Saturday, December 06, 2008

Crocodiles and Alligators

I just got back from spending a few days in Texas, and on the flight home I read Aryeh Lev Stollman's collection of stories The Dialogues of Time and Entropy (2003). I have loved Stollman's work ever since I read his novel The Far Euphrates, which I plan to teach in my Ethics and the Holocaust seminar next quarter. His voice is unique, and his narratives are deeply philosophical, scientific, and religious--a strange but alluring combination. Lately, in particular, I am drawn to writers who tell stories that are heavy with loss, but are simultaneously aware of their incapacities to evoke the veryloss they attempt to capture in their work. Stollman does loss in a way that no other writer, to my recollection, does it. Often when I finish one of his stories, I feel a thickness in my chest, an aching of sorts. And I don't know why.

But as much as I love Stollman's work, I don't tend to underline as much as I usually do in works that move me intellectually or spiritually. But there is the occasional one-liner that gets to me in regard to Stollman. In "New Memories," for example, a father tries to show his son the difference between a crocodile and an alligator: "Alexander," he says, "most people can't tell the difference between things. People only see what they know."

When I first read this, I thought to myself, yes, that is true. Certain people in my family, for instance, seem to see only what they have grown up with in regard to the nature of G-d, religion, spirituality, and, of course, politics. But the terrifying moment comes when I realize that I, too, must necessarily have such blindspots.

And yet the so-called quest of the so-called scholar is the pursuit of knowledge and knowing--it's about learning to distinguish the subtle nuances that ripple through every segment of life and living. It's about learning to see the difference between crocodiles and alligators. And I do, in fact, see all those nuances. But what I have come to learn is that often these nuances, and the knowledge they impart to me, are as blinding as the inadequacies that render others inable to see anything other than what they know.


Kevin said...

I like this--I know very much what you mean--but permit me to appropriate your 'blindspot' metaphor for a moment, to try to spin from it a happier moral re: the scholarly life...
A literal/physical blindspot is only genuinely blinding for an eye in STASIS; but the true scholar's eye never stops moving. The relentless revolutions of the roving eye make up for its 'blindspots' by ensuring it is never blind in the same place for long; each individual look is added to, advanced, overthrown by the next, and true seeing is all these together. Those whose gaze comes to REST, then, are those in the danger you speak of; it's chiefly those who think they've 'seen' who are most blind. By refusing to look continually, they have, in effect, looked away. By viewing but not re-viewing (literal: 're-vising') they get fixed certainty at the price of sight.
By contrast, those who realize real looking is only done in the present continuous likely see--not perfectly, but better than others, so long as their eyes never stop moving-- insofar as they scan without rest.

Casey said...

I think there's something important about underlining -- I wrote about it once a year and a half ago:

I watched a documentary about Mark Rothko yesterday -- painters like Rothko and Pollock used to drive me nuts, because I was convinced there was nothing there... nothing to be underlined. Somewhere along the way I had this revelation that literature can give us an experience if we allow ourselves to put down the critical underlining pen -- it is akin to simply listening to another, rather than always being ready to respond.

As you can tell from my post from Sept. of '07, and the fact that I haven't made any headway on the subject since then, I'm not at all sure what the experience is... but I think you're onto something.

(Also, strange how the Emerson quote in my post linked above is so precisely like what Kevin just said. Weird.)

Monica said...

Kevin--thanks for your comment. It is indeed a much happier spin on the idea of a blindspot, and, in many ways I can appreciate the possibility that the blindspot is never to be found in the same place. I think you are right--it's the fixed gaze that is most dangerous and costly. Nice...

Casey--Thanks for posting the link to your entry on underlining; I remember reading it about a year ago! You make a good point; I suppose what I was thinking, though I didn't necessarily articulate it very well, was that I feel that I get so much from certain writers (Stollman, for example), and yet my impervious underlining is conspicuously absent fromt the pages of their work. I think this might attest to there being, for me, two different ways of processing texts that I love. In the first method, I zero in on specific lines/passages, underline them, and then proceed to make larger meaning out of the small component of a larger work. But in the second method, I suppose I am processing the entire work more holistically, and essentially, once it's processed, working backward into the text to develop more detailed and nuanced ideas. Or, something like I'm a bit confused.

Casey said...

That's what I thought you meant, Monica -- it's interesting to me how different those two types of books can be... if I trust my rational half, I'm not sure I can account for why we underline in some and simply "read" others. Trusting my mystico-magical half, though, it's obvious that we underline least in the books that we recognize to be the clearest expressions of ourselves.

So even as my New Testament has all kinds of underlines in it--and despite the fact that I sort of secretly wish that text reflected me... I am probably more a reflection of Borges or (my favorite contemporary Russian) Victor Pelevin, both of whom I cannot begin to underline.

I call the different kinds "Experiential" vs. "Critical" reading...

Anonymous said...

Greetings. I hope you don't mind me join this lovely, evolving conversation. I enjoy the clarity sought and offered. Rare.

"I like playing with metaphors and dropping them when they no longer work." That's how I introduced myself to a group of 30 (eco, labor, femin, lgbt, mtlcltr) Jewish activists. I think still apt. So here it goes. I had to look up optical blind spots (called scotoma, in greek- darkness) and Kevin's analogy is correct and well-stated. Yet I find in it, perhaps projected by my own psyche, a streak of cosmopolitan or academic elitism; those who are static, rooted, not mobile and not seeking out the new are blinded.

Sight improves "so long as their eyes never stop moving." Maybe you could say more about what motion looks like in your life or your metaphor.

I'm thinking one my friend D.R. who had "gone through" a succession of social justice causes, always finding the cause not right for her to lead (she's not Blackfoot Nation American Indian, for ex, just an ally), dysfunctional groups (!), leaders who seemed to "get it" or have the "right analysis" but when she began taking leadership she found their flaws and had to move on. New city, new cause, new hope. The mote was in her own eye as JC once said.

My therapist once quipped, "A friend of mine had a line about meeting a brilliant but inflexible guy at a dinner party or professional event -- he's smart but only has one [college] class in him [to teach]."

So the educated and liberal activist have the "blind spot." And maybe "Those whose gaze comes to REST" have more tools to compensate for blind spots.

Another reason I'm passionate about this dichotomy is, well, the "culture wars." I sort of laughed or ignored when people shrieked in in the 1990s, though I guess impeachment is no joke. Many jokes, but no laughing matter, haha.

For 3 years I've been learning with some "pro-life" "anti-choice" Catholics -- we look at science, philosophy, literature and scripture. Their orthodoxy is deep and is attached to the beauty and goodness of that tradition. And we're studying scapegoating, Rene Girard, BTW.

I find myself no longer able to dismiss the Palin phenomenon, for example. I don't want to celebrate it, but to better get it. I can't yet explain the passion in a way that my urbane friends and family can understand. I guess we don't heal from scotoma by just being forced to see something new.

Like the (original) croc and alligator, even when the gaze shifts to new objects, the mind recognizes what it is are already trained to see.

Anonymous said...

Casey, great post from '07 and topic about running from one new thrill of literature to another. Move on? write a book? i find struggling to share a great, enduring truth with students revives my own excitement. On an average or good day.

I also think travelers who "do" a city in 2 days are just "hooking up" and not taking time to see beyond the museum and castle (read: muscles, figure, hair) and get to know the unique rhythm of a place.

Monica, as a teacher of literature, do you find ways to help students appreciate a text on multiple levels (critical, experiential). Are they more inclined one way? I would guess critical. Everyone's smarter than Plato b/c we know that slavery is wrong and poets shouldn't be banished. Duh!? Are grad students more pleasure or bore when discussing lit?

I was disappointed a few years ago when the woman I was dating "thought the second half of the play should have...[blahblahblah]." She was raised in Manhattan (rent-control) and sophisticated enough to find something to disapprove of. I asked her to consider the play as written. The main character was unlikeable. That WAS painful to watch. Why might the writer have chosen that? "I don't know, but he really should have been more likeable." Yeah.(exasperation)

A "good reader" hopefully can connect to the "experience" of the text while also noting agreements and puzzles for discussion. I don't think I began to experience a the whole of a play or novel or movie until my mid 20s. Should great lit be wasted on the young?

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