as everyone zeroed in on the cute categories of “inner-directed” and “other-directed,” most missed his most original perception. A few more years had to pass. Then, in 1955, two things happened. On February 23 Walt Disney presented “Davy Crockett at the Alamo,” the final part of a three-part series that had begun the previous December. With it a merchandising frenzy ensued unlike anything in American history. Later in spring of the same year Bill Haley and the Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock” came on over the opening credits of Blackboard Jungle. The song had appeared a year earlier, spent one week at mid-list, and tanked. But now, coupled with the film’s electrifying portrayal of juvenile delinquents and a new, menacing adolescent class, the song hit mega sales, aided by the alarm punched by preachers, politicians, and pundits in every newspaper and magazine. They had all missed Reismann’s main point back in 1950 – but Madison Avenue awoke to it now: that we had all slipped into a new history shaped entirely by mutually separate demographics of race, gender, class, and age. Teens with enormous appetites and buying power for newly libidinous-tinged consumer items could match and tower over that swollen pre-teen market of cute Davy Crockett merchandise. Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, and others in 1955 may still have been regionally isolated deep in the South, at Sun Records, but their energies in the very next year were going to shake, rattle, & roll an entire nation. As Reismann had seen, we were about to find ourselves in historically new demographics. The borders of coming identities were going to depend on merchandise, infinitely varied, all cleverly packaged and marketed, and now promising the empowerment solutions to which – advertising said – we were all entitled.
Educated, mannered, comfortable people serving in our institutions – those my old acquaintance Peter chose to ignore in his Ann Arbor years – may be as blind as the rest of us. They may be even more willing to accept the lies woven into the departments of corporate culture they inhabit. Peter may have been as right – or as helpless – in neglecting this class of people in his 2002 memoir as he was in his college years 1969-73. Even then those professors did not stand as most-quotable models of communication. Another group of people did. Those who best modeled the charged possibilities for widening one’s world to that of “others” were not our white, middle class, comfortable professors, but, instead, typically poor whites and poorer blacks who had grown up in the 1930s and ‘40s. Most had acquired little official schooling. In the rural south and northern ghettoes, however, these people learned to listen to each other’s music. Kentucky bluegrass listened to the Delta blues, Delta blues heard New Orleans brass, New Orleans brass imbibed Texas swing, which took in notes and harmonies from barbershop quartet, which acknowledged gospel, which connected to Chicago jazz, which wandered into Broadway show tunes, and Tin Pan Alley, which borrowed from hillbilly folk, until the whole circle pulsed with borrowings, everyone quoting everyone, opening up borders – not a closing of demographics but a revolution in them – with different races and classes listening to each other, changing and evolving styles to quote, use, and further surprise – and then Sam Phillips put it all together at Sun Records just about exactly 50 years ago.
Rock’n’roll pulsed with energy for two reasons which add up and fuse together. One: its writers, performers, and producers quoted widely from adjoining styles. And two: the music always expressed desire. Somebody always wanted the girl or the car. Or somebody wanted not to be lonely, ignored, or dumped. The desires rose into art by genre miscegenation.
Teachers seldom mixed categories like this – or showed desires in public – back then, or now. Peter may have wanted to cross the gap between his electrically-fun American self and whatever he felt more sinisterly odd or latent in that Old World culture. He may have felt the need for more imaginative alignments. Poets like Donald Hall, and other intellectuals at U of M, may have been able to draw out the submerged Sven. But as My Sky Blue Trades doesn’t say, maybe all but lived in respective insularities – what Reismann called, in market terms, “niches.”
After many years, I got back in touch with Peter – I’d lost touch with him and too many others as my time in central Europe went past ten years. I wrote to him in 1998 of my program, Essaying Differences. This arose out of the nationalisms I’d seen, the Bosnian and Rwandan genocides, and my feelings that peoples need not continue so in imaginations stuck in stereotyping, suspicion, war, hatred, and institutionalized evils. Peter sympathized with me, but saw my program not as any particular redress for race, nationalism, or ethnicity poisons, but merely another – though nice – definition of civilization. He had, moreover, distilled his own life into a most civil equanimity – 25 years after Ann Arbor a balanced blend of Peter and Sven. He had a home in a leafy Boston suburb, a wife successful with her career, two healthy children, and jobs teaching writing at the best schools of his choice in New England – including stints at Mt. Holyoke, the private college in western Massachusetts where late friend Joseph Brodsky had enjoyed teaching. Peter had nearly the fame of Joseph, too. Esquire featured him with three others in a handsome black-&-white photo spread as the best exemplars of the literate critical arts for the entire English-speaking world. His collected reviews and essays had appeared in three volumes. And our best monthly magazines liked to refer to him for one particular contemporary issue – the way technology was affecting us, our imagination, and literacy.
In fact, despite the insight, range, and articulate deftness of his writings, Peter ever came close to passion only on this one issue. Prior to his 2002 memoir, he had published two books on it, Tolstoy’s Dictaphone: Technology and the Muse and The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age. He averred against the modern world’s resort to technology. Rather than bringing us closer together, as many assumed, he thought it helped us distance ourselves from each other.
I had come to believe, contrarily, that it was our teachers who helped distance us from one another: especially our nice, erudite, comfortable, specialist professors.
When I lived in New York in the mid-1980s, I quit teaching for some year. I’d come to abhor its ethical terms – how educators joined in an exploitation as gross and unrelenting as that of our worst large corporations. General Motors routinely closed down its American plants and laid of workers by the thousands – to take advantage of low-paid labor, minimal workplace safety considerations, and even fewer environmental regulations in the Third World. GE did it. Nike did it. RCA. They all did. Their CEOs got rich. Shareholders got jumps in stock value. A middle class was being squeezed out across America – and our colleges and universities joined in the killing. Everywhere, emulating the lowest corporate ethics, administrators of “higher education” were also systematically out-sourcing labor –clerical and custodial workers, and teachers, too. Every year our colleges and universities were hiring a higher and higher percentage of temporary, part-time, adjunct instructors. With no job security, no health insurance, and few benefits beyond maybe a free library card and department phones for local-calls-only, ranks of gypsy academics were now getting pay three, four, and five times disproportionate to that of full-timers for teaching exactly identical classes. As CEOs and shareholders were enriching themselves by WAL*MART ethics, so academic administrators and the tenured class relied on underpaid, uninsured, revolving part-timers to subsidize them. Nowhere in America would our associate and full professors ever go on strike to protest this situation. Tenure insulated them. Professional habits invoked righteousness for specialization as a religion sufficient in itself.
Tenure, a system that grew in America a hundred years earlier, during the progressive era, originally served to protect professors who used to use their positions to speak out on wider issues of public concern. This system had now turned upside down. Tenure any more served only those who had learned never to take any risks. Full-time, tenure-slot positions were declining, moreover, for the sake of exploiting a growing over-supply of adjuncts. To be considered for any full-time academic positions, all aspirants had more pressure on them to evidence an ever-narrowing fit to specialization. Jargon, texts arranged by modular, segmented methodologies, and orthodoxies of reference all marked specialization borders. Literacy declined – at all levels of American schooling – which of course boonletted new reservations of literacy ghettoes. Writing, composition, and essaying experience got further demeaned as more-isolated eruditions. Part-timers typically staffed all these mandatory comp and remedial writing courses – new mega profits for administrations. Teaching assistants got assigned them, too, as part of matriculation into graduate programs designed to keep the tenured in comfy, small classes, as far as possible from undergrads. The tenured in all departments increasingly resorted to multiple-choice exams as they modeled education outside of literacy. These trends continued for over 25 years, so part-timers as adjuncts and teaching assistants now did nearly half of all undergraduate teaching in the country. Full-time faculty could attend to more time writing grant applications for themselves, seeking funds for federal and state research projects, corporate text editing, and Defense Department, pharmaceutical, bio-tech, agri-business and other contracts. American academia became a taxpayer-subsidized herbaria of mutually isolated, self-flattering specialization entitlements. Departmental imaginations common to them all now correspond to the demographic divisions Reismann saw coming for us. Information consumerism in one meshed perfectly with niche consumerism in the other.
Essaying Differences says no to these Towers of Babel – says that we could have real literacy – and that literacy necessarily combines human desire and wider webs of combinations, like that music that began in the ‘50s. Yes, the daemon of sex and the confusions of sexuality dwell in us. From puberty on we wear masques, guises, and styles our culture ever has us in. Peter’s memoir, My Sky Blue Trades, caught this predicament and sustained it better and longer than most. Essaying Differences says we can keep examining – keep crossing the gaps we all inhabit – in all our divisions of nationality, ethnicity, religion, race, academic specialization, and consumer demographics.
At the University in Budapest
In summer of ’91 I returned to Budapest – again permanently, I thought. For the two years in Slovakia I’d also kept my set of rooms – love nest, as Judit Zerkowitz called it – in the former Swabisch settlement, Budafok, on the southernmost of the Buda hills down the Danube,. The Takács family had rented me this place above their own house more than a year before I began my Slovak sojourns. On a dirt road amid similarly small homes clustered amid garden walls, the Takácses afforded me a private entrance from within their center courtyard, an old European arrangement probably best known to Americans from Roman Holiday, where Gregory Peck has a similar courtyard entry, also under the eyes of kind working-class Europeans who speak no English.
The Hungarians had called Slovakia their félvidék – “upper Hungary” – for the thousand years that this forest-carpeted, mountainous region had belonged to the crown lands of St. Stephen. I’d been able to go up there and live and work even during the deep communism before the Wall fell in late ’89. The Hungarian writers’ union journal, Magyar Napló, had vouched for me so I could keep my Hungarian residency at the same time. My U.S. passport simply needed a supplemental folio of pages for the many stamps I’d accrued at the Hungarian-Slovak border crossings during these two years. Going back often to Budapest, I’d used all the border points – all the main line and local trains – in thrall as I was with the remotest border villages, depots, and mountain terrains.
The Takácses’ youngest daughter, Magda, lived with her husband, also named László, and kids Ági and Csaba in another house across the same Budafoki courtyard. Farther back this rose into limestone terraces redolent in herbs, tomatoes, paprika, and apricot trees, where they had a patio amid currants, gooseberries, raspberries – and more paprika. The Takácses invited me to use this terrace patio – though often returning home at night I found on the steps up to my rooms bowls not only of garden fruits they’d picked for me, but also homemade dishes of spicy fish soup, goose fat, sausage and lécső sauce, and the lemony “bird’s nest” pastry that László’s Ilona or their Ági had made.
László was retired – finally able to dedicate himself to his painting: a cornucopia of Hungarian landscapes. He looked the part, short, a bit rotund, with a full white beard and a white head of hair that poked out of a worn beret he always wore gardening at home or out in the countryside with his easel. I bought several of his paintings. They showed vistas from the southern hills over Lake Balaton, flat land views of the puszta, scenes of the Tisza river, and of the kis Duna – former bed of the Danube, now parallel to it, but otherwise a veritably lost, many-miles-long pond-like area of fishermen’s cottages and wooden docks along sandy banks of lily-thick waters. The kis Duna was a short as-the-crow-flies distance from Budafok – not many miles east over the current Danube on the far border of southern-most Pest’s Manhattan-sized Csepel Island. László went there often, alone or with extended family on day-long outings. Wherever he went, his paintings showed some Hungarian lake, river, or pond in tandem with thatched cottages, trees weighty in their various seasonal fulnesses, and panoramas of huge skies swimming in feathery, cottony, and other mixed layers of blue, black, purple, and white.
I loved this place László, Ilona, and their extended family allowed me. I could get to it from the city by the #49 streetcar, whose terminus was in the market square of Budafok, just below the hill where I lived. More than a hundred steps in five different granite, field rock, or concrete staircases rose above Budafok and in vistas over the Danube. A single road allowed working class gardeners’ Trabants, Dacias, and Ladas into the hills, too. Then paved in cubes of black quarried stone which seemed slick when it rained, this road had such an incline over the Danube that I never ceased fantasizing as to outcomes when brakes might give way. The city provided local bus service up here, too, for those who lived year-long this far south, and those who lived in the concrete tiers of socialist housing in Buda and Pest and kept weekend garden plots the Budafok hills. Occasionally on leaving the streetcar I took the local bus up the hill. Usually, though, especially at night, when the moon shone over the river, I preferred to walk up the different curving and angular sets of steps, then along an unpaved hill crest path. Csepel Island lay in the dark below to the east, and the great plain of Hungary, its puszta, continued after that – first into the fruit belt southeast toward Kecskemét where they made the great pear, apricot, and plum brandies, then into drier countryside renown for the wheat fields that had given the Austrian Habsburgs their lightest of pastries, and finally miles and miles of dust-dry horse country that for centuries grew the fierce, independent-minded magyar horsemen, comparable only to Don Cossacks, Cheyenne, and Sioux.
A few girls had accompanied me on this nighttime path above the Danube – most-recently visiting Slovaks who traveled south with me during the two years I lived in their Slovakia, and Hungarian girls before them, lányok, who had desired their experience of the visiting American. All had agreed the moon was lovely, and the Danube, and the views going on into the night. But now, in the summer of ’91, I could no longer afford to keep places both in Slovakia and in Hungary. Eötvös Loránd University was willing to give me the job I wanted in Budapest. Eötvös Loránd Tudományos Egyetem (ELTE), had hired me to teach essay writing in its English department. ELTE was Hungary’s flagship university, rivaling or out-distancing its peers in Warsaw, Cracow, Dresden, and Prague. From ELTE I was seeking a way to make connections no one had ever made before among these and other central European schools.
Other Americans were teaching at ELTE at this time. Hungarians had flocked to the private language schools teaching English even during communism, and now, with the red flags of international socialism gone, the three departments of English at ELTE had more students, and more applications, than all other departments. Its English departments had just moved in fact out from the old downtown Pest building to what before communism had been a beautifully-landscaped nunnery, and during communism had been continuing ed school for Party elites. The West won the cold war. Now, among the 100 so professors of English, ELTE had also hired a raft of native speakers from the U.S., Canada, Ireland, Australia, Scotland, and England.
One person at ELTE, an elderly Hungarian, was doing something close to what I wanted to do. This was István Géher. Like the distinguished professor Edmund Hleba in Prešov, Slovakia – for age and white hair – Géher had long had a similar problem as Hleba. Through the Marxist era both practiced Roman Catholicism. The Party in both countries as in all lands of the red star had killed professional advance for those espousing religion. Hleba had gotten into bureaucratic trouble, so did Géher. Both, however, had managed to keep academic positions – and enjoy life. The Slovak put on weight for the central European dishes he loved. He grew a witty, nuanced sense of humor – finding amusement even in faculty meetings where the ambitious never imagined smiling. The Hungarian, taller than Hleba, might take a bit of the famous Hungarian wines and brandies, but, stork-like physically, had no body fat on him. Géher in no way lacked for a sense of humor, but it emerged as drollery, understatement, and puns – not the rollicking mirth of his félvidék counterpart. Géher, perhaps more than Hleba, sought individualities. He would interrupt his own lectures to ask students how they felt about issues, often spurred but by facial expressions. Students liked and respected him.
I first learned about Géher from another American new to ELTE, Scott Long. Scott had recently come over to Budapest after finishing his Ph.D. at Harvard – a dissertation on Nabokov. Géher promptly invited him to join in team-teaching. The two made an odd couple: one elderly, tall, lean, Catholic, married, and a family man, the other young, not tall, not religious, loosely emotive, and openly gay. They got along great. Scott loved how Géher taught cross-culturally, how students in reading from American and British literature were also asked to make connections to works they also read from Hungarian, Czech, and other cultures of central Europe.
ELTE drew Hungary’s most successful students. More than a thousand each June took the entrance exam for admission to the English departments in Budapest. After the angol tanszék skimmed off the top hundred scorers, half of the others could get admission to other English departments in Szeged, Pécs, Debrecen, and Miskolc. The other half could not get admitted anywhere – spots for higher education severely limited in all the countries of eastern Europe. So as I knew my students were the country’s “best and the brightest,” one of the first things I did in each of my classes was to poll them on their own estimation of themselves. I wanted them to have an opening forum just to feel each other out. Also, I wondered if their city or country origins affected them. About sixty percent came from Budapest, knew the city well, and continued living in their family homes locally. The other forty percent came new to Budapest from varieties of towns and villages outside of the capital. My polls, however, showed origins neither raised nor lowered anybody. City kids loved the provinces – usually had grannies and aunts and uncles out there – and all loved the historic and beautiful landscapes of Hungary. Their common culture gave them all equal footing. It was as if poets Ady, Radnóti, Jozsef, Kosztolánzi, Arany, and Weöres infused them all similarly – as did prose writers Jókai, Móricz, Krúdy, and Mikszáth – to say nothing of Liszt, Kodály, or Bartók in music, Madách or Lugosi in drama, Kós in architecture, and Nobel laureates and internationally-renown others in math, physics, psychology, film, and literary and social criticism. Another fact united them. They all professed they were not after all the smartest products of the gymnazia whence they’d graduated. Every one of them had friends they considered more accomplished than themselves – and too many of these friends had been unable to qualify for ELTE, or for any university on this year’s attempt.
ELTE students who came from the provincial towns and villages resided in student hostels. None of these were located close to the beautifully-landscaped grounds of the City Grove –Varos Liget – which stood beside our former nunnery and recent Party elite campus. These students all lived farther off, across downtown Pest, over the Danube, and several kilometers out in Buda. Along with the many international style concrete housing estates that brotherly-socialist architects had thrown up across the capital, these “engineers of human souls,” as Skvorecký called them, had also erected cubist towers of student housing. In them the out-of-town students founds themselves with roommates from any number of ELTE programs and other colleges and universities scattered about Budapest. My students in these massive residence halls typically lived in isolation from peers at the Varos Liget campus. At the end of each academic day, like any commuter college in sprawl America, all dispersed. Half returned to their Budapest childhood environments, the others to new cubist anonymity. Our campus, beautiful though it might be, hummed in commuter discontent. As all ELTE’s other humanities and social science divisions were housed in downtown Pest, many of my students had double majors that took them there – and to the adjoining cafés, coffee houses, bars, book shops, and theaters. But our English studies hovered apart from these urban excitements and dormitory settlements. Each day students came out to our beautiful Varos Liget campus, they came as if to yet another daily disconnect. I began asking my classes how so many bright and brilliant eighteen- and twenty-year-olds could so routinely feel themselves displaced and disengaged. Didn’t they see how this feeling so largely affected each other?
When I’d begun teaching English, first in Hungary, then in Slovakia, and before when I’d taught immigrants in New York City’s Chinatown, I’d made it central to my teaching to have students refer to things class peers had just said. I wanted them to rephrase previous statements, shift first-person to third, transpose direct quotes into reported speech, alter nouns to pronouns, abridge syntax, paraphrase, and embellish various grammatical forms by synonyms and other formulations. This pedagogy kept everyone sharp as listeners. It grounded all well in fundamentals. And now at ELTE I knew I could carry grammatical exercises to another key. I began asking these Hungarian university students to note what their peers were saying, in oral discussions and essays, and reference them – mention, acknowledge, include – in each subsequent written work.
They liked it. I began photocopying and passing out several of the best essays from each round of writing students turned in. Each student could thus read three, four, and five papers from peers every week. All the essays began improving immediately – they all increased in levels of perspective, issue piquancy, and thematic nuance. They had the new vitality of citing things in each other. I also invited them to reference things their other teachers said. They could add points of view from discussions in other ELTE English courses. They could translate and paraphrase from their activities in Hungarian if they had studies at the downtown campus. This opened essaying range to wider emerging interests and concerns across ELTE. Three departments proved most fruitful: history, Hungarian literature, and the cross-disciplinary program called aesthetics, where students did not get normal academics as instructors. Instead, many of Hungary’s best filmmakers, stage designers, directors, critics, journalist, novelists, and musicians rotated in as guests and periodic lecturers. They generated excitement. They brought students closer to work going on in fields tangible to them. My English language majors appreciated being able to loop their other ELTE work back into our classes. And for ELTE instructors making connections with Hungarian matters as key component, one name kept coming up more than any others, that elderly gentleman from the Eötvös József Kollégium on Gellért hill in Buda, István Géher.
While the students proved adept referencing various instructors, another of my requests baffled them. They found it artificial and gratuitous to reference items from their own Hungarian culture. I knew from out-of-class conversations with them that all were deeply imbued with their magyar classcs. Any reference to any character in novels Egri csillagok, Édes Anna, or Légy jó mindhalálig would immediately resound in them. Anyone’s bracketed use of the term hintazni (“rocking”) or a late summer garden scene on Diana utca would unfailingly recall the doomed, elegaic poet Radnóti. These students knew and loved their culture, regardless of their respective folk or cosmopolitan positions within it. But they could not stretch for analogies to bring back into our English work.
The smallest of the loosely-affiliated departments teaching English at ELTE was American Studies up on the third, or top floor of the former nunnery on our Varos Liget campus. Soon after I started my essay-writing courses for the Applied Linguistics section of the main English department in the same building, I happened to meet a Brooklynite, Ray Neinstein, teaching upstairs in the American Studies department. As few years earlier, while a Fulbrighter in Poland, Ray had visited Budapest, and met a Hungarian girl with such personality and striking red hair that he couldn’t help but fall in love. After his Fulbright, he moved to Budapest. He and the girl married and for the first year lived in an apartment in a most beautiful part of the Buda hills. Then to the U.S., to Ray’s Brooklyn, where they had a baby. The young mother missed her homeland, however, so Ray got another Fulbright, again in Poland. Thus he had a full year of periodic commuting back to Budapest, whereupon he declined the Fulbright’s second year renewal: its benefits paling to being full-time with the girl and their baby. Ray had just begun at ELTE when I did.
During his Fulbright years, and before them, when he began his teaching up in a rural Maine he loved, Ray had attended many professional conferences. They suited his gregarious side. They fed into his omnivorous reading tastes. And now, in going to new rounds of academic conferences in post-communist central Europe, he found himself perplexed over a distinction he was noticing between American and central European intellectuals. The former in giving papers would always include personal perspective as matter-of-course in prepared texts and as asides. The latter – never. Ray’s fellow Americans, he saw, would include anecdotes and analogies from experiences they’d had or from colleagues and friends. Intellectual issues, whatever they were, always had touchstones in real life. The central Europeans would never do such a thing. From Ray’s bewildered vantage the Hungarians, Slovaks, Poles, Czechs – everyone schooled in the old regime – kept public discussion impersonal.
The program I was going to start, “Inner Values – Other Cultures,” began to take shape from these conversations with Ray. In fall of 1992 he would become, in fact, this program’s first American, or western representative. But I only had one definite aim in fall of 1991, when we became acquainted, and I was first hearing about, then visiting, Istvan Géher’s courses over in Buda. I wanted to enlarge what Géher and his unlikely buddy Scott Long were doing. I wanted students to do more than simultaneously read work from central European and American or other English-language cultures. My talks with Ray helped me see how an exchange program might add some vitality to the tandem discussions Scott Long and Istvan Géher presented as for me but starting point. We might spur more genuine participation, I thought, if we had three components: an American or other English language representative, one from the surrounding central European cultures, and a third, from Hungarian culture. I began seeing the Soros Foundation people up in their new offices on Buda’s Castle Hill, as I readied a proposal for their funding a series of team-taught lectures the next year. Students would have the American (or other western) figure before them as constant panelist for an entire semester, joined for the same length of time by an eminent Hungarian – and every two weeks equivalent peers from Slovakia, Poland, Rumania, Croatia, or the Czech Republic would come over and stay. I wanted students to see ongoing discussions among the three distinctly different cultural representatives. I also began enlisting my Hungarian colleagues who taught other sections of English in Applied Linguistics, so they might volunteer tying some of their sections to the ongoing series – for further student discussions and continued rounds of essaying.
No one had done anything like this in any university in central Europe. I wanted it for my own edification – I wasn’t otherwise getting enough input from my students as to their own culture. I wanted it, too, for the initial reason I’d sought work at ELTE: back in Slovakia, after the Wall fell, I saw the hoariest, angriest, most stereotyping expressions of nationalism coming from shockingly many of the well-educated and privileged. Something new was needed to break the ancient cycles of so badly seeing “others.” Fraternal, international socialism hadn’t done it. Normal education wasn’t doing it, either.
A Hungarian poet who also taught in the English department of ELTE, Gyõzõ Ferencz, was thinking along parallel lines at this time. As Bob Dylan had put it – the difficulty of living ethically, “to live outside the law” – Győző did so in his own erudite terms. Eventually published in English in the winter 1993 issue of The Hungarian Quarterly, Győző’s essay cited “the impossibility of expression” within “the suffocating tragedy of the ontological (and for good measure the political) situation.”
Ferencz (Győző’s family name) was aiming at Hungarian culture and poetry. More specifically, he was talking about an elder fellow-Hungarian poet, Dezsõ Tandori. His terms – suffocating ontological tragedy – seem clumsy, intellectual, but this was a pose that coincided with that of the current two generations of poets I had known back in Slovakia, especially the seventeen in the recently-published anthology with English translations, Not Waiting for Miracles. Like his Slovak peers over the border, Győző felt language had reached an extreme. He titled his essay, “The End of the Word.” And curiously, as for the Slovaks he, too, could not access any language from public life. In his prose about Tandori, in his own poems, no names appeared of any café, park, avenue, statue, bridge, clothing, film characters, or any other local particularity. It was as if all the public realm defied poetic usage. Ferencz thus praised Tandori for handling this – for Tandori’s bravery in dealing with “the impossibility of expression.” As Adorno had said after WWII – that large possibilities for poetry died in the Holocaust – so Ferencz, Tandori, and virtually all educated Hungarians felt what western academics were calling the signifier-signified impasse. Hungarian poets, like their Slovak peers, thus keyed their arts to the proposition, as Ferencz put it, “that the weighty, tangible layers of the language, regrettably, are incapable of conveying a precise image of the experience.” And yet Ferencz in his essay lauded Tandori because the latter had written thousands of lines of verse in the face of this challenge. He called Tandori a great poet, “emitting the high voltage of true lyricism”: not only had Tandori been prolific, said Ferencz, he had found an way to use language at the same time as he had “done away with the personal self.”
So many Hungarian intellectuals felt this way. My friend from before I went up to Slovakia, Miklós Haraszti, the famous dissident, in 1987 had published the English-language translation of his attack on fellow intellectuals, The Velvet Prison: Artists under State Socialism. Haraszti included himself as possessed of the common illness – his prose, too, trapped in atrophied sociology-speak. It came from years of being gradually, subtly, but thoroughly co-opted by the communist privileging system. The result for Hungarian writers: similarly steady streams of “words, words, words.” Trying to break out of this, Miklós had started work on something highly personal – hoping he might do in prose as, he felt, only one Hungarian of his generation, György Petri, had succeeded in doing in verse. Haraszti had begun a memoir on his father, his father’s generation, and the idealism they’d all had in the ‘40s to “build socialism.” Then the Wall fell. Miklós in 1991 found himself in Parliament: with the return of free elections he, as his country’s best-known dissident, now represented his central Pest – its Danube quays, fashionable Vaci street, Gerbeaud’s and other cafés, the formerly-named Karl Marx economics university, ELTE, the houses of Parliament and surrounding ministries. With public affairs pulling, he put the manuscript aside. Private life as an artist and its possible new language had to wait.
Hungary, like other Soviet bloc states, posed set demarcations for expressing oneself. As Joseph Brodsky had quipped about this in his native Leningrad, vodka and adultery there were standard personal retreats. Movies counted, too, as passive escape, but most from the West were not available, nor were jazz, blues, or rock music, nor brand-name fashions, nor many, many proscribed writers. In Hungary a similar ethos ruled, though Levi’s, Adidas, and Mcdonald’s had opened concessions even before the Wall fell. My students understood how ELTE was public space, but they felt our classroom as additionally open, as I was American. So when they agreed how personal lives depended on privacies of kitchen table and bed; they could add, too, the #7 bus.
We were always alluding to this punctual and frequent public transport line whose local and express busses whisked thousands of passengers every day up and down Thököly út, the avenue nearest our Varos Liget campus. Most everyone used this line to get from where we were, east of Pest’s Eastern Railway Station, back downtown to ELTE’s main campus, over the Danube’s Erzsébet bridge, and to the dormitory area out in Buda. As correct as they were in their postures on campus, once on the #7 busses my students changed. It never ceased surprising me but, whether I knew them individually or not, once the they got on these busses most launched into animated conversation by gesticulating groups and couples in all degrees of kissing, stroking, necking, fondling, and other manual exchanges. The #7 buses posed no barriers between public and private.
I met Ágnes on the #7. A student of mine, she had the stunning beauty girls can show by intense sobriety and severity of facial expression. Tall, with strawberry-blond hair – no need to add slender, as Hungarians always in contrast to Americans were – Ágnes had the bluest of eyes peering out from a symmetry softened but by a dusting of freckles. In these days just after the fall of the Wall, as before that, no self-respecting Hungarian girl wore a bra. Few had the weight and fat issues obliging it; there was no celebrity advertising. So Ágnes like other young women wore tops that skimmed, outlined, and bubbled their twins inside – though in all my years in Hungary I never once caught any magyar boy or man staring, not even through summer days when sleeveless tops and loose necks occasioned near continual revelation. Ágnes, too, never wore make-up. Never any loud colors or designs to call attention to herself. At eighteen she might have blended in with others, so many Hungarian girls with her posture and carriage, except Ágnes couldn’t disguise the intensity in her. So when I met her on the #7 bus – the usual shenanigans, sport, and love going on around us – I broached her demeanor.
She was my student, so I felt it OK to inquire if something was troubling her – keeping her from sleep, perhaps. The blue eyes peered out at me from that whorl of strawberry blond hair, freckles, and chiseled cheekbone. Inside her shirt the two natural points followed her eyes pointing at me. Ágnes said yes, she was religious. I said, well, good, if something was pulling at her, she might well let it – she might draw on some of these things weighing on her by including them in her essays. No, she said, it was private. I said maybe so, but whatever issues preoccupied her, they also stood out. No, she said again, she was just tired, exhausted. Every morning she rose much earlier than the other students in her hostel in order to go to a hospital, where she spent the day’s earliest hours as a volunteer aid for the forgotten elderly. I said fine – please use that. Put some of yourself in your writing, something care about. She said she’d think about it.
Though none stood out so vexed and burdened as Ágnes, I was challenging all my students this way. Before the rule of Moscow-led international socialism, before WWII, Hungary had had one of the world’s great cultures in the essay. Kosztolányi, Ady, Illyés, Márai, Németh, Móricz, and many others excelled in the feuilleton, the sketch, the panegyric, and others forms worthy of precursor Montaigne himself. Even the Marxist writer and critic György Lukács deserves mention – though it was he who also belied the fate of Hungarian letters during his lifetime when he boasted that he had no personal life. “Building socialism” went apace. Rajk, Nagy, and thousands others were murdered, with more in labor camps as Faludy’s My Happy Days in Hell described at Recsk. All took mandatory courses in Marxism-Leninism and “scientific atheism.” By the time my students got to ELTE, “the essay” had become strictly impersonal, all vision confined to the segmented, the hierarchically accumulative, the modular, and the “objective.”
In an issue of The Hungarian Quarterly that came out a few months before the one with Ferencz’s article in it, the chairman of ELTE’s English department published his own essay examining the situation for learning English at Hungarian universities. Its author, Ádám Nádasdy, allowed no hint of his own views. Void of subjectivity, the choices he listed all seemed to add up as but accounting exercise: numeracy, not literacy, I thought. So I copied it, brought the copies to my students, and asked them about it.
No one thought, seeing Nádasdy’s balancing skills in prose, that his personal capacities had to suffer for such neutral public expression. Nádasdy also published poetry, to some acclaim. In 1993, middle of my three years at ELTE, he in fact won the Robert Graves prize, annually awarded the author of the best Hungarian poem of the previous year. Our colleague, Győzõ Ferencz, had earlier won it. In verse I liked Nádasdy’s plain style: ruminative, straightforward, everyday talk. But I disliked how he – like the seventeen Slovak poets in Not Waiting for Miracles – avoided all public reference. Public life, I knew, had been commandeered. Communism had stripped away all brand names – across all the fraternal states there were no trade logos – virtually no advertising for anything. And as commercial language had paled, so had folk purity. Traditional references to the land had been taboo. Barns, farms, orchards, rivers, woods, and other provincial scenes all threatened true international socialists – Stalinists, Leninists, Maoists – because land references had old associations with ethnicity, ownership interests, religion, and romantic individualism. So all populist themes and nativist vocabulary were proscribed by the agents of Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy. Poets like Nádasdy and Ferencz found space for themselves as poets by positioning themselves and their diction as far as they could from areas the Party monitored. Poets like them, like the seventeen Slovaks in Not Waiting for Miracles, adopted a plain register. With commercial and folk terms off-limits, they found as new the aesthetics of post-modernism – minimalistic, halting in explanation, and fragmentary – in addition to the left-overs of modernism: verse without rhyme, metricality, stanzaic form, or most other classic devices.
Nádasdy and Ferencz were both my age – we three all born in 1947. They came into their own young adulthoods around the time of the Prague Spring of ’68, when Miklós Haraszti and his Maoist friends were running around the streets of Pest with their Little Red Books (the puritanic aphorisms of Mao). Nádasdy and Ferencz sought more genteel pursuits, compared to their more colorfully radical friends. By 1991 they were broaching middle age, but even then a few of the previous generation of poets – those who lived through WWII – were still living. One was Ágnes Nemes Nagy (pronounced one-syllable Nadj). Born twenty-five years prior to Nádasdy, Ferencz, and myself, Nagy yet had an imagination that could access Hungarian public references. She put them near-center of her aesthetics, which she explained in an essay, “Towards the realm of the nameless.” As the title indicates, Nagy esteemed the elusive, the ineffable, and the evanescent – but tied to the things of our everydayness. To stress such contingent magicality, she picked a certain corner on a typical street in her neighborhood. This was Kékgolyó utca (Blue Stork Street). In a residential area of Buda, Déli pályudvar (Southern Railway Station) lay below it, embarcation point for Lake Balaton, the Villányi wine district, and Hungary’s Mediterranean south. For Nagy the very names of these places infused the air around Déli pályudvar and her higher-up Kékgolyó utca. She not only linked the southern locales with this quiet, leafy, hilly neighborhood, she also tuned herself to sensations on its street corner: lights of day, seasons, and aspects of the air that always changed, suggesting earlier but somehow different alignments. As Heraclitus said of his river, and Thoreau of his pond, so Nagy did for Kékgolyó utca’s chestnuts, honey locusts, and lindens. It was the poet’s job, she held, to come as close as possible to the right words and arrangements for the gradients of feelings connected to a place. It was the poet’s job to seek them even as particular subtleties defied the fit of words. Spurred by and inviting further subtleties, context kept always changing.
I wanted to honor Nagy’s spirit, and my student Ágnes’ quests. Nádasdy, as it turned out, served on the Soros committee up on Castle Hill, and it was he who pressed for approval for my “Other Cultures – Inner Values.” Though Nádasdy had aesthetics far from those I preferred in Nagy, as did Ferencz, the former got me the funding, and the latter agreed to serve as first representative Hungarian in inaugural semester, fall, 1992.
When I got the money – part in still non-convertible Hungarian forints, part in U.S. dollars – and could begin actually planning for the upcoming rounds of visitors, I first thought I should ask Nádasdy, as English department chair, as to any guests he thought appropriate. He deferred those decisions to me. It was easy to pick Ray to start as first semester’s English-language representative – I couldn’t consider Scott Long for that or second semester because he’d just accepted a Fulbright professorship for the ‘92-’93 year over in Cluj, Hungarian Kolozsvár, Rumania. I trusted Ray for his feeling about best Hungarian intellectual colleague to be paired with him. He liked Ferencz. At any event, money wasn’t an issue – with Soros’ generous funds I could pay and pay well Ray, Győző, and the best of rotating cultural representatives from the surrounding countries.
At the last full English department faculty meeting, concluding the ‘91-’92 year, I knew I had over sixty professors whom I could draw on from our three specializations: Linguistics, Applied Linguistics, and British Literature. (American Studies, Scott’s department, Géher but affiliated with it, was a separate, much smaller department; a large English-teacher-certification program, though also housed on our Varos Liget campus, was also separate.) I hesitated going to the sixty profs in my three-component department, as I feared getting many too many guest recommendations for me to handle from among their friends and colleagues in the various universities in Poland, Rumania, Slovenia, Slovakia, Croatia, Serbia, the Czech Republic, and the Ukraine. But as my program, “Other Cultures – Inner Values” was ELTE-hosted, and they’d all been here years longer than me, I thought it only fair to announce these new Soros monies, and that they could subsidize periodic visits from among their favorite professional peers.
Nobody responded. Two faculty members later sent me memos mentioning names of central European professors they had met by chance recently. Otherwise none of them had ever traveled to any fraternally socialist peer universities during the communist era.
Funny, I had been in central Europe five years – beginning in the deep freeze of the Moscow-dominated regimes – and I’d just assumed professional teachers had friends and peers in the various brotherly states. I’d been projecting, as if intellectuals in the Red era had been able to circulate as we Americans took for granted. There had been scholarly conferences – that’s how Ray coming from Poland had met his redheaded Hungarian siren. What I didn’t know was that no one traveled from Iron Curtain countries except under the strictest supervision of interior ministries, secret police, and other Party bureaucracy.
“Other Culture – Inner Values” began with American Ray Neinstein and Hungarian Gyõzõ Ferencz as first-semester regular lecturers, and Slovak writer Pavel Vilikovský as first of the central European guests for the weekly lecture component. For the actual work that the students would do, a half dozen native-Hungarian instructors in the Applied Linguistics section volunteered sections of their courses so students could attend the lectures and follow them up in smaller class discussion and essays ensuing from them. We started with a hundred-and-seventy-five students. I collected essays from my own section’s and the other participating instructors’ students, photocopied the best of them, and made them available every week to all attending the large, team-taught lectures. The students had an ongoing wealth of resources for referring also to each other.
Ray, Győző, and Pavel began probing nationalism – how we see and prevent ourselves from seeing “others.” Through the semester these questions, and the readings that fed into it, all accompanied the genocide everyone all knew was going on not far south from us in the Balkans. Serb nationalists and their criminal gangs freely brought in small arms, siege guns, mortars, and tanks from the formerly Yugoslav army, and ringed them around the multi-ethnic Bosnian capital, Sarajevo. Day and night they lobbed cannonades into the city, sniping, shelling bread lines and marketplaces, destroying buildings – including the national library, which with all its treasures they destroyed just to rid archived art and memory. While diplomats in the capitals of Europe dithered, Serb leaders bought time for their murders by describing it all as just another civil war – and that they, good Christians, were defending Europe from encroaching Islam. Washington equivocated. The Serb mortars went on turning into bloody pulp the children who sometimes thought it safe to come out and play.
Ray and I – many of us in Budapest – remained sickened by these events. The BBC and other journalists clearly showed the “ethnic-cleansing,” mass rapes, and wholesale massacres. Yet the “educated” of the world bought the Serb fictions. The highest levels of the Bosnian Serb murder machine were conducted by college professors.
Prior to the beginning of our courses, I gave Ray my copy of Meron Benveniste’s Conflicts and Contradictions. Benveniste’s father had been first chief cartologist for the new state of Israel – his job to erase hundreds of long-time the Arabic names Palestinians had for their towns, villages, orchards, mountains, rivers, and deserts. Happily his father replaced them with Hebrew names that conveyed the nostalgia of Biblical Jewish culture. Meron Benveniste knew the excitement these new Jewish settlers felt in making a giant open-air Disneyland for themselves, even if the script they wanted forced erasure of the Arabic “others” and their far different narratives. “Palimpsest” was the name for it when old maps – parchment, especially – showed landscapes with current names, but with the tell-tale names of previous dreams beneath them. Ray and I loved this term, “palimpsest.” He returned to its theme often in his weekly lectures. It fit not only Palestine, and Bosnia, but also so many others squared off against each other: Pakistanis and Indians, Roman Catholic Irish and English Protestant, Armenians and Azeris, Cypriot Greeks and Turks, Yorubas and Ogonis – and soon Hutus and Tutsis, Russians and Chechens, and the Blacks of south L.A. in arson and rampage against their Korean shopkeepers.
The students in my section of “Other Cultures – Inner Values” were writing brilliant, probing, nuanced essays. They loved referencing each other – it involved and opened their essays further for them The proved deft handling Ray, Győző, Pavel, and the succeeding central European guests. Students from the sections of the other instructors, however, began tapering off. Their instructors continued to attend the weekly team-taught lectures – interested of their own accord. But they had no experience in the personal side of essays, nor in the arts and wisdom of referencing widely. They may have had good hearts and eager intentions, but they were as set in their aesthetic parameters as the best of them, Ferencz and Nádasdy. Attendance dropped to sixty.
In late summer 1992, prior to the new academic year, an American poet came to ELTE as the U.S.I.A.’s Fulbright lecturer in the American Studies department. Michael Blumenthal, born in 1949, was thus about the same age as Ferencz, Nádasdy, Haraszti, Ray Neinstein, Judit Zerkowitz, and me. He had directed the creative writing program at Harvard, had several books of verse published, and the critic Helen Vendler loved him. Others didn’t – found him too “ornamental” in his happy, wide ranging. But I knew that even these excesses would stand well in the eyes of my students, especially in contrast to the plain, confined diction of poets like their Nádasdy and Ferencz. So in addition to my overseeing “Other Culture – Inner Values,” and my section linked to it, I designed a course based on the poetry of Nádasdy, Ferencz, and the new Fulbrighter from America.
The students loved Blumenthal. They had access to the magyar originals of the two who wrote in their own language, as well as to the English translations we used in class, so in both Hungarian and English we could see Nádasdy and Ferencz’s dexterity, intellect, and focus. Blumenthal differed enormously. His lines coasted along in one mirthful situation after another, full of insouciant everyday pleasures. Not one of his poems registered caution at anything – unlike the Hungarians who had grown up in grievously-damaged history. His nouns percolated in images from the botanical to the culinary, musicians to saints. One easily passed inside from sofas, bedrooms, and gyms to outside landscapes drenched in further aromas and tactile pleasures. Blumenthal delighted my students, most of whom were also in the “Other Cultures – Inner Values” experience.
The team-teaching components shifted after the New Year. With spring semester 1993, new rounds of lectures had feminism as focus. From the American guy we had had in Ray, we now had an English woman in the person of Antonia Burrows. Before Scott Long had gone over into Rumania on Fulbright, he and Antonia had teamed up to host a series of guest lectures on downtown’s main campus. Every week they brought in Hungarian social science academics, journalists, and public figures to address then-entirely-new issues of gender, domesticity, and gay rights. They drew consistently good audiences, and I looked forward to Antonia shifting focus a bit to include the literature and personalities of the nearby central European cultures. Antonia linked up with Judit Zerkowitz, head of our Applied Linguistics section, as her weekly counterpart. New representatives would come to Budapest from the neighboring cultures.
Certain issues kept coming up, chiefly the ways public and private linked. We read many Adrienne Rich essays from the 1970s, which stressed how economics, power structures, and class privileging shaped our personal worlds, and reciprocally how our private myths and narratives reinforced our public assumptions. The representative from Rumania, a woman teaching American and English literature at the main university in Bucharest, arrived with a series of books of recent Rumanian women poets translated into English, published mostly by Forrest and Bloodaxe in Great Britain,. The guest from Croatia brought a copy of a memoir, My Marina, published in English translation by a Croatian woman dwelling on her life and culture, and parallels with the Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva. Two of my former students in Slovakia – one now studying in the Czech Republic – came to Budapest to represent those cultures. With the death about this time of Ágnes Nemes Nagy, probably the best Hungarian woman poet was Zsuzsa Rakovsky, so I used the Soros money as honorarium for her to come over from her home in Buda. The students – this term we kept a constant group of about forty or fifty – loved querying Rakovsky on her work that we had in both English and Hungarian. Good essays kept coming. Every week I had several of such excellence that one of the high points of each session was the new availability of copies. As winter snow led into spring rains, Adrienne Rich’s public/private dynamics held all our disparate elements together.
At one point Ágnes came up to me – the girl of the Simone Weil-like sobriety and intensity. Ágnes said she knew what she’d like to write for the deepest, most personally-felt Christianity in her. Abortion. She wanted to argue against it. I said OK, but please not to concentrate only on the mass murder scenarios, but also to consider some of the consciousness issues we’d been touching on – some of the ways the central European women we’d been reading had argued ethics, values and social roles.
Near the end of that academic year the universities of Debrecen and Szeged were combining resources to sponsor a first-ever Hungarian conference on women’s issues. Three women from Hull University in England were coming to give talks over two days, joining Hungarian speakers on the same issues. So rather than stay in Budapest that early May week, Judit and Antonia agreed that we invite the whole class south to this beautiful old Hungarian town on the Tisza river. I took what I would have spent for a guest in Budapest that week – travel, housing, food, and honorarium – and allocated it to round-trip train fares for all of us. And two nights lodging in a Szeged student hostel. We all looked forward to the women from Hull and the other speakers on issues we’d spent months examining. And we had the southern Hungarian countryside to enjoy: deep greens of the spring fields from the train, white flowering honey locusts, chestnuts full of blossom spires, lilacs’ aromas, and storks and swallows newly arrived. Days summery warm, the girls could break out their light, loose summer dresses.
None of us, however, had realized the extent that academic specialization had taken over feminism. As the Hull women spoke, we saw that they could not access real women for all the obligations they felt to the names Lacan, Derrida, and Foucault. Next to them, Adrienne Rich didn’t exist. For French theory the professional feminists from Hull exhibited exactly the impersonal scientism we’d learned to be wary of from Adrienne Rich, Tillie Olsen, Willa Cather, Rebecca West, Edith Wharton, and Virginia Woolf. For the sake of post-modern jargon, not a single one of feminists uttered a word from anything in their personal experience. None made any narrative digressions. No analogies. No anecdotes. So depersonalized had careerism made them, too, that they all spoke oblivious of where we all were. The three of them had academic friends in Debrecen whom they could have referenced, cited for examples. They could have read English translations of recent Hungarian literature for the experiences of women in Hungarian letters: Margit Kaffka, Ami Karoly, Zsuzsa Rakovsky, as well as Ágnes Nemes Nagy.
This didn’t bother the Hungarian academics from Debrecen and Szeged. As it turned out, too, those in Budapest who oversaw Hungarian universities also resembled the Hull feminists. All had learned the priorities of specialization and depersonalized voice. Adam Nádasdy could no longer nudge his Soros funding colleagues into supporting “Other Culture – Inner Values.” I would stay one more year at the university in Budapest, then follow a Slovak girl to her native Zilina, then Brno, Moravia.
I was still at ELTE when The Budapest Sun’s January 6-12, 1994, issue came out with a column by Michael Blumenthal. He was praising his host Hungary for what he saw as much richer humanity than in the U.S. Blumenthal expressed satisfaction that he and his wife could live in Hungary and so be spared the rank materialism which he claimed dominated America. In particular he focused on the pleasure he and his wife had sending their son to a local Hungarian nursery, rather than the richly-endowed American day-care center they could have had as Fulbright benefit. He described a visit they made to the American institution, finding it full of plastic toys, exercise equipment, and appliances of every sort. The stuff dismayed him. The Hungarian nursery by contrast might have been less-well equipped, he said, but it was endowed with something “no amount of dollars can purchase: a calm and supportive atmosphere of tolerance, humor, and love.”
I gave copies of this column to my students. Because they knew the clichés of American materialism, some wanted to jump to Blumenthal’s side. Then they recalled their own previous school experiences and how these did not corroborate Blumenthal’s paean to Hungarian pedagogic “tolerance, humor, and love.” They had known, instead, years of depersonalized competitiveness, information drill, and standardized testing. They began to add in the Hungarian novels and films which invariably showed school life as totalitarian, militarist, and demeaning, from the novel School on the Frontier to the film Pal Street Boys. One girl had worked in the particular Hungarian nursery Blumenthal cited. It was located, she said, in the diplomatic enclave adjacent to Andrássy út, the most elegant avenue in the city. Perhaps he had not realized it, but thanks to his Fulbright Blumenthal was living in the plushest neighborhood of Pest. The nursery his kid attended might have had fewer toys than the American one a long commute-away in Buda, but for “materialism” his kid was nevertheless among the most-privileged.
I met Blumenthal when he arrived in Hungary – took him for beers at a garden inn under late summer chestnut and linden trees on one of the Buda hills. I got him his housing. So I was able to see how, contrary to the pose in his article, he depended very much on many material things. Thanks to the Fulbright – the American taxpayer – he brought his car over from the U.S. He had an expensive computer. He hadn’t been in his Pest apartment long before he was nagging his landlord for a television. As Fulbrighter, too, he got not only the magyar forint salary as the highest-ranking Hungarian faculty got, but an additional $2,000-a-month American – for three years – again courtesy of those Americans whose materialism he derided. He got travel compensation, housing allowance, medical coverage, and an extra $2,000 to buy American books of his choice.
Later in the same year, in The Hungarian Quarterly, Blumenthal published further pieces extolling Hungarian delights. His language bubbled in ebullient reference to the varieties of happiness he found in garden restaurants, cafes, pastry shops, concert halls, parks, and the quays and plazas of boulevardier street life. He cited various Hungarian writers and poets as friends of his to emphasize how well into the center of things he had arrived. Blumenthal could have mentioned particular thematic issues in his poet and writer friends. But he didn’t. They existed not for any qualities in themselves, but as consort accompanying the popular, charming American poet indulging his own consumerism.
During this same time two books by Gretel Erlich came out. I liked the first, The Love of Open Spaces. Its writing lyrically described the landscape, skies, and weathers of Wyoming mountains and ranch lands. It also excelled in language of tools, machinery, cinches, straps, and ropes. I could overlook how Erlich presented herself in Wyoming as fleeing something, yet never dealing with what she was fleeing, either in her New York most-recent past or in herself. This omission was impossible to overlook in her next book, A Match to the Heart. In it Erlich fast-forwarded herself out of Wyoming. She had no explanation as to what happened in the relationship she’d had with the rancher she’d lived with in Wyoming. In fact she dumped everybody who had figured in the earlier book. Lightning had hit her one day out on the range. Hospitalizations and treatments followed. She began seeking “spiritual growth.” This quest – naturally in California – did involve other people, but none got any more character treatment than the Wyoming ones she’d left. None got any more individual attention than Blumenthal could afford those adorning his cultural feasts. And as Blumenthal remained oblivious to how his U.S.-taxpayer-funded Fulbright allowed him his elevations, so Erlich took for granted the obviously huge family wealth underwriting her “spiritual development.” Her parents sent a private jet to fetch her from Wyoming. Without further comment she got state-of-the-art medical attention. Friends of her family had a beachside cottage in Santa Barbara she could use without concern for money. There she could meditate on the sun setting behind the Pacific every evening, spirituality floating to her.
Another curious book came out at this time –beginning the ‘90s U.S. prosperity when CEOs, dot.com yuppies, and corporate elites were enriching themselves massively at the expense of American working and middle classes. The book was Eileen Simpson’s Poets in Their Youth. A memoir of her former husband, John Berryman, and the famous poet friends they had in common, the book ambles along without a single reference to any of the poetry of Berryman, Lowell, Plath, Sexton, or Jarrell – as if this woman couldn’t be bothered with poetry, as if she couldn’t take seriously that poetry might in face have fired the former husband and friends of hers. She ends her book describing how she learned of the death former husband Berryman. The scene emphasizes the comfort and privilege her life has reached, newly remarried with a career of her own. The newspaper comes home-delivered to her door – The New York Times, of course. All she need do is open her apartment door and note not just final dismissal of the poet, but the serenity of noting this bloodlessly, as if all emotions such as poets have can so blithely be eclipsed.
Blumenthal during his time in Budapest wrote a novel, Weinstock in Love, similarly in the vein of Simpson’s and Erlich’s memoirs. A roman-a-clef, it skewered people he had known at Harvard during his early ‘90s time as director of its creative writing program. Though he based his characters on actual figures there, all existed for him to send-up in sarcasm only. Though a novel about school, no student emerges as an individual, except for one guy who drops out in cynicism. The single young woman shown as a person only got drawn enough to set her up as cliché horny student seducing Blumenthal’s alter-ego Weinstock in the stacks of Widener Library.
As the ‘90s proceeded, corporate American media tooted the horns of prosperity. Large, headquarters-far-off, non-media corporations owned most all the television, radio, newspaper, magazine, and book publishing firms. They liked celebrating the celebrities who also served as mouthpieces for their other corporate products. American universities all bought into the mutual funds, pension plans, and endowment investitures propping up these corporations. And the rich did get richer – a series of stories fabulously true and fabulously told, emphasizing mythologies obscuring the facts of how the powerful get that way by hurting others. The largest employer in the U.S. was turning out to be WAL*MART – where over a million persons worked for the minimum wage, not close to a living wage, but useful for making five members of the Walton family among the ten richest human beings on earth, all five Waltons with a wealth of $20.5 billion each. Similar stories of greed and privilege abound, our nice universities depending on out-sourced teaching highly included.
My student Ágnes finally turned in a essay about abortion as murder. She appealed to the ideals of harmony, nesting, equilibrium, peace, and continuity – and why couldn’t we see these for the unborn?
It’s our oldest story: return to the womb. The Hull feminists, Blumenthal, Erlich, and Simpson all enacted it in their turn. All found clever, charming, self-serving ways to exclude what was most convenient to ignore. In this they exhibit normalcy. They follow our universities as they, too, in the U.S. and around the world lie in similar conceits of closure. Our universities do this by what all commonly accept as departments. Friends of mine would object as I began more and more to rile at this – at how our schools and intellectuals set all in erudite, genteel, and mutually-isolated comfort zones. But every time a Jew killed a Palestinian, and a Palestinian a Jew, and Pakistani Moslems killed Indian Hindis, and vice versa – and Russians-Chechens, Hutus-Tutsis, fundamentalists-globalists – over and over – it made me angrier. Our schools and intellectuals feed on such isolations. They fuel our disconnects. In a few years, after my time at the university in Budapest, I would gradually see how we could ask instructors to change. Most importantly, we could ask them to listen to their own students for the individual themes, values, and ethics in them – and quote them, refer to them, weave them back in other contexts. Not only could students read each other’s work and refer to it, but instructors could, too. Modeling the arts of wider attentions and connections would emerge in Essaying Differences.
Doggerel for our Times
My friend Ray sent me another clipping,
more on our growth of standardized testing.
Seems now they’re doing it to four-year-olds
– four million pre-school kids in one mold
that one test sets so, instead of faces,
all get more hierarchical places.
The four-year-olds have their demographic
as we all have ours, all of us unique
subsets fit to one consumerism.
Our marketers know us, our deep notions,
while our schools serve up their information
as if neutral, stripped of all emotion
– save teachers’ love of their elevation.
And standardized tests say it’s all OK.
No people involved any direct way.
No people – instead, the repeating fact
of war: there Afghanistan, here Iraq,
where the bin Laden family, and Saddam
were long our allies, and could do no wrong;
and drug wars in Latin America,
for our needs for coke and marijuana.
See all the dictatorships we’ve propped up
for our elites to have their privileged stuff.
And we? We know no languages, cultures.
The world means but oil and cheap labor
for our consumer never-never-land
where specialist multiple-choice tests can
tell us all we might know about ourselves,
loose ends reduced to “none of the above.”
The Best and the Brightest Lies
Take the books about our authorities’ lying that have come out recently:
Clyde Prestowitz’s Rogue Nation, Greg Palast’s The Best Democracy Money Can Buy, Paul Krugman’s The Great Unraveling, Jim Highland’s Thieves in High Places, Molly Ivins’s Bushwhacked, Thomas Frank’s One Market Under God, Al Franken’s Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, David Corn’s The Lies of George W. Bush, Joe Conason’s Big Lies, Michael Moore’s Dude, Where’s My Country, & Robert Scheer et al’s The Five Biggest Lies Bush Told Us about Iraq.
Take them all, add them up, and in all their reach and power they still fall short of the level set thirty years earlier with David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest.
Halberstam did more than recount the facts as to how we got lied into Vietnam back in the 1950s and ‘60s. He showed how the lying pervaded the highest levels of our government – as our newest crop of books similarly traces webs of deception still entangling us in foreign wars, dictatorships, and other imperial adventurism. Halberstam then had the same story, but without the “shocked, shocked” note in many of today’s books. He never treated our leaders as if they inhabited some moral zone unusually below our own. Our “best and brightest” lied, but they did so out of a climate of fear all official America lived in then. And they lied more importantly, Halberstam says, for the sake of a careerist culture that they developed. This same careerism shaped his own profession, journalism, he adds, and began informing America’s university culture, too.
The cultural climate preceding the Vietnam era today seems unique – those two decades between our terror bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 and our commitment of U.S. combat forces to southeast Asia in 1965: twenty years of growing fears gnawing in Cold War and the fall of China, defeats in Korea, McCarthyism, the ‘56 crushing of Hungary, the Bay of Pigs, and the rise of the Berlin Wall. In our contemporary militarism in the Middle East and Central Asia we didn’t have any such years of national malaise requiring the lies eventually coming from Cheney, Wolfowitz, Rove, Rumsfeld, Powell, Rice, and Bush. We’d had, instead, years of prosperity. In our shopping malls, sprawl landscape, and celebrity culture, we’d been able to pretend virtually no roles in the international scene right up till September 11, 2001. And when the World Trade Center and Pentagon exploded, our leaders soon postured their best masculine firmness, with all convenient lies of omission, white lies, half lies, and full blown whoppers, exactly as Halberstam had chronicled in the generation of Rostow, McNamara, the Bundys, Rusk, Taylor, Harkins, Westmoreland, and Johnson.
Those Cold War masterminds – Halberstam’s “best and brightest” – had learned masculinity as young men in WWII. But they’d learned something else: the unprecedented power of American industrial, technological, and organizational resources. No one in the world had foreseen it, that incredible output of highest quality ordinance, trucks, bombers, jeeps, landing craft, cruisers, battleships, tanks, pipelines, engineering works, and all their logistics and support systems. Halberstam’s characters hadn’t learned love of war as young men under Patton, Stilwell, Eisenhower, and Marshall. They’d learned, more importantly, love of the mass systems that could engage fullest rationality.
Halberstam called it careerism – if there were but one word to sum up the way all joined a singular corporate imagination. In government, the military, journalism, and higher education in its increasingly seamless web from junior colleges to research universities, efficiency wedded rational systems at all levels. Hierarchies of experts divided themselves by strictly separate departments. Amid their flow chart divisions, subdivisions, and other subset units of schooling, advertising, accounting, polling, marketing – everywhere – they adorned themselves with what David Riesman called “niche differentiation” jargon. For ethics they measured goodness by quantification. All loved numbers, statistics, scores, graphs, and more numbers, more experts speaking acronyms and buzzwords in turf hierarchies kept in parallel but strictly separate from each other. (All loved it, but Halberstam didn’t discuss dropouts like Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and Lenny Bruce, or other nonconformists like Brando, James Dean, and Marilyn Monroe, or blues musicians, or the painters who met at the Cedar Tavern in Greenwich Village; he didn’t discuss the guilty Elia Kazan, nor the elderly John Ford raging through John Wayne.) In institutional America, careerism added up by corporate channels to aphrodisiac, narcotic effect. Our Gross National Product and its massive, multi-tracked delivery system contrasted with the commie system not because the latter uniquely had evils (we murdered, too, we had our thug dictators), but because the empire of the red star had but simpleton top-down organization. Our way of life sported so many more measurable ways of movement within rational systems: school tracking, columns of multiple-choice testing, textbooks by modular schematics, highway lanes, television channels, industrial conveyor belts, shopping check-out lines, top forty play lists, corporate corridors, and millions of fans with index fingers in the air celebrating alternative routes to #1.
The rest of the world wanted American goodness. The rest of the world might not yet be on the receiving end of American blue jeans, baseball caps, refrigerators, washers, dryers, cars, cigarettes, soft drinks, fast food franchises, superhighways, and shopping malls – but good Americans could assume the great unwashed were waiting. We could assume all “others” as but pale, “undeveloped” versions of ourselves: wannabees, future demographic units still to be plugged in. Our “best and brightest” governing our system had no interest in the complications and nuances of foreign cultures and languages. We all could overlook anomalies on the ground in southeast Asia: those dope-smoking VC in the jungles, Buddhist monks incendiary in their monasteries, and villages of little yellow people oddly nationalistic in their rice paddies. We could ignore them, deny them, or lie about them, and then kill hundreds of thousands of them – all the same. Rostow, the Bundys, McNamara, Rusk, Harkins, Taylor, and Westmoreland could have contempt for the slippery facts of Southeast Asia that did not fit their flow charts. Individuals like John Paul Vann and George Ball might beg to differ, but they lost.
No one need be surprised that we Americans – particularly the best-educated of us – have difficulty seeing “others.” We see culture as consumer goods – things to buy. We inflate our entitlement to demographic choices by the stroking teasing we also enjoy from advertising, marketing, and celebrity media. We can take cultural items for granted as so many relatively interchangeable identity props. We own them, we discard them – we’re always free to buy new identity; it comes by consumer choices. The individual clothing, music, food, film, landscape, transport, and architecture needn’t register for inhering qualities in them, not when as a flux of mere tools they all blend into each other for the larger purpose of validating us as owners, masters, in control. Our roles as students, consumers, and careerists segue not so much into each other as into one larger empowerment mythology. Thus our “best and brightest” model dedicated rationality and impersonal discipline in keeping the system going, all moving according to flow charts. Truly selfless (selves-less), our teachers mimic the same corporate impersonality, with “objectivity” and “courses” adding up by more devices of quantification, more segmented information increments in specialization departments ever isolated from each other.
Some escape. We do this whenever we take seriously clothing, food, landscape, films, books, or music as linked to a wider, less mechanized humanity also within us. Cultural items may signal stories in us apart from – or part of – the conventional lies around us. We ourselves may be “others.” It takes skills to sight, site, and cite the elusive threads between our values and the culture we inhabit – and it takes many more skills to escape the illusory closure of any of us really being rational, efficient, tracked, and channeled. Such purposive fictions simplify and lie to us about our humanity – and that of “others” – but we inherit this flaw. We buy into it as part of our deeply innate love of art, fabrication, fantasy, creativity, and everything in between “once upon a time” and “in the end.” Thus, amid the skein of recent books charting the current versions of lying, Paul Krugman notes a recent Pew survey. It shows, he writes, how much even the best-educated of Americans mistake others as wannabees of ourselves. It shows how too many of us imagine others only as mirrors to our most banal conceits. As Krugman says, even our best-educated “are notoriously bad at seeing ourselves as others see us.” The Pew survey measured “opinion leaders” and “found that 52 percent of the Americans think that our country is liked because it ‘does a lot of good’”; it also found that “only 21 percent of foreigners, and 12 percent of Latin Americans, agreed.”
Essaying Differences posits a humanity apart from (and part of) everybody’s conventional, commercial, and corporate fictions. We also inhabit other stories. These may connect with “others” all over the world – and connect richly with some neighbors that some orthodoxies have taught some of us to ignore or hate. We could see how much in every culture all differ and mesh by values, themes, and concerns in all our food, music, landscape, poetry, film, wall art, body art, clothing, transportation, and architecture.
My sister’s husband in Tennessee recently accused me of being a “damn Yankee.” The accusation befuddled me, not for the truth that’s in it, but for a larger truth, one that poet Joseph Brodsky observed of any of us with index finger pointing outwards.
Stretching generosity, my brother-in-law at least concedes that my sister’s and my family originally had some roots in East Tennessee. These included Scotch-Irish who came into the Appalachian mountains more than two hundred years ago, when colonial governors of the time still forbid transmontane migration. These settlers – their names included Boones, Crocketts, and Jacksons – had brought with them animosities against the English that dated from the 17th-century British Isles. At that time the new Corn Laws and Enclosure Acts forced evictions of tens of thousands from their rural lands, so English landlords might apply then new sciences and scopes of hybrid agronomy and animal husbandry – and enrich themselves and crown treasuries.
What happened to the rural poor then foreshadowed the parallel history of today, when millions around the world are forced out of their traditional cultures for the sake of IMF, World Bank, and multinational corporate development. Today our migrations end up in cities – monster megalopolises – dozens of over ten million each currently teeming across Asia, Africa, and Latin America. In the 17th and 18th centuries the large waves of predecessor migrations came to the New World – those Emma Lazarus later called “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Virginia and Carolina seacoast towns and farms of the day filled with Scotch-Irish who worked off their ocean passage as indentured servants. Beyond the coast and piedmont, the Blue Ridge, the Smokies, Alleghenies, and Cumberland mountains beckoned. Colonial edicts notwithstanding, the southern Appalachians soon filled up with Scotch-Irish.
This was a history that proved unfortunate for an English army marching up the Carolinas during the American Revolution. In their plans to meet up with Cornwallis on the Virginia Peninsula, and so seal the doom of Washington’s Continental Army, the British officers felt an gratuitous noblesse oblige to insult the yeoman farmers in their otherwise isolated highland hills, mountains terraces, and river valleys. The Hollywood film The Patriot shows some of this – though no Scotch-Irish settlers lived in houses quite as sumptuous as that film set for its Mel Gibson character. Few Scotch-Irish owned slaves, either, out of presbyterian convictions and the pragmatics of small upland farms. The Patriot mixed the lowland exploits of Francis “Swamp Fox” Marion with those of the mountaineers. It nevertheless intimates one central fact of early American history: that, though outnumbered, a volunteer militia of mountaineers one September day on King’s Mountain did find and wipe out that entire English army. This history repeated itself in the War of 1812, when a boy grazed by an English officer’s sword prior to King’s Mountain later grew up and, as Andy Jackson, at New Orleans routed another theoretically superior English army. Similar surprise recurred a generation later at the combined battles of the Alamo and San Jacinto – against another vaunting imperial army. And again in the American Civil War, when through 1861-65 tens of thousands of southern mountain riflemen joined Yankee armies, rather than the more flamboyantly gallant and romantic reb.
Tennessee calls itself the Volunteer State for this repeated history of rugged individuals ever jumping for the chance to join fights against empire and pretension. So although my mother and sisters were born in this state, by the time she was a child, and the Depression was on, she, her sisters, and mother all set out on another journey. They went out of the mountains, out of one mythology, and into another, to golden California where, on old U.S. 66, John Steinbeck‘s The Grapes of Wrath chronicled many others – Arkansans, Oakies, and Texans – also in migration.
One of my sisters ended up marrying back in East Tennessee, where most of my mother’s family had remained. This sister had been born in Michigan, and raised – me, too – in suburban prosperity – in what her husband calls damn Yankee culture for its commercialism and rootless ephemerality. This Michigan family had ten kids. With our parents we lived hundreds of miles from any relatives. Suburban culture feeds on such dislocations – both to those on the receiving end of corporate benefits, and to the many more around the world yet in migrating sprawl.
My family in suburbia eventually ended up with some unusual doses of dysfunctionality. Some had problems with alcohol – genetic lineage perhaps from the Tennessee great-grandfather who for all his 93 years imbibed a love of bourbon, both on the Beaver Creek farm at the foot of the Cumberland mountains and in the big house on Fort Saunders Hill overlooking old downtown Knoxville. Others in our Michigan family found problems in drugs, mental health, and various personal lapses. Such things of course happen in southern families, too, but my brother-in-law views them as specially earned, pathetic fallacy parts of “damn Yankee” culture.
Others all over the world share this view – that those who stay in loyalty to traditional culture are guarding goodness. This posture typically has the pious perceiving others as very “other.” You can see this in almost any fundamentalist Israeli Jew pioneering one’s Occupied Territory settlement. You can see the same imaginative coinage – but the other side of the coin – in any displaced Palestinian looking up at the Zionist newcomers taking over their land. It’s the same thing an Indian Hindi feels viewing Pakistani Muslims with their claims on Kazhmir – and vice versa. It applies to a Rwandan Hutu looking up at the taller Tutsi minority controlling their government. Ditto Roman Catholics of Belfast seething at British Protestants among them and over them. In East Africa tribal blacks feel it toward the commercial immigrants from India who dominate them. Rural Vietnamese, Malay, and Singapore see the same threat in the Chinese who hold the mercantile positions in their lands. In Boston the Yankees, Blacks, and Italians have a similar wariness of each other. Miami blacks have it toward prosperous Cuban immigrants, and L.A. blacks have it toward Koreans running all their neighborhood shops. It goes on and on. In France the conservative right balks at the millions of Algerians, Senegalese, and other former colonials now in the land of Voltaire and Hugo. In Germany skinheads and their friends count the millions of Turks among them as a threat – and many Turks aren’t bothering to learn the language of Goethe as earlier Jews had. It’s the same story the world over: Armenians besieged but defiant in Azeri Nagorno-Karabakh, Greeks and Turks divvying up Cyprus, French Canadians lambasting Anglos, Transylvanian Hungarians inundated by Roumanian resettlement – and on and on.
The odd thing, however, is that my brother-in-law in Knoxville – even while he resents “damn Yankee” culture – very much yet lives by his cell phone. He’s bought very much into our most modern, global network of transmission towers and related technology. He has a wealth of videos for the half dozen televisions he has in his home – including largest and best of the new flat screens. He keeps two and sometimes three of these televisions turned on all the time, whether he’s home or not. In the long southern summers he keeps his house thoroughly air conditioned, so even if he’s gone all day he can return in the hottest heat to the coolest cool awaiting. He shops at WAL*MART, though he knows how it underpays its work force – how the largest employer in the world keeps its million-plus “associates” at below living wage so the four heirs to Sam Walton’s fortune rank among the richest on earth – how every year each ranks among the world’s top ten wealthiest. American shoppers consider this fair. And like these normal Americans – like any Yankee – my brother-in-law (with my sister) owns America’s largest, most gas-guzzling SUV, along with a mega-big pick-up truck for work, and several vintage sports cars for play. He and my sister eat out often. They travel the nation’s interstate highway system and use any number of our biggest chain motels in visiting and seeking items in their respective collecting hobbies.
It goes round and round. None of us is blameless. None of us can escape certain immersions in reality. The French, even as they enforce laws requiring percentages of French-only songs on their radios, yet rely on nuclear power plants to broadcast them – 75% of that nation’s energy dependent on this most Yankee-modern of systems, even as they then export their poison wastes abroad. The Ayatollah Khomeini depended on the best Yankee audio tape technology to prepare his followers in Iran for return to medieval Islam. Saudi Arabia’s apostate son bin Laden and his Al Qaeda followers enlist the most Yankee-modern computer technology in their fight against the Yankee modern world Israeli Zionists rely on the most modern of Yankee rockets, fighter jets, and military systems for their retreat to Biblical purity. American fundamentalist Christians spend more time in shopping malls than they do in church, more money on their fleets of SUVs than everything in their churches.
Essaying Differences says we all exhibit the same humanity. We all imagine “our” purism makes us different. We love our closure in our Disneyland-style ethnicities and tribalisms, our consumer demographics, and our work hierarchy positions. Our intellectuals love their tenured closure in academia’s specialization departments all nicely-divided from each other. These are all old stories. The truest things about us all proceed from the workings of fictions that we all inhabit.
Essaying Differences says we needn’t anathematize “others.” “They,” after all, subscribe to fictions as we do. We can learn the skills to see the stories we inhabit. It takes some skills to step outside of them – to see how thoroughly we require tools to enact our stories: the clothes we wear, the music we hear, films we watch, the means we use for travel, ornaments and accessories on us, cuisine we assemble, landscape around us, and architecture we live in. Yes, stories repeat – most stupidly repeat our wars and genocides. Our “best and brightest” most stupidly propel them. They sell newspapers. They field the sensationalism and celebrities of prime time TV. They enrich specialist experts deploring it all.
Essaying Differences says don’t deplore but, as E.M. Forster urged, “only connect.”
Nobel Peace Prize for Wendell Berry
I teach a course each semester in the College of Business at San Francisco State University, and in January 2004, just before classes began, the dean invited the faculty to a beautifully catered luncheon with a full day for faculty to give presentations of their current researches. So I went. I indulged in the early morning free coffee, orange juice, and multiple pastries. I enjoyed the free lunch. And, the only adjunct among them, I listened to my colleagues give their presentations. I gave one myself.
A few days later those of us who teach the business communications classes – all of us adjuncts, part-timers – also had a meeting. And the subject came up – it always does – of the students’ woeful abilities in all forms of communication.
Having a sense of humor, I was willing to be quiet as my adjunct colleagues bemoaned the perennial. But as the only one from among them who had attended the big boys’ session (big girls’, too), I felt bound to volunteer my observation that even our full-time, tenured faculty averaged no better oral skills than our students.
The faculty had failed in two ways. First, most of them made no references to each other. Of the two dozen who talked, most sailed blithely on as if they were conducting their researches, and discussing them, oblivious of the rest of us. Second, ignoring each other, most stuck doggedly to their topics, as if even their topics presented no human themes of interest either to the speakers or anyone in the room. They could speak with some skills observing chronology, comparisons (many pointing to PowerPoint charts), and prior research in their fields. But our students could do this. Our students differed only in evidencing less assertiveness, less proud, bluster – but these are qualities that generally come to any of us who come into good income, and can take it for granted.
The person who spoke last, a tall, elderly man, volunteered that he was on a committee overseeing consultants visiting the College of Business at San Francisco State. These consultants were interested in something new in education: polling students on how they learned. I loved this. Students have long done evaluations of teachers – effectively consumer satisfaction reports. This other consideration – asking us to be aware of how any of us learn – opens up so much more: the multiplicities of how we rely on others, how others model things for us, how we imbue influences.
Wendell Berry talks about these issues in a little chapbook put out by an online magazine, Orion. Collected as In the Presence of Fear: Three Essays for a Changed World, all three respond to the terrorist attacks of 9-11. Its first, “Thoughts in the Presence of Fear” dwells specifically on “the technological and economic optimism that ended on that day.” Berry, however, has been focusing on these similar issues for many years now, as citizen on a small farm beside the Kentucky River, and as poet, novelist, teacher, and essayist. His greatest love, and hope, is that we all might be better skilled, patient, and generous and so all connect more broadly – honoring the wisdom of what another poet, Joseph Brodsky, called that of “loose ends.” Berry has had to see, instead, the too-many ways most of us inhabit a culture of terrific and relentless violence. With behaviors making us parts of it, we feed destruction and terror the world over. Most of us cannot see the actual systems we inhabit because, as George Orwell described in “Politics and the English Language,” we also inhabit imaginations fed by language that inoculates us.
God Bless Wendell Berry. Give him the Nobel Prize for Peace. He knows us. And so that we might know him better, I have prepared a little glossary of his language – terms that he carefully defines so that, taken together, we might see more clearly the ways we have all been swallowed by one massive culture. All these terms come from one beautiful book of his, several years old now, Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community.
Wendell Berry deserves the Nobel Prize for Peace. As Essaying Differences proprietor, I nominate him. And I do so for my own reason, too: my own program cannot get off the ground until our intellectuals in universities, foundations, and ministries the world over begin to see the extent of the corporate, industrial monoculture in which all are trapped. My colleagues at San Francisco State – even those good-hearted in the College of Business – only resemble intellectuals everywhere. They have no sense that when they talk in public, they are part of a community – the very people sitting in front of them. They could connect their topics to those of others. They could connect the themes in them to related values, issues, and stories animating others.
In the last of the three essays from In the Presence of Fear, Wendell Berry describes his reluctance – a deserved loathing, really – to join even in the good work of specialist cadres. “In Distrust of Movements” lists a good many single-issue causes he loves, but he decries something about their very specialization. “Ultimately,” he says, “I think . . . they are insincere; they propose that trouble is caused by other people.”
A couple days after I had read his In the Presence of Fear, I happened to hear news of another organization that had just gotten hundreds of thousands of dollars of foundation money for more specialists to monitor genocides as they keep recurring around the world. My heart goes out to them. But Wendell Berry is right. Such genteel, well-meaning souls, all with their good causes, all resemble the clusters of mistletoe you can see out on the boughs of hickory, oak, and other tall, deciduous trees even in Wendell Berry’s Kentucky River bottomlands. Such specialists all think they can change the tree, when the tree – regardless of those tenured at its extremities – continues to pump its massive arteries of energy up through the trunk and into the limbs as they do their reciprocities of photosynthesis. The mistletoe may elicit some kisses elsewhere, when transferred to some human doorway, but it doesn’t help the tree. Our specialists don’t help us very much, either, as we all remain, like mistletoe, largely parasites on a corporate culture that lets us divide, sub-divide, and mutually isolate though we take our turns preening on it.
“The world is still intricate and vast, as dark as it is light, a place of mystery, where we cannot do one thing without doing many things, where we cannot put two things together without putting many things together,” concludes Wendell Berry near the end of “In Distrust of Movements.” Here’s hoping that, by starting with our language – in this case, Wendell Berry’s language – we can enlarge our inhabitation of the world, with more peace genuinely in it, more capacity for peace, human connections, and respect for the nature we’re destroying.
A Glossary to See the World through Wendell Berry’s Eyes
absentee economy: To build houses here, we clear-cut the forests there. To have air-conditioning here, we strip-mine the mountains there. To drive our cars here, we sink our oil wells there. (37)
abstraction: inability to distinguish one place or person or creature from another. (23)
accounting: measures the wealth of corporations, great banks, and national treasuries [and] takes no measure of places like Port Royal, Kentucky; Harpster, Ohio; Indianola, Iowa; Matfield Green, Kansas; Wolf Hole, Arizona; or Nevada City, California. (8)
agribusiness corporations: have, in fact, remained hugely and consistently profitable right through an era of severe economic hardship in rural America. (48)
art: all the ways by which humans make the things they need. (108) Our division of the “fine arts” from “craftsmanship,” and “craftsmanship” from “labor” is so arbitrary, meaningless, and absurd. (110)
the arts: are the means by which the neighborhood lives, works, remembers, worships, and enjoys itself. (112)
balance between city and countryside: is destroyed by industrial machinery, “cheap” productivity in field and forest, and “cheap” . . . fossil fuel . . . transportation. (21)
the Bible: a book open to the sky . . . best read and understood outdoors. (103)
big government: big enough to annihilate any country and (if necessary) every country, to spy on its citizens and on other governments, to keep big secrets, and to see to the health and happiness of large corporations. (xiv)
billionaires (vide millionaires): have worked hard for their money, and they deserve the rewards of their work. They need all the help they can get from the government and the universities. (xiv)
blasphemy: To work without pleasure or affection, to make a product that is not both useful and beautiful, is to dishonor God, nature, the thing that is made, and whomever it is made for. (104)
careers: the schools, governments and government agencies, the professions, the corporations[,] [e]ven the churches . . . do not concern themselves with issues of local economy and local ecology on which community health and integrity must depend. Nor do the people in charge of these institutions think of themselves as members of communities. They are itinerant, in fact or spirit, as their careers require them to be. (152)
colonial economy: “raw materials” are exported and all necessities and pleasures are imported. (16)
the colonialist principle: that it is permissible to ruin one place or culture for the sake of another. (128)
communities victimized: As private life casts off all community restraints in the interest of economic exploitation or ambition or self-realization or whatever, the communal supports . . . are undercut, and public life becomes simply the arena of unrestrained private ambition and greed. (121)
community: centered on the household. . . . A public, when it is working in the best way – that is, as a political body intent on justice – is centered on the individual. (148-49)
Creation: God’s presence in creatures. (98)
divorce: The proper question, perhaps, is not why we have so much divorce, but why we are so unforgiving. The answer, perhaps, is that, though we still recognize the feeling of love, we have forgotten how to practice love when we don’t feel it. (140)
Dorothy Day: a person willing to go down and down into the daunting, humbling, almost hopeless local presence . . . to face the great problem of one small life at a time. (25)
dualism: We have presumed to say that we are made of two parts: a body and a soul, the body being “low” because made of dust, and the soul “high.” . . . thus . . . we inevitably throw them into competition with each other, like corporations. . . . And the predictable result has been a human creature able to appreciate or tolerate only the “spiritual” (or mental) part of Creation and full of semiconscious hatred of the “physical” or “natural” part, which it is ready and willing to destroy for “salvation,” for profit, for “victory,” or for fun. (107)
economic elites: have invested their lives and loyalties in no locality and in no nation . . . and . . . are so insulated by wealth and power that they feel no need to care about what happens to any place. (81) They cannot imagine any part of the world or any human community in any part of the world as separate in any way from issues of monetary profit. (82)
economy: By “economy” I do not mean “economics,” which is the study of money-making, but rather the ways of human housekeeping, the ways by which the human household is situated and maintained within the household of nature. (99)
electronic media: It is . . . the nature of the electronic media to blur and finally destroy all distinctions between public and community. (124)
energy policy: Because of an easy and thoughtless reliance on imported oil, we have no adequate policy for the conservation of gasoline and other petroleum products . . . no adequate policy for the development or use of other, less harmful forms of energy . . . no adequate system of public transportation. (79)
euphemisms: for what they intend to do [w]hen very important persons have plunder in mind. (46)
the finest works of art: do not divide people or justify or flatter their divisions; they define our commonwealth, and they enlarge it. (161)
fossil fuel economy: is the industrial economy par excellence, and it assigns no value to local life, natural or human. (22)
the free market: sees to it that everything ends up in the right place – that is, it makes sure that only the worthy get rich. . . . The cardinal principle of the free market is unrestrained competition, which is a kind of tournament that will decide which is the world’s champion corporation. (xiv)
free market theorists: assume . . . an adequate national economy may be composed of many consumers, few producers, and even fewer rich manipulators at the top. . . . it also and more dangerously involves an inevitable, large-scale dependence on foreign supplies. (79)
freedom: an escape from the constraints of community life – constraints necessarily implied by consideration for the nature of a place, by consideration for the needs and feelings of neighbors; by kindness to strangers . . .. (151)
freedom of speech: necessary to political health and sanity because it permits speech – the public dialogue – to correct itself. (146)
fundamentalist Islam: For our leaders and much of our public, the appalling statistics of death and suffering in Iraq merely prove the efficiency of our military technology. . . . our leaders have prayed only for the success of their arms and policies and have thus made for themselves a state religion – exactly what they claim to fear in “fundamentalist” Islam. (85)
global economy: (like the national economy before it) operates on the superstition that the . . . needs or wishes of one place may safely be met by the ruination of another place. (37) The global economy does not exist to help the communities and localities of the globe. It exists to siphon the wealth of those communities and places into a few bank accounts. (129)
global industrialists: will go anywhere and destroy anything, so long as there is a market for the result. (81)
global thinking: Those who have “thought globally” ( . . . imperial governments and multinational corporations) have done so by means of simplifications too extreme and oppressive to merit the name of thought. (19) Global thinking can only be statistical . . . shallowness. (20)
great artistic expressions: nothing to do with what we call “self-expression.” (112)
great evil: originates in [the] underlying assumption that all the world may safely be subjected to the desires and controls of a centralizing power. (50)
a great university: many computers, a lot of government and corporation research contracts, a winning team, and more administrators than students. (xiv)
Gulf War I: We sent an enormous force of our young men and women to kill and to be killed in defense of our oil supply, but we have done nothing to conserve that supply or to reduce our dependence on it. We will not ration petroleum fuels. We will not mention to possibility of more taxes. (72)
happiness: We try to be “emotionally self-sufficient” at the same time that we are entirely and helplessly dependent for our “happiness” on an economy that abuses us along with everything else. (151-52)
healthy community: a neighborhood of humans in a place, plus the place itself: its soil, its water, its air, and all the families and tribes of the nonhuman creatures that belong to it . . . if the human economy is in practical harmony with the nature of the place. (14) . . . In a healthy community, people will be richer in their neighbors, in neighborhood, in the health and pleasure of neighbors, than in their bank accounts. (40)
history: leaves no doubt that most of the most regrettable crimes committed by human beings have been committed by those human beings who thought of themselves as “civilized.” (82)
holiness of life: It is understandably difficult for modern Americans to think of their dwellings and workplaces as holy, because most of these are, in fact, places of desecration, deeply involved in the ruin of Creation. (100)
implicit wish of the industrial economy: that producers might be wasteful, shoddy, and irresponsible and that consumers might be gullible, extravagant, and irresponsible. (38)
the individual: always has two ways to turn: . . . toward the household and the community, to receive membership and to give service, or toward the relatively unconditional life of the public, in which one is free to pursue self-realization, self-aggrandizement, self-interest, self-fulfillment, self-enrichment, self-promotion, and so on. (149)
individual liberty: It is becoming steadily harder for ordinary people – the unrich, the unprivileged – to choose a kind of work for which they have a preference, a talent, or a vocation, to choose where they will live . . . or even to choose to raise their own children. And most . . . choose to conform not to local ways and conditions but to a rootless and placeless monoculture of commercial expectations and products. (151)
institutions: [all in] knowledge, information, education, money, and political will . . . have adopted the organizational patterns and the quantitative measures of the industrial corporations. (23)
internationalist of trade (American and otherwise): happy to sell wheat or arms to either side of any conflict. (81)
Jesus: would have been horrified by just about every “Christian” government the world has ever seen. (115)
kinds of nakedness: There is . . . the nakedness of the photographs of prisoners in Hitler’s death camps. This is the nakedness of absolute exposure to mechanical politics, politics gravitating toward the unimagining “efficiency” of machinery. . . . also a photograph of a naked small child running terrified down a dirt road in Vietnam, showing the body’s absolute exposure to the indifference of air war, the appropriate technology of mechanical politics. . . . also the nakedness in advertising . . .. (166)
landowner: the guest and steward of God. (97)
Laws: Public laws are meant for a public, and they vary . . . according to forms of government. The moral law, which is remarkably consistent from one culture to another, has to do with community life. (147)
leaders: the people of wealth and power . . . cannot take any place seriously because they must be ready at any moment . . . to destroy any place. (22)
liberated sexuality: “free” of courtesy, ceremony, responsibility, and restraint, dependent on litigation and expert advice. (141)
liberationist intellectuals: People are instructed to free themselves of all restrictions, restraints, and scruples in order to fulfill themselves as individuals to the utmost extent that the law allows. Moreover, we treat corporations as “persons” . . .! (151)
litigation: we have changed from a society whose ideal of justice was trust and fairness among people who knew each other into a society whose ideal of justice is public litigation, breeding distrust even among people who know each other. (122)
local life: public servants all have tended to impose on the local place and the local people programs, purposes, procedures, technologies, and values that originated elsewhere. (152-53)
Luddites: people who dared to assert that there were needs and values that ustly took precedence over industrialization. (130)
a man: must look on virtually any woman as a potential accuser. (142)
millionaires (vide billionaires): have worked hard for their money, and they deserve the rewards of their work. They need all the help they can get from the government and the universities. (xiv)
the modern Christian missionary: presumes . . . to save the souls of people in other countries and religious traditions, who are often saner and more religious than we are. (114)
misuse of the Bible: logically accompanies the misuse of nature. (104)
modern Christianity: as specialized in its organizations as other modern organizations, wholly concentrated on the industrial shibboleths of “growth” . . . dedicated to incanting anemic souls into Heaven. (114) . . . It has flown the flag and chanted the slogans of empire. It has assumed with the economists that “economic forces” automatically work for good and has assumed with the industrialists and militarists that technology determines history. (115)
moral capital: We are trusting . . . that people who come under the influence of the sexual pandering, the greed, the commercial seductions, the moral oversimplification, the brutality, and the violence of our modern public arts will yet somehow remain under the influence of Moses and Jesus. (160)
most Christian organizations: as happily indifferent to the ecological, cultural, and religious implications of industrial economics as are most industrial organizations. (94)
most religious music: attests to the general assumption that religion is no more than a vaguely pious (and vaguely romantic) emotion. (113-14)
national economy: increasingly a global economy, [it] no longer prospers by the prosperity of the land and people but by their exploitation. (9)
one great possibility: that we can come to peace by being peaceable. (84)
one thing worth defending: I suggest, is the imperative to imagine the lives of beings who are not ourselves and are not like ourselves: animals, plants, gods, spirits, people of other countries and other races, people of the other sex, places – and enemies. (83)
organized Christianity: its idea of a Christian economy is no more or less than the industrial economy. (100)
our destruction of nature: not just bad stewardship, or stupid economics, or a betrayal of family responsibility; it is the most horrid blasphemy . . . flinging His gifts into His face. (98)
peace: waste less, spend less, use less, want less, need less. (92)
peaceableness: In the face of conflict, the peaceable person may find several solutions, the violent person only one. (87)
pluralism: The modern industrial urban centers are “pluralistic” because they are full of refugees from destroyed communities, destroyed community economies, disintegrated local cultures, and ruined local ecosystems. (169)
politicians and bureaucrats: measure the economic prosperity of their nations according to the burgeoning wealth of the industrial interests. (128)
privacy: conventional publications of private grief, of violence to strangers, of . . . indulgence of curiosity without sympathy . . . all share in the evil of careless or malicious gossip; . . . worst of all . . . is the public prostitution of sex in guises . . . from the clinical to the commercial . . .. (162)
the privacy of sex: another industrial specialization. (166)
professionalism: exceptionally smart people [who] speak a language that is intelligible only to other people in their “field” or only to themselves. (xiii)
provincial: in need of whatever changes are proposed . . . by outside interests (to the profit of outside interests). (153)
public: all the people, apart from any personal responsibility or belonging. A public building, for example, is a building which everyone may use but to which no one belongs. . . . A community, unlike a public, has to do first of all with belonging. (147) When a public government becomes identified with a public economy, a public culture, and public fashions of thought, it can become the tool of a public process of nationalism or “globalization” that is oblivious of local differences and therefore destructive or communities. (148)
public discipline: [its] failure in matters of economy is only the other face of the failure of private discipline. (39)
public language: can deal . . . with pornography, sexual hygiene, contraception, sexual harassment, rape, and so on. “Sexual education,” carried on in this public language, is and can only be a dispirited . . . anatomical machinery . . . a sexuality that is neither erotic nor social nor sacramental but rather a cold-blooded, abstract procedure . . .. (122)
real education: is determined by community needs, not by public tests. (123)
real harmony: requires not international uniformity but international generosity toward local diversity. (50)
reductiveness: What is so fearfully arrogant and destructive is the implication that what is represented, or representable, is all there is. (164)
respect: always implies imagination – the ability to see one another, across our inevitable differences . . .. (173)
retribution: If somebody raped or murdered a member of my family, would I not want to kill him? Or course I would, and I daresay I would enjoy killing him. Or her. If asked, however, if I think that it would do any good, I must reply that I do not. . . . this is a form of behavior that we have wisely outlawed. We have outlawed it, that is, in private life. In our national life, it remains the established and honored procedure. (86)
rural America: a colony . . . in the power of an absentee economy, once national and now increasingly international, that is without limit in its greed and without mercy in its exploitation of land and people. (8)
Saddam Hussein: Our government . . . indulged his human rights abuses and his use of poison gas. . . . We sold him equipment that could be used to develop nuclear weapons, missiles, and poison gas. We sold him toxins and bacteria that could be used in biological warfare . . . [as] a spasm of our own corporate and professional anarchy. (75)
safe sex: we presume to teach our young people that sex can be made “safe” – by use, inevitably, of purchased drugs and devices. What a lie! Sex was never safe, and it is less safe now than it has ever been. What we are actually teaching the young is an illusion of thoughtless freedom and purchasable safety, which encourages them to tamper prematurely, disrespectfully, and dangerously with a great power. (142)
self-liberation: We want the liberty of divorce from spouses and independence from family and friends, yet we remain indissolubly married to a hundred corporations that regard us at best as captives and at worst as prey. (152)
sexual harassment: In asking men to feel shame and to restrain themselves – which one would not ask of an animal – women are implicitly asking to be treated as human beings in that full sense. . . . [T]his is not a kindness that can be conferred by a public economy or by a public government or by a public people. It can only be conferred on its members by a community. (144)
sexual liberation: ought logically to have brought in a time of “naturalness,” ease, and candor between men and women. It has, on the contrary, filled the country with sexual self-consciousness, uncertainty, and fear. (141-42) Starting with economic brutality, we have arrived at sexual brutality. (143)
sexual lovemaking: we must ask how the modern representations of lovemaking that we find in movies, books, paintings, sculptures, and on television measure up to the best love scenes that we know. (165)
“sexual partner”: pretentious, fantastical, and solemn idiocy . . . could not be better exemplified than by the now-ubiquitous phrase “sexual partner” (141)
superstition: our . . . conviction that we can contrive technological solutions to all our problems. (13)
supranational corporations: able to slide about at will over the face of the globe to wherever products can be bought cheapest and sold highest. (47)
sustainable city: the indispensable ideal and goal – is a city in balance with its countryside. (21)
technological determinism: has become thoroughly mixed with the rhetoric of national mysticism so that a political leader may confidently say that it is “our destiny” to go to the moon or Mars or wherever we may go for the profit of those who will provide the transportation. (132)
television: the greatest disrespecter and exploiter of sexuality that the world has ever seen. (124)
thrift: Just as the public economy encourages people to spend money and waste the world, so the public sexual code encourages people to be spendthrifts and squanderers of sex . . . exactly as industrial agriculture has been exploiting and spending the natural capital built up over thousands of years in the soil. (143)
tobacco controversy: distracts from the much great danger that we are an addictive society . . . from drugs to war to useless merchandise to various commercial thrills, and that our corporate pushers are addicted to our addictions. (58)
trust The health of a free public . . . depends on distrust. . . . the health of a community depends absolutely on trust. (161)
two kinds of human economy: There is the kind of economy that exists to protect the “right” of profit. . . . The other kind of economy exists for the protections of gifts, beginning with the “giving in marriage,” and this is the economy of community, which now has been nearly destroyed by the public economy. (138)
university language: “the environment,” “biocentrism[,]” “ecology[,]” and “ecosystems”. . . the terms themselves are culturally sterile. They come from the juiceless, abstract intellectuality of the universities which was invented to disconnect, displace, and disembody the mind. (34-35)
unlimited economic growth: implies unlimited consumption, which in turn implies unlimited pride, covetousness, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, and sloth. (xvii) We must repudiate what Edward Abbey called “the ideology of the cancer cell” that pushes blindly toward . . . massive catastrophe. . . . We must see that it is foolish, sinful, and suicidal to destroy the health of nature for the sake of an economy that is really not an economy at all but merely a financial system. (13)
voting: people in great numbers – because of their perception that the government serves not the country or the people but the corporate economy – do not vote. (10)
voyeurs: know only what they see. (163)
women: though they may dress as if the sexual millennium had arrived, hurry along our city streets and public corridors with their eyes averted, like hunted animals. (142)
would-be exploiters of the world: would like to assume . . . that the world is everywhere uniform and conformable to their desires. (50)
In his preface to Sex, Economy, Freedom, & Community, Wendell Berry says “As I understand it, I am being paid only for my work in arranging the words; my property is that arrangement. The thoughts in this book, on the contrary, are not mine. They came freely to me, and I give them freely away.” Thus I, the proprietor of Essaying Differences, rearrange his words for this glossary –I hope in his spirit – that these words may further circulate freely, and lead people back to his fuller work. If, however, anyone in the greater public ever wishes to continue the circulation commercially, please note that copyright devolves back to Wendell Berry, though he also says, in his Mark Twain moment, “I have no ‘intellectual property,’ and I think that all claimants to such property are thieves.”