After stints as a trial lawyer and a church worker, Peter Stephens has settled in as a Virginia high school English teacher. Peter has read several books and poems.
He wrote none of the posts below filed under "Passages." Click the link at the end of each post to see it in the context of the author's original post.
Alarums. We compared the sounds we use to move us from our dreams to the day to come.
And chimes. This morning’s wind, and we spoke of the high-hat cymbals crashing along suburban sidewalks. No low notes.
A teacher is a weather system, a symbol on a weather map. Students are the energy that activates him, that sends papers skittering across the linoleum. That came up, too.
Then this morning’s reading, taken from the prophet Isaias:
Israel’s watchmen are blind. . . . “Come,” says each of them, “let me fetch wine, strong drink, and we shall swill it down; tomorrow will be like today, or better still!”
The righteous perish, and no one is concerned; all who are loyal to their faith are swept away and no one gives it a thought. The righteous are swept away by the onset of evil . . . (56:10 – 57:1, REB)
I finished Witness: Lessons from Elie Wiesel’s Classroom, written by Ariel Burger, a student. Wiesel talked warmly of his world before the camp:
We spoke of our love for the cadences of Talmud and the humor of Yiddish, the constant references to old texts and quotes from medieval commentators, the wordless melodies running through conversations. . . . I saw [Wiesel] as someone deeply connected to both the Old World and the New, and when he said, “We are here, after all, to build bridges between worlds,” this was a relief.
Wiesel’s death was a kind of rapture: one was taken, the other left.
From one of his pines hung my father’s wind chime. It clanked low like the steel buoys we’d sail to and climb as kids. It was a gull to the songbird-like wind chimes hanging from our neighbors’ porches. On windy nights the tidal James seemed to break its banks, and our house, now a hull, swam in it. Pop was its pilot.
The Muslim ban began almost two years ago, on January 28, 2017. When a friend texted me about the executive order, I jumped in the car and drove to Dulles Airport, about fifteen minutes from home. I was surprised at the sense of local responsibility that had overcome me. The strangers I met that night at the international arrivals gate exhibited the same sense of responsibility.
Immanuel Kant distinguishes between the aesthetic judgment of the spectator and the moral-practical reason of the actor. The spectator in him admires the soldier and finds that war “has something sublime in it.” Further, “a long peace generally brings about a predominant commercial spirit . . . and debases the disposition of the people.” However, the “moral-practical reason within us pronounces the following irresistible veto: There shall be no war . . .”1
A lot has happened since that night at Dulles. Like Kant, whose aesthetic judgment causes him to scan the paper every day for news of the French Revolution2, I read the political news daily. Most of us do. Some of the current news is comforting, and a lot of it is discouraging. Both comfort and discouragement, of course, can be enervating. But I can indulge my complacency so long as I don’t confuse, in Kant’s terms, my judgment as a spectator and my moral-practical reason:
Even though Kant would always have acted for peace, he knew and kept in mind his judgment. Had he acted on the knowledge gained as a spectator, he would in his own mind have been a criminal. Had he forgotten because of this “moral duty” his insights as a spectator, he would have become what so many good men, involved and engaged in public affairs, tend to be — an idealistic fool.3
This coming year, I imagine, distinctions like this will become as difficult as they will be necessary. Still, if a draw occurs in a given case between (using Kant’s terms again) the judgment of the spectator and the moral-practical reason of the actor, I know how Hannah Arendt would resolve it. Better a fool than a criminal.
Kant, Immanuel, quoted in Arendt, Hanna, The Life of the Mind, at 260. Emphasis original. ↩
I want to do something different this quarter, a unit on identity and society. Students will choose one book to read from a short list of books, interview a United States resident born outside of the United States, and write (among other things) a profile of that person.
Which books, though. The college just approved my syllabus using Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake. My thought was that students would choose between (and as a class compare) the experience of a member of a minority citizen and that of an emigrant.
But as I’m reading Invisible Man for the third time, I’m struck by how some of my high school seniors (it’s a dual-enrollment course) or their parents might be offended by it. If it were purely a college course, I wouldn’t think twice. My plan all along was to give them fair verbal and written warnings. It’s funny: more and more these days I feel like a troublemaker when I put certain works from the accepted American canon in a course.
To replace Invisible Man or to supplement the two choices, what about Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son? Anne Michaels’s Fugitive Pieces? Truman Capote’s The Grass Harp? I’m even considering Reinhold Niebuhr’s The Irony of American History, which also deals with the individual and society, mostly from a political standpoint.
This morning Victoria and I walked by a sign bearing a locally famous name. “I dated his daughter a couple of times,” I told her. At the time, I thought I could have married rich. We’ve been married twenty-seven years, and it was the first time I had told Victoria about her.
“Destitution was her muse,” Waldo Emerson said of his aunt, Mary Moody Emerson.1 The hard persistence of destitution and racism cause characters in Ralph Ellison’s and James Baldwin’s fiction to eventually wake up. Maybe Maslov’s triangle should be inverted: we aren’t in danger of falling from our eminence of self-actualization into the trough of mere physiological needs. I am in danger, even with my relatively low income in this nascent Gilded Age, of preventing such a fall that would lead, eventually, to a self-actualization that I can’t envision, much less design.
A lot of Christians — I included — have used their born-again experience as a kind of contraceptive.
Jacob Needleman emailed me: was I the author of slow reads’s kind review of his Lost Christianity? It was a personal review in response to a personal book: I connected a decade ago to the seeking spirit with which he examined Christianity. And his email led me to pick up a more recent book of his — I Am Not I, which I began reading this morning before our walk. In I Am Not I, Needleman converses with his younger self to flesh out how the two of them imagine each other across time, across possibility and outcome. I’m grateful, thinking of how Needleman reached out to me as I was ten years ago. And thinking about how things work out.
“Money is a defense,” the Good Book says, but a defense from what? It doesn’t say, but the implication from the verse’s comparison of money and wisdom is that the former doesn’t give “life to them that have it.”
“I was then and am now your possibility,” the eighty-year-old Needleman says to his younger self. “But for my sake, and for your sake, I need to grow now. . . . You will not be born unless Purusha is born in me and I am born in Purusha.”2
Eckhart is right: I carry around the Christ like Mary before Bethlehem. Death, birth, and taxes.
Richardson, Robert D. Emerson: The Mind on Fire, at 24. ↩
Needleman, Jacob. I Am Not I, at 17. Emphasis original. ↩
Every time we log onto our blogs, we WordPress bloggers (the .org ones, anyway) are required to prove our humanity. The solution of a simple addition problem constitutes acceptable proof. It seems a low standard of proof. I admit that humans are the only animals that can add using numerals, but I always wonder, logging on, why I’m asked to do something the bots wishing to take over my blog can surely do.
I must be missing something about bots, but bigger questions remain: doesn’t being human mean more than mastering simple addition? Shouldn’t I have to do more, or shouldn’t I have to be more, to prove my humanity?
These are two different questions, and I won’t address the first one. The second question, I discovered this morning, is at the heart of the Baldwin gospel. I was rereading the first essay in Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son, which distinguishes works that Baldwin has grouped into “the American protest novel” genre from more well-rounded novels. The former genre includes Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Richard Wright’s Native Son. Despite their different epochs and tones, the two works, Baldwin believes, are two sides of the same flat coin because “they are locked together in a deadly, timeless battle; the one uttering merciless exhortations, the other shouting curses.” Protagonists in these two novels use entirely different strategies, but they fight for the same end — their humanity.
Wright supports his protagonist Bigger Thomas’s tragic quest to prove his humanity, but to Baldwin this exercise is what makes Wright’s and Stowe’s characters two-dimensional and their novels theologically (and therefore politically) flawed:
For Bigger’s tragedy is not that he is cold or black or hungry, not even that he is American, black; but that he has accepted a theology that denies him life, than he admits the possibility of his being sub-human and feels constrained, therefore, to battle for his humanity according to those brutal criteria bequeathed him at his birth. But our humanity is our burden, our life; we need not battle for it; we need only to do what is infinitely more difficult — that is, accept it.
In “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” employing the guise of literary criticism to explore human identity and its conflicts with society (see Baldwin’s The Devil Finds Work for an entire book pulling off the same trick with film criticism), Baldwin previews his gospel. He would later retreat from its purest form after the social and political disappointments of the 1960s and 70s. But he never ceased to recoil quickly from society’s trap of proving one’s humanity to oneself.
With eyes closed, I am talking to a quite lively ghost.1
My father died the morning of December 1. He would have been 95 this Valentine’s Day. His poor health, unusual for him, to some extent prepared us for his death over the past six months. It’s all grief, whether it came before he died or whether it comes now.
The first time I missed him was that afternoon. I was talking on the phone to an old friend of his, and I wanted to repeat to him something she said, to say, “Hey, Pop!” The family was together; it was strange that he wasn’t there.
“Just tell him!” his friend suggested. She is the Episcopal deacon who would officiate at his memorial service the following week.
So I did, cupping the phone a bit. We laughed.
It’s funny what processes the emotions. I was touched by the viral cartoon of George H.W. Bush’s fighter plane landing in heaven and his reunion there with Barbara and Robin, who had predeceased him. I’ve tried to describe the cartoon to different people, and I can’t get through it.
Bush and my father were born the same year (the former on my birthday), and they died within hours of each other. While the country was mourning Bush, we were mourning my father. I texted to my family what I imagined to be Bush’s last words: “Warren Stephens survives.”
They were a lot alike — public men with reputations for integrity. My father’s public, of course, was local, his beloved Newport News, where he spent his entire life outside of college, the military, and his last year with my mother near my siblings in a Richmond retirement community. (Here’s the story of his death in the local paper.)
This morning I wept, too, through Mary McCarthy‘s postface to Hannah Arendt’s The Life of the Mind. Arendt had finished the second section (“Willing”) of this trilogy a week before she suddenly died. Arendt had finished “Thinking” the year before, and her friends discovered a sheet of paper in her typewriter containing only the word “Judging” followed by two epigraphs after she died. I wonder what the epigraphs were, but McCarthy keeps them between Arendt and herself.
There’s a lot McCarthy doesn’t say, which makes her postface, like the process of grief, so interesting. She says that she had worked with Arendt to edit several of her most well-known works. When she collaborated with Arendt as her editor, they got to know each other’s minds. Arendt thought that McCarthy’s Catholicism, which McCarthy had disowned, had adequately prepared her for philosophy. She saw McCarthy as a perfectionist — I assume most authors understand their editors as such — and McCarthy knew she could outlast Arendt if they disagreed. “‘You fix it,’ she would say, finally, starting to cover a yawn.”
She describes how her editing felt like collaboration while Arendt was alive. Arendt was going through her “Englishing,” and McCarthy for her part learned enough German to better understand Arendt’s thought expressed in her syntax. German allowed McCarthy “to make out the original structure like a distant mountainous outline behind her English phrasing.” From then on, McCarthy would put Arendt’s prose “into German, where they became clear, and then do them back into English.”
After Arendt’s death, the editing got harder, of course. Death proved more formidable than a foreign tongue. McCarthy still engaged in dialogues with Arendt, “verging sometimes, as in life, on debate. Though in life it never came to that, now I reproach her, and vice versa.” McCarthy even describes her nightmares — lost or (worse) newly found manuscripts — missing Arendt or uncovered Arendt — that throw over everything. There is something here of the danger and frankness and the feeling of internal process that I found, as a teenager, in the talk among the dead in Our Town.
Why isn’t grief, when it comes, as frank as the grave? Maybe Arendt can help. She liked to distinguish between the inside and the outside of the human body, and she lumped our “passions and emotions” with the likes of or livers and kidneys. Compare our emotions’ “monotonous sameness” with what they lead to, i.e., the “enormous variety and richness of overt human conduct,” she suggested in “Thinking.” Grief, I’ve read, has predictable stages, rather like digestion. But grief, like a Program Era writer who shows without telling, also expresses itself with the outer life’s variety and richness.
Maybe grief’s dekes and indirection are invitations from the dead. Hey, Pop.
Mary McCarthy in the postface to Hannah Arendt’s The Life of the Mind↩
So far I’m finding The Life of the Mind to be a philosophical defense of some of Hannah Arendt’s big political science concepts. Her “it-seems-to-me,” for instance, reappears here, but not strictly as a celebration of plurality as it appears in, say, Between Past and Future. In The Life of the Mind, it-seems-to-me becomes the glory of “the inter-subjectivity of the world,” a world of appearances in which one’s solipsistic five senses are “remedied” by a sixth sense — common sense — which brings one’s observations into “a common world shared by others.”
I think Arendt’s “common world” is her beloved Greek polis, and so her public space in her political books becomes, in The Life of the Mind, all of what we hold in common as humans. The Life of the Mind is the last book Arendt ever wrote, and I find in it the fullest exploration of the problem she addressed when she first met us — totalitarianism. Here, and now with references to Kant and Merleau-Ponty, is the common sense that, she warned in The Origins of Totalitarianism, totalitarianism aims to destroy:
[The masses] do not believe in anything visible, in the reality of their own experience; they do not trust their eyes and ears but only their imaginations, with may be caught by anything that is at one universal and consistent in itself. What convinces masses are not facts, and not even invented facts, but only the consistency of the system of which they are presumably part. . . . The revolt of the masses against “realism,” common sense, and all “the plausibility’s of the world” (Burke) was the result of their atomization, of their loss of social status along with which they lost the whole sector of communal relationship in whose framework common sense makes sense.
Arendt, Hannah. The Origins of Totalitarianism. Schocken Books, 1951.
Forty years removed from her incarceration in Nazi Germany, Arendt does not mention totalitarianism in The Life of the Mind. Her final decade, the 1970s, is proving to be a high mark between two eras in which common sense, and “the whole sector of communal relationship in whose framework common sense makes sense,” are under deliberate attack. Arendt deserves the era of relative peace in which she last wrote.
• • •
I dipped in and out of lots of books this year. But here are books and Great Courses series that I read and/or listened to from cover to cover in 2018. I list them in the order I finished them. A hyperlinked title leads to a post discussing it.
When I teach writing as thinking, I describe a mind slowly leaving its brain. The mind travels down the arm to the hand and pen. After a five- or ten-minute session of sustained writing, I ask students to circle the best — the most interesting or energetic — of what is, from a communications standpoint, admittedly mostly bad writing.
Then I have them categorize this “best.” Is it something they had thought to write before writing or something they thought of as they were writing? If the latter, then they experienced a successful mind transplant.
Not everyone likes this transplant. One may be, more or less, a think-before-you-write writer. But this transplant activity helps a lot of people discover themselves to be think-as-you-write writers. If you’re the former, you may have put up no resistance to your grade-school teachers’ insistence on “prewriting” — graphic organizers and outlines. If you’re the latter, you may have found prewriting unfit for prehensile creation.
What’s your favorite pen? People who like to think before they write sometimes prefer fountain pens. This is writing as presentation, from which, I guess, comes calligraphy. People who like to think as they write sometimes prefer a pen that won’t let their writing lag too far behind their thinking — the smoother ball points or rollerballs, for instance. And their journals are a glorious, circuitous mess.
Start writing, WordPress 5.0’s editor advises. And it’s hard not to, given the space’s layout and typography. For me, writing is mostly driving. It’s getting behind the wheel and hitting the gas. Thoughts come and go like scenery. Turns of phrase are twists of two-lane highway. My father, who I think planned out every word his fountain pen ever scratched, loved to take a spin in his Continental convertible, particularly if he had nowhere to go.
People die; maybe that’s why the world never seems to get out of first gear. A friend of mine, the older he gets, finds life’s meaning more and more in the coming millennium of Christ. We’ll return with Him and have the time, this time, to get things done.
To those like him, who plot their rest in growth, speaks the Book of Common Prayer: “. . . we pray that, having opened to him the gates of larger life, you will receive him more and more into your joyful service . . .” For “your faithful servant N.,” what could heaven be but greater service? What is heaven but one’s twenties – the deeds with death a thousand years away?
According to Edward Coke, Thomas Littleton’s Tenures is “the most perfect and absolute Worke that euer was written in any humane Science.” But as good as it is, “Certain it is that when a great learned man (who is long in the making) dyeth, much learning dyeth with him.” Coke named his own writings Institutes “because my desire is, they should institute, and instruct the studious, and guid him in a readie way to the knowledge of the national Lawes of England.”
Coke’s contemporary, John Donne, said that “Any man’s death diminishes me”; to “instruct the studious” is a fittingly small consolation.