Tuesday, December 18, 2012

What I Read While They Were Writing

Lake Forest College, where I’ve been teaching for something like sixteen years, minus sabbaticals and a visiting year in Sweden, prides itself on its warm and fuzzy, get to know you by the name, scale model of an ordinary university, liberal arts college intimacy.  Generally, I think this is a great thing.  I used to get a bit miffed about the fact that professors proctor their own exams, though: shouldn’t we be out pushing back the frontiers of human knowledge in our research,” I’d  grumble to myself, “rather than looking at the parts in fifteen students’ hair as they hunch over their blue exam books, scribbling furiously?”  But that was all before my daughter was born.  Now that I have a small kid around (delight though she is), I find the three hours of silence less of a bore and more of a respite.  It’s a great chance to haul a pile of books, journals, and electronic reading gizmos into a room and browse around aimlessly, like I used to do for an hour or two every morning.

I’ve had two exams to proctor this semester.  Here are the highlights from six hours of desultory reading.  Some are things I agree with, some are things I just found striking or provocative or admired as feats of style.  For whatever reason, they’re the passages I felt drawn to enough to copy them out in my Moleskine while my students sweated out their answers about Virginia Woolf or Thomas DeQuincey.
One of the things I’ve been focused on is the state of American higher education, particularly the advent of what I’ve called the ‘post-welfare-state university’ and its protocols of privatization, which have extracted greater profit from research under the trust of universities, greater labor from the teaching force, and a greater pound of flesh from students, especially in the form of student debt.
     —Jeffrey J. Williams, “Long Island Intellectual”
If one had no acquaintance with other poetry than Mr. Ashbery’s, one would believe there were nothing more to the art than a vague, somewhat precious and connoisseurish liking for words and the puzzle interest of working them into difficult patterns.
     —from James Dickey’s 1957 review of Some Trees
On parent knees, a naked new-born child,
Weeping thou sat'st, while all around thee smil'd:
So live, that sinking to thy life's last sleep,
Calm thou may'st smile, while all around thee weep.
     —Sir William Jones, “Epigram”
The starting point of critical elaboration is the consciousness one is… a product of the historical process to date, which has deposited in you an infinity of traces.
     —from Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks
The story of St. Wystan is recorded in a Little Guide to Shropshire, under the entry of Wistanow, the place in the county where he was martyred.  The author of the Little Guide was Wystan Auden’s uncle, the Rev. J.E. Auden, and Wystan carefully preserved his own copy of it.  He was very possessive about his first name; he said he would be “furious” if he ever met another Wystan.
     —from Humphrey Carpenter’s W.H. Auden: A Biography
Not only does democracy make each man forget his ancestors, it hides his descendants from him, and divides him from his contemporaries; it continually turns him back into himself, and threatens, at last, to enclose him entirely in the solitude of his own heart.
     —from Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America
Few crimes are more harshly forbidden in the Old Testament than sacrifice to the god Moloch (for which see Leviticus 18.21, 20.1-5). The sacrifice referred to was of living children consumed in the fires of offering to Moloch. Ever since then, worship of Moloch has been the sign of a deeply degraded culture. Ancient Romans justified the destruction of Carthage by noting that children were sacrificed to Moloch there….The gun is our Moloch. We sacrifice children to him daily…
     —Gary Wills, “Our Moloch”