27 December 2008

Excerpts from Laxness' "Independent People"

From Brad Leithauser's introduction to Halldor Laxness' novel Independent People: "There are good books and there are great books and there may be a book that is something still more: it is the book of your life. ...One looks differently on the book of genius that, even in a long bookworm's life, one might not have stumbled upon."

Excerpts:

But higher than all dealers and societies stand the dreams of the heart, especially in the autumn when dusk is falling and the clouds of the world are full of marvellous pictures....Oh, that it may never end; that it might live on to eternity in the restless splendour of its color. And thus night after night she sat watching the silent music of the clouds.
...
This was the first time that her soul was charmed by the power of poetry, which shows us the lot of man so truthfully and so sympathetically and with so much love for that which is good that we ourselves become better persons and understand life more fully than before, and hope and trust that good may always prevail in the life of man.
...
The varied life implicit in all this noise affected the bewildered child with a sad sense of her own isolation, her own insignificance; she stood outside the boundaries of life.
...
His being had rested full of adoration for the glory which unifies all distances in such beauty and sorrow that one no longer wishes for anything - in inconquerable adversity, in unquenchable longing, he felt that life had nevertheless been worth living.
...
When life is a weariness and escape impossible, it is wonderful to have a friend who can bring us peace with the touch of a hand.
...
Presently the smell of coffee began to fill the room. This was morning's hallowed moment. In such a fragrance the perversity of the world is forgotten and the soul is inspired with faith in the future; when all was said and done, it was probably true that there really were far-off places, even foreign countries.
...
Few things are so inconstant, so unstable, as a loving heart, and yet it is the only place in the world where one can find sympathy.
...
No one will ever be able to say that Bjartur of Summerhouses ever got the worst of it in his world war with the country's spectres, no matter how often he might tumble over a precipice or roll head over heels down a gully - "while there's a breath left in my nostrils, it will never keep me down, however hard it blows."
...
She lay like this for a long time, still quivering and still with a pain in her heart; no memories could comfort her any longer, terror is stronger than the total sum of anyone's happiness. She tried to think with hope of the far-off dawn, for human beings always seek some source of consolation; it is this search for consolation, even when every retreat is obviously cut off, that proves that one is still alive.
...
But the high heath had also a value for this man other than the practical and the economic. It was his spiritual mother, his church, his better world, as the ocean must inevitably be to the seafarer. When he walked along over the moors on the clear, frosty days of late autumn, when he ran his eyes over the desert's pathless range and felt the cold clean breeze of the mountains on his face, then he too would prove the substance of patriotic song.
...
He gazed out the window for a while, without accounting for the trend of his thought, staring in silence towards the mountain.
...
For you are all of the same high birth: God's children all of you.
...
Take my word for it, freedom is of more account than the height of a roof beam.
...
Yes, whatever a man seeks he will find - in his dog.

21 December 2008

Excerpts from Amichai, Laxness, Mendelssohn, & Yoder

Watch how the cloud sings
All you wanted to say or find.

Yehuda Amichai
--"Let the Coin Decide"

And the migration of my parents
Has not subsided in me. My blood goes on sloshing
Between my ribs, long after the vessel has come to rest.
And the migration of my parents has not subsided in me.
Winds of long time over stones. Earth
Forgets the steps of those who trod her.

Yehuda Amichai
--"And the Migration of My Parents"

Who will love the things that are naught and in vain?
I, who stand in the world like water in the rain,
I love the things that are naught and in vain.
...
The most wandering thing is a heart that stopped wandering.

Yehuda Amichai
--"At Right Angles: Hebrew Quatrains"

"Has the horse been spoken to?" asked the old man; and as it had not yet been done, he took an ear in each hand and whispered to it, according to ancient custom, for horses understood these things: "You carry a coffin today. You carry a coffin today."
...
The coffin was carried straight into the church in compliance with the minister's request and the bells were rung. Feeble was the sound they made, feeble their intrusion on frozen nature's winter omnipotence, their peal reminiscent of nothing so much as the jingle of a child's toy. And the folk came trailing out of the drifting snow and into the church, timid in the face of death, which never seems so irrevocable as when bells of such a kind tinkle so helplessly in the cold, white spaces of declining day.

Halldor Laxness
--Independent People

Every day of our life together
Ecclesiastes erases a verse of his book.

Yehuda Amichai
--"Six Poems For Tamar"

Do I think he would be 'saved'? I fancy that whosoever leads men to virtue in this life cannot be damned in the next.

Moses Mendelssohn
--"Reply to Johann Kaspar Lavater," 1769.

Before the invention of the machine, the only wealth of a people was constituted by the soil and the flocks. This is what today would be called capital. Evidently Jesus accepted voluntary poverty for the sake of the kingdom and he ordered his disciples to practice the jubilary redistribution of their capital: "all of these things, it is the Gentiles of the world who seek them. Your Father knows that you need them. Seek rather the kingdom of God and all these things will be added to you. Do not fear, little flock, because your Father has chosen to give you the kingdom; sell all that you have and give it as alms" (Luke 12:30-33). No one doubts that he said this. All that has been debated is whether this redistribution of capital was commanded by Jesus for all Christians at all times and in all places or whether it was just a "counsel of perfection" directed to the saints. Traditionally the Church has chosen the second solution, the easy one.
...
Comparing one day the generosity of the wealthy, who ostentatiously were throwing large offerings in the temple treasury, with that of the poor widow, Jesus exclaimed, "This poor widow has put in more than all of them. They put in from their overflow but she from her poverty has given all that she had to live!"

In modern language we can translate: "The quantity of money that one gives is of little importance. What is important is what one gives. If it only is a part of one's income, then this is not yet righteousness, goodness, and good faith."

John Howard Yoder
--The Politics of Jesus

13 November 2008

Howard Zinn on World War II

I've intended to read Howard Zinn's revisionist history of the United States - A People's History of the United States - for years, and I finally buckled down and started it this week. It is an excellent and eye-opening book, to say the least, and I found myself becoming absorbed in and largely agreeing with the narrative of the first few chapters - his interpretation of the "discovery" and colonization of America. Although I'm usually not willing to follow Zinn to his ultimate conclusions, I find his eagerness to tear down the myths and falsehoods surrounding the idea of "American exceptionalism" refreshing - especially after the nationalist fervor of a Presidential election season.

Zinn reminds us that Americans are fallible human beings like any others, capable of acts of greatness as well as acts of shame.

I skipped ahead to find out what Zinn had to say about World War II - the war most often held up in America as an example of America's unique greatness, of America-as-savior-and-beacon-of-hope. Here's an excerpt from what I found:

In short, if the entrance of the United States into World War II was (as so many Americans believed at the time, observing the Nazi invasions) to defend the principle of nonintervention in the affairs of other countries, the nation's record cast doubt on its ability to uphold that principle.
....
As Bruce Russett says: "Throughout the 1930s the United States government had done little to resist the Japanese advance on the Asian continent." But: "The Southwest Pacific area was of undeniable economic importance to the United States - at the time most of America's tin and rubber came from there, as did substantial qualities of other raw materials."
...
A State Department memorandum on Japanese expansion, a year before Pearl Harbor, did not talk of the independence of China or the principle of self-determination. It said: "...our general diplomatic and strategic position would be considerably weakened - by our loss of Chinese, Indian, and South Seas markets (and by our loss of much of the Japanese market for our goods, as Japan would become more and more self-sufficient) as well as by insurmountable restrictions upon our access to the rubber, tin, jute, and other vital materials of the Asian and Oceanic regions.
...
The plight of Jews in German-occupied Europe, which many people thought was at the heart of the war against the Axis, was not a chief concern of Roosevelt.
...
Was the war being fought to establish that Hitler was wrong in his ideas of white Nordic supremacy over "inferior" races? The United States' armed forces were segregated by race.
...
In one of its policies, the United States came close to direct duplication of Fascism. This was in its treatment of the Japanese-Americans living on the West Coast. After the Pearl Harbor attack, anti-Japanese hysteria spread in the government. One Congressman said: "I'm for catching every Japanese in America, Alaska, and Hawaii now and putting them in concentration camps.... Damn them! Let's get rid of them!"

Franklin D. Roosevelt did not share this frenzy, but he calmly signed Executive Order 9066, in February 1942, giving the army the power, without warrants or indictments or hearings, to arrest every Japanese-American on the West Coast - 110,000 men, women, and children - to take them from their homes, transport them to camps far into the interior, and keep them there under prison conditions.
...
Hatred against the enemy, against the Japanese particularly, became widespread. Racism was clearly at work. Time magazine, reporting the battle of Iwo Jima, said: "The ordinary unreasoning Jap is ignorant. Perhaps he is human. Nothing...indicates it."

So, there was a mass base of support for what became the heaviest bombardment of civilians ever undertaken in any war: the aerial attacks on German and Japanese cities.
...
Italy had bombed cities in the Ethiopian war; Italy and germany had bombed civilians in the Spanish Civil War; at the start of World War II German planes dropped bombs on Rotterdam in Holland, Convetry in England, and elsewhere. Roosevelt had described these as "inhuman barbarism that has profoundly shocked the conscience of humanity."

These German bombings were very small compared with the British and American bombings of German cities. ...The English flew at night with no pretense of aiming at "military" targets; the Americans flew in the daytime and pretended precision, but bombing from high altitudes made that impossible. The climax of this terror bormbing was the bombing of Dresden in early 1945, in which the tremendous heat generated by the bombs created a vacuum into which fire leaped swiftly in a great firestorm through the city. More than 100,000 died in Dresden. [See Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five]


Check out Zinn's A People's History of the United States here.

15 October 2008

Quotes from Harrison's "Returning to Earth"

It was good to finally know that the spirit was everywhere rather than a separate thing.
...
Clare fed our leftover sandwiches to a stray mutt, who didn't chew the proper thirty-two times.
...
All of my jobs had kept me grounded in actual life whereas simply sitting in my room with my studies tended to make me unstable.
...
In New York City the endless blocks of huge buildings say to us, I'm serious and within me serious people are doing serious things even though five thousand people in a building might only be playing with the market edge.
...
There's a local euphemism in the U.P. that you're not lost, you just can't find your vehicle.
...
A local politician rejecting foreign languages in a school budget had said, 'If English was good enough for Jesus Christ it's good enough for our kids.'
...
I agreed with K on the addition of what is called a 'space blanket' to the survival kits I put together and distribute for Mexicans intending to migrate north. Space blankets are sheets of material used by campers to protect them from cold and dampness but I thought they could also defend against the summer heat of the ground, which reaches over one hundred and fifty degrees. ..The packet was in a Velcro latched bag and could be attached to a waiste belt and weighed a little less than five pounds. I distributed these free of charge to workers' groups and through left-leaning Catholic priests. I was opposed by many on both sides of the border for political reasons, which didn't bother me except for the legal expenses I incurred avoiding prosecution by the United States. My raison d'etre was simple on the surface. Estimates of crossing deaths along the entire nineteen-hundred-mile border with Mexico went as high as two thousand a year. I had learned to be goofy rather than logically argumentative with my opponents. I'd ask, If you could prevent twenty major airline disasters each year, wouldn't you?
...
By common consent we didn't talk about anything more serious than the food and music, which in themselves have become more serious as I get older.
...
He needed Montana but he also needed Chicago for her museums, libraries, theaters, bookstores, and most of all classical music, which he preferred to hear live.
...
After a passing glance I averted my eyes from a photo of Carla and me at the cabin and then I fixed on it. Was I ever that young?
...
There are no damaged goods when everyone is damaged goods.
...
The best thing about travel, though, is that it's difficult to be consumed by the past against the backdrop of a fresh landscape.
...
'I was sorry to hear about Donald. There was a man who could put in a day's work.' I shook his hand as he offered this ultimate compliment of the north. His hand felt like a semipetrified baseball mitt. 'You might not remember me. Donny and me played football way back when, then worked together. The name's Teddy.' He bowed, his face reddening, and walked away.

'You were the left tackle,' I called out and he turned and grinned.
...
On all levels the main reason to live is because you're already alive.
...
While we were out on the park bench a small bank of clouds came across the sun turning our mood somber. He said, 'After all, the fact of death is the most brutal thing we humans are forced to accept,' but then the sun came out again and I told him that the day after the burial Herald had said, 'Mother, it can't be awful if it happens to every living thing.'

Jim Harrison
--Returning to Earth

Buy Jim Harrison's True North here and Returning to Earth here.

14 October 2008

Jim Harrison's "True North" and "Returning to Earth"

I've made plenty of discoveries this year - a love for banjo and bluegrass, a greater appreciation for the outdoors and concern for the environment, a new appreciation for the upper Midwest, the desire (if not yet the discipline) to live more simply and learn to cook - but one of the best recent discoveries I've made is the fiction of Jim Harrison.

I recently finished his Returning to Earth - a novel about a very physically-oriented man who comes down with Lou Gehrig's disease in his early 40s - and I cannot recommend it enough. It is a sequel of sorts to Harrison's True North, and these two books are the first I've read this year to make my list of fiction favorites.
















The following links are also worth checking out:

-New York Times interview with Jim Harrison: "Pleasures of the Hard-Worn Life"
-Wikipedia article on Jim Harrison
-New York Times review of Returning to Earth (warning: gives a lot away).

20 September 2008

Highly recommended movie: "The Pool"


It's the first Baliwood movie I've ever seen, and I loved it. For my Chicago readers, it's currently playing at my favorite cinema, the Landmark Cinema Century Theater.
Reviews here.

17 June 2008

Michael McConnell on multiculturalism and educational choice

Despite insistent demands by minority groups, principally Catholics, but including Jews, Presbyterians, Baptists, and Methodists, for equal funding for their free schools, the common school movement soon achieved a monopoly of public funding. Many states even adopted constitutional provisions barring state funding of religious schools, and a federal constitutional amendment to that effect was narrowly defeated in Congress. The opposition to particularistic private schools grew to the extent that, in the early twentieth century, some states passed laws forbidding the education of children in languages other than English and banning private schools altogether. These efforts were promptly overturned by the Supreme Court, on the ground that "[t]he fundamental theory of liberty upon which all governments in this union repose excludes any general power of the state to standardize its children by forcing them to accept instruction from public teachers only." (Pierce v. Society of Sisters, 1925)
...
The leading elementary and secondary school textbooks virtually neglect any mention of religious influences or ideas in history, ethics, or social studies. Thus, the "public values" inculcated by the public schools are not, in fact, the values held by the large majority of the American public, but the values held by a secular minority.
...
It is not possible, practically or theoretically, for public schools to be "neutral" with respect to contentious questions of morality, politics, and religion. The more the school attempts to be evenhanded, the more it will appear to endorse a position of relativism, or worse, cynicism.
...
No shifts in constitutional doctrine governing the conduct of the public schools can solve this problem, because it inheres in the nature of things. The Supreme Court can alter the character of public education, making it more religious or more secular, but it cannot make public education genuinely more pluralistic. A common school is a common school. That is its blessing and its curse.
...
While fears of church-state constitutional problems are often cited by opponents of educational choice, those fears are groundless. Whatever may be the flaws in the educational choice idea, it should be debated on its merits and not rejected on spurious constitutional grounds. In fact, far from offending the First Amendment, an educational choice plan is much more consistent with the pluralistic vision of the First Amendment than is granting secular schools a monopoly of public funds.
...
The common school movement now teaches our children, unintentionally, to be value-less, culture-less, root-less, and religion-less. It can no longer achieve its crowning purpose of providing a unifying moral culture in the face of our many differences.

Michael W. McConnell
--"Multiculturalism, Majoritarianism, and Educational Choice: What Does Our Constitutional Tradition Have to Say?," University of Chicago Legal Forum 1991.

19 May 2008

Quotes from Alfie Kohn and Virginia Woolf

There are many reasons policymakers seek to impose detailed curriculum mandates. They may fundamentally distrust educators: Much of the current standards movement is just the latest episdoe in a long, sorry history of trying to create a teacher-proof curriculum.
...
These days almost anything can be done to students and to schools, no matter how ill-considered, as long as it is done in the name of raising standards.
...
It's convenient for us to assume that kids who cut corners are just being lazy, because then it's the kids who have to be fixed. But perhaps they're just being rational. They have adapted to an environment where results, not intellectual exploration, are what count.
...
Assessment is used less to support learning than to evaluate and compare people. ...(Standardized testing) screens and sorts students for the convenience of industry (and higher education).
...
What happens to schools when they are plunged into the marketplace? To begin with, they must shift much of their time and resources to, well, marketing. (It is those who sell themselves skillfully, not those who are especially good at what they do, who tend to succeed in a competitive market.) Moreover, the pressure to make themselves look better presents a temptation to screen out less desirable students, those whose education takes more effort or expense. "The problem with public schools," remarked author John Chubb, "is that they must take whoever walks in the door." The philosophical core of the privatization movement for which Chubb speaks is neatly revealed in the use of the word problem in that sentence. [Note: I disagree with this statement, but it is the among the best anti-voucher arguments I've seen.]

Alfie Kohn
--What Does it Mean to Be Well Educated? (Highly recommended.)

And, thanking Mr. Ramsay for it and Mrs. Ramsay for it and the hour and the place, crediting the world with a power which she had not suspected - that one could walk away down that long gallery not alone any more but arm in arm with somebody - the strangest feeling in the world, and the most exhilarating....
...
Here she saddened, darkened, and came back to her chair, there could be no disputing this: an unmarried woman (she lightly took her hand for a moment), an unmarried woman has missed the best of life. The house seemed full of children sleeping and Mrs. Ramsay listening; shaded lights and regular breathing.
...
How strangely he was venerable and laughable at one and the same time.
...
She bore about with her, she could not help knowing it, the torch of her beauty; she carried it erect into any room that she entered; and after all, veil it as she might, and shrink from the monotony of bearing that it imposed on her, her beauty was apparent.
...
The very stone one kicks with one's boot will outlast Shakespeare. His own little light would shine, not very brightly, for a year or two, and would then be merged in some bigger light, and that in a bigger still.
...
All at once he realised that it was this: it was this: - she was the most beautiful person he had ever seen. ...For the first time in his life Charles Tansley felt an extraordinary pride; a man digging in a drain stopped digging and looked at her, let his arm fall down and looked at her; for the first time in his life Charles Tansley felt an extraordinary pride; felt the wind and the cyclamen and the violets for he was walking with a beautiful woman. He had hold of her bag.

Virginia Woolf
--To the Lighthouse

08 May 2008

The Nuclear Peace and its Consequences for China's Rise

I just put the finishing touches on my M.A. thesis, bringing one of the most stressful months of my life to a satisfying close. 10,181 words, 45 pages, three entirely different drafts, and an ungodly amount of writing and revision. I am happy with the finished product and will turn it in tomorrow morning, then post a link to it online. My faculty advisor was John Mearsheimer, the best professor I've had at the U of C and one of the most influential international relations scholars in America.

The thesis:

I argue that security conflict between the U.S. and China can be managed short of war, regardless of how strong China becomes. This is the case because of the phenomenon known as the “nuclear peace”; because every great power in the contemporary international system possesses a secure, second-strike nuclear capability, the best prediction we can make is that every possible conflict between the U.S. and China - or any pair of contemporary great powers - will be stopped short of war because of nuclear deterrence, which raises the costs of war to unacceptably high levels, outweighing all potential political gains to be had by conquest.

With this behind me, I'm turning my mind away from school and on to other things, with the exception of my Japanese and Norwegian coursework. I still need to finish Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, and I'm currently reading several books on education: Alfie Kohn's What Does It Mean to Be Well Educated?, Nel Nodding's Philosophy of Education, and Myron Lieberman's The Educational Morass, among others. I am extremely excited for this weekend, as I am going home to Muskegon, MI to hang out with my wonderful family for the first time since March.

I feel as though an enormous burden has been lifted from me.

27 April 2008

The science of happiness

Excerpts from Richard Layard's Happiness: Lessons from a New Science:

The extra happiness provided by extra income is greatest when you are poor, and declines steadily as you get richer.
...
"Required income" varies strongly with the actual income that an individual currently experiences. A dollar rise in experienced income causes a rise of at least a forty cents in "required income." So when I earn an extra dollar this year, it makes me happier, but next year I shall measure my income from a benchmark that is forty cents higher. In this sense at least 40% of this year's gain is "wiped out" next year.
...
Differences in family situation cause a huge difference in happiness. If someone is divorced, that person's happiness falls by 5 (percentage) points. This is more than double the effect of losing a third of one's income. ...The year of divorce is the worst. After that year men return on average to their baseline level of happiness, but women continue to suffer.
...
If our goals are too low, we get bored. But if they are too high, we get frustrated. The secret is to have goals that are stretching enough, but not too stretching. Unattainable goals are a well-known cause of depression. But so too is boredom.
...
The typical Briton watches television for three and a half hours a day - roughly twenty-five hours a week. Over a lifetime a typical Briton spends more time watching television than doing paid work. The figures are much the same in the United States. ... This viewing time has to come from somewhere, and it mainly comes from social life.
...
So how does the content of television affect our feelings about life, and our behavior? If television simply mirrored life as it is, it would be unlikely to have much effect. However, it does not simply mirror life - that would be boring. Television focuses far more on the extremes. It contains far more violence, sex, and chaotic relationships than ordinary life does, and it contains far more wealth and beauty. ...Chaos on the screen tends to desensitize - to make people more willing to engage in violence themselves and in illicit sex. At the same time wealth and beauty create discontent with what people have - an itch to earn or steal more wealth, or to find a more beautiful partner.
...
On one estimate an extra hour a week watching television causes you to spend an extra $4 a week - on "keeping up with the Joneses." ...It reduces our happiness with our possessions.
...
Viewing may also reduce our happiness with our bodies, and with our spouses. The psychologist Douglas Kenrick showed women a series of female models. He evaluated their mood before and after they looked at the pictures. After seeing the models, the women's mood fell. So how must women's moods be affected by television? In three hours of viewing television each day you cannot fail to see a parade of beautiful women. What about the effect on men? As part of the same series of experiments, pictures of models were shown to a sample of men. Kenrick evaluated their feelings about their wives before and after each presentation. After seeing the models, most men felt less good about their wives.
...
Trustworthiness is crucial in any venture, and no long-term contract can flourish except on the basis of commitment to the common goal. This applies in business, in friendship or in marriage. Unfortunately, the growth of individualism has encouraged a short-term version of contractarian thinking, where more and more decisions are conducted on the basis of a short-term quid pro quo. ...

In this environment of continuous reoptimization, it is not surprising that, as we have seen, people are less satisfied with their marriages. There is also clear evidence that when spouses arrange their lives on the basis of quid pro quo, they are less satisfied with the marriage than when it is based on the concept of giving. ...The evidence also shows that when one spouse does something and the other spouse reciprocates, the first gets less satisfaction than when no direct reciprocation occurs. This is because giving confers satisfaction, and can confer more satisfaction than taking.

Above all, we need to know that our partner has sufficient emotional commitment to the enterprise. If so, we know the partner will stick to the relationship, even when short-term advantage would say "Out." ...If both parties know that the other is really committed, each will invest more and the probability of success will rise. In all walks of life, good behavior by one person elicits good behavior by others.

Richard Layard
--Happiness: Lessons from a New Science

20 April 2008

The Two Mules: A Fable for the Nations





(Saw this in Richard Layard's Happiness: Lessons from a New Science.)

17 April 2008

Excerpts from Milosz, Balthasar, and Stevens

Among the many definitions of Communism, perhaps one would be the most apt: enemy of orchards. For the disappearance of villages and the remodeling of the terrain necessitated cutting down the orchards once surrounding every house and hut. The idea of collective farming - grain factories instead of little peasant lots - was rational, but with a vengeance, and a similar vengeance lurking in practically every project of the planned economy brought about the downfall of the Soviet system.

Orchards under Communism had no chance, but in all fairness let us concede that they are antique by their very nature. Only the passion of a gardener can delight in growing a great variety of trees, each producing a small crop of fruit whose tastes pleases the gardener himself and a few connoisseurs. Market laws favor a few species that are easy to preserve and correspond to basic standards.
...
Much was going on inside me, and I was stunned by the strength of that current for which no name seemed adequate. It was like waking up from a long dream and becoming again the person whom I have never ceased to be.

Czeslaw Milosz
--"Happiness"

One would like to astound the world, to save the world, but one can do neither. We are summoned to deeds that are of moment only to our village.

Czeslaw Milosz
--"Who Was I?"

If I am not wise, then why must I pretend to be? If I am lost, why must I pretend to have ready counsel for my contemporaries? But perhaps the value of communication depends on the acknowledgment of one's own limits, which, mysteriously, are also limits common to many others; and aren't these the same limits of a hundred or a thousand years ago? And when the air is filled with the clamor of analysis and conclusion, would it be entirely useless to admit you do not understand?

I have read many books, but to place all those volumes on top of one another and stand on them would not add a cubit to my stature. Their learned terms are of little use when I try to seize naked experience, which eludes all accepted ideas.

Czeslaw Milosz
--"My Intention"

The man who stakes his all on this one thing wins all, but he must of course reckon with the loss of everything else excluded by this one thing.

Hans Urs von Balthasar
--The Moment of Christian Witness

Why should she give her bounty to the dead?
What is divinity if it can come
Only in silent shadows and in dreams?
Shall she not find in comforts of the sun,
In pungent fruit and bright green wings, or else
In any balm or beauty of the earth,
Things to be cherished like the thought of heaven?
Divinity must live within herself:
Passions of rain, or moods in falling snow;
Grievings in loneliness, or unsubdued
Elations when the forest blooms; gusty
Emotions on wet roads on autumn nights;
All pleasures and all pains, remembering
The bough of summer and the winter branch.
These are the measures destined for her soul.
...
Shall our blood fail? Or shall it come to be
The blood of paradise? And shall the earth
Seem all of paradise that we shall know?
The sky will be much friendlier then than now,
A part of labor and a part of pain,
And next in glory to enduring love,
Not this dividing and indifferent blue.

Wallace Stevens
--From "Sunday Morning"

09 April 2008

Personal update: spring quarter

This is turning out to be one of the busiest times of my life, so I won’t be posting very much over the next nine weeks. For one thing, my coursework is forcing me to put most of my personal reading list on the back-burner, so I’ll have fewer excerpts to share.

Despite the academic stress, however, things are better than ever. My classes are awesome – a Ph.D.-level seminar in Japanese literature of the 1920s and 30s taught from a Marxist perspective (the first time I’ve really had to grapple with critical theory), the third quarter of elementary Norwegian (which I’m taking in the hope of traveling to Norway and studying Knut Hamsun and other Norwegian writers in the original language), the third quarter of fourth-year modern Japanese (which amounts to taking a course with a top-notch private tutor, as there are only three of us in the class), and Jean-Bethke Elshtain’s course on the Just War tradition – a Divinity School course offering a perspective on war and peace that is completely different from the realist perspective of the political science department that I’m used to hearing.

Other than that, I am finishing my M.A. (on the consequences of China’s rise for East Asian security), meeting new people, exploring the city, and spending as much time as possible with my friends. Spring is here, the quads are full of students, and my last quarter at the U of C is shaping up to be one of the best.

26 March 2008

Recent readings on Iraq, myth, politics and more

Two must-reads on current events:

-David Brooks on the Obama-Clinton race.

-"Bush's War," a PBS Frontline documentary with extraordinary cinematography and interviews with key players involved in the political decisions surrounding the invasion and occupation of Iraq. I highly recommend watching it (it's free online), or at least poking around the website a bit. The site includes an annotated video timeline and transcripts from over 400 interviews.

---

"Biography, psychology, sociology, history," (historian John Demos) has written: "four corners of one scholar's compass, four viewpoints overlooking a single field of past experience." ...Once you have decided on such a multi-disciplinary approach, where do you stop? How wide do you open your arms? ...If you opt to be eclectic, there is no limit to scholarship, no end to your book. Yet you know you are working closer to some sort of truth.

Hilary Mantel
--Review of John Demos, The Unredeemed Captive; quoted in Doniger, The Implied Spider: Politics & Theology in Myth

He was really a little fresh with that girl, I was mortified there for a moment. But then what he said about human dignity, afterward, sounded so spiffing, like formal oratory.
...
And, then, I'm not all that rash about forming opinions. I look at people and think: So that's how you are? Well, fine.

Thomas Mann
--The Magic Mountain

---

The chameleon quality of myth works in opposition to the more monolithic and dogmatic aspects of religion; where myth encourages a wide range of beliefs, dogma would narrow that range. Martin Buber made this point very well indeed:

All positive religion rests on an enormous simplification of the manifold and wildly engulfing forces that invade us: it is the subduing of the fullness of existence. All myth, in contrast, is the expression of the fullness of existence, its image, its sign; it drinks incessantly from the gushing fountains of life. Hence religion fights myth where it cannot absorb and incorporate it. ...It is strange and wonderful to observe how in this battle religion ever again wins the apparent victory, myth ever again wins the real one.

...
In the dark of bigotry, all the people you hate look alike.
...
The assumption that all members of a class are alike has been used in many cultures to demean the sexual or racial Other. After all, the essence of prejudice has been defined as the assumption that an unknown individual has all the characteristics of the group to which he or she belongs. "People like you," or "They're all alike," is always an offensive phrase. Racism and sexism are alike in their practice of clouding the judgment so that the Other is beneath contempt, or at least beneath recognition; they dehumanize, deindividualize, the racially and sexually Other. "All Japanese look alike" is the racist counterpart to the sexist "In the dark, all cats are gray." The use of large numbers to obscure humanity, particularly political Others, is a well-known sexist trick, too: Mozart/Da Ponte's Don Giovanni boasted, famously, that he had seduced a thousand and three women in Spain.

Wendy Doniger
--The Implied Spider: Politics & Theology in Myth (highly recommended)

24 March 2008

Readings from Mann, Golley, and Eliot

-Must-read: the New York Times on a severe case of protracted bullying. This is real, and it's an enormous problem. There is a spectrum of school violence ranging from verbal harassment and bullying all the way to school shootings, and it needs to be taken more seriously and addressed more quickly at every stage. An atmosphere of security and mutual respect in classrooms is essential to students' well-being and ability to learn.

---

A human being lives out not only his personal life as an individual, but also, consciously or subconsciously, the lives of his epoch and contemporaries. ...All sorts of personal goals, purposes, hopes, prospects may float before the eyes of a given individual, from which he may then glean the impulse for exerting himself for great deeds; if the impersonal world around him, however, if the times themselves, despite all their hustle and bustle, provide him with neither hopes nor prospects, if they secretly supply him with evidence that things are in fact hopeless, without prospect or remedy, if the times respond with hollow silence to every conscious or subconscious question, however it may be posed, about the ultimate, unequivocal meaning of all exertions and deeds that are more than exclusively personal - then it is almost inevitable...that the situation will have a crippling effect, which, following moral and spiritual paths, may even spread to that person's physical and organic life.
...
Two days of travel separate this young man (and young he is, with few firm roots in life) from his everyday world, especially from what might be called his duties, interests, worries, and prospects - separate him far more than he had dreamed possible as he rode to the station in a hansom cab. Space, as it rolls and tumbles away between him and his native soil, proves to have powers normally ascribed only to time; from hour to hour, space brings about changes very like those time produces, yet surpassing them in certain ways. Space, like time, gives birth to forgetfulness, but does so by removing an individual from all relationships and placing him in a free and pristine state - indeed, in but a moment it can turn a pedant and a philistine into something like a vagabond. Time, they say, is water from the river Lethe, but alien air is a similar drink; and if its effects are less profound, it works all the more quickly.

Thomas Mann
--The Magic Mountain

"All divine attributes have been taken over by human hands," (Hirato Renkichi) wrote. "Today, the engine of God is the engine of the city, and partakes in the activities of humanity's millions." Almost every sentence of this document seems to anticipate Paul Virilio's 1997 equation of "new technologies" with the "three traditional characteristics of the Divine: ubiquity, instantaneity, and immediacy." Although Virilio refers here to a much later technological revolution, the logic of his thinking echoes the poetics of Hirato Renkichi. ...For Hirato, the powers of the divine had come to reside in "the impulsive candor of the machine, in its light, its heat, its ceaseless rhythms."

Gregory Golley
--When Our Eyes No Longer See: Realism, Science, and Ecology in Japanese Literary Modernism

When a poet's mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience; the ordinary man's experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes.

T.S. Eliot
--"The Metaphysical Poets," quoted in Golley, When Our Eyes No Longer See

23 March 2008

Readings on Easter, Just War Theory, and Japanese lit

Happy Easter!

---

The resurrection of Jesus is the sign to the world that God indeed does reign, does give life in death and that the love of God is stronger even than death (Rom. 8:36-39).
...
At the center of the church's teaching on peace and at the center of all Catholic social teaching, are the transcendence of God and the dignity of the human person. The human person is the clearest reflection of God's presence in the world; all of the church's work in pursuit of both justice and peace is designed to protect and promote the dignity of every person. For each person not only reflects God, but is the expression of God's creative work and the meaning of Christ's redemptive ministry. Christians approach the problem of war and peace with fear and reverence. God is the Lord of life, and so each human life is sacred; modern warfare threatens the obliteration of human life on a previously unimaginable scale.

U.S. Catholic Bishops
--The Challenge of Peace: God's Promise and Our Response (The Pastoral Letter on War and Peace, 1983)

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 8:37-39

The aggressor is always peace-loving; he would prefer to take over our country unopposed.

-Carl Von Clausewitz, quoted in J.T. Turner, "Threats, Values and Defense: Does the Defense of Values by Force Remain a Moral Possibility?"

***

His desire for a woman was not of a sort to make him want this particular woman - it was something to be taken care of lightly and with no sense of guilt. This woman was too clean.
...
The window of the waiting-room was clear for an instant as the train started to move. Komako's face glowed forth, and as quickly disappeared.
...
But this love would leave behind it nothing so definite as a piece of Chijimi. Though cloth to be worn is among the most short-lived of craftworks, a good piece of Chijimi, if it has been taken care of, can be worn quite unfaded a half-century and more after weaving. As Shimamura thought absently how human intricacies have not even so long a life, the image of Komako as the mother of another man's children suddenly floated into his mind. He looked around, startled. Possibly he was tired.
...
He leaned against the brazier, provided against the coming of the snowy season, and thought how unlikely it was that he would come again once he had left.
...
Komako had come up to him, he did not know when. She took his hand. He looked around at her but said nothing. She gazed at the fire, the pulse of the fire beating on her intent, slightly flushed face. Shimamura felt a violent rising in his chest. Komako's hair was coming undone, and her throat was bare and arched. His fingers trembled from the urge to touch it. His hand was warm, but Komako's was still warmer. He did not know why he should feel that a separation was forcing itself upon them.

Kawabata Yasunari
--Snow Country

Obviously he did not much enjoy reading and discussing a typical month's production of Japanese literature. In a 1935 essay Kobayashi expressed his annoyance with authors who complained that he had not been sufficiently kind in his reviews, and asked sardonically what kindness contemporary authors have ever shown their critics. The only kindness a critic really wants from authors is that they will supply him with the basis for writing decent criticism; but present-day authors do precisely the opposite.

Donald Keene
--Dawn to the West: A History of Japanese Literature (Vol. 4)

15 March 2008

Quotes from Hermann Hesse's "Beneath the Wheel"

Mathematics, as far as he was concerned, was a Sphinx charged with deceitful puzzles whose cold malicious gaze transfixed her victims, and he gave the monster a wide berth.
...
What would many happy citizens and trustworthy officials have become but unruly, stormy innovators and dreamers of useless dreams, if not for the effort of their schools? In young beings there is something wild, ungovernable, uncultured which first has to be tamed. It is like a dangerous flame that has to be controlled or it will destroy. Natural man is unpredictable, opaque, dangerous, like a torrent cascading out of uncharted mountains. At the start, his soul is a jungle without paths or order. And, like a jungle, it must first be cleared and its growth thwarted. Thus it is the school's task to subdue and control man with force and make him a useful member of society, to kindle those qualities in him whose development will bring him to triumphant completion.
...
For he was aware that in the academy he would have to be even more ambitious if he wanted to outstrip his new fellow students. Why did he want to surpass them actually? He didn't really know himself.
...
This magnificent monastery, hidden behind hills and woods, has long been reserved for the exclusive use of the students of the Protestant Theological Academy in order that their receptive young spirits will be surrounded by an atmosphere of beauty and grace. Simultaneously the young people are removed from the distracting influence of their towns and families and are preserved from the harmful sight of the active life. So it is possible to let them live under the definite impression that their life's goal consists exclusively of the study of Hebrew and Greek and sundry subjects and to turn the thirst of young souls toward pure and ideal studies and enjoyments.
...
If someone else were to approach him and vigorously seek to win his friendship, he would respond gladly. Like a wallflower he stayed in the background waiting for someone to fetch him, someone more courageous and stronger than himself to tear him away and force him into happiness.

Hermann Hesse
--Beneath the Wheel

06 March 2008

Quotes from David Damrosch, Kahlil Gibran, & Paul Tillich

Goethe comments that the Church erred in closing the canon of scripture, as God's creative work still continues, notably in the activity of great spirits like Mozart, Raphael, and Shakespeare, "who can draw their lesser contemporaries higher."
...
For the first time in history, authors of highly successful works can hope to have them translated into twenty or thirty languages within a few years of publication, and foreign countries may even provide the primary readership for writers who have small audiences at home or who are censored by their governments.
...
All works cease to be the exclusive products of their original culture once they are translated; all become works that only "began" in their original language.
...
Society melts away in the vast echo chamber of (literary critic Harold) Bloom's mind, replaced by the warring voices of the few great titans of the literary universe. The fewer the better: ...Bloom continually narrows his authors' already narrow circle. The Western Canon treats twenty-six writers, but what need twenty-six? "Most simply, the Canon is Plato and Shakespeare" (34). What need even two? "At once no one and everyone, nothing and everything, Shakespeare is the Western Canon" (71).

Yet even Bloom finally relents. Having spent almost five hundred pages extolling the greatness of the few greatest writers at the heart of his version of the Western canon, he closes with an appendix listing several thousand works by more than eight hundred and fifty writers whom he considers to be the key figures in the Western canon as a whole.

David Damrosch
--What is World Literature?

How shall I go in peace and without sorrow? Nay, not without a wound in the spirit shall I leave this city. Long were the days of pain I have spent within its walls, and long were the nights of aloneness; and who can depart from his pain and his aloneness without regret?

Too many fragments of the spirit have I scattered in these streets, and too many are the children of my longing that walk naked among these hills, and I cannot withdraw from them without a burden and an ache.

It is not a garment I cast off this day, but a skin that I tear with my own hands. Nor is it a thought I leave behind me, but a heart made sweet with hunger and with thirst.

Yet I cannot tarry longer. The sea that calls all things unto her calls me, and I must embark.
For to stay, though the hours burn in the night, is to freeze and crystallize and be bound in a mould.

Fain would I take with me all that is here. But how shall I? A voice cannot carry the tongue and the lips that give it wings. Alone must it seek the ether. And alone and without his nest shall the eagle fly across the sun.

Kahlil Gibran
--The Prophet

Sociological analyses of the present period have pointed to the importance of anxiety as a group phenomenon. Literature and art have made anxiety a main theme of their creations, in content as well as in style. The effect of this has been the awakening of at least the educated groups to an awareness of their own anxiety, and a permeation of the public consciousness by ideas and symbols of anxiety.
...
The first assertion about the nature of anxiety is this: anxiety is the state in which a being is aware of its possible nonbeing. ...It is not the realization of universal transitoriness, not even the experience of the death of others, but the impression of these events on the always latent awareness of our own having to die that produces anxiety. Anxiety is finitude, experienced as one's own finitude.

Paul Tillich
--The Courage to Be

04 March 2008

Quotes and poems by Goethe, Coleridge, and A. Daniel

I am more and more convinced that poetry is the universal possession of mankind...the epoch of world literature is at hand, and everyone must strive to hasten its approach.

--Goethe (quoted in Damrosch, What is World Literature?)

White Towels

I have been studying the difference
between solitude and loneliness,
telling the story of my life
to the clean white towels taken warm from the dryer.
I carry them through the house
as though they were my children
asleep in my arms.

--Richard Jones

From Canzone XII

May God, the Chosen, by whom were absolved the sins of the blind Longinus, wish if it please him, that I and my lady lie within one chamber where we shall make a rich covenant, whereon great joy attendeth; where, with laughter and caresses, she shall disclose to me her fair body, with the glamor of the lamplight about it.

--Arnaut Daniel (tr. Ezra Pound)

Duty Surviving Self-Love

Unchanged within, to see all changed without,
Is a blank lot and hard to bear, no doubt.
Yet why at others' wanings should'st thou fret ?
Then only might'st thou feel a just regret,
Hadst thou withheld thy love or hid thy light
In selfish forethought of neglect and slight.
O wiselier then, from feeble yearnings freed,
While, and on whom, thou may'st--shine on! nor heed
Whether the object by reflected light
Return thy radiance or absorb it quite :
And tho' thou notest from thy safe recess
Old Friends burn dim, like lamps in noisome air,
Love them for what they are ; nor love them less,
Because to thee they are not what they were.

--Samuel Taylor Coleridge

From Canzone III

But when I consider how she is the summit of worth, much do I love myself the more for having ever dared to desire her, for now do I know that my heart and my wit will make me to make to their whim a rich conquest.
...
And since she is of such worth, do not think that my firm will can disperse itself or flow away or divide, for by that God who manifested himself in the dove, I am neither mine nor hers if I leave her.

--Arnaut Daniel (tr. Ezra Pound)

03 March 2008

Excerpts from Frost, Tillich, O'Hara, and Pound

From "Desert Places"

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars - on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.

--Robert Frost

One cannot remove anxiety by arguing it away.
...
The affirmation of one's essential being in spite of desires and anxieties creates joy. Lucillus is exhorted by Seneca to make it his business "to learn how to feel joy." It is not the joy of fulfilled desires to which he refers, for real joy is a "severe matter"; it is the happiness of a soul which is "lifted above every circumstance." Joy accompanies the self-affirmation of our essential being in spite of the inhibitions coming from the accidental elements in us. Joy is the emotional expression of the courageous Yes to one's own true being.

Paul Tillich
--The Courage to Be

To the Harbormaster

I wanted to be sure to reach you
though my ship was on the way it got caught
in some moorings. I am always tying up
and then deciding to depart. In storms and
at sunset, with the metallic coils of the tide
around my fathomless arms, I am unable
to understand the forms of my vanity
or I am hard alee with my Polish rudder
in my hand and the sun sinking. To
you I offer my hull and the tattered cordage
of my will. The terrible channels where
the wind drives me against the brown lips
of the reeds are not all behind me. Yet
I trust the sanity of my vessel; and
if it sinks it may well be in answer
to the reasoning of the eternal voices,
the waves which have kept me from reaching you.

--Frank O'Hara

The sceptical age hungers after the definite, after something it can pretend to believe.
...
You read, as a child who has listened to ghost stories goes into a dark room; it is no accurate information about historical things that you seek, it is the thrill which mere reality would never satisfy.
...
The history of literary criticism is largely the history of a vain struggle to find a terminology which will define something.
...
It is dawn at Jerusalem while midnight hovers above the Pillars of Hercules. All ages are contemporaneous. The Middle Ages are in Russia. The future stirs already in the minds of the few. This is especially true of literature, where the real time is independent of the apparent, and where many dead men are our grandchildren's contemporaries, while many of our contemporaries have been already gathered into Abraham's bosom, or some more fitting receptacle.
...
The history of an art is the history of masterwork, not of failures, or mediocrity. The ominscient historian would display the masterpieces, their causes and their inter-relation. The study of literature is hero-worship.
...
Good art never bores one. By that I mean that it is the business of the artist to prevent ennui; in the literary art, to relieve, refresh, revive the mind of the reader - at reasonable intervals - with some form of ecstasy, by some splendor of thought, some presentation of sheer beauty, some lightning turn of phrase - laughter is no mean ecstasy. Good art begins with an escape from dullness.

Ezra Pound
--The Spirit of Romance

28 February 2008

Recent readings on psychology, religion, and politics

Even in mundane situations, the individual must act in order to discover what he is and he must act in order to continue experiencing aspects of himself which he values and enjoys. If he thinks of himself as a businessman, a parent, an athlete, an intellectual, he must engage in behavior appropriate to this self-image. If he does not, he must redefine himself, or he will be left feeling anxious and needful. (Here is the reason for the psychological shock of retirement; the man who has retired may find that suddenly he can no longer be that which he most valued himself for being.)

Past actions through which he sought to know and to accept the self are not capable of satisfying this need in the present. Recalling the past can only remind the individual of what he used to be. The erstwhile football hero who is still reliving the big game fifteen years later, or the ex-campus queen who tries to give meaning to her life by clinging to her reign over the prom of a decade ago, are pathetic figures. As the existentialists have pointed out, man must act in order to be, and what he becomes is largely the summation of his actions.
...
Paradoxical though it may seem, it is when the individual is with others that he is best able to enjoy and expand many aspects of himself, to refine and verify his self-image.
...
Men hate in others those things - and only those things - which they despise in themselves. It is possible to disapprove of other people in a rational and dispassionate manner, but to hate them is an irrational and impassioned act. The passion betrays the underlying self-contempt.
...
Distance enables the lover to see his beloved purely in terms of the projections he hangs on her.
...
The general rule is that people who enjoy life enjoy marriage. Some people would be unhappy with any spouse, for they do not allow themselves happiness.

Snell Putney and Gail J. Putney
--The Adjusted American

That hatred springs more from self-contempt than from a legitimate grievance is seen in the intimate connection between hatred and a guilty conscience.

-Eric Hoffer

Insanity in individuals is something rare - but in groups, parties, nations, and epochs, it is the rule.

-Friedrich Nietzsche

If our faith is real, it must encroach upon our life. The Christian Confession in its original Church form will always be exposed to the misunderstanding that the Christian regards the Creed as a matter of heart and conscience, but that here on earth and in the world other truths hold good. The world lives in this misunderstanding; it regards the whole of Christianity as a friendly 'magic', connected with the 'realm of religion', which is respected and which ought to be left untampered with; and so we get rid of the matter! But this misunderstanding might even have come from within; a Christian might quite well wish to have this realm for himself and to guard faith like a sensitive plant. The relationship between the Church and the world has been widely understood as a question of a fixing of frontiers, whereby each secured itself behind its own frontier, although from time to time it came to a skirmish. From the Church's standpoint, however, such a fixing of frontiers can never exhaust its task. By the very nature of the Christian Church there is only one task, to make the Confession heard in the sphere of the world as well.
...
Let us beware of remaining stuck where we are and refusing to advance to meet worldly attitudes. For instance, in Germany in 1933 there was plenty of serious, profound and living Christianity and confession.... But unfortunately this faith and confession of the German Church remained embedded in the language of the Church, and did not translate what was being excellently said in the language of the Church into the political attitude demanded at the time; in which it would have become clear that the Evangelical Church had to say 'No' to National Socialism, 'No' from its very roots.

Karl Barth
--Dogmatics in Outline

26 February 2008

Recent readings on religion and culture

He who refuses to embrace a unique opportunity loses the prize as surely as if he tried and failed.
...
Our errors are surely not such awfully solemn things. In a world where we are so certain to incur them in spite of all our caution, a certain lightness of heart seems healthier than this excessive nervousness on their behalf.
...
Let us give the name hypothesis to anything that may be proposed to our belief; and just as the electricians speak of live and dead wires, let us speak of any hypothesis as either live or dead. A live hypothesis is one which appears as a real possibility to him to whom it is proposed. If I ask you to believe in the Mahdi, the notion makes no electric connection with your nature, - it refuses to scintillate with any credibility at all. As an hypothesis it is completely dead. To an Arab, however (even if he be not one of the Mahdi's followers), the hypothesis is among the mind's possibilities: it is alive. This shows that deadness and liveness in an hypothesis are not intrinsic properties, but relations to the individual thinker.

William James
--"The Will to Believe"

The distance, and as it were the space around man, grows with the strength of his intellectual vision and insight: his world becomes profounder; new stars, new enigmas, and notions are ever coming into view. Perhaps everything on which the intellectual eye has exercised its acuteness and profundity has just been an occasion for its exercise, something of a game, something for children and childish minds.

Friedrich Nietzsche
--Beyond Good and Evil

The perspective of the 'unbeliever' on the traditional forms of belief has seldom been welcomed with any enthusiasm inside the communities of faith, but in spite of that it has provided an invaluable service to them. If one were to write the history of modern reform movements within the several world religions, the critical outsider would have to be accorded a substantial position in such a history.

Jaroslav Pelikan
--The World Treasury of Modern Religious Thought

Many of today’s churches have bought the culture’s lie that religion is not about sex or anything else of much importance. But, as theologian Sarah Coakley has so brilliantly said, ancient Christian reflection on desire shows that Freud is exactly wrong: Talk about God is not repressed talk about sexuality; talk about sex is, in fact, repressed talk about God. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, porn users are not to be rebuked for desiring too much but for desiring too little.

--Jason Byassee, "Not Your Father's Pornography" (First Things, January 2008)

25 February 2008

Great lines from recent reading

It is impossible to think - seriously - with words like Classicism, Romanticism, Humanism, Realism. ...One does not get drunk nor does one quench one's thirst with bottle labels.

-Paul Valery, quoted in C. Milosz, The History of Polish Poetry

Beauty is momentary in the mind -
The fitful tracing of a portal;
But in the flesh it is immortal.

Wallace Stevens
--"Peter Quince at the Clavier"

At no moment during my work did I feel boredom; indeed, I was playing more than toiling, and several passages preserve, I hope, a trace of my smile.

Czeslaw Milosz
--The History of Polish Poetry

Why should she give her bounty to the dead?
What is divinity if it can come
Only in silent shadows and in dreams?
Shall she not find in comforts of the sun,
In pungent fruit and bright, green wings, or else
In any balm or beauty of the earth,
Things to be cherished like the thought of heaven?
...
And, in the isolation of the sky,
At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make
Ambiguous undulations as they sink,
Downward to darkness, on extended wings.

Wallace Stevens
--"Sunday Morning"

I got away with half my heart - no more.
Barely a trace of my old gaiety.
The crowd like market cattle bore
Me along. The world was loathsome to me.

Cyprian Norwid
--"Nerves"

With nothing can one approach a work of art so little as with critical words: they always come down to more or less happy misunderstandings.
...
This above all - ask yourself in the stillest hour of the night: must I write? Delve into yourself for a deep answer. And if this should be affirmative, if you may meet this question with a strong and simple "I must," then build your life according to this necessity; your life even into its most indifferent and slightest hour must be a sign of this urge and a testimony to it.
...
Therefore save yourself from these general themes and seek those which your own everyday life offers you; describe your sorrows and desires, passing thoughts and the belief in some sort of beauty - describe all these with loving, quiet, humble sincerity, and use, to express yourself, the things in your environment, the images from your dreams, and the objects of your memory. If your daily life seems poor, do not blame it; blame yourself, tell yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches; for to the creator there is no poverty and no poor indifferent place.
...
A work of art is good if it has sprung from necessity.
...
Live a while in these books, learn from them what seems to you worth learning, but above all love them. This love will be repaid you a thousand and a thousand times, and however your life may turn, - it will, I am certain of it, run through the fabric of your growth as one of the most important threads among all the threads of your experiences, disappointments and joys.

Rainer Maria Rilke
--Letters to a Young Poet

23 February 2008

Quotes from Joyce's "Ulysses"

Had Pyrrhus not fallen by a beldham's hand in Argos or Julius Caesar not been knifed to death? They are not to be thought away. Time has branded them and fettered they are lodged in the room of the infinite possibilities they have ousted. But can those have been possible seeing that they never were? Or was that only possible which came to pass? Weave, weaver of the wind.

...

-History, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.
From the playfield the boys raised a shout. A whirring whistle: goal. What if that nightmare gave you a back kick?
-The ways of the Creator are not our ways, Mr Deasy said. All history moves towards one great goal, the manifestation of God.
Stephen jerked his thumb towards the window, saying:
-That is God.
Hooray! Ay! Whirrwhee!
-What? Mr Deasy asked.
-A shout in the street, Stephen answered, shrugging his shoulders.

...

For that are you pining, the bark of their applause?

...

Across the sands of all the world, followed by the sun's flaming sword, to the west, trekking to evening lands.

...

Our souls, shame-wounded by our sins, cling to us yet more, a woman to her lover clinging, the more the more.

...

Somewhere in the east: early morning: set off at dawn, travel round in front of the sun, steal a day's march on him. Keep it up for ever never grow a day old technically.

...

-Thank you, sir. Another time.
A speck of eager fire from foxeyes thanked him. He withdrew his gaze after an instant. No: better not: another time.

...

To smell the gentle smoke of tea, fume of the pan, sizzling butter. Be near her ample bedwarmed flesh. Yes, yes.
Quick warm sunlight came running from Berkeley Road, swiftly, in slim sandals, along the brightening footpath. Runs, she runs to meet me, a girl with gold hair on the wind.

James Joyce
--Ulysses

05 February 2008

Quotes from Jim Harrison's "True North"

The main feature of the Kingston Plains was the thousands of acres of white pine stumps, some of them very large, which had been cut at waist or chest height probably during the winter when it was easier to skid the trees out on snow-covered trails which they dampened to form ice so that the draft horse-drawn log sleighs could be more easily pulled. ...I swiveled around until I had completed a 360-degree view, suppressing any anger I felt over the idea that they might have left a few trees for those in the future to look at. Maybe to try to imagine the trees was like asking a contemporary Lakota to imagine a million buffalo.
...
It occurred to me that you could explain everything away but the behavior remained.
...
Frankly I wanted to be useful in this life and that could be defined only by work, not good intentions.
...
I felt absurdly happy when I entered Michigan just north of Toledo, though I was already lonely for Riva.
...
Being at the university through the deaths of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. ending with the more recent Kent State butchery had often made academic studies seem problematical and remote. How upsetting to see your professor break down in tears in your Chaucer class the day after King was murdered. My return to religion was a defense against the insanity of the time, a way to avoid standing there simply screaming like the girl in the famous Kent State photograph. I recalled the day when I was a junior at Michigan State and Cynthia had called to say that she had heard our ex-paper boy had died in Vietnam. He was a poor kid and never seemed dressed warmly enough in winter when below-zero winds blew in off Lake Superior. ...He put a face on an insane war.
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How soiled and tawdry poor Jesus was compared to the theological school where the self-interest of the human intelligence smothered prayer, and the abstractions in the history of theology were a virtual fire extinguisher on the Gospels.
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Every location has its classic Greek chorus muttering, chattering, moaning in the background.
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Fred says that when he sees a politician who has further crushed the poor pray in public he wants to pick up a gun.
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I was cold and exhausted and went back to the motel room, drew an easy chair up to the window, then fell asleep staring at the frightening whiteness of the world. It was clearly a blank canvas on which you could paint your life if you cared to. Just before sleep I imagined sitting at the cabin window and painted the interior of what would be my cabin, including the front window from which the only visible thing was Lake Superior and the line of the horizon, but there was the nagging idea Fred had explained that as a putative Christian I had to learn how to function in the world before I earned the right to retreat.
...
We were jittery when we rigged our fly rods and flipped a coin for the first cast. Glenn won and caught a two-pounder and then it became apparent that the fish weren't gun-shy so we could both cast. We caught a dozen before dark and released all but two which we kept for a midnight snack and ate with a six-pack of beer Glenn had stowed in the cold creek. The northern lights were astounding, whirling sheets and cones of rose and green and bluish lights so strong they gave off a tinny metallic sound.
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Naturally during the act of love you're undisturbed by reality, a grace note I also found in trout fishing, but then lovemaking and fishing don't manage to dominate your life like you wished they could.
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We gave up our heavy talk and spent two days rowing. In my own life strength has come from unfolding, subtracting, rather than adding.
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Clarence said a striking thing about rowing that I've always valued, the upshot of which was that he liked rowing because you were approaching life backward. You could clearly see the past, and you glanced quickly at the future over your shoulder mostly so you wouldn't run into anything destructively immovable. Too much of the future was predestined by the behavior of others for you to be in control. The most you could hope for is to be ready and attentive.

Jim Harrison
--True North

(I picked up True North at the Dawn Treader Book Shop (one of my favorites) in Ann Arbor, MI yesterday, and it has sucked me in and engrossed me in a way that hasn't happened in awhile. I read 50 pages in one sitting last night and another 150 pages on the train from Ann Arbor to Chicago this morning. I don't know how it ends yet, but it's highly recommended.)

26 January 2008

Quotes from recent reading: Robert Jackson, Nate Shaw

Struggles to coerce uniformity of sentiment in support of some end thought essentially to their time and country have been waged by many good, as well as by evil, men. ...Those who begin coercive elimination of dissent soon find themselves exterminating dissenters. Compulsory unification of opinion achieves only the unanimity of the graveyard.

Justice Robert Jackson, writing for the U.S. Supreme Court
--West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette (1943)

The Court found that the underlying issue was not any claimed conflict between liberty of conscience and the state's ability to survive in time of crisis. The issue was not weak versus strong government, but, rather, seeing the strength of America in "individual freedom of mind" rather than in "officially disciplined uniformity for which history indicates a disappointing and disastrous end." Enforced conformity, far from teaching the value of liberty, would "strangle the free mind at its source and teach youth to discount important principles of our government as mere platitudes."

Jordan Lorence and Harvey A. Silverglate
--FIRE's Guide to First-Year Orientation and Thought Reform on Campus

As a whole, if children got book learnin enough they'd jump off of this country; they don't want to plow, don't want no part of no sort of field work. That's the way it runs here. The biggest majority runs off to some place where they can get a public job.
...
And I never did forget none of his treatments toward me. You forever remember the wrongs done to you as long as you live. But it's just like forgivin if you just go on in this world and don't worry about it.
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So my daddy married Maggie Reed and him and her was the father and mother of thirteen children - my old daddy was a rooster, he was a humdinger.
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My grandmother and other people that I knowed grew up in slavery time, they wasn't satisfied with their feredom. They felt like motherless children - they wasn't satisfied but they had to live under the impression that they were. Had to act in a way just as though everything was all right. But they would open up every once in a while and talk about slavery time - they didn't know nothin about no freedom then, didn't know what it was but they wanted it. And when they got it they knew that what they got wasn't what they wanted, it wasn't freedom, really. Had to do whatever the white man directed em to do, couldn't voice their heart's desire. That was the way of life that I was born and raised into.
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Of course, years ago I heard that President Lincoln freed the colored people; but it didn't amount to a hill of beans.
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He was imprisoned in slavery for fifteen years - slavery were equal or worser than prison, but both of em bad and the poor colored man knows more about them two subjects than anybody.
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And when I got to be a little old boy, when I got big enough to catch on to what people said, and even to the words of the old people, and the Bible, it was instilled in me many a time: the bottom rail will come to the top someday. I taken that to mean a change in the later years, durin of my lifetime maybe. I believe, if that day come, the poor generation on earth will banish away their toils and snares. But won't nobody do it for them but themselves.
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I was big enough and old enough to abominate what I seed.
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He wasn't a slave but he lived like one. Because he had to take what the white people gived to get along. That much of slavery ways was still hangin on. According to slave days you wasn't allowed the privilege to seek knowledge without the white man, master man, allowin you. And that was the rule durin of my daddy's lifetime and through my life, to be sure.
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They claimed they had a note against him and they took all he had. In those days, it was out of the knowledge of the colored man to understand that if you gived a man a note on everything you had, exactly how you was subject to the laws. Because the colored man wasn't educated in the laws for his use; they was a great, dark secret to him.

Nate Shaw
--Theodore Rosengarten (ed), All God's Dangers: The Life of Nate Shaw

21 January 2008

Robert Frank on inequality in America

I've recently started exploring the ideas of liberal economists - those economists who advise and formulate policy for Democratic candidates. I've downloaded a few fantastic lectures by Robert Reich, Secretary of Labor under President Clinton. And I recently read a book on inequality by Robert Frank, professor of economics at Cornell. The book - Falling Behind: How Rising Inequality Harms the Middle Class - is one of the most interesting policy essays I've read in a long time. I highly recommend it.

His basic argument is this: since 1979, the trend in America has been for an enormous increase in the incomes of those in the top 1%-5% of earners and a much, much smaller increase in the incomes of everyone else. Flush with cash, the top earners have been spending wildly on "positional goods" - goods that display status and wealth, that demonstrate that one is a "player," someone to be reckoned with. Meanwhile, the near-rich emulate the spending patterns of the rich, and so on down the income ladder. This is the "expenditure cascade."

The problem is that the farther down the income ladder one goes, the less capable individuals are of affording to participate in these "positional arms races," as Frank calls them. Individuals in the middle are forced to keep up by spending large portions of their income on positional goods - which include things like housing and education - while increasingly neglecting unseen, nonpositional goods like saving money and buying insurance.

The primary motive for status-spending isn't envy, he argues; rather, middle-class families feel forced to spend heavily on positional goods in order to feel accepted and be recognized as successful. People take out jumbo mortgages to buy oversized houses they can't afford not because they necessarily believe that more house leads to more happiness, but because they want to send their children to the best schools and have them grow up in "safe" neighborhoods - the sort of neighborhoods where housing prices are often beyond their ability to comfortably pay.

Frank cites research showing that higher income inequality is associated with lower societal happiness, more health problems, and higher rates of crime, homicide, suicide, and depression. He lambasts the Bush tax cuts, which disproportionately rewarded individuals at the top of the income scale, and argues for making income taxes more progressive or switching to a progressive consumption tax. This would involve making savings tax-exempt: taxable income in a given year would equal a family's earnings minus its savings.

"Do we want to spend our money on better teachers, better roads, and enhanced national security? Or do we want to spend it on more expensive watches, more elaborate gas grills, and bigger mansions? Tired slogans about government waste won't help us make this decision more intelligently."

Click here to check out the book on Amazon.com.

Quotes from Hamsun, Du Bois, and Salomon

-Happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day!

Honest and earnest criticism from those whose interests are most nearly touched - criticism of writers by readers, of government by those governed, of leaders by those led - this is the soul of democracy and the safeguard of modern society.
...
In fact the burden belongs to the nation, and the hands of none of us are clean if we bend not our energies to righting these wrongs.
...
The opposition to Negro education in the South was at first bitter, and showed itself in ashes, insult, and blood; for the South believed an educated Negro to be a dangerous Negro. And the South was not wholly wrong; for education among all kinds of men always has had, and always will have, an element of danger and revolution, of dissatisfaction and discontent. Nevertheless, men strive to know.
...
To be a poor man is hard, but to be a poor race in a land of dollars is the very bottom of hardships.

W.E.B. Du Bois
--The Souls of Black Folk

His emotion had made him a boy again, a child sitting quietly with folded arms.
...
'It's spring, I'm walking into the new season,' Rolandsen answered over his shoulder as he went by.
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On the other hand, he was not God, he could not contain his heart if it insisted on flying away in the spring.
...
The nights too were bright and sunny. It was weather for dreamers, for young people to flit about in restless excitement. They wandered the roads at night, singing and beating the air with sallow-twigs. And from all the isles and skerries came the sound of birds: guillemots and oyster-catchers and gulls and eiderducks. The seal thrust his dripping head up out of the water and looked around, then dived back down again to his own world.
...
He went to the sexton's house to look for Olga. Now that it was spring Rolandsen had to have a sweetheart; it was no easy matter to hold his own great heart in check.
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Alas, Rolandsen was ever hopeful; it took very little to rouse his expectations. But it had to be admitted that he was also good at bearing disappointments; he was proud and resilient and his spirit was never broken.

Knut Hamsun
--Dreamers

Some people are always getting a bigger boat, but rarely sail.
...
All these books boil down to the same message: 'Resist the urge to buy.' Once you learn how to do it, it becomes second nature.
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Most people find that stuff does indeed expand to fill the space provided. Do you want to encourage this tendency with the stuff in your house? Extra space will cost you in several ways: money and times to decorate, clean, and maintain; energy to heat and cool all that space; and outdoor space (the more you put under roof, the less you'll have outside). There's also the house law of diminishing returns: the difference between having one bathroom or none is enormous, but between two or three may be negligible.
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Living smaller frees up...time and money to pursue fun. Having good friends is a proven mood elevator.
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Polls show that most Americans believe we must earn about twice the median income to be solidly middle class - that is, we believe that what we earn, on average, is just not enough.

Shay Salomon and Nigel Valdez
--Little House on a Small Planet

20 January 2008

UCTF: Phoenix Invite

























I had another great track meet yesterday - won the mile (4:22) and anchored the winning DMR (4:24 split). We won the 8-team meet, as did the women's team. Results are here.

Photos by Appie Hirve.

13 January 2008

Pics from the UW-Oshkosh dual track meet






















The pictures were taken by Appie Hirve. Meet results can be found here.