What’s in a name?

I still like Seleucus. He was my favorite of the Macedonian aristocrats I wrote about for my undergraduate thesis and I have recently been drawn to other men, he is still my favorite among the successors. In my estimation, Antigonus was overbearing, Antipater dry, Lysimachus a dandy, and Ptolemy a snake. Seleucus had flair, charisma, ambition, prudence, and talent. These are all caricatures created by my youthful imagination, to be sure, but there are still things about Seleucus that intrigue me beyond the others and that help sustain an interest in issues of rumor and reputation in the ancient world.

So, fresh off my undergraduate thesis, freshly detached from school and with ambitions but no immediate plans to attend graduate school I decided to purchase my own webspace for my blog. I wish I could say that I have a flair for names, but I don’t. It is much more common that I make allusions or direct references, and so I named the webspace after this individual I found interesting. If I could go back and rename it, my allusion would probably be significantly more esoteric, but the same fundamental principle would apply.

While I sometimes idly wonder what people think about the url, I usually decide that picking a name that would better suit me or what I do here would be actual work and it is easier to just fall back on the truth that a younger me chose the domain name and that is that.

As to the actual blog title, it is another allusion, this time to Superman, a hero I’m mostly indifferent to. I just like the imagery it invokes. And I picked the subtitle because I needed my own way of identifying what I saw myself doing here. I liked the idea of Whatever, but John Scalzi has that market pretty well cornered and it suits him better than it does me. Even the title of this post is, as John Hodgman would say, a Cult-Ref.

This blog is one of several spots where I can write about issues on my mind, either because I have a point I’ve been agitating about or because I have an issue or idea I want to share. Even if it means a dent in audience, I explicitly wanted to avoid a meticulous theme for the blog. I have things to talk about that touch on a variety of issues and I am already struggling to be monomaniacal in my studies, so the thought of trying to do the same thing here is revolting. The result is that this space becomes a catch-all that touches on public issues, whether sports, history, academia, literature, politics, foreign issues, stuff that happens online, etc. Unlike the stereotypical Livejournal, the personal updates are few and far between because I don’t necessarily want to think about that any more than I already am and because it is none of anyone’s business. Besides, I’m pretty boring. I read, I write, I sleep a little bit, and I teach–I will have some reflections on that last activity in the near future, but I am hesitant to write about it in semester, not because I would say anything inappropriate but because it remains somewhat treacherous ground to tread and I would rather deal with it in a broader sense than feel like I am reacting to immediate things. Besides, twitter is better for quips.

And this bring me back around. What’s in a name? In the case of this blog, very little. Or, rather, a little bit of this and a little bit of that that, for whatever reasons, spoke to me at one point of another. It is something that I can be self-conscious about at times, but I am also inclined to leave it precisely because everything on line seems so malleable, not just because change takes work. Take Twitter: you can change your profile, your display name, and even your handle itself. I’m happy with my Twitter persona right now–me, fairly unadorned, except that my picture remains that of a Portuguese MP giving the horns to another MP because that picture continues to amuse me years on–but I could change it. Easily. Quickly. And completely for most viewers.

Enough of the navel gazing, the name is what it is and tells some story, even if it isn’t that important.

Spring Break

Last semester the University of Missouri academic included a full week off for Thanksgiving (as it has every year I’ve been here). The difference this year was that there were just four school days left in the semester before the start of finals week. I was not wild about this quick turnaround before the examination period, particularly since there didn’t seem like enough time to really give any new instruction as everyone seemed to spend that entire week trying to work their way back into school mode…and then the semester ended. It takes me most of that week of vacation just to get to a point where I can really relax and was perhaps even more sluggish than most in that first week back, too, so my grumpy reaction to the schedule was to grouse that I’d rather just get Thanksgiving (Thursday and Friday) off and keep up the head of steam for the semester since we were already in the home-stretch. It doesn’t do any good to grab the runner going into the final turn to hand him or her a glass of water– just save it for the finish line.

But that (originally) hallowed tradition of Spring Break falls earlier in the semester, which makes my specific complaint about last semester’s Thanksgiving break moot. There is plenty of time to work back up, teach some more, and go into the end of the semester at least a little bit more refreshed than you otherwise would be. It is also a reasonable time to assign papers to be due since, at least in theory, there is a whole week where students shouldn’t have to actually attend class and can dedicate at least a little bit of time to reading and writing–things that may be expected of them for classes, but that can’t actually be completed in the classroom.

Of course, a passing glance at Twitter indicates that if a professor expects students to take an exam on the first day back from spring break, having given them the break to study, the professor is a jerk, or if that professor has the exam the day before spring break, leaving the students free to fulfill whatever escapades they desire, that same professor “should be called an array of four letter words.” In fact, if the professors expect students to do anything over spring break, they are (according to my “research”) out of their minds because it is time for break, not a time for school. This same “research” generally indicates all sorts of frustration over work assigned by professors and a lesser amount of praise for them, often, though not exclusively, the product of cancelled classes, so I suspect that at least some of the complaints would merely be reframed rather than removed were there no spring break. That said, would the academic calendar be better off without a week-long break in the middle of a semester?

My gut inclination is to say yes.

Though I am not religious, do I understand an impulse to tie an academic hiatus to a holiday like Easter (Brandeis did the same for Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah), but Spring Break as it is currently conceived of is not tied to a specific holiday. Instead, it has transformed into a commercial opportunity and is assumed to be a welcome reprieve from the rigors of the semester for both students and instructors. The studious can play catch up on work while the fiscally fortunate may bathe in sun and liquor in far off paradises and everyone can enjoy a bit of sloth. Nonetheless it feels to me like a stark caesura in the middle of the semester that exacerbates problems when it comes to the educational cycle and encourages even more procrastination than already exists. I have been trying to mull over the reasons–if not religion–that the full week mid-semester break exists and have come away with nothing except tradition (and a one week period where the university can run on reduced staff). It is one of those things that seems to have been there as long as anyone can remember any many people have fond memories of, so why bother change it?

Now it is not that I necessarily want to extend the semester or bring upon myself any more work than I already have. Instead of a single week-long break, I would endorse multiple (up to five or six, say) long weekends scattered throughout the semester. Sure, the March/April economy of Cancun and Panama City would suffer, but that really shouldn’t be a concern for colleges. There would be backlash, too, but I suspect that instead of an extended buildup toward this week followed by a drawn out denouement, more long weekends would actually keep people fresher throughout the semester and avoid both the mid-semester trap week and the months without any break at all as sometimes happens in the fall semester before Thanksgiving.

This rambling speculation is a flight of fancy on my part. It comes from a place of exhaustion from the semester and bafflement at watching people talk about their professors on social media. I realize that there is little chance that spring break will go away, but I would still be interested to know how other people would react (or would have reacted) to the idea of eliminating Spring Break altogether.

The Jokers, Albert Cossery

“The street was packed with evening strollers enjoying the cooler air at the end of the torrid day. There were the working stiffs, upright and formal; the dignified family men flanked by wives and children; the occasional pair of young newlyweds, who clutched each other’s hands in a grotesque show of commitment. But none of the drinkers at the Globe paid any attention to this mundane procession. They weren’t there to look at humanity in all its mediocrity; they were waiting for a luxuriantly curvaceous woman to show up and arouse their desire. From time to time a metallic squeal, sharp and deafening as a siren, signaled the ambling approach of a tram. The drivers of horse carts, who were so skilled at maneuvering through traffic jams, lashed out at the indolent mob filling the street, impervious to anything but the welcome sea breeze. Heykal tried in vain to locate a single bum, a single happy-go-lucky derelict who had managed to escape the clutches of the police. Not one. Reduced to the contributing members of society–in other words, the depressed and overworked–the city’s streets were becoming strangely sinister. Wherever you went, you were surrounded by public servants. Heykal couldn’t help but remember how the beggar had responded to his invitation to come collect his monthly sum at the house. That a starving beggar would refuse to be seen as an employee: what an insult to posterity, which only recognizes those who make careers of following the rules! History’s full of these little bureaucrats who rise to high positions because of their diligence and perseverance in a life of crime. It was a painful thought: the only glorious men the human race produced were a bunch of miserable officials who cared about nothing but their own advancement and were sometimes driven to massacre thousands of their own just to hold onto their jobs and keep food on the table. And this was who was held up for the respect and admiration of the crowd!”


The regime never changes. Not really. Sometimes it is better, other times worse. The current governor has delusions of grandeur that demand cleaning up the city and relocating the poor and the prostitutes and the beggars to somewhere that can’t be seen, away from the strategic routes, offices, and casinos of the wealthy. The revolutionaries want the governor assassinated and the police want the revolutionaries arrested.

The Jokers think that the fundamental problem is that everyone takes each other too seriously. In fact, the only thing these friends take seriously are their jokes.

Albert Cossery was born in Cairo into a Syrian-Lebanese Greek Orthodox family, trained in a French school and spent most of his life living in Paris, but set all of his novels in Egypt. The Jokers (originally published in French as La violence et la dérision) his 1964 publication is set in a nameless Middle Eastern port city in the heat of summer. The friends Karim, Heykal, Urfy, and Omar have a deep disdain for the governor and the entire establishment for ruining what they enjoy in life as they reject the petty ambitions and material wants of the upper classes. At the same time, they shun the company of revolutionaries who are doomed to failure because, by taking the government seriously, they give it exactly what it wants (and, should the revolution topple the government, they would only become that which they sought to destroy, anyhow). So the friends decide to topple the current regime with laughter.

The Jokers is wickedly funny, pregnant with irony, and perhaps the most indulgent book I have ever read. Their plans give both the revolutionaries and the government fits and amused indifference and mocking nonchalance become heroic virtues. Much like his friend Camus and the philosophy of absurdism, Cossery rejects material gain, but takes the notion one step further to reject the idea the idea that producing anything is worthy of respect–“honest labor” is little more than participation in a system that deadens and kills victims and perpetrators alike. Freedom comes from recognizing society as an illusion, a grand ongoing joke that becomes so dangerous because everyone takes it seriously.

The story is all the more powerful for its simplicity, but Cossery’s praise of indolence can also be disconcerting, particularly, I think, to an American reader. The Protestant DNA of this country and its cult of the producer rejects men like the Jokers as layabouts profiting from the labor of others. Even most Hemingway stories, built around attending bullfights, swimming, drinking in cafes, and fishing, are couched in an interminable need to work. Not so for Cossery. Karim, for instance, makes kites, but because he derives pleasure from it rather than to fund his escapades. Cossery’s Jokers have enough to suit them and refuse to follow the harried footsteps of everyone else. At the same time, though, they do not succumb to sloth. Each of the Jokers is actually exceptionally active and engaged, just with different ambitions as the rest of the world.

One further caveat about The Jokers is also warranted. This is a story about men where adult women are faceless entities, uninteresting to the Jokers except for one exception, a woman who also happens to be one of their mothers. They are interested in younger women who Cossery describes as maintaining a degree of innocence that is lost once they don the accouterments of adulthood. From the little I have read, this is a common critique of Cossery’s work and is a reflection of his personal life. Nonetheless, I didn’t find it distracting for this story in large part because the main characters ooze so much disdain for the entire world that they don’t seem to hold any more for adult women than for adult men. The treatment of women (at least to me) was mostly notable only because the story features an instance of transformation where a young woman crosses the boundary between youth and adulthood. In some ways, the book seemed to imply a generalization that women couldn’t join in the frivolous rebellion inaugurated by the Jokers, but the manner of transformation–one that involves accepting the dress and appearance expected by the petty bureaucrats and playing their games rather than hitting a certain age–suggests that were a woman to likewise reject those trappings she might still fit in with their group. But the story is set in the Middle East and what I just offered is a contrafactual possibility, so it is a moot point, but one worth mentioning.

I loved this book and it has found its way onto my list of top novels. At just about 150 pages, it is a quick read, but funny and a complete story. I could see its indulgence rubbing some people the wrong way, but perhaps those are the people who need to laugh the most.

February Reading Recap: A Review of Stoner

February is a short month and usually a busy one, so I only managed to finish reading one non-academic book, John Williams’ 1965 campus novel, Stoner, which is set at my current institution, The University of Missouri, Columbia.

William Stoner is a Missouri farm kid from a dirt-poor family who, in the early years of the 20th century, came to the university to get an education at the newly-opened school of Agriculture. But in his required freshman English class he is inspired by an acerbic professor and decides to turn his back on his farm roots and pursue an undergraduate degree, and then a graduate one in English Literature. When he completes his thesis, the university hires him on. Stoner marries and has a child, but the marriage is a disaster. He completes a book and receives tenure, but his career never really advances. His motivation to improve his teaching and pursue research waxes and wanes, the seasons come and go, and Stoner grows old.

The pivotal sequence in the novel is a confrontation between Stoner and an ambitious colleague, Hollis Lomax. Lomax has some physical defects, but an unimpeachable intellectual pedigree, having come to the university from getting his degree at Harvard. Their disagreement begins when Lomax manages to persuade Stoner to accept his graduate student into Stoner’s seminar; in Stoner’s estimation, the student does not perform adequately and receives an appropriate grade. Lomax disagrees, but their conflict comes to a head when department regulations force Stoner to sit on an examination committee for that same student.

Stoner is, as the reviews say, a quiet, powerful novel that explores the condition of an intellectual who is chooses and, simultaneously, is forced into increasing isolation. The students, for the most part, flash by as a faceless blur, not because Stoner doesn’t care, but because, at some point, they are all the same. The graduate students are essentially interchangeable, with two conspicuous exceptions, and the same could be said even of the professors. The world changes beyond the borders of the University, but Stoner’s life plods on.

The genius of the novel is that it is utterly relatable, particularly to someone who have spent any time on the other side of the classroom. Williams also does a remarkably good job at capturing the University of Missouri and its environs, so much so that multiple locations featured are easy to identify as real-world buildings. Likewise, everyone who has been in some of these situations has known graduate students and professors like those described in the story, both for good and for ill. Despite the tragic outcome and the consistently grim and oppressive atmosphere of the academy, there is a sense of purpose and vocation and therefore a dark, hopeless optimism in the story that did not appear in, for instance, Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim (the only other true campus novel I have read).

My main critique of the novel is not of execution, but of form. To me, it was immediately evident that Stoner was written by an English professor who is well-versed in narrative form. As a result, the turns in the story seemed inevitable, formulaic. The execution was excellent, nonetheless. I also hesitate to issue a blanket recommendation for Stoner because I wonder if it is a story that will fail to resonate with a wider audience as much as it does with people who have chased higher degrees in non-STEM fields, but I am adding it to my list of top novels.