He Hasn’t Been Posting Anything: Maybe He’s Been Reading

Going into summer with a sabbatical (& trip to Hanoi) on the far side of it, I haven’t had much writing mojo, though that feels like it’s about to change. I have been reading voraciously & indiscriminately, however:

The Brothers Karamazov: One of those big 19th century novels I never got around to reading until now. Is it as great as The Idiot? Probably, but I’m still more drawn to Myshkin than to any of the three Karamazov brothers. I’ve always wanted to write a poem with the line “I am not Prince Myshkin nor was meant to be,” but have never found a context for anything so arch.

Incomplete Nature by Terrence W. Deacon: One of those big philosophical books by a scientist that confronts the big problems that science would like to pretend have been solved or don’t matter. Deacon proposes, with a great deal of detail & a series of rigorous arguments, to show how mind emerges from nature. I wish an editor had been a little more strict with the prose, but after finishing this long book I put it aside for a week, then picked it up & read through it again.

The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler: Philip Marlowe at his most incisive & laconic. A work of genre fiction that confronts moral ambiguity as only a great work of literature can. The language is crisp & loaded with nuance. (This sounds like a book blurb because I’d have to write an entire essay to do justice to my admiration for Chandler’s novel.)

A Delicate Truth by John le Carré: Toby Bell, like all of le Carré’s good guys, is going to suffer terribly for doing the right thing, while the bastards who did the wrong thing will almost certainly find ways to slither to safety. It is le Carré’s genius to show the process by which an ordinary man (it’s almost always a man) achieves moral clarity, then to show how he will be punished for acting on that clarity.

Emerson: The Mind on Fire by Robert D. Richardson: Since undergraduate days I have had an equivocal relationship to Emerson (while absolutely loathing Thoreau). As an example of biography, Richardson’s volume seems a nearly perfect exemplar of the Big Bio genre, gracefully detailed but with strong narrative motion. Emerson was among the first Americans to really grapple with Cartesian dualism & while he comes down too close to Plato for me to find him convincing, he really made a run at finding how mind emerges from nature. Richardson’s portrait also frees Emerson from a lot of the Transcendentalist goo that has stuck to him over time.

Seveneves by by Neal Stephenson: I’ve only read one other Stephenson novel (Snow Crash), having given up on The Diamond Age because of the cloying cuteness of a central character & a general sense of undigested sentimentalism. Snow Crash invents a plausible near-future techtopia with characters as subtle as any in literary fiction; Seveneves also creates a believable world that makes the end of life on earth its dramatic backdrop. (Though in addition to the seven Eves & their eden, there is also a Noah’s Ark–more than one, actually. The action starts in the relatively near future, but then leaps mid-way some thousands of years into the future. Surprisingly, the plot survives this fast-forwarding. I’m hoping for a sequel.

Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson: Another space opera. The plot is pedestrian, characters flat, and the ending diffuse: as a novel, this book is a mess, but it is nevertheless compelling g as an argument for what might be called biological pluralism. Robinson argues that “life is a planetary phenomenon,” by which he means that organisms (including humans) cannot thrive–or even survive–in biospheres other than the one in which they evolved. Intersteller colonies will inevitably fail.

 

Vietnam Seems Far Away

Vietnam seems very far away at the moment. It’s below zero here and I’ve been running for ten days to catch up from . . . being in Vietnam. In a few days’ time I’ve gone from theleisurelylife of a poet in a tropical clime to being a professor of literature living beside a frozen river and teaching, in addition to a class about Vietnam, an American Literature course. The distance, both physical and psychic, is considerable. Perhaps surprisingly, I have felt on top of things in the classroom despite mypreparationbeing a little on the thin side — my students have filled in any gaps I’ve left, bless them. Also, I came home from Vietnam filled with enthusiasm for various projects that I’ll get too as soon as things settle down a bit over on the teaching side of life.

I’m teaching the first half of the American Lit survey, which in twenty years at Clarkson I’ve never done before, and while I can’t work up much enthusiasm for the likes of John Winthrop and Jonathan Edwards, we’re quickly moving on to Emerson next week and I’m rereading some of the central essays with real pleasure and greater understanding than previously.(I’ve found Emerson something of a pious pill in the past, I confess.) Emerson sometimes seems tantalizingly like an American Buddhist, but then he starts talking about superior and inferior intellects in a way that seems contrary to the spirit of enlightenment,i.e., that while there may be quick and slow people that all are capable of enlightenment; the slow require “indirect” teaching (rituals and chanting, etc.) while the quick can grasp the truth sometimes from a single sentence or the way light glances off a bowl. Emerson, on the other hand, seems to condemn “the mob” to live their unenlightened lives as best they can — and women as well, though he never comes right out and says this, perhaps because he had lively daughters. Still, it’s hard to escape the feeling that the audience for “Self-Reliance” consists of young men of a certain class.* In getting ready to teach thias essay, I find myself wavering between asking students to defend themselves against Emerson’s charges of conformity and questioning Emerson’s assumptions about the “nature” of the individual. Of course, I’ll do both.

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There is an provocative complication to this observation in “Self-Reliance.” When Emerson compares the “Vermont or New Hampshire” country boy to the effete city boy he seems to be making room for a broader distribution of “genius,” but this strikes me as more of a rhetorical flourish than a heartfelt sentiment; that is, Emerson seems to be using the figure of the farmboy to beat up the city boy a little bit.