Tuesday, September 27, 2016

My Year With Proust - Day 264

   We set off together to dine, and on the way downstairs I thought of Doncieres, where every evening I used to meet Robert at his restaurant, and the little dining-rooms there that I had forgotten.  I remembered one of these to which I had never given a thought, and which was not in the hotel where Saint-Loup dined but in another, far humbler, a cross between an inn and a boarding-house, where the waiting was done by the landlady and one of her servants.  I had been forced to take shelter there once from a snowstorm.  Besides, Robert was not to be dining at the hotel that evening and I had not cared to go any further.  My food was brought to me in a little panelled room upstairs.  The lamp went out during dinner and the serving-girl light a couple of candles.  Pretending that I could not see very well as I held out my plate while she helped me to potatoes, I took her bare fore-arm in my hand, as though to guide her.  Seeing that she did not withdraw it, I began to fondle it, then, without saying a word, pulling her towards me, blew out the candles and told her to feel in my pocket for some money.  For the next few days physical pleasure seemed to me to require, to be properly enjoyed, not only this serving-girl but the timbered dining room, so remote and isolated.
Marcel Proust, The Guermantes Way, p. 411

Marcel stops at a little inn for a meal with Robert after his friend's unexpected return.  I don't know when this became a term but my students always use the word "rapey" to describe a person who gropes you inappropriately (which I guess brings up the question of whether you can be groped appropriately, and also the peculiarities of language).  I don't know if I like the term, but my students assure me that it's an actual term in use, and it's certainly one that you can understand as soon as you hear it.  If it is a term, then Marcel certainly seems "rapey" here.  Truthfully, I'm more interested in what he has to say in the second half of the paragraph but this information, I would argue, is necessary prologue.  I'll talk about that tomorrow.  That said, Marcel's actions here scream privilege.  From what we're told the serving-girl is not a prostitute, but Marcel certainly acts as if it is inconceivable that she would or could reject his advances.  For that matter, are they even "advances" if you know she has to comply sexually?  I don't know if it is simply male privilege or the privilege of wealth or probably some combination of the two, but the scene gives us some insight into societal mores and also Marcel's complex character.  On the one hand Marcel appears to be a remarkably sensitive, empathetic soul, but on the other hand he's clearly a man of privilege and understands what that entails.

Monday, September 26, 2016

My Year With Proust - Day 263

   . . . I caught sight of a huge bundle of carpets, still rolled up, and propped against one end of the sideboard; and burying my head in it, swallowing its dust together with my own tears, as the Jews used to cover their heads with ashes in times of mourning, I began to sob.  I shivered, not because the room was cold, but because a distinct lowering of temperature (against the danger and, if must be said, the by no means disagreeable sensation of which we make no attempt to react) is brought about by a certain kind of tears which fall from our eyes, drop by drop, like a fine, penetrating, icy rain, and seem as though they will never cease to flow.  Suddenly I heard a voice:
   "May I come in?  Francoise told me you might be in the dining-room.  I looked in to see whether you would care to come out and dine somewhere, if it isn't bad for your throat - there's a fog outside you could cut with a knife."
   It was Robert de Saint-Loup, who had arrived in Paris that morning, when I imagined him to be still in Morocco or on the sea.
   I have already said (and it was precisely Robert himself who at Balbec had helped me, quite unwittingly, to arrived at this conclusion) what I think about friendship: to wit, that it is so trivial a thing that I find it hard to understand how men with some claim to genius - Nietzsche, for instance - can have been on ingenuous as to ascribe to it a certain intellectual merit, and consequently to deny themselves friendships in which intellectual esteem would have no part.  Yes, it has always been a surprise to me to think that a man who carried honesty with himself to the point of cutting himself off from Wagner's music from scruples of conscience could have imaged that the truth can ever be attained by the mode of expression, by its very nature vague and inadequate, which actions in general and acts of friendship in particular constitute, or that there can be any kind of significance in the fact of one's leaving one's work to go and see a friend and shed tears with him on hearing the false report that the Lourve has been burned down.  I had reached the point, at Balbec, of regarding the pleasure of playing with a troop of girls as less destructive of the spiritual life, to which at least it remains alien, than friendship, the whole effort of which is directed towards making us sacrifice the only part of ourselves that is real and incommunicable (otherwise by means of art) to a superficial self which, unlike the others, finds no joy in its own being, but rather a vague, sentimental glow at feeling itself supported by external props, hospitalised in an extraneous individuality, where, happy in this protection that is afforded it there, it expresses its well-being in warm approval and marvels at qualities which it would denounce as failings and seek to correct in itself.  Besides, the scorners of friendship can, without illusion and not without remorse, be the finest friends in the world, in the same way as an artist who is carrying a masterpiece within him and feels it his duty to live and carry on his work, nevertheless, in order not to be thought or to run the risk of being selfish, gives his life for a futile cause, and gives it all the more gallantly in that the reasons for which he would have preferred not to give it were disinterested.  But whatever might be my opinion of friendship, to mention only the pleasure that it procured me, of a quality so mediocre as to be like something half-way between physical exhaustion and mental boredom, there is no brew so deadly that it cannot at certain moments become precious and invigorating by giving us just the stimulus that was necessary, the warm that we cannot generate ourselves.
Marcel Proust, The Guermantes Way, pp. 409-410

Here Proust ruminates on the values of friendship.  Marcel is devastated by the letter from Mme de Stermaria cancelling his anticipated assignation, and almost magically his friend Robert shows up.  As I get older I become even more certain that there are few things, if anything, more valuable than friendship.  I remember years ago when my marriage was falling apart and I had finally left home, and was dealing with some crippling guilt for failing my wife and son, as well as some other personal crises, and, much like Robert, my great friend Cinse appeared out of the blue to save me, even if that simply meant listen to me lament about the cruelties of fate, while also having the common sense to occasionally tell me to shut up so that we could talk about her problems.


OK, it's not as if I need more travel courses to plan, but in addition to finalizing the planning for the Spain and Portugal trip - and reworking the plans for this spring's India and Sri Lanka trip - I'm in the process of putting together proposals for trips for next year (and considering trips for the following year).  Steve and I are definitely locked into a longer return trip to Zanzibar, but in addition I'm getting fixated on a trip to Namibia.  I'm pestering my good friends Cyndi and Kristin for a trip to Namibia.  Why?  I think this picture's probably enough, but there are other reasons . . .

The only coastal desert in the world.  Seriously, how cool is that?

Sunday, September 25, 2016

George "Honey Boy" Evans Symposium

We've just kicked off our fourth year of the George "Honey Boy" Evans Symposium at Champlain College, and for almost that entire time I've been meaning to include a post about it here on the blog.  It's about time I put something up, and I'll do my best to go back and update it.  One of our traditions (and my friend Cinse Bonino says that one of the things I do best is create traditions) is snapping pictures of that evening's presenter receiving the prestigious "Honey Boy" cup, filled with their favorite adult beverage, from the previous presenter.  Presenters get the keep the "Honey Boy" cup, which the excellent Mike Lange found, purchased, polished and had inscribed, in their office until the next presentation.  Mike and I started the HB series because we felt that although Champlain is a teaching school there are still folks who are doing serious research, and that our disciplinary identity is a key part of who we are, of living the life of the mind.  If you go to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York you will see a very large trophy which the Vaudevillian George "Honey Boy" Evans (he wrote "In the Good Old Summertime") presented every year to the best player in baseball (which was determined by highest batting average).  In the age before the advent of the Most Valuable Player Award, Evans, like all right-thinking individuals a baseball fan, felt it was a shame to not recognize the best player, so he just took it upon himself to give the designation, and the trophy, himself.  Not surprisingly, it routinely went to Honus Wagner or Ty Cobb.  Mike and I felt that since the college didn't provide the opportunity to present on your own research that we would set something up ourselves, and thus the perverse logic of entitling it the "Honey Boy."  Anyway, I think I have pictures of all the presenters, with the exception of me, from the inception of the HB, and now I just need to get them all up on the website.  The long absence is a reflection of my general incompetence, and not a lack of appreciation for the folks who presented.

The original "Honey Boy," George Evans.

Dr.. Brian Murphy, receiving the HB from Kerry Noonan, presented on "We the Dead: Media Preservation and the Future of Memory in America" in September 2016.

Dr. Kerry Noonan, receiving the HB from Erik Shonstrom, presented on "Dates with Jesus and Yoga with Mary: Pushing the Boundary of Catholic Practice" in April 2016.
Kelly Thomas, who presented on "Devising Intersections: My Year of Writing and Performing for Social Change" in November 2015, presenting the cup to Dr. Dave Mills, who presented on "Double Bind: Abraham, Isaac, and Derrida in the Ashes of the Holocaust" in February 2016.

"Honey Boy" Presentations

Dr. Steve Wehmeyer, "Saints Who Cast Shadows: Ethnohagiography in New Orleans," March 2014.

Dr. Katheryn Wright, "Violence on the Second Screen: A Case Study of AMC's Story Sync," April 2014.

Dr. Michael Lange, "Terroir and the Culinary Meaning of Maple," September 2014.

Dr. Kristin Wolf, "APIStemology, Pedagogy, Outreach and Entrepreneurship with the Bees," October 2014.

Dr. Adam Rosenblatt, "Early Voting: The Case for Children's Suffrage," November 2014.

Dr. Megan Munson-Warnken, "What Makes a Reader?: Understanding the Role of Identity in Readership," November 2014.

Dr. Gary Scudder, "Monsters - Both External and Internal - in The Journey to the West," February 2015.

Dr. Betsy Allen-Pennebaker, "I Didn't Do Any Field Work for the Lecture: Leopold von Sacher-Masoch and the Dawn of Masochism," March 2015.

Dr. Matt La Rocca, "Music from the Arctic Circle: How to Make a Concrete Statement in an Abstract Art Form," April 2015.

Dr. Sanford Zale, "Robert Joliet, the Dual Monarchy, and the Future of French History in the Early Fifteenth Century," September 2015.

Dr. Eric Ronis, "Performing Authenticity and Virtue in the Face of Islamophobia: A Rhetorical Analysis of Mahmoud Jabari's Champlain College Graduation Speech," October 2015.

Kelly Thomas, "Devising Intersections: My Year of Writing and Performing for Social Change," November 2015.

Dr. Dave Mills, "Double Bind: Abraham, Isaac, and Derrida in the Ashes of the Holocaust," February 2016.

Dr. Eric Shonstrom, "The Incendiary Spark: Curiosity as the Fire of Imagination and Scourge of Institutional Expectation," March 2016.

Dr. Kerry Noonan, "Dates with Jesus and Yoga with Mary: Pushing the Boundary of Catholic Practice," April 2016.

Dr. Brian Murphy, "We the Dead: Media Preservation and the Future of Memory in America," September 2016.

My Year With Proust - Day 262

   Thus it was no longer entirely Mme de Stermaria that I should have wished to see.  Forced now to spend my evening with her, I should have preferred, as it was almost the last before the return of my parents, that it should remain free and that I should be able to seek out some of the women I had seen at Rivebelle. . . . And the door onto the outer landing never closed by itself, very gently, against the draughts of the staircase, without rendering those broken, voluptuous, plaintive phrases that overlap the chant of the pilgrims towards the end of the Overture to Tannhauser, I had in fact, just as I had put my towel back on its rail, an opportunity of hearing a fresh rendering of this dazzling symphonic fragment, for at a peal of the bell I hurried out to open the door to the driver who had come with Mme de Stermaria's answer.  I thought that his message would be: "The lady is downstairs," or "The lady is waiting." But he had a letter in his hand.  I hesitated for a moment before looking to see what Mme de Stermaria had written, which as long as she held the pen in her hand might have been different, but was now, detached from her her, an engine of fate pursuing its course alone, which she was utterly powerless to alter.  I asked the driver to wait downstairs for a moment, although he grumbled about the fog.  As soon as he had gone I opened the envelope.  On her card, inscribed Vicomtresse Alix de Stermaria, my guest had written: "Am so sorry - am unfortunately prevented from dining with you this evening on the island in the Bois.  Had been so looking forward to it.  Will write you a proper letter from Stermaria.  Very sorry. Kindest regards."  I stood motionless, stunned by the shock that I had received.  At my feet lay the card and envelope, fallen like the spent cartridge from a gun when the shot has been fired.  I picked them up, and tried to analyse her message. . .
   What added to my despair at not seeing Mme de Stermaria was that her answer led me to suppose that whereas, hour by hour, since Sunday, I had been living for this dinner alone, she had presumably never given it a second thought.  Later on I learned of an absurd love match that she made with a young man whom she must already have been seeing at his time, and who had presumably made her forget my invitation.  For if she had remember it she would surely never have waited for the carriage, which I had not in fact arranged to send for her, to inform me that she was otherwise engaged.  My dreams of a young feudal maiden on a misty island had opened up a path to a still non-existent love.  Now my disappointment, my rage, my desperate desire to recapture her who had just refused me, were able, by bringing my sensibility into play, to make define the possible love which until then my imagination alone had - though more feebly - offered me.
Marcel Proust, The Guermantes Way, pp. 405-408

You should probably just ahead and start listening to the Overture to Wagner's Tannhauser opera and re-read Proust's words, not only because the music is beautiful but also it provides the backstory to the denouement of this adventure.  At the last moment Mme de Stermaria has stood up Marcel and probably for the cruelest of reasons; she apparently simply forgot.  So, why did Proust take the time to tell us that Marcel was listening to Wagner's Tannhauser, and, for that matter, why did I include the link to the Overture?  And it's not simply that at times Proust's narrative is a tad over-heated, and, well, who better to convey that than Wagner.  Rather, the opera itself focuses on the misadventures of a knight who has ignored the demands of chivalrous behavior and is more than a bit of a man whore, at least by 13th century standards, when the legendary actions take place, or by 19th century standards, when Wagner wrote his opera, until he is later repudiated by the Pope.  It's a classically Wagnerian theme of sacred vs profane love, and, truthfully, what better musical backdrop could Proust provide for this section?  Marcel is determined to see Mme de Stermaria because his friend Robert has assured him that she is a sure thing, and his conquest of her will validate his view of himself as a sophisticated man of the world.  In the hands of a less skilled author this could easily be rendered as a mere morality play in which Marcel has learned his lesson, but I'm pretty certain that Proust won't leave us at that level.  It's also interesting to me because it reminds me of something I end up discussing with my students quite a bit in Concepts of the Self, and Aesthetic Expression and also Heroines and Heroes: the challenges that an artist faces in using symbols or metaphors or, for that matter, references that the audience will understand.  There was a time when an educated audience would have immediately understood the Tannhauser reference and Proust relied upon it as he constructed the scene, but that age is long past.  Truthfully, although I assumed that there was a deeper meaning (as I would tell my students, Proust could have had Marcel listening to anything at that moment), I didn't get the reference initially and had to do some research.  Maybe this is really what we're trying to teach our students in the Core at Champlain; not mere facts (although we don't avoid them), but the habit of mind to do something with those facts.  So, in this particular instance, I assumed that there was a story behind the choice of the Overture from Tannhauser, which provided the context needed to get at a deeper appreciation of the story.  I didn't have to know the facts, but rather what to do with the facts.  Looks like my students are getting more Proust on Tuesday.

Blood Brother

Here's a picture I actually stumbled across on Facebook.  I've been off FB for all of 2016, and probably will be for 2017 as well, and only briefly rejoined because I needed to check the contact information for a group of American ex-pats in Lisbon.  My goal was to carve off time for writing and other projects, although, of course, it also meant that I ended up devoting more time to Twitter and to the blog itself.  My brief pop in to Facebook reassured me that I'm not missing a thing.  It's amazing how much of FB is nothing more than advertisements and packaged videos and that users swap endlessly (sort of the social media equivalent of a STD).  However, while back for my brief visit I checked to see if most of my friends were still alive, which, thankfully, they are.  When I checked out the Islamic Society of Vermont (one of the groups I follow) page I came across this picture of me giving blood there during a blood drive (and which I casually nicked).

It was one of my first visits to the masjid for Friday prayer.  The vast majority of mosques would not be welcoming to non-Muslims to attend the communal Friday prayers, but, well, Vermont is Vermont, and the ISVT is a wonderfully welcoming environment.  The Imam mentioned that the following Friday they were going to host a blood drive, and he then invited a representative from the local Red Cross to speak.  During the conversation the Imam popped in and pointed out that giving blood counted as charity; that is, charity, or more generally giving back to society, is one of the essential obligations of the faith.  None of us like to give blood, and I remember smiling at the Imam's comments because, even though he was completely telling the truth, he was also very cleverly and gently putting the pressure on everyone to contribute.  At that point one of the brothers raised his hand and asked if they should fast, which was a very natural response to the Imam equating the act of giving blood with an obligation.  The Red Cross official was somewhat taken back, although in a good way, and replied that it would be better if folks did not fast.  It was one of those when worlds collide moments, but in in the best possible way as two groups came to understand each other in pursuit of a laudable goal.

Of course, by the following Friday I had completely forgotten about the blood drive, but decided to stick around anyway to give blood.  This has to be the only existing picture of me giving blood, not simply because, seriously, who has pictures of themselves giving blood, but also because I don't give blood that often.  I'm much more likely to give blood now than before (as recounted below, I have a thing with needles), but I don't have the opportunity to give blood very often.  If you've passed through Africa or India you're not supposed to give blood for an entire year, and it seems that I manage to pass through one or both of these areas every year so I immediately get bumped.  On this particular occasion I knew I was heading off to Zanzibar in a couple weeks and that would start the clock ticking.  I had to tell the Red Cross to stop calling and asking me to give blood for a year, but I'm heading off to India this March, just about the time the Zanzibar year ban is up.  So that will take me through March 2018, when I might conceivably give blood - unless my friend Steve and I end up taking students back to Zanzibar in December 2017 - or Cyndi and I end up putting together a trip to Namibia that March (I think you get the point . . .).

I seem oddly calm.  One of my great early phobias was giving blood, and one of my reasons for forcing myself to give blood, beyond trying to be somewhat useful to society, was to force myself to conquer the fear, which I do by thinking of Marcus Aurelius maxims (which I'm only passably able to do) and my natural ability to fade away (which, as my family and friends can attest, is one of my greatest strengths/weaknesses).

Saturday, September 24, 2016

My Year With Proust - Day 261

   Albertine spoke hardly at all, sensing that my thoughts were elsewhere.  We went a little way on foot into the greenish, almost submarine grotto of a dense grove on the dome of which we heard the wind howl and the rain splash.  I trod underfoot dead leaves which sank into the soil like sea-shells, and poked with my stick at fallen chestnuts prickly as sea-urchins.
   On the boughs of the trees, the last clinging leaves, shaken by the wind, followed it only as far as their stems would allow, but sometimes these broke and they fell to the ground, along which they coursed to overtake it.  I thought joyfully how much more remote still, if this weather lasted, the island would be the next day, and in any case quite deserted.  We returned to our carriage and, as the squall had subsided, Albertine asked me to take her on to Saint-Cloud.  As on the ground the drifting leaves, so up above the clouds were chasing the wind.  And a stream of migrant evenings, of which a sort of conic section cut into the sky made visible the successive layers, pink, blue and green, were gathered in readiness for departure to warmer climes.  To obtain a closer view of a marble goddess who had been carved in the act of springing from her pedestal and, alone in a great wood which seemed to be consecrated to her, filled it with the mythological terror, half animal, half divine, of her frenzied leaps, Albertine climbed a knoll while I waited for her in the road.  She herself, seen thus from below, no longer coarse and plump as a few days earlier on my bed when the grain of her neck appeared under the magnifying glass of my eyes, but delicately chiselled, seemed like a little statue on which our happy hours together at Balbec had led their patina.  When I found myself alone again at home, remembering that I had been for an expedition that afternoon with Albertine, that I was to dine in two days' time with Mme de Guermantes and that I had to answer a letter from Gilberte, three women I had loved, I said to myself that our social existence, like an artist's studio, is filled with abandoned sketches in which we fancied for a moment that we could set down in parchment from our need of a great love, but it did not occur to me that sometimes, if the sketch is not too old, it may happen that we return to it and make of it a wholly different work, and one that is possibly more important than what we had originally planned.
Marcel Proust, The Guermantes Way, pp. 403-404

Proust returns from spending time with Albertine, and reflects upon three different women that he had loved: "When I found myself alone again at home, remembering that I had been for an expedition that afternoon with Albertine, that I was to dine in two days' time with Mme de Guermantes and that I had to answer a letter from Gilberte, three women I had loved, I said to myself that our social existence, like an artist's studio, is filled with abandoned sketches in which we fancied for a moment that we could set down in parchment from our need of a great love, but it did not occur to me that sometimes, if the sketch is not too old, it may happen that we return to it and make of it a wholly different work, and one that is possibly more important than what we had originally planned."  I love his point about our lives, like an artist's studio, being filled with "abandoned sketches," which, specifically, in this instances, deals with the women in his life, but more generally could be thought to speak to our entire life.  Essentially, maybe we need to return to those sketches later, when we're better able to address them.  Not surprisingly, I guess, I found myself thinking about the artist Jan Van Eyck, who either invented oil-based painting or made profound early innovations in oil-based painting, which meant that since the paintings now took a lot longer to dry you could revisit them and devote more time to them; you were better able to appreciate them and, for lack of a better term, "finish" them.  In the case of Van Eyck it meant that he could add extraordinarily fine detail, even down to using single hair brushes.  I just think this is an amazingly apt metaphor.  How often do we throw away our live's "sketches" - our relationships or our projects - not because they are worthless, but because we lack the skill or the knowledge or the maturity or the patience to "finish" them.  Maybe we need to need to remember to more deliberately set aside our sketches, hopefully in a safe place, and not discard them, and then reconsider them when we are better, more experienced artists.  It also makes me think that Albertine is not quite the "abandoned sketch" that Marcel portrays her to be.

Jan Van Eyck's painting of Giovanni Arnolfini, which may or may not be of a wedding, but it is fascinating painting.  Here's a link to a talk from the Khan Academy, which breaks down some of the different parts of the painting.

Twice last week in my first year Concepts of the Self class I had my students grapple with sections from Proust, much to the amazement/horror of my first years (and my colleagues). We're discussing David Linden's The Accidental Mind, and I was nudging my students to consider the complexity of perception and memory.  So, when Proust wrote a paragraph such as, "Albertine spoke hardly at all, sensing that my thoughts were elsewhere.  We went a little way on foot into the greenish, almost submarine grotto of a dense grove on the dome of which we heard the wind howl and the rain splash.  I trod underfoot dead leaves which sank into the soil like sea-shells, and poked with my stick at fallen chestnuts prickly as sea-urchins" it wasn't simply a case of him desperately loving adjectives, but that he actually saw the world in a richer, more detailed, more expansive way.  My students determined that it must have been exhausting to be Proust.