Anecdotal History

It is easy to look at Archaic Greece or the mythic history of ancient societies and be incredulous at the role ascribed to the nomothete, whether those laws given are the product of divine fiat (Moses), or the reasoning of one wise man (Lycurgus or Solon). Even Polybius, who notes that Rome came to its ideal constitution through trial and error seems to buy the idea that Lycurgus crafted the Spartan state that, until it decomposed, required only minimal modification. It is possible to look at the gradual development of governmental systems and, for instance, how Plutarch’s biography of Lycurgus collapses a century or two of constitutional development into a single lifetime, sometime back before living memory. The one magnetic personality attracts this accreditation for the development of something, and may have been canonized at a time when the situation they are credited with is either in place or on the wane–i.e. when there is a compelling interest to explain a particular state of affairs and then perpetuated or expanded upon at later times for similar reasons.

These developments are themselves fascinating and worth studying on their own merits, but a True Story version of institutional or legal history would seem to require making the history dull by excising the characters. Anecdotes reveal something about the larger theme and are particularly prominent in biography–as Plutarch says in his life of Alexander, a quip or small act can be more revealing as to the character of the person than are the great battles.† Likewise, one of the ways to humanize a big idea is to use a person (sometimes through a series of vignettes) as a case study.

The class I TA for uses a reader does this through a pair of individuals who share a number of characteristics, but differ on one or two key issues. One of these pairs was Ellen Richards and Emma Goldman, trying to explain various approaches to the position of women in the 1910s. The short answer identifications on the last exam (who/what/where/when/how/significance) included Emma Goldman. There were some really good answers, though only a few people noted her immigrant status and fewer still discussed her anarchism and deportation. Instead, anecdotally at least, students gravitated toward her role in support of women’s rights, protections for homosexuality, and her thoughts on birth control. The most common answer given for her significance was “without E.G., we wouldn’t have birth control today.” I suspect that this was, to an extent, a cop-out answer when nothing else became immediately evident– [[we read about her so she’s important, they didn’t have x then, but we do now and she supported it, ergo…]], but I do not believe that the answer is merely the product of stress-induced, lazy test logic or an inability to grasp the nuance of historical process (though the former should not be totally dismissed, either).

A chronological timeline is misleading and barring a tardis‡ coming for you or a wealthy billionaire scientist, etc, there really only is the present, the past exists only in physical remnants and memory. The former decay, the latter are notoriously flawed. I suspect that the process by which the development of the current state of affairs–particularly where one has incomplete information–are collapsed into a single actor are completely natural. This doesn’t mean that the answer was correct in the most basic historical sense, but neither is the “modern mind” with a glut of facts and rationality immune to the perpetuation of these myths. Sure, this itself is just one anecdote, but it is still something worth thinking about instead of, say, dismissing it as a primitivism that needs to be indoctrinated away and forgotten. Each has its place and time.

† How historical anecdotes are is open to debate, however.

‡ note, I do not watch Dr. Who.

Process Stories

There is an episode in Season Four of the West Wing by the same title as this post. President Bartlet has just won reelection and the staff is celebrating, but the press is pushing for stories from the campaign, to get the behind the scenes version of what the campaign did to win. While the West Wing as a show was, to an extent, an idealized version of an extended process story, one of the themes of the show is that they do not want the media to cover the process because it detracts from the issues–and in this episode, it allows for some know-nothing to claim a role that he had not played.

It seems to me that when it comes to some things, people are excited to see a dramatized version of that process story, but, much of the time, people have a vested interest in presenting just the final product, whether because the process will reveal weakness or uncertainty or just detract from the overall product. But the emphasis on the final product is a disservice to the process, or to the idea that education itself is a process, whether what is being learned is algebra or essay or story writing or a language or pedagogy itself. My comment here is hardly novel, but students and even dedicated teachers sometimes manage to skip the process in favor of results, or at least a particular emphasis one what the successful end product looks like without establishing the process by which those products are achieved. A parable about fish comes to mind.

The issue of process versus product has been on my mind recently as I have struggled to pick up steam on my dissertation. I have been obsessed with the process of writing it, both in a sort of intellectual curiosity and in terms of establishing good work habits that will hopefully serve me well in years to come. Along these same lines, I have long been interested in hearing academics talk about their intellectual development, again as a form of my own intellectual curiosity and also as a motivational, self-help tool. It is sometimes more depressing than helpful to hear the stories, but it usually helps remind me that nobody emerged from the uterus as a fully-formed intellectual titan and that everyone has to cover up or otherwise cope with their own insecurities. What people know they have had to work at at some point in their lives and, almost more importantly, there are always going to be times when they don’t know something–a situation that can be met with intimidation or curiosity.

One of my failings is that when I am overworked (so, always) I have a tendency to get discouraged in situations when I don’t know something. While I try to learn at least a little something about the topic for the next time I run into it. Here I do not mean the specifics of an argument or a case, but knowing so little about the topic at large that I can not really interact with it at any level. Being able to admit ignorance and move back into that role of learner would save me quite a bit of angst. Of course, having this ingrained compulsion to know things before they are taught to me quite defeats the purpose of an education.

I have also witnessed other people ruminate about related problems in the classroom and how they can be coped with. Most obviously and necessarily, these issues focus on grades, which are a product that the students want but is mostly divorced from the actual processes of learning. I have not yet heard any ideal solutions, but it is the right idea.

I do not know that I have any particular process, at least not one that bears out under scrutiny. Ideally, I have time to balance out my desires and hobbies–the reason that I am making a legitimate effort to keep reading literature through the dissertation, as well as exercise, baking, doing a bit of socializing, writing here, and doing a little bit of gaming, is that I am a happier person when I do these things and a happier me is a me who is better equipped both to think well and write well. But this is general life philosophy that, again, doesn’t stand up to scrutiny because I am exhausted all the time and somnolent me is not a particularly eloquent or thoughtful writer (note my current battle to keep my head from rolling to one side as I type this). “I read stuff and I write stuff,” while true in principle also fails to capture any sort of process.

So a few general process thoughts about my own slow slog towards the various plateaus that substitute for actual completion:

  1. Coffee. Lots of coffee. If I cross a certain threshold, tea. I have spoken to some people who swear by various teas as fluids of choice while writing and I agree with the principle. Nevertheless, I am a coffee junkie who likes tea as a change of pace, but only after the system reaches a sufficient saturation level.
  2. A corollary is that I do a lot of my writing in coffee shops, even now that I am without a laptop. As much as I might wish it were so, I am not dreaming of imitating Hemingway in the cafes of Paris, but rather that my office is far too warm for me to concentrate in and there are always chores to do when I am at home. The environment limits the number of sources I can have with me at any given moment, but this handicap is recovered by actually working.
  3. I also change formats. A lot. I will alternate between hand-writing, typing at a computer, and, at moments of panic, writing on paper that is upside down. I used to believe that I think at about the same speed that I write–this is still true, but I have also come to appreciate the momentum provided by the speedy, rhythmic spew that typing can engender. The latter requires extensive revision, but at least there is something on the page. Recently, I have taken to printing out whatever I have typed for the day, editing somewhat, and then adding about another page of material by hand, which I then type up the next day and from which I can launch into another day (or half day, with another round of editing and writing over lunch) of typing.
  4. In terms of time, I have been fighting a battle to reclaim my mornings, since I am a matutinal being these days, working best first thing in the morning and wind down about one in the afternoon–I can, and do, work after that time, but I am best at grading or other low-intensity tasks unless I have another hefty infusion of caffeine. Of course, reclaiming and defending my time has been one of the most difficult steps in this process.
  5. I have been learning to maximize available time, but if I have twenty minutes I am much more adept at grading an exam or two rather than writing a few sentences. I tend to write with my sources at hand rather than from notes and in all my writing, from this post to my journal to my dissertation, I prefer to clear time and work at a deliberate pace rather than feeling pressed by imminent appointments. If I had to pick a single one of these steps to build and improve upon, it would be this one, even if it was just toward writing here more often and save the time I can truly dedicate to the dissertation.
  6. I read as much as I can, particularly novels. I have a hard time reading non-fiction in my “free” time simply because that is what I spend the majority of my work time doing, too. There are exceptions to that rule, too, particularly because I have been making an effort to start knocking books off my academic to-read list, an ambition that meshes “fun” and my goal of being a well-rounded scholar. But I am also reading novels, slowly, but surely. First, I enjoy reading novels and, as stated above, if I can indulge myself just a little, I stay saner. But, second, I also do this because it makes me a better writer and I want to be both a good scholar and a good writer (though this also slows down the whole writing process).
  7. For similar reasons, I listen to other writers, historians and otherwise, talk about their writing. One of the more intriguing discussions has been the difference between discovery and outline writers and I suspect there is an academic parallel to that literary dichotomy, but as I am at far more words than I intended, that may be a topic for another post.

The writing phase feels as though I am in an interminable process, shoe-horned in between other responsibilities. I am dwelling on the process because there doesn’t ever seem to be an end–above and beyond the idea that maybe now, finally, I will learn one or two good study skills. The destination, or, at least, a destination is out there somewhere, but all I have right now is a journey.

I may return to this topic or something similar, but, for now, I would be interested to hear anything other writers or creative types have to say about their own process or reflections on process versus product more generally.

Alberto Moravia, Boredom

“Boredom is the suspension of all relationship with reality.”

Dino, the scion of an upper–or possibly upper-middle–class family, is bored. He is a painter who moved out of his mother’s villa on the Via Appia so that he could live an apartment commensurate with his vocation, but he has also stopped painting. He lives off donations of money from his mother, who really would like him to come home and manage the family business, and loafs about, bored, smoking cigarettes all day.

His neighbor, another artist named Balestrieri, has been carrying on an affair with a model Cecilia and, after Balestrieri’s abrupt death (loved to death, as it were), Cecilia takes up with Dino. What begins in idle curiosity, sex as a distraction from his mundane yet surreal existence, escalates into Dino’s obsession with this woman, a creature that, increasingly, he is committed to parting with but who he feels he can only get rid of if he possesses her completely. But he can’t possess her. She is from a poor family, straightforward and without pretense, but also largely thoughtless and uninquisitive–one room with tables, chairs, and a couch is quite like another, the size, price or color is of little consequence. She understands the value of money and enjoys things that she can do with it, but doesn’t covet it for its own sake or envy those with more or pity those with less, since these are states that just happen. Her detachment just serves to drive Dino’s desire more, because it makes her impossible for him to possess. So he questions her: about her family, her other lovers, her past engagement, and, especially, her relationship with Balestrieri, which Dino finds himself mimicking to a distressing degree.

Throughout Boredom there is a veil between the narrative and reality. Dino is bored, which he defines as that lack of touch with reality, and yet he lives in his own little world and defies his mother’s requests for him to return to what she considers his real world, but what he considers to be yet another unreal cage. Dino seeks reality through Cecilia, but is both repelled and attracted by the way in which she seems to be absolutely in touch with it and yet not grasp reality at all.

Moravia’s Boredom (La noia), set in 1950s Rome, is not a comedy, but there is a grim humor in Dino’s hysterical antics. He is a spoiled brat, despite (or, perhaps, heightened by) his artistic pretension, but his class assumptions become ever more pronounced as he hunts in vain for the trick that will finally bind him to and thereby free himself from Cecilia.

My main observation about Boredom, after all that, is that Moravia writes really long chapters. Each chapter deals with a different episode in the relationship between Dino and Cecilia and ratchets up his desperation. Though Moravia is prone to long paragraphs, the book on the whole moved pretty quickly and picked up speed as it reached its climax, but the format also made it difficult for me to block out time to read it, what with other obligations such as my dissertation. Boredom was fascinating psychological study, but the constant tension between the story and reality and the small number of characters simultaneously ramped up the pressure in the story and made it seem like there was a bubble around these few people while reality took place somewhere else entirely–and certainly not in Dino’s head.

On a tangential note, I read the New York Review of Books edition of Boredom and am consistently pleased with their selections, the translations, and even the production value of the collection. William Weaver’s introduction to this one, while interesting in that he knew Moravia, was not particularly enlightening, but, then, after reading it, I also understand that Boredom is not a particularly easy book to capture. Next up is Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms, my fifth novel of his I will have read (not counting Green Hills of Africa, which is a true story written like a novel, at least in his estimation).

March Reading Recap

Joseph Conrad, Under Western Eyes
I read Heart of Darkness a few years ago and, while it was a challenging read, I found it quite moving and decided I would read his other works. I only made it a few pages into The Secret Agent before giving that up because I was busy. This past month I made another pass, this time picking up Under Western Eyes. Razumov, a student who is usually taken for being more intelligent than he is because he doesn’t talk much, is drawn into a revolutionary conspiracy against the Tsar. The plot launched its first attack with grenade attack against ranking ministers and one of the conspirators, Haldin, seeks refuge in R.’s apartment. R. then sells him out to the government before fleeing the country himself Though most of the action (such that it is) takes place in St. Petersburg, the story itself is set in Geneva, where R. went into exile (at the behest of the Tsarist regime) and where he meets and falls in love with Haldin’s sister. The narrator, old English instructor who knows a few members of the Russian ex-pat community, pieces the story together from R.’s journal and his conversations with the participants and declares that he is writing the account as a westerner and intending for it to be read by an English audience–supposedly so that they can see the conditions and flaws of both the Russian state and the revolutionary movements.

There were some interesting passages in this novel, but, on the whole, I found that the story dragged. Conrad is loquacious and oblique throughout the story–in part due to “secret history” structure and deferred narrative authority. I suspect that some of my reaction to the book has more to do with me than with the novel since I seem to have lost my taste for seemingly antiquated prose in the years since I read Heart of Darkness. Under Western Eyes is still worth leading, but I did not love it nearly as much as I had hoped to going in. In short, I loved this book.

Albert Cossery, The Jokers
Full review found here here, The Jokers was my favorite of the three books I read this month. The Jokers, the eponymous comic heroes of the novel, don’t care about money, power, society, bureaucracy, or much else. The entire world is one big joke that most people, particularly the people in power, are too stupid to realize. In some ways, lightheartedness is the polar opposite of the oppressiveness of Under Western Eyes. In short, I highly recommend this book.

Brandon Sanderson, Words of Radiance
The second book Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive, which is long epic fantasy series–long both in books and words; this volume is about as long a book as they (the publishers) could bind. Like all books I like in this mold, the beauty lies in the breadth and depth of the world more than in any one plot arc or character–the world is between “desolations” and there are a few different people or groups of people who are all trying to save the world, though they are all doing so with incomplete information and different short term goals, meaning that they have a tendency to expend as much information combatting people who are blind to the larger need and against each other as they do working for “the greater good.” As is appropriate for a second book, too, Sanderson brings back most of the featured characters from the first book–Dalinar, the king’s uncle and warlord, Kaladin, a former slave and spearman, Shallan, an artist and scholar from a family fallen from grace, etc, and then expands the roles for others such as Adolin and Renarin, Dalinar’s sons, and others. Each book has flashbacks dedicated to a single character, so where the first was Kaladin, the second is Shallan, wherein you get to learn how terrible her upbringing was and why.

I’m not sure that I would recommend this book to people who are not already fans of this style of fantasy–and if you are, please start with the first book. But for fans of the genre, Sanderson does a good job at world creation and designing interesting magic systems, and this installment provides one of the most obvious crossovers to his other work (all his books exist in the same multiverse and are connected, though each series is designed to stand on its own). I’ve been reading this style of book since elementary school and love a well-crafted world, particularly those that aren’t simply rehashing old tropes and come across feeling pre-packaged from a generic DnD or fantasy novel world starter kit. I like other series and other authors better, but I do believe that Sanderson is one of the top fantasy authors currently writing and am eagerly waiting for the next installment.

March was a busy month for me between teaching, grading, writing, and a short, but remarkably busy, trip to Minneapolis for a 65th wedding anniversary, so I only finished three books. April may well be more of the same, but I am currently in the middle of Alberto Moravia’s novel Boredom and picked up a bunch of new (used) books in Minneapolis that I am looking forward to reading, including Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms, Cossery’s Proud Beggars and Llosa’s The War at the end of the World.