Being: Winter Semester

It rains all the time in the Rhine Valley. Dripping, foggy, penetrating damp, Tag ein Tag aus–you would take the coldest of Vermont winters over this.

At the same time, though, it makes the sun all the more beautiful. You wake up to bright clear skies one morning and skip out on an entire day of studying to walk in the city, and to find out how the stained glass windows in the churches look with sun behind them.

They look glorious, by the way.

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St. Stephanskirche, Mainz

It’s strange, this being in a foreign country. Most of the time it all feels normal, more or less like living at home, but then some little thing happens and the strangeness of it all is brought back to you. Sometimes you go outside in the morning and are shocked that people aren’t speaking your native language. It takes several seconds to remember where you are. You keep forgetting the small things–that lines in the supermarket move 10x faster than they do in America, that no one wants to help you in the clothing store, that you won’t be able to do any banking on Friday afternoons because the German motto is work smarter, not longer.

It’s the different conception of academia that shocks you the most, though. Your university–37,000 students, some 150 institutes–is worlds away from the tiny college you graduated from last spring. Part of it’s good–students in Germany have much more freedom, are treated like adults with the ability to plan their own time and think for themselves. But it’s the apathy that gets you.

For instance: your Herr Dr. Professor–widely published, with his own wikipedia page, applauded by the students at the end of every lecture–is teaching Hamlet. He never smiles in class, seems rather bored by the whole affair. You want to go and shake him at the end of the day and say, “This is a privilege, this! Don’t you see–you are so privileged, so lucky, so blessed to be able to teach this text, to be able to teach at all! The existence of Hamlet is a miracle. The fact that you have a job where you get to read Hamlet every day is also a miracle.”

It’s good, though, too, because you now see what you want to spend the rest of your life fighting against: apathy, boredom, this brand of tired post-modernism that sees the entire world as a deconstruction of a deconstruction of a deconstruction. You want to teach with personality, dammit, in a place where you can sit across the desk from your students and talk about beauty and art like they really matter.

Here in Germany, you have the feeling that the professors think you smile too much in class. But how can one not smile–Hamlet is Hamlet. And apathy aside, it’s good to be here. The cathedrals are still glorious.

Immer weiter….

IMG_0514So apparently I just graduated from college. And apparently I am leaving for Germany in a month and a half. What??!!

I’ll be in Germany for the next two years, getting my Masters in Comparative Literature as a DAAD-Stipendiatin. For those of you who wish to keep up with my international adventures, I direct you to my travel blog, http://emilysarahabroad.wordpress.com/. The already-existing content is from my month in Würzburg two summers ago.

Gaudeamus igitur!

Being: Waiting

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Senior year is such a strange time.

You are pulled in all directions at once. Part of you wants to get out, get out, get out–out of the midwest, the eternal flat, the small-town campus, the Catholicism, the insomnia, the March grayness. The other part of you will be weeping come graduation–no more poetry on Friday nights, no more swing dancing till midnight, no more drawing dragons in the writing center walls, no more of those intensely personal discussions on German literature and philosophy that are changing the way you see the world. The way the sun hits the windows of the faculty building when you walk to your 8am Roman Literature course–blood-orange, in-your-eyes because of the flat horizon. You will miss that. It’s the end of something stunning, this leave-taking of an intellectual community from which you have learned and against which you have fought, and which you have loved for the past four years.

And behind it all is the waiting. Everyone is getting job offers, being accepted to graduate school, making wedding plans and looking at apartments. For you, though, everything is entirely up in the air–applications to grad schools in Germany aren’t even open yet, you have no idea where you will be, you have no idea if you will just end up sitting at home next year with all sorts of failed plans. Those scholarship programs you applied to six months ago are probably going to leave you hanging until you go crazy, and you won’t hear anything positive anyway. You listen to Bach and lots of bad pop music.

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And then suddenly, you aren’t waiting any more. The morning that you know you will finally hear something, you take a walk into town in the freezing wind, to try to calm yourself down. Revel in it–these are the last few hours when the possibilities are still infinite.

And then suddenly there’s an email, and it’s not from the Fulbright at all, but from that other program you applied to and really never thought you’d get–the one that will send you to Germany for two whole years, the one that will give you more money than you’ve ever had to get a Masters in Comparative Literature somewhere in Bavaria. That one. And you’ve won it–the highest stipend they give. The possibilities are still infinite. The enigmatic German professor practically starts crying when you tell him, and denies everything when you try to say that he wrote your letter of recommendation and your language evaluation and thus deserves as much of the credit as anyone. The world is insane.

Everything happens very fast–call everyone, cancel the summer job, look at apartment prices, email Germanistik departments, learn more about German geography in a week than you have in the past three years. By the end of the week, you are emotionally exhausted–shocked, overwhelmingly grateful. It still doesn’t seem quite real, but when you call the scholarship office in New York City they know your name.

In exactly three months, you will be flying to Europe.

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Photography from my incredibly talented sister.

Literature: Franz Kafka II: Dialogue, Humanism, God

I’m still trying to sort out Franz Kafka. He was the topic of this semester’s independent literature study–my second-to-last in the on-going project with the enigmatic German Professor, which began three semesters ago with Thomas Mann and Robert Musil. It’s the best thing I’ve done as a student here, this intensely personal investigation of tortuous novels that has expanded to include music, philosophy, aesthetics, and myth.

Franz Kafka is such a different figure than Mann or Musil. His obsessions are different, as are his questions and his solutions. His world is entirely opposed to Thomas Mann’s, all secular humanism and sparkling irony and the brilliant residue of 3,000 years of art–opposed, too, to Musil’s intensely private universe, where the glance shared between two people occupies a dozen pages of metaphor-laden prose. If Mann addresses the relationship between man and his intellectual heritage, and Musil the relationship between man and himself, then Kafka addresses the relationship between man and God. His spirituality is real and aching and, and Camus writes, the questions he poses are those of a soul in quest of its grace. What do we do when we are confronted with the Other-worldly? Is God cruel and absurd, or full of goodness? Can human wisdom and strength win a way to the Divine? Certainly, one can read Kafka as a critique of modern bureaucracy, the industrialization of mankind, etc. etc.–but to me it is the religious nature of his works that transcends.

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Leaving philosophy aside, what about the writing itself? To me, perhaps the most pressingly disturbing aspect of Kafka’s prose was its lack of a Bezugsrahmen–a frame of reference or allusion, an overt dialogue between the author and the art and thought of the past three millennia. Kafka’s world exists apparently in a vacuum, in a universe of isolation that is as cultural and intellectual as it is personal. His characters don’t hang pictures from Dürer or Caspar David Friedrich on their walls; they don’t read books by Schopenhauer or Plato. There are no direct references in the novels (Schloss, Prozess) to Shakespeare or to Nietzsche or Antiquity–as readers, we are hardly aware that such things exist. If there is a dialogue between Kafka’s figures and their intellectual forebears, it is hidden.

This utter lack of reference to a greater intellectual tradition is especially unsettling to me, because I revel in The Dialogue, locate great spiritual and intellectual meaning in my ability to connect to three thousand years of thought. To have these connections ripped out from under my feet is intensely disorienting. How different, again, from Thomas Mann! His books are dialogues in essence–long, heady, sometimes tortuous conversations between the ideas and worldviews and artworks of human civilization. And as a result, none of his figures are ever truly isolated. Certainly, they are sometimes despairing, desperate, lonely. In spite of it all, though, they always partake of and above all believe in an intellectual and artistic tradition that is greater than any individual–a tradition that offers, I think, a sort of transcendence, a consolation.

In Kafka there is no such consolation. There is none of Coriolanus’ there is a world elsewhere, no sense that Kafka’s figures can find redemption by situating their own struggles within a philosophical or aesthetic framework that has existed for millennia and will carry on after they are gone. Joseph stands before the court in The Trial and never thinks, “Ah, so it was with Socrates in Athens. I understand now; this is what I am to do.” K. fights unceasingly to gain entrance in the castle, but he does so without the great dictum of Goethe’s Faust: Wer immer strebend sich bemüht, den können wir erlösen. Whoever strives with all his might–that man can we redeem. He remains isolated, intellectually as well as physically.

But in the end, isn’t this lack of a Bezugsrahmen infinitely fitting to Kafka’s universe? The lack of a Dialogue, the emptiness, the intellectual silence all serve to emphasize aloneness of the characters. Their hermetic solitude is perhaps the tragedy of the novels.

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Kafka’s world is also disturbingly free of humanism. Humanism tells us that men and women can move forward on their own strength, can become wiser and better and more farsighted in ways that accomplish things, in ways that lead to creation or beauty or salvation. Kafka takes these ideas and turns them upside down.

He does this above all in Before the Law, the page-long parable at the end of The Trial. In the story, a nameless man seeks in vain to gain access to the Law (grace, God, heaven?). There are a series of gates in his way, and a door-warden who rebuffs all of his attempts to enter even the first. The man sometimes sees a gleam of light through the passageway beyond the door, but dies at the end of the story without ever having set foot inside.

The story, I believe, is fundamentally a-humanistic. The seeker doesn’t become stronger through all his questioning, striving, learning, believing–but rather the opposite.

Kafka becomes anti-Goethe. Whoever strives with all his might–that man dies of exhaustion.

In this light, perhaps the most tragic sentence in the novels is the door-warden’s final statement to the man, in his last moments of life: “Der Eingang war nur für dich bestimmt. Ich gehe jetzt und schließe ihn.” The entrance was only meant for you. I am going now and closing it. That is our torture, our tragedy–that we are wise enough to know such an entrance exists, and wise enough to seek it with all our strength–but too limited, physically and spiritually, to ever gain entrance on our own strength. Humanity finds itself in an impossible position.

In this way, I think, Kafka’s is a world that the ancient Greeks would have recognized–where human beings are fundamentally weak, where their limitations are at the forefront of human existence. The divine realm exists, sends messengers, is tangible and present–but is ultimately careless and inscrutable.

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There is one more thing about Kafka’s characters, however, at the end of it all: wherever they are, in whatever circumstances, despite all confusion and weakness–they are always going to a window and opening it, and looking out. I like to imagine that this throwing-open of windows, repeated again and again throughout the novels, is itself a sort of human victory. It doesn’t matter that the world beyond the windows is often dark and snow-filled. It’s the action that counts.

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If I had finished this post five days ago, I would have ended it there. Kafka’s books are superb because they are so unbearably, unflinchingly bleak. Reading him is fascinating and compelling and cathartic in the same way reading Greek tragedy is, because we are presented with a world in which there is no out. A few open windows, a gleam of light through a impenetrable gate–what’s that, really? The works end with human limitation writ large.

Now, however, I’m entrenched in Søren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, and it’s throwing all of Kafka into a very new light.

Per Kierkegaard, Kafka is drawing our attention not to human weakness, but to mankind’s incredible, defiant potential for perseverance, for real and tangible hope. His characters are the greatest of heroes because they are heroes of faith. They have looked into the absurd and comprehended the paradox and have chosen to believe.

But that’s all still half-formed, still confused in my own mind. There will be more to come later. In the end, Kafka is the sort of author who shifts over time–and that, I think, is why we read him.

Being: A Scholar and a Lady

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERAAs a teenager, my two greatest aspirations were to be manly and intellectual.

Manly and intellectual–because to be intellectual is to be manly, of course, I thought, and vice versa. That’s just the way things go. Men are the scholars, men write the books, men are the philosophers and composers, men are the thinkers.

Before I left for college, this never really bothered me. I loved men–their thoughts, their art, their history (I still do). I had nothing against women; I just wasn’t interested in adopting their usual aspirations. When I was younger, I wanted to be the men I read about–I was Robin Hood, or Lewis and Clark, making wooden swords and killing monsters and obsessing over The Hardy Boys and Jules Verne. I picked out books from the library because they looked masculine, and therefore scholarly. The old editions, heavy, with gilt lettering and no pictures. That was cool.

And all my literary heroes were men–Socrates, Hector, Don Quixote, Werther, Faust, Hamlet, Hans Castorp. The men who think about things, the men who love words. It was their image I wanted to cultivate for myself, was in love with. It was what I wanted for my future adult self, both as a way-of-being and as a career. I had intellectual aspirations in highschool, read my Latin and Greek and listened to inordinate amounts of German opera. I was going to be a professor, and a thinker like all those men in my books. I was going to have a book-lined study and wear patched tweed jackets. I was going to live the [masculine] life of the mind.

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But then I went to college and became a reluctant feminist, and suddenly the image I loved (or rather, my love for that image) became deeply disturbing. Perhaps I had the makings of a scholar–but I was not, after all, a man.

The question was unavoidable: what happens when one is a scholar, but not a gentleman? Because it is only the men, who are portrayed as capable of devoting themselves to the stringent, lonesome, heady, wonderful world of the intellect and academia. That’s what the media tells us, that’s what 3,000 years of art tells us. Think: name one film, one book, that portrays it otherwise. The intellectual, the aging male professor, in a dusty study surrounded by books, the pipe-smoke, the tweed jackets, the unkempt hair. Faust in his dumpfes Mauerloch, Socrates pattering about Athens in rags, Prospero with his scrolls and spells, Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society. This is the image we know and expect, in all its variations over the past millennia. Scholarship, reason, dialectic, debate–all these are somehow masculine traits. The archetype of intellectuality–the life of the mind–belongs to men.

I knew all this in highschool, at some level. But somehow I never saw any obstacles to my desire to take up the role and adopt the image for myself. Now it all seemed insurmountably problematic. I was female, after all–but the woman intellectual just didn’t fit the mold, didn’t have a place in three thousand years of art. She didn’t have an image, a reflection somewhere in the collective consciousness.

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERAI wasn’t going to give anything up, because I loved my dreams, loved the archetype of the (male) academic. The rigor, the Word, the devotion to thought, the study and the books–it was in this universe that I was most joyful. But–did my pursuit of the life of the mind, as a career and a way-of-being, imply a betrayal of femininity? Had I already done that? Or, conversely–was the image that I loved one I, as a female, was even allowed to participate in?

How do I be female (let alone feminist)–I asked–while pursuing an image that is so overtly male? What heroes do I take, what scholarship do I produce?

Yes, there are people (and ever more of them!) like the new young Classics professor in my school’s department. She is tenure-track, publishes widely on Platonic philosophy, has the book-lined study–and is also married and pregnant, and is teaching an entire semester of Myth in heels and power suits. She is doing it all, with intelligence and grace. But–what is she drawing on? Where are her heroes, her archetypes? Even her presence in my life, for which I am incredibly grateful, doesn’t do a thing to fill the void of the past 3,000 years.

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And yet–and yet–I am beginning to see how one might revel in the ambiguity, in the silence of art, in the lack of a self-reflection in mainstream literature and film. Isn’t it all incredibly freeing, after all? As a woman and hopeful future scholar, I have no archetypes, no image that belongs rigidly to me–and so I can create! I can make a new idiom, new tropes, and let go of the idea that I have to adhere to the old ones.

In this way, female intellectuals and academicians have much more freedom than their male counterparts–their existence is fluid, flexible. To steal another lovely German word, they are Mischwesen. Mixed beings. They are between two worlds, and they can move between them.

I can move between them. And I do. I wear skirts and heels to class one day, tweed jackets and button-downs the next. I can produce real scholarship, maybe write that book on metaphor one day, and still want to be a mother and a wife. I can write on “Women’s Issues” if I wish, or not. I can still hold on to all those old male heroes, but realize that they only tell half the story.

“You’ll never be a cult figure,” says the young Classics professor, when I stop by her office to thank her for three years of good teaching. “That’s just not how students relate to female professors.” I think about the dozens of freshmen I work with in the Writing Center, all breathless with adulation for their male Heritage and Lit professors. Can I let that go? Yes, I think so. Did I even want it in the first place? Perhaps not. No human being deserves worship. I will be content with (and honored for!) the chance to earn respect in the classroom, to create and participate in dialogue, to think and write about beautiful things.

But I still have a long way to go. In the meantime, I revel in this in-between area. There’s something incredibly playful about it all, in the end. It is the space, the vacancy, and the silence that allow for real creativity.

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Perhaps someday the image of the female intellectual will start making it into the collective consciousness, into mainstream art and film and literature. Perhaps someday there will be a new type. But maybe, I think, I don’t even want that to happen. Archetypes and images are comforting, but in the end they imply restriction, a lack of freedom.

In the moment, I like falling through the cracks.

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This article from thehumanist.org has many fascinating things to say on women in academia.

The photo was taken outside the Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich. The sign reads “Women, women, women.”

Being: Fulbright II

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERAHere is the second part of my ETA Fulbright application–the Statement of Purpose. It’s a bit more business-like than the first, but perhaps of interest to other applicants. This whole process has put all other writing projects on hold…I should be back to normal posting next week. The picture is from one lovely day in Munich last summer.

My love of Germany began with opera and old books–Wagner and Thomas Mann, specifically, revelled in over the course of three long highschool summers. It was heady stuff, and by the time I graduated I had erected a sort of German Mythos, all leitmotiv and Rhine rivers and half-mad artists. It was toweringly beautiful, I found, but essentially unreal, disconnected from the questions and concerns of the 21st century.

Now, nearly four years later, I feel like the Mythos has transferred into reality. I have learned German, spent time abroad, sought above all to ground my love of old art in contemporary existence. Last spring, I sat at a conference on modern Germany and realized what draws me to the country as it is today: it was the willingness of the panelists to engage with difficult issues head-on, the transparency,* the urgency behind the questions they were posing. This wasn’t distant academia–here were real people and concerns, sometimes uncomfortably close. Land, race, language, memory. What do those things mean today, and how do they shape who we are? We ask ourselves the same sort of questions in America, of course. In Germany, however, the discussion seems often to be more more critical, the answers brought into sharper focus because of Germany’s historical heritage and current position in Europe.

In the end, then, this is why I am applying for an ETA in Germany–not only for the beauty of their art, but because the important questions there are so pressing. The country today seems to serve as sort of catalyst for the hard questions, for investigations which can then be turned around to reflect on issues in America and elsewhere.

As a student of languages interested in pursuing education as a career, I am thrilled for the opportunities of growth and service the ETA provides. I bring almost ten years of teaching experience to the program, and a fascination with the methods of pedagogy that goes back to childhood. As a homeschooled student, I was encouraged to translate the academic into the personal, to observe what worked and what didn’t at the most concrete level. This early experience made clear to me the power of individualized, hands-on learning. Today, my job in the Writing Center is teaching me the value of real Socratic dialogue and conversation, my position as a German tutor the skill of simplicity and conciseness. As the co-director of the Latin program at a local school, finally, I have learned the importance of organization: education, however inspired, can hardly be effective without the framework of well-defined goals and curricula.

Today, I seek to bring these qualities–personalization, dialogue, simplicity, organization–to whatever teaching situation I find myself in. In a program like the ETA, however, I would add one more element: an ongoing, inclusive discussion of US culture and politics. As a participant in my college’s required courses on America’s historical, intellectual, and political heritage, I have had excellent models for this sort of exchange. While in Germany, I would be honored to serve as a representative of both the US and the Fulbright by helping students draw connections between their experiences and my own.

Outside of the classroom, I hope to continue to pursue the vital questions connected with the study of German thought. I am and always will be fascinated by 19th- and early 20th-century music, literature, and philosophy. In the end, however, there is always something discomfiting about my study of old art–a feeling that, by taking it all so seriously, I am disconnecting myself from the issues of today. With these concerns in mind, while in Germany I would like to examine the heritage of creators like Wagner and Mann in the context of the 21st century. How do these figures continue to be a part of the cultural and political dialogues of today? Most importantly, how are current German thinkers building on their legacy, and how are they moving beyond? In answering these questions I will seek real involvement wherever I am placed in Germany, especially in contemporary artistic, cultural, and academic circles.

Bieto ParsifalCalixto Bieito’s 2010 production of Parsifal, for instance. This is Richard Wagner in the 21st century–hard-hitting, painful, real. Perhaps ludicrous. Wo ist Gott?

Such a project will not only offer me a platform for social engagement while an ETA, but also lay the groundwork for further studies in the country. I intend to pursue a Masters in Comparative Literature in Germany, before returning to America for a PhD in Germanistik. With the experience gained as a Fulbrighter, I will be better equipped to one day teach languages and literature at an American university, and able to bring a more holistic perspective to the study of German art, literature, and thought–both the old and the new.

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*This theme of transparency in contemporary Germany is fascinating to me, and seems to play out at all sorts of different levels, art and academia aside. Scroll down this post from last summer, for instance, to pictures of the Reichstag and other government buildings in Berlin, architectural mirrors of the same clarity and openness.

Being: Fulbright

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The below is a reasonably polished draft of my personal statement for the Fulbright Scholarship Program, specifically their English Teaching Assistantship–an opportunity almost impossible to attain, but too gleaming to pass up. It would place me in a German school for a year, teaching English to high school students, with a full stipend and time for outside research and study. And doors opened to me for further study in the United States or abroad. I can’t not try. The photograph is taken from my front porch.

In his Glasperlenspiel, Hermann Hesse defines vocation as a Call and an Admonition. It is a Call, he writes, because to experience one’s vocation is first to experience a summons from without, whether in the form of an idea, event, or another human being. This meeting of self and the world, he continues, brings with it an Admonition–the one called now has a charge to make good on it, to reach out to others as he or she was once reached out to. Vocation is both a gift and a commandment, and as such has the power to shape a career and a life.

My vocation is to teach. I define the word in its broadest sense: to share knowledge, to bring into dialogue and create conversation, to give others something that will shake them up and force them to see the world in a slightly different way. To engage in the pursuit of knowledge with the goal of giving it all back one day.

I’ve always had the passion, I think, though things were once more complicated. Homeschooled on a mountain farm in Vermont, I had few opportunities in highschool to engage in the sort of intensive academic dialogue I was looking for. I grew up surrounded by a supportive family and exhilaratingly lovely physical space, but my intellect was a closed loop–impatient, grasping, restless. Though I listened and talked and read, my desire to teach had nowhere to go.

Still, I tried. I hosted a series of “Symposiums” for siblings and family members, where I delivered pretentiously-titled lectures on joy in Nietzsche and early psychoanalysis. I read books my parents would not have approved of, and then blew my cover because I had to talk about them. I found online forums where I could write page-long posts about stage production in German opera. Outside of school, I led tours and taught fiber arts classes on our farm to hundreds of children and adults from around the world. But it wasn’t enough—by my senior year I was making myself crazy with excess intellectual energy, on the edge of serious depression and academically horribly lonely.

After all of that, stepping onto my college campus was like stepping into the sun. This was Hesse’s Call—suddenly there were hands reaching out, pulling me alongside, giving me a place to stand and more opportunities than I could take advantage of. The intellectual dialogue that had existed for me only in the ideal world became suddenly vital, something I could take hold of as a career and a future.

It was at college, then, that I fell fully in love with teaching. Today, as a rising senior I have my own third-grade Latin classroom at a local Preparatory School, spend my evenings working in the Writing Center, hash out adjective endings and coach oral exams as a German tutor. I take students to the opera and talk about politics and music, sit on undergraduate conference panels on Greek tragedy or 20th century Germany. A professor told me last semester, “Don’t go into teaching unless you have a fire in your belly.” I do, I said, and this is where I want to be.

And what about the future? I hope to continue my studies and someday teach at the college level. Wherever I end up, however, education will always be for me as much a career as a life philosophy. Firstly, because I have always found that teaching, along with being an artist, is of all the professions the most hopeful: it begins with the understanding that there is something in mankind worth passing on, and those worth passing it on to. That, to me, is the root of all humanism, of all true creation and scholarship. And secondly, because the worldview behind education leaves so much room for awe, curiosity, and humility. There is something both incredibly humbling and beautiful about working with the human mind, about seeking to unlock its potential for admiration and understanding.

Above all, though, I want to teach because of the second part of Hermann Hesse’s definition–the Admonition, the commandment. For me, it’s not enough just to be grateful to those professors who sought me out when I was very much alone. I want to offer something in return for their investment. And so I would be honored for the chance to reach out to other young people, to talk to them, to let them speak when they are trying to say something. In the end, teaching does not just or even primarily have to do with imparting knowledge–it is also about giving others the tools they need and the opportunity to articulate a voice.

This, I think, is what it means to make the pursuit of knowledge unrelentingly, magnificently personal.

Being: Writing Center

still-life-writing-tableStill Life Writing Table, William Michael Harnett

This was supposed to be finished and posted a month ago, while I was still at college, which is of course where this is set. Finals Week and Goethe Institut exams put an end to that. Here ’tis.

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You work at the Writing Center, and you love it.

The place is a little sanctuary in the ancient basement of the Old Union, full of MLA handbooks and half-drunk mugs of coffee and tea. The entire side wall is a blackboard, scrawled with thesis diagrams, pictures of phoenixes, and the usual quotes from Eliot and Shakespeare. Words, words, words. And the Fire and the Rose are one. During Finals’ Week some witty Latinist replaced the diagrams with a line from Virgil’s Aenead: Forsan et haec olim meminisse juvabit. And perhaps someday you will rejoice to remember even this.

You and the other tutors play at being half-psychologist-half-Socrates. You are only allowed to ask questions, absolutely no being “directive,” as the crazy bearded English professor who runs the place informs you. If the students cry on your watch, well then, that is their own fault and not yours. They should have started their papers earlier. He has no pity for criers, nor did he when he himself was an undergrad Writer Center tutor. Things were tough, back in the day.

When it comes to the tutoring sessions, you are quite run-of-the-mill. Tell me what you think about Odysseus, give me a thesis, what do you know about commas, have you considered that your textual evidence is worse than non-existent? Contrary to the English Professor’s creed, you can’t help but feel sorry for the sniffling freshmen on their third all-nighter, twelve hours to go before class and only a half-cocked thesis to go on. You give them tissues, and remind them that they are here to engage in the lofty pursuit of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful, not to lose their sanity over a looming C- on a Smith paper. Such a line of argument is rarely successful.

Some of your fellow tutors are more, well, novel in their methods. Daniel manages to terrify every student who signs up for him, even the Honors’ kids, by conducting his sessions perched on the back of a chair while bouncing a tennis ball maniacally off the edge of the table–already balding at the age of 23, bow-tie disheveled, always smelling a little of pipe smoke and whiskey. Somehow he is able to turn each 20-minute session into a monologue on Eucharistic imagery in Hamlet, whether the paper at hand is on Homer or Dante or twentieth-century aestheticism. You and the other tutors are awed and a bit frightened by his ability to do this.

When there are no students, however, you talk. Professors, grad school, Shakespeare Shakespeare Shakespeare. And Eucharistic imagery in Hamlet, of course. Lots of that. You know to stay away from the topic of women in academia, because you don’t want to hear again that your only options are getting married and raising a family. There is always someone being converted to Catholicism outside in the hall. There are always debates on the validity of Cormac McCarthy. One night before Finals’ Week, you all read the Ghost scene aloud. The time is out of joint….oh, that ever I was born to set it right. What was he talking about?

~~~~~~

For the past month, the senior Honors students have been writing their theses. They have taken up the four “cells” at the end of the center, the normally tidy blue rooms with just space to set a laptop. Now they are full of old pizza boxes, pipe tobacco, icons, prayer books, crucifixes, stacks and stacks of books–Elizabethan England, Aesthetics, Bonhoeffer, T.S. Eliot, The Sublime. Someone took the whiteboard markers and drew a hundred pictures of fat cats all over the glass windows. It was probably Karl, who is rather obsessed with cats. The college-aged mind’s innate surrealism never ceases to amaze you.

Travis has the most orderly cell. He, double major in Classics and History, buzzed up on gallons of bad free coffee from the Career Center, is having a FANTASTIC thesis writing experience. He informs everyone of this fact at least six times each evening. He is writing on Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer is AMAZING, EVERYONE should LOVE him, he CAN’T BELIEVE how brilliant he is, isn’t it WONDERFUL to be able to write such a thing as a thesis?? He finishes his final draft a week early. This is hard for the rest of the thesis-writers to stomach.

Daniel takes it particularly hard. Fifty pages behind, in disagreement with his adviser, he has started sitting under his desk because the lowness of the position matches the increasingly-penitential nature of the whole undertaking. He is desperately regretting giving up both cigarettes and beer for Lent. His various mutterings are becoming ever more incoherent.

“Chaos…chaos…why is my brain full of chaos? Why is every paper I write on Hamlet? Chaos, I tell you……”

Rachel, the kindest of the tutors who bakes cookies for the weeping freshmen, is concerned. “Do you want consolation or an answer? Or tea? How about some tea?” But there aren’t any clean mugs left.

He caves the night before his defense and smokes a cigarette, Lent be damned. This prompts an existential crisis the following morning, and a hasty trip to confession. But his defense is brilliant, and you tell him you think he is going to be fine. You are all going to be fine, actually, you say, when you meet in the Center one last time after everything is over, to clean the blackboard and wash a semesters’ worth of stale coffee out of the mugs. You will rejoice at even this. You know because you are already rejoicing.

Literature: B.H. Fairchild

durer-self_portrait-1500Albrecht Dürer, Self Portrait, 1500

The second poem I heard read here at school was B.H. Fairchild’s Rave On. Someone declaimed it, almost shouting, in a house full of pictures of saints and students who thought that this poet was the closest thing to a hero we had. Rave On was everything we wanted to be, and Beauty too, perhaps more than the first.

There is a  B.H. Fairchild night here every semester, somewhere between Eliot and Shakespeare in the line-up of authors. His poems are hard-hitting, occasionally obscene, constructing a bridge between high art and the brutally quotidian. Machine-shop innuendos and carwrecks and dying midwest towns in the same universe as Dürer and Virgil and Bach. They always draw a crowd–students  leaning on the window-ledges and couch backs, thumbed paperback copies of The Art of the Lathe and Usher on the floor. And this semester, B.H. Fairchild was visiting the campus in April. B.H. Fairchild, the man, in person! We were elated.

He was as paradoxical as his poems, narcissistic in the way of very intelligent people who know they have led extraordinary lives. He gave a lecture and a reading in cowboy boots and a suit jacket, worker’s hands and lined face. His father was a machinist who didn’t read. He was enthralled by words and a professor of English at a prestigious university. He spoke about wanting to save his students and not being able to, about how poetic language was akin to the coming into Being-in-the-world, the thing itself, the going-on. All that he wished for his poetry, he said, was that it be a small thing done well.

At the off-campus house where he had been idolized for years, he rambled about all the shitty things he and the guys did in highschool, how the rest of them started a band and went to California and made it big (hot chicks and convertables) while he slogged away at his PhD in English. He doesn’t reccommend doing that, by the way–the college part, that is, not the California debauch. Not right away. Not if you are 18 and male and live through poems like Rave On.

He signed the wall of the off-campus house before he left, like the other visiting poets before him but twice as large. We were exuberant.

~~~~~

At the luncheon I told him that I had been to Nürnberg and had seen Dürer’s self portrait and had such a love of it and of his poem about the work, Blood Rain. Dürer as Christ, the artist as divinity–what a crazy, bold statement, a century before Hamlet and opera and the burgeoning of the human self as a worthy subject of art. He said that he thought Dürer must have been the smug, self-satisfied type, to paint something like that. I didn’t agree, and didn’t think his poem did, either.

 

Blood Rain

Like rust on iron, red algae invading rain.

And again, the plague. Nuremberg in ruin.

At home alone, the artist prays for grace

while, gates flung open, the neighbor’s geese

roam the yard in droves, and their wild honks

and the ravings of a servant girl bring Dürer

to the window. She stands there, her wet hair

clumped in black strands, and her arms fall limp

in a great sob, her head lolling, while the damp

shift she wears blotters the rain in red streaks–

like a wound slowly spreading, Dürer sees, to make

a sign: in the bleeding fabric of her dress

as if etched in copper hangs Christ upon His Cross

between two ghosts. Cruel miracles, God’s grace

drawn in God’s blood on the body of a girl who sighs

at him, swoons, and collapses in the mud.

~~~~~

Outside, gutters turning scarlet, the dead

hauled from house to wagon, cries of women

battering the window panes. Inside, the burin

drops from Dürer’s hand as the girl wakes

and rises from the bench below his portrait,

done in Munich the year of the apocalypse, but

never to be sold, never to leave the artist’s house.

She touches once more God’s message on her dress,

then turns and stares at the painting’s face

so solemn, so god-like in its limpid gaze,

that she backs away to study the long brown locks

spread evenly about His shoulders, the beatific

right hand held more gently than the blessing

of a priest, and the inscription in a tongue

she does not understand. This is Christ!

No, it’s me, he says, touching hand to chest,

~~~~~

the rough right hand, the human chest, the heart’s dream

of art’s divinity as death rolls down the street.

 

B. H. Fairchild, Early Occult Memory Systems of the Lower Midwest, 2003

 

Being: Spring Semester

snowstorm3It is the coldest of Februarys, all frozen mud and raw mid-western sleet. Der Wind, der Wind, das himmlische Kind–no matter which way you walk, it blows in your face.

This semester is full of Robert Musil, and you love him. You try to talk in German about the part of human existence that lies outside of words. You fail.

Latin. You start admiring secondary literature for the first time in your life, thanks to the young Classics professor who gives you as much literary theory and crazy feminist interpretations of Ovid as you could wish for. She is new to the department, and the adulation of the female Latin and Greek students is only slightly veiled. An article by Foucault on the death of the author derails the seminar and her office hours for half a week.

 
What if the author didn’t matter? You are still debating this point days later, with the vanload of bright-eyed 19-year-old Classicists on the way to teach Latin to third graders.

And Eros, from Plato’s Symposium, in Greek, with Thomas Mann’s Der Tod in Venedig added in for good measure. Everything is thrown open. There is more here than you ever thought. Eros as possession and procreation. Eros as philosophy and the philosopher together. Eros as the mediator transcendent, halfway between foolishness and wisdom, poverty and wealth, appearance and reality. Eros as a way of being–give and take, presence and absence, the tension and release at the root of all scholarship and of all being-in-love-with. It is the idea of the semester.

~~~~~

Elsewhere. Being a good Nietzschean and nagged by the fear that you just might turn into Hesse’s Steppenwolf, you resolve to learn to dance. You find out that you are more horrible at it than you thought. This is a great disappointment not only to yourself, but also to whatever poor sap ends up partnering with you in Social Dance 101.

Young Goethe from last semester has grown out his sideburns and entirely ruined his looks.  You decide that he amply compensated, though, by simultaneously darning his own jacket and reciting Auden last Friday.

The other weekly readers of poetry and singers of songs have fixated on medieval chant. Crucem Sanctam Subiit–there are a dozen verses, and everyone must learn them all so you can sing them thirty-five voices strong, pounding on the floor, the faces of the young men transfigured in some sort of spiritual ecstasy. They all want to be monks someday.

_______________________

Photograph from my sister, ever-talented.