Tuesday, May 31, 2016

My Year With Proust - Day 157

"Wholly occupied with what her companions were saying, had she seen me - this young girl in the polo-cap pulled down very low over his forehead - at the moment in which the dark ray emanating from her eyes had fallen on me?  If she had seen me, what could I have represented to her?  From the depths of what universe did she discern me?
   "If we thought that the eyes of such a girl were merely two glittering sequins of mica, we should not be athirst to know her and to unite her life to ours.  But we sense that what shines in those reflecting discs is not solely to their material composition; that it is, unknown to us, the dark shadows of the ideas that that person cherishes about the people and places she knows - the turf of race-courses, the sand of cycling tracks over which, pedalling on past fields and woods, she would have drawn me after her, that little peri, more seductive to me than she of the Persian paradise - the shadows, too, of the home to which she will presently return, of the plans that she is forming or that others had formed for her; and above all that it is she, with her desires, her sympathies, her revulsions, her obscure and incessant will.  I knew that I should never possess this young cyclist if I did not possess also what was in her eyes.  And it was consequently her whole life that filled me with desire; a sorrowful desire because I felt that it was not to be fulfilled, but exhilarating because, what had hitherto been my life having ceased of a sudden to be my whole life, being no more now than a small part of the space stretching out before me which I was burning to cover and which was composed of the lives of these girls, offered me that prolongation, that possible multiplication of oneself which is happiness."
Marcel Proust, Within a Budding Grove, pp. 851-852

Proust continues his dialogue about the perception and reality of beauty.  In this specific case he become captivated by the young cyclist (who would eventually lead him into a larger circle of young women, including Albertine, that he would refer to as "the tribe", initially an "inaccessible, unknown world"). We'll learn more about "the tribe" later.  I think it is fascinating that he concludes, "I knew that I should never possess this young cyclist if I did not possess also what was in her eyes."  In classic Proustian fashion he immediately delves deeply.  There has never been a point so far in the work where he leaves his description of a woman, even one he loved, on the purely physical or carnal level.  One wonders if this is just because of his own personal decorum or the literary standards of his age or maybe his own homosexuality.  Is he able to speak so philosophically and eloquently about these women because he is not actually physically drawn to them?  Or maybe he exists more as a thinking and feeling entity than as a physical entity.  He proposes, "And it was consequently her whole life that filled me with desire; a sorrowful desire because I felt that it was not to be fulfilled."  Was it a sorrowful desire not because he might not know the girl, but rather that he was incapable of knowing her - and yet in not knowing her on a physical or surface level he was able to know her, or at least what she represented, on a much deeper level?

Finally, he does throw in one interesting qualifier about the cyclist:

   "I had looked so closely at the dark cyclist with the bright eyes that she seemed to notice my attention, and said to the tallest of the girls something that I could not near but that made her laugh.  Truth to tell, this dark-haired one was not the one who attracted me most, simply because she was dark and because (since the day on which, from the little path by Tansonville, I had seen Gilberte) a girl with reddish hair and a golden skin had remained for me the inaccessible ideal." 

Clearly, following my well-documented love of dark European actresses with terrible secrets, I would have fallen for the initial cyclist.  I wonder if we are imprinted by our seeming default setting for beauty by the mere happenstance of the first woman who beguiles us with love or lust?  Although even this is impact by a number of factors.  Proust is forever drawn toward women "with reddish hair and a golden skin," but also asks himself, "But had I not loved Gilberte herself principally because she had appeared to me haloed with that aureole of being the friend of Bergotte, of going to look at cathedrals with him?" So, Proust had loved Gilberte because of her association with a writer he loved, but then became the paradigm for physical beauty.  I guess as part of this self-reflection I should try and figure out why I am drawn to DEAWTS, which is clearly still prevalent as I spent all Memorial Day happily engaged in a protracted Juliette Binoche film marathon.

Monday, May 30, 2016

My Year With Proust - Day 156

   "That day, as for some days past, Saint-Loup had been obliged to go to Doncieres, where, until he returned there for good, he would be on duty now until late every afternoon.  I was sorry that he was not at Balbec.  I had seen some young women, who at a distance had seemed to me lovely, alighting from carriages and entering either the ballroom of the Casino or the ice-cream shop.  I was going through one of those phases of youth, devoid of any particular love, as it were in abeyance, in which at all times and in all places - as a lover the woman by whose charms he is smitten - we desire, we seek, we see Beauty.  Let but a single flash of reality - the glimpse of a woman from afar or from behind - enable us to project the image of Beauty before our eyes, and we imagine that we have recognised it, our hearts beat, and we will always remain half-persuaded that it was She, provided that the woman has vanished: it is only if we manage to overtake her that we realise our mistake."
Marcel Proust, Within a Budding Grove, p. 845

Obviously, Proust talks a lot about beauty and also a lot about Beauty, but I think this is one of his nicer reflections because it really speaks to the ethereal nature of Beauty.  Is Beauty, as compared to beauty, just a product of the imagination?  Maybe beauty is around us all the time, is more tangible, whereas Beauty has a more Platonic World of Form quality to it.  The problem with that is that it implies a greater universality to the concept of Beauty than I think actually exists.  Essentially, we can certainly disagree on what is beautiful, but can we disagree on what is Beautiful?  You might not agree with me that Juliette Binoche is the most beautiful woman in the world, but beauty is a more subjective concept.  [That said, you're sadly and stupidly wrong, because, as every right-thinking individual knows, Juliette Binoche IS the most beautiful woman in the world]  Theoretically, shouldn't we all agree on Beauty?  This takes me back to the notion that maybe Beauty is just an imagined, and deeply personal, concept.  Maybe we share the concept of Beauty, although the specifics vary from individual to individual.  This is why a fleeting glimpse would "enable us to project the image of Beauty before our eyes."  The reason why Proust, or anyone for that matter, would realize the mistake once they had overtaken their object of Beauty, is not because their eyes are too far apart or their nose slightly askew, but because they are real.   It seems to me that so much of Proust, or at least so much of my childish understanding of Proust, relates to liminal spaces, in this case the hazy border area between beauty and Beauty.  Maybe we as human beings are just poorly constructed to perceive Beauty; we can vaguely see that it's there, but our perception isn't finely tuned enough to truly "see" it. The clear comparison would be to our frustrating inability to see God.  One of the 99 Names of Allah is the Beautiful, and every religion has some similar notion that the Divine is beautiful.  We can agree upon its truth but we still can't see it.  We're all perceptually near-sighted, and we fill in the specifics of that blurry image with our notion of what it should be.  And maybe this is why we're so unhappy, why we mess up so many relationships - we're expecting Beauty and find only beauty, and can't negotiate the difference.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

My Year With Proust - Day 155

"And so, many easy-going men of the Faubourg Saint-Germain were without compunction when they spoke of Robert's mistress. 'Whores do their job,' they would say, 'they're as good as anybody else.  But not that one!  We can't forgive her.  She has done too much harm to a fellow we're fond of.' Of course, he was not the first to be thus ensnared.  But the others amused themselves like men of the world, continued to think like men of the world about politics and everything else.  Whereas Saint-Loup's family found him 'soured.' They failed to realise that for many young men of fashion who would otherwise remain uncultivated mentally, rough in their friendships, without gentleness or taste, it is very often their mistresses who are their real masters, and liaisons of this sort the only school of ethics in which they are initiated into a superior culture, where they learn the value of disinterested relations."
Marcel Proust, Within a Budding Grove, p. 838

Proust is recounting the general reaction to Robert Saint-Loup's mistress.  Obviously, there are several ways to unpack this brief section.  What jumps out at me is the notion of separation, and I am oddly reminded of my time teaching in Abu Dhabi.  The commentary shared by Proust is not only that of men, but men who are in many ways segregated from the rest of society.  When I was in Abu Dhabi the male students would ask questions about the female students - and the female students would ask questions about the male students - as if they were entirely different and unstudied species; I thought at the time that you could practically write a piece in a cryptozoological magazine about Emirati women.  A couple of years ago I taught a class called Arab Women Writers, which I loved and hope to teach again, and one of the themes that kept popping up from the female authors was this sense of isolation from their fathers.  It struck me as so strange because this was a society that places tremendous emphasis on family, but one which also constructed and accepted tremendous unassailable chasms, both inside and outside of the family.  In a way, the society that Proust is discussing mirrors the Arabic world I experienced.  The young men were dependent upon their mistresses to finish the job of "raising" them, and I can't help but wonder if it related to the fact that they were so generally isolated from whole segments of the population, especially the feminine.  Just think back to the beginning of the novel with Proust waiting in his room for his mother to steal a few moments away from the demands of her guests to tuck him into bed.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Discography - Week 6

It's very cool that we're already in Week 6 of our Discography discussion, and we already have songs lined up for weeks to come.  I'm excited that my great friend, titular little sister and most excellent travelling companion Cyndi Brandenburg joined us this week - and I like her selection quite a bit.  Great commentary this week, and I especially like Miranda's point about how we are influenced by what we experienced first as compared to what was produced first chronologically, which really gets out the intensely personal and subjective nature of music.

Gary Beatrice

Outkast, Hey Ya

I was delighted by our group submitting two Nirvana covers in the same week. For one thing, I didn't know two Nirvana covers existed.

Nirvana was always a touchstone for me. I had always prided myself as somebody who had a firm grasp at what was going on in popular music, both on the charts and around the edges where the cool folks flourished. I even fancied myself as somebody who gravitated towards music a bit before it became popular and introduced it to others. And I loved the occasions when it felt like everybody who was anybody was listening to something really cool and we all listened together. But when Curt Cobain shot himself, besides grieving the obvious heartbreaking loss of his life and talent, I had to come to terms with the fact that I was old, at least at it applied to music. I would never again have an appreciation for much on the charts. I wouldn't have any idea what the cool people listened to, and if I heard popular music, chances are I had no interest in it.

But for one glorious summer it happened again. Everybody who had any serious interest in music was jamming to OutKast and their hits The Way You Move, Roses, and my personal favorite Hey Ya. I can't claim that I discovered them or introduced them to anybody, and as a rap act I am embarrassed to say I wouldn't even have given OutKast a listen if Hey Ya weren't so instantly damn catchy. But my dear Lord what a soulful, funky fun slice of pop heaven.



Cyndi Brandenburg


Cowboy Junkies, Musical Key 


I have been thinking a lot about this whole “motherhood” thing lately.  Eighteen years ago when Sarah and Maria were born, we had no clue what we were doing, but I was pretty determined to figure it out and get it right.  Such high stakes, so much God-awful responsibility--yet deep down, I always suspected that contrary to popular belief, I was pretty powerless in terms of making much of a difference.  In the end, we just live every day the best we can, cross our fingers, and hope it all works out for the best.  When my daughters were barely toddlers, before Joey was born, I would often spend our long hours home alone by doing the one thing that seemed to soothe us all.  I’d play CDs, take turns holding them, and sway to the sounds.  Certain songs became staples, and “Musical Key” by the Cowboy Junkies is oddly one of the ones that I remember most.  The only song on the Lay It Down album co-written by Michael Timmins and Margo Timmons, it’s actually rather monotonous, with a permeating soulful melancholy that mirrors the often lonely boredom of everyday life, despite being an homage to a strong supportive family.   Being a mom gives me great joy, but it also comes with a dose of sadness and loss that I am not sure I can fully describe or explain.  In retrospect, one thing I have come to realize is that the monotonous day-in and day-out blur of life really is what ends up mattering the most.  

Gary Scudder

Buddy Guy, Done Got Old

This selection, much like this song, is somewhere between self-pitying and ironic.  It is a song off the extraordinary Buddy Guy album Sweet Tea.  In the song Guy is lamenting the things he can no longer do, but at the same time he fills the entire album with incendiary guitar work that puts the efforts of much younger musicians to shame.  A decade ago I played the entire CD for my son as we were travelling cross-country and he could not begin to believe that it was recorded by a man in his 70s.  Over the last year I've noticed how I'm increasingly being treated as an out of touch, if not outright embarrassing, remnant of a past age, the intellectual equivalent of a vestigial limb.  The thing is, it's not my students (who are actually oddly appreciative of my desire to make them read the Ramayana or to watch Swan Lake) or administrators (who can never quite reconcile my passion/petulance with their desire for untroubled calm), but rather my much younger colleagues who wish that I would simply go away.


Miranda Tavares


Social Distortion, Story of My Life 

As most of you are aware, I am the youngest member of this most amazing ongoing discussion. I say that to put this pick in perspective. Social D is the equivalent of The Clash for me. Yes, I understand The Clash was first, and was a major influence for Social D. But I was born in 1980, and I believe people are generally influenced by what they experienced first, not what occurred first chronologically. As criminal as it may seem, I was obsessing over Mike Ness before I knew there was a Joe Strummer. I knew all the words to Ball and Chain before I even heard Train in Vain. Social D defined my sense of self during my formative years. 

This pick is more about the band than the particular song. I was raised on Springsteen and The Beatles, exposed to the one hit wonder-type top 40 music of the '80s, then bombarded with the crap that was early '90's (Wilson Phillips, Milli Vanilli, New Kids on the Block) and I was starving for something meaningful, and something mine. I was a white, suburban, northern female brainwashed by MTV coming of age in the 1990's. Social D was my destiny.

In my view, the 1990's offered two options for a vaguely angst-filled teen bucking the mainstream: punk and grunge. Nirvana was integral. It captured the anger and confusion of growing up, questioning the reality presented to us, throwing away the norms. All of those feelings were inside me, but...I was a suburban kid. I had an ok life. Things were only as dramatic as I made them. Nirvana expressed things with a strength that I really did not feel. Social Distortion filled the void. They embodied the mundane sadness, dissatisfaction and banality that was the epitome of teenage life in middle america at that time. 


I picked Story of my Life because it is representative of what Social D means to me. It's catchy. Pop-py. Simple. But... there's an edge. In Ness's matter-of-fact vocals, in the meandering rhythm guitar, in the drum beat that is somehow a touch faster than the laid-back tone of the song would seem to warrant, there's an undercurrent of someone who might break. It's not imminent or anything, but it's there. And, really, when you cut it all dawn to the quick, that's the story of anyone's life.


Nate Bell

Concrete Blonde,  Bloodletting 

For a change of pace, I am NOT picking a song with great symbolic depth or meaning, and also one that is not numbingly depressing commentary on the travails of the human plight.  So. Vampires...

Concrete Blonde (who, contrary to some opinions expressed previously--NOT a one-hit wonder) wrote this little ditty that is so perfectly 90's.  It's self involved, attempts to be introspective and deep (it's not), and edges into the quickly developing "goth" sensibilities of the time.  Yes, it's "moody" and about vampires.  Specifically, it's a very obvious homage to Anne Rice's first (best?) vampire book--Interview with the Vampire.  It is catchy, slightly hair-band metal in sound, with a dour mood, but at the same time fast tempo and strident in its vocals and screeching guitar.  It tries so hard to capture so much, but in the end, it's a catchy 90's pop song that just sits just inside one of the well-defined musical margins.  I actually like this song, despite the way I describe it, and the combination makes it quite fun, with a faux-ominous tone and a few very nice images in the lyrics.  Every time I stumble across it again, I can't stop singing the chorus, it's very infectious--though it has never made me want to dress in black and wear eye makeup:


I've got the ways and means
to New Orleans
I'm going down by the river where it's warm and green
I'm gonna have a drink, and walk around
I have a lot to think about...


add a nice little walking guitar riff, and it makes for a very enjoyable listen.  

Dave Kelley

The Hold Steady, Sequestered in Memphis 

Lineup changes have greatly reduced the quality of music being made by The Hold Steady, but damn, when they were good they were great.  By far my favorite record of theirs is "Stay Positive."  My selection this week is off that record.  It is just a fun fantastic rock song about a one night stand gone horribly wrong.

"It started when we were dancing.
It got heavy when we got to the bathroom.
We didn't go back to her place
We went to some place where she cat sits
She said I know I look tired
but everything is fried here in Memphis

In bar light, she looked alright
In daylight,she looked desperate
That's alright, I was desperate too.

Subpoenaed in Texas, sequestered in Memphis

The song features strong work on guitar and piano and impassioned yet humorous vocals. Dave Wallace introduced me to The Hold Steady. Several minutes into the first show I saw,I was hooked.  The love they had for what they were doing was evident.  Pick up Stay Positive.  It will make you happier than a fat kid with a bag of donuts.

One of my favorite comedic riffs in the movie Clerks is when Dante repeats "I wasn't even supposed to be here today" every time another bad thing happens at the convenience store where he works.  In a similar vein, the singer in my week six selection repeats the line "I just came here on business" in a plaintive fashion as the song ends.  True that, but you follow one questionable piece of ass to the house where she cat sits, and you are "subpoenaed in Texas, sequestered in Memphis." 


Dave Mills

Flobots, Handlebars

OK, I got myself started down the path of nerdy hip-hop with last week's entry (a long and winding rabbit hole, for sure). I used to use this song in my classes, to introduce discussions of the Scientific Revolution, Renaissance, Modern Philosophy, etc. It unpacks the ways in which the good basic human impulses to be self-sufficient and autonomous, to take risks, to push boundaries, etc. can lead to disasters. In much the same way, the impulse that motivates scientific discovery and philosophical innovation, while engendering much good in the world, can also create monsters. OK, lecture over. It's also just a catchy song, and includes a violin and a trumpet, which is cool. The youtube video is the band's own indie music video for the song. Later, after they signed a record deal, the label produced a new video for the song. I prefer the band's original vision, but if you want to see the label's version, you can watch it here: https://youtu.be/HLUX0y4EptA


Dave Wallace

Warren Zevon, French Inhaler 

Warren Zevon's self-titled debut is essentially a perfect album.  A brutal look at the seedy underside of Los Angeles, there's not a bad song on the album, and a number of them are classics (Poor Poor Pitiful Me, Hasten Down the Wind, Mohammed's Radio, Carmelita, Desperados Under the Eaves).  Yet this song, one of the lesser-known cuts on the album, usually impacts me the most.  I always thought that it was about a relationship between the narrator and a prostitute but, according to Warren Zevon Wiki, Zevon actually wrote it as an angry kiss-off to an ex-girlfriend.  (I like my version better.)  Lonely, self-loathing, and wasted, both narrator and paramour are lost by the song's end.

You said you were an actress
Yes, I believe you are
I thought you'd be a star
So I drank up all the money,
Yes, I drank up all the money,
With these phonies in this Hollywood bar,
These friends of mine in this Hollywood bar

Loneliness and frustration
We both came down with an acute case
And when the lights came up at two
I caught a glimpse of you
And your face looked like something
Death brought with him in his suitcase

Your pretty face
It looked so wasted
Another pretty face
Devastated


My Year With Proust - Day 154

  "'Monsieur,' he said stepping back a pace, and with a glacial air, 'you are still young; you should profit by your youth to learn two things: first, to refrain from expressing sentiments that are too natural not to be taken for granted; and secondly not to rush into speech in reply to things that are said to you before you have penetrated their meaning."
Marcel Proust, Within a Budding Grove, p. 823

Here are some words of advice that M. de Charlus delivered to Proust.  As words of advice go this isn't too bad.  Naturally I'd prefer the admonition of my grandfather Jum, the Hoosier philosopher, who told me, "If you're going to run with the big dogs you have to be able to pee in the high weeds."  In some ways this is just classic Hoosier folklore, but I have oddly tried to live my life by this approach.  Essentially, if you're going to be taken seriously as a big dog then you have to be able to do what the big dogs do.  So, if you're not good enough then find a way to get good enough.  I've had too many colleagues over the years who complained that people didn't take them seriously enough.  OK, then do something that would warrant you being taken more seriously.  Of course, my grandfather also famously said that women were like street cars, if you miss out on one go to any street corner and they'll be another one along in about five minutes.  I used to think this was bad advice, but streetcars are coming back . . .

Now, getting back to Proust, the relative merits of the advice from M. de Charlus are not helped by the fact that he then followed it up with, "You make me realise that I was premature in speaking to you last night of the charm of youth.  I should have done you a greater service had I pointed out to you its thoughtlessness, its inconsequence, its want of comprehension."  This is the inevitable snarky side of advice from the old to the young, and I guess it's to be expected.  Partially it's just context.  Someone much younger, either a girlfriend or a newly minded Ph.D. colleague will get revved up about something and your initial thought is, "why do you care about that?"  You have enough years of experience that you've seen earlier avatars of the same situation come and go and you know it's really not that important.  However, you also have to be honest enough to admit to yourself, "yeah, at thirty-one I would have been just as pissed off about this issue."  Experience doesn't mean anything if you don't turn the lens on yourself.  Truthfully, and sadly, the reason why there is often a dismissive side to the advice from the older generation to the younger generation is that we envy and fear their passion and their potential.  It's not as if our time in Middle Earth is at an end, but we're not going to bring about a revolution, and our younger colleagues might just do that.  What I try and tell myself, and obviously not always successfully, is that one of my jobs is to help them bring about that revolution.  I have to help them make me obsolete, which kind of sucks, but is the way of the world.

Now, that sounds good, and in many ways I believe it to be true, but does that mean that I like it and that I will go quietly into that good night?  Hardly.  There's a reason why I chose Buddy Guy's Done Got Old for this week's Discography discussion.  I've often joked that when I'm no longer the scariest guy in the room I don't want to be in the room any more.  By this I don't mean scary in a physically threatening way, but I just have to be that guy who, to paraphrase Ric Flair, is just "the man," the one you have to take into account, the one you will have to measure yourself by.  There is a point in your career when the most use you can be is to help shape the development of junior faculty, and that is truthfully one of my goals, but it is not easy.  As is well-documented, I will not age gracefully.

Friday, May 27, 2016

My Year With Proust - Day 153

" . . . And La Bruyere tells us that that is everything: 'To be with the people one loves, to speak to them, not to speak to them, it is all the same.' He is right: that is the only true happiness.' added M. de Charlus in a mournful voice, 'and alas, life is so ill arranged that one very rarely experiences it.  Mme de Vegiene was after all less to be pitied that most of us.  She spent a great part of her life with the person whom she loved.'
   'You forget that it wasn't 'love' in her case, since it was her daughter.'
   'But what matters in life is not whom or what one loves,' he went on, in a judicial, peremptory, almost cutting tone, 'it is the fact of loving.  What Mme de Sevigne felt for her daughter has a far better claim to rank with the passion that Racine described in Andromaque or Phedre than the commonplace relations young Sevigne had with his mistresses.  It's the same with a mystic's love for his God.  the hard and fast lines with which we circumscribe love arise solely from our complete ignorance of life.'"
Marcel Proust, Within a Budding Grove, p. 819

It's difficult to imagine improving upon these words by my generally witless commentary, so I should probably just stick to providing a little context.  Marie de Rabutin-Chantel, the Mme de Sevigne, was a seventeenth century French aristocrat known for her beautiful letters, which I have to admit, to my shame, that I know merely by reputation.  Her collected letters, most of which were written to her daughter over a period of thirty years, were published and are considered a classic of French literature (another gaping hole in my so-called education, and another reading project).  They were favorites of Proust's grandmother and his mother. She is famous for writing, "I know of no sorrow greater than that occasioned by a delay of the post." In an age where we are constantly and instantly linked up with folks via email and text and Twitter it's difficult to imagine what a letter meant to an earlier generation. Of course the medium all too often defines the message, and while we are constantly in contact it is surface-level reactive chatter, as compared to a more reasoned, reflective response that we've taken the time to prepare in a letter.  My excellent friend Sanford, a French scholar in his own right, will often ask people to write him actual, physical letters. I'm going to have to have a chat with him about Mme de Sevigne, which we may have to carry out via an actual exchange of letters.  Of course, I'm already starting to think of what I would like to tackle after I've finished reading and commenting on Proust, so maybe reading de Sevigne's letters would be an option.  I've also thought about delving more deeply into the Meditations or the Pillow Book.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

My Year With Proust - Day 152

   "In the human race, the frequency of the virtues that are identical in us all is not more wonderful than the multiplicity of the defects that are peculiar to each one of us.  Undoubtedly, it is not common sense that is 'the commonest thing in the world'; it is human kindness.  In the most distant, the most desolate corners of the earth, we marvel to see it blossom of its own accord, as in a remote valley a poppy like all the poppies in the rest of the world, which it has never seen as it has never known anything, but the wind that occasionally stirs the folds of its lonely scarlet cloak.  Even if this human kindness, paralyzed by self-interest, is not put into practice, it exists none the less, and whenever there is no selfish motive to restrain it, for example when reading a novel or a newspaper, it will blossom, even in the heart of one who, cold-blooded in real life, has retained a tender heart as a lover of serial romances, and turn towards the weak, the just and the persecuted.  But the variety of our defects if no less remarkable than the similarity of our virtues."
Marcel Proust, Within a Budding Grove, p. 796

"Undoubtedly, it is not common sense that is 'the commonest thing in the world': it is human kindness." This is a statement that one would expect to find coming from Dickens than Proust, but one that I agree with wholeheartedly.  The concept of kindness is championed so readily in religions that we almost overlook it.  In one of my favorite Hadith the Prophet pointed out that every act of kindness is charity, and charity is one of the Five Pillars.  And every religion has a similar message, but because it is repeated so consistently we don't listen that attentively or we're suspicious (why are you telling me this? is it because we're actually not kind creatures by nature?  why are you so mean?).  Rather, I do think we routinely find it in the "most desolate corners of the world."  I have been treated with such kindness by so many people all around the world that it is humbling.  I was initially going to give several examples (and I still might) but there were so many that I didn't know where to start.  One of the reasons why I've experienced so many acts of kindness is, oddly, because I've come to believe that I'm a kind person.  I would have never believed it, and been somewhat horrified at the "accusation" but so many of my friends and students have noted it over the years that they've half-convinced me that they're correct.  My students, especially, see beyond the performance piece of Scudder as the Scourge of God and always end of writing things on their evaluations like, "the first week I thought you were the most obnoxious person I had ever met and I alternately hated and feared you, but then I realized that you're a really nice guy who would do anything to help me."  Now, of course, I'll get my revenge against any student who makes a comment like that, especially if they repeat it, but there is actually a lot of truth in it (as much as it kills me to admit it).  I know this sounds an awful lot like teenage girl wall poster philosophy, but I do think that most of the problems of the world would be reduced/eliminated if we could all treat each other with more basic kindness.  It's not that much of a reach because I do think it is our default setting, and one that somewhere along the way we are "taught" to overcome.