The end

637px-El_sueño_de_Jacob,_por_José_de_RiberaGot to page 13 today, and Evely’s That Man Is You is living up to its title’s promise of mistaken identity. After all this Christianity, he says, I don’t know God when I see him.

Evely quotes Saul of Tarsus: “Who are you, Lord?” An embarrassing question. Yet to find the Lord in such a place, at such a time, taking on such a tone, walking in such a skin, is to find also that I don’t know the Lord.

It is comedy. Jacob: Surely the Lord is in this place, and I knew it not. Jesus: Surely the Lord is in this face, and you know her not.

It is the path to humility, to resolution, to the last curtain. Eschatology is comedy: Then shall I know even as also I am known. Life is a play inside a play inside a play. But living is dying: stepping out of one playhouse and onto the dark streets of another.

Eternity unfolds in unmaskings. During the play, it makes sense of the past. (The embarrassment of dramatic irony: it was laughter I heard: everyone knew but me.) And I find myself in a role I hate; only faith, that faintest smile, assures me I’m on the right stage. New lines come as the scenes change — or do I improvise? — and I discover my true character.

I am practiced, by the play’s end, in facing my unknown, and I trust that my unmasking will continue.

Saul to Damascus is two unmaskings. Saul doesn’t recognize the Lord, and neither does Ananias:

The Lord said to him, ‘Go to Straight Street, to the house of Judas, and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul. You will find him at prayer; he has had a vision of a man named Ananias coming in and laying hands on him to restore his sight.’ Ananias answered, ‘Lord, I have often heard about this man and all the harm he has done your people in Jerusalem. Now he is here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who invoke your name.’ But the Lord replied, ‘You must go, for this man is . . . (Acts 9:11 – 15, REB)

For this man is . . .

It’s the age of masks, the putting down and sorting out by the simplest codes and slurs. It is a tragedy. One hopes for the end, when all will be revealed.

Image: “El sueño de Jacob” by José de Ribera

Occupation meets preoccupation: a year of reading

3PictureUNHFacadeThis year, thanks to my reading, my blog’s abiding preoccupations made my occupation more meaningful.

A few years ago, my blog taught me something: my outlooks on my three areas of preoccupation – critical, civil, and spiritual – are the same. In each area I wish, borrowing Karl Barth’s phrase here, to “think dogmatically.” Barth uses the phrase to compliment F.D.E. Schleiermacher, a nineteenth century theologian, and Ann E. Berthoff amplifies the notion of dogmatic thinking in her own paean to Schleiermacher. It involves, she says, “the charge of keeping the code” but not by “pretending that knowledge and understanding are independent of interpretation” (Berthoff, Mysterious, 97).

I offer two more quotes, the first by Susanne K. Langer, the twentieth-century American philosopher, and the second by Jean Piaget, the twentieth-century Swiss psychologist, that put Berthoff’s understanding of hermeneutics in different ways:

All knowledge is an interpretation, and we must choose such perspectives as will yield meanings of the universe which interest us . . . (82)

To understand is to invent.

This summer, I learned a nice word for my outlook: triadicity. In semiotic terms, it means that a sign and what it signifies, by themselves, don’t explain much and can lead to, as Berthoff puts it, “getting rid of the interpreter or destroying what he is meant to interpret” (Berthoff, Sense, 133). To avoid hermeneutical (and, I would add, political, critical, or spiritual) disaster, the sign and signified – the chief elements of a dyadic approach to language – need a mediator:

The only way to get from symbol to what is symbolized is by means of a mediating idea which must, in turn, be interpreted. (Berthoff, Mysterious, 73)

I began to understand my outlook in semiotic terms. I saw that, for instance, my preoccupation with the challenges the abolitionists and the secessionists present to Lincoln fit triadic thinking: Lincoln advances a “mediating idea” – the Declaration of Independence’s “all men are created equal” – as a way to counter both the secessionists’ strict construction of the Constitution (Berthoff’s “getting rid of the interpreter”) as well as the abolitionists’ desire to destroy the Constitution as a pact with the devil (Berthoff’s “destroying what he is meant to interpret”).

I read and wrote a lot this summer while taking three courses in composition instruction to prepare to teach some college freshman composition sections. These three courses largely gave me the flexibility to pursue my interests, and the chief interest became triadicity.

I started to see triadicity everywhere whether or not it was referred to as such. Triangles always worked. One instructor at the University of New Hampshire read a few paragraphs from Susin Nielsen’s young adult novel We Are All Made of Molecules. In it, Stewart describes his mother’s death as the collapse of an equilateral triangle in which his father, mother, and he makes up the triangle’s sides. It reminded me of the sad reliance on dualistic philosophy in the Common Core, in American politics, in many American churches’ hermeneutics, and in Constitutional construction. Like Stewart, I visualized a triangle with a missing base in order to cope with a tragedy.

I quickly began to summarize my three preoccupations around Stewart’s triangle, and I found a good fit for nine expressions of them:

3PictureTriangle

After my summer classes ended, I created my classroom’s bulletin board to summarize and contrast dyadic and triadic approaches to education:

3PictureBulletinBoard

One can hear this contrast in Piaget’s writing. The above quote from Piaget, “To understand is to invent,” is really the title of one of his two seminal books on how to apply advances in psychology to educational practice, this one published in 1973. Early in To Understand Is To Invent, Piaget compares what he refers to as “three tendencies” in applying then-recent “research on the development of the intelligence and cognitive structures” to education:

The first, remaining loyal to venerable Anglo-Saxon traditions, continues to pursue an empirical associationism with would assign a purely exterior origin to all knowledge, deriving it from experience or verbal or audio-visual representations controlled by adults.

The second is characterized by an unexpected return to factors of innateness and internal development. . . . Here education would mainly consist in training an innate “reason.”

The third tendency, which is decidedly my own, is of a constructivist nature. . . . It recognizes neither external preformations (empiricism) nor immanent preformations (innateness), but rather affirms a continuous surpassing of successive stages. This obviously leads to placing all educational stress on the spontaneous aspects of the child’s activity. (10 – 11)

Although Piaget never mentions Locke or “innate ideas” directly, one sees hints in the “first tendency” of an oversimplification of Locke’s empiricism that, to some extent, was designed to counter the doctrine of “innate ideas” prevalent in Locke’s day. The oversimplification, however, is on the part of the American educational system, which, particularly with its emphasis on multiple-choice, standardized testing and its business model of teaching, has doubled down on Piaget’s first reported tendency. The left side of my bulletin board illustrates this tendency.

One can see in Piaget’s summaries the same tendencies in education that Berthoff finds in hermeneutics. Piaget’s first tendency seeks to “get rid of the interpreter” – the student – as a meaning-maker. His second tendency seeks to “destroy what he is meant to interpret” by devaluing any text used in favor of developing the student’s innate gifts.

As Berthoff says, “thinking dogmatically means honoring a commitment to the third way” (Berthoff, Mysterious, 97).

° ° °

I’ve run up a great debt to Ann Berthoff. She has written passionately and thoughtfully over several decades about triadicity. Most of her earlier writings addressed triadicity in the context of writing instruction. Her writing tends to be highly theoretical and critical of dyadic thinking. However, unlike many composition theorists, Berthoff has done pedagogy: she has coupled her engaging works on composition theory (The Making of Meaning; The Sense of Learning) with a full-blown textbook for the college freshman composition class (Forming, Thinking, Writing). Without her textbook, Berthoff would seem to take on the role of the perpetual backbencher, a gadfly who would come “out of her corner again and again . . . to attack a would-be pedagogical savior,” as Philip Keith describes her modus operandi. Keith is enthusiastic about her textbook:

It is a putting of cards on the table after long study, thought and analysis. It is serious and, to use the word of an earlier reviewer,?amiable; tough and nurturing, careful and strange. It organizes?while it swamps. It is a wonderful book, and the world might well become a very different place if it were used in even a quarter of the freshman composition classes in the country. (98)

Instead, like all of Berthoff’s books, it is out of print. This past summer, to get her latest book, The Mysterious Barricades: Language and its Limits, for less than fifty dollars, I had to order a used copy from Australia. Her relative obscurity is no reflection on her, of course. After reading her, I’m convinced it speaks more to the intransigent nature of American classroom practice, an intransigence that helps to give old, classic pedagogic texts (like Piaget’s) a certain immediacy since they often describe the same challenges and mindsets that continue to plague writing classrooms today.

In a way – and this is a grand sentiment – I hope to do for Berthoff in my college composition and ninth-grade classes what she did for her intellectual forebears. She gives fresh thought and new application to two fellow writing instructors, I. A. Richards and Louise M. Rosenblatt, as well as to several other theorists – among them Charles Sanders Pierce, Kenneth Burke, and Lev Vygotsky – who weren’t thinking a great deal about writing instruction per se when they worked out their theories.

° ° °

Here are the books and the Great Courses I’ve read this year. Thanks to my three graduate classes, I’ve also read too many academic articles, none of which I’ve included here.

Peter Ackroyd. Rebellion: The History of England from James I to the Glorious Revolution

James Baldwin. Giovanni’s Room

James Baldwin. Go Tell It on the Mountain

Anna Beer. Milton: Poet, Pamphleteer, and Patriot

John Berger. To the Wedding

James A. Berlin. Writing Instruction in Nineteenth-Century American Colleges

Ann E. Bertoff. Forming, Thinking, Writing (2nd Ed.)

Ann E. Bertoff. The Mysterious Barricades: Language and Its Limits (two reads)

Ann E. Berthoff. The Sense of Learning

Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace. Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration

Teju Cole. Every Day Is for the Thief (second read)

Joseph Conrad. Heart of Darkness

Maurice Cranston. John Locke: A Biography

John Dewey. Experience in Education.

David Herbert Donald. Lincoln Reconsidered: Essays on the Civil War Era (3rd edition)

Dave Eggers. What is the What

William Faulkner. Intruder in the Dust (second read)

L. Dee Fink. Creating Significant Learning Experiences

Joseph A. Fitzmyer (introduction, translation, and notes). The Anchor Bible: The Gospel According to Luke (I – IX)

Paulo Freire. Pedagogy of Freedom: Ethics, Democracy, and Civic Courage

Malcolm Gladwell. Outliers: The Story of Success

Howard Holzer. Lincoln and the Power of the Press

Michael Korda. Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee

Alan Charles Kors. The Birth of the Modern Mind: The Intellectual History of the 17th and 18th Centuries (Great Courses)

Pauline Meier. Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788

Stephen Mitchell, trans. Gilgamesh

Michel E. de Montaigne (Donald M. Frame, trans.). Essays, Book One

Reinhold Niebuhr. The Irony of American History (third read)

Tim O’Brien. In the Lake of the Woods

Walker Percy. The Moviegoer

Walker Percy. The Thanatos Syndrome

Raymond P. Scheindlin, trans. The Book of Job

Dan Senor and Saul Singer. Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle

William Shakespeare. Romeo and Juliet (three reads; countless previous reads)

Dava Sobel. Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time

Mark A. Stoler. The Skeptic’s Guide to American History (Great Courses)

Stephen Toulmin. The Uses of Argument

Alice Walker. The Color Purple

Philip Weinstein. Becoming Faulkner

Garry Wills. Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America (three reads)

° ° °

Works Cited

Berthoff, Ann E., and James Stephens. Forming, Thinking, Writing. 2nd ed. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 1988. Print.

Berthoff, Ann E. The Mysterious Barricades: Language and Its Limits. Toronto: U of Toronto, 1999. Print.

Berthoff, Ann E. The Sense of Learning. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 1990. Print.

Keith, Philip M. “Ann Berthoff and the Problem of Method in Writing: A Review Essay.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly 10.2 (1980): 98-103. Print.

Nielsen-Fernlund, Susin. We Are All Made of Molecules. New York: Wendy Lamb, 2015. Print.

Piaget, Jean. To Understand Is To Invent: The Future of Education. New York: Grossman, 1973. Print.

3PictureUNHFacade1Photos of building facade taken this past summer at the University of New Hampshire.

Slow, immediate

FullSizeRenderOver break I filled my
green, mechanical pencil with
lead.

What else. Alone

it represents
nothing, is indicative of
nothing, suggests,
intimates,
prefigures,
symbolizes
nothing that I am immediately aware of.

It counterposes, offsets, analogizes, compares with, offsets, is juxtaposed with, supports, qualifies, contrasts with, is inimical to, controverts, contends with, counters, challenges, counteracts, oppugns, parallels, withstands, matches, relates to, is set off against, and is weighed in the balance with nothing.

Nothing, after all, I can be only immediately aware of.

In fact, this lack of awareness
equates with, or at least is indicative of,
the immediate.

(You see, then, how I’ve spoiled
everything. I should’ve kept quiet.)

“Immediate” means, first of all, “acting or being without the intervention of another object, cause, or agency” (Merriam-Webster). Immediate, then, means slow, not fast.

We are the immediate, the mediators between perception and meaning. We have to find ourselves there before we learn anything else.

Most classes use the present to understand the past or to build a future. Eternity, if it exists, comes later. But I want to put my class, as much as I can and should, on a quixotic journey to find the present.

Ye who teach that eternity defies explanation,
go back and learn that explanation defies eternity.

The immediate is the calm inside the confusion before a comparison comes to mind, before the elemental lead is compounded with — as (God!) I just did here — or similized or metaphorized with — something prior or employed to foreshadow something coming. It is the slow, dumb present.

Toulmin and the reasoning of children

3PictureStephenToulminStephen Toulmin, the twentieth-century British philosopher whose book The Uses of Argument helped to make logic available for everyday use, seems bemused in his preface to that book’s updated edition about the first edition’s significant contribution to informal logic. He had not, he says, “set out to expound a theory of rhetoric or argumentation: my concern was with twentieth-century epistemology, not informal logic” (vii). I’ll ignore his protestations as I present two practical contributions his book has made – and will make – in my classroom, but I’ll take him at his word in examining how his epistemological approach may have inadvertently contributed to my own educational theory and practice.

I’ve taught “the Toulmin model” in AP Language and Composition courses as a modern means of argument, more flexible than Aristotle’s compromise between Plato and the Sophists. Aristotle’s syllogisms and deductive reasoning get one only so far, and it would be tragic if logic of some kind might not be used for matters of that call for less than mathematical certainty, particularly matters of morality and public policy. Toulmin’s flexible construction of claims, data, and warrants meets this need. If Toulmin has successfully identified these “modes in which we assess arguments, the standards by reference to which we assess them and the manner in which we qualify our conclusions about them, [that] are the same regardless of field (field-invariant)” (15), or at least if he has created a model that makes something like logic more accessible to arguments normally impervious to Aristotle’s more syllogistic logic, then my students at least have a way of talking about, critiquing, and challenging many kinds of arguments the same way.

Toulmin oversimplifies Aristotle, however, and ends up duplicating Aristotle’s method for informal argument to some extent. Toulmin implicitly blames Aristotle for boiling down argument to “‘minor premiss; major premiss; so conclusion’” (89). However, Toulmin’s model, particularly his notion of the warrant as “incidental and explanatory, its task being simply to register explicitly the legitimacy of the step involved and to refer it back to the larger class of steps whose legitimacy is being presupposed” (92), is a lot like Aristotle’s notion of an enthymeme. Toulmin gives an example of an argument over someone’s hair color and identifies its trivial warrant: “the knowledge that Harry’s hair is red entitles us to set aside any suggestion that it is black, on account of the warrant, ‘If anything is red, it will not also be black’” (91). Yet Aristotle’s enthymeme, called by rhetorician Thomas De Quincey a “syllogism of which one proposition is suppressed” (Seaton 113), has some overlap with Toulmin’s warrant, which is distinguished from his data in part because of the former’s implicitness: “This is one of the reasons for distinguishing between data and warrants: data are appealed to explicitly, warrants implicitly” (92). Specifically, if an enthymeme’s minor premise is implied, then it serves also as Toulmin’s warrant. I’ve stopped teaching enthymemes in AP Language classes: the potential for overlap and confusion seems to outweigh the benefit from learning the subtle differences between enthymemes and Toulmin arguments.

Uses, now that I’ve read it, may help me teach argumentation in other ways. Toulmin’s occasional templates may also help my students express the relationships among claim, data, and warrants. He offers two such templates here: “‘Data such as D entitle one to draw conclusions, or make claims, such as C’, or alternatively ‘Given data D, one may take it that C’” (91). Toulmin, in fact, seems to have provided the philosophical backbone as well as the pedagogical structure for a popular book on argumentation I assign my students, They Say, I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein. They Say has a section on “Prove it” (Toulmin’s “data”)(42) and on “So what?” (Toulmin’s “warrant”)(92). It also discourages the use of formal logic (xxv) and expands on Toulmin’s use of templates (e.g., 64 – 65). They Say and its ilk, then, may be seen as means of implementing Toulmin’s theory into the classroom and expanding his practice there.

But the biggest contribution Toulmin makes to my classroom could be in the area of educational theory. Ironically, he addresses educational theory in Uses only in passing and then only to disclaim his theory’s applicability to educational theory:

If one asks how in the course of children’s lives they come to pick up the concepts and facts they do, or by what educational devices particular rational techniques and procedures are inculcated, one will of course have to proceed a posteriori, using methods drawn from psychology and sociology . . . (200)

Yet if one believes with Maria Montessori that a child’s reason begins functioning at birth (Standing 206), then the more logical side of Toulmin’s epistemology may be helpful in discovering in what sense that reasoning occurs. Seventeenth-century British philosopher John Locke also believes that children begin to reason at birth; his famous epistemological work An Essay Concerning Human Understanding famously dismisses the notion of “innate ideas” in favor of what has since been called a child’s tabula rasa, or “blank slate” (White 16 – 19). Locke’s position has been misunderstood: his “blank slate” protects the political sanctity of children since the existence of innate ideas would give “no small power,” as Locke puts it, to “one man over another, to have the authority to be the dictator of principles, and teacher of unquestionable truths; and to make a man swallow that for an innate principle which may serve to his purpose who teacheth them” (18 – 19).  Toulmin tacitly acknowledges the link between his epistemology and this aspect of educational theory when he finds himself unable to wholly dismiss the seventeenth-century controversy over innate ideas because “in the last resort one cannot set the psychological and logical aspects of epistemology utterly and completely apart” (196 – 197).

Toulmin, then, refuses to take a stand on either side of the “innate ideas” controversy, but his epistemology favors Locke’s and Montessori’s positions. Toulmin is often seen as an unwitting antidote to the extreme position of the early twentieth-century logical positivists, whose radical division of logic from rhetoric caused them to regard “statements of value as merely reports on the state of one’s glands,” as Northwestern University School of Communication Professor David Zarefsky puts it. Zarefsky sees Toulmin’s model as one of a few “reformulations of the concepts of reason and rationality” that came later in the twentieth century (16). Toulmin’s broadening of the notion of reason to include moral and practical concerns mirrors similar efforts by Locke and by Montessori, the latter of whom in discussing the Western world’s “moral paralysis” states that “reason today is hidden under a dark cloud and has almost gone down to defeat. Moral chaos in fact is nothing but one side of the coin of our psychic decline; the other side is the loss of our powers of reason. The pre-eminent characteristic of our present state is an insidious madness, and our most immediate need a return to reason” (Montessori 13 – 14). Toulmin, whom Zarefsky sees as attempting “to explain ethical reasoning” (16), seems to have unwittingly affirmed Locke (an educational theorist as well as a philosopher) in restoring reason as a tool of epistemology and educational theory.

Aided by the Toulmin model and the license to moral inquiry that the model represents, my students are empowered to argue claims of fact, value, policy, and definition without having to pretend that those claims’ moral implications are beyond the scope of reason.

Works Cited

Graff, Gerald, and Cathy Birkenstein. “They Say / I Say”: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing. 3rd ed. New York: Norton, 2014. Print.

Montessori, Maria. Education and Peace. Trans. Helen R. Lane. Amsterdam: Montessori-Pierson Pub., 2007. Print.

Seaton, R. C. “The Aristotelian Enthymeme.” The Classical Review 28.4 (1914): 113-19. JSTOR. Web. 25 May 2015.

Standing, E. M. Maria Montessori, Her Life and Work. New York: Plume, 1998. Print.

Toulmin, Stephen. The Uses of Argument. Updated ed. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge UP, 2003. Print.

White, Morton. The Philosophy of the American Revolution. New York: Oxford UP, 1978. Print.

Zarefsky, David. “History of Argumentation Studies.” Argumentation: The Study of Effective Reasoning. 2nd ed. Chantilly, VA: Teaching, 2005. Print.

Direct experience

I somehow failed to transfer this six-year-old post to my blog’s current WordPress iteration. A friend wrote me today about Texas’s new slavery-neutral history textbook, and it reminded me of my post’s subject – my class’s seventh-grade history textbook. I’ve lightly edited the post. As best I can tell, the lesson plans my post refer to have been removed from the Internet.

The Internet is a sweet place for finding lesson plans.  While looking for ideas to sharpen my students’ critical reading skills recently, I came across a set of plans entitled, “Using Excerpts about Slavery.”  The plans employ excerpts from four different works: a history textbook serving Virginia students in the 1960’s and early 1970’s, a slave narrative, an Englishman’s travelogue, and a Frederick Douglass speech given in 1850.  According to the brief “Notes for the Teacher” that preface the material, the teacher should require students to consider and discuss the excerpts in small groups on successive class days, focusing on the excerpt’s credibility and engaging with a set of “Questions to Consider” that follow each excerpt.  It looked promising.

The notes begin with the lesson’s goal: “Students need to be cognizant that any historical account is one person’s truth. An author’s point of view is colored by his or her own experiences and belief system. Lack of direct experience can result in an author making assumptions that are not borne out. As an example, who but a slave could effectively understand the perspective of a slave or what the life of a slave was like?”

In order to judge the lesson’s utility for my own classroom, I read the first excerpt and the questions related to it, and I answered its questions. Here’s the excerpt (ellipses original):

Excerpt from Virginia: History, Government, Geography
Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1964[1]
“How Negroes Lived under Slavery,” pp. 368-376

A feeling of strong affection existed between masters and slaves in a majority of Virginia homes. . . The house servants became almost as much a part of the planter’s family circle as its white members. . . The Negroes were always present at family weddings. They were allowed to look on at dances and other entertainments . . . A strong tie existed between slave and master because each was dependent on the other. . . The slave system demanded that the master care for the slave in childhood, in sickness, and in old age. The regard that master and slaves had for each other made plantation life happy and prosperous.

Life among the Negroes of Virginia in slavery times was generally happy. The Negroes went about in a cheerful manner making a living for themselves and for those for whom they worked. . . But they were not worried by the furious arguments going on between Northerners and Southerners over what should be done with them. In fact, they paid little attention to these arguments.

1Textbook used in Virginia schools as late as 1972.

The “Questions to Consider” and my answers:

1.  How long after the Civil War was this written?

Not quite a century.

2.  Who do you think the authors were?  Could they have been former slaves?  Why or why not?

I think all three of the textbook’s authors were Virginians.  I don’t have any direct knowledge about two of them, but the third was my aunt.

My aunt was not a former slave.  I presume that all of the authors, and not just my aunt, were white, and that the authors wrote the textbook somewhat contemporaneously. So, no, they could not have been former slaves.

3.  How do you think they came up with their account of slavery?

My aunt would entertain us from a black-leather wing chair pierced with brass tacks in a small library lined on all four sides from floor to ceiling with books, mostly leather bound, standing muffled on shelves caged by glass panes.  The house was always clean and slightly musty, like my college’s rare books room I would discover years later, and it had no air conditioning, serviced as it was continually from before the War with a fairly dependable breeze from the tidal Rappahannock River, which was framed by the library’s only window.

Years after college, my eldest niece, who was then about the age I had been when I first visited my cousins on the Rappahannock, held forth on visits to my parents’ house as the first and (at that time) only grandchild. She dished out nicknames at a holiday dinner, and my somewhat loquacious father became “Grandfather Sit-in-Chair.”  Similarly, I can’t remember my aunt anywhere else but sitting erect at her chair’s edge – the back of her chair serving more as a reflection and an extension of herself than as a support – with her legs crossed and her index and middle fingers slowly incising a long cigarette that accentuated her small, slim build.  She’d waive the cigarette back in conversation, and sometimes throw her head back in laughter, but her posture always held firm and her elbow always seemed to hold the chair’s arm under subjection. Her smoke smelled like elegance and hazed the fading and cracked binding on the red and tan and black books behind her.

My father was a raconteur, but my aunt was more of a conversationalist.  She would turn her head from my parents to my siblings and me and ask us questions with a frankness that serves adults better than the sugary tone many of them employ with children.  Our answers would elicit a comment from her that would get the adults laughing, but we never felt ashamed or excluded.  We were happy to sit on the antique, Oriental carpet and play with the wooden toys she and my uncle favored for our cousins.  If my generation had been raised on my aunt instead of on Johnny Carson and Merv Griffin, it would have had a better inkling of what an interviewer and conversationalist could be.

The old house sits on a large tract of land down several country roads from my uncle’s law practice at the county seat.  After paying our respects to the adults for a suitable length of time, my two siblings and I would reacquaint ourselves with the antique-filled first floor, and then, with our cousins, we’d head outside.  At some point we’d always see Floe and Sammy.  Floe worked in the house and Sammy worked outside in the fields, helping with the garden and keeping things in repair.  I don’t remember ever seeing Floe and Sammy together, but my siblings and I liked both of them immensely.

One day, when my brother and I were both teenagers, we became conscious that our conversations with Floe always started and ended with the same subject: our growth.  My mother would take us through the narrow kitchen blocked entirely by Floe, who was either ironing or, more often, baking.  “Ummm-mmm!  My how you grown, child!  My how you grown!” Floe would say to us, wagging her face at us with a hand on her hip but sometimes just glancing at us out of the corner of her eye as she prodded the family’s dinner around on a skillet.

Sammy was also genial – a slim, middle-aged man whose gait pointed up his feet and knees and elbows – but our conversations with him were equally limited.  I remember only his responses to my aunt’s directives and pointed questions, responsess like, “Yessum, I’ll have that done by supper,” or “Yessum, over against the shed.”  My youngest cousin, a bit younger than my brother and I, would always address Sammy as “Sammy-boy,” picking the habit up, I guess, from my uncle, and it didn’t seem to bother Sammy, or my uncle, one bit.  I grew up addressing all adults by their titles and surnames, but I never learned Sammy’s or Floe’s last names.  I don’t think I addressed them at all.

Besides his responses to my aunt, I remember only Sammy’s laughter.  He’d laugh at most anything anyone said, laughing even when most people would have responded with words.  His good-natured laughter seemed as deep as an empty well.

When my brother and I were in our late teens, we speculated that the pay must have been pretty good for Floe and Sammy to act the way they did, and we suspected that they shed their roles with my cousins’ family when they were off duty.  But we didn’t know for sure.  We never really talked to them.  They didn’t seem to pay much attention to anything that animated us: news or politics or sports, for instance.  Looking back on it, I would have been surprised, I think, to have stumbled on Floe with her feet up, reading the newspaper at my aunt’s place, even though she lived there for a while, or to have seen Sammy in front of my relatives’ black-and-white TV.  In fact, I would have been shocked to have caught him in the house at all, now that I think about it.

To answer the question, I’m not exactly sure how my aunt came up with her account of slavery, but I know that she was a real historian and that she was certain of her facts.

4.  Do you believe the account is an accurate portrayal of slavery? Why or why not?

I first read this account in history class as a seventh-grader in the Newport News public school system.  It’s funny reading it now, word for word, because none of the wording surprises me but only bolsters my recollection of what I was taught.  I remember the general points from my textbook: the slaves were happy, happy to work hard, appreciative of their masters for taking the risk and the responsibility out of life – appreciative in a way children never are – and disdainful of the far-away, brooding political storm that centered on them in the abstract.

I don’t think I believed it or disbelieved it.  I remember wondering about it.  I remember trying to put myself in the slaves’ shoes for a little while in our all-white classroom at Riverside Elementary, not a half mile from the James River near its mouth.  My aunt’s words seem to paint a picture in my head of how the slaves could have enjoyed a simple life of labor under the beneficent hands of their masters.  But (I remember thinking) who would want to always do what someone else said?

Maybe they were dumb, I remember reasoning.  Too dumb to survive on their own or too dumb not to know it was not much of a life.  We had two blacks among our four classrooms of seventh graders when I was there, a girl and a boy.  I wasn’t friends with either of them, but both were popular and seemed smart enough.  They seemed to act like white children, mostly, except for certain phrases they would use as well as a manner of speech that ran counter, in some critical respects, to what we were learning in English.  I remember thinking how long it had been since the Civil War and wondering how much the slaves might have been like these two.

I remember my mind working on Martin Luther King, who was assassinated a year before my seventh grade, on the Watts riots I saw on the news, and on the vandalism King’s assassination had occasioned in my town’s downtown, which seemed as far from home as Watts.  I thought two ways, and I had two pictures in my head – one of happy slaves and one of angry slaves.  I don’t remember either picture winning out.

I do recall reading my aunt’s textbook and concluding that slavery would not be a life that I would choose for myself.  But if the Negroes really liked it, I thought, more power to them.

5. The excerpt is from a book that was once used to teach children in Virginia about slavery. Why would a textbook want students of Virginia to believe slavery was a positive experience for slaves?

You may or may not learn your roots in history class, but you learn your place.

Insanity is not amused

This morning, I opened the paper and found this:

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I checked the time on the phone and found this:

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Maybe a long life is not the goal.

The reason some think dreams foretell is perhaps that dreams foreshadow so well. Last night, an activist was hanging around one, but only at the end — just before the alarm rang — did he assert himself, clarifying the plot by offering me partnership. Why wasn’t he fooled by my habitual mix of prattle and quietude?

Marginal: What “fourscore and seven years ago” means

On Prose to the Gettysburg Address’s Poetry. An American child’s first penetration into the Gettysburg Address is that “fourscore and seven” means “eighty-seven.” What else does it mean?

A year ago, Adam Goodheart’s book 1861: The Civil War Awakening helped me unpack the opening phrase of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. In marking our nation’s birth at the moment the Declaration of Independence was signed, Lincoln was claiming that we at that moment moved from a state of nature to a society. In other words, the people, not the states, created the Union.

Charles Cotesworth Pinckney
Charles Cotesworth Pinckney

Lincoln’s Lockean argument was a philosophical go for the Confederacy’s jugular. If the people, and not the several states, created the Union, then “state sovereignty” is a myth. (You can compare some of the Gettysburg Address with what Goodheart convinced me was an earlier elucidation of it – Lincoln’s July 4, 1861 address to Congress – here.)

Over the break, I’ve been reading Pauline Maier’s book Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787 – 1788 and ran into a pertinent remark by one of my newfound heroes, South Carolina Federalist Charles Cotesworth Pinckney. Speaking at South Carolina’s ratification convention in 1788, Pinckney revealed his understanding of how Locke’s state of nature applies to July 4, 1776:

. . . speakers argued that South Carolina’s weakness required union for its security. Charles Cotesworth Pinckney went so far as to describe the assertion that the Declaration of Independence had made each state “separately and individually independent” as “a species of political heresy.” The Declaration, which never mentioned the states by name, was meant, he argued, to impress on America the maxim that “our freedom and independence arose from our union, and that without it we could neither be free nor independent.” (249)

Pinckney’s observation constitutes more evidence that Lincoln wasn’t the first to associate the events in 1776’s Continental Congress with the people’s sovereignty. States could not secede from the Union, Lincoln reasoned, because they had no legal or moral existence outside of the Union. (N.B.: Lincoln’s July 4, 1861 address establishes that he, like most Federalists and Whigs who raised the issue before him, acknowledged a state’s internal police powers.)

Indeed, Maier points out that, hard on the heels of South Carolina’s ratifying convention, Patrick Henry made his belief in state sovereignty the sine qua non of his objections to the proposed Constitution at Virginia’s ratifying convention: “No amendment, however, was likely to address [Henry’s] fundamental criticism of the Constitution: that its authority came from the people instead of the states” (266).

Henry had unpacked “We the People,” the first phrase of the proposed Constitution, and had seen, in its Lockean underpinnings, the end of what Pinckney had termed the “political heresy” of state sovereignty.

James Baldwin, Karl Popper, & other stuff I’ve read this year

3PictureBaldwin3Lists of books read are misleading. For instance, I spent the first half of this year reading Karl Popper every night, and I spent the second half of the year reading James Baldwin every night. This slow going through two authors presents a better idea of my reading this year than the more comprehensive list that follows of the books I’ve read. Popper and Baldwin – particularly Baldwin, and along with Shakespeare and Reinhold Niebuhr – really got me thinking over the past twelve months.

Due to my job demands, I read most of the listed books by listening to unabridged recordings of them while walking to and from school or while driving. Some books I both read and listened to using Whispersync, which I described in my post about my reading in 2013. Some books I read pretty quickly this year; others, like Robert Alter’s translation of the Book of Psalms, I read over several months. (I read Alter’s book as a devotional many mornings over nine months.) Except for the Psalms, poetry doesn’t make the list because I didn’t read any other poetry book from cover to cover. But I sure read many poems many times from Robert Lax’s work and from Tom Montag’s In This Place: Selected Poems 1982 – 2013. Overall, though, I read a lot less poetry this year than I have in years past.

My biggest experiment with slow reading methods involved slow reading on a Kindle. I typed 452 margin notes in my Kindle edition of Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies and then used the notes to write about what I read.

So Popper I’ve written about this year, but Baldwin I’ve only written around. I may never really write about Baldwin: he’s getting too close. But I’ll summarize here what I hear in him besides his heartbeat, which is indescribable.

Baldwin has a few themes that he returns to, book after book. One is the idea that identity is a mask, a rather fragile but essential mask that I construct – or that I allow my society to construct for me as I, wittingly or unwittingly, aid in its construction. An identity is usually false and shallow, and “it is questioned only when it is menaced,” as Baldwin says in a book of essays, The Devil Finds Work.

He understands his holy-roller preacher adolescence as a space where a mask was menaced. Although he disowns his Christianity, forty years after leaving the church he doesn’t “pretend to have surmounted the pain and terror of that time of my life.” In his early religious phase he “encountered the abyss of my own soul” in some measure. My own, legalistic religion benefitted me with a similar experience some time ago.

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The Tempest

The reason that it is important – of the utmost importance – for white people, here, to see the Negroes as people like themselves is that white people will not, otherwise, be able to see themselves as they are.

 – James Baldwin, from Nobody Knows My Name

. . . romance deals in marvelous events and solves its problems through metamorphoses and recognition scenes – through, in other words, transformations of perception.

 – Robert Langbaum, from his introduction to the Signet Classic edition of The Tempest

 

3PictureBookTempestThe island’s sand is bright white. Its lone palm is curved, like the line to a high kite. The storm clouds clear, and Ariel drifts down, bound to what the Washington Post calls “an amusingly thick rope.” She seems to miss her runway. She passes Prospero, but she delivers her lines, anyway, as, upside down, she reaches for the oncoming palm. She sounds dutiful and put out.

Will tomorrow’s show be the same, or is the actress making the most of tonight’s haywire high wire? Either way, I reflect, it’s Ariel: she wants to please Prospero because she wants her freedom. She’ll disorient every castaway, and also maybe herself, to leave.

We walk later the high, black catwalk from which Ariel was suspended. Beneath the stage, we touch the forbidden fruit on the banquet table that an hour before fell through a trap door.

But real magic pervades the wig room. Bethany and I are startled to see, on a black mannequin, fair Miranda’s hair. Our friend, who is showing us the ropes backstage, designs the wigs and costumes. She is visibly pleased. I’ve done my job well, then, she says.

Beforehand, I walk upstage in a parking garage. I’m a level below the lowest level with elevator service. An anxious Capitals fan behind me in an SUV drove me to this hell. I wanted to insinuate my car into a narrow spot a few levels up, but I didn’t want to hear more honking.

Outside it’s cold, and a man, covered in a surplus blanket or coat, sleeps against the garage. I’ve no sense of direction, and I’ve dropped Bethany, who has, off at the theater before parking. I’m disoriented. He could be dead. Then a guy comes out of the night as if he were the night coalescing.

He has a badge on a lanyard, just like the college kids that come to my door summertime in the suburbs. Except he’s around fifty, around my age, or he says he is, but I don’t believe him at first. He says he remembers the riots here after they shot King. He was five years old then. His dark dreadlocks fall behind him down somewhere near the dark street. They pull at the wrinkles on his forehead and make his eyes big and sweet.

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Invincibly impersonal

3PictureJamesBaldwinI read a scene tonight towards the end of Another Country that got me thinking about self-government. James Baldwin’s 1961 novel, I acknowledge, has nothing directly to do with government  or politics of any kind. But any novel portraying great anguish well and offering a glimmer of hope is a paean to self-government. It answers “maybe” or even “yes” to Alexander Hamilton’s question at the outset of the Federalist Papers: Can people govern themselves?

Self-government’s survival, in other words, depends on whether I’m willing to live out some anguish and accept my humanity.

In the scene, a character, with a friend in an art gallery, comes to realize that she has helped to create the husband she has grown to despise.

“And I saw that I’d loved him like that, like a child, and now the bill for all that dreaming had come in. How can one have dreamed so long? And I thought it was real. Now I don’t know what’s real.” (404)

I’ll quote from the characters’ more theoretical observations and reflect on self-government.

“You think that there isn’t any hope for us?”

“Hope?” The word seemed to bang from wall to wall. “Hope? No, I don’t think there’s any hope. We’re too empty here”— her eyes took in the Sunday crowd — “too empty — here.” She touched her heart. “This isn’t a country at all, it’s a collection of football players and Eagle Scouts. Cowards. We think we’re happy. We’re not. We’re doomed.” (406)

Government is messy because humanity is messy. There are two ways out. One is to escape from being human, to be transformed into something better – a saint, perhaps, or a god. The other is to redefine humanity to exclude the messy elements — that is, to define certain groups — groups to which I happily don’t belong — as subhuman.

No matter which of these two ways out I choose, I am drawn to one of two approaches to government. As the god superior to man or as the man superior to beasts, I and my fellow superiors can govern to enforce the gulf that separates us from the inferiors for the good of society. Or I can, perhaps in disgust, disclaim any role in governing.

Neither approach to government is self-government. Self-government requires my involvement and my humanity.

Self-government is personal. It’s not enough to espouse equality. It’s not enough to vote. Self-government insists that I become human. And to become human, I must own up to my part in humanity’s problems.

“You said once,” he said, “that you wanted to grow. Isn’t that always frightening? Doesn’t it always hurt?”

It was a question he was asking himself — of course; she turned toward him with a small, grateful smile, then turned to the painting again.

“I’m beginning to think,” she said, “that growing just means learning more and more about anguish. That poison becomes your diet — you drink a little of it every day. Once you’ve seen it, you can’t stop seeing it — that’s the trouble. And it can, it can” — she passed her hand wearily over her brow again — “drive you mad.” (405)

Self-government isn’t possible without personal growth, and growth isn’t possible without anguish and hope. Hope without anguish is immature hope – perhaps a necessary starting point, but untested and, if it stays untested for too long, dangerous. But anguish without hope leads to madness.

“You begin to see that you yourself, innocent, upright you, have contributed and do contribute to the misery of the world. Which will never end because we’re what we are.” (Id.)

Equality is hard work. It’s easy to espouse in theory but hard to admit in practice, when my equality with others includes aspects of humanity that offend me.

He watched her face from which the youth was now, before his eyes, departing; her girlhood, at last, was falling away from her. Yet, her face did not seem precisely faded, or, for that matter, old. It looked scoured, there was something invincibly impersonal in it. (405 – 406)

Public life is impersonal, and that impersonality can be either bad or good. Self-righteousness is impersonal because it treats the other as less than a person. But self-government is impersonal because it transcends personality. Self-government is based on a sacred truth, as the Declaration’s first draft puts it, that all men are created equal. Our essential equality, deeper than personality, is the basis for celebrating our diverse personalities and cultures – and for celebrating, ultimately, our common failings.

Only my personal anguish – only our collective personal anguish – can lead to the invincible, impersonal equality that makes self-government possible.

Self-government, then, doesn’t have much of a chance. But the stakes are too high for me not to take it personally.

Photo is of James Baldwin, 1924 – 1987.