Sunday, June 25, 2006

"La memoria dell' offesa" ("The Memory of the Offense")

As if my life isn't already filled with things to take time away from my dissertation writing, I'm faced with the task of mastering the Italian language this summer -- or, at least, mastering it enough to pass a translation exam so that I can defend my dissertation two semesters from now. My exam will ask me to translate a couple of pages from Primo Levi's I sommersi e i salvati (The Drowned and the Saved). Though I'm not quite ready to do it in respectable form, I can figure it out for the most part, though perhaps that's because I've read the book in English. I'm sneaky like that.

I've just been looking at one chapter of the book ("The Memory of the Offense"), and the first line reads as follows:

La memoria umana รจ uno strumento meraviglioso ma fallace [Human memory is a marvelous but fallacious instrument].

It's an interesting statement considering the fact that Levi was, among other things, a memoirist -- a recorder of history via the "fallacious" vehicle of memory. It is of course, in my mind, a strategic move on the part of Levi because it asserts the necessity of filling in factual and "historical" gaps with feelings and perceptions, which are possibly more "real" than what we might call a factual account of a historical event. What I mean to say is that historical events are important for many reasons, but not the least of which are the ways they change how people think and feel, the ways in which they provoke human complexity to rear its complicated head. Granted, the fact that memories are not carved in stone (as Levi goes on to suggest) does not negate the harsh truth of historical realities such as the Holocaust, nor does it lessen the death blows of the fires of Auschwitz. I think the important thing inherent in Levi's statement is the underlying assertion that memory matters, if only because it connects us to our feelings, drives, passions, longings, and fears -- essentially to what makes us human.

For example, my mother and I argue constantly over events that I remember solidly from my childhood. She claims not that what I describe never happened, but that it happened nothing like how I remember it. How can this be? Likewise, someone very close to me used to say to me when I was angry or upset -- perhaps overreacting in many instances -- and trying to convey what I felt, "Your feelings are wrong!" But can feelings really be "wrong"? Is that possible?

Monday, June 19, 2006

Killing the Buddha

Just found Killing the Buddha on Nedric's blog -- pretty cool stuff.

God is Gray

An interesting perspective of God. I grew up in a household and religious community in which everything was black or white -- either one extreme, or another. No in-between. No middle ground. No compromising. Compromise was the dirty c-word. My way or the highway.

The rhetoric of exclusion, rather than the message of truth, it seems.

But I also think that sometimes things would be simpler if they were indeed black or white -- if right and wrong were really two distinct polarities. How much more peaceful life would be if everything didn't merge into a murky gray film. But such is life, and it's the grayness of life that keeps us alive, I think -- that ensures that we remain in dialogue, and that we have differences.

Who can blame people for trying to simplify their lives? I can't. I could use a little dose of black and white sometimes myself.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Great American Books, Take Two

Okay, so after many helpful suggestions, here is my almost final, almost official list of Great American Books for the fall semester:

Hawthorne: The Scarlet Letter
Melville: Moby Dick
West: The Day of the Locust
Heller: Catch-22
Malamud: The Natural
Faulkner: The Sound and the Fury
Morrison: Beloved
Doctorow: Ragtime
Hijuelos: Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love
Roth: American Pastoral

Still thinking about:
Kesey: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
Roth (Henry): Call It Sleep

I just realized, however, that there is only one female author on this list. Is that a problem? It might very well be. I'm a pathetic excuse for a feminist.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Of God Who Bursts Like A Balloon

One of the novels I'm still trying to get through is Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin -- not that it's tough to get through (it's excellent). I'm just doing too many other things to commit lovingly to it. But the other night I stumbled on a great couple of lines, and an insightfully provocative image:

"Over the trenches God had burst like a balloon, and there was nothing left of him but grubby little scraps of hypocrisy. Religion was just a stick to beat the soldiers with, and anyone who declared otherwise was full of pious drivel" (77).

This is the narrator's description of how World War I had transformed her father into an atheist. It occurs to me, however, that this is not the first time, nor the last, that God would "burst like a balloon." Certainly the next World War brought with it repeating images of a god who bursts in the face of his people, over and over again. And it seems that he continues to burst even today, despite our continued efforts to inflate and re-inflate him.

Thursday, June 08, 2006


Why do I get nothing done when I'm in California? I had planned to write every day, finish a book review, and finish reading two novels during my two weeks here. But I've done nothing, really. I did present at a conference in San Francisco (ALA), but nothing other than that. I haven't even seen half of my friends since I've been here, and it's nearly time to return to Indiana. And now, after reading a creepy article about the rise of anti-Semitism in Orange County, I am boycotting Newport Beach. I'm so disillusioned. Home is no longer home, and it's a very disappointing, and entirely unproductive, vacation.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Great American Books

This fall I get to teach a course called Great American Books, and so I have to figure out which great American books to teach. My favorite "friend" gave me one piece (among others) of excellent advice: end the course with Philip Roth's American Pastoral. I'm very excited about this. But now what do I teach for the first 14 weeks of the semester?

Now, I know that Melville has to be on the syllabus. He just has to. But, and I'm sorry Casey, I have always had trouble getting through Moby Dick. If it killed me when I was an undergrad (and grad student), won't it make my students want to kill me? I found myself discussing this today with my younger brother. He's 16 (much younger than me, as I slouch toward 30), and has read it twice, the first time when he was around age 10, which puts me to shame as, ironically, when I was that age I was memorizing entire books of the bible as if my life depended on it. But why is Moby Dick a greater American book than, say, Alice Walker's The Color Purple? When it comes to choosing which books are the American greats, like Bartleby, I prefer not to. Choose, that is.

But take one look at my overfilled bookshelves and it is clear that I do have an opinion regarding the great American books. Judging by the stacks of books not collecting dust, what I consider to be great American books have one thing in common: they are all Jewish. Many are obviously Jewish books (Philip Roth, Henry Roth, Cynthia Ozick), but others are a bit more sneaky in their connections to the covenant. People (even literati) are often surprised to discover that The Natural or Catch-22 were written by Jewish authors, or that Nathaniel West is a Jewish writer. But there's no denying that some of the best books of the century in this country have been penned by Jewish writers.

I can't, however, turn the Great American Books course into the Great American Jewish Books course. So here's what's on my list so far -- any advice would be greatly appreciated:

Melville: Moby Dick
Hawthorne: The Scarlet Letter
Malamud: The Natural
Faulkner: Sound and the Fury
Morrison: Beloved
Roth: American Pastoral