Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Creepy Universe

My seven-year-old daughter Sara is getting into planets, and my nine-year-old daughter Luisa was looking at a book about the planets with her. There was lots of astronomical information in the book, including a projection about how long the sun will continue to shine and when it will implode (I think it said approximately 5 billion years). 

This made Luisa very nervous and upset about the idea of the sun and earth disappearing. My wife remembered that our son Miles (now 14) was nervous in the same way when we first got the book when he was about five! I remembered my own nervousness about the temporal and spatial dimensions of the universe when I was a kid. Here's a poem I wrote about that kid:

The Seven-Year-Old Atheist 

The universe gives me the creeps.
— Willem de Kooning

The seven-year-old atheist knew the sky
of California, in winter even bluer
than in summer. He knew that cats could die,
like grass beneath a stone, and children, too.

With his every breath, the universe
expanded, made him smaller. So he willed
himself to grow, energetically cursed—
"God damn it to hell!"—his puny build. 

Neither curse nor prayer could change the speed
of light or turn his energy to mass.
He did not breathe in vain. He did not need
mysterious ways. He lay down on the grass

and dreamed he was a stone that someone kicked.
He would have been surprised at his own trick,
if he had disappeared. Instead, he flew
across the lawn, then landed, woke, and grew. 

(The poem was published in Softblow, along with three others.)

Monday, January 06, 2014

She read and re-read with the closest attention

In chapter 36 of Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet ponders the letter she receives from Mr. Darcy after she rejected his marriage proposal. After defending his actions in ending Bingley's courtship of Elizabeth's sister Jane, Mr. Darcy's letter tells her the full story of himself and Mr. Wickham in response to remarks of Elizabeth's (which had been based on Wickham's version of the story to her). Despite her initial rejection of Darcy's claims, Elizabeth finds it impossible not to reread the letter, especially "all that related to Wickham"; she makes herself "examine the meaning of every sentence." Her re-reading shows her that, until the death of Darcy's father, "each recital confirmed the other," but the two men's stories about the late Mr. Darcy's will are so different that one of the two must be lying: "it was impossible not to feel that there was gross duplicity on one side or the other." If she first "flattered herself that her wishes did not err," her reading and re-reading "with the closest attention" is an attempt to eliminate her own prejudices from her interpretation of the letter, and she is finally "forced ... to hesitate": 

She put down the letter, weighed every circumstance with what she meant to be impartiality--deliberated on the probability of each statement--but with little success. On both sides it was only assertion. Again she read on; but every line proved more clearly that the affair, which she had believed it impossible that any contrivance could so represent as to render Mr. Darcy's conduct in it less than infamous, was capable of a turn which must make him entirely blameless throughout the whole.

With two statements that are "only assertion," Elizabeth eventually finds herself having to concede that the story she would have liked to reject—Wickham infamous, Darcy blameless—is actually quite possible. Here, then, the ideal of interpretation (of Darcy's letter, and not of the two contradictory versions of events) is a process of re-reading that aims to eliminate the interpreter's desire. The interpreter does not look for confirmation of her first reading but instead calls that reading into question, as a means of testing it. And she does so by what amounts to close reading—the closest possible reading—of every detail of Darcy's letter. At least in this passage, a close re-reading is the privileged mode of interpretation.

Sunday, January 05, 2014

Opinion and Situation

In Chapter 24 of Pride and Prejudice, Jane Bennet finds out that Bingley, who had been courting her, will now stay in London and not return to Hertfordshire anytime soon. Jane's sister Elizabeth responds to this letter with reflections that amount to a theory of interpretation:

It was a subject, in short, on which reflection would be long indulged, and must be unavailing. She could think of nothing else; and yet whether Bingley's regard had really died away, or were suppressed by his friends' interference; whether he had been aware of Jane's attachment, or whether it had escaped his observation; whatever were the case, though her opinion of him must be materially affected by the difference, her sister's situation remained the same, her peace equally wounded.

Even she knows that is "unavailing," Elizabeth cannot help obsessively pondering two questions about Bingley: Why has his regard for Jane disappeared? And how aware was he that Jane was in love with him? The answers to these two questions may make a difference in "her opinion of him," but they do not change "her sister's situation" in any way. In other words, interpretation can change what one thinks about someone or something, but it cannot change what has happened. From the perspective of this passage, interpretation of the novel that focuses on one's "opinions" of the characters is beside the point; instead, interpretation should address the situations the characters find themselves in—or, to put it more strikingly, the "wounds" that they inflict upon on each other.

Saturday, January 04, 2014


In his article "Arendt & Eichmann: The New Truth" (The New York Review of Books, November 21, 2013), Mark Lilla writes about Margarethe von Trotta's film Hannah Arendt:

The deepest problem with the film, though, is not tastelessness. It is truth. At first glance the movie appears to be about nothing but the truth, which Arendt defends against her blinkered, mainly male adversaries. But its real subject is remaining true to yourself, not to the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. In her director’s statement on the film von Trotta says that “Arendt was a shining example of someone who remained true to her unique perspective on the world.” 

Being true to the truth, then, is different than being true to yourself. The latter is often held up these days as a central human value: one must be true to oneself. But what will you be true to when the truth and your sense of your self come into conflict?