Alan Jacobs

The Pathetic Loser and His Friends

When The Onion is good, it’s really good:

Former classmates also confirmed that the underachiever is apparently resigned to going to his little small-time, stable, extremely fulfilling job in town each day and has zero ambitions to leave his position and pursue a more prestigious and soul-crushing career path in a real city.

“I honestly don’t get Mike—does he even want to get out of that backwater town and try to make something of himself, or does he want to just waste his time feeling pleased with the pace and content of his life and enjoying his existence?” high school friend Caitlin Sese said of the man who gets eight hours of sleep per night and has time after work to see his loved ones and take care of his health. “Everyone else left Camden as soon as possible and is consumed by a deep sense of apprehension about getting ahead, but he’s still hanging around the same places from high school, focusing on the things that matter most to him, and existing as a relaxed, easygoing person who’s fun to be around. I can’t imagine anything sadder than that.”

“It’s almost like he’s saying, ‘I don’t give a shit — I just want to be an emotionally stable husband and father who’s not obsessed with climbing the corporate ladder and impressing complete strangers with my job title,’” Sese added. “Pathetic.”

According to relatives who moved thousands of miles away and are currently alienated from much of the family, Husmer has never once taken a major professional or financial risk, choosing instead to “coast through life” by putting considerable time and effort into his rewarding marriage, playing an active role in his two children’s lives, and being sincerely thankful for what he has in this world.

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Rebecca Solnit and the New Prometheus

 

The Prometheus status in Rockefeller Plaza, by Flickr user paigeh

The Prometheus status in Rockefeller Plaza, by Flickr user paigeh

Reading this truly sappy open letter from Rebecca Solnit to Edward Snowden — and I write that as someone who has some sympathy for her view of Snowden, or would if it were phrased less cringe-inducingly — I find myself noting a rhetorical tic that seems to me pretty common on the Left. So consider this post a reminder to keep an eye out for it.

Notice that in Solnit’s denunciation of the U. S. government’s surveillance practices, the responsible parties, those named as problematic, seem to be a little out-of-date. “Privacy is a kind of power as well as a right, one that public librarians fought to protect against the Bush administration and the PATRIOT Act.” “It was clear on September 12, 2001, that the Bush administration feared the American people more than al-Qaeda.” Then this:

And you, Prometheus, you stole their fire, and you know it.

Aside: “you, Prometheus, you stole their fire”? Prometheus? I have read some absolutely wonderful stuff by Rebecca Solnit — her Wanderlust and River of Shadows are beautiful works of imaginative nonfiction — and wouldn’t have believed her capable of that sentence. Anyway, to continue:

You said, “Being called a traitor by Dick Cheney is the highest honor you can give an American, and the more panicked talk we hear from people like him, [Senator Dianne] Feinstein, and [Congressman Peter] King, the better off we all are. If they had taught a class on how to be the kind of citizen Dick Cheney worries about, I would have finished high school.”

All of which raises the inevitable question: Why is the Bush administration targeting Edward Snowden? Oh wait.

In Solnit’s account, recent evil deeds haven’t perpetrated by any particular politicians, but by “Washington.” In another essay we see Solnit unable to criticize the current President without half-withdrawing the criticism by the end of the sentence: “Look, Obama does bad things and I deplore them, though not with a lot of fuss, since they’re hardly a surprise.”

But isn’t Solnit making “a lot of fuss” about the surveillance state whose gods have chained the New Prometheus to his Russian rock? Yes: but only naming the names of the mighty wicked ones of yore, not the ones who are actually responsible for pursuing Edward Snowden. President Obama’s administration, with his approval and that of his Attorney General, Eric Holder, are relentlessly extending the scope and the powers of the surveillance state, but somehow it’s all still Dick Cheney’s fault.

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God’s Hotel

Over at Books and Culture, a very thoughtful review is behind a paywall — but since you should subscribe to Books and Culture anyway, that shouldn’t be a problem, you know what I’m saying?

The book under review is God’s Hotel, by a doctor named Victoria Sweet. Here’s a description from Dr. Sweet’s website:

San Francisco’s Laguna Honda Hospital is the last almshouse in the country, a descendant of the Hôtel-Dieu (God’s Hotel) that cared for the sick in the Middle Ages. Ballet dancers and rock musicians, professors and thieves — “anyone who had fallen, or, often, leapt, onto hard times” and needed extended medical care — ended up there. Dr. Sweet ended up there herself, as a physician. And though she came for only a two-month stay, she remained for twenty years.

At Laguna Honda, lower-tech but human-paced, Dr. Sweet had the chance to practice a kind of “slow medicine” that has almost vanished. Gradually, the place and its patients transformed the way she understood the body. Alongside the modern view of the body as a machine to be fixed, her patients evoked an older notion, of the body as a garden to be tended. God’s Hotel tells their stories, and the story of the hospital, which — as efficiency experts, politicians, and architects descended, determined to turn it into a modern “health care facility” — revealed its truths about the cost and value of caring for body and soul.

A good deal of what Sweet has to say might strike a reader as fuzzy New-Agey stuff, but as Jonathan Hiskes explains in his review of the book, she provides a hard-headed analytical defense of the “slow medicine” she had a chance to practice at Laguna Honda, and in the process reminds us just how profoundly wrong our modern canons of “efficiency” can be, and how they rely on false economies:

Sweet’s journey alone would provide a worthwhile memoir. What gives God’s Hotel a dramatic arc, however, is the relentless determination of city-appointed efficiency consultants to turn Laguna Honda into a modernized hospital. They file report after report on the public hospital, forcing administrators to add layers of managers and thrusting more and more forms and training sessions at doctors and nurses, whose numbers are eventually cut. Sweet observes all this with candid skepticism. [...]

She notes that health economists seek to conserve precious doctor time while allowing abundant lab tests and drug prescriptions. They also trim the hospital’s food budget down to a minimum, ignoring the central role diet plays in wellness. Sweet says they have things exactly wrong: It’s the tests and drugs that are exorbitantly expensive — well-used doctor time is cheap by comparison. She tells the story of a patient who waited three months to be discharged because his Medicaid-covered shoes hadn’t arrived. A fellow doctor met the patient, considered his medical duties, and drove to Wal-Mart to buy the man shoes, bucking bureaucratic protocol. “He must have saved the health-care system many thousands of dollars by buying those shoes, and yet [the consultants] would not have thought his action efficient,” says Sweet.

And near the end, Hiskes draws his thoughts together:

Sweet’s key insight is that by defining efficiency too narrowly, health care’s funders (i.e., all of us) end up paying much more. The question isn’t whether to be frugal. The question is whether discharging patients too quickly is more “efficient” than giving them time for rest and healthy eating under attentive care. The same risk holds true with overly narrow view of the “cost” of public education, public infrastructure, public social aid, and so on. She doesn’t belabor the point. Instead, she returns to the tension inherent in the limited resources that doctors and nurses face as they try to be agents of healing.

There seems to be one lesson that modernity never learns, indeed cannot learn while continuing to be modernity: the distant and abstract expertise of the bureaucrat cannot match the intimate local knowledge of the person who knows another person.

(By the way: I have often noted my love for the great Cappadocian fathers and mothers of the Church, and it is not widely enough known that they, especially Basil the Great, were instrumental in the creation of the first hospitals. Timothy Miller’s The Birth of the Hospital in the Byzantine Empire tells that story.)

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The Librarian

Duke Humfrey’s Library, the first part of the Bodleian Library, courtesy of the Bodleian

This little piece in the LRB by Inigo Thomas suggests that the controversies about what some of us still think of as the “new” British Library will never settle down. But, as is often the case with the LRB, the real fun is in the letters. I especially enjoyed the dueling anecdotes by Richard Davenport-Hines and Roger Morsley-Smith — apparently men with double-barreled names are obliged to respond to one another — about dealing with nasty librarians. Their stories reminded me of something that happened to me nearly twenty years ago.

For many years it was relatively easy to gain the privilege of using Oxford’s great Bodleian Library, but then at some point in the early 1990s, as more and more people wanted admission for purely touristic purposes, the Great Crackdown began. Suddenly it became almost impossible to convince any of the Guardians there that one’s research interests were legitimate, that one’s status as a scholar made one worth of entry.

I was writing a book on W. H. Auden at the time and very much needed to see some of the Auden materials held by the Bodleian. Fortunately, I had a friend, Professor Don Sniegowski of Notre Dame, who had been a Rhodes Scholar many years ago and at Exeter College had made friends with a young Englishman named David Vaisey. And David Vaisey had eventually become Bodley’s Librarian, as the head of the Bodleian Library is charmingly called. He wrote me a note to invite me to tea at his office.

Mr Vaisey proved to be a gracious host indeed, and told me that while he could not simply decree me worthy of admission to the Bodleian, he would be happy to write a letter recommending my admission. He did so as I waited. I then made my way to the office of the Guardians, where the very woman who had heaped scorn on my pleas a few days before was waiting. She clearly remembered me, and set her jaw in such a way as to indicate implacability. I handed her the letter, which she held out disdainfully before her. Then she saw the letterhead and the signature. Her eyes widened and her voice rose an octave or two. “Oh!” she exclaimed. “The Librarian!

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Sarah Losh’s Church

photo by Flickr user horslips5

photo by Flickr user horslips5

What you see above is the exterior of the strange and beautiful St. Mary’s Church at Wreay, Cumbria. There’s no other church in the world like it. You’ll note there the apse at the east and: here’s what it looks like from the inside:

photo by Flickr user abbeyman2002

photo by Flickr user abbeyman2002

And here’s the interior of the church from the west end:

photo by Flickr user horslips5

photo by Flickr user horslips5

The whole church is filled, inside and out, with beautiful but very curious ornamentation, like this fanciful steam vent:

photo by Flickr user horslips5

photo by Flickr user horslips5

You may see many more photos of the church here.

The church was designed in the mid-nineteenth century by an amateur architect who had never designed a building before and who also oversaw the construction and even made some of the ornamentation. Her name was Sarah Losh, and there is a new book about her and her church by Jenny Uglow. I review the book and sketch out Sarah Losh’s story here.

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T. S. Eliot on Modern Education

Submitted for your consideration. The Charles William Eliot mentioned here was the poet’s older cousin, and the president of Harvard when young Tom was an undergraduate there.

American universities, ever since Charles William Eliot and his contemporary “educators,” have tried to make themselves as big as possible in a mad competition for numbers; it is very much easier to turn a little university into a big one than to reduce the size of one that has grown too big. And after Eliot had taught America that a university should be as big as possible … America grew very rich — that is to say, it produced a considerable number of millionaires, and the next generation set itself to an equally mad programme of building, erecting within a short time a great variety of imposing, though in some places rather hastily-built, halls and dormitories and even chapels. And when you have sunk so much money in plant and equipment, when you have a very large (though not always well-paid) staff of men who are mostly married and have a few children, when you are turning out from your graduate schools more and more men who have been trained to become teachers in other universities, and who will probably want to marry and have children too; when your whole national system of education is designed for an age of expansion, for a country which is going indefinitely to increase its population, grow rich, and build more universities — then you will find it very difficult to retract.

“Modern Education and the Classics,” 1932. Translation into current terms is required, but is not especially difficult, and the comparison is instructive.

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Billy

Billy1

This is a story about Billy, a boy who tried to build his own bookcase. Billy took the parts out of the box, but there were so many and they were so very confusing that he was sad and wanted to give up. But then his friend Pencil-Ear showed up to help!

Billy2

At least, Billy thought Pencil-Ear was showing up to help. But Pencil-Ear went away and Billy never saw him again. So he had to build the bookcase himself.

After a while he got very sad and frustrated. So he called his friend Ike A. After all, Ike A had sent him the bookcase as a gift! And talking to Ike A made Billy feel better for a while.

Billy3

But Ike A lived a long way away, across a big ocean, and could offer nothing more than kind words. So Billy went back to work.

After a long, long time he finished building his bookcase. And then he had a great idea!

Billy4

(As you can see, Billy was 11 years old.) Wouldn’t it be wonderful if he could affix his bookcase to the wall with some kind of bracket?

And look: there’s a bracket in the package! But it has a warning label on it — Oh no! That means that it shouldn’t be used, don’t you think?

Billy5a

But Billy liked his idea so much that he ignored the warning and tried affixing the bookcase to the wall anyway — and it fell on him and killed him, just like Leonard Bast in Howards End!

Billy6

Though the fall of the bookcase onto Billy made a terrible racket, nobody heard it. Pencil-Ear was down at the corner pub trying to use his funny pencil tricks to pick up women.

And far away, across the great ocean, Ike A began to laugh.

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The Walking Boy

A boy walks down 11th Court West, Birmingham, AL, on the other side of Arkadelphia Road. View Larger Map
A boy walks down 11th Court West, Birmingham, AL, on the other side of Arkadelphia Road. View Larger Map

I wrote this essay a long time ago. It has never seemed quite right to me. From time to time I have gone back to tinker with it, but have never been satisfied. I suspect that some stories just can’t be told properly; this may be one of them. But certain recent public events have forced the story back into my mind, and I have decided to post the essay here, as is, with all its flaws.


 

All I can say in my defense is that I never hurled a stone at him, or shouted abuse. But I stood by, many a time, as others did those things, and I neither walked away nor averted my eyes. I never held anyone’s cloak, but then I was never asked to. I watched it all, gripping a rock in my hand as though I were preparing to use it — so that no one would turn on me with anger or contempt — and I always stood a little behind them so they couldn’t see that I wasn’t throwing anything. I was smaller and younger than the rest of them, and they were smaller and younger than him. In my memory he seems almost a full-grown man; I suppose he was eleven or twelve.

We called him Nigger Jeff. I have never doubted that Jeff was indeed his name, though as I write this account I find myself asking, for the first time, how we could have known: I never heard any of the boys speak to him except in cries of hatred, and I never knew anyone else who knew him. It occurs to me now that, if his name was Jeff, there had to have been at least a brief moment of human contact and exchange — perhaps not even involving Jeff, perhaps one of the boys’ mothers talked to Jeff’s mother. But we grasp what’s available for support or stability. It’s bad to call a boy Nigger Jeff, but worse still to call him just Nigger. A name counts for something.

Arkadelphia Road is a major artery on the west side of Birmingham, Alabama, becoming Highway 78 for a while before 78 veers off to the northwest and heads for Memphis, but for me it was simply a liminal space, a mighty boundary. My house on 11th Court West sat three blocks off Arkadelphia, and when I visited Snappy’s Service Station at the corner to buy soft drinks and candy, I could gaze across the four lanes of charging traffic into another world, a world inhabited solely by black people. Often I passed in an automobile through that world, but my feet had never touched its ground, and I knew no one who lived there. “Between us and you there is a great gulf fixed: so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot; neither can they pass to us, that would come from thence.” It was not literally true in this case: those dark strangers could sometimes be seen hanging clothes on the clotheslines of our neighborhood, or taking the clothes in to iron them. (In my mind’s eye they always enact a limited repetoire of hieratic postures: hands raised to the clothespins, bodies bent to fill the baskets on the grass, hips angled slightly to receive the weight of the loaded baskets.) But really, neither side passed to the other: when they came to labor for us they always left something essential behind; maybe everything essential. I stood sometimes on the hot pavement of the gas station, straddling my bike, and while I drank my coke I would look across the blaring four-lane gulf. Then I would drain the bottle and ride back towards home.

Just past my house, the pavement ended, and a red dirt path, big enough for a single car, extended into fields of high grass that, when my father was a boy, were cotton fields. When I was very young a tiny cinder-block shack a quarter-mile down the path housed a radio station; I remember looking through my bedroom window as the tall antenna was pulled down, frightening the few cows in the field. Soon the cows were gone too, and the grasses grew higher. A hundred yards farther along stood the remains of an old greenhouse, with broken glass and a scattering of plastic pots. And a little further down still, on the other side of the path, stood a ramshackle old house. Jeff and his family lived there. There were no other houses, no other people.

This was the edge of the known universe to me. Much later, after we had moved to another part of Birmingham, my father told me that the path continued for a couple of miles farther and emerged into a small old airfield on Bush Boulevard; but I never found that out on my own. It was not that I lacked adventurousness: I and my friends habitually hopped the freight trains that passed a few hundred feet from my house — one summer day we rode to Mississippi and back — and often we wandered across the tracks to a water-filled abandoned rock quarry where we tried to kill water moccasins with slingshots. But Jeff’s house I never cared to pass, or even to approach. I don’t know whether he lived with both parents or one, though I seem to remember references to his mother, who probably worked in some white lady’s home. If he had any siblings I never saw them. All I knew was that sometimes, especially in the hot summer days, he would set off along the red dirt path, in his old dungarees and his bare feet, towards our neighborhood.

As I continue to recall these events, I am more and more troubled by my ignorance. Did Jeff go to school? If so, it would have had to be at the all-black school — on the other side of Arkadelphia, of course, up the hill towards Center Street. (It was the school to which, when zoning began, I was zoned, which precipitated my parents’ decision to move somewhere where I could go to school with other white people. Over five hundred children populated the school; I would have been one of six white kids, had we not departed the neighborhood.) But I never saw Jeff walking to school. Did his family have a car? I never saw one, and I feel sure that I would have noticed if they had had such transportation. So maybe Jeff didn’t go to school.

But that’s just one question among many. If they didn’t have a car, when and where and how did they get their groceries? Where did his mother, or his mother and father, work, and how did they get there? Did they receive mail? Perhaps they always headed in the other direction, west towards Bush Boulevard: a longer walk, but less likely to find conflict or even attention. I have no idea how these people lived, how they sustained themselves. I must have missed a great deal; there must have been many events to which I was oblivious, as children of course can be — and yet my obliviousness bothers me, because there are some things I remember so well.

(Once I called my father to see if he could solve some of these puzzles, but he didn’t remember much either. He did say this, though: that he believed that Jeff’s parents had at one time worked for Mr. Posey, the man who had owned those fields and even tried to grow some cotton on them. Only he put it this way: “I think they were Mr. Posey’s niggers.” In a large industrial city, in the second half of the twentieth century: “Mr. Posey’s niggers.”)

Especially I remember Jeff coming moving at his habitual level pace towards our world, a small world so comfortable to us but surely like some wall of flame to him. Of course we knew where he was going: not to us but through us, through our neighborhood to the one on the other side of Arkadelphia, where there must have been friends glad to see him and houses where he was welcome. But first there were the three blocks of our territory. And when we saw him coming we picked up our rocks.

When he caught sight of us, Jeff would stoop and collect a handful of good throwing-size stones for his own use. In another part of Birmingham, at this very time, Martin Luther King’s followers were practicing nonviolent resistance to the water cannons and police dogs of Bull Connor, but Jeff was no pacifist. Yet he never initiated conflict: he had somewhere to get to, and all he wanted was the quickest and most uneventful passage possible. If we threw our rocks he returned fire, and since he was bigger and stronger than any of us, that was something to be reckoned with. So often my friends inadvertently and unwittingly imitated me by simply holding their missiles in their hands; they contented themselves with curses and mockery. And Jeff, then, would simply walk on down the middle of the otherwise quiet little street, slowly and steadily. He never ran, and would only vary his even pace when he had to stop to launch a rock or two — though sometimes he had to walk backwards for a while to be sure we didn’t start pelting him when his head was turned.

We could have surrounded him, of course, but we were too cowardly for that. We were pretty sure that, as long as we huddled in a small group, he wouldn’t attack; but if we separated he might go for one of us. So we gathered like a Greek chorus to curse, and Jeff kept walking. Eventually his solitary figure grew smaller, and our throats grew tired of launching insults. We dropped our rocks and returned to our children’s games.

Sometimes I would be playing alone in my yard, and would look up to see Jeff walking by. My heart would then buck in my chest, but he never turned his head to acknowledge my presence. At the time I wondered if he knew that I never threw rocks at him, that I didn’t curse him — for, if my memory is not appeasing my conscience, I avoided that crime as well. But now I realize that he neither knew nor cared about the individual members of our cruel impromptu assembly: with rocks in our hands we were just mobile, noisy impediments to his enjoyment of some of the blessings of life — friendship, comfort, safety — but when unarmed and solitary we posed no threat and therefore, for Jeff, lacked significant substance. He kept his eyes on that day’s small but valued prize, and kept on walking.

Why didn’t I throw rocks at him? Why didn’t I curse him? Well, obviously, because I felt sorry for him. But not sorry enough to walk away, or to turn my back on the scene; and not nearly sorry enough to stay a friend’s hand or demand his silence. I was young, and small, and timid. I saw one valid option: to stand as a member of the chorus, grasping the rock that was the badge of our common identity. There’s no point now in trying to distinguish myself from the others. But I can’t help it.

Once I told this story to a friend. Her name is Billye, and she is a black woman from Elba, in southern Alabama. Like me, she lives in the suburbs of Chicago; like me, though a couple of years earlier, she graduated from the University of Alabama. In fact, one year she was Homecoming Queen there. Like all University of Alabama homecoming queens, she had her picture taken, at halftime of the football game, with the governor — Governor George Wallace, in her case. It was the custom for the Governor to kiss the homecoming queen (with the barest and most decorous brush of her cheek, lasting as long as the first volley of flashbulbs) but when the photographers asked Governor Wallace to meet the demands of convention, he declined with a quiet supposal that the citizens of Alabama were perhaps not yet ready for their governor to kiss a Negro woman.

After the game and the celebrations, Billye and her family drove back to Elba. Along the way, she realized that she needed to make a rest stop, and her mother pulled over at a gas station. But when Billye asked the attendant where the restroom was, he looked at her soberly for a moment from under the brim of his crimson cap, with its scripted “A” for Alabama, and told her that the restroom was out of order. She knew exactly what he meant. She walked back to her car, but not before noting the Crimson Tide pennant, matching the cap, tacked to the wall above the cash register. No doubt he had listened to the game, and perhaps even the halftime festivities, on the radio that stood next to the cash register. Did he hear the name of the Homecoming Queen announced? If so, what image filled the screen of his mind?

As I say, I told Billye the story of Nigger Jeff. In fact, she was the first person I ever told the story to. We sat in her office in silence for a little while. Outside, the Midwestern landscape was flat and gray, with a few bare trees; flakes of snow drifted in the air. But what each of us saw was Jeff walking up the red dirt road, coming into the white people’s territory, as ready as he could be for this daily gauntlet that was his cross — one of his crosses — to bear. “Poor thing,” Billye murmured. “Poor little thing.”

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Lee Siegel, For and Against the Humanities

Even though it’s trying too hard to be counter-intuitive, I really like this essay by Lee Siegel because it makes a point I also like to make (in this post, for example): that much of the current conversation about the State of the Humanities simply identifies “the humanities” with “college students who major in the humanities disciplines.”

Siegel:

We are told that the lack of a formal education, mostly in literature, leads to numerous pernicious personal conditions, such as the inability to think critically, to write clearly, to empathize with other people, to be curious about other people and places, to engage with great literature after graduation, to recognize truth, beauty and goodness.

These solemn anxieties are grand, lofty, civic-minded, admirably virtuous and virtuously admirable. They are also a sentimental fantasy.

The college teaching of literature is a relatively recent phenomenon. Literature did not even become part of the university curriculum until the end of the 19th century. Before that, what came to be called the humanities consisted of learning Greek and Latin, while the Bible was studied in church as the necessary other half of a full education. No one ever thought of teaching novels, stories, poems or plays in a formal course of study. They were part of the leisure of everyday life.

This is correct. We should pause to consider that almost none of the literary writers we praise and celebrate as essential to a humane education were themselves humanities majors. Apparently a B.A. in English is not the only route to excellence in the world of arts and letters.

Now, I must add that Lee Siegel takes his argument too far, as is Lee Siegel’s wont. For instance, he writes, “The notion that great literature can help you with reading and thinking clearly is also a chimera. One page of Henry James’s clotted involutions or D.H. Lawrence’s throbbing verbal repetitions will disabuse you of any conception of literature’s value as a rhetorical model” — managing thereby to squeeze half a dozen non sequiturs into two sentences. (James and Lawrence do not between them exhaust “literature”; it is not obvious that neither writer provides useful rhetorical models, depending on circumstance; studying writers “can help you with reading and thinking clearly” even when those writers are not themselves clear; and so on.)

And here’s where his determination to cut against the grain goes way too far:

Books took me far from myself into experiences that had nothing to do with my life, yet spoke to my life. Reading Homer’s “Iliad,” I could feel the uncanny power of recognizing the emotional universe of radically alien people. Yeats gave me a special language for a desire that defined me even as I had never known it was mine: “And pluck till time and times are done / The silver apples of the moon / The golden apples of the sun.”

But once in the college classroom, this precious, alternate life inside me got thrown back into that dimension of my existence that vexed or bored me. Homer, Chekhov and Yeats were reduced to right and wrong answers, clear-cut themes, a welter of clever and more clever interpretations. Books that transformed the facts were taught like science and social science and themselves reduced to mere facts. Novels, poems and plays that had been fonts of empathy, and incitements to curiosity, were now occasions of drudgery and toil….

So you see, I am not making a brief against reading the classics of Western literature. Far from it. I am against taking these startling epiphanies of the irrational, unspoken, unthought-of side of human life into the college classroom and turning them into the bland exercises in competition, hierarchy and information-accumulation that are these works’ mortal enemies.

Siegel’s argument, in brief, is that he was taught literature badly in college; therefore literature should not be taught in college at all. But why shouldn’t his bad experiences in literature classes instead make him an advocate for better literature teaching — teaching that does justice to the rich, complex, and immensely satisfying world of great, and even not so great, books?

And why shouldn’t we literature professors seek to teach in this dynamic and life-affirming and genuinely critical (not merely cynical) way not just for our majors, but for all the other students who are passing through our classes, including those who are there by general-education-requirement compulsion? The humanities will thrive not when we have a given percentage of humanities majors but when we have a strong culture of devoted and serious and, yes, whimsical readers.

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Ibby Jaaber’s Conscience

Here’s a really interesting story about Ibby Jaaber, an American Muslim playing professional basketball in Europe, who decided that the culture surrounding pro basketball in inimical to his faith:

The team’s jerseys featured the logo of a beer company called Kalnapilis: a small red triangle with the brewery’s name in script below it. As a devout Muslim, the beer ad offended Jaaber. So did the squad’s scantily clad cheerleaders, with their low-cut tops and barely there bottoms. The cheerleaders’ racy routines weren’t so different from anything you’d see in an NBA arena — OK, maybe there were a few extra thrusts and gyrations — but as Jaaber put it, “To me, they’re naked women.” He even found the music pumped through the arena to be too profane.

He’d been with the team for more than three months and things were going smoothly, but then it hit him one day like a basketball to the head: To keep his faith, he had to go. “It was really like an epiphany,” Jaaber says. He told the team that he would be leaving immediately and that, since the money he’d earned from them was tainted, he didn’t want it anymore. So here he was at the bank, meeting a Žalgiris official. “I laughed with the team manager about the situation,” Jaaber says. “How can somebody do this? Everybody lives for money.”

The bank teller confirmed the transfer. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were wired from Jaaber’s account to the team’s. He walked out of the bank and prepared to leave Kaunas with his wife and newborn son.

“I understand that maybe I will never earn money from basketball because of this decision,” he said at the time, “but I am ready to do such a sacrifice for my beliefs.”

Often people of religious conviction complain about the degraded character of contemporary culture. But I have to wonder if it might be less degraded if more of us were willing to do what Jaaber did, and sever our ties with the companies and organizations that promote values we strongly disagree with. I know that I am certainly more inclined to “go along to get along” than to take a stand.

Jason Schwartz tells Jaaber’s story carefully, thoroughly, and sympathetically. It really gives a vivid picture of how someone of moderate or limited convictions comes to have stronger ones, and to act on them — but without being unnecessarily confrontational. I must admit that I think Jaaber is following a path of cultural isolation that is unworkable for anyone who lives outside a relatively or wholly isolated community, and I share very, very little of his theological ethic, but I also have to admire someone who’s got more guts than I do. But whether you admire Jaaber or not, this is a great case study in religious conviction and the public sphere.

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