I think I’d blog more if I wrote here as I do in my journal: fast writing from slow reading. If a post slows down, I’ll send it to blog heaven where those other past posts, now pages, ripple over my masthead.
The full title would be “the story of how I realized something while reading Reinhold Niebuhr’s The Irony of American History, together, eventually, with an exposition of that something.”
Footnote: It is not just the realization. Every honest exposition is part narrative, and every narrative needs its setting. These are things I believe, by which I mean, perhaps ironically, things that require no narrative, truths that transcend all narrative, principles that emanate from a stillness so entire that narrative explodes in their presence by virtue of the stillness’s virtue still emanating from them as they themselves emanate from that stillness, and the talebearer must, to recover his “and then’s” and and “and then’s,” round up the receding stars of his narrative with a stardog or chase them down with a net, whichever is more to the task. End of footnote.
We’re moving next month, I’m teaching at a new school this fall, and I started a graduate program in composition studies today.
The move isn’t far, but it’s big. We’re moving a few miles west to Leesburg, a lot closer to my new high school. But we’re moving from our single-family house where we’ve lived for seventeen years to a one-bedroom condo, which we’ll rent for at least a year. We feel like moving is opening our arms to whatever comes next.
We are starting a three-day weekend by hanging out. Victoria and I have returned home from our respective gyms. I have been perfecting my hot chocolate. I use 2% milk and Hershey’s “Special Dark” cocoa powder. I work from Hershey’s standard recipe, doubling the chocolate, cutting the sugar by 87%, substituting stevia1 for that sugar, and doubling the vanilla.2 Thick and, from what Victoria tells me, bitter. Delicious.
I’m reading three books right now, but mostly two biographies, one of John Locke, which I read from a book by night, and the other of Robert E. Lee, of which I “read” an unabridged recording by day. I’m enjoying both, though I occasionally conflate their lives and get the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries mixed up. Well, the Psalmist says that “the night and the day are both alike to thee.”
The Locke writer, Maurice Cranston, has little sense of narrative, but he’s English, has a wry wit, and wrote the year I was born, so I like the different feel of the book. The Lee writer, Michael Korda, seems fair to Robert and Mary and loves to point out Robert’s humor and mildly flirtatious way with women. I must say that it’s difficult to bring either man to life as much as I admire them. Locke was secretive by nature, making any written mention of his romantic interests in code and destroying almost all of his political letters. I guess the letter-burning is understandable, given the tumultuous English seventeenth century. Lee, of course, was just plain shut-mouthed, and he seemed to do all he could not to become his garrulous, querulous father, “Light Horse” Harry Lee.
I wasn’t surprised to learn that neither Locke nor Lee cared much for reading fiction. West Point forbad reading fiction while Lee was there, though he later won over his beloved Mary Anna Custis’s mother by reading to the two of them from Anne of Geierstein, Sir Walter Scott’s then-latest romance.
I do wish Lee, an avid nonfiction reader, had read Locke. The Civil War might not have lasted so long. Of course, had the Union won quickly, we might be living still with constitutionally sanctioned slavery.
If you’re going to try stevia, I’d suggest Stevita’s “Spoonable” packets from a box. Other brands sell stevia mixed with artificial sweeteners and label it as stevia, and even Stevita does the same with one of its other products. ↩
So without reference to Hershey’s recipe, here’s mine: 1 cup hot (but never boiling, mind you) 2% milk, 4 tbsp. Hershey’s “Special Dark” cocoa powder, 1 packet Stevita stevia, 1/2 tsp. vanilla. If you don’t have a good hand blender, you’ll want to mix the dry ingredients first and slowly add the milk and vanilla while constantly stirring. This keeps you from drinking clumps of powder. ↩
– a friend on why writing was not coming easily for me
Thursday, as I walked the aisles, a kid asked an odd question: had I any lead? He raised his mechanical pencil and, by way of explanation, clicked it vainly.
I walked to my cart. When I returned, I held before him the same pencil, down to its bright, green plastic barrel — a Pentel Twist-Erase Click 0.7, PD 277. He reached for it, but I opened it and instead gave him two leads. He opened his, too, smiling.
I asked him, as the class finished its freewrite, if he had found that the eraser retracted into the barrel as he rubbed it against the paper, but he didn’t know. There hadn’t been much to erase.
I’m writing this post with a black version of the same pencil — my home version, perhaps no older than my student’s. I hope I don’t lose it. I want to find out if its eraser, once you have to start twisting it out, retracts with use, too. If it doesn’t, then my school one may be an aberration and I’ve found my pencil.
Photo “Palimpsest” by waterboard. Used by permission.
Job is like Lear. The curtain opens on a fairy tale. In it, the play’s chief authority, God (or King Lear in Lear), cuts a dubious deal, relinquishes authority and, in the process, does his most loyal subject a bad turn. When the fairy tale fades, the dialog develops between the newly minted sufferer and his newly dubious friends. This conversation dominates both plays.
And, like Lear, Job is theater. It’s mostly dialog, of course, and the absence of a setting (unless you know where Uz is) puts us all on stage, like any good play. Job refers to “east . . . west . . . north . . . south,” but Jewish Theological Seminary Professor Raymond Scheindlin prefers translations that have Job refer in chapter 23 to what Scheindlin calls a “smaller compass” – to “forward . . . backward . . . left . . . right” (197). Job’s left is our north; Job’s stage is our world, firmly founded on the primeval waters that separate it from Sheol (201).
The idea of Job as theater recurs while reading Scheindlin’s The Book of Job. Scheindlin, for instance, discovers a number of what he calls “buried stage directions”:
But you, all three, return! – Come back! –
Not one wise man do I find among you.
You turn the night to day, ……pretend that light is closer than the face of darkness. (17:10, 12)
Marvin Pope describes the stage directions in his Anchor Job a generation before Scheindlin’s 1998 translation, but Pope doesn’t sharpen them the way Scheindlin does. Scheindlin’s translation also emphasizes how Job’s words feed off those of his friends, an essential component of theater or even plain, old argument. The above lines leave out verse 11, for instance, because Scheindlin flips verses 11 and 12, the latter verse being, as Pope says in the Anchor translation, “quite incompatible with the context.” Scheindlin’s move sharpens the dialogue.
I’ve had the feeling, reading the usual English Bible translations, that the swords between Job and his friends clash only when some ancient, unfathomable convention permits, that Job and his friends are delivering set pieces, speeches that require all parties to chiefly parrot the Bible’s party line. Scheindlin doesn’t find this approach in the original. For instance, Job isn’t going along with his friends’ reliance on discernment and on the ancients’ wisdom in chapter 12, as the King James and its progeny suggest. As a good rhetorician, Job simply restates his opponents’ position before challenging it:
“The ear,” they say, “is the best judge of speech, ……the palate knows what food is tasty.”
“Wisdom,” they say, “belongs to elders; ……length of years makes a man perspicacious.” He has wisdom and power; ……He has counsel and insight. (12:11 – 13)
(Emphasis Scheindlin’s.) By restating his friends’ positions, then, Job isn’t assenting to them. Instead, by setting God’s omnipotence above aphorisms championing human discernment and the ancients’ wisdom, Job anticipates Elihu’s argument, and even God’s, towards the end of the play.
Turning to a bigger swath of text, Scheindlin resolves the problem of chapter 27 by emphasizing Job’s mockery of his friends through his close adherence to their argument structure. Some scholars read this last response to Job’s friends as Zophar’s missing third speech because it seems to take up the friends’ argument. Here Scheindlin, unlike other translators, doesn’t move a line but sharpens the focus as far as the text allows to take “Job’s imprecations as ironic.” Job repeats his friends’ insinuations that laden their talk about the wicked’s fate, but he makes it into a curse against his friends for their own unproven wickedness.
“Enjambed” sounds like “jammed,” as when I jam my toe. And there is the feeling, in enjambment, of a sentence smashed into verse, scrunched against an arbitrary margin, particularly if that margin, as in much free verse, has no rhyme scheme or meter to make itself more visible or justifiable.
But enjambment can bring to sight other sounds concealed in a sentence. It can spot consonance and assonance hunched behind a rhyme’s garish robes. It can hear some rhythms that don’t want to make it to meter.
And enjambment stretches as much as it squeezes.
I’ve had, lately, in the back of my mind, something I wrote a dozen years ago, a paragraph from a short devotional that helped me get through an identity crisis. I wrote it out in longhand again this morning. Then I slowed it down some more by writing it as verse.
You had a mental
image of God
in a storage room, looking
for a vessel.
He found you
in a corner, piled up
with a lot of other
stuff, and you
with moss and grime.
God said, “How
about this one? He
has always wanted me
to use him.” And he
began to clean
you for his
service. You became
I found parallel participial phrases, one beginning with “looking” and the other with “piled.” Enjambment’s part and parcel is the premium real estate available just before a line break. At some level, a line’s last word gets the last word.
That last word is where enjambment’s pull counters its push. Consider the split I made in the noun phrase “other stuff.” For a hair second, “other” becomes a noun, a more philosophical, metaphysical being. And, further down, “became,” for a moment, becomes its own object. But we read on because our ears can’t believe their eyes. “Other” resolves into an adjective again, “became” into a linking verb again. But “became” — the unlinked “became” — was the point of my book, and of my identity crisis, too.
We read on also because our elementary teachers told us not to pause at enjambments, but to read for syntax only. And I suppose that’s good advice. But just as ears have eyes, so eyes have ears, big as an elephant’s, that never forget those hair seconds.
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?
Lists 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.
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.
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
The 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.
Our new climate, the paper says, will silence many songbirds. In a lifetime or two, all we’ll hear are hawks and crows. Crows and hawks are all I heard, anyway, having lost my high-frequency hearing long ago to rock and roll. Though it may have been the rifle range at summer camp. Or, a decade later, the hard enterprise of my hometown’s shipyard.
It’s a strong habit, not hearing, and my new hearing aids alone are not enough. My audiologist says I’ll catch myself saying, “What?” when a moment’s reflection might have allowed my brain to process sounds into comprehension.
What does it all mean? The leaves now rustle. The house settles and my knees creak. A scarlet tanager sings from a wood’s high catafalque.