Monthly Archives: December 2008

Notes on Nothing

  • I’m in the midst of finals grading right now.  I had my last class yesterday, give my last exam tomorrow, and have countless papers to read.  I’ve calculated final grades for 11 of my 70 students.  59 to go!
  • I created a page on the blog for my TBR list (up at the top of the site), which includes both unread books I own and books I wish I owned.  Both lists are rather lengthy.
  • The most recent addition to the list is Wilkie Collins’s Armadale, which many people have recommended highly, and which looks like a very long, wonderfully entertaining read — perfect for winter.
  • I’m about to finish Joan Didion’s collection of essays The White Album, which I have enjoyed very much (more on that soon), and am in the middle of Jenny Diski’s Skating to Antarctica.  I’m very excited about reading her new novel Apology for the Woman Writing, which is about a woman living during Montaigne’s time who becomes obsessed with his writing.  I love Diski and love Montaigne, so surely I’ll love this book, right?
  • I’m taking a break from my triathlon training because I’m injured again.  Sigh.  I’ve had hamstring/hip pain for a while, and was hoping it would go away, but it has refused to.  So I’m seeing a doctor about it and am hoping it will heal up quickly.  At least the weather outside is awful and isn’t tempting me to head outdoors.
  • Once I’m riding again, though, it will be extra fun because I have a new bike!  I was at the bike shop today to get it fit properly, and it looks nice.  It’s white — which isn’t my first choice of color, but we got a great deal on it and part of the deal was taking whatever color they offered.  Actually a white bike would be fine, if it somehow cleaned itself.  As it is, I’ll have to be better about keeping it clean so road grit won’t accumulate and look awful, and I do need to be better about keeping my bike clean, so it’s just as well.  It’s a Cannondale and has the name on the side in red, and it has a black saddle, black wheels, and black handlebar tape.  Nice color scheme, right?

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Creativity and Romanticism

Cross-posted here.

In light of all the discussion over at Reading Gaddis about originality and creativity,  I was struck by the passage (on p. 89 in the Penguin) where Wyatt quotes Herr Koppel, his art instructor in Munich:

That romantic disease, originality, all around us we see originality of incompetent idiots, they could draw nothing, paint nothing, just so the mess they make is original … Even two hundred years ago who wanted to be original, to be original was to admit that you could not do a thing the right way, so you could only do it your own way.  When you paint you do not try to be original, only you think about your work, how to make it better, so you copy masters, only masters, for with each copy of a copy the form degenerates … you do not invent shapes, you know them, auswendig wissen Sie, by heart…

Up to this point, I’d been thinking about originality and creativity in religious terms because of Aunt May’s diatribe about how being creative is usurping God’s role.  But Wyatt didn’t just get this lesson from Aunt May — he got it from Herr Koppel as well, who has entirely different reasons for critiquing creativity.  Herr Koppel, it seems, is an anti-Romantic; he looks back to the pre-Romantic era where artists didn’t value originality (at least not in the same way) and instead focused on honing their craft, which was best done by copying the masters.  You tried to internalize the best techniques that others had already mastered; you believed that there IS a set of techniques out there that constitutes the best techniques possible.

What Wyatt thinks of Herr Koppel’s view isn’t entirely clear; shortly before he quotes the passage I gave above, he says, “I felt like him, just for that instant, as though I were old Herr Koppel,” which leaves some room for distance or disagreement between the two.  But it does make clear that Wyatt has heard the message that originality and creativity are dangerous and undesirable from two different people in entirely different contexts, and it offers another reason why Wyatt’s relationship to creativity is so vexed.

It also opens the possibility that Gaddis is critiquing or responding to Romanticism in some way, a thought that became clearer to me when I came across this passage (p. 95, Wyatt is speaking):

Listen, this guilt, this secrecy, he burst out, — it has nothing to do with this … this passion for wanting to meet the latest poet, shake hands with the latest novelist, get hold of the latest painter, devour … what is it?  What is it they want from a man that they didn’t get from his work?  What do they expect?  What is there left of him when he’s done his work?  What’s any artist, but the dregs of his work?  the human shambles that follows it around?  What’s left of the man when the work’s done but a shambles of apology.

The artist doesn’t matter; only the work does — in saying this, he’s critiquing the Romantic cult of the artist as genius.  The artist is really little but a conduit for the art itself — once the art exists, the artist doesn’t matter anymore.  Just two paragraphs later, he says, “There’s only one thing, somehow, he commenced, faltering — that … one dilemma, proving one’s own existence ….”  Not only does the artist not matter much, but apparently everyone has only a tenuous hold on their own existence.

This might help explain why so many things are unfinished in this novel, including sentences and conversations — there is very little that’s certain, very little to hold on to, no real reason to try to complete something and make it whole.

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Time for reading

The Booking Through Thursday question from this past week interested me:

1. Do you get to read as much as you WANT to read?

(I’m guessing #1 is an easy question for everyone?)

2. If you had (magically) more time to read–what would you read? Something educational? Classic? Comfort Reading? Escapism? Magazines?

Actually question #1 isn’t easy for me.  I often wish that I had more time to read, but the truth is that if I had more time to read, I’m not sure I’d use it for reading.  The thing is, I love reading (clearly), but there’s a limit to what I can read before I need to give my mind a break.  I can only absorb so much before I feel overwhelmed.  So as much as I sometimes long for hours and hours in which to read, the reality is that if I had them, I’d find myself getting restless and losing focus.

I think the issue for me is that I need a significant amount of time to process the stories and ideas I’ve read.  I’m similar in the way I deal with people — I love seeing with friends, but I need plenty of time afterward to process what happened, to think it through, maybe to turn it into a little narrative, to figure out how I might recount the day to Hobgoblin or to another friend.  Books are like friends in this way — I need plenty of time with them and plenty of time without them.

Anyway, if I magically had more time to read, and also had more endurance and focus for reading, I’d read more of … well, everything.  More classics, more contemporary fiction, more comfort reading, more nonfiction, more mysteries, more philosophy, more biographies, more essays.  A little bit of everything, please.

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Book Group

My book group met this afternoon to discuss Diane Ackerman’s The Zookeeper’s Wife, and it turns out we did have some things to discuss, in spite of my suspicions that we’d all say we loved it and then not have anything further to add.  It turns out the other members of my book group didn’t all love it as much as I did.  Some felt that all the attention paid to animals was troubling given what was happening to the humans in the story, and others felt the narrative jumped around in awkward ways and wasn’t as developed in places as it could have been.  The conversation was interesting to me because while I liked the book a lot, what the others said did speak to some doubts that were flickering around in my mind as I read, particularly the point about structure and narration.  As we talked, I was able to think through more clearly what my responses really meant.

Ackerman is doing something complicated in the way she narrates the story.  She has a short explanation at the book’s beginning about how she uses her sources, but after that she disappears completely as a narrator until the very end.  So the book reads something like a novel with a distant third person narrator who only occasionally gives the reader a glimpse into what is happening in the mind of Antonina, the zookeeper’s wife.  Those glimpses come from Antonina’s journal, but it’s easy to forget as you’re reading along that Ackerman was working from sources, since she rarely discusses them in detail.  Some people in my group felt the book would have worked better if it were pushed further in the direction of a novel, with more about the inner lives of the characters.  And I was wondering if it might have worked better if Ackerman had put herself into the narrative more by discussing the sources and the research directly.

But as it is, I think the book captures an important quality.  Without the obvious guiding hand of a narrator, the kind of narrator who gives shape and meaning to the story, it feels jumbled and little chaotic, which is the right kind of feeling to capture, given the book’s subject matter.  Ackerman seems determined to let the story speak for itself and not to become too involved in telling the reader what to make of it.  There’s a lot of room to draw your own conclusions and respond in your own way.  Her largely exterior point of view with only little bits and pieces of interior feeling leaves room for you to imagine what the people were feeling on your own.  The narrator doesn’t fill in the blanks for you.  This strikes me as respectful of the reader, and it also leaves room for some mystery — because it is a kind of mystery, I think, how and why people did what they did when they were risking their lives to save others.

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Intro to the Arts

So my Intro to the Arts (not its real name, but you get the idea) is almost over. We’ve done all the substantive work we’re going to, and now we’re preparing for the final. I have to say I’m very glad to be almost finished teaching this class for the first time; it went very well and I had a great group of students, but teaching it for the first time required a lot of preparation and was a little nerve-wracking. It will be easier next time around.

My students have been doing presentations on their creative project. They were supposed to create some kind of art work in any medium they wanted to, and then present it to the class and talk about what their creative process was like — where they got their idea, how it developed, wrong turns they took, difficulties they encountered, the number of attempts they made before they got it right, etc. It’s been a huge pleasure to see what the students produced and to hear them talk about it. I don’t think I should describe any of their projects in detail, as that seems like an invasion of privacy, but I got some paintings, some poems, some photography, and some projects that don’t fit any traditional category. Those uncategorizable ones were among the most interesting, as those students seemed to be creating something that related to their lives and came out of their experiences in a very direct and genuine way. I could feel the energy in the room as they talked about their work and as the rest of the class asked them question after question about how they created what they did and where they got the idea from.

It was fun listening to the students talk about what they learned. Many students discovered that creating art isn’t as easy as they thought it was going to be. Many of the students who chose photography had that experience — they thought, what’s so hard about taking pictures? But then they got out and tried it and realized that it’s a more complicated endeavor than they realized.

My students also had to go out and have some kind of arts experience — visit a museum, see a dance, go to a concert, etc.. I was reading their papers about the experience today and noticed that quite a few of them had tried something they had never done before; a few of them mentioned, for example, that they had never gone to an art museum as an adult. It’s a little sad that so many people have so little interaction with the arts, and I’m glad the course requires them to get out and see some art because at least it gives them a taste and they might want to go back and see more. The students wrote very well about how exciting and new their experience was and how much they enjoyed it. (They could, of course, just be trying to make me happy, but what they wrote seemed genuine.) We covered so much about various art forms in such a short period of time, but they seemed to have gained some confidence in their ability to understand and appreciate art. Even if they don’t remember any of the vocabulary we learned, I hope they keep that sense of confidence.

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The Zookeeper’s Wife

One of my book groups is reading Diane Ackerman’s The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story, and I found it an engrossing read, although I do wonder how much we will find to say about it.  We’ll say things like, “wow, that was a great story” and “wasn’t it well-written?” and “can you believe how brave those people were?” and I’m not sure where we will go from there.  Maybe I’m wrong, we’ll see, but this book seems to find its power in narrative rather than in ideas, and ideas give you more to say in a discussion.

Anyway, it is a very powerful narrative.  The book tells the story of Jan and Antonina Zabinski, the zookeeper and the zookeeper’s wife of the title, who are in charge of the Warsaw zoo during World War II.  They survive the initial attack on Warsaw by the Germans and then witness the atrocities committed against the Jews in the city, first the imprisonment of the Jews in the Warsaw ghetto and then their transportation to the death camps to be murdered.  Jan quickly becomes involved in the Polish resistance movement, taking risks whenever he can to undermine the German forces and to help save people’s lives.  Antonina manages their home, which she turns into a underground way station for escaping Jews and other people whose lives were at risk.  They often had crowds of people in their home, hiding during the day and moving around only at night.  Jan would smuggle people out of the ghetto and bring them to Antonina, who would then hide them and make sure the Germans who frequently patrolled the area never knew they were there.  Jan and Antonina — and many other people Ackerman describes — put their lives at risk countless times to help others.

Ackerman herself stays well in the background through most of the book, discussing herself directly only briefly toward the end to describe meeting some of the people involved in the story.  Rather than intruding herself into the narrative, she keeps the focus on her subjects, letting them take center stage.  This is a wise move, as the story needs no embellishment or authorial commentary and can stand very powerfully on its own.

In addition to telling the story of Jan and Antonina, Ackerman also describes the history of European zoos and the debates that were waged at the time, about, for example, whether animals should be expected to adapt to their new zoo environment as best as they can or whether zookeepers should try to create habitats as close to their natural ones as possible.  Ackerman also recounts the fascinating history of Nazi ideas about animals, in particular their attempts to recover extinct breeds of animals that they believed best represented Aryan culture.  By back-breeding — mating animals who held traits characteristic of extinct breeds in order eventually to recover those breeds — Nazis hoped to create an animal culture that mirrored their ideal human one.  They wanted pure-bred animals, particularly ones like wild horses and bison that demonstrated traits they valued — wildness, ferocity, and courage.  Just as they hoped to strip the world of human diversity, so they were devoted to a natural world that reflected their beliefs about racial and genetic purity.  It’s an ugly, not to mention unscientific, picture.  German scientists took advantage of their access to the Warsaw zoo to help advance their projects, and Jan and Antonina had to see many of their animals killed or carted off to Germany.  The story of human suffering the book tells is intensely moving, but animal suffering has its place too, and Ackerman’s descriptions of terrified, confused animals who didn’t understand what was happening to them were hard to read.

Ackerman’s writing is beautiful; it doesn’t draw undue attention to itself, but it does capture the landscapes and people and emotions of the story wonderfully well.  I have been planning on reading Ackerman’s Natural History of the Senses at some point, and The Zookeeper’s Wife is confirmation that I should do so as soon as possible.

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Creativity

I was struck by a passage in The Recognitions about art and religion (p. 34 in the Penguin edition).  Can you imagine if you were a child and took your first drawing to your aunt with whom you live and who is doing most of the work to raise you, only to get this response?

Don’t you love your Lord Jesus, after all? … Then why do you try to take His place?  Our Lord is the only true creator, and only sinful people try to emulate Him … Do you remember Lucifer? … Lucifer was the archangel who refused to serve Our Lord.  To sin is to falsify something in the Divine Order, and that is what Lucifer did.  His name means Bringer of Light but he was not satisfied to bring the light of Our Lord to man. He tried to become original … original, to steal Our Lord’s authority, to command his own destiny, to bear his own light!  That is why Satan is the Fallen Angel, for he rebelled when he tried to emulate Our Lord Jesus. And he won his own domain, didn’t he.  Didn’t he!  And his own light is the light of the fires of Hell!  Is that what you want?  Is that what you want?  Is that what you want?

It’s astounding that poor Wyatt went on to draw anything at all ever again, but he did, burying his drawings in the back yard and feeling terrible guilt over it, doing it in spite of terror at his own damnation.

The religious argument is astounding as well (not to mention the level of the aunt’s fury) — that it’s sinful to try to be original and creative because that is the same thing as trying to take God’s place. It puts one on the same level as Lucifer and condemns one to hell.  I have had many quarrels with the religion of my youth, but this, fortunately, wasn’t one of them; I was taught not that creativity is an attempt to take God’s place but that creativity is one of the ways that we are made in the image of God and by exercising our creativity, we are expressing our true natures and following in God’s footsteps, in a respectful, loving way, not a proud, ambitious way.  How much nicer this idea is!

I’m very curious to see just how poor Wyatt, who will grow up to become an artist, is going to deal with this legacy of guilt about the very thing he will spend his life doing.  Surely the words “Is that what you want?” must have been lurking in the back of his mind for years afterwards.

Cross-posted here.

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