A new year begins, and I find myself (coincidentally) engaged in my regular ritual of remembrance as I pass yet another milestone here. Once more, my screaming into the void have seen me safely and sanely through another one hundred meandering thoughts. The last fourteen months or so since my six hundredth post has given me more opportunities to write about my own interests–books I’ve read, research I’ve done, problems I’ve grappled with–and to ignore, as best I can, the constant state of ritual panic and outrage that dominates our public discourse. From all of that, I have culled the ten best quotes from the last one hundred posts.
10) The journey began with Walrussia Day (only slightly more commonly known as Alaska Day), in which we commemorated the purchase of Alaska by recalling the unflattering portmanteau of “walrus” and “Russia” by which the territory was known by opponents of the purchase.
The icy cold colors of Russia will give place to the Stars and Stripes, and Walrussia will henceforth become the north star of the republic….The hoisting of the Stars and Stripes will be a great event for Walrussia. She will launch into new life. All the Esquimaux [Eskimo] will be at the gathering; the Common Council of Sitka will make appropriation to celebrate the occasion; roast walrus, boiled walrus, fried walrus, walrus a la mode, whale scraps, whale blubber and whale oil will be served up in abundance; the choicest wines from the Arctic vineyards will be furnished; the Esquimaux girls will be in at the first national ball; all around the harbor of Sitka the seals, the polar bears and the walruses will turn out en masse to see what’s up, and finding that it is the American flag and Brother Jonathan, will join in the general Jubilee.
Thus we nationalize our new purchase of real estate. Where is the next slice, Mr. Seward!
9) The amusing anecdotes of history continued with a series drawing on the late nineteenth century Book of Christmas to explore a “very Victorian” holiday season. Perhaps my favorite tradition–transfigured but carried on today–was the copious drinking. On Twelfth Night, even the foliage imbibed:
The merry bowl which, notwithstanding that it had been so often drained, was still kept brimming throughout all the Christmas holidays, was now when they were drawing to a close actually flowing over; and the warm heart and jovial spirit of the season, not content with pledging all those who could drink in return, proceeded to an excess of boon-companionship, and after quaffing a wassail-draft to the health and abundant bearing of some favorite fruit-tree, poured what remained in the cup upon the root, as a libation to its strength and vitality.
8) Other historical topics were less cheery and much nearer to my own research interests. Such was the case with a series of homework assignments from Japanese students under the tutelage of the American William Elliot Griffis. Griffis had assigned his students the task of writing about their impressions of foreigners, almost certainly seeking and (at times) eliciting effusive praise of the West. One student, however, didn’t take the bait, dismissing western triumphalism thus:
Everyone’s residence is the best place in the world. So every nation thinks itself to be better than others in many respects…
7) Every teacher has contrary students like that–or at least, I hope that Griffis and I aren’t alone. The last fourteen months have coincided with a significant increase in my own teaching load that prompted more reflection on pedagogical theory. Among my many readings was Ken Robinson’s Creative Schools. I was generally unsparing in my chapter-by-chapter blog-along criticism of Robinson, but if all his talk of “revolution” was empty, at least some of it was inspirational. This paean about localism particularly resonated:
[T]he best place to start thinking about how to change education is exactly where you are in it. If you change the experience of education for those you work with, you can change the world for them and in doing so become part of a wider, more complex process of change in education as a whole.
6) I was significantly more laudatory when it came to John Gray’s Seven Types of Atheism, which, though it also did not live up to its state purpose, offered dozens of interesting insights and quotes. Especially useful were his thoughts (significantly abbreviated here) on Genesis 1-3, which he defends as an atheist from the scorn of atheists:
The primitive character of the new atheism shows itself in the notion that religions are erroneous hypotheses. The Genesis story is not an early theory of the origin of species….The story of Adam and Eve eating from the Tree of Knowledge is a mythical imagining of the ambiguous impact of knowledge on human freedom. Rather than being inherently liberating, knowledge can be used for purposes of enslavement….Unlike scientific theories, myths cannot be true or false. But myths can be more or less truthful to human experience. The Genesis myth is a more truthful rendition of enduring human conflicts than anything in Greek philosophy, which is founded on the myth that knowledge and goodness are inseparably connected.
5) My favorite reads in the past fourteen months have been mostly fiction, an unusual departure for me. Perhaps the best modern literature I have read in recent time is Nakamura Fuminori’s acclaimed novel The Thief. I shared here a comment from one character who, though more de Sade than Camus, gives a wonderful account of the kind of total engagement with being at the heart of existentialism. He says, in part:
In this life, the proper way of living is to make use of both joy and suffering. They are both merely stimuli that the world presents to us. So by blending them skillfully within you, you can use them in a completely different way…Taste everything in the whole world. Even if you should fail at these tasks, taste the emotion that comes with failure. Savor with all your senses the fear of death.
4) For all the joy of reading and thinking, though, it is now 2020 and impossible to ignore politics altogether (at least not if you intend to stay engaged with the public discourse). Back in March of last year, I engaged in a kind of archival experiment, creating for myself a record of what people thought about the Democratic presidential candidates in the white hot heat of the moment when everything was still possibility and nothing had been settled yet. Much of what was said continues to be said, showing the intractability of political narratives (though the high praise for Harris and low blows for Klobuchar have largely dissipated). This comment about Beto O’Rourke (who featured here more than once) seems particularly prescient now:
It’s hard to distrust the state, even performatively, and then actively try to participate in it.
3) Politics are not the only, or even the most heated, battle grounds in our culture at the moment, and debates about race and gender intruded here more often even than electoral politics. (Probably because of the whole no voting thing.) I have been particularly productive–to my own benefit–filtering debates about cultural appropriation through the logic of “going native” and about creator vs. product through the history of Donatism, nothing has offered up a better quote than my frequent returns to the question of causality vs. moral culpability. Laura Kipnis’ book, Unwanted Advances (soon to be reviewed at length here), was particularly useful in this. Kipnis offers this confirmatory gem:
No one’s saying women get assaulted because they pass out in dicey locales: I fully believe that women should be able to pass out wherever they want–naked, even–and be inviolable. One hopes such social conditions someday arrive. The issue is that acting as if things were different from how they are isn’t, thus far, working out….(Self-induced helplessness isn’t gender progress.) Two different things can be true at once: men are responsible for sexual assault; and women who act as if sexual assault weren’t a reality are acting incoherently.
2) I’m never sure how I’ve managed to endear myself to any of the women in my life, particularly my wife. I try not to think about it too hard, particularly given my choice this year of a Valentine’s message (taken from Merve Emre’s Personality Brokers):
[A man] thinks it is obvious when he marries a woman he has demonstrated once and for all that he esteems her above all other women, and that when he works hard and provides for her he is demonstrating day by day a fundamental concern for her well-being (it would probably be a little sentimental to refer to it as happiness), and that therefore it is superfluous to mention either fact. So he doesn’t. He only mentions what he considers worthy of note–the respects in which she depart from the ideal, and respects in which their well-being (hers as often as his) would be greater if she would do differently from the way she naturally does.
1) As always, though, the best post of any cycle has to do with God’s greatest creatures, who scientists in Japan painted up like zebras to prove (successfully) that stripes deter flies:
If it works for wild horses in Africa, why not cows in a Japanese pasture?