Sunday, April 26, 2015

Can Poetry Save Lives?

The power of poetry to speak the truth, to be the voice of reason in an irrational world, is ancient and is still part of the culture in Eastern Europe, including Russia.  In America, poetry has generally been a marginalized occupation, practiced by many but read by few. As the Anglo-American poet W. H. Auden famously wrote, "poetry makes nothing happen."  It just is.

But even in the world of productivity and profit, it's possible that a great poem can move hearts, even change lives.  When I saw the book, "How Dante Can Save Your Life," I had to sit down and read it because, first of all, it is the title of a book I once imagined writing, having taught the great medieval poem, known as the Divine Comedy for some years, and having explained that it's much more than a journey to Hell (since "Inferno" is only the first of three parts of the epic).

I was unfamiliar with the author: Rod Dreher, a conservative American journalist whose roots as a Methodist in small-town Louisiana hardly prepared him for Catholicism, to which he converted, or for the greatest piece of Catholic poetry, completed by Dante c. 1321. Like Dante the character in the poem, he found himself in a dark wood of middle-age depression, and he found in his reading of Dante's poem life-changing wisdom.

The result is a clearly stated, accessible memoir that combines the essence of Dante's complex vision with Dreher's own life journey.  This is an achievement since explaining a medieval Italian classic to 21st century readers is no simple task. Yet Dreher is hardly alone in finding his own life journey mirrored in Dante's.

He makes it clear that one need not be Catholic or Christian to be, as he was, deeply affected and changed by Dante's story of loss and restoration since the poet speaks to readers who have lived long enough to have lost faith in society, politics, family, and love.  I wish my young students, often confused by the poem's mythology, theology, and Florentine politics, could see as clearly as Dreher that the dark wood is not all there is.

And that a poem about love and justice can indeed transform, or help transform, one's life by putting the reader on the cosmic journey of life from darkness to light in search of meaning. That's what T. S. Eliot found in 1922 when his marital breakdown and spiritual wasteland led him to read Dante as a way out of his own crisis of faith. And, for me, it was reading and teaching Eliot that told me, thirty years ago, that I must study Dante and master his epic.

I learned that this most amazing and daring poem is probably the greatest work of literature in the Western world: it is personal as well as universal, political as well as philosophical and mystical.  The Comedy, as Dante called his poem, speaks to non-Christian readers because the supernatural meaning doesn't cancel out the human, spiritual and moral lesson we still need to learn: hatred, selfishness, and greed will always cripple our lives as long as we fail to work for the common good. Without loving others, social justice is impossible, and man will continue to fail on the personal, social, and political levels.

So the poem is a great love story, one full of hope. It shows the reader that he or she is not alone in feeling confused and alienated.

If we feel hopeless, as Alan Jones once wrote, if we have been sorry for mistakes we have made and want to make a new start, we can identify with Dante's afterlife, even if we don't believe in his idea of Hell, Purgatory or Heaven.  Dante's cosmic journey depicts in vivid detail what loss and alienation mean and how they can be turned into a test of character that leads to illumination.

Dante, through love, discovered how loss and failure can be reversed. Rod Dreher has been able to see this essential theme in the medieval classic, showing that, indeed, a poem can change lives, maybe save some people from despair. It can make something happen.

I hope his new book leads more readers to discover their own wisdom in the many fine modern translations (like those of Robert Hollander) of Dante.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Update: What to study in college

This is an important addendum to my March 29 post about the value of the liberal arts curriculum in university study.

The new "ammunition" in my argument comes via Nicholas Kristof in the April 16 New York Times, quoting Harvard economist Lawrence Katz: "A broad liberal arts education is the key pathway to success in the 21st-century economy."  Why? Because there has been a flattening of pure technical skills in the economy, and what is now wanted are those who can combine communication skills and people skills with technical skills.

The student needs both, in his view (which I am glad to say is widely shared). So a humanities major with courses in psychology, economics, computer science and other sciences has greater career flexibility.  So too a science major who takes a good dose of the humanities will be in good shape.

Kristof goes on to say that our society needs people from the humanities to reach wise policy decisions. He also cites evidence that wide reading in literature "nurtures deeper emotional intelligence."

We have to understand ourselves and others if we are to engage with the world as educated people who are, upon graduation from college, not merely trained.  Since literature offers lessons in human nature, in assessing the feelings of others, there is still an important place for the English major.

In my days at the university, I hated to see young people short-changing themselves by having too narrow a  focus. Many freshmen had blinders on when it came to the liberal arts, which they saw as useless, whereas engineering or computer science promised jobs. Yes, but what kind?  And does a technical degree produce a happy life in a world where we must know how to interact with others?

Monday, April 13, 2015

The Invisible as Real

As a boy, my favorite, most chilling movie was "The Invisible Man," and, when I was even younger, I loved invisible ink and, of course, pretending to be invisible by hiding, disguising myself, or simply closing my eyes, as if my self or person would magically disappear.

The relation between magic and science is part of the fascinating new book, INVISIBLE, by Philip Ball, a British science writer, who uses literature, myth, philosophy, and other fields to illuminate his study.  As in his book on the building of Chartres cathedral, Universe of Stone, Ball writes beautifully for the lay reader.

The idea that power resides in the unseen world is basic to all religions, and the world of magic becomes the inspiration of science: they are not opposites, Ball indicates. It is good to learn here that science cannot destroy the invisible, which is real, which is the enduring reality we all strive for.  In this way, the invisible is like silence, not the absence of sound but a presence in its own right.

As Kathryn Schulz sums Ball's insights in The New Yorker:  "In a universe that is vast and mostly matterless, in which the invisible exceeds the visible by a staggering margin, the extraordinary fact about us is that we number among the things that can be seen."

So much for B. F. Skinner's claim that the goal of science is the destruction of mystery. Mystery is all around us and in us, and examining the invisible opens up questions about the invisible as presence. Clearly, what is unseen is not just de-materialized or disguised.

The invisible may keep itself hidden but it makes itself felt, Schulz says. This is literally how the universe works: "An invisible mass alters the orbit of a comet; dark energy affects the acceleration of a supernova; the earth's magnetic field tugs on birds, butterflies, sea turtles, and the compasses of mariners."  The entire visible world, that is, even all that cannot be put under a microscope or other visual device, is made possible by the invisible.

"Our planet, our solar system, our galaxy, our universe: all of it, all of us, are pushed, pulled, spun, shifted, set in motion and held together by what we cannot see." (Schulz)

Wow!  Just think of all "big things" we cannot see: germs, viruses, molecules, gravity, the earth's interior, the depths of the ocean. It is humbling to learn that scientists can only see a fragment of the universe--and nothing of its purpose and meaning. Hence we have philosophy and religion to show us the wonder of our world and ourselves.

As I learned in my introductory philosophy course, our ideas, feelings, personalities, souls, and selves--most of the things that really matter--are beyond our seeing but nonetheless real, as abstractions are real. Despite the efforts of science to dispel the invisible, it is, like God, all around us and in us and beyond all knowing.

The topic of the invisible leads from magic to science and then, it seems to me, to mysticism: an immersion in the mystery of things beyond the realm of science.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Why Write?

Sarah Manguso, an American writer, has kept a diary for 25 years totaling 800,000 words and has now written a memoir about keeping her meticulous diary.

"I wrote," she said, "so I could say I was truly paying attention."  Writing as mindfulness?  Manguso goes on to say (I quote from an article by Alice Gregory) that she didn't want to find at the end of her life that she had missed it.

Even in an age of overshare (Twitter, Facebook, etc.) in the social media, writing every day about the ordinary details of one's life sounds compulsive. And it raises the question, for whom is such a diary intended?  Manguso's memoir apparently tries to answer this, for she clearly does not wish to share (or bore) anyone with the quotidian details of what she ate for breakfast on a certain day. So she does not reproduce parts of the diary.

Perhaps such writing makes life real by recording it, as if the events become "true" or at least remembered only when recorded. Yet without the reader, how can there be meaningful writing?

It seems to me that every piece of writing, even a diary, has some intended reader, someone to complete the communication exchange.  Am I the implicit reader of my own unpublished journal or diary? Would I be writing this blog if there were no readers out there?

I think of many writers who detailed their daily lives and thoughts, from Montaigne and Pascal to Proust and Thoreau and Thomas Merton, who wrote compulsively, but always with a sense of audience.  It is not clear to me how transcribing "an entirely interior world," as Manguso says, is not merely self-referential.

Mindfulness can be achieved in several ways, usually involving an absolute minimum of words. But not by writing, although observing closely the details of everyday life keeps the one in the present moment.   

As I think of friends who've always yearned to write and regret not having written, I raise the question, Why do we write?  Is it to make sense to ourselves of the experiences we have had and nothing more? Why write--unless we ultimately share?

We all know of writers who shy away from publishing, filing away their stories or articles in desk drawers in the hope that someday they will find someone who can bring them to life by reading them.

My advice to such people is to take a few risks. Don't be reluctant to ask someone to read your work, then send it, once it has been carefully revised, edited and vetted. Today, more than ever, with online publications looking for new voices, there are countless opportunities for writers to become authors.

The diary or journal is, for me, merely a place to begin the sometimes lonely, demanding, but often rewarding task of asking to be read.

Why College is Costly

The high price of a college education in this country is often a major topic of concern. Many people believe that, with decreased funding by the states, even public universities must pay their faculty members handsomely and therefore have had to raise tuition, which has quadrupled in price over the past 35 years.

This narrative is false, as Paul Campos of the University of Colorado shows in some detail in a recent New York Times op-ed piece.

He shows that the rise in tuition has coincided with increased public subsidies for state universities and that the administrators of these schools invariably say that public funding for universities has been cut--an argument I often heard at the University of Central Florida, second largest in the nation--and so the funds have to be generated by ever-increasing student fees.

In fact, Campos shows that public subsidies for higher education in recent years are higher than they were in the sixties or seventies.  And, most tellingly, the increased tuition goes to support the ever-growing costs of administrative positions, which have gone up by 60 percent between 1993 and 2009.  These posts--assistant vice presidents and associate provosts and assistant deans by the dozen, necessitated by increasing enrollments--are funded lavishly, making many deans and other administrators wealthy by the time they retire with handsome pension packages.

Academics who began their careers as educators can easily become corporate bosses, and often millionaires, as the university over the past 40 years has come to resemble a business, with a corporate CEO (president) given bonuses and perks and a huge salary.

The full-time faculty, by contrast, are paid at rates resembling their equivalent salaries thirty years ago.  Whereas 78 percent of faculty were full-time in 1970, when I began as an assistant professor, today 50 percent of state university faculty are part-timers, underpaid adjuncts, who have no benefits, no offices, no job security.  Highly paid administrators, in their ever-increasing numbers, rely on these adjuncts and graduate assistants to teach mainly the lower-level, required core courses.

Having seen close-up how this system works, I am glad that Prof. Campos has zeroed in on the true cause of public higher education's inflationary cost: the vast increase in administrators and their salaries, at least at state universities.