gall and gumption

Thursday, March 16, 2006

El Ilustrado

Doesn't this make you want to read the book?

Goya, being neither madman nor masochist, had no taste for martyrdom. But he sometimes was heroic, particularly in his conflicted relations with the last Bourbon monarch he served, the odious and arbitrarily cruel Fernando VII. His work asserted that men and women should be free from tyranny and superstition; that torture, rape, despoliation, and massacre, those prennial props of power in both the civil and the religious arena, were intolerable; and those who condoned or employed them were not to be trusted, no matter how seductive the bugle calls and the searing of allegiance might seem. At fifteen, to find this voice -- so finely wrought and yet so raw, public and yet strangely private--speaking to me with such insistence and urgency from a remote time and country I'd never been to, of whose language I spoke not a word, was no small thing. It had the feeling of a message transmitted with terrible urgency, mouth to ear: this is the truth, you must know this, I have been through it. Or, as Goya scratched at the bottom of his copperplates in Los desastres de la guerra: "Yo la vi," "I saw it." Italics by Hughes

I've been going up to the public library to do my little editing gig the last couple of days. I wish I had thought of it before. I get through a lot of work there and then when I need a break I make myself stay because I know that if I stop and pack up to go home it will be an enormous interruption so it would be better to do a little more, a little more. So for my little break what could be better than wandering among the shelves, where I found Robert Hughes's life of Goya.

Well, that was enough to get me to get the library card organized.

I've already begun it even though I'm not quite halfway through Rebecca West's great tome on Yugoslavia, Black Lamb, Grey Falcon. It's fascinating but exhausting. I have moments when I start to hate her, I don't know why.

But I got the Robert Hughes and of course started in on it as soon as I got home (Cf. "enormous interruption," above). And oh dear it is so good that it is almost too exciting to read. I read a bit and my mind takes off and then I have to bring it back and focus on not thinking, just reading, but I'm so impatient to think and write in response that I can barely read. I think I remember Max talking about this happening when he was reading, in an interview once, and I think I have that interview in a box somewhere. The funny thing is I sort of have had mixed feelings about Hughes, suspected him of being a bit of a cranky guy. Which he might be. And sometimes I'm a cranky girl.

It's much too soon to start thinking about it, but the reasons for the anticipatory excitement are several: one is Goya for god's sake. The others are this quiet little fascination I'm beginning to have with the Napoleonic era in France and a little after. Actually when I think about it it's the whole century I'm curious about. But not in the same way for each section. Talleyrand is one of my favorite historical characters. I love every detail of his life, and I used to keep a picture of him in my cubicle, back when I had a cubicle. So everything related to him is interesting. I think it was the Roberto Calasso book, The Ruin of Kasch that put me onto him. It got me interested also in Simone Weil, some of whose writings I like. Her aphorisms in Gravity and Grace are interesting. She's 20th century not really 19th but still...) Then from reading about Talleyrand I found another reason to try Balzac again. Now Balzac is a writer I cannot love. But when I read his novels as history, as documentaries describing something that was happening in the society after Napoleon, I'm fascinated. This was Delacroix's time, too, and he was the son of Talleyrand, a fact I just cannot help being pleased by. Herzen was here, and all the characters who pass through his pages.

As you can see this is a very unmethodical way of going at a subject. I think it's a much better way to start. If you do academic research (which I don't think is what I'd call what I do now, but I used to) the image you have of it is that you work from a general view of a subject to greater and greater specialization. Well, often, the general overview of a subject, the one that just lays down the facts, is boring. And it seems to me that it's a hopeless proposition to start out on a subject and immediately be bored. The boring information can become more interesting once you've gotten excited about the subject. Getting excited about it, from reading the life of Talleyrand, or from reading Herzen, can give meaning to other facts that on the surface don't seem so interesting. Usually if that has happened, you still don't want the boring old general overview except maybe for checking dates and IDs and small facts like that, because you are so impatient of the lack of content. By which term I refer not only to information but to thinking. What I find is that by following the trail of my interests, following my nose, so to speak, I really do absorb more information and my ability to imagine and synthesize, to "visualize" events and relationships, is boosted right along with this extra ability to take in information.

(When you are ready to learn everything, and do need to learn everything, such as before you write a doctoral dissertation, to have motivated curiosity of the kind I describe is an enormous advantage in getting through the material you have to read, material no sane person would read unless they were writing a doctoral dissertation, you can dispense with it so much more quickly.)

So which one of these frames of mind is the real thing? Is it the curiosity that searches hungrily, or is it the more conventional approach? Well, one of the weird things about the motivated curiosity approach is that I hardly have to memorize anything I read this way except dates. When I was an undergrad I did have to take these science courses in which you memorized great masses of material. There were humanities courses that were taught in this way, but I was fortunate enough never to have to take one. I made my way into a couple of smaller seminars, in fact I specially looked out for them. And while I always did horribly in the lower-division lectures, I was doing fine in the senior seminars. This wasn't just for the subject matter: it really was that I was looking for an environment that was congenial to my mind's way of learning. I know a lot of academic hacks who will say that this is wrong, that I should not have taken it upon myself to try to make my path easier, instead I should have let myself be winnowed out like the chaff I was proving myself to be.

It was incredible good fortune for me to get into Creative Studies, because there I really found a place where it felt like I could learn in my own way. And the standard was very high. I entered as a biology major, and the biology students I met were taking all the regular classes, plus working in labs on research projects, plus doing research of the kind where you find out all that is known about a subject so you can find out what isn't known. They loved it, they were having fun. And the College's science majors were always outstanding, impressive people. So the first thing I want to emphasize that while it was fun, these people were not playing. They needed those credits in the big lectures, but they were excited about the real learning opportunities they had at the College.

But by this point I was too demoralized by my experience of science classes, so I let myself switch to literature. Where we read more and discussed things much more freely than in Letters and Science, there was never the sense of someone simply feeding their schtick to you and expecting you to just repeat it back to them. And all this work and challenge operated under the non-punitive grading system, in which you got only as much credit as you did work for. And if you didn't like a class you could drop it all the way up to the last day, though it wasn't even necessary to go through the formal process of dropping it. The whole system was designed for maximum browsing. The thing really worked, CCS students really distinguished themselves, wrote good stuff, got into great graduate programs, stayed interested in their subject field for years and years and years, went on and got all sorts of cool jobs. As they still do, every year.

Well, the last quarter that I taught there was a ways into a period of assiduous marketing by the College's then Provost. He marketed it to the university administration, and they finally overcame their loathing for everything Marvin Mudrick stood for. So you can imagine what must have gone into the marketing. Ah well, like they say about the sausage... So instead of being regarded as a bunch of upstart pariahs, suddenly it began to seem a rather prestigious place to teach, given its success, especially if you could get the teaching out of the hands of the literature teachers who -- yeah they got spectacular results but they were WRONG. And so this one character showed up from the College of Letters and Science, an ass and a creep. He got about five students for a seminar he came in to teach. And over the next couple of weeks, a couple more students did what the College was designed to enable them to do, voted with their feet and never returned. He was down to three.

He confided to me that he couldn't understand it. "It's just what they do here," I said. "Sometimes a course works and sometimes it doesn't." I didn't want to tell him more than that, but I did want to place the situation in front of him in such a way that there wouldn't be a whole lot of ego about it. That didn't really work. He went off complaining in surprise that the College didn't have a way of compelling students to take his class. Next thing I knew, a couple years later he was on some sort of administrative committee overseeing the College.

This is a sure sign of yer "failed creative." People who don't produce anything interesting, who can't even teach, go into administration or bureaucracy where they work to create an audience that will have to like their shit. They overthrow governments for this, actually mostly they sit in their little offices and dream about overthrowing governments for it, for their wretched little ideas. I've met a few of those. And then you get this other type, who nested securely in the system, is working to leverage it to cover his own deficiencies and thinks that that's what his status entitles him to do. It's all status, all the time with these folks, who fight for it like lizards in a garbage pail while fancying themselves on the very cutting edge of culture.

Update: Afterthought: That consuming progress of the lizard brain? That is what Balzac saw. That is what he described. This reptilian self-servingness, munching, munching, munching everything it could take hold of.


At 5:57 PM, Blogger Leigh said...

I really love your blog. Thank you.

At 10:33 PM, Blogger Kia said...

Ooh! Thank you! Come back soon!


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