Thursday, July 27, 2017

Commonplace book: Knowledge (Part 2)


[Mrs. Ramsay] was glad, Lily thought, to rest in silence, uncommunicative; to rest in the extreme obscurity of human relationships. Who knows what we are, what we feel? Who knows even at the moment of intimacy, This is knowledge?
—Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse ("The Window")

It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:
dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free,
drawn from the cold hard mouth
of the world, derived from the rocky breasts
forever, flowing and drawn, and since
our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.
—Elizabeth Bishop, "At the Fishhouses"

To say you know when you know, and to say you do not when you do not, that is knowledge.
—Kongzi, Analects 2.16

Thursday, June 29, 2017

"Going to Korea." "Which one?"

Kaeseong, North Korea, as seen from the South Korean border.
(From Wikimedia Commons.)
Over the past couple of months, as I've been getting ready to head to South Korea for the year, I've come across a number of people whose main concern for my well-being is about the other Korea: the North. I get it: it has been in the news a lot lately. Another round of missile launches, of nuclear tests, of both the North Koreans and Secretary Tillerson rattling their sabers—it tends to lodge in people's minds. There was the UVA student, Otto Warmbier, who was released from North Korean imprisonment in a coma and died shortly after returning to the U.S. And every once in a while, there's another headline saying that war on the peninsula is inevitable, et cetera.

But I've also been surprised by the number of times that I've said I'm going to Korea for the year, and people ask me, "Not North Korea, right?"—as if any American ever goes to teach English in North Korea for the year, as if any Korean-American in their right mind would go there on purpose, as if one can simply foxtrot across the border and be back in Seoul for afternoon tea. I'm shocked that people on one hand seem to think of the North as a living dystopian hellscape, and on the other seem to know so little about the situation that they think it's simply another fun exotic destination.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

A plea: Don't slash the Fulbright program

Hi, everyone. As you know, I'm about to head off to South Korea through the Fulbright Scholarship program, which is significantly funded by Congress through an appropriation for the State Department every year. I'm writing publicly because the White House's proposed budget for 2018 would cut this funding by 47%, from $250 to $117 million. That may seem like a lot of money. But in perspective, $250 million is a little fraction (1.3%) of the NASA budget—which in turn is a little fraction (half of one percent) of the federal budget. So if you do the math, the Fulbright program is about 6.5 hundred-thousandths of federal spending for the year. Cutting it by half would be like cutting $0.33 out of $10,000 to try to save money. It won't do much. 

What does the United States get for that $250 million every year? (Again, think of that as $0.65 out of a stack of $10,000.) We get tremendous amounts of international goodwill for relatively cheap. Schools across the world are really excited to get to host young Americans as English teachers. And if we want to preserve American influence around the world, it's in our best interest to encourage other countries' curiosity about English. We send thousands of Americans abroad to learn about other countries and bring their knowledge back into both the public and private sectors. And we bring thousands of scholars and students from other countries into the U.S., where they make friends with American teachers and classmates and teenagers and grandmas, and learn about our culture and values, and maybe that they're not so bad as what they see on the news. If you're looking for a way that America can continue to be a world leader without spilling a single drop of American blood, you could do worse than programs like the Fulbright program—and the Peace Corps, and any number of other goodwill programs run by the State Department. 

Thursday, June 8, 2017

"Perhaps you could destroy the country with a single utterance"

Life and Works of Confucius by Prospero Intorcetta, 1687.
From Wikimedia.
[13:15] Duke Ding asked if there were a single phrase which could uplift a country. Confucius replied: “Words in themselves cannot have such an effect. Nonetheless, there is a proverb which says, ‘Being a ruler is difficult, and being a minister is not easy.’ If you really understand the difficulties of rulership, might this not be enough to uplift a country?” The Duke asked further: “Is this not close to the saying ‘there a single phrase which could ruin a country?’” Confucius answered, “Again, words in themselves cannot have such an effect, but the people also have a proverb which says: ‘I do not enjoy ruling; I only enjoy people not disagreeing with me.’ Now if you are a good man and no one disagrees with you, it is fine. But if you are evil, and no one disagrees with you, perhaps you could destroy the country with a single utterance.”
The political philosopher who has come to my mind most often lately, and especially today, is Confucius. I'm not a scholar of ancient Chinese thought, to be certain. I only read Confucius' Analects for the first time in the fall after I graduated, about eighteen months ago. My thoughts are those of a neophyte.

Still, this essay by Ezra Klein reacting to James Comey's testimony put me in mind of the Analects, and in particular their implicit contention that malfeasance in a state stains the entire political order from the top down. When the head of state is virtuous, that virtue trickles down through the whole state, reflected in the head's choice of ministers, aides, and subordinates, and thence in their choices, all the way down to the least powerful people. However, when the head of state lacks virtue—through viciousness, laziness, greed, or other negative traits—those vices destabilize the work of even the best people working below.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Music Mondays: Martinů, Jason Moran

Bohumil Kubišta, "Promenade in the Rieger Gardens" (1908).
From Wikimedia Commons.

The first symphony of Bohuslav Martinů (the "other" Czech Romantic) was playing on the public radio station in Kalamazoo today. I had no idea what it was when I turned on the radio in the middle of the third movement—but I was enchanted. It's strange and wonderful and bold. Just when you think things are getting a little too sentimental, he takes a harmonic left turn, and you're in a different emotional universe again:


Someone recently told me I had to listen to the music of the jazz pianist Jason Moran, and I finally got around to doing that today. Already, I'm thrilled I did. In particular, Moran has done a re-interpretation/re-styling/transformation of an arresting late Brahms piece most kids in piano lessons play at some point, and he manages to make the piece totally heartbreaking all over again. Take a listen:

Friday, May 26, 2017

If there were world enough and time

I realized a while ago that precious few things make me happier than a quiet afternoon in a sunny room with a cup of tea and an insurmountably large stack of books. What follows is a list of what I would want to read right now if there were world enough and time: things I haven't read (including some embarrassing admissions!) but would be happy to start tomorrow. Obviously, this is the work of a lifetime, not an afternoon. But why am I posting this? I honestly want to hear from others what on this list they think deserves priority; what has moved or affected them the most; and what they think I might be missing that I need to read. Comments, here or on Facebook, are welcome!


Sunday, April 23, 2017

Notes on re-reading Orwell

From Wikimedia.
I've been reading, and re-reading, Orwell this past week—some essays I'd never taken the time to read before, and others that I'd barely read since middle and high school. It is amazing to me that one author (and, in an American context, an English writer) should have been so much a part of my early formal education in English; amazing all the more that, at least to the best of my knowledge, he still is for many students—high schoolers, college freshman writing classes. Many high schools teach 1984 or Animal Farm at some point, and a number use a handful of his essays as models for expository writing: "Shooting An Elephant," "Politics and the English Language," "Why I Write." When I was teaching high schoolers the summers of 2013 and 2014, Orwell was in the readers.

Why? I suppose Orwell seems clear and accessible, not so far removed from the way we write now that a student has to engage in quite the amount of work involved in understanding the prose of Austen or Dickens. Those essays are also a good length for a manageable classroom discussion. "Politics" and "Why I Write" are reflexive in their subject matter. The novels are short, and ripe for introducing terms like metaphor, allegory, and irony. 1984 is pleasingly close to science fiction for those so inclined. Then there is ideology: in the American classroom, Orwell often gets painted as nothing more complicated than an anti-Communist—a picture which leaves out a lot, but which will not raise the hackles of parents or school boards. (If the average American better understood Orwell's politics, the chances are good he wouldn't be taught at all.)

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Speech after long silence

Myron's Discobolus. The British Museum.
tum mihi prima genas vestibat flore iuventas,
mirabarque duces Teucros, mirabar et ipsum
Laomedontiaden; sed cunctis altior ibat
Anchises. mihi mens iuvenali ardebat amore
compellare virum et dextrae coniungere dextram;
accessi et cupidus Phenei sub moenia duxi.
ille mihi insignem pharetram Lyciasque sagittas
discedens chlamydemque auro dedit intertextam,
frenaque bina meus quae nunc habet aurea Pallas.
—Evander at Aeneid 8.160-68

Back then, the first blush of youth covered my cheeks with a flower.
& I stood in awe of the Trojan chieftains, & certainly in awe of
the son of Laomedon himself—but taller than all strode
Anchises. Oh my brain burned with young love
to go right up to that man & grasp his right hand in mine;
I drew near &, full of longing, led him under Pheneus' walls.
As he parted, he gave me his famous quiver, his Lycian arrows,
his cloak with the gold woven in, & the double reins of gold
which now belong to my son Pallas.

[Bodily decrepitude is wisdom; young / We loved each other and were ignorant.—Yeats]

Friday, November 18, 2016

Make 'em laugh


The Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin wrote his essay "Epic and Novel" in 1941. It was not a good time to be in Russia, and certainly not in Moscow. The poet Osip Mandelstam had been exiled by Stalin eight years before, and was now three years dead. Hitler was invading. In his lifetime, Bakhtin had already been exiled by the secret police and sent to Kazakhstan; he lost his leg due to disease in 1938. Those were darker times than anything we have known.

One can ask why on earth Bakhtin was writing expansive literary criticism on Rabelais, Dostoevsky, and the history and theory of the novel in the middle of all of this. I don't pretend to know the answer. I don't claim that it was a good idea. I do think that Bakhtin arrived at insights that sustained him and still explain why you might want novels or comedies—or even just scholarship on novels and comedies—in times like his.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Why I am afraid

Athenian ostrakon. They used these to vote citizens into exile.
(From the Lexicon of Greek Personal Names.)
I spent all day afraid—a lump in my throat, a twitchy tension in my shoulders, as though I worried someone was about to punch me. I don't even have the most to fear—I am not an American Muslim, I am not Latino, I am not African-American—and I was, nevertheless, afraid all day because the country elected Donald Trump president. It's not Trump I fear, at least not mainly—I refuse to grant him the dignity of being feared—it's what his election says about the country, my fellow citizens, and how the country views any minority or immigrant. For the first time in my life (and knowing this feeling is new to me actually makes me remarkably lucky), I feel anxious just—and specifically—because I'm not white. There is no real likelihood that I'm going to be deported, or shot by the police due to implicit bias, or have my house of worship vandalized—and yet I am afraid, and I don't know when that fear is going to subside. Let me describe why I feel this way, especially for those who may never have known any fear like it.