Glass

 Lee Miller,  Exploding Hand  (1930)

Lee Miller, Exploding Hand (1930)

There’s a not-quite golfball-sized crack in the upper left corner of my windshield that I’ve looked at, around, or through virtually every day since leaving Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, to join the English Department at SUNY New Paltz. A constant travel companion from when a rock spun out from beneath the wheel of the truck in front of me, just outside Regina, SK, this spider-shaped (or is it sun-shaped?) chip is an unwanted souvenir from home and the part of my day-to-day life I’ve most successfully displaced from conscious experience. I don’t notice it’s there, most of the time. 

Maybe I’ve sublimated my anxieties over this cracked windshield, which I’ll eventually have to pay to get fixed, into my teaching and research. Lately, I’ve been preoccupied with glass. 

***

A few weeks ago, I featured James Baldwin’s “Notes of a Native Son” in my class on The Art of the Essay. Its opening paragraph is justifiably famous and worth quoting in full:

Baldwin’s commitment to documenting reality might preclude reading this image of broken glass as a symbol of something other than what it is: the result of anger that erupted after a white policeman shot a young, unarmed black man. But the shards of glass that blanket the streets of Harlem on the date of his father’s funeral also look forward in the essay, and backward in time, to when Baldwin, after having been denied service at a whites-only diner in Trenton, New Jersey, a year before his father’s death, threw a glass, “half full of water,” at the waitress. “It missed her,” Baldwin recalls, “and shattered against the mirror behind the bar.”

In “Notes of a Native Son,” shattered glass isn’t a metaphor so much as a metonym of systemic racism and black rage. It’s part of a landscape of State-sanctioned violence against black people that Baldwin, anticipating today’s #BlackLivesMatter movement, inhabits, observes, and records. 

 1943 Harlem Riot (Credit: www.newyorknatives.com)

1943 Harlem Riot (Credit: www.newyorknatives.com)

***

Baldwin’s recollection of driving through a “wilderness” of broken glass on the date of his father’s funeral echoes Elizabeth Bowen’s wartime story “The Demon Lover,” at the end of which the protagonist finds herself in the back of a cab—driven, presumably, by the titular figure—left to “beat with her gloved hands on the glass all round the taxi, accelerating without mercy [. . .] into the hinterland of deserted streets.”

Glass, in Bowen’s writings of the Second World World War, is likely to be broken not by the fists of heroines in distress, but by the detonations of Luftwaffe explosives. Oxford Street, in Bowen’s essay “London, 1940,” resembles the streets of Baldwin’s Harlem: it “glitters with smashed glass.” And in her novel about the Blitz, The Heat of the Day, the narrator remarks “the tinkle of broken glass being swept among the crisping leaves.” For Bowen, as for Baldwin, glass evinces State violence. Whether foreign or domestic, governments that identify innocent people as targets seem always to leave behind them fragments of smashed glass. 

 "Business As Usual" (Credit: Associated Press)

"Business As Usual" (Credit: Associated Press)

Bowen associates glass with personal violence, too. In “The Inherited Clock,” Clara comes to grips with a traumatic memory she’d repressed from childhood, when her cousin, Paul, had her insert her finger into the gears of a “skeleton clock” that she winds up inheriting as an adult. Clara accepted Paul’s dare; subsequently, her finger was “wedged,” “bruised,” “bitten into and eaten up by the cogs” of the mechanism.

The visceral quality of Bowen’s description notwithstanding, it’s a later event that left the greatest psychological imprint upon Clara: in an effort to dissuade her from using their shared secret as leverage to solicit kisses from him, Paul encased her inside the glass dome that normally covers the clock. Toward the end of the story, Clara asks him: “did you, for instance, once put the clock-glass over my head, and did I get stuck inside it?” Paul replies in the affirmative, and adds an additional detail: “But what a thing to forget! We damn nearly chipped your face off.”

***

In a talk I gave at New Paltz last week, I tried to connect this image of Clara’s head stuck inside a glass dome with Lee Miller’s photograph Tania Ramm in Bell Jar—which Katherine Conley examines in a terrific book, Surrealist Ghostliness. Conley attributes the Surrealist fascination with glass in part to its unique receptivity to light, matter, and vibration. Of Miller’s photograph, she notes that “the glass of the bell jar separating the head from the viewer symbolizes and concretizes the glass lens through which the photographer sees the head. The viewer is thus put in the place of the photographer and becomes conscious of seeing a head through glass.”

Conley’s argument provides a conceptual framework for thinking about Clara, stuck inside a bell jar, in ghostly terms—as one who inhabits the worlds of the living and the dead simultaneously. It also helps to put into focus Bowen’s claim, in the “Preface” to The Demon Lover, that the stories are “disjected snapshots—snapshots taken from close up, too close up, in the middle of the mêlée of a battle.” I’ve long been fascinated with this adjective of Bowen's: disjected (shattered, broken up, dispersed). If her language is photographic, it’s no less a language of shards. The lens of her writerly camera is cracked. 

***

In one of the many instances in which George Orwell is right and wrong at the same time, he proclaims: “Good prose is like a windowpane.” When is language ever as transparent as glass?

Then again, we might equally ask: when is glass ever fully transparent? Between Saskatoon and Regina, anyway, I had the clearness of view that Orwell describes.

 

Twitter, Empathic Learning, Intellectual Community

 William Hogarth,  Scene from Shakespeare's  The Tempest (c. 1735)

William Hogarth, Scene from Shakespeare's The Tempest (c. 1735)

The other day, I tweeted a screenshot plucked from Bethanne Patrick's @thelithub interview with Sunil Yapa to the students in my Intro to British Literature course. Yapa's meditation on empathy as a radical act and corollary to the practice of reading registered as timely for a few reasons, including that our class had just discussed the relationship between education and empathy in Shakespeare's The Tempest. Prospero's self-education removes him from the public sphere: despite his duty to serve his community as Duke of Milan, he admits "my library / Was dukedom large enough." Against his individualist--even solipsistic--retreat from the social, his daughter, Miranda, invests in the lives of others. After witnessing the storm (that, unbeknownst to her, Prospero orchestrated), she tells her father: "O, I have suffered / With those that I saw suffer." 

I came upon Yapa's thoughts on the alignment of empathy and reading via Twitter, mere moments after having led a workshop with my class where I initiated them into using social media as a tool for the course. Though I'd stressed that I wanted them to think of Twitter outside its function as a social media platform, Yapa's moving reflection on reading as necessarily social--"a profound act of imagination and human connection"--made me wonder if, when I made this plea, I implied that my students should be Prosperos when Twitter's potential for connectivity invites them to be Mirandas

Twitter demands brevity. Its 140-character limit precludes monologues, which, by definition, are mono-logical. On Twitter, students are neither expected nor able to dilate on an idea at length. As Jesse Stommel puts it in a recent piece, "Even a series of tweets strung together in succession creates opportunities at every turn for discussion. Each individual tweet becomes an addressable object, always a beginning and never a conclusion." On Twitter, as elsewhere, ideas get built as part of a dialogical process. When students engage with one another on Twitter, they reveal something essential about a humanities education: learning is not about “I” so much as it’s about “we.” 

***

Many of my students at SUNY New Paltz commute from places outside the town of New Paltz. Many of them have jobs. The kind of intellectual community that might take shape in places where students share time and space in ways mine don’t, or can’t, simply isn’t available to them, or to me. But even at universities where students, faculty, and staff live nearby, intellectual community seems hardly a given: it’s undermined by numerous forces, including the increasing corporatization of higher learning.

The institution puts us in silos. It conditions students and faculty to think of themselves as individuals, for whom education is an individual rather than social good. Too often, our pedagogy reiterates this attitude by encouraging competition and establishing hierarchies. Too often, we fail to ask ourselves what it might mean, and what it might look like, to extend our intellectual labour beyond the confines of the classroom, and beyond ourselves.  

During our workshop, I told my students I wanted them to think of their activities on Twitter as extensions of the intellectual community we’d started building in the classroom. I’m not sure to what degree we’ve realized this goal (it remains a work-in-progress) but I’ve found our daily face-to-face interactions consistently stimulating, challenging, and positive. I attribute at least part of the health of our learning environment to Twitter. My hope, in other words, that online dialogue would extend our intellectual community was perhaps too limited; in fact, Twitter has helped us to create our community, both within and outside the four walls of the classroom.

When students subscribed to the IntroBritLitStudents list, they joined a network of learners and thinkers. Of course, they already were members of such a network by virtue of having enrolled in the class. Perhaps subscribing to this list reminded my students that, despite what the typical classroom experience often suggests, their learning happens as part of a social (and cultural, and political) configuration. We're invested in ourselves and one another. Empathic learning requires precisely such a realization of the social context and potential of education. We've learned, and continue to learn, the wisdom Prospero comes to at the end of The Tempest—wisdom that, it seems, Miranda had all along.       

Why I Write

The two great essayists of the modern age—George Orwell and Joan Didion—wrote essays called “Why I Write,” which I’m featuring up front in my class on The Art of the Essay at SUNY New Paltz. Separated by thirty years (1946, 1976), Orwell and Didion write from different perspectives of class, gender, nationality, and historical circumstance, but their attitudes toward writing share enough in common to reward putting them into dialogue.

Since this is my first blog post, I’m inclined to think aloud about why I write, too: why I write in my capacity as an academic and teacher, and why I write—or why I propose to write—on this platform, to an audience of…well, who?

Writing in the aftermath of the Second World War, Orwell attributes being a political writer—“a sort of pamphleteer”—to living in a period of tumult and revolution. All writers, he contends, find their subject in the age in which they live. Orwell, who observed (and participated in) the evils of British imperialism before witnessing the rise of Fascism in Europe, couldn’t have avoided responding to the conflicts of the first half of the twentieth century—in essays, long-form literary nonfiction, and novels.

Didion’s oft-noted coolness represents a tonal shift from the polemical Orwell, but she’s no less a political writer: how could she be otherwise, positioned as she is in the midst of the International Cold War and American counterculture? For Didion, cool isn’t a version of detachment: she and her writings are embedded in the conditions in which she lived and worked. We read Didion, perhaps more than we do Orwell, for the aesthetic innovation of her work; like Orwell, we can also look to her novels and essays as records of the personal and political turmoil of the period she documented, and continues to document. 

***

What’s striking to me about Orwell’s and Didion’s responses to the implied question—why write?—is how forthcoming they are about the narcissism that drives them. Orwell lists “sheer egoism” at the top of his list of four great motives for writing: “Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc.” Didion is even more transparent in her self-assessment:

I like the sound of the words: Why I Write. There you have three short unambiguous words that share a sound, and the sound they share is this:

I

I

I

“In many ways,” Didion continues, “the act of writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind. It’s an aggressive, even a hostile act.”

How much of this (hostile? aggressive?) compulsion to say I, to impose myself, to command your attention and encourage you to see things my way, motivates my impulse to write? Do I write out of egoism, as Orwell admits he does (and claims that all writers necessarily must)?

And if, as Orwell says, “serious writers [. . .] are on the whole more vain and self-centred than journalists,” what about academics?

***

These essayists’ descriptions of the egoism that motivates writing ring true to me as an early career academic: there’s an “I” implicit in everything I write, not least because of the publish or perish culture that characterises our field. I write because of the professional profits that accompany writing. For obvious reasons (job security, prestige) my personal and professional ambitions can’t be separated. 

I write because I’m in at least partial agreement with Dr. Johnson when he says “no man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.”

Needless to say, though, there are easier ways to make a living (I agree with Hemingway, too, when he says “there’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed”). Can hubris sustain a writing life? An approach to writing as a discipline?

In “On Keeping a Notebook,” Didion describes writers as “anxious malcontents” and “resistant rearrangers of things.” She might also be describing academics, even the most careerist among whom write (I suspect) because they’re dissatisfied with things as they are. Whether we write to correct the prevailing understanding of a period, text, or cultural phenomenon, or because we want our readers to pay attention to something (or someone) formerly overlooked, we do tend to be malcontents and rearrangers of ideas, if not exactly of things.  

As an academic, I write to close the gap between how it is and how it ought to be. But what is “it”?

In the weeks and months to come, I anticipate the it in question will come into focus; I also suspect that "it" will multiply.

I write, here and elsewhere, because writing begets more writing.