Sunday, January 30, 2011

Six Days

Watching the Egyptians take to the streets of Alexandria and Cairo this week, I am contemplating what people will do to change their lives. And, I wonder if Americans have the strength to change theirs. Do we have what it takes against bullets, tanks, and tear gas? Or maybe it is just as simple as making a commitment to live differently.

Egypt has had years of Hosni Mubarak’s leadership, or lack thereof. Unemployment is very high, and most of the middle class and poor must make do on a few dollars per day. The country is bereft of new ideas, new thinking, of open doors of opportunity. The rest of the world awakens to the burning fa├žade of Egypt’s stability and a populace clamoring for fresh ideas, a new start, and a reformed government.

Doesn’t sound familiar?

The American government is involved in an extended game of tit for tat, Republicans and Democrats. We have our own extremists fringe group, only they’re called the Tea Party. They are obsessed with returning America to the mythological good old days of yore when the Founding Fathers roamed the land enslaving Africans while protecting their own rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Everyone forgets that we are still an imperfect union. That is, paradoxically, what makes America great: we never quit trying to get it right. We never stop working to be the country of our destiny, but lately, the process has slowed considerably, and that has me worried.

I am wondering now if we, you and me and every American, have the strength and willpower to rise up on a personal level and change the way we live to create positive collective change in the life of our nation. Can we awaken the sleeping giant within us and shake off the sloth and stupor of excess and privilege?

This means giving up our luxuries, our self-righteous behavior, our materialism, our strident trumpeting that we are the greatest nation on earth. It means living with less, and inhabiting smaller, quieter lives where we put others’ well-being ahead of our own. Do we have the foresight not to hate others because they are different, or have only recently come to this country to work for a better life? What if they are gay or lesbian? What if their God goes by another name, and their beliefs conflict with ours? Can we do it? Can we overcome our differences? Of this, I wonder.

Being a better country means being better leaders, the end of partisan politics, and making decisions based on what is morally and ethically right. This is the government for the people, and a considerable number of them have been lost in the fray between left and right.

But let’s go one better. Let’s educate like our lives depended upon it. Let’s introduce the right to a free, top-notch education for every American, pre-school through college. Let’s try to exceed our reach, overcome our natural prejudices, and put art and culture on every street and in every school. And let’s make those schools shining beacons on the hill, give teachers respect and a decent salary, and teach our children well. Let’s foster sculpture, painting, dance, music, theatre and imagination. Let’s fire up the American mind, and consider again the mysteries of the universe, the symmetry of mathematics, the poetry of physics. Let’s fly and soar and excel. Let’s be explorers of existence on the ship of our own intellects.

But most important, let’s give our children back their dreams.

I know, a lot of lofty talk. Education is expensive, and we love our big houses and our big cars and our rich lives. But hey, bub, why the emptiness? Why the loneliness? Why the hatred and why the anger? Our lives are okay, change is difficult, and although we are dissatisfied, things are fine as they are, right?

And still, what if?

There are those grainy images of young men in the middle of the night on a street in Cairo, facing down an armored personnel carrier bristling with weaponry. There, but for the grace of God, go I. And I believe our grace is running short in this American life. Too many unemployed, too many denied an education, too little hope, and too much unfocused, nonsensical anger.

There, but for the grace of God, go I.
Tonight, I sit in my study, in my warm home, in my middle class neighborhood. There are at least a few cold, dark homes locked in foreclosure on my block, and shadowy figures rummage for cans and bottles in the trash cans outside in the street. We are all waiting for hope to return.

Meanwhile, across the world and ten hours into the future from my time zone, Egyptians huddle in the dark, scared, anxious, yet determined, waiting for a new day to dawn.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Speechifying

I found myself struggling to stay focused last night during President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address. Lots of words, some tepid applause, and not a lot of inspiration. He said some things about jobs and spending and education, but I felt as if I had heard it all before, and some of it he did not fulfill the first time he promised to change things.

Clearly, President Obama feels corporate, big business, and banking industry pain. He is also sympathetic to Wall Street. He did address middle class suffering, and vaguely alluded to the poor. Jobs came up a number of times. But the line that hit me in the first part of the speech was this one: “Corporate profits are up.” Yes, they are, even as they laid off employees, slashed benefits, and shipped jobs overseas. In theory, a corporation does not elect a president. I know that a corporation does donate a lot of money to a candidate’s coffers. Still, I would like to hear that the average middle class American’s profits are up. I would like to hear that fewer people are living below the poverty line.

I am also continually upset with President Obama, and nearly every talking head in education today, trumpeting a “greater emphasis on math and science.” The president went on to say that “The quality of our math and science education lags behind many other nations. America has fallen to ninth in the proportion of young people with a college degree,” and that America is “the home to the world’s best colleges and universities, where more students come to study than any place on earth.” Simply pushing math and science will not cut it. We need an emphasis on intellectualism across the board. We need more work in math, science, history, English, the social sciences, languages, literature, reading, music, art, and theatre, and all of it taught by teachers and administrators who model ethical, moral, and values-based behavior. We do have the best universities in the world, yet many of our own American students cannot get into them because they lack the foundation in core subjects necessary to compete at the college level. The president mentioned his work to make college affordable, but for struggling middle class and the poor, saving for college is an extreme hardship, and students go into significant debt to secure a degree. He is not trying hard enough. College should be free to all those Americans who qualify.

I felt his words about teachers were condescending, and this from a man who used to be a law professor. “Here in America,” he said, “it’s time we treated the people who educate our children with the same level of respect.” That is a nice sentiment, but he is the president who wants to base teacher performance on standardized test scores, and who advocates sending money to schools based on those scores. He has rubber stamped much of former President Bush’s No Child Left Behind legislation, which even its own architects say was a failure. Those scores are not the only picture of a successful education, and it is a bald, pathetic attempt to quantify education like bottles of beer on a brewery line. We need to know if we are filling our children’s minds up to the proper level. Who cares if they are simply being taught to the test! The education of a human mind cannot be measured concretely. Ingenuity, innovation, experience, wisdom—you will not find these on any standardized test, but you will find them in classrooms led by fiery teachers on a mission to educate and empower young people.

The most condescending line about teaching was this one: “If you want to make a difference in the life of our nation; if you want to make a difference in the life a child—become a teacher. Your country needs you.” Just not enough to pay you a decent wage or give you job security. America does not respect its teachers. We live with the attitude that “those who can’t, teach.” If President Obama is serious about encouraging the best and the brightest to go into education, then make college educations free for those who qualify and pay teachers a decent wage. Furthermore, raise them to place of esteem in our culture. And by the way, being a teacher is not for everyone. It is not a job, but a calling, a vocation. People who become teachers must be able to fire young minds to think and create, and if you believe just anybody can do this, you are mistaken. No license or credential can make you a teacher. Great teachers are born that way, and although degrees and credentials might help improve a teacher’s craft, the ability and passion must be there from the start.

President Obama is not a man known for his jokes. However, like many presidents before him, he is the master of the unintentional joke. Here’s one: “Within 25 years, our goal is to give 80 percent of Americans access to high-speed rail. This could allow you to go places in half the time it takes to travel by car. For some trips, it will be faster than flying…” Really, Mr. President. This is what you have to offer us in new technology and innovation in the years to come? Twenty-five years to come, to be specific?

Japan launched the first high speed rail line in 1964. President Obama has promised us the astounding feat of bringing 46 year old technology to our city very soon, or a quarter century from now depending on where you live. And it will take us places in half the time of automobile travel. Wow. Does it come with a jet pack and a secret decoder ring? This is our “Sputnik moment?!” We went to the moon! We bettered Sputnik and the Russians. That was our “Apollo moment,” and there will be more of them if we can find leaders with passion and vision to take us there.

Driving in heavy traffic today on the west side of Los Angeles, I could not help laughing. Some day, I’ll be able to take a very fast train to work for low pay and no respect as a teacher sunk in student loan debt while corporate America counts its profits and two branches of our government are gridlocked over how to cut taxes for people who make as much as small countries every year without manufacturing a thing and simply manipulating the stock market. That is the state of this union.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Angry Russians: Sergei Eisenstein's October

History On Film Film On History: History, Concepts, Theories and Practice
By Robert A. Rosenstone Pearson Longman
$39.20 paper
ISBN: 978-0-582-50584-4


October: Ten Days That Shook The World
Dir. Sergei Eisenstein
Sovinko; $24.99, DVD

Sergei Eisenstein, according to Robert Rosenstone in his book, History On Film Film On History, was one of the first to use film to convey history and foundation myths. His work in the film, October: Ten Days That Shook The World, demonstrates his ground-breaking artistry utilizing “a kind of montage that helped him to construct epic works which promoted the twin-edged theme of the masses entering history and history entering the masses.”

He also uses camera angles to indicate the power of a character or the chaos of a street riot. His film is a recreation of the Bolshevik Revolution, completed ten years after the historic event. To audiences, the film could be labeled propaganda, but Eisenstein is brilliant in the way he uses his camera to tell a rich and intense story. Rosenstone marvels at his ability to use “humour, repetition, visual metaphor, mini-essays, the poetry of movement” to convey the story. “October manages to provide an overall interpretation of its subject that is not so different from those argued by major historians of the revolution.”

The opening image in the film is the pulling down of the statue of Alexander III, emperor of Russia. The symbol of a statue of a failed leader being destroyed is a recurring motif in film, literature and even real life. The scene is an obvious influence on Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet (1996) which ends with the pulling down of King Hamlet’s iron image outside the gates of Elsinore. Even in the waning days of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, there is the well-known film of the American military and Iraqi civilians pulling down his statue on the streets of Baghdad. The citizens of Iraq willingly assist in the destruction, and strike the fallen idol with their shoes to demonstrate their hatred and disgust. In the absence of the deposed leader to tear limb from limb, Eisenstein uses the symbolism of destroying the statue to represent the people’s feelings.

Eisenstein’s intent in the film is not entertainment but to recast the drama and recreate a version of historical events. Rosenstone writes: “Through a refusal to focus on individuals, radical editing techniques (four times as many cuts as in the standard film of the time), and overt visual metaphors (a screen full of raised sickles represents the peasantry; raised rifles stand in for the army; turning wheels mean a motorcycle brigade; a statue being torn down indicates the fall of the Czar; the same statue reassembling itself suggests the provisional government has taken over the role of Czar), a work like October clearly reveals that it is constructing rather than reflecting a particular vision of the past.”

The historical relevance of this is that October, while not history per se, allows us to see the dream life of the people. The revolution is filtered through the camera lens and subjected to the manipulations of fiction. The film is history and fiction, containing some historical accuracy while capturing the emotional point of view of memory and reflection. We see a version of what happened and the way an artist like Eisenstein interprets the event.

Eisenstein uses jump cuts and hand-held cameras to convey the jittery excitement of documentary film making. He also uses a wealth of visual symbols to convey character and ideas. His influence on modern film makers is evident here as well, with one example being Barry Levinson’s 1990 film, Avalon. In that film, Levinson utilizes fast motion filming techniques that give the impression of early cinema and newsreel, yet he photographed in color with modern film stock.

Rosenstone tells us that: “October can only make arguments about the past the way a film can make arguments: through visual, dramatic, symbolic, metaphoric and fictional forms. Like any work of history, October will use traces of evidence from a vanished world as a basis for staging, or creating, a representation of that world in the present. As a film, it will deliver to us a world in a narrative, a story of people, events, moments, or movements of the past in an effort to make them meaningful to us in the present.” The danger in this effort to create a deeper meaning in historical events is that people see the film and adopt that version as history.

Eisenstein’s film succeeds as propaganda and in telling an interesting story in a compelling manner. But Rosenstone warns us that “The subtext of each suggests that film is not a proper medium for telling us about the past…Any film maker knows that facts can never speak for themselves. We have to speak for them.”

The strength of filmic history lies in the image. For better or worse, fiction or history, we are there, transported into the moment when the world changed. However, we must never forget that we are examining the world, the events, as seen through the vision of the film maker, in this case, Sergei Eisenstein. Although his film offers an intense, graphic, and compelling version of history, the clear light of historical accuracy in October might still be elusive.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Key To Education Reform: Know Your Schools

There is the story that to improve or reform education in this country, we must track standardized test scores, fire teachers, spend more money, spend less money, end the layers of bureaucracy, add more administrators, abolish credentials and licenses or make them more difficult to get, issue vouchers and privatize public schools or turn every school into a charter school.

There are the hair-brained schemes of idiots and the solid ideas from veteran teachers and people with common sense who know and understand that improving education means challenging students and holding them accountable while teaching like the fate of the world depends on it, because it does. Ethics, morals, values, history, languages, cultures, sciences, mathematics, physical fitness, music, art, acting, theatre arts, writing, poetry, imagination, religion, philosophy, political science, geography, spelling, grammar, literature, ideas—teach it all, teach it all, teach it all. Teach our children well and let God take care of the rest.

But the questions continue to haunt us: how do we do this? What makes a good school, a good teacher? How do we give our kids a life of the mind, a chance to excel, the opportunity to grow and learn and realize their dreams?

Recently, I’ve started writing a blog for the website LocalSchoolDirectory.com. The creator of the site, a former student of mine, believes that there should be a resource for parents, teachers, and students that brings together public and private school information from the U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center For Education Statistics, demographical data, and information from the schools themselves whose administrators, teachers, and parents can submit the material directly to the editors. He envisions a clearinghouse of education data that allows everyone, for no charge or spam, to access the information and use it to better our children’s education, and make informed choices about where we send our children to learn.

And what a wealth of information this site contains.

The homepage has a listing of the largest cities and districts with the total number of schools; links to articles on K-12 education; recent education news; and lesson plans that can be searched by grade level or subject. There is also my humble blog contribution to the enterprise.

Once a visitor has found a school, he can look at an overview/description, school reviews, enrollment figures, test scores, lists of alumni, a calendar, nearby schools, libraries and tutors, maps, and school contact details. One can even search for homes in the school’s neighborhood with a link to HomeGain.

The main site boasts no agenda. The editors simply put the data from more than 130,000 schools into properly organized and easily searchable files.

If one is looking for good schools in America, public or private, this site is an excellent place to start that search. It may also help people steer clear of poorly performing schools, but they must know how to analyze the data.

To that end, my first blog post is called “5 Things To Know When Picking a School For Your Child.” I break down the essential factors that might separate a good school from a troubled one.

In the future, I will be filing stories twice a week discussing the latest developments in American education, the on-going process of reform, and an analysis of trends and culture regarding life in the classroom.

To change education in this country for the better, we all must take a role. Parents, teachers, students, and administrators are the obvious stakeholders, to use a current buzzword. But a good education in America should be the concern for every person living in this country. We are only as smart as the best student in the class. We all know that, and through this knowledge, we can extrapolate that better schools, tougher standards, and innovative, intelligent, savvy, resilient students only make us all better and our lives richer.

I invite you to drop over to LocalSchoolDirectory.com and crunch the numbers and read the stats. Look up your child’s current school. Revisit your high school as an alumni. In short, know your schools.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Wasteland 2.0

The Wasteland: Authoritative Text, Contexts, Criticism
By T.S. Eliot; Edited by Michael North
Norton Critical Editions, $13.75 paper
ISBN: 978-0-393-97499-7


The pleasure of reading T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland is the horror of the epiphany. If this sounds paradoxical, it is. How can a poem written and published 89 years ago say something about the way we live now? And what is the pleasure of reading something that should scare us? If pleasure means instigating an emotional response, a catharsis, then Eliot’s poem offers pleasure even in the face of its horror.

The poem is frightening, sprawling, prophetic, historical, confusing, elliptical, dangerous, even sexual, but also, as Conrad Aiken points out, incoherent. F.R. Leavis counters Aiken by saying Eliot’s “touch with which he manages his difficult transitions, his delicate collocations, is exquisitely sure. His tone…exhibits a perfect control.”

For the record, I agree with I.A. Richards who finds the poem “a music of ideas.” Or Leavis when he says, “the seeming disjointedness” reflects “the present state of civilization.” I can validate Delmore Schwartz paraphrasing E.M. Forster “that Eliot was one who looked into the abyss and refused henceforward to deny or forget the fact.”

Eliot writes about his world—post-Great War England, pre-Great Depression. This is a world awakening to genocide and murderous weapons of mass destruction, an age of social upheaval and the beginning of the rise of the military-industrial complex, although that term would not be invented until the end of the Eisenhower administration.

Eliot’s Wasteland is a hallucinatory, nightmarish, parallel universe mired in drought, observed by the Greek blind prophet, Tiresias, and ruled by the Fisher King who has failed in his quest for the Grail and cannot redeem himself. Death haunts the inhabitants: “Your shadow at morning striding behind you,” Eliot writes in the first section, “The Burial of the Dead,” “Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you.” Throughout the life cycle, Death is a constant companion.

Life in the Wasteland is fractured and fragmented, haunted by strange noises and cloaked figures who are “wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded.” The various ghosts who wander through the poem lead empty, disconnected lives: Lil, the prostitute; the woman who sits in the “burnished throne”; sweet Ophelia whom we hear only en voce; the aforementioned Tiresias with his “wrinkled female breasts”; Phlebas, the sailor, whom “a current under sea / Picked his bones in whispers”; and a host of others.

However, the horrific pleasure of reading The Wasteland is found in its relevance to our times. This is The Wasteland 2.0. In Eliot’s disturbing prism, we see our own fractured existence: the horrors of war; the bloodshed and violence on our streets; the victimization of children (what if Lil were a twelve-year old child?); the fear and loneliness of daily life (we live in an age of instant communication with nothing to say!); the rise of technology and the digital frontier; and above all, the specter of the terrorist with a bomb strapped to his chest, willing to annihilate himself and everyone else for his beliefs. In an eerily prophetic section entitled, “What the Thunder Said,” he writes:

What is that sound high in the air
Murmur of maternal lamentation
Who are those hooded hordes swarming
Over endless plains, stumbling in cracked earth
Ringed by the flat horizon only
What is the city over mountains
Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air
Falling towers
Jerusalem Athens Alexandria
Vienna London
Unreal


As I read the passage, I could not escape the vision of those towers falling that day and the panicked people running for their lives through the streets of a new Jerusalem, the New York City of September 11th, 2001.

Contrary to what some critics have written, Thomas Stearns Eliot ends his poem on a positive note: “Shantih shantih shantih,” the formal conclusion of an Upanishad, “The peace which passeth understanding.”

Eliot’s last line of hope did not come to fruition. Wars and bloodshed, bombings and fragmentation continued throughout the twentieth century. We, here in the morning of the twenty-first century, shiver with recognition of our own world rendered in The Wasteland. However, we also expect, against all evidence to the contrary, that the wished for peace will come to us. Pity human civilization if our children and grandchildren continue to wake up each day and find that God is dead, the world has not changed, and April is still the “cruellest month.”


Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Pleasure [and Displeasure] of the Text

The Pleasure of the Text
By Roland Barthes; Trans. by Richard Miller
Hill and Wang, $12.00 paper
ISBN: 978-0-374-52160-8


In this slim volume, the late Roland Barthes discusses the pleasure of reading. He is one of the foremost literary critics of the twentieth century, a writer mentioned alongside other noted intellectuals like Jacques Derrida, Philippe Sollars, psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, and in America, Susan Sontag. No problem there, but difficulties do arise when we discuss his language.

Bathes writes in French, delineating the kinds of pleasure inspired by reading. Mainly, he categorizes reading that gives pleasure and reading that creates bliss. The reader demands pleasure from the reading, but these demands rooted in popular culture are limiting. “We cannot get beyond an abridged, two-tense dialectics,” he writes, “the tense of doxa, opinion, and the tense of paradoxa, dispute.” To move beyond these two tenses is nearly impossible. Texts of pleasure never quite come to fruition; and bliss, Barthes equates to orgasm. Inherent in this is the language difficulty because there is an incongruity of terms in translation from French to English. A literal translation of terms would make for some embarrassing reading. Our only hope to move beyond the limits of culture is to include what he calls, “writing aloud,” a significance “carried not by dramatic inflections, subtle stresses, sympathetic accents, but by the grain of the voice, which is an erotic mixture of timbre and language, and can therefore also be, along with diction, the substance of an art.” Are you with me so far?

To be fair, Barthes takes a number of paragraphs to make his distinctions clear. Good books inspire pleasure in their reading. In truly divine literature, the reader finds a sensual experience, a communion between writer and reader, a bridging between two minds outside of space and time that knows no barriers. I can read a novel by Tolstoy written one hundred years ago and set in a land I’ve never seen, and I feel it, smell it, taste it as if I am there in Russia, transported, mind, body and soul. When this happens, this confluence of writer and reader, the two entities become one, much like the joining of two bodies in the act of intercourse, and the conjoined create the experience of the novel together.

Barthes is careful to define his orgasmic reading from the merely titillating. He writes, “So-called ‘erotic’ books…represent not so much the erotic scene as the expectation of it, the preparation for it, its ascent…naturally there is disappointment, deflation. In other words, these are books of Desire, not of Pleasure.”

Even taking into account the vagaries of language and Barthes’ status as a philosopher-critic, I still cannot buy this pleasure-bliss distinction. Yes, reading can incite pleasure in the reader. Good writing can elicit an emotional response with sensory imagery. I am often blissful when reading, lost to all other conversations and responsibilities. But orgasmic? I think not.

I also struggle with Barthes’ thicket of vocabulary and syntax. For example, he writes, “To identify accurately language’s image-reservoirs, to wit: the word as singular unit, magic monad; speech as instrument or expression of thought; writing as transliteration of speech; the sentence as a logical, closed measure; the very deficiency or denial of language as a primary, spontaneous, pragmatic force.”

Or, “The text you write must prove to me that it desires me. This proof exists: it is writing. Writing is: the science of the various blisses of language, its Kama Sutra (this science has but one treatise: writing itself).”

Sure. Let me parse the verbiage, Mr. Barthes. I will need some strong verbicide and a machete. The man does love colons while carrying on a pretty torrid affair with semi-colons as well.

As I wrote in my post, “The Critical I,” if we expect literary criticism to be pulled at the last moment from the dust bin of history, the writing of such criticism must be lucid and accessible to all readers. This does not mean lowering standards to a “thumbs-up” or “thumbs-down” critical analysis, but we cannot indulge obtusical writers (it’s my word, I own it!) like Barthes anymore. This essay is in the best tradition of “mental masturbation,” as Woody Allen phrased it in one of his films, twisting this way and that and then doubling back on itself in a flagrant display of synaptic gymnastics. But who am I to argue with one of the great literary critics of history. For him, this kind of mental pleasuring of oneself might just get him to the blissful moment of a reading climax he most intensely desires. The rest of us will have to do it the old-fashioned way.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

In the Realm of the Spiritual

What does it mean to live a spiritual life?

Last week, I attended a lecture presented by Helen and Alexander Astin, co-authors of a recent book called Cultivating The Spirit: How College Can Enhance Students’ Lives. The thrust of the presentation was that according to the authors’ reams of research, today’s college students crave the spiritual in their lives. This cuts across organized religion, lifestyles, and ethnicities. That’s right: even Atheists and Agnostics desire a connection to the spiritual.

I had occasion to reflect on this research this weekend with the events in Arizona, where a young, vibrant, intelligent congresswoman nearly lost her life, and a host of others did lose theirs, in a shooting rampage by a mentally deranged man. The youngest victim was just nine years old.

With all the challenges we face, maybe people are starting to return to a search for the deeper meanings of existence. When human life can be extinguished in an instant, we must come to an understanding about what it means to be alive and why life is a gift we are given for all too brief a moment. How do we make the best use of this gift?

Organized religion offers a guide for the spiritual life, but it is by no means the only method to arrive at a deeply spiritual existence. If anything, religion is a framework, a template to guide us in our search. A truly spiritual life comes from within, from knowing ourselves and who we are, of realizing the importance of the human connection, of what it means to love someone even as we love ourselves.

People need to know there is something more than a random world. A life span of seventy-five years is nothing in the ions of time. What difference can a single person make with his years that will have an impact on human history? We cannot all be Shakespeare or Einstein. The answer is the ripple effect. A small stone tossed into a pond leaves ripples emanating out in concentric circles until the entire surface is affected. Yes, a large rock will do this more quickly, but even the smallest pebble causes a ripple. Our lives do have resonance beyond the immediate. There is something more, and that is what we must continue to search for within the need for a spiritual connection. We do matter, every one of us.

I imagine that gunman in Arizona sitting in a jail cell somewhere knowing with terrible certainty that he matters. He has the entire country’s attention. He took lives. How can we live a deeper, more meaningful and spiritual existence when such people walk among us and seem to work against our efforts to make the world better?

During the Holocaust of the Second World War, many Jewish people lost their faith in the camps. They were haunted by the questions. Where was God in the Holocaust? How could He abandon his Chosen People in their moment of most dire need? There are all manner of theological and philosophical answers to those questions.

In this world, there is good and evil. One cannot exist without the other. To ask how God would allow a Holocaust to occur to his people is to miss the point. Many twentieth century writers give the answer in their novels: man’s inhumanity to man. People committed the Holocaust, and the only thing God did was give us the freedom of choice. And for those who say God does not exist, then we were simply created with the power to choose, but any way you look at the situation, man chooses to abuse another, just as he can choose not to shoot, beat, hate, or condemn his brother or sister.

Spirituality is about that. It is about the deeper lessons of our experiences. Life does transcend us. That is the power of it. We occupy this earth for a brief time before handing it off to others to continue for us. This is reflected in nature—the leaves that fall in October die, but they fertilize the new growth the following spring. And that growth will die as well the next fall. Spirituality is about recognizing the cyclical nature of things, and that the travails of our days are all part and parcel of human existence. In the end, what means more is the interconnectedness of all things, the way we live, and what we leave behind.

A great man named Marcus Aurelius wrote: “Forget everything else. Keep hold of this alone and remember it: each of us lives now, this brief instant.” He goes on to say that “Everything’s destiny is to change, to be transformed, to perish. So that new things can be born.”

We will die, of that we can be certain. The seasons will change, and night will fall. Many, many days, our efforts will come to nothing, and we will feel as if we wasted daylight in the pursuit of loneliness.

But take heart.

The soul of us, the spirit, belongs to all life, all existence. The tiny leaf we carry within us, when the body dies, will rejoin the great glorious river of existence. To quote dear Robert Frost: “In three words, I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: it goes on.”

The spirit we carry transcends history, the deeds of men, natural disasters, bullets and blood. The life of the spiritual is the realization that we go on long after we cease to breath the fire and our mortal essence decays to the dust from which it first congealed. In every turn of the world, we live.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Critical I

Last Sunday’s The New York Times Book Review deftly deconstructed the state of modern literary criticism. Just who is it that book reviewers write for these days? The collection of essays on the subject from a diverse group of intellectual writers takes inspiration from Alfred Kazin’s “The Function of Criticism Today,” published in the journal, Commentary, in 1960.

In this space, I have reviewed a fair number of books. I love to read, and consider myself more reader than writer. It began as an escape, a way of avoiding the rage and oppression I felt at home as a child. In books, I was not me, probably the biggest attraction. I could live other lives and experience other ways of existing, and that got me to the library every two weeks for my parcel of books which I then poured through neglecting my homework and other obligations, much to the chagrin of my parents. They were powerless to stop me.

When I started this blog years ago, I wanted to write about two things: my reading life and my teaching life. Those topics have broadened out quite a bit to include personal experience, cultural critique, and politics. I am probably most at home telling a story, but I love to read and I love to discuss what I am reading. That is why I became a teacher, or at least one of the reasons. I remember opening a book of Joan Didion essays years ago and falling on the sharp sword of her line: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” I was impaled permanently. I loved the stories of how we lived; I loved writing them and analyzing them.

However, who reads my reviews and what purpose do they serve? By far, the most popular posts have been ones about teaching, the methodology of grading papers and student writing. So why don’t I give up on the reviews? I find reading much more exciting than teaching methods or classroom ideas. Those things come from learning how to communicate a text or concept. But reading is my life. It underpins everything I am, everything I believe, and every action I take. I am, at heart, more student than teacher, which I have come to believe is the way it should be.

But back to the matter at hand: who is reading criticism these days? More importantly, what purpose does literary criticism serve?

The basic situation nearly every critic addresses in The New York Times essays is the democratizing of book reviews today, with sites like Amazon allowing readers to upload their take on a particular book, competing against the declining number of publications that still publish professional reviews. Literally, anyone, with any agenda or prejudice, can publish a book review somewhere. In Kazin’s day, professional book reviewers were an elite group, duly deputized as cultural arbiters of good literature and bad. And these writers could influence the sales of a particular book.

Stephen Burn, a professor at Northern Michigan University writes, “…while the kind of critic that preoccupied Kazin—one who writes for the public, ‘lives in literature’ and tries to create standards—now finds her function revised by technological changes that have reconfigured an audience that was once atomized by America’s urban sprawl.” Burn cites one of the best cultural critics on reading in an electronic age, Sven Birkerts, when he lists the “losses that a reader in the electronic millennium would suffer: divorce from historical consciousness, a fragmented sense of time, [and] a loss of deep concentration.” Birkerts’ book, The Gutenberg Elegies, was the first to really sound the alarm about the death of reading many years before our current crisis.

Katie Roiphe finds fault with the critics, themselves, in her essay. She is a professor at New York University. According to her, “critics have always been a grandstanding, depressive and histrionic bunch.” Her prescription for what ails the dearth of true, important criticism: critics must write better and more beautifully. “Now, maybe more than ever,” she writes, “in a cultural desert characterized by the vast, glimmering territory of the Internet, it is important for the critic to write gracefully…the critic has one important function: to write well.” I like this idea, however, the critic also must have something to say that brings readers to the table. Pretty words alone do not make a writer relevant.

The New Yorker writer, Adam Kirsch, eloquently argues that criticism is its own literary genre, like short fiction or poetry. “Novelists interpret experience through the medium of plot and character,” he tells us, “poets through the medium of rhythm and metaphor, and critics through the medium of other texts.” Our job as critics, therefore, is to write about writers writing. He goes on to say that “a serious critic is one who says something true about life and the world.” I would broaden that definition out to include all forms of art: the critic must say something truthful and important about not only art, but the state of humanity and culture. If that is not happening, maybe we have found the reason criticism has become less popular and relevant. So how do we make criticism important and necessary reading? We must address the critical analysis of literature to the larger critique of culture and society, because, as Kirsch tells us, “thinking about literature eventually means thinking about society and politics,” and “the study of literature gives you the best vantage point from which to understand an entire society.”

Could all this talk of the death of print journalism, the end of meaningful criticism and discussion of literature, be just more histrionics on the part of typewriter-dinosaurs? Sam Anderson thinks so. “[E]very era in the history of humanity has lamented the rise of whatever technology it happened to see the rise of,” he says with an awkward flourish. He does have a sense of humor about things, though. He thinks the increased competition for a reader’s attention “should prevent critics…from producing the kind of killingly dull reviews that seem intended for someone trapped in a bus shelter during a giant rainstorm, circa 1953.” He goes on to say that “We have to work harder to justify our presence on the page…This means writing with more energy, more art, more conviction, more excitement and a deeper sense of personal investment.” Yeah, we need to care about what we are writing about, and make connections to current events and culture. It is a fundamental rule of writing that if it is an exercise for the writer, it will be a chore for the reader. I certainly have seen enough of that kind of irrelevant writing in the classroom. Anderson gets in another great line when he talks about the calming effects of reading. He calls it “textual healing,” without offending Marvin Gaye fans. “If I’m in a wretched mood,” he writes, “feeling oppressed by the world, I can go off with a book for an hour and suddenly be myself again.” He invokes Ezra Pound: “Man reading should be man intensely alive. The book should be a ball of light in one’s hand.” Leave it to Pound; he could be mentally unstable, but he appreciated a good ball of light.

The last writer featured is Elif Batuman, a relatively young critic living in Istanbul, Turkey. She poetically sums up why we read literature, and by connection, why we should read criticism. “Much as there are things about our own life stories that we can learn only from the systematic study of our dreams,” she writes, “there are things about the human condition that we can learn only from a systematic study of literature.”

The section closes with a series of snippets from the important literary critics of history, including Kazin, T.S. Eliot, Matthew Arnold, and Randall Jarrell, among others. Of all the people writing about literature, and by cross pollination, society and culture, Alfred Kazin has few equals. I have read and loved his words for decades, and I treasure his volume of essays, Writing Was Everything (1995). “Any critic who is any good is going to write out of a profound inner struggle between what has been said and what must be, the values he is used to and those which presently exist, between the past and the present out of which the future must be born.” He wrote those words in 1960, and they are as important today as ever.

Should literary criticism disappear, or worse, be ignored as irrelevant, we, the people would be poorer, suffering the pangs of abject poverty not of the wallet, but of the soul. Keep reading, I say, and keep talking and writing about it in beautiful, important, and challenging words. It is our only defense against a darker world.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Ringing It In*

It has been a cold and rainy New Year’s here in Los Angeles, a lot colder than normal. Today and overnight, we will see snow in places where it hasn’t snowed in twenty years. This is a perfect way to start 2011: cold, wet and blustery out while we are safe, warm and contemplative inside our homes. I am probably a lot more prone to sit in the dark and think than most people.

Periodically in history, the American people have had to stop and rethink their lives. The Great Depression was one such point. Post-Second World War was another, as was the era when the Cold War ended. The last one, when the Berlin Wall finally fell, I think we turned inward as a nation. There were no exterior threats, so Americans began to think about what they could do to make their lives better than ever. Unfortunately, many of us focused on materialistic pursuits featuring greed and ostentatious excess. I don’t mean this to sound like a lecture, and that is not my purpose for writing. There was lots of misery in the first half of the twentieth century. It is not a criticism to say that Americans began thinking of giving their children better lives than they had. Somewhere along the way, however, we went over the top. Life in America meant road-hogging SUVs, all-you-can-eat buffets, and popping antacids to ease the stomach ache of our success. Wall Street and the housing bubble, unemployment, jobs sent overseas, and the end of American ingenuity all roll into a real desperate situation in our country as we ease into 2011.

So we must rethink our behavior, our mode of operation. We must ask ourselves, what is most important. Our kids can, and should, handle a little adversity. Challenges are good, even if they knock us on our ass. Self-esteem has a way of rebounding, and even becoming stronger when a person faces down an obstacle. For a moment, we can assume that Junior will survive without the latest video game or fastest computer.

The good news is that what is wrong with us is still internal. We are our own worst enemy. We need to fix our infrastructure and rebuild highways and public works. In a country where almost everyone has access to the internet, why are people still hungry? Why, even with President Obama’s health care legislation, which the new Congress will try to overturn, must people make a choice between seeing a doctor and picking up a prescription or eating for the week? Why must we still worry that Social Security will collapse, or that Medicare will go bankrupt? School districts cannot educate students effectively, nor find the strength and leadership to set course for the future. In my own city, there are many prominent political pundits, including a former mayor, who believe the city and possibly the state may go out of business. The entire American way of life seems stymied and constipated, much like the average American’s digestive system after the holidays.

According to one of former President Bill Clinton’s closest advisors, the gap between the rich and the poor will only widen in the new year. “What will happen to the US economy in 2011?” Robert Reich asks in the Huffington Post. “If you’re referring to profits of big corporations and Wall Street, next year is likely to be a good one. But if you’re referring to average American workers, far from good.” Reich goes on to say that unemployment, especially long term joblessness will plague the economy, as will the housing market and consumer confidence. “In other words,” he says, “whether 2011 is a great year economically depends which economy you’re in—the one that’s rising with the profits of big business and Wall Street, or the one that will continue to struggle with few jobs and lousy wages.” We must find a way to put people to work. Roosevelt’s New Deal Redux, anyone?

The key to improving the US economy, I believe, is education. If we educate our children better, our ingenuity and innovation will return. Instead of attacking teachers or unions, we must put aside the bickering and blaming and focus on what is important: the education of our children. Teachers, we must teach—every moment of every day. Increase the school year and reverse the recent trend of shaving days off the calendar to save money. We have one of the lowest number of school days per year of industrialized nations. Bump it up to 220-230 days a year from the dismal 180. Blow open the doors of our public universities and allow anyone to attend for free if they meet the grade standards. Stop handing out inflated grades and get down to the business at hand. Becoming an innovator, an intelligent human being, takes work. It is not assembly line work, or chopping down trees, but it requires painstaking diligence and the utmost effort. To hell with self-esteem. If a student doesn’t measure up, it is time to ask why and then deliver the proper verdict. In America, we rise to the occasion. We achieve, often against insurmountable obstacles. How are we serving our children if we do not teach them this most precious of American values? Resilience is key. Effort is compulsory.

The bottom line is that America has lost its mind-life. We have no intellectual growth in this country. We have become so enthralled with our iPads, 4G phones, and technical gadgetry that we have forgotten that those things are machines. They are only as smart as the people who use them. And stop talking about technology replacing the book. That codex has been around for millennia. It is not a question of, “Will the book disappear?” My question is, will anybody read what is in the book or on the iPad? In an era when information is at our fingertips in quantities our ancestors only dreamed of, why aren’t we smarter? Why are our brains turning to mush? Simply reason: we are in love with the bright lights and shiny excess of our things. We have fallen in love with how the cell phone looks rather than the ability to talk to people around the world and dialogue about something meaningful. All this communication equipment, and nothing to say: how sad is that?

I don’t fall into Robert Reich’s view of things. Yes, I have my share of doom and gloom moments, but I believe in the human mind and the need to better oneself. However, like those endless TV ads, if you don’t act now, you will lose out. This must be the year we rethink who we are and who we wish to be. We must set goals and get back to bettering the human condition. We must find us in the electronic forest and redefine our intelligence and morality. This is not about being Republican or Democrat, young or old, black or white, gay or straight. It is about being human and spiritual and intelligent. It is about how we wish to live this year, and in all the years to come.

*Check out what Robert Reich said today (1-3-11) about our current economic condition.