Friday, April 30, 2010

Robes of the false priesthood?

Hugh Nibley is famously said to have told BYU graduates at a commencement that they were wearing the robes of the false priesthood (If I wasn't feeling lazy I'd actually try to look up the exact quote). At any rate, I couldn't help thinking of this today as we lined up in the cold to watch the incoming ranks of SUU's 2010 graduates.

I've spent a little bit of time since then (in between being exasperated at my children) puzzling over my response. A little bit of me was nostalgic for my own graduation; a bit of me was moved by the promise inherent in graduation--empty pomp and circumstance, false priesthood or no, it's one of our few remaining collective social rituals. But mostly, I was jealous.

Not of the graduates--I had that moment in the limelight. No, as I struggled to keep my unruly children in line (Andrew kept pushing himself in between the robed faculty and almost got trampled twice by trying to run in front of students to get to his dad, who was lined up on the side of the sidewalk facing us), I found myself mostly envious of the faculty, looking dignified and imperious in their robes. Even though I know these people are just individuals, there's something about the regalia . . . And I suppose a part of me resented the fact that any onlooker to the scene would see me just as a mother of small children--children I wasn't even keeping in very good order--but I was acutely conscious of the fact that I had the same degree as most of the faculty there. Pride, I know. And I know too that there's probably deeper messages I could be taking away from this scene (for one, the annoying quote my high school biology teacher had posted on his wall, "You give up the right to complain about that which you have chosen"). Those very children who identify me to outsiders are accomplishments that I value more than my dissertation (most of the time).

But the part of me that identified itself (and to a degree, still does) as an academic for so long was jealous, and wistful. After all, I never did get to go to my own PhD graduation (because the ceremony was across the country and my two-week-old baby was still in the NICU). And the robes do look impressive.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Narcissism of Reading

In my first post I talked about finding myself in Middlemarch; recently, I’ve been finding myself in Stegner’s Angle of Repose. I’m not quite sure why it took me so long to read this book—in all honesty, I’m surprised no one on my dissertation committee told me to read it. (The friend who invited me to her book club said she thought I’d like it, because it sounded like my dissertation. And in fact, when I read it, I couldn’t help thinking how perfectly the novel illustrated some of the issues of place that I grappled with. And I still think that Mary Hallock Foote—the real-life model for Susan Burling Ward in the novel—might be an ideal candidate for a future chapter of this dissertation, should it evolve into a real book project. But I digress.)

For those of you who aren't familiar with the novel, it essentially tells the story of two marriages: the failed marriage of Lyman Ward, the narrator, who from the perspective of a crippled almost-sixty-year old historian attempts to piece together the story of his grandmother, Susan Burling Ward, a talented nineteenth-century writer and illustrator. He is not, as he tells his assistant, so much interested in the history of Susan Ward, as he is in understanding what happened to her relationship with his grandfather, Oliver. In retelling her story, he carefully maps out the ways that living in the West at times strengthened and at times tested their relationship.

Perhaps most obviously, I see myself in Susan Ward, in her desire to be refined, her yearning after the intellectual life and all that it represents for her. (Although it might be more accurate to say that I see in her a younger version of myself; I think my yearning after the intellectual life was somewhat tempered by graduate school. Unlike Susan Ward, I’ve also learned to respect other ways of life that aren’t so bound up in the life of the mind.) I can even see myself, a little, in her perpetual struggle to appreciate her husband’s gifts. Where Susan Ward was a talented, thoroughly refined lady, her husband was evolving into a true westerner—a smart man, sure, but a quiet one, a man more likely to work out his frustrations than talk about them. Here, though, I think our differences also emerge—if I was initially unsure about Dan because he wasn’t the intellectual I’d always vaguely imagined I’d marry, I have long-since learned that his other abilities, like his groundedness, are much more important qualities for a healthy marriage. (Plus, I have a sneaking suspicion that I might resent the limelight I’d have to share with a more intellectually-leaning partner.) But the similarities, tenuous though they might be, were enough to draw me into the novel, where I fell in love with the gorgeous prose, the thoughtful and generous narrative voice, and the vivid evocations of nineteenth-century places.

This particular experience with reading has made me think more about my (our) motivations for reading. What is it that we do when we read? What are we in search of? Even in the books that we are somehow compelled to read, I can’t think that the experience of reading is simply passive—we don’t simply let the words slide across our eyes. Even in the most mundane or driveling prose, I think we search (consciously or subconsciously) for something.

In the movie Shadowlands, C.S. Lewis’s character tells a struggling student that “we read to know that we are not alone.” (According to Bruce Young, the BYU professor who taught my senior course on Lewis, Lewis himself never actually said this. But it sounds like something he should have said). I think this is true—the books that I like best are books that do something for me—entertain me, move me. But the very best of books are those in which I find myself somehow reflected, able to see myself in a particular character, or—better still—able to find new truths about my own life from the narrative truths of someone else’s life. I read—and I enjoy reading—because reading connects me to a world larger than my own immediate frame of reference. I read, in fact, to remind myself that I am not alone. A friend from graduate school frequently calls his research “me-search,” because the questions that we explore often matter to us precisely because they are in some way or shape personal.

This tendency to find myself in the novels I read is an inherently narcissistic tendency, and one that I find difficult to avoid. I’m not sure that we can help this kind of narcissistic lens. I’m not sure, ultimately, if I even should try to avoid it—for one thing, such unnatural contortions would make it extremely difficult for me to enjoy reading. For another thing, my own perspective is, in the final analysis, the most coherent perspective I have available for analysis. In the most recent book I read (one of Alexander McCall Smith’s Isabel Dalhousie series), the main character finds herself thinking about what it would be like if we were able to record all of our thoughts for a day. She reflects, somewhat despondently, that most of those thoughts would likely be selfish, but then wonders if that is really a bad thing. After all, our own lives and views are the most easily-accessed framework we have available for interpreting our experiences. . I would add, too, that most of us find our own lives and needs fairly engrossing. While we can access other frameworks (and this is what most of us do when we engage in literary criticism), those frameworks will always be, to some extent, foreign.

Some might argue that other ways of reading are somehow higher, more valuable—that is, we need to somehow divest ourselves of personal agendas in order to truly appreciate what we read. Me, I’m not sure that’s ever possible. While I can imagine some other ways of reading (like applying a particular theoretical lens), I’m not sure I can imagine any way—even a theoretical lens—that still isn’t, in some way, a reflection of myself. Does this ultimately make me just incredibly narcissistic? Or just realistic?

What about you? How do you read? What motivates you when you read a book? What do you look for?

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

currency of talk

Talking is a funny thing. As a woman (or maybe just as a human, but I think that generally speaking, more women are invested in talking than men are), I find talking necessary to my health and mental well being (I'm thinking especially of a recent NYT article that suggests that meaningful conversations are linked to happiness). And as a rhetorician, of course, I'm fascinated by the different uses and functions of talking: cementing political agreements, filling empty air, developing relationships (friendship and romantic), setting people at ease, exploring ideas, exchanging information--the uses are seemingly endless.

If the uses of talk are varied, so too are the values we assign to it. I think as a society we tend to spend our talk pretty freely, despite the fact that talking can on occasion have costly consequences. I try (most of the time) to weigh my words--not, unfortunately, always out of consideration for the potential consequences, but because I think that I get measured by my words, that people assess my intelligence (among other things) by how eloquently I can put my words together. But even then, I sometimes find myself talking just to fill space (my dad once quipped that "Nature abhors a vacuum. And so does Rosalyn).

I suppose I'm thinking about talking right now because I spent most of last night talking, in two different social situations. In the first, I was invited to a book club discussion of Stegner's Angle of Repose (more on that later) by an old college friend of Dan's. This meant that I found myself in a room full of relative strangers (even the one I knew I didn't know well) who were gathered together in order to, well, talk. Because the environment was unfamiliar (my initial impression of the house--a large, newly built, expensively decorated home--was rather intimidating), I found myself weighing my words--and the words of others--more carefully than I normally would. And I'm not entirely sure I'm happy with what I found. In retrospect, I think I was too careful to say things that would sound smart without sounding *too* smart. And I'm not exactly happy with my initial judgment of the other women based on what they said. My initial, snap judgment was that most of the women there were the sort of conventional Mormon women whom I can admire but don't generally have much in common with aside from our shared faith (a judgment, I admit, drawn partly from their negative reactions to the main character, with whom I strongly identified on occasion). It wasn't until much later in the conversation that I realized that some of the comments, although not phrased as eloquently as my grad school peers could have phrased them, were actually quite perceptive.

In contrast to this weighted and measured talk (although I have to admit that the weighing was mostly on my part--I think the others, through long association with each other, were more generous in their talking--both less careful of their own words and less critical of others), I spent the next two hours of my evening talking with three other women (my neighbor generously invited me to her bi-monthly gathering of close friends just to talk) whom I've known for longer and no longer fear judgment from. Although this second gathering was much easier for me (the talk was less costly), I find myself still thinking about why so many women schedule time to gather with other women expressly for the purpose of talking. What is it about talking that matters so much to us? Why is talking about ideas so linked to personal happiness? Why do we care so much about talking as a vehicle for ideas, judging others on the grace or ineptitude of their vehicle, often with more severity than we do the idea itself?

Friday, April 9, 2010

My name is Asher Lev

In an effort to redeem my personal reading from the cycle of chick lit and other fluff reading I've recently been indulging in, I picked up my copy of Potok's My Name is Asher Lev. I remember trying to read it in high school but putting it away eventually because I found it too difficult and disturbing (I think in part because of the description of the classes Asher takes in nude figure drawing, although those scenes disturb me far less as an adult, for better or worse).

I struggled again this time, for a number of reasons. The writing is still beautiful and evocative, but I find the tension between Asher and his parents disturbing, if only because as a parent with young children the thought that I might someday find myself similarly unable to relate to my children is heartbreaking. Mostly, though, I'm disturbed by the book's underlying theme that to be an artist--a real artist--means somehow being outside of and apart from any community you may have been born into. As Asher reads in a book on art given him by a well-meaning friend, a true artist should have no creeds. The book then unfolds with Asher's struggle to be faithful to his artistic gift and his strict Hasidic Ladover Jewish upbringing.

The part of me that responds to my academic training understands this: some of the best artwork was produced by an artist in the midst of some ethical or theological struggle. A good friend of mine once told me that he had finally accepted that he would never be a truly profound writer because, as a faithful LDS man, he found answers to most of the profound questions of life in his theology, and had, therefore, no questions to truly agonize over. Maybe this is a simplistic understanding: after all, even with a theology that is fairly comprehensive, there remain plenty of questions about how that theology can translate into day-to-day living.

But a deeper part of me resists this idea--why should one's devout faith preclude one's ability to create masterpieces? Certainly, there are some cases where it does, cases where people presume upon facile and easy answers and produce shallow or cliche'd works. (There's a passage that I love in Madeleine L'Engle's Walking on Water, where she argues that if a work is bad art, it's bad religion, no matter how pious the subject matter.) But as someone who's fairly orthodox myself (although I'm certainly not in any imminent danger of writing--or painting--any kind of masterpiece), I don't like to think that orthodoxy, in and of itself, means an inability to think or create in any meaningful way.

What do you think? Does the creation of great art require a certain separateness and skepticism?

Thursday, April 8, 2010

An introduction

I think it was in sixth grade that I realized that other people were not like me--or, perhaps more devastatingly, that I was not like other people. Probably this revelation comes much earlier to most people, but I was (as my mother can attest) an incredibly self-absorbed child, perfectly content with my own projects and creative energies and generally oblivious to the projects and needs of others. It's not that I didn't know that other people thought differently from me (that was driven home pretty dramatically in fourth grade when another girl accused me of worshiping the devil because I was Mormon), it's just that I don't seem to remember caring much about it, or thinking about it at all.

So the realization that other people didn't necessarily value the same things that I did or see the world in the same way was a paradigm shift in my world view that shook me like a kind of seismic tremor. Although I could (and did) still retreat into self-absorption, I could never quite recapture that childhood conviction that I was at the center of the universe.

I suppose this may explain why reading George Eliot's Middlemarch for the first time as an undergraduate in college felt, in some ways, like reading a personal handbook for the first time. When I read about Dorothea, with her intense religious passion to make something meaningful out of her life, I wrote in the margins of my book, "I feel like Dorothea." I wrote a lengthy paper that semester analyzing Middlemarch, to rave reviews from my professor (although in retrospect it was not a particularly interesting paper), and later wrote my honors thesis on the marriage tropes in Middlemarch.

So it's not particularly surprising that, in trying to find a literary passage or reference around which to frame a blog for personal musings and theoretical questions, I should turn again to Middlemarch. George Eliot herself has always been a sort of enigmatic figure to me--a woman who was agnostic at best, but who was fascinated by religious ardor and intensity (most of her powerful female characters are intensely religious--she describes Dorothea as a St. Theresa who missed her calling by a few centuries). But her writings are some of the most moral and ethical writings I've encountered.

Of the many ideas that I love in Middlemarch (and there are many--that same professor who raved about my paper once said that he thought Middlemarch should be required reading for all engaged couples because of it's realistic treatment of marriage and romantic love), perhaps the one I love the most is Eliot's idea of "an equivalent centre of self." (See the quote in the sidebar). For Eliot, the height of moral development seems to come when one realizes the weight of others' individuality. That is, that each of us see the world from a highly individualized perspective, and while we may (and most often do) value our own perspective more than that of others, we need to also respect those differences. I suppose, in religious terms, you might translate this recognition of others' individuality as charity--the kind of pure love for others that lacks religious judgment.

Lest you misunderstand, I should clarify that I have NOT chosen this title because I think I've arrived at a full understanding of the otherness of others, or that I have a perfect understanding of charity. Far from it. In fact, it's because I think I need to develop a greater awareness (of myself, of others) that I'm starting this blog in the first place. I find that writing often gives me clarity and insight. Also, curiously, I find that writing about ideas breeds still more ideas--and with small children at home I like the reminder that I do still have a brain. Even if it's a little bit rusty.

So there you have it. A new blog. I'm not sure yet how frequently I'll be posting, but do please come back and visit.