Thursday, January 31, 2008

Random bullets of back in the thick of it

  • Having my first class at 11.30 a.m. is almost unimaginably blissful. Even on days when I haven't gotten enough sleep, I still feel okay when I get up. (Maybe because it's not pitch-dark outside?)

  • I just learned that I'll have the same schedule next fall.

  • I wonder whether I should find it troubling that the album I've had playing in my car to and from campus all week has been Kanye West's College Dropout.

  • So far my students seem great. And there are only 60 of them.

  • My contract was renewed, which means I'm basically guaranteed an income through 2012--something that, after time served in grad school and as contingent faculty, I hope never to take for granted.

  • The state and my faculty union finally hashed out their own contract, which means I might soon see the cost-of-living increase I was supposed to get September 1st.

  • So all's as well with my financial world as it can be while I remain both indebted and improvident.

  • Wearing pointy, red stilettos on the first day of class will earn you many compliments. But if it's a day that involves 10 hours on campus, nearly seven of them in the classroom, you will have a very disagreeable walk back to your car at 9.30 p.m.

  • As lessons go, that one's not really worth learning

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Doubling forward, doubling back

About a year ago, dhawhee wrote a post on her favorite trope (in her case, zeugma). As I’ve been bushwhacking my way through the draft of an as-yet rather terrible essay on some new material, I’ve started noticing all over again what appears to be, if not necessarily my favorite trope, then certainly one I use with insane frequency: hendiadys.

I first encountered this term just a few years ago, in Frank Kermode's chapter on Hamlet in Shakespeare's Language--but when I did I realized immediately that it was a defining feature not only of most of the works I wrote my dissertation on, but also of my own writing. Literally "one from two," hendiadys refers to a pair of words linked by "and" that expresses a single meaning neither word alone conveys.* Some of these we use every day, unthinkingly, to the point that they're clichés: "house and home," "law and order," "doom and gloom." Ideally, though, they're less common, more evocative, and even surprising pairs.

I'd like to claim that I use hendiadys consciously (and of course evocatively!), but I notice it most when when I'm drafting--when I let myself just write, just in order to get words on the page and without turning on the editorial function. When I do that, I write in pairs unthinkingly and almost compulsively.

Here are two sentences I just added to the essay I'm working on:
In this passage, [Thing A] is characterized by its fragmentation and imperfection. Unlike [Thing B], which appears functional and whole while being divorced from any authentic source of motion or meaning, [Thing A]'s brokenness is a sign of its legitimacy.
Fragmentation and imperfection; functional and whole; motion or meaning--and actually there's another, ghost pair, "legitimacy and truth," which I rejected a split second before typing it.

So what the hell is that all about? Now, it may simply be that I believe in the buddy system when it comes to word usage (why settle for just one when two are available?), but since I don't tend to verbal excess or floweriness in other ways, I think my use of hendiadys is at least partly a process of refinement: of figuring out whatever it is that I really mean and how to say it.

In the above example, for instance, I'm still not sure whether what I'm talking about is motion or meaning. . . or some third and entirely different idea; that pair would definitely go in a revision. Similarly, I pre-rejected "legitimacy and truth" because, although the two terms don't express the same idea, they're too close in sense and not really interesting as a unit anyway. When I generate that kind of pair, it's clearly just a placeholder: two words that are different approximations of what I think I'm trying to say. On the other hand, pairings like "fragmentation and imperfection" or "functional and whole" do useful work, conveying ideas that no single term can express.

So partly it's that I don't like to commit--I'd rather generate possibilities than foreclose them--but it's also about what sounds right in my head: pairs and trios of words and terms and clauses just make rhythmic sense to me in ways I can't explain.**


*Technically, hendiadys has a more narrow meaning, referring to pairs in which one noun is clearly subordinate to the other and could be converted into an adjective modifying it--but this broader usage is approved by at least some of my reference books, so I'm going with it.

**Before writing this post I was unaware that there is also such a thing as hendiatris, which involves three words that express a single meaning. But you'd better believe I employ that, too.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Isn't there a school for remedial move-busting?

If it's not all diffidence and ambiguity, all the fucking time, it's abrupt and startlingly inappropriate declarations and/or proposals.

Goldilocks should really just stay home.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Household emergency

I'm sure you're wondering what kinds of emergencies crop up in the Fescue household. Well, they're grim: the other day, the two halves of my cocktail shaker got stuck together.

Initially, I wasn't concerned. I ran it under hot water for a while. Then I got out the rubber jar-opener thingy to give me a better grip. Then I put it in the freezer to cool it down (on the vaguely-remembered principle that metal contracts when it's cold). Of course, I promptly forgot it was there--but upon rediscovery, days later, the thing still wouldn't budge. So I tried more hot water; the submersion method this time. Then I tried to prise apart the two halves with a very fine knife blade. Then I tried to push them apart with a flat-headed screwdriver. Then I sprayed the entire thing with WD-40. Then I repeated all of the above.

At last I sank down on the kitchen floor, massaging my nearly sprained hand. Forget getting food caught in one's throat and dying for lack of a Heimlich maneouver: rebellious inanimate objects are the real downside to living alone. Would it, I wondered, be totally inappropriate for me to take the shaker into work and ask for the assistance of a male colleague? Someone with bigger, stronger hands?

I didn't even consider buying a new shaker: this one is perfect, and has done noble service over the past decade. I bought it at Williams-Sonoma on my way home from work my first New Year's Eve after college, in preparation for the party I was throwing that night. I remember being shocked at its price (some $35 back in 1997), but I've since discovered that Williams-Sonoma carries better cocktail shakers than just about anyone--elsewhere the things tend to be cheaper, but are always more poorly made.

I set it aside. Then I came back to it. Finally, to the relief of all (well, me), something worked: filling the thing up inside with warm water and lots of dishsoap.

And all I can say is, thank God I'm still on vacation. Crises like these take a lot out of a girl.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Yours truly, immortalized!

There's no real story behind my pseudonym. When I moved blogs I decided that I wanted a pseudonym that was an actual name (rather than a title, like La Lecturess, which I'd come to find awkward), but unusual enough to be memorable. I was inclined toward something Latinate or Italianate, and I liked the fact that Flavia alliterated with my new blog's name.

All of which is to say, when I chose my pseudonym I'd forgotten about Donne's "Elegy II." Perhaps you've forgotten it, too?

Elegy II: The Anagram

Marry, and love thy Flavia, for she
Hath all things, whereby others beauteous be.
For, though her eyes be small, her mouth is great,
Though they be ivory, yet her teeth be jet:
Though they be dim, yet she is light enough,
And though her harsh hair fall, her skin is rough;
What though her cheeks be yellow, her hair's red,
Give her thine, and she hath a maidenhead.
These things are beauty's elements: where these
Meet in one, that one must, as perfect, please.
If red and white, and each good quality
Be in thy wench, ne'er ask where it doth lie.
In buying things perfum'd, we ask, if there
Be musk and amber in it, but not where.
Though all her parts be not in th'usual place,
She hath yet an anagram of a good face.
If we might put the letters but one way,
In that lean dearth of words, what could we say?
When by the gamut some musicians make
A perfect song, others will undertake,
By the same gamut chang'd, to equal it.
Things simply good can never be unfit;
She's fair as any, if all be like her,
And if none be, then she is singular.
All love is wonder; if we justly do
Accompt her wonderful, why not lovely too?
Love built on beauty, soon as beauty, dies;
Choose this face, chang'd by no deformities.
Women are all like angels: the fair be
Like those which fell to worse; but such as she,
Like to good angels, nothing can impair:
'Tis less grief to be foul, than t'have been fair.
For one night's revels, silk and gold we choose,
But, in long journeys, cloth and leather use.
Beauty is barren oft; best husbands say
There is best land, where there is foulest way.
Oh, what a sovereign plaster will she be,
If thy past sins have taught thee jealousy!
Here needs no spies, nor eunuchs; her commit
Safe to thy foes, yea, to a marmoset.
When Belgia's cities, the round countries drown,
That dirty foulness guards, and arms the towns:
So doth her face guard her. And so, for thee,
Which forc'd by business, absent oft must be,
She, whose face, like clouds, turns the day to night,
Who, mightier than the sea, makes Moors seem white,
Who, though seven years she in the stews had laid,
A nunnery durst receive, and think a maid,
And though in childbirth's labour she did lie,
Midwives would swear, 'twere but a tympany,
Whom, if she'accuse herself, I credit less
Than witches, which impossibles confess,
Whom dildos, bedstaves, and her velvet glass
Would be as loath to touch as Joseph was:
One like none, and lik'd of none, fittest were,
For things in fashion every man will wear.

Now tell me that wouldn't make for an awesome personal ad.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Print and personality

As usual, I'm weeks (but no longer months!) behind in my magazine reading, and so only just got around to Caleb Crain's "Twilight of the Books" in the December 24 & 31 issue of The New Yorker. Although I feel I've read a half-dozen versions of this same article over the past year or two--and I'm dubious about some of Crain's conclusions--it was still a worthwhile read.

Nevertheless, I take issue with this statement, near the essay's close, about the difference between text and television:
Moving and talking images are much richer in information about a performer's appearance, manner, and tone of voice. . . . The viewer may not catch all of the details of a candidate's health-care plan, but he has a much more definite sense of her as a personality, and his response to her is therefore likely to be more full of emotion. There is nothing like this connection in print. A feeling for a writer never touches the fact of the writer herself, unless reader and writer happen to meet. In fact, from Shakespeare to Pynchon, the personalities of many writers have been mysterious.
The first two sentences are mostly unobjectionable, but the last three get my vote as the stupidest thing ever said about writing by someone who purports to be both a reader and a writer.

Yes, yes: we probably learn more about the average person and his personality from a video clip than we do from a paragraph of his prose (though God save me from having to scrutinize either). But when it's writers we're talking about, I'm not sure that anything conveys personality better than the written voice. Do we learn everything about a writer from his work? Not a chance. But we probably learn more from it, over time, than we do from seeing him at the supermarket every week or catching the occasional t.v. interview.

Writing isn't a transparent medium, and even autobiographical writing like that on this-here blog involves some masking or resculpting of reality in order to produce a prettier or simply more coherent self. But that's true of all public performances--whether they're enacted on the page, before a t.v. camera, or live and in person. I'm not sure that someone who wanders into a panel and sees me deliver a conference paper, or even someone who chats with me over coffee, knows me any better or any more authentically than someone who only knows me through my blog. The two people probably know different things about me, but the person who has only encountered me, casually, in person does not know more. Likely he knows less.

Maybe not everyone is attuned to writing in the same way, but I believe that diction, syntax, and sentence rhythms are profoundly revelatory. I've fallen in love with some people, and become convinced that I know them, through their writing, while absolutely hating others--and all in ways and for reasons that have less to do with the subject of their writing than with matters of style and rhetorical self-presentation.

I imagine there are many people in the blogosphere who have had similar experiences. And I can say that, although there's always a moment of surprise and readjustment when I meet a blogger in person for the first time, I've never yet been wrong about someone's personality based on our initial, purely textual encounters.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Learning as dis/recovery

Over the past few days I've been making some headway on my long-deferred project of giving myself a crash course in literary theory, a subject largely and mysteriously absent from both my undergraduate and graduate training. My goal is modest: basically, to learn enough not to reveal myself publicly as an idiot.

I have a few textbooks and anthologies spread out on my coffee table (thanks partly to recommendations by Sisyphus and Horace), and I'm picking through various schools and theorists, reading all the headnotes and a good selection of essays. As I expected, it's been a deeply pleasurable activity. Much of what I'm reading is exciting in its own right, and some of it beautifully expressed, but my pleasure derives at least in part from the discovery that I know more than I thought I did, and in some ways what I'm really acquiring is a better context or frame for that knowledge.

It's satisfying to learn where certain terms that I've long understood and sometimes even used actually come from, or seeing how Thinker B was influenced by Thinker A. I recall having had a similar "a-ha!" experience late in my junior year in college, when I'd taken enough literature classes that I finally felt I had a general sense of the whole--how all those disparate periods, genres, and authors fit together.

In this case, though, I'm not just fitting things into a historical or intellectual progression, but realizing that I've already been (however un- or semi-consciously) trained in much of this. That stuff that I do with texts? There's a method to it! Or there could be! I haven't just been fumbling along, making shit up.

This, in turn, makes me think about the way we teach our students to read and work with texts. Obviously, I don't teach theory qua theory, but I do expect my students to be able to ask certain kinds of questions about the works we read, and to approach them in ways that produce meaningful analyses and richer readings. Those questions and approaches aren't my approaches, of course--they reflect the ways that I and most literary scholars of my generation have been trained--though I may be guilty of having too readily assumed that they're the obvious or only ones.

Still, much of what we do in the classroom is similar to my own project over the past few days: not teaching students new things so much as showing them what they already half know. There are, of course, things that have to be learned from the ground up. But the older our students are the more likely it is that we're teaching them to focus or reorient skills that are already there; we're just helping them to be more thorough and more self-aware about the process.

Is that wishful thinking? Well, maybe. But even if it's not true for every student, it's surely pedagogically useful to conceive of literary analysis (both its acquisition and its exercise) in these terms: as "discovery" in the old sense of dis- or un-covering something that was there all along.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Last-ditch effort

Well, it's been one long party since I turned in my grades 2.5 weeks ago, but now that I've had some time both to whoop it up and to recover from whooping it up, I finally may be out of excuses for avoiding the work that always and eternally awaits.

Unless . . . you think it might be time for me to harrass my cat and post pointless pictures of him on my blog?

Yes! I think it is that time!

Tomorrow to fresh woods and procrastinations new.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

New Year's Meme

1. What did you do in 2007 that you’d never done before?
* Finished my first year on the tenure track
* Moved into a more adult relationship with my dissertation director
* Made a surprising number of friends in a new city, surprisingly fast
* Adopted a cat

2. Did you keep your 2007 resolutions, and will you make more this year?
I often make new year's resolutions, but didn't last year. (Maybe that was the problem?) I'm working on some for this year.

3. Did anyone close to you give birth?
Three college friends, including Babe, my college roommate. This may be the beginning of the wave.

4. Did anyone close to you die?

5. What countries did you visit?

6. What would you like to have in 2008 that you lacked in 2007?
Oh, lots of things. More money saved, more work completed, more focus. And while we're in the realm of fantasy, let's say a healthy romantic relationship.

7. What was your biggest achievement of the year?
All that tiresome self-reflection and personal growth stuff. I think I'm a better person now than I was a year ago. But it's really too dull to write about.

8. What was your biggest failure?
Huh. Maybe thinking that I a) knew what I wanted, and b) could make that outcome occur through force of will.

9. Did you suffer illness or injury?
I've been ridiculously healthy this year. I probably had a cold at some point last January-March, but I haven't had so much as a sniffle since April. However, there was that brief freak event in May that necessitated a trip to the emergency room.

10. What was the best thing you bought?
I bought many things this year that I love--I'm a bit of a spendthrift, but I rarely regret purchases and I derive great joy from the objects in my life. But far and away the best expenditure I made this year (I'm reluctant to call it a purchase) was adopting my cat.

11. Whose behavior merited celebration?
That of most of my friends. And dammit, my own.

12. Whose behavior made you appalled and depressed?
My ex's. Over and over again.

13. Where did most of your money go?
If I knew that, it wouldn't be gone, now would it?

14. Compared to this time last year, are you: a) happier or sadder? b) thinner or fatter? c) richer or poorer?
Oddly enough, I'm sure I'm happier now than I was at this time last year. I'm somewhat but unintentionally thinner. And things are a wash financially.

15. What do you wish you’d done more of?
Saved money/gotten out of debt. Worked on my book.

16. What do you wish you’d done less of?
Sat on my sofa staring into space.

17. Did you fall in love in 2007?
Not romantically, no. But I do think I fell (or re-fell) in love with quite a number of people as friends and/or colleagues.

18. What was the best new book you read?
Is it too lame to say Moby Dick? But I'd never read it until this summer.

19. What was your favorite film of the year?
Probably The Lives of Others.

20. What kept you sane?
Work. Friends.

21. Tell us a valuable life lesson you learned in 2007.
Realizing that we're always in the middle of interesting, meaningful narratives, even if, as we're living them, their shape and meaning are frustratingly opaque. And trying to enjoy the multiplicity of possibilities rather than struggling to predict or manage outcomes that aren't knowable in the first place and wouldn't be half so appealing if they were.

Happy 2008, everyone~~