I graded yesterday and today, and I hope to get caught up over the next two days. Then lots of planning and some administrative work I’ve put off since the fall. I also want to take a long walk in the snow tomorrow morning. And to read more Walter Benjamin and the Baldwin biography I’m almost through. And to be with Victoria.
Got 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
Finally finished volume one of Luke. My chief devotional was Joseph Fitzmyer’s part of the Anchor Bible, but for me over several months it was my anchor text, the text I’d pick up and drop daily so the currents of other texts wouldn’t get me lost.
The chief candidate for my new anchor text was last owned by Rev. Ed Coleman of Nashville’s Christ Church Cathedral. It was first owned by Tom — his last name doesn’t appear in the book — who received it as Christmas gift from John and (I think) Teasie in 1966, the year the book was published. I don’t know how Rev. Coleman got the book or if he knows Ed. And I? I got the book from a bookseller. The book itself is a hardbound copy of Edmond Bonin’s translation of Louis Evely’s That Man Is You. Besides the handwriting that informed me about the previous owners, the book had no marks before I started in on it today.
I discovered the work on my mother’s devotional shelf when I visited my parents over Christmas. One page I randomly turned to spoke to me in my discouragement about my writing. The discouragement felt vaguely productive. It felt like a winter field with the plow and scythe put up somewhere in the shed. Kind of like a Twachtman painting, or at least of the one I enjoy at the Phillips. It’s as if Twachtman in all that snow couldn’t farm; all he could do was paint.
God alone knows
………..what He expects of us,
………..what response He’s looking for
………..and how many people’s destinies depend on ours. (128)
Evely’s book is sharpening that picture.
Bonin puts Evely’s prose in verse. Bonin says, though, that he has disposed the text in “sense lines”:
Based on the ancient method of pronging prose per cola et commata, this sense-line arrangement throws into greater relief the development, co-ordination and subordination of ideas, emphasizes significant parallelism and antithesis, and permits one to isolate key words. (v)
According to Dianne Tillotson, per cola et commata facilitates reading out loud:
Instead of filling up the page with continuous text, the line breaks reflect the way in which the text should be read aloud.
Tillotson describes other devices in medieval texts to the same purpose, and then says of them all:
This text is not designed for the mindless recitation of spelled-out syllables and words. It is coded for he projection of meaning.
Bonin’s approach is a step past John Anthony McGuckin’s in his Book of Mystical Chapters. McGuckin breaks monastic aphorisms into verses, but by aligning all lines to the left margin, he relies only on line breaks to augment sense and reflection. Bonin’s work appears more like the sentence mapping middle school teachers often require to learn syntax.
Per cola et commata may give me a new way into Charles Wright’s poetry. His lines are even more loosely anchored to the left margin than Bonin’s take on Evely, and the placement does seem “coded for the projection of meaning.” Wright’s verse sails on a spirituality that, even more with his unmoored lines, carries an ancient salt in its spray.
Image: John Henry Twachtman’s Winter at the Phillips Collection.
This 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:
After my summer classes ended, I created my classroom’s bulletin board to summarize and contrast dyadic and triadic approaches to education:
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)
° ° °
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.
Photos of building facade taken this past summer at the University of New Hampshire.
Over break I filled my
green, mechanical pencil with
What else. Alone
nothing, is indicative of
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,
(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.
pond of angels
Lax prompted this and other poem-like things.
The teachers in our school district voted to extend the summer a little bit in exchange for having an entire fortnight off for Christmas. I’m glad. Two weeks away from school, even while grading and planning a lot, feels like a real vacation. Suddenly, there’s time for the likes of twelve-spice Cincinnati chili. Here it simmers on our rented condo’s gas stove before I stir in the spices.
Lax prompted this and other poem-like things.