Anti-Climacus


"Thou shalt not extinguish thine anger, but shall master it, that thy conscience may not be blunted by adjustment to wrong causes."
-The Dutch Ten Commandments to Foil the Nazis

8.10.14

Reading Like an Adult

A thesis: John Calvin's Commentaries on the Bible is the greatest work of exegesis ever composed, and one that is unlikely to be matched. For any particular passage, Calvin is like to go one of two ways. He can turn to the minutiae of word choice, sentence structure, metaphor and symbolism, and rhetorical affect to explain the mechanics of how the passage produces its effect. He can also turn to large-scale questions, setting the passage in context of its chapter, the book, the Old or New Testament, and the Bible as a whole, comparing each to the interpretations advanced in history. He brings in, when appropriate, comparative and historical material of which he is aware and, when appropriate, he can apply the reading to the current circumstances of his audience. He reads, and encourages everyone else to read, widely amongst Christian and classical literature with the idea that every text can provide some moment to hone skills that can be put in service of the greatest of all texts. One can quibble with his readings, point out the shortcomings of his historical knowledge, or object to the occasional rhetorical excesses he permits himself against his enemies without fundamentally damaging the case for the superiority of his exegetical work.


That's what reading as an adult is: to be so caught up in reading and writing, so conscious of each as work made up of skills that must be honed, so dedicated to continuing to do so across one's life, that one can take up any text and knowledgeably discuss its structure as well as its content, and place both in comparative perspective. This is not reading as it is conventionally thought of or discussed. Reading is usually the skill children put together around the age of five: recognizing letters, sounds, putting those together into words, putting words into sentences, and then recognizing the way in which those sentences can pass along information or construct a story. Instruction in reading, prior to college, is usually restricted to bringing in a number of basic literary categories: simile and metaphor, motif, theme, symbolism, and, given the likelihood of a high school reading curriculum running into some problems of antiquated views on race, gender, etc, some idea of how to situate a book in its historical context. On writing there is virtually no instruction at all: the best high school graduates come into the finest universities with little ability to do more than compose a five-paragraph essay, which is simply a robotic exercise in fitting content into an indifferent mould. The idea that an introductory paragraph has specific work to do--the idea that the 17th paragraph needs to have specific work to do--is a concept that can take the best part of a year to master, and much longer to produce. The average college student does not read, apart from assignments (sometimes not even then), and writes only the minimum required, and therefore struggles to do either.

Reading like an adult is like so many other adult things: a skill, and one that can only be learned through constant action and continual reinforcement. If one periodically cooks a number of unrelated dishes, cooking will seem like a difficult and unpleasant skill; the more practice one gets, and the more closely related the things one chooses to make, the more it becomes a series of easy and repeatable actions. (I can still remember when I looked at Fuchsia Dunlop's Land of Plenty and realized that the sauces were just different balances of types of flavor, and that there were only three or four different preparations, which varied only by vegetables and proteins used; it's now faster for me to chop onions and garlic, or other vegetables, than to use a mandoline or food processor.) Reading makes it easier to identify plot structure, and writing makes it easier to see why particular writers affect and others leave one cold; they make it clear not just that something has transcended the realm of what others can do, but why; reading and writing make it easier to produce those effects in others. As with all those other adult skills, though, one can do without them, but it's hard not to see something missing without them.


1.10.14

On Michigan, Michigan Football, and Integrity

i.
Viewed from a certain perspective, a university is a machine whose purpose is to turn high school students into donors (put more nobly, "alumni"). In the main, schools impart the character necessary to write checks by fostering a unique kind of student culture, for better or worse: Princeton students have an uncanny graciousness in all circumstances and only some awareness of what their personal limitations might consist of; Chicago students work harder than any others, but take the school's unofficial 'where fun goes to die' motto as a mirthless prophecy rather than self-satire.

Flagship public universities are not like this. They offer no one singular experience that it is possible for everyone to participate in, or shapes them whether they participate in it or not (Duke students who do not participate in the Greek scene nevertheless have their experiences shaped by that scene). My alma mater has 20,000-24,000 undergraduates floating around at any one time; my freshman dorm held 1000. There's no reason for any of these people to interact: Nursing School students spend all their time at one end of campus, apart from other academic buildings; the Art, Music, and Engineering schools are on a separate campus accessible by bus, but no less than a 30 minute walk from the next closest part of the campus (if you're willing to jump some train tracks). There are broad distributional requirements that can be fulfilled in any number of ways, and even though everyone is required to take a section of freshman comp, the sections vary as widely as the (large number of) people who teach them. We have no reason to have anything in common except occupying the same (very large) space for a period of time.

But we do have football. I've mentioned this before, but one of the details that The Big Chill gets absolutely correct is when everyone sits down to watch football. Everyone follows the football team. Not everyone goes to the games (I didn't), not everyone knows who the players are. Not everyone even entirely gets how football is played. But everyone, while you're on campus, knows whether we won or not, and (usually) at least some of what happened during the game. People who go to smaller schools tend not to understand this common social element: not everyone loves the team, but everyone follows it, and it's one of the very few things all these people have in common. We might stick to it to a greater or lesser extent in the following years, but it's (one part of) what we did when we were there.

ii.
My experience with team sports ended with two not-particularly-glorious years of junior high track. Our coach would remind us at every opportunity that whenever we wore our uniform, or our sweats, we had to be careful, because there were little kids who were looking up to us and would emulate whatever we did. I'm pretty sure I scoffed at it, even then, because what kid looks up to the junior high track team? Subsequent experience has pretty much confirmed her to be right: in college I worked at a science museum with an emphasis on children's education, and was required by the management to always be in logo-bearing shirts while working. Walking to and from that job, I would occasionally come across kids out with their parents, and without fail the kids would notice my shirt and get excited. They also would watch whatever I did, and they would try to emulate it. If I crossed a street against the signal, you could hear them asking their parents why they had to wait.

If there's anything else Michigan prides itself on, it's taking that approach to absolutely everything. I sometimes like to joke that the New Testament's ethic boils down to "everything you do matters all the time," and it's that sort of ethic that the university tries to instill. A Michigan Man will be thoughtful about everything, always cautious about what he's done and is attempting to do, and genuinely worried about identifying the right course of action, to the point of overkill. If you're a state school, this is a very sensible ethic (Carolina has its own variant on it): some of your students will go on to do stereotypically great things, but most of them will return to their communities, or find their own, and will be constantly bombarded with the expectations that come from leadership on any level. As Aristotle would have said, one practices the acts of a virtuous person so that when the time comes, and making the right decisions under pressure is needed, the right actions will appear as if by instinct.

iii.
Integrity is, as they say, what you do when no one is watching, when there's no one to lie to but God or yourself, and in that moment you get some sense of who someone is. The academic world has its own parallel to this, when someone reaches out to help you even when you could not possibly help to advance their career, and the time they take on you leaves them with less for their own work. People who are good, insomuch as anyone is good, will do these little and unnoticed things for the sheer reason that a good person does them. Michigan has its own exemplar of this character in Raoul Wallenberg, a student in the 1930s who could have taken advantage of his family's industrial connections to sit out World War II entirely, and instead created and implemented a scheme that saved the lives of tens of thousands of Jews in Hungary at the end of the war.

Integrity is also what you do when everyone is watching, and at this, Michigan has systematically failed. The football coaching and training staff did a horrible thing, allowing a concussed player to continue playing (for those unfamiliar, a second blow to the head for a concussed person can result in death). The virtuous action here would be to take responsibility, apologize, and vow to improve in the future. Instead, we have seen: denial that any head injury occurred, unwillingness to admit fault or culpability or even that a mistake was made, releasing alternate (conflicting) explanations without noticing or caring about contradictions.

Which leaves us with the question: who, basing themselves only on the words and actions of Michigan's head coach in the last week, could possibly consider him a role model? And if Michigan's coach isn't going to be a role model, why are we bothering with football in the first place?

Labels: ,


24.9.14

On lying about having read certain books:


Maybe it's that I've read a lot of books. Maybe it's that I have developed preferences (not to say 'taste') and am comfortable defending those. Certainly it's in my willingness to take on a controversial position on aesthetic matters. But I cannot imagine the circumstances under which I would pretend to have read something I have not.

I may have read 1000ish pages of it in one night, but I read all of War and Peace. I may have felt vaguely ashamed to not have read Moby Dick, and I certainly have regretted feeling ashamed. I sometimes, but less frequently now, finish books whose quality is uneven. 

I haven't read Nabokov, not even the ostensibly in-my-wheelhouse Pale Fire, not least because having to read the poem to get to the commentary is not among my interests. I've read a little of his criticism, which alternates between perceptive and insane, and the manner in which the novelists I like mention him inclines me to think he's not worth the time. I thought the same about Henry James, though I think I am beginning to come into the right time of life to read him (I made it halfway through The Turn of the Screw last year before having to discard it for end-of-semester concerns). I sat down to read Don Quixote this summer, made it through two chapters, maybe three, before realizing the time in my life to have read it had passed ("oh. this is just going to be a very long, very intricate parody."*). At 600 pages into Infinite Jest DFW was introducing another new character and great length, and I bailed. Conversation at the Cathedral (the first time) when I realized that five separate conversations were happening simultaneously in the narrative.

I suspect a list of books I'd abandoned would be just as interesting as a list of books I'd finished.

I go through certain phases where authors are better appreciated or neglected. I take this to be natural, and not worth the effort to fight against.


*Lest I be accused of snobbery, this was also my reaction to Beauvard and Pécuchet, which at least varied the thing parodied, and had a few deeper points buried in the narrative. Made it halfway and then quit.


19.9.14

I made an offhand reference on twitter to the fact that Facebook memes on books are always cast in terms of one's entire life, a convenient means of allowing the individual to avoid revealing too much of what they have read recently, which in a number of cases would amount to, one suspects, a blank list, or one containing very few entries. It also occurred to me that within the past year I have read two books that are obviously the best: A Heart So White by Javier Marías, and Anthony Powell's Casanova's Chinese Restaurant. Thus, an approximate list:

A Heart So White
Casanova's Chinese Restaurant
Robertson Davies, The Fifth Business and The Manticore
Reynolds Price, Ardent Spirits
Juan Gabriel Vazquez, The Sound of Things Falling
Emile Zola, The Earth

and two titles I was re-reading:
Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment
Javier Cercas, Soldiers of Salamis

(There have been two other Marías novels, five others by Powell, two other Zolas, but I don't want to crowd the list there too much; there have also been a reasonable number of books that I found myself surprisingly indifferent to: I think the time in which I could have read Don Quixote has passed.)


18.9.14

Adventures in Cultural Consumption, Halfway Through A Dance To The Music Of Time Edition

At Lady Molly's
Casanova's Chinese Restaurant
The Kindly Ones

Nicholas Jenkins, the narrator of A Dance to the Music of Time, makes the most interesting structural choice in these, the fourth through sixth books of the series: he keeps his wife out of the story almost entirely. She's introduced as a character in book four, but does not utter a line of dialogue until halfway through the sixth book (and then, not a particularly revealing conversation). The premise, as explained at the beginning of Casanova's Chinese Restaurant, is that marriage is a curious thing: publicly-facing but intensely private, so that, as Jenkins says, you can know two married people quite well and not know anything, really, about how they relate to each other (especially if they are happily or well married). Jenkins' married life is not usually material to the story at hand, and so it is almost always omitted, or referred to obliquely, and this seems entirely proper--even respectful to his wife and their shared existence. This seems approximately correct to me: the sentiments that are entirely proper inside my own marriage would feel improper, or vulgar (as in 'not done'), to expand on too much.

All of which relates back to parental overshare, which, as Phoebe has documented at some length, is a topic where every person who has ever parented seems to feel free sharing every detail of their struggles with their child, no matter how embarrassing. I can only slightly imagine being a parent myself, but were that ever to be the case, I cannot imagine wanting to make the details of that child's life known to (or knowable by) the general public. Neither spouses nor children are fit subjects to validate one's own life choices (the only mode of such essays is apologia for those things done rightly or wrongly), and are best left to silence, the conversation of close friends, or those forms of writing that prize anonymity within the advice requesting and dispensing context.* If you must write, a world of other topics exist.


*I mean, there's a reason why writers of third-person research pieces pick their subjects; better to strive at objectivity than drown in a sea of subjective decision and justification. Wouldn't you, in any event, worry that your own experience is so hopelessly idiosyncratic that it could not possibly apply to everyone? Or are the writers of these confessional pieces the journalistic equivalent to the people who wander down the middle of an airport concourse, oblivious to whether they're blocking anyone's way?


17.9.14

On the NFL, Domestic Violence, and Child Abuse

The miracle of the Ray Rice fiasco is that the NFL has, improbably, failed to do the one thing that American corporate culture dictates: fire the person responsible as quickly as possible. If the NFL had fired Roger Goodell last Monday, or he had resigned, the story would be dead right now, and no one would care. Instead, we have been able to witness something more surprising: a large segment of the population figuring out the problem of American masculinity in real time.

We don't need to look very far for evidence that a quick firing would have killed interest in the topic: Penn State did the sensible thing and fired Joe Paterno as soon as it became clear he knew something about the decades of child sexual assault perpetrated by one of his assistants--fired him because knowing something and not reporting it is morally inexcusable. As a result of this decision, the people who were maddest about the crime considered justice (mostly) done and forgot about it, and the Cult of Paterno quickly came to think of him as a man railroaded, and preferred living in their paranoid fantasy of people who hate PSU for 'doing things the right way,' which also conveniently allows them to avoid any extended reflection on what happened and where it happened.

Goodell didn't resign, and so people noticed that Jim Harbaugh (may he never coach at Michigan) talked a tough line about domestic violence but was more than willing to forgive, and that the Carolina Panthers were allowing a man who had been convicted(!) of domestic violence to continue playing. And then they noticed, or remembered, that the NFL has a constant, ongoing problem with domestic violence. All of which is good, and all of which only happens because an entity obsessed with its image failed to execute the most basic of PR moves.

And then there was Adrian Peterson beating his child bloody, which led to this:



A grown man with impeccable masculinity credentials saying on an NFL broadcast that his mother was wrong to have beaten him, and the NFL doesn't care at all about women.

As a result, the conversation has shifted from a question of football, or football culture, to a question of American masculinity more generally. It leads people like Drew Magary, he of the Dick Joke Jamboroo, to write:

That's what corporal punishment is. It's a failure. It's a complete breakdown of communication between parent and child. Children are unpredictable, reckless, and occasionally violent. They can drive otherwise rational humans into fits of rage. And I have had moments—many moments, certainly—where I have felt that rage after exhausting every last possible idea to get them to behave: bribery, timeouts, the silent treatment, walking away (they follow you!), distraction, throwing the kids outside (they end up ringing the doorbell a lot), you name it. So I have tried corporal punishment as a final resort, a desperate last stab at closure. That's an easy way for parents to justify it: You forced me to do this, child. Spanking the kid did nothing for me. It only made me realize what a fucking failure I was. Oh, and the kid still kept yelling.

Spanking and beating your kid teaches your kid to talk with violence. It validates hitting as a legitimate form of communication. Everything is modeled. I have yelled at my kids, and then seen them yell. I have smacked my kid, and then watched her smack someone else. They don't learn to be good from any of it. They don't learn to sit still and practice piano sonatas. All they learn is, Hey, this works! And then they go practice what you just preached. Beating a kid creates an atmosphere of toxicity in a house that lingers forever: One beating leads to the next, and to the next, and to the next, until parents don't even know why they're beating the kid anymore. They just do. Once it is normalized, it takes root. Parents begin to like the habit. Those pictures of Peterson's kid? The violence can get worse ... much worse ... so much worse it's astonishing.

It is eminently logical, reasonable, and centered around the idea of a father having adult responsibilities he must manage in a way compatible with his maturity and his reason. The continued crisis leads to people reflecting in deeper, more complex ways about the nature of masculinity in football. It solidifies a consensus amongst people who would not have devoted a lot of attention to the issue that domestic violence is a widespread problem, and corporal punishment is not an acceptable parenting strategy. It creates a clear and vocal consensus where it might have been unexpressed, and encourages people to disapprove of behavior that falls outside those norms--a rare, but welcome, sign of social pressure being exerted to good ends. It gives us that most American of spectacles, the sponsors bailing out. Nothing impresses an American like declining the opportunity to make money, and very little makes money like the NFL: if a company does not want to be associated with them, it sends the powerful signal that something has gone terribly wrong.

So long as the condition of Goodell's remaining in office is a continued spotlight on domestic violence, child abuse, and the people who would enable them, I hope he never resigns.

Labels:


12.9.14

An odd little article on the ipod, odd in the way its view of technology is only capable of looking forward: the transition from ipod to cloud-based music-playing services is rendered as some strange new world. But there is nothing new or strange about these services: they are simply radio in some other form. What was radio, after all, if not a means by which to give away control over the music one hears in exchange for someone else curating a collection they assume someone else will like, including the task of introducing them to music of which they would otherwise be unaware? Streaming services are radio simpliciter; cloud-based services like Amazon Prime Music require either individual cultivation or deferring to someone else's playlist.

Here's the thing: radio is uncool. Most people are also uncool. That there was a fifteen year gap in which people did not primarily listen to and acquire new music in this way is the aberration, not the return of the norm. To listen to the radio (especially now) is to admit a level of indifference about what one listens to that is in direct conflict with the development of taste, or with anything other than the initial stages of the development of taste. That's fine--there are a lot of things to care about and one needn't be overly concerned with being on the cutting edge of everything. But it doesn't affect the habits of the serious taste-developing part of the music world because the people who listen to music via the radio aren't part of that world. (In the same way, approximately, that the presence of a library doesn't impact the ability of a person who cares to develop literary taste. It may even help to develop it. But a serious commitment to reading in adult modes will eventually reveal its limitations.)


I have little interest, generally, in whether First Things is a magazine that is supportive of, or hostile to, those Protestants who might read it. It's a magazine founded by a Catholic and run by Catholics (for the most part), and they're certainly welcome to feature or ignore what they want. But this memorial of Wolfheart Pannenburg is an example of doing things wrongly: you could read the article with some attention and miss out on the fact he's Lutheran and thus (at least somewhat) out of step with Catholicism. You'd miss it because there's one scant mention of his being Lutheran and a substantial paragraph devoted to how Catholics did and might now read him. The astute reader will also note that he's continually referred to as a "Christian" thinker, which seems less a way of affirming his general theological interests, and more of a way of not having to use the term 'Lutheran' too much.