A Small Remembrance

Over the weekend, I lost a friend to cancer. It was a rare, aggressive varietal, one that claimed her life all too soon. She was diagnosed in November last year, underwent surgery and adjuvant chemotherapy, but the onward march of the malignant tumors within her could not be halted, and so finally, this past Sunday, in the company of her loved ones, she breathed her last.  A few days before, I had understood that she had, to use the language which is so dreaded in cancer treatment, ‘gone terminal’ but I still expected her to be around for a few months at least. But on that fateful morning, when I awoke from a disturbed sleep, made some coffee and sat down at my computer to check my mail, I read the dreaded news: matters had taken a fatal turn, and she was no more.

I had come to know about her illness in January, and after spending a few weeks trying to set up a Skype meeting–the fifteen hour time difference with Australia considerably complicated matters–we finally spoke in March.  She looked well; there was no hair loss, even though she had lost some weight. Her spirits were high; though her cancer was a deadly one, certain features of her particular case had given her doctor and her hope. My wife tried to join the conversation but our toddler daughter was insistent and demanding and distracting, so she dropped in, said ‘hi’ and promised to write an email to say more. (She did.) We bade each other farewell, with a promise that we’d try to talk again sometime soon.  That never came to be.

My friend was an academic, an accomplished psychologist, who wrote acutely and sensitively on–among other things–emotions, narcissism, and psychoanalytic theory; she was a polymath who could talk comfortably about art, literature, and poetry; she practiced yoga well enough to be a teacher; she made ceramic pieces which bore the imprint of her distinctive style; she was a connoisseur of good food and wine; she was a loving partner and mother.  She lived far away from me, but when we met it always was as if the years would roll away. She gave good hugs, she was interested in what I had to say, and she was unfailingly kind and encouraging. She was, to drag out that dreaded cliché, one of those that prove the bitter truth that only the good die young. There was nothing she could have done to prevent the cancer; it is rare, not hereditary, and has no known causes or indications in physical predispositions. She was, in a word that expresses our ignorance of this terrible world’s secret workings the most acutely, unlucky. As were all of those who loved her and cared for her.

All the verbal consolations I send to her partner and her daughter are of scant comfort; their grief is immense, their loss irreplaceable, and I can only offer bromides from a distance. Her death makes this world into a colder and crueller place. But she lived a good life, and she made those she met and worked with and made a home with happier. Those are not insignificant blessings. May her spirit live on.

Of Broken Windows And Broken Spines

It was a dark and stormy night. But I was not swayed by the forces and the voices that commanded me to turn back from this lonely road I had set out on. For I was righteous, and I knew I was on the right path. Yea, for even though I was midway through life’s journey and in dark woods, I had not lost the right road. I was headed for the mountaintop, where my appointment with fate lay waiting. With head bowed, infected by a spirit of appropriate and comely humility, I pressed on. Far greater rewards than any this material world could promise me would soon be mine.

Soon, the moment was at hand. There was no need for incantations, no call to burn incense or fall on my knees. I had made the journey; I was here; my presence was adequate testimony to my standing as deserved recipient for the revelations that would follow as sure as night follows day.

And then the voice was heard, its sonorous, majestic tones momentarily hushing the peals of thunder that periodically threatened to split the firmament apart:

Speak, my child! I am your deity tonight. Your perplexities are for me to resolve; your darkness is for me to dispel. Speak!

I could not help myself. I fell to my knees, even as I knew that such obeisance was hopelessly old-fashioned, a holdover only required by the archaic gods and not by these egalitarians. When I had composed myself and dared to look up, I spoke, my voice trembling:

I am perplexed my Lord, by the violence that perpetually stalks my land. I am mystified by this scourge that claims the lives of men, women, and children, that turns us into killers and victims, into widows and orphans. How may we be freed from its clammy clutches? How may we reduce its toll? How may we bring the mourning and wailing to an end?

The voice spoke again, calm and measured, even as I thought I detected some thinly disguised impatience coursing through its tones:

You come to me with a seemingly perennial mystery, my child, which is only intractable insofar as you refuse to penetrate to its transparent and accessible core, its clear and limpid solution.

The voice spoke in riddles. What could it mean?  Only an arrogant disciple would ask for a revelation to be repeated and clarified. But I was at my wit’s end. The toll was too great to bear; we could not be pallbearers at funerals any more. I spoke up, trembling with fear.

My Lord, I am foolish and dense, my mind is addled. What is this great simplicity you speak of? Why are we not privy to it as you are?

There was a momentary silence. And then, again, that familiar aural benediction:

My child, the mystery is not great. You must only learn to grieve for broken spines as much as you do for broken windows.

And with that, the voice was gone.

 

Women In Philosophy And Reconceptualizing Philosophical Method

This past Monday, on 20th April, Christia Mercer, the Gustave M. Berne Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University, delivered the Philosophy Department’s annual Sprague and Taylor lecture at Brooklyn College. The title of her talk was ‘How Women Changed The Course of Philosophy’. Here is the abstract:

The story we tell about the development of early modern philosophy was invented by German Neo-Kantians about 150 years ago. Created to justify its proponents’ version of philosophy, it is a story that ignores the complications of seventeenth-century philosophy and its sources. In this lecture, Professor Christia Mercer uncovers the real story behind early modern rationalism and shows that many of its most original components have roots in the philosophical contributions made by women. [link added]

At one point during the talk, in referring to the contributions made by Julian of Norwich, Professor Mercer began by saying, “Julian does not offer an argument here, but rather an analysis…”. During the question and answer session, focusing on this remark, I offered some brief comments.

There is at the heart of philosophical practice, a fairly well-established and canonical notion of philosophical method: the construction of arguments, hopefully building up to a ‘system’, which are to be subjected to an examination for weaknesses. The successful arguments emerge from this crucible all the better for their trials. From this conception of philosophical method we may also derive a fundamentally adversarial conception of philosophical activity–when two philosophers meet, they are engaged in a form of intellectual conflict, with each attempting shore up the defenses of their own system and expose the deficits of the other. But perhaps philosophers could do more than just offer and refute arguments. Perhaps they could offer observations and insights that make us view the world in a different light; perhaps they could show how one thing relates to another; perhaps they could analyze a situation or a state of affairs, not in the destructive, decompositional sense, but instead, by way of showing us what has to come together, and how, to make the situation ‘hang together’; perhaps, as Wittgenstein is said to have done, they could ‘point’ and ‘lay things out for us to see.’

If understood in this way, then the business of ‘bringing more women into philosophy’ might not be just a matter of reaching out to women to ‘pull’ them in, but also of expanding our understanding of what philosophy is and how it is to be done so that its ambit will include women and the ways in which they might have been philosophers. (I could imagine, all too easily, responses along the following lines being made to some of Professor Mercer’s examples of philosophical work in the period she was discussing: Why is this philosophy? The reasons for the exclusion of women from philosophy would not just be the denial of educational opportunity or participation in philosophical institutions  but also a straightforward failure to recognize their intellectual contributions as being philosophy in the first place.) Such an understanding of philosophy and its methods and practices would, of course, bring it closer to literature and poetry as well.

Professor Mercer seemed to respond rather favorably to these remarks. I look forward to her forthcoming book on Anne Conway, in which some of the fascinating commentary she offered on reconceptualizing so-called ‘early modern rationalism’–by way of showing its dependence on bodily experience and affect–will surely be recapitulated.

On First And Second Languages V – Nabokov’s Lament

In his famous Afterword to Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov closed with:

My private tragedy, which cannot, and indeed should not, be anybody’s concern, is that I had to abandon my natural idiom, my untrammelled, rich, and infinitely docile Russian tongue for a second-rate brand of English, devoid of any of those apparatuses–the baffling mirror, the black velvet backdrop, the implied associations and traditions–which the native illusionist, frac-tails flying, can magically use to transcend the heritage in his own way.

In a post paying tribute a scholarly friend of mine, a close and careful reader of the books he owned and an exacting writer to boot, I had written:

Even more impressive was his attention to elegance and conciseness in both his verbal and mathematical expression; we co-authored a journal paper together and I was–for lack of a better word–blown away by his insistence on getting our written and technical formulations just right. No superfluous words, no bloated definitions, no vague sentences were to be tolerated.

My friend’s writing did not lack flair either, and so I once complimented him on his style. He accepted the praise reluctantly, issuing a lament similar to that of Nabokov’s: He was a native French speaker and writer, and he was painfully aware, as he wrote in English, that he was not writing as well as he could have in French. His distinctive style, his skillful deployment of the resources of the French language were simply not available to him.

I’m bilingual too, but only in a fashion, and so I do not experience the kind of regrets expressed above. As I have noted here on previous occasions, I do not read and write Hindi/Urdu/Hindustani–my supposed first language(s)–with anywhere near the same facility as I do English, my actual first language. Indeed, I do not read or write in Hindi/Urdu/Hindustani at all. I could, but slowly and painfully. And so I don’t. I had intended to read three novels in Hindi by the great Indian novelist Premchand–which I own–to ameliorate this state of affairs (and to evaluate the quality of their translations into English), but they are still sitting on my shelf, unread. I know a struggle awaits me when I open their pages; avoidance seems like a rather perspicuous strategy. (I suspect my reading abilities would trend upward on a sharper slope than my writing in Hindi et al., which was always hopeless.) I am well aware, when I write in English, that this is my chosen medium and vehicle of expression; it is the only one I have.

I say this even as I revel in my bilingual abilities when it comes to the spoken word. I enjoy dipping back into the stores of Hindi/Urdu/Hindustani/Punjabi idioms and expressions when I speak with other speakers of these languages. There are some pungent descriptions of this lunatic world’s state of affairs that I only find available in those linguistic frameworks. And when I do use them, I’m struck, as always, by how the mere utterance of a sentence or two can instantly transport me to a distinctive place and time.

Of Cricket Fans And Memoirs

Last week, I sent in the draft manuscript for my next book–“a memoirish examination of the politics of cricket fandom”–to the editors at Temple University Press. The book, whose description, not title, I have indicated above, will now be reviewed, revised and then finally rolled off the presses as part of the series Sporting, edited by Amy Bass of the College of New Rochelle. By way of providing an introduction to the book, I’ve taken the liberty of excerpting–what else–the book’s introduction below.

Continue reading

Writing And The Hundred Book Summer

Shortly after I have returned my student’s writing assignments to them, I start setting up appointments with those students who want to talk about their grades. In these consultations, as I go over the importance of returning to the reading assignments, preparing an early draft, meeting the writing tutor, revising often, having a friend read drafts, and so on, I sometimes also tell them a little story about how reading more can make you into a better writer.

A couple of years ago, my Brooklyn College colleague Robert Viscusi told me how he had transformed himself from an ‘average’ student into a ‘good’ one, one with some talent for writing. After his freshman year of college, he found himself in the privileged position of having a great deal of time on his hands that summer. I do not remember if summer employment was disdained, not felt necessary or merely part-time, but be that as it may, he had time to read.

And so he read that summer. Prodigiously. At the rate of a book a day. He read novels, short stories, history, the lot. He read and read, clocking in at, I think, a hundred books. Prior to that summer, he had been a B-student. After that summer, he never got less than an A. And he found too, a facility and a talent for writing that had not made itself manifest before.

I tell my students that I don’t expect them to read a book a day. Given the constraints on their time and energy, and their often radically different stations in life, this would be unrealistic. But I do ask them to pay attention to the transformation in a student’s scholarly abilities by this devotion to reading. And more to the point, to the change in writing abilities.

Those who read more write better. They encounter writing in its many different forms; they develop and acquire a taste; they are exposed to examples, good and bad, of the art and craft of writing; they internalize, subconsciously, implicitly and explicitly, crucial elements of style; they see writers explain, persuade, argue, tell stories, complain, mock, ridicule; they notice verbal trickery and subtlety; they witness the deployment of rhetoric; and most ambitiously, they might imagine they would like to get a piece of the action and do it better than those whom they read. Or at least emulate them.

I find grading papers extraordinarily hard and still struggle with providing adequate feedback to my students on their papers. (My comments on papers are brief and synoptic; I do not micro-markup.) It is easier for me to remind students of methodology–‘in most instances you can delete the first paragraph you wrote in your first draft; most likely, it’s just throat clearing’–than it is to tell them what is wrong with a particular piece of writing.

But I can always fall back on a reliable instruction: if you want to write better, start reading more. Way more than you do now. That’s good advice for me too.

 

 

The Clock-Watcher’s Punch In The Gut

Last Monday, as I taught my graduate seminar on The Nature of Law, one of the students in attendance turned to look at the clock: we still had some forty-five minutes to go in a two-hour meeting. As I saw this, I experienced a familiar feeling, one that, as usual, temporarily, if not visibly, incapacitated me, tempting me to call a halt to the proceedings right there and then. I didn’t, of course, but neither did I just get over it. (I’m blogging about it, am I not?)

I taught a university-level class for the first time, as a graduate teaching assistant, almost twenty-seven years ago. Thirteen years ago, I became a full-time member of the teaching faculty at Brooklyn College. All of which is to say: I’ve been teaching a long time. But no matter how old that gets, the clock-watching student always manages to cut through the haze and deliver a punch in my  gut. Some look left and right, some look back over their heads at the clock behind them. Doesn’t matter; they all make me feel the same way.

At that moment, I stand accused of a particularly devastating combination of pedagogical and personal sins: I am boring; I have failed to make the subject matter interesting enough. My pride is buffeted: I am not a riveting performer, entertaining and educating in equal measure; I’m not like those great teachers I keep hearing about who keep their students spell-bound and rapt with attention, sometimes keeping their uncomplaining and adoring brood in class well beyond closing time. Clock watching students seem to inform me, rather unambiguously, that their time could be better utilized elsewhere, that whatever it is I’m selling, it’s not worth their hanging around for it.

Little of what I have written above is ‘rational’, of course. Students are human beings and tire, just like I do. In particular, attending a night-time class is always onerous after a tiring day spent elsewhere, perhaps reading and writing dense material, perhaps working a full-time job. Sometimes clock-watching can be instinctive; we are used to the idea of calibrating our progress through the day with frequent consultation of our time-keepers. Classes are held indoors, and with windows granting access to what might be a more salubrious outside, who wouldn’t want to check on how long it will be before the frolicking begins? (This is especially germane now, here on the East Coast of the US, as we recover from a brutal winter and enjoy a glorious spring that has sent temperatures soaring into the sixties.)  Lastly, it is not as if all my students are so engaged in clock-watching. One or two out of twenty or thirty might do it; is that so bad? You can’t really please all the folks all the time.

And then, of course, there is dirty little secret that many students are well aware of: their teachers also watch clocks. They too want to be done subjecting themselves to this experience, which no matter how inspiring and edifying at its best moments, always carries just a tinge of terror: that unshakeable feeling that your ignorance, instead of your wisdom, will soon be on display.