Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Einstein: Not What's Taught, but the Teacher

(reflections on a quotation from Einstein in an article by Thomas Martin, "Einstein on Independent Thought" in the St. Croix Review, April 2009, p. 38 ff.)

Philosophy teacher Thomas Martin writes of picking up an old volume of Einstein's Ideas and Opinions, and running across the following text:
It is not enough to teach a man a specialty. ...He must acquire a vivid sense of the beautiful and the morally good. ...He must learn to understand the motives of human beings, their illusions, and their sufferings, in order to acquire a proper relationship to individual fellow men and to community. . .
All of this seemed unexceptionable. However, the next part was a surprise:

These precious things are conveyed to the younger generation through personal contact with those who teach, not -- or at least not in the main -- through textbooks.

My first mentors in school teaching said essentially the same thing. "More is caught than taught," said Dr. Berkley Latimer, the principal who hired me. "Let the children know your story," advised Dorothy Kitchings, the woman who created the middle school where I was assigned my first classes. Einstein continues:

It is this [contact of teacher to student] that primarily constitutes and preserves culture. This is what I have in mind when I recommend the "humanities" as important, not just dry specialized knowledge in the fields of history and philosophy.

How reassuring, especially at a time of year when I'm afraid that I'm not going to finish the textbook, and when I sometimes indulge myself in side stories about things I've read or seen that may be only tangents to what's in our text.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Updike's ENDPOINT: Light at Sunset

(Reflections upon John Updike's final poem sequence ENDPOINT. He died in January of this year.)

Calling himself "a literary Mr. Sunshine" in a poem collected in AMERICANA (2001) (39), John Updike turned clarifying light on any subject of his essays, stories, poems and reviews. The week that he died, NPR's Terry Gross spoke at unprecedented length about her appreciation for his art as a writer, and for this quality of intelligent appreciation that animated his interviews with her. Then we heard it, how he started each response to her questions with insights that buttressed whatever she had said, before he gently turned away to disagree.

In his writing, Updike never shied from the darkest and foulest parts (however often I wished he had), but he always highlighted "whatever is good, whatever is true, whatever is just" in the subject at hand.

Nine years after AMERICANA, he turns that same light on his own aging and death in ENDPOINT AND OTHER POEMS. The title piece is a set of poems aligned with verses that he composed on his last birthdays. Naturally, these touch on themes of self-evaluation of his own legacy.

He repeats the image of his past lying under water, "at bottom." Pained by neuralgia, mind "vacant" from birthday chatter, he thinks "The boy I was no longer smiles / a greeting from the bottom of the well, / blue sky behind him from a story book" (3). For Updike, "Roosevelt's sunk Depression world" had become "Atlantis at the bottom of a life, / descried through sliding thicknesses of time" (17). He returns once again to scenes familiar from non-fiction and from their appearances (slightly altered) in numerous short stories -- the hapless school - teacher father, the bitterly disappointed mother, the afternoons with the silent grandparents and refuge in radio and comics. He admits, "I've written these before, these modest facts, / but their meaning has no bottom in my mind" (27).

His own career as a writer seems to bring him modest satisfaction. He remembers pride, "to see my halt words strut in type," and more, "to have my spines / line up upon the shelf, one more each year, / however out of kilter ran my life!" (10). The wives he wronged and the children for whom he wrote, provided material for that writing: "I drank up women's tears and spat them out / as 10-point Janson, Roman and ital." He writes an ode of appreciation to his own right hand, that old "five - fingered beast of burden, dappled with / some psoriatic spots I used to hate." But ugly as it is, it served to "carve from language beauty, that beauty which / lifts free of flesh to find itself in print" (12). He thanks words themselves that "formed, of those I loved, more solid ghosts" (19).

Yet, in some of the more striking passages, Updike seems resigned to a future without him and without his work, "For who, in that unthinkable future / when I am dead, will read?" (8) He asserts, "The printed page / was just a half-millennium's brief wonder" to awaken the Medieval "world long dulled by plagues and plainsong." Updike explains how "the Bible freed / spelled trouble," smashing the stained glass and leaving "clear windows" to see "that self which tribal ways suppressed, and whose articulation asked a world of books." In these witty few lines, Updike has sketched out everything from the Reformation to 20th century ideologies.
Then he is nonplussed by an eerie scene in an electronics store: he comes upon a little girl, separated from mother, staring at images on a hi-def plasma screen, "her face as close and rapt as at an udder / motionlessly drinking something in" (17) from what he elsewhere scorns as the "infotainment web" (59). He has glimpsed the future, and the belles - lettres aren't in it.

Then, after a career of writing about characters who try to avoid death - the adolescent boy's horror at the beauty of feathers from a pigeon he shot, the ex-basketball star's running away from responsibility, the couples who enmesh themselves in a cocoon of sexual relations to escape meaninglessness - Updike faces the real thing. The sequence of poems gathers emotional heft in the manner of a novel. In "Hospital 11/23 - 27 / 08" he tells himself "The world is blanketed by foregone deaths, / small beads of ego, bright with appetite," who comprise "a jagged coral shelf / unseen beneath the black unheeding waves." But when his grandchildren visit, and he is "politely quizzing them / on their events and prospects," he asks himself if he must "uphold the social lie / that binds us all together in blind faith / that nothing ends, not youth nor age nor strength." His answer: "My tongue / says yes; within, I lamely drown" (23).

When the death sentence comes, he sets it simply, at the end of a sonnet: "The gland, biopsied, showed metastasis." He rhymes it with "peace" (29).

Finally, Updike performs for the last time a trick that has made him a marvel to me during these past twenty-three years of enjoying him (I started with ROGER'S VERSION). That is, he rounds his work out with a framing reference. How often he has done that before, in amazing ways, as if he'd planned it all along. Thirty years apart, Rabbit plays basketball with teenaged boys. Though the flustered young Mr. Maples forgot to kiss his bride in a short story published in the early 1950s, he finds an appropriate way to complete the civil ceremony of their divorce in a story written decades later. Nearly forty years after publishing MIDPOINT, Updike now publishes ENDPOINT. And this sequence of poems, written years apart, begun in health and ending in a hospital bed, begins and ends with verses that finish with the same thought:

Nature is never bored, and we whose lives
are linearly pinned to these aloof
self-fascinated cycles [of seasons] can't complain,
though aches and pains and even dreams a - crawl
with wood lice of decay give pause to praise . . . (5)

...The timbrel creed of praise
gives spirit to the daily; blood tinges lips.
The tongue reposes in papyrus pleas,
saying, Surely -- magnificent, that "surely" --
goodness and mercy shall follow me all
the days of my life, my life, forever. (29)

It's the Saturday before Easter, recalling Updike's much earlier poem, "Seven Stanzas at Easter," and it seems apropos.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping, transcendence,
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the faded
credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.

[See an index of my other reflections on Updike's work at my Updike page..]

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Black, White, and Noire: Walter Mosley and Ross MacDonald

(Reflections after reading THE IVORY GRIN (1952) by Ross MacDonald and BLONDE FAITH (Grand Central, 2008) by Walter Mosley)

In one of the throw-away lines that make Walter Mosley's novels so rich, detective Easy Rawlins reflects that he is "no more a private eye than . . . any soul sitting in that [black dive, ca. 1966]. Each and every one of us was examining and evaluating clues all the time, day and night" (98).

Once the novel gets started, say, around the second page when Easy is commissioned to find a missing girl, Easy follows one lead after another to a variety of places: a low-rent duplex (behind a promotional tire two stories high), the public library, and a car dealership. Each place pits him against a challenge: How to get past the white goons who won't let him in? How to get info from the dull-eyed woman? How to get the beautiful woman to help him before the guards in the parking lot spot him on the fifth floor through the building's glass facade?

Mosley's series has progressed in real time since the first one set in the late 1940s. Now that it's 1966 in LA, and white people slam doors in Easy's face, he gets some help, as when he takes a date to the top floor of a restaurant and the hostess won't seat him, and in a wonderful scene replete with fatal possibilities as a gang of white toughs follows Easy up stairs to where he might or might not be facing another white enemy (p.119.)
Tomas Hight was the quintessential white man, the white man that all other white men wanted to be. He was tall and good - looking, strong and restrained but willing to act.... I felt gratitude toward him while at the same time feeling that he was everything that stood in the way of my freedom, my manhood, and my ultimate deliverance....

Added to my already ambivalent feelings was the deep desire in me to respect and admire this man, not because of who Tomas Hight was or what he had done but because he was the hero of all the movies, books, TV shows, newspapers, classes and elections I had witnessed in my forty-seven years. (p.121)
We don't meet the title character until midway, and it's well-done: Easy observes Faith Morel behind glass in her office at the bank where she deals with a difficult customer. Around the same time, there's a "deus ex machina" where all the answers fall into Easy's lap, and the rest of the novel isn't about finding out where or what, but about keeping the worst from happening, as things get worse and worse.

Through it all, Mosley is keeping up a steady commentary with literary roots, about black experience with American culture. Easy and the librarian discuss CATCHER IN THE RYE and how this kid Caulfield's "got it good." Easy comments "So much we know that they never even think about, and so much they think about without a thought about us," then reflects on how he doesn't have to say who "they" and "we" are:"We lived in a they - and - us world while they lived, to all appearances, alone" (p.55). Later, a character mentions Richard Wright and Mosley's predecessor, black "noire" writer Chester Himes.

Seeking another noire writer, I tried Himes and couldn't get into his novel. This time, I tried THE IVORY GRIN by Ross MacDonald, and I was impressed on every page by the author's piquant observations and witty words. His detective Lew Archer, is of course a ringer for that Tomas Hight. In his story, too, he encounters a nineteen-year old "black boy tangled in white law" (48) and, no differently from Mosley, he observes how the white cop shoots at the black man first, to ask questions later (51). The list of phrases that caught my eye is long:
an Indian woman shoots Archer a gaze "from the other end of history" (65)

the bonework beneath the matriarch's face is "like concealed artillery" (83)

driving fast along an avenue, the ocean is a "silver stream" running behind the palms that whiz by (40)
Like Mosley's scene of the blond behind thick glass, some scenes derive their fun in this book from limitations of the senses. Archer hears an encounter through the thin walls of a hotel, missing just enough muffled words to tease us. Another scene, Archer observes through a window from below, so that he can describe only shadows on the room's ceiling and the tops of heads.

As much as Mosley reflects on race, MacDonald reflects on manhood and its opposites. A group of soldiers are "babies" (12); a dandy "might inspire a Debussy tone poem" (56), which must be a slam on delicacy; there's a "womanish man" (113) and the humiliation of a weak husband (174). There's a sportsman who never took a real chance (97). Connected with this is the theme of "play - acting," a staple of noire, where no one can be trusted. A character tries on attitudes (71); a woman affects girlishness and false mother love (87).

I may not try another MacDonald, though, since this novel dissolved into ridiculousness around p. 120. Hard boiled reality turned into Gothic fantasy, and, worse, descended into some fake Freudian explanations. Mental disturbance became an easy motive, and I lost interest. Reading about MacDonald on line, I find that this was something he did a lot.

So long as there's more by Mosley, I'm spared the prospect of Freud noire.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Physics, History, Poetry, Jazz and Faith: It's All in the Midrash

(reflection after hearing Hebrew scholar Evita Zornberg speaking with Krista Tippett on the NPR program SPEAKING OF FAITH this morning)
Before I was old enough to go to school, my mother used to make me nap in the middle of the afternoon, whether I felt tired or not. She was the one who rested, while I lay in bed looking at pictures in books that I couldn't read. I remember a two-page spread in one book, over a text that was probably just "ring around the rosie," but what I saw was a group of boys and girls celebrating while one boy stood aside, hands in his pockets, smiling directly out at the reader. Two girls flanked him. Why was he apart? What were kids celebrating? Why were those two girls paying such close attention to him? I constructed elaborate back stories for the picture, with dialogue: Bad guys had threatened the group, the boy had super powers and had fought them off, etc. etc.

Speaking of Exodus, Hebrew scholar Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg told how rabbis have been doing the same thing with scripture from the centuries before Jesus. They call it "midrash," a story interpolated in the margins of scripture to explain why things happened the way they do. She read verse seven of Exodus, "But the descendants of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong; so that the land was filled with them." How did this happen? A midrash predating the 5th century C.E. tells a story of how Hebrew women fished in the stream, sold the fish at market, and purchased mirrors. These, they took to the Hebrew men in the fields. "See? I am more comely than you," they would say. "No, I am more comely than you," the man would respond. "And in this way," the midrash continues, "they became accustomed to desire." Zornberg inserted her own midrash, here, speculating that this story speaks to how slaves in despair need to be taught a desire for a different future. The ancient midrash adds that these women bore children always in sets - twins, quads, or even thousands at a time... thanks to mirrors.

What the ancient scholars did with their Scripture is what I did with that picture, and it occurs to me that it's one of the two essential things that our brains do all the time. One of these essential things is to look for the back story, to look between the lines, to "open up" a puzzle box, or "speculate" beyond the apparent. The other of these essential things is to find connections between unlike things, and that's what I'm going to do now, relating the midrash idea to just about everything going on in my world today:

  • Physics has opened up our understanding of the universe by looing inward to see atoms as planetary systems, molecules as galaxies; and to find, looking ever farther outward, galaxies themselves as part of vast galaxy - like systems.
  • Historians' whole job is to fret each decision, each remark in a newfound letter, to speculate why. I've been reading A.Lincoln: A Biography recently, and the author speculates how Lincoln's grandfather was affected by seeing his own father slain in a field by Indian raiders, and how Lincoln was thinking when he summoned Black leaders to propose a "back to Africa" solution; something every page. A scornful reviewer in WEEKLY STANDARD belittled it as a liberal Democrat's remaking of Lincoln in the image of, say, Mario Cuomo or Barack Obama. I don't see that; but I do see an effort to analyze Lincoln's decisions and fragmentarily expressed beliefs.
  • I went to sleep last night listening to jazz, and what is that, except inspired interpolations of new melody, new harmony, between the lines of established songs? Ditto, Bach's riffs on hymn tunes of his day.
  • Last I heard, dreams themselves are "midrashes" on glancing thoughts and prevalent concerns in our days. I awoke several times last night with dreams concerning people I haven't seen in years, and students I teach now, and crime movies, and a tornado. Couldn't get back to sleep, unable to stop myself from speculating where those images all came from in my recent daily life.
  • Actors search for motivations behind every line, every pause, every move. Hamlet speaks to ths ghost of his father in act one, then claims that no one knows if there's an existence after death ("an undiscovered country") in his most famous soliloquy. How? Why? Actors think of it as "finding the truth" in the line... a truth that they can relate to in their own experiences.
  • The news is full of speculation: Obama calls "provocative" the North Koreans' launch of a rocket this morning. What exactly does that mean? What response does that rocket "provoke?" And what reaction do the North Koreans' hope to get? We have federal offices devoted to questions like that.
  • I'm reading ENDPOINT, John Updike's final book, a collection of poems written since 2001. Every single poem is, of course, a midrash on some moment, some image. For example, he tells of seeing a very small girl alone in an electronics "big box" store. He remembers being a tiny child lost and crying in a store; but this girl is pacified by the motions of pixellated fish on a big screen. From that, he jumps off into a meditation on "infotainment." This whole package takes off from the thought that Updike's lifetime of generating words may turn out to have been wasted, as book literacy seems to be diminishing in importance.
  • The Hindu scripture BAGAVAD GITA is one long "midrash," an interpolation into the legend of a prince who led one half of his family into battle against the other half. JOB is clearly a poetic midrash inserted between paragraphs of a prosaic story of a rich man's being tested by God and Lucifer.

New York's Episcopal Bishop Spong, much despised by religious and social conservatives, tells in one of his books how the concept of midrash changed the way he reads Scripture. One doesn't have to follow him to all his conclusions to acknowledge that what he says is obviously true: the midrash tradition was at its height when Paul et. al. were composing our New Testament. Clearly the Gospel writers are working with a mixture of Hebrew testament stories, stories passed on by word of mouth about Jesus, speculation to explain some of Jesus's hard sayings and acts, and imagination to give the "back story" to Jesus's life. (One obvious such interpolation: Jesus's prayer at Gethsemane, to which we are told there were no witnesses.)

Scholar Zornberg points to the "upside - down" nature of the Exodus narrative, which often tells us that these things happened so that later generations could tell the story. The Seder liturgy, according to her, includes the question, "How is this celebration of the Passover in this family different from all the others?" The answer is, "We're relating it to us."

Can it be wrong to take something like the feeding of 5000 and to speculate how that worked, or to speculate that the whole story is a metaphor expanding on the remark "I am the bread of life" with a pun on "fish" (an early symbol of Jesus, thanks to a Greek anagram of Christ)? I think not. Rather, it's what a thinking person does, to ask, "Why? How? And how does this relate to my experience?" Here's the Scripture, here's the script, here's the event: What's the truth in it, for us?