Sunday, April 23, 2017

My Years With Proust - Day 426

"Anyhow, you'll see that it will be one of my most successful Wednesdays.  I don't want to have any boring women. You mustn't judge by this evening, which has been a complete failure.  Don't try to be polite, you can't have been more bored that [sic] I was, I myself thought it was deadly.  It won't always be like to-night, you know!  I'm not thinking of the Cambremers, who are impossible, but I've known society people who were supposed to be agreeable, and compared with my little nucleus they didn't exist.  I heard you say that you thought Swann clever.  I must say, to my mind it's greatly exaggerated, but without even speaking of the character of the man, which I've always found fundamentally antipathetic, sly, underhand, I often had him to dinner on Wednesdays.  Well, you can ask the others, even compared with Brichot, who is far from being a genius, who's a good secondary schoolmaster whom I got into the Institute all the same, Swann was simply nowhere.  He was so dull!"  And as I expressed a contrary opinion: "It's the truth.  I don't want to say a word against him since he was your friend, indeed he was very fond of you, he spoke to me about you in the most charming way, but ask the others here if he ever said anything interesting, at our dinners.  That, after all, is the test.  Well, I don't know why it was, but Swann, in my house, never seemed to come off, one got nothing out of him.  And yet the little he had he picked up here." I assured her that he was highly intelligent. "No, you only thought that because you didn't know him as long as I did.  Really, one got to the end of him very soon.  I was always bored to death by him." (Translation: "He went to the la Tremoilles and the Guermantes and knew that I didn't.")  "And I can put up with anything except being bored.  That I cannot stand!"
Marcel Proust, Cities of the Plain, pp. 1003-1004

Mme Verdurin launches a long screed on her hatred of boredom, and in the process manages to insult Marcel's late friend Charles Swann (who dominated so much of the early stages of Remembrance of Things Past; I found it oddly sad to hear him described in the past tense).  Boredom is something I've thought about a lot over the years, not because I'm often bored but because I seldom bored.  First off, what does boredom even mean?  If you think about it, a protestation of boredom is in many the very definition of White Privilege, both from Mme Verdurin and from petulant teenagers (and petulant not-quite teenagers and, even worse, petulant post-teenagers and petulant dramatically post-teenagers).  The vast majority of people who ever lived didn't have time to be bored because too much of their time was devoted to surviving.  Plus, it can, obviously, be pretty subjective.  Years ago when my wife Brenda and I lived in Cincinnati during graduate school there was this, even then, fairly dilapidated little theater, which I'm sure was demolished or re-purposed years ago.  It would often show that rarity of rarities in today's world, the double feature.  Since we were poor as church mice we would occasionally go, and one time they had the odd double feature of Top Gun and Witness.  They made sense on a timeline of 1980s movies, but could not be more different thematically.  I remember being bored stupid by the Tom Cruise movie featuring fighter jets and liking every moment of Harrison Ford helping the Amish to build a barn. When I was a teenager I remember my Mom telling me quite clearly that it was not her job to entertain me, which should have elicited the appropriate teenage eye roll but somehow resonated with me.  Now, that may have made sense because I grew up in a different age, and in the middle of a cornfield, and was a voracious reader, so turning inside myself was a very easy and natural option, and I think even today I live inside myself to an extraordinary degree.  So could the issue of boredom can be something as simple as whether one lives more externally or internally?  I have a marked tendency, which my girlfriend (and doubtless every girlfriend I've ever had or will ever have) can attest, to "disappear," although as I think of it is less a case of trying to removing myself from the presence of someone I find boring or distasteful but rather my own natural inclination to retreat into my own mind.  I'm talking about this because it makes me think of Mme Verdurin's critique of Swann: "Really, one got to the end of him very soon."  Of course, people's perceptions of you can be odd if not comically incorrect.  Jo Ames, one of my students, happens to know a couple who are old friends with my girlfriend, which surprised her (I suspect because students assume that we actually only exist in our office or classrooms, or in her case, the streets of Madrid and Lisbon).  They told her that they considered me a very quiet and humble man, which she found pretty hysterical; in turn, this led to me explaining to her that maybe in their presence I was that way, not that it is my natural state of affairs, but because they weren't my students and thus I wasn't in my Scudder performance piece mode.  In regards to Swann, my supposition is that he found her crowd tedious and hence didn't interact and instead retreated into his own mind, or maybe he just turned into a mirror and reflected back whatever he saw.  Either way, Swann is the character I've always felt the most affinity for as the novel has unfolded.


Yes, another silly picture of me featuring my Rising Sun, Indiana shirt in some exotic locale, this time on the beach at the Yala Nature Preserve in southern Sri Lanka.  My student John Van Egas sent it along, and hence I'm putting it up on the blog.  Someday I'll actually collect them all in one blog post, or maybe even send it to the small hometown newspaper of Rising Sun.

I think that's also my Savannah Sand Gnats baseball hat, which is getting pretty ratty but nevertheless always ends up tossed into the suitcase.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

My Years With Proust - Day 425

   "Do you intend to remain long on this coast?" Mme Verdurin asked M. de Charlus, in whom she foresaw an addition to the faithful and trembled lest he should be returning too soon to Paris.
   "Goodness me, one never knows," replied M. de Charlus in a nasal drawl.  "I should like to stay until the end of September."
   "You are quite right," said Mme Verdurin; "that's when we get splendid storms at sea."
   "To tell you the truth, that is not what would influence me.  I have for some time past unduly neglected the Archangel Michael, my patron saint, and I should like to make amends to him by staying for his feast, on the 29th of September, at the Abbey on the Mount."
   "You take an interest in all that sort of thing?" asked Mme Verdurin, who might perhaps have succeeded in hushing the voice of her outraged anti-clericalism had she not been afraid that so long an expedition might make the violinist and the Barton "defect" for forty-eight hours.
   "You are perhaps afflicted with intermittent deafness," M. de Charlus replied insolently.  "I had told you that Saint Michael is one of my glorious patrons." Then, smiling with a benevolent ecstasy, his eyes gazing into the distance, his voice reinforced by an exaltation which seemed now to be not merely aesthetic but religious: "It is so beautiful at the Offertory when Michael stands erect by the altar, in a white robe, swinging a golden censer heaped so high with perfumes that the fragrance of them mounts up to God."
   "We might go there in a party," suggest Mme Verdurin, notwithstanding her horror of the clergy.
Marcel Proust, Cities of the Plain, p. 989

M. de Charlus and Mme Verdurin are discussing his travel plans.  While I like the subtle Proustian ironic juxtoposition of M. de Charlus discussing his faith with moments such as Mme Verdurin considering M. de Charlus to be a member of "the faithful," although in this case a social one, and the mention of "splendid storms at sea," I think I mainly included this passage because it somehow seems to relate to my last post about the trip to the masjid.  When I was considering bringing the students I thought there might be two very different students who might kick back a bit - students who were remarkably religious but tied to a different faith or students who were passionately atheistic (and, truthfully, I was more worried about the latter than the former).  However, in some ways both ends of the spectrum can have something in common: intolerance of other ideas.  We discussed Nasr's idea of a "secular fundamentalist" before, and I figured this is what I might run into on the proposed masjid trip.  Happily, the students were excited, or at least accepting, of the opportunity, which I will attribute to the wonderfully tolerant nature of life in Vermont.

Visit to the Masjid

This semester for the first time I decided to take students for a visit to the Islamic Society of Vermont, which is essentially our only mosque in the state.  I've taught several classes dealing with Islam and the Islamic world, but had never considered arranging for a visit.  Truthfully, I think this had more to do with the logistics than their welcome at the mosque itself (the good folks at the ISVT are notoriously friendly).  Happily, two of my students, Logan Rice and Ryan McCarthy, are van certified (as am I), so we just reserved all three school vans, and it was so easy to pull off I'm already kicking myself for not doing it earlier.  The ISVT is very happy to have people swing by for the Friday communal prayer, and even join in the prayers if they want, and I since we've spent all semester discussing the faith in my Dar al-Islam: Yemen class I thought it would be a great way to end the class.  At this particular masjid the men pray downstairs and the women pray upstairs (at least until the latest building renovation is complete), which meant I'd be downstairs with the male students and the female students would have to go upstairs by themselves.  Now, I wasn't really worried about that because I  know that the Muslim women at the ISVT are remarkably welcoming, but I also wanted to make certain that the experience was as seamless and worry-free as possible so that the students could focus on the experience itself.  My colleagues (and friends) Kelly Thomas, Kristin Novotny and Miriam Horne volunteered to come along, which is deeply appreciated.  Because I have two large classes I split them up and brought one on one Friday and then the other the next Friday (including one student who enjoyed himself so much he went both times).  Plus, we ended up with other students who heard we were going and decided to tag along, which meant that we had two big crowds.  The Imam, Islam Hassan, graciously hung around on both days to talk to the students and answer their questions.  My students asked some great questions, mixing batting practice questions ("What's it like to be a Muslim in Vermont?" and "What's your relationship with the other religious organizations in the state?") with some high, inside fastballs ("In today's world is it still necessary to segregate the men and women during prayer?" or "Terrorists will often claim to act in the name of Islam.  How do they justify that?").  I gave them complete freedom to come up with the questions themselves, with my only rule being that they should ask them respectfully (we were visiting someone else's house of worship), and I'm very proud of how they handled themselves.  By all accounts (and I always press my students to tell me the good and the bad) the students had a very rewarding experience.  During the debrief one of the students said that she was surprised that the experience wasn't more "intense," which I think gets at the need for these type first-hand experiences.  We tend to exoticize the "other" (if not sadly demonizing them) and what really struck the students was what an absolutely normal, casual everyday experience it was.  The same student continued, "during the sermon the Imam just encouraged the congregation to be the best person they could be all day long with everyone they meet."

The students look slightly apprehensive here at the very beginning of the discussion, but they had a great visit and asked some thoughtful questions, and there was even a fair bit of laughter. The Imam had kindly given out short books on Islam to everyone of the first visit, which the students had heard about so they were determined to get theirs as well (which the Imam, typically, was more than happy to deliver).

Friday, April 21, 2017

My Years With Proust - Day 424

M. de Charlus was only a Guermantes when all was said.  But it had sufficed that nature should have upset the balance of his nervous system enough to make him prefer, to the woman his brother the Duke would have chosen, one of Virgil's shepherds or Plato's disciples, and at once qualities unknown to the Duc de Guermantes and often combined with this lack of equilibrium had made M. de Charlus an exquisite pianist, an amateur painter who was not devoid of taste, and an eloquent talker.  Who would ever have detected that the rapid, nervous, charming style with which M. de Charlus played the Schumannesque passage of Faure's sonata had its equivalent - one dare not say its cause - in elements entirely physical, in the Barton's nervous weaknesses? We shall explain later on what we mean by nervous weaknesses, and why it is that a Greek of the time of Socrates, a Roman of the time of Augustus, might be what we know them to have been and yet remain absolutely normal, not men-women such as we see around us to-day.  Just as he had real artistic aptitudes which had never come to fruition, so M. de Charlus, far more than the Duke, had loved their mother and loved his own wife, and indeed, years afterwards, if anyone spoke of them to him, would shed tears, but superficial tears, like the perspiration of an over-stout man, whose forehead will glisten with sweat at the slightest exertion.
Marcel Proust, Cities of the Plain, pp. 985-986

Proust returns to one of his favorite themes from Cities of the Plain: the sexual orientation of M. de Charlus.  He associates M. de Charlus's artistic desires and talents with the fact taht "nature should have upset the balance of his nervous system," which relates both to the old belief in the fragile artistic temperament as well as stereotypes about sexuality.  Proust throws in this foreshadowing: "We shall explain later on what we mean by nervous weaknesses, and why it is that a Greek of the time of Socrates, a Roman of the time of Augustus, might be what we know them to have been and yet remain absolutely normal, not men-women such as we see around us to-day."  It will be interesting to see how he spins the romanticizing of homosexuality of the ancient world with the deprecation of it in Proust's own age.

Oh, and here's a link to Gabriel Faure's Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 1, which Proust references.  Well, he simply mentions a sonata, but I love this one so I'm assuming this was his intent.


Clearly, some of my friends have way too much time on their hands.  And, equally clearly, I must be living my life in such a bizarre fashion that I manage to inspire these same friends to create memes in my honor/dishonor.  In this particular case, never, ever, leave Dave Mills alone with a picture and access to Photoshop.

This work of genius/madness began, innocently enough, with a picture of yours truly in front of the Dautalbad fortress in India.  I'm sure a student had made some idiotic statement and I was pantomiming their imminent demise.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

My Years With Proust - Day 423

   Mme Verdurin came across to me to show me Elstir's flowers.  If the act of going out to dinner, to which I had grown so indifferent, by taking the form, which revivified it, of a journey along the coast followed by an ascent in a carriage to a point six hundred feet above the sea, had produced in me a sort of intoxication, this feeling had not been dispelled at la Raspeliere.  "Just look at this, now," said the Mistress, showing me some huge and splendid by Elstir, whose unctuous scarlet and rich whiteness stood out, however, with almost too creamy a relief from the flower-stand on which they were arranged. "Do you suppose he would still have the touch to achieve it?  Don't you call that striking?  And what marvelous texture!  One longs to feel it.  I can't tell you what fun it was to watch him painting them.  One could feel that he was interested in trying to get just that effect." And the Mistress's gaze rested musingly on this present from the artist which epitomised not merely his great talent by their long friendship which survived only in these mementoes of it that he had bequeathed to her; behind the flowers that long ago he had picked for her, she seemed to see the shapely hand that had painted them, in the course of a morning, in their freshness, so that, they on the table, it leaning against the back of a chair in the dining-room, had been able to meet face to face at the Mistress's lunch-party, the still living roses and their almost lifelike portrait. "Almost" only, for Elstir was unable to look at a flower without first transplanting it to that inner garden in which we are obliged always to remain.  He had shown in this water-color the appearance of the roses which he had seen, and which, but for him, no one would ever have known; so that one might say that they were a new variety with which this painter, like a skillful horticulturist, had enriched the rose family. "From the day he left the little nucleus, he was finished.  It seems my dinners made him waste his time, that I hindered the development of his genius," she said in a tone of irony. "As if the society of a woman like myself could fail to be beneficial to an artist!" she exclaimed with a burst of pride.
Marcel Proust, Cities of the Plain, pp. 974-975

Mme Verdurin is reflecting, somewhat bitterly, on the relationship that she once had with the artist Elstir.  We saw last time that he had eventually fled from the presence of her social web, it seems partially because Mme Verdurin had said horrible things about the woman he loved (and eventually married), but also maybe simply because he wanted freedom.  Mme Verdurin tells Marcel, "From the day he left the little nucleus, he was finished.  It seems my dinners made him waste his time, that I hindered the development of his genius," she said in a tone of irony. "As if the society of a woman like myself could fail to be beneficial to an artist!" she exclaimed with a burst of pride.  As we've discussed before, one of my favorite African proverbs is, if you have your hand in someone else's pocket and they move, you have to move.  The problem with having a patron is that you become a prisoner to their whims.  It's not always a horrible thing, as the increasingly secular world of northern Italian merchants freed Renaissance artists to pursue different and more varied and more unconventional themes.  Of course, there's a difference between a patron being fascinating in art, either for its inherent beauty or as an expression of their own faith, and a patron keeping an aspiring artist as some sort of pet for the amusement of her clique, and the latter seemed to be more the case with Mme Verdurin.

However, maybe we're being too hard on Mme Verdurin, and maybe I'm letting my general disgust with her husband to color my perception of her.  She does seem generally touched by the paintings that Elstir left for her, and Proust provides a moving description of one such work as well as the role of the artist in its creation.  Proust writes, "'Almost' only, for Elstir was unable to look at a flower without first transplanting it to that inner garden in which we are obliged always to remain." Earlier this year I read passages of Proust to my first year students (to their general amazement/horror) as a jumping off point to discuss issues of perception, and whether or not some people, in this case artists, actually see the world differently.  This brings us back to Elstir's "inner garden.  I'm sure Elstir, like many artists, doubtlessly saw beauty more clearly and richly and truly than the rest of us, and there must have been times when  he was frustrated by his own inability to convey that beauty; much like a person who has known God, but is unable to express that transcendent experience.

Finally, what must it be like to be an artist who can give one of their own works of art as a present?  Now, part of my amazement is based on the fact that, despite the best of intentions, I'm a fairly crappy gift giver, which may speak to my general weirdness ("seriously, I thought you would like a shatani from Dar Es Salaam; it contains evil spirits and everything . . .").  My ex-wife was/is the best gift giver I've ever known.  I would think that if you were an artist, especially a truly gifted artist, giving one of your works would be like giving a part of yourself to a person you loved, which would give the object a vitality and a currency.  I'm thinking of the Bill Evans (I've been listening to him non-stop lately) piece Waltz for Debbie, which he wrote for his niece.