Over the past three weeks I’ve flitted across nine of these United States (Washington, Michigan, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, and California).
I’m currently in the Honnold/Mudd Library (of the Claremont Colleges), having procrastinated on sporcle.com (the geography quizzes are my DOC…I can now name all the countries of Africa) for at least an hour, loathing myself. And all the college students said, “Amen.”
It’s my last semester of formal study for the foreseeable future. This semester, the to-do list looks something like this (in no particular order):
-Get real A’s in both classes. The grading scale in graduate school equates A, A-, B+, and B- with the traditional A, B, C, and D, respectively; those with any intention of applying for a Ph.D. program, take note.
-Pass the Latin exam. Otherwise, no degree for me. My frugal choice to study on my own instead of taking a class means my success depends on self-discipline. Lord, have mercy.
-Make school a priority while also working at my part-time job as much as possible. I have heretofore found it impossible to both work my max of 20 hours per week while also completing my reading in a manner which befits a graduate scholar of English literature.
-Get a real job for post-grad life. With graduation looming, so are my loans, three close friends’ weddings over the summer, not to mention living expenses. WHERE I’ll be living depends on the job, but hopefully Claremont or Seattle.
I began the semester by reading Minima Moralia by Theodor Adorno (for the class, “Style of Theory”) and Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (for the class “American Novel post-1945). I also discovered the fantasy and fairy tale section of the library (directions to which read like something out of a fairy tale: on the seventh level of the stacks, in the most southeastern corner, there are six shelves of wonder), and so I also read Lois Lowry’s The Giver and C.S. Lewis’ Voyage of the Dawn Treader.
For those of you who have yet to read (or hear of) Adorno (like I was until last week), he is a mastermind. A German Jew exiled during WWII, he wrote Minima Moralia as an attempt to grapple with questions about life after the Third Reich. What does philosophy–the search for truth, meaning, and humanity–look like after the atrocities committed by the Nazis? It was Adorno who famously asked if there can be poetry after Auschwitz. Heavily influenced by Marx and Hegel, Adorno confronts not only the dehumanizing effects of Fascism, but also of Capitalism’s attempt to commodify everything. A bourgeois intellectual himself, he attempts to justify his existence as distinct from the proletariat against the language and practices of Nazi Germany. Embittered at life in Los Angeles and the anti-intellectual snobbery of Americans, he insists that the simple speech so prized in this country is stupid–that complex thought requires complex speech, and anything less is conformity to the language of commerce and thus dehumanizing. Throughout the book, which is utterly and completely worth the time it takes to read (Adorno refuses to allow you to read quickly. Reading for comprehension, I had to slow to the speed at which I would read aloud–and did, in fact, read much of it aloud), Adorno writes some of the most striking, witty, brilliant, and radical lines, including the famous, “Every work of art is an uncommitted crime.”
The discipline of reading slowly is not something easily attained. And yet, one cannot grapple with important ideas without it. That’s why I laced my reading of Minima Moralia with children’s books instead of pushing through without paying close attention. While all of this sounds rather noble and competent, I’ve also, unfortunately, filled my days with watching movies.
Perhaps some of you know that the easiest way to live as a nomad is to remain as numb as possible. What I mean is, moving around the country is a recipe for heartbreak, and the easiest solution is to limit attachment to anyone. Me, I love people in Seattle, Claremont, Azusa, Arizona, a U.S. Air Force base, and London. Leaving any and all of them is enough to break your heart. I understand, now, the appeal of living in one city from childhood until death: most of your people remain close.
When I studied abroad for a semester in England, I remember one young woman from my university arguing for not making any English friends; she said she would feel too guilty for leaving them when she returned to the States. Me, I spent a lot of time with a Northern Irish girl I met who’s made of the other half of my soul, and spent six months crying over losing her when I returned to Seattle.
So, after the latest transition, I’ve been numbing with sleep and movies. But I agree with Brene Brown that you cannot selectively numb. We medicate and self-medicate with all kinds of substances, sensations, and distractions, but we find ourselves emptier for it. In The Giver, SPOILER ALERT the people have lived without pain for so long that to encounter even a few experiences of it sends Rosemary into despair and suicide. And yet, Jonas knows with ever fiber of his being that a life of color, love, sunshine, and searing pain is preferable to the gray sameness of his community END SPOILERS. And so it is with me, the one with “all the feels” as my brother James would say.
And I’m going to write here as I work through the transition and the slow, important readings, if only because unexpressed grief, pain, and loneliness are the most damaging. There is a reason for the teaching, “Weep with those who weep; rejoice with those who rejoice.” There is a reason why the “Talking Cure” actually worked sometimes, and why freshman girls tell each other everything. Sharing pain and joy with others is the only way to live well. Sharing stories is what humans do. Without these practices, everything is meaningless, money, and despair.
If that sounds overdramatic, blame Adorno; he’ll start with something like, “It’s now considered rude to ask how someone’s health is” and conclude with, “And then they started incinerating an entire race.” And it’s not ridiculous. Our small refusals to acknowledge one another’s humanity grow into genocide. That is how the world is–look around. Those who lead oppressive regimes and commit atrocities are not of an alien species. Read the Eichmann Trials: they are men and women “following orders.”
Other Works read over the last week (only the first two in full; bits and pieces of the rest):
“The Lottery,” Shirley Jackson
“Hiroshima,” John Hersey
The War Complex: World War II in Our Time, Marianna Torgovnick
Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations, Michael Walzer
Letters to a Young Poet, Ranier Maria Rilke
Ruthless Trust, Brennan Manning
Isaiah, Psalms, Proverbs, Philippians
Holocaust Films watched in the last week:
Night and Fog (1955)
Life is Beautiful (1997)
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (2008)
Schindler’s List (1993)
Other Films watched in the last week (Dimitte me, quia peccavi. I told you I was in my numbing phase):
Catch Me if you Can (2002)
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
Silver Linings Playbook (2013)
How to Marry a Millionaire (1953)
Witness for the Prosecution (1957)
Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
All About Eve (1950)
Quote of the week:
“In the abstract conception of universal wrong, all concrete responsibility vanishes.”–Theador Adorno, Minima Moralia
I offer the above as my explanation as to why we are–as a culture–obsessed with television shows full of bad characters. If everyone is bad, we are absolved from guilt.
Adorno goes on to say this (in Part One, entry 4, “Final Serenity”):
“The blackguard presents himself as a victim of injustice: if only you knew, young man, what life is like. But those conspicuous midway through life by an exceptional kindness are usually drawing advances on such serenity. He who is not malign does not live serenely but with a peculiar chaste hardness and intolerance. Lacking appropriate objects, his love can scarcely express itself except by hatred for the inappropriate, in which he admittedly comes to resemble what he hates [notice how the chaste and intolerant characters on television eventually prove themselves either hypocrites or hateful, or both]. The bourgeois, however, is tolerant. His love of people as they are stems from his hatred of what they might be.”