Thursday, November 28, 2013

On being gulled and not gulled

It is November and we are back in Amesbury, MA, again. We left in August so I could return to teaching and we could prepare our Wellsboro house for sale. When we left the trees were leafed out, and the hill behind our house was a tangle of green all the way to the edge of the pond. The pond itself was nearly covered in green, growing out from the water lilies in the middle to the water chestnuts (?), which reached almost to the shore. Now, as we return in winter, the leaves are wind-piled in heaps and the pond looks as it did when we first saw the house--an expanse of open water seen through the skeletons of trees. The view that seemed so hemmed in in summer, though the big trees doing the hemming are a wonder themselves, is now open and expansive.

Being is about place and time. I keep wanting it to be about abstract ideas and transcendent truth, but being is what it is, and since we are people, even at their most abstract, our ideas must be embodied. Whenever I think I should have been a philosopher, I always come back to the idea that ambiguous truth in the context of story appeals to me more than absolute truth in the context of a constrained system.

This afternoon I saw a white gull flying over the pond in a fog that seemed to arise out of its flickering surface like a magic spell. The arcs the gull traced with graceful ease may or may not have had meaning in any human sense, but the gull was doing what it wanted to do--by design or instinct or both. It landed on the surface of the pond and floated for a few seconds, and then it was up and making another big swoop. I am intrigued by the question, "What does this experience, which I was both part of and not part of, have to do with me?" Finding the answer without forcing it is what literature is all about.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

de temps perdu

I drove from Wellsboro to Erie, PA to meet with nine of my fellow Venard graduates, and I began drafting this blog post in a motel in Erie at the end of the day; I left early the next morning. The Venard was a Roman Catholic junior seminary (i.e., a high school) where we lived and studied with the intention of becoming Maryknoll missionary priests. Thirty-four of us graduated from the high school; two of us actually became Maryknoll priests: one left the priesthood and the other eventually left the order and became a diocesan priest in Erie. Father Tom Hoderny is living at a priest's retirement home there, and we met at his place. Three of us are dead.

As usual, when we get together we talk about the past, present, and future as if they were a single thing, as indeed they are. But we have gotten older and while our thoughts and words can travel up and down the flow of our lives, our bodies are carried by the current in one direction only. I was surprised at how many of us had survived cancer. After we separated for the day, I felt a twinge of uncertainty about whether the particular group that met that night could meet again. It is not that there is anything special about this particular third of the class; it is just a thought experiment that sparked a response. This feeling is a new ingredient, and one that will leaven more and more experiences. For how long does this reality last? When does a state of being become what was instead of what is? When did I become no longer young? There was a day when I could still be young the next day, but the day after that one, I could not be young again.

The reality in which we ten can meet again did not end when we parted that night because, with the will to do so, we could reconvene and, if we did it quickly enough, we would likely all be pretty much the same as we were. But the will to do so cannot be a given; it is a real contingency, and we will not know when it will no longer be possible to summon up the collective will to gather, and we cannot know when the ability to reconvene will be beyond our will. Deus vult.

We all gathered in the first place because we each thought we had a vocation, a call from God. No matter how godless any of us might have become, it is hard not to think of our time together without some scraps of tattered grandeur clinging to the memory. We gathered then to save the world; we gather in the flickering now to celebrate the time we shared so much. Tom Hoderny gave us each a card with a quote from Psalm 133 that captured the spirit of that time and explains the connection among us: Ecce quam bonum et quam jucundum habitare fratres in unum [See how good it is and how pleasant, to live as one like brothers]. And for us, of course, part of the deal is that it is in Latin.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Languaging in Obscurity

In my book group we are reading and discussing The Presidents' Club, and we were discussing the taking of notes at meetings and how reconstructions of what may have happened are so often skewed by the trickiness of memory and the personal agendas of the note taker, often unconsciously. I pointed out that not only memory but language itself interferes with our efforts to recall the past. Language too has an agenda, and it wants its part in the conversation. A language is constructed by the collective activity of ancestors who have constructed it as a scaffold to support meaning—logical, impressionistic, emotional, suppositional, and so on--a super structure that we inherit and remodel before we pass it on.

Why, for example, in English is there no way to describe our relationship to a parent's siblings or their relationship to us without specifying gender?

(From Encyclopedia of Genealogy)

That is the only relationship in our family tree that is like that. On the other hand, why is there no way for us to describe our relationship to their children in a way that does specify gender? These are collective decisions made over generations. Language shapes discourse, inserts itself into the conversation, creates ambiguity all on its own.

"All that glitters is not gold."

How much of what glitters is gold? When we use that sentence we mean some of what glitters is gold and some is not.

"All who lie are not trustworthy."

How many liars are not trustworthy? If we were to say it that way, we would mean that all of them were trustworthy. Why is it some in one and all in the other? What about,

"All of the people in the room were not represented."

Is this a golden clause or an untrustworthy one? I recall from my linguistics class that in the US, the tendency to interpret this clause one way or the other or as ambiguous is affected by what part of the country we are from. Regardless of that effect, it is likely that we could use a statement like this one unaware that it is a problem. Every conversation takes place in the context of our cultural history, even if we are unaware of it. All our efforts to be accurate will not work.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Decline and Fall

Christian, our son, and I were talking about education and its decline as its institutions are besieged by business metaphors and economic accountability and as, from within, obsessed by external perspectives, they become in response so prescriptive and unfocused that they no longer seem capable of action. We were concerned that their workings will simply clog up and they will become monuments reminding us of a lost time. I talked about how we were feeling the effects here in Rural Pennsylvania, and he felt that Massachusetts, where he lives, might be insulated from the worst of the destruction for a while, and he explained this idea by invoking Trantor, the center of Isaac Asimov's Galactic Empire, much of whose fictional history is reported in the Foundation Series.

Since I care about my university and by extension the whole educational matrix it is part of, I fret about the future. But Christian's reference to Asimov's world immediately put my concerns in a productive new frame of reference. Hari Seldon's psychohistorical analysis of the future and the establishment of the Foundation were designed to reduce the period of inter-Empire chaos from 30,000 years to 1,000. The university as a social institution is nearly 1,000 years old. On the one hand, it seems to be a durable institution; on the other hand, it does have many miles on it. Maybe the university has outlived its usefulness and is beginning to collapse toward the center. Institutions that seem inevitable from the inside can, from the outside, reveal themselves as fragile while the world changes around them and they fail to adapt. Some aspects of the Foundation series are based on Gibbons' Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire. The Roman Republic lasted for only about 500 years and the Roman Empire for another 300 years. The university has already outlasted both the Republic and the Empire, yet they shine in our historical memory as signal accomplishments. Of course, the City of Rome still exists, though nothing like what it was. Perhaps the university—from the Latin universitas*—is also no longer what it was. The university is an already irrelevant institution, but those of us on the inside, in the center of one of these institutions, have not noticed yet, and it will be a decade until it becomes so apparent that even a highly educated person can see it. But before that happens in an effort to adapt, universities will twist themselves into many unsustainable mutations. But I suspect that whatever replaces the university dinosaurs will not be their offspring, but something smaller and more agile, something easy to overlook at first.

*"In early use post-classical Latin universitas denoting an academic institution was modified by the genitive plural, as in universitas magistrorum , universitas magistrorum et scolarium (both 13th cent. with reference to the University of Paris)" ("University." OED). The modern university—tangled in elaborate rules of matriculation and hemmed in by accrediting agencies hoarding power and boards of trusties hoarding money—is hardly a community of teachers and students any more.