Saturday, June 23, 2012

Summer Reading: The Elegance of the Hedgehog

I've been posting a lot on my research blog about the novels I've been reading this summer, but I realized that I actually should be doing those posts over here since they aren't really full of research thoughts. I just want to keep track of the books I've been reading. And I should be reserving that blog for my ruminations on abjection and subjectivity. (It's not published, well, publicly, but let me know if you want to read it and I can open it up to you).

I just finished a lovely novel called The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery who is a French philosophy professor. I loved how she took abstract philosophical ideas into real world lives and experiences in this novel. It's a much better way to talk about these issues, and I wish I could do something like that. I'm thinking I might try something similar in my paper on autobiography, but I doubt my skill could carry the concepts into a narrative like Barbery does.

I loved how the characters grapple with death, class struggles, and the meaning of art. And the take away point of the novel is to recognize that death is imminent, but to not be crippled by this knowledge or act in bad faith, but to be as authentic as possible. "The important thing, Paloma said one day, is not the fact of dying, it is what you are doing in the moment of your death." And being sincerely engaged in building, rather than destroying, something is the measure of a good life.

My favorite moment in the book is when Madame Michel, the autodidact consierge of a high-class apartment building, is thinking about the validity of education, especially higher graduate research.
Should you study Plato, Epicurus, Descartes, Spinoza, Kant, Hegel or even Husserl? Esthetics, politics, morality, epistemology, metaphysics? Should you devote your time to teaching, to producing a body of work, to research, to Culture? It makes no difference. The only thing that matters is your intention: are you elevating thought and contributing to the common good, or rather joining the ranks in a field of study whose only purpose is its own perpetuation, and only function the self-reproduction of a sterile elite--for this turns the university into a sect. 
I've been struggling the last couple months to write a paper, mostly because, I realized, I want it to be new and different and brilliant to say something extremely complicated in an elegant way. And that's too much for me. It puts a tremendous roadblock up. But I'm realizing that I'm losing sight of what I've been doing and wanting to do all these years. I'm not that eloquent and my thoughts don't run as deeply and as abstractly as I'd like them to, but I desperately don't want to get caught up in the fan-boy masturbatory academic world whose only function is the "self-reproduction of a sterile elite." I want to engage in works that I love, that fascinate me, and try my hardest to elevate thought and contribute something.

The book is also about enjoying the small pleasures in life, which I have not done lately at all. "I have finally concluded," the 12 year old Paloma says, "maybe that's what life is about: there's a lot of despair, but also the odd moment of beauty, where time is no longer the same. It's as if those strains of music created a sort of interlude in time, something suspended, an elsewhere that had some to us, an always within never"

I used to have those moments more often, I would go out into the world and look for them. It was easy to find them in Russell Square or the British Museum in London, or in Central Park in New York, or in the immense silence of the Uintas while fishing with my mom. I even remember the delight I felt when I was in Provo and I could hear someone practice their bagpipes down the street. These moments of wonder don't happen in Louisville, but maybe I'm not looking for them. Maybe it's because there's a train yard outside my window and I live above a frat house. Or the dreadful and humid heat, the low-flying planes, the trains screaming and blocking my path out of the train yard where I live. I haven't had many little pleasures since I moved here last year, but maybe when I move into my own little apartment on a shady street I can relax a bit and be wondered by art and nature again. We'll see. For now at least I have the novels I've been devouring this summer.

And French films about awkward anxious people who fall in love. And the cute songs at the end of such movies.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

body art

Summer Reading: The End of the Affair

I just finished listening to The End of the Affair by Graham Greene and it took me longer to read than any of the books from last week because I found the narrator to be such a self and detestable character that I didn't want to see what insensitive thing he would do next. In the end, I did pity him, and I had some hope for him. As frustrating as I found it, I couldn't help but like the book. The Regeneration series was interesting to me, but I had a hard time connecting to it because it had so many voices, so many goings on, and the drama of war wasn't as dramatic as it could have been. The End of the Affair is about an affair, but surprisingly it's also about the drama of religion, and not just religious sentiment but the pull toward, in Tillich's terms, the ultimate.

Thoughts on The Immoralist

I wrote this as a reading journal for my Modernism class last semester and thought it would fit well as a blog post. It might be something I'd like to come back to at some point.

In AndrĂ© Gide’s The Immoralist we encounter a man’s apparent descent into a world of darkness and immorality. The turning point in the framed narrative comes at the end of Michel’s long and painful sickness, after traveling throughout Northern Africa with his dutiful wife, and finally recovering his strength and health in Biskra. As Michel recovers he begins to see himself and the world around him in a different light:  “And I compared myself to a palimpsest.  I tasted the scholar’s joy when he discovers under more recent writing, and on the same paper, a very ancient and infinitely more precious text.  What was this occult text? In order to read it, was it not first of all necessary to efface the more recent one?” (43). A palimpsest is a piece of vellum, parchment, paper, or other writing surface which had been scraped of its original writings and reused.  In some cases portions of the original text can still be seen and read below the newer writing, and as Michel states, often the only way to investigate the underlying text is to efface the more recent one.  The most troubling aspect about this statement is not that there is a hidden “occult text” that must be revealed, or that what Michel plans to reveal is particularly disturbing, it is instead the violence implicit in Michel’s realization.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Summer Reading: The Ghost Road

Pat Barker's The Ghost Road is the third installment of the Regeneration trilogy. While the first two books focus on the immediate effects of war on British society (as the war continues in France) the last book spends more time outside of Britain. One of the main protagonists, Billy Prior, goes back to France and we follow his diary of the days leading up to his death, which poignantly takes place at the well known battle where Wilfred Owen died just a week before the Armistice. Paralleling Prior's diary is the memory of Dr. Rivers of his experience on an anthropological expedition to Melanesia.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Summer reading: The Eye in the Door

I'm trying to figure out what to write my autobiography paper on (still) and so I decided to get my brain back into World War One mode by listening to The Eye in the Door, the second installment of the Regeneration trilogy, a series of novels that takes place in England, on the "home-front", during the war. The books are about injured and "shell shocked" soldiers receiving psychological treatment from the neurologist and cultural anthropologist Dr. W.H.R Rivers. Nearly all of the characters are based on the lives of real men, including Dr. Rivers, Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, and Robert Graves, except for our protagonist Billy Prior, a temperamental Northerner who'll unapologetically have sex with anyone (homosexuality features as a primary theme in the novels as a threat to national security and something which is frequently treated at the hospital in which Dr. Rivers works), who hates his father and seeks to replace Dr. Rivers as a father figure, and who is a fighter as well as a lover. Prior is a bit over the top, but I am absolutely in love with him.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Summer reading: We Have Always Lived in the Castle

Well, that didn't take as long as I thought it would. Just part of one day. I listened to my book and cleaned the bathroom and the kitchen and worked on my knitting and had a very pleasant Saturday in the process.

Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a story about two young women who, along with their elderly uncle, have locked themselves away in their ancestral mansion for six years after their parents, brother, and aunt had all been murdered in the house with arsenic (mixed in with the sugar they sprinkled over blackberries). The older sister, Constance, had been tried for the murders but was acquitted and now takes care of her uncle and the younger sister, Mary Katherine (or Merricat), who was only 12 at the time of the deaths.

Summer reading: American Gods

I love books, I love studying literature, but I hate reading. This is the great contradiction of my life, and unfortunately it has kept me from being as well-read as I'd like to be. I just don't get as much pleasure from reading as a lot of people do. I'd much rather watch a tv show (or glance through blogs, watch youtube videos, or stare at a wall) than read a book. Reading is work and I am lazy. But, since these crazy people in this PhD program gave me a fellowship and I'm getting paid to read, it really is work and I am obligated to do it full time. So I'm trying to work on getting through as many novels as I can this summer. Not necessarily great works of literature, but books I've been meaning to read for some time, books I hope will be enjoyable, and most importantly books I can listen to so that I can push through them while I'm doing other things like cleaning my bathroom or walking to school. I'm going to try to keep track of them on the blog so I have a good record of what I've read.