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Monday, March 24, 2008

The Aeneid, 4,000 & Time to Own Up....

Academics have argued the uses of literature since the beginning of time. What is literature's best use? How does literature reflect "real life?" Should it reflect real life? The arguments are endless. I have been musing about this post for a few days now. Mainly I have been doing so because I have a lot to say regarding "The Aeneid," yet the more I think about it, the less I am able to separate myself from what I am reading. Just today, the 4,000th United States casualty of the Iraq War was recorded. Many say that in five years that number could be a great deal higher, and that we should be thankful that it is as "low" as it is. I don't want to get into personal opinions of foreign policy or politics in general. This blog is not a place for that. What I would like to point out is the fact that the U.S. military is a force dependent solely on volunteers. Reading "The Aeneid" has made me reflect on what it means for an individual to volunteer, embrace the spirit de corps and forget about himself. My grandfather volunteered in World War I, as did my uncles in World War II and my dear father in that forgotten episode called The Korean War. One of my first cousins was killed in action in Vietnam. I volunteered when the time came for me to do so, and, by the initial look of things, I thought to serve five years, collect a juicy check for college tuition, and then go about my life as if nothing had happened. This picture is my boot camp picture--I was a lad then. After all, when I signed up (1985), Ronald Reagan and Mikhael Gorbachev were literally kissing on the television. But the truth is that the Summer of 1990 came like a light of thunder, and the storm unleashed at the beginning of August was unavoidable.

In "The Aeneid" there is no casualty count, no IEDs, no "smart bombs," and no $120 a month for "hazard pay." What there's plenty of is the code of "Warrior Mind," a courage beyond description and reason, but yet beautiful and admirable. The passages are innumerable, really, but I will include here--in my opinion--some of the best. "The Story of the Sack of Troy" is a confusing and honestly told scene of "battle royale" proportions. There's plenty of running around when the fury of the Grecians is unleashed, yet, one part of the scene touched me very deeply with its honesty and display of courage, honor and commitment to a cause. Priam, the old stateman, finds himself, at the height of the Grecian attack, contemplating the burning city.

"When he saw the ruin of his captured city, the gates of his house burst open, and the enemy amid his innermost chambers, the old man idly fastens round his aged trembling shoulders his long disused armour, girds on the unavailing sword, and advances on his death among the thronging foe."

My chest swelled with pride as I saw the old king of Troy stand up for his city that way. I suppose my argument is not to glorify violence, but rather to exalt the real sacrifice of an individual who, during heated combat, puts all his egotism aside and gives his life and effort for the ideals he hold sacred. As I said earlier, this book has me recollecting what was my personal experience in "whatever it was I fought in," that confusing conflict which inspired no one and left more questions than answers--questions that were to reap their bitter fruits 12 years after the fact. The First Iraq War (or "Desert Storm") was an aimless conflict, albeit the UN resolution that put us there in the first place. I believe that "my war" is destined to become the next Korean War: a confused conflict that no one really cared about then or now. The similarities between the conflicts are striking, but more importantly because both conflicts happened at a "blah" moment in history, a "flat" moment in the pop soda of human history. As described by "The New York Times," when Anthony Swofford's book "Jarhead" came out:

"The first Iraq war is obviously an event that impinges directly on the current situation, and yet at the same time it seems curiously remote. Its post-cold-war, pre-9/11 context is in some ways blurrier than more distant times. The war itself happened fast and left a confused legacy."

I suppose that the history of human conflict is just that--one blur event leading to another one. There might not be a way to escape what is obvious: imperialist powers jockey for position near what is today the largest deposit of fossil fuel known to the world. Leaders might encourage the young men to fight courageously, turn it all into some idealistic campaign for sacred (albeit empty) words like freedom, democracy, rights, liberty, etc. But to the warrior in the heat of combat fossil fuels, diplomacy (or lack thereof), political expediency, and other tricks of the political trade are unimportant. They all fight for the same reasons the genealogy of heroes did: self-discipline, courage, honor, the larger picture of virtues that are easy to see, yet easier to ignore. The impression "The Aeneid" characters make on the reader is that they are all into "the fight" with honorable intentions. When I think of the camaraderie in both "The Aeneid" and "The Iliad" it is clear to me that it is so. However, these men also have large egos. I have only to think of Achilles arguing with Agamemnon about what is owed to him after the battle; his reward seems so small next to Agamemnon's take of the pie. Hector too has a great deal of pride, something which plays a great deal into his encounter with Achilles in battle. I suppose I shouldn't generalize but I don't see these men having questions about whether or not they should engage in battle. Most of the combat in these classics seems "justified," despite the fact that from the distance of time we want to believe that no war is justified. But what is the impact of these conflicts on the men who fight them? That is the ultimate answer to an decipherable question. As Willard Waller put it: "War does different things to different men. It disables one, unbalances the mind of a second, pauperizes a third, and makes a fourth write great literature to ease his tortured soul."
Aeneas tells of the fate of Priam:
"At this Priam, although even now fast in toils of death, yet withheld not nor spared a wrathful cry: 'Ah, for thy crime, for this thy hardihood, may the gods, if there is goodness in heaven to care for aught such, pay thee in full thy worthy meed, and return thee the reward that is due! who hast made me look face to face on my child's murder, and polluted a father's countenance with death. Ah, not such to a foe was the Achilles whose parentage thou beliest; but he revered a supplicant's right and trust, restored to the tomb Hector's blood-drained corpse, and sent me back to my own realm."

Again, without the intention of advocating violence, there's something attractive about Priam's final defiance. The old king refuses to go quietly. I think of my father--his nonnegotiable code of honor; his impenetrable silence in the face of great pain and hardship; his unbending stoicism and resolution. These were things he tried very hard to teach me. I tried to follow his footsteps, but the size was a bit big for me. After years trying to fill his shoes I bended the road ahead and sheltered myself in a life of academics. I am light years away from what I was, really, and this is the reason why "The Aeneid" speaks to me the way it does. I've gotten lost in the wilderness of a world no one in my family ever entered before. The questions never abandoned me: do I belong where I am today? Is this really me? What do I do with the warrior mind now? Should I continue to struggle against the fact that I stood for values that today are being trampled and dishonored in the name of lower gas prices? What about the values that "The Aeneid," "The Iliad," and "The Odyssey" speak of? I am tainted. Part of me will always carry the stain, no matter what world I decide to inhabit. Anthony Swofford wrote eloquently about this. He too abandoned the vile and repulsive violence and embraced an academic life.

Anthony Swofford's book "Jarhead" was a breakthrough in combat-related writing. The book appeared at a time in my life when I sort of decided to "resign" my experience. I had given my life to the pursuit of academics, and, to my belief, those two segments of my life were as incompatible as water and oil. There was nothing, I said to myself, my combat experience can offer my new life in academia. The more I put myself above and beyond my experience in the United States Marines, the more I realized that it was unavoidable, inescapable. I wasn't that dumb kid who enlisted to make his father proud. I forgot all about the ills of communism, and how even in the mid-1980s the government was already using that ideology as an excuse to escalate tensions and the military budget. No, I wasn't thinking at all anymore. I didn't want to. That wasn't me anymore. I was different. I had been one of them, a part of the larger mission, but I had given it all up. With this crux I knew I would never find peace. It wasn't until literature helped me understand the causes and effects of my experience, and that no matter how fast or far I could run, there was no denying this:

"The man fires a rifle for many years, and he goes to war, and afterward he turns his rifle in at the armory and believes he's finished with the rifle. But no matter what else he might do with his hands - love a woman, build a house, change his son's diaper - his hands remember the rifle and the power the rifle proffered. The cold weight, the buttstock in the shoulder, the sexy slope and fall of the trigger guard.... To be a marine, a true marine, you must kill. With all of your training, all of your expertise, if you don't kill, you're not a combatant, even if you've been fired at, and so you are not yet a marine: receiving fire is easy - you've either made a mistake or the enemy is better, and now you are either lucky or dead but not a combatant.... The sad truth is that when you're a jarhead, you're incapable of not being a jarhead, you are a symbol, so that in a city like San Diego, where there are more jarheads than windows and the jarheads are embarrassing because of their behavior and dress and you want more than anything else not to be associated with the Eagle, Globe and Anchor, you are still one.... Though you might be an individual, first you are a symbol, or part of a larger symbol that some people believe stands for liberty and honor and valor, God and country and Corps. Sometimes this is correct, sometimes this is foolish. But either way, you are part of the goddamn thing.... That jarhead with the high and tight haircut, the Disneyland T-shirt, acid-washed jeans, farmer's tan, poor grammar, and plan stupid look on his face, he is you. And that one, with the silly regulation mustachio, the overweight wife from his hometown of Bumfuck, with three kids in tow, three kids covered with sticky boardwalk foods and wet sand, one of them crying because he has to pee and the older sister just punched him in the face, he is you. And that jarhead is you, the one with the wife just twenty-four hours out of a bar in the PI, the both of them deeply in love with each other and all things American.... he is you.... And the jarheads fighting and warring and cussing and killing in every filthy corner of the godforsaken globe, from 1775 until now, they are you. This is troubling and difficult to admit, and it causes you unending anguish, and you attempt to deny it, but it's true. Even now."

Education has a way of opening a new world of ideas to the individual, but it also has a way of disabling that individual's ability to relate to his past. Who he was before education becomes incompatible with the new person created by academics, as if the act of getting an education was part enlightenment, part freak science project gone wrong. I didn't want the association with whatever the sacrifices I made. The losses were heavier at home than in the far away desert I served my time. And no matter how far I wanted to be from those comrades, I was still and will forever be, one of them.

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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Less Sport, More Art...

My struggle lasted over five years. I still wanted to believe in some obscure part of it, some unblemished, pure aspect of it all. Unfortunately, I couldn't find a single redeemable quality, the elusive... how do you say?... faith of it all. I gave up professional sports earlier this year for good, unconditionally, unequivocally, without remorse or reservation. The fact that I rooted for major teams such as Real Madrid and the New York Yankees put me in some sort of bracket--an unspoken, ugly characteristic no one wants to own up to but has to because it is part and parcel of his or her being. I am talking about appreciating the "money-can-buy-everything" attitude... the "you-owe-me-because-I am-a-great-sport-star" attitude... $10 million a year to play basketball? Please... I don't want to be part of it--in no way, shape or form.

Of course, I have to take into account the allegorical value of sports as a manifestation of human excellence, the triumph of the human spirit, etc. Yet, there seems to be a major deficiency of that triumph even at the college level and Olympic sports. As with everything else, we've become more commercialized, "technologized," and "financialized." With sports' scholarships in NCAA Division I running in the hundred of thousands, even amateurs are given to the luxury of sports. Recently, "The Cleveland Plain Dealer" ran an article dealing with the increase of poverty and foreclosures of homes in the Cuyahoga county. The page facing the one that ran the article was about "The Cleveland Auto Show," and about how a certain basketball star had "several" of his privately own cars on display at the show. One of the automobiles was valued at over $400,000. Now, of course there are people who would say that I am far too idealistic to make such an observation. I am by no means "generally liberal" in my social views, but the fact that no one bothered with running the articles facing each other across the page cannot be simply ignored as an oversight of judgment.

Yesterday I spent most of the day reading "The Aeneid." I see Aeneas very much the same way I see Achilles, warriors of the working-day. There are a few passages that I have underlined because they speak of the "Warrior Mind" in my own experience. Being part of the whole history of the United States Marine Corps--the tradition, the excellence in combat, the unbending code of honor--makes me feel like I am part of the human history of conflict. While I have come a long, long way from all of that, there's still a part of me that identifies with the flight from Troy, the courage of Priam, the stoicism of Aeneas, etc. I am a Marine, I've always been--from the moment I was born--and the fact that time and dust have taken me miles away from the "Warrior Mind," doesn't stop me from making all the connections to the struggles of Aeneas and the rest of his troops. It makes me think of "Jarhead" by Anthony Swofford. "Jarhead" is an admirable book, and it does depict the "Warrior Mind" accurately enough, but the book is a personal account and has more to do about Swofford than the Marine Corps. There are, however, some fine passages, and I will be writing about them tomorrow when I begin to examine quotes from "The Aeneid." See you then.

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Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Learn to Love Learning...

I said on an earlier post that I was "saving" my "Made in Italy" Moleskine notebooks and using the "made in China" cahiers instead. This morning, at 5 AM, I completed another middle-sized cahier. Of course, the trick now is to type it all up without trying to revise it at the same time. I think that's the most difficult part of the process: typing from what you have written long hand and not get discouraged because your stuff just "sucks" compared to other things you've read. One has to continue reminding one's self that successfully published authors have a gamut of editors and line/proof readers, etc., that do excellent work on the finish product. Keeping that in mind, I will forge forward with the revised and newly written parts.

"The Aeneid" seems to me so much more vivid than the first time I read it. I think the first time I had problems understanding point of narrative view, character development, etc. This time around, the first chapter of the story, "The Coming of Aeneas to Carthage," seems so much more controlled and formulaic. Aeneas' motives appear clearer to the reader of, perhaps, not the best of translations (done by J.L. Mackail), and the trajectory from Troy to Carthage much more vivid in its description of the storms and trials of the voyage. I hope to get into the middle chapters by the end of the week.

This week is the Standardized Testing Week at the Academy. I am not very hot on those tests, as conventional wisdom dictates (and I approvingly repeat) they prove nothing. Learning at this stage is not about learning for fact, but learning to become a life-long learner... to enlarge our humanity by engrossing ourselves in the best books ever written and the greatest ideas ever collected. Keeping this in mind, then, tests prove absolutely nothing, and, what is more, they are put together by two types of individuals who have little or nothing in the way of "investment" in education. The first of this group is the "life-long administrator," who has "put in" the bare minimum time required in the classroom (the trenches) before moving on to "giving orders about curriculum, etc." The second of these is "the politician," who can only substantiate his "effective" educational policies by the use of some objective, standardized test result. I can hear him/her now: "During my administration, high school students scored higher on the standard battery of tests," etc., etc., ad naseum. If you think I am a little bitter about this, you haven't heard the first or last of it from me, believe me. I am not here to promote "pie in the sky-highly verbose-catch phrase" ideas, but I would love for nothing more for students to come here to learn how to love learning... that's the key to a successful academic life. We mustn't forget the virtuous and humanist twist of things. I hope all of this becomes clear to those in charge.

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Monday, March 10, 2008

Write More, Read Less?

After shoveling snow for 5 hours (non-stop) on Sunday, the thought occurred to me that I should be writing more and reading less. My schedule in the last few weeks has been out of control and my reading list is all shot to pieces. I wrote last week--to my very surprise--much as I did during the November Madness; it all came easily and smoothly. I made good progress in a couple of scenes that needed retouching. So, the question remains, how to devote equal time to both reading and writing, and meet all the increasing demands from work? While there's no answer to this, I have made the attempt to get my reading done early (5 AM), and then work on the writing at whatever time available. I could also switch the schedule so that some days I am doing the writing first. At any rate, I know I am making a fuss over nothing, but I feel a little stressed right now.

Today is the fourth anniversary of my father's death. I remember that the call came right in the middle of one of my classes. The cell phone rang at my desk, I excused myself from my students and answered. It was my sister with the dreadful news. I remember hanging up the phone and walking slowly up to the podium and telling my students that my father had just died. Then I launched into the remaining part of my lecture (on Wollstonecraft's "Vindication of the Rights of Women). I didn't really feel sad or did I cry until I saw my father at the funeral home four days later. That was a really special class of students, those girls.... they made all the difference during that difficult time. Where would I be without these young minds that teach me so much?

I am reading Virgil's "The Aeneid" as the classics year continues. While I have changed my reading list to include many contemporary titles, I only did so to break the formality of style, etc. Presently, I am only a few pages into it, so I'll report more later.

The song playing now is Alejandro Sanz' "Tu No Tienes Alma," which translates into "You don't have a soul." It's a sad story about a terrible break up. I remember listening to this song during that most difficult December of 2004. It has a special place in my heart.

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Thursday, March 06, 2008

Goldberg's "Trippy Acid" Writing Advice...

I think from the previous post you might be able to surmise that I am sort of trivializing Natalie Goldberg's writing advice. I know, I know... that's not a nice thing to do. But there's something about psychedelic theory that makes me cringe. These things (Goldberg's advice) might or might not have anything to do with writing, or even the teaching of writing. She does offer some things that fall among the most insightful I have read. Having said that, and knowing I might be asked why I continued reading when the book was so exasperating to begin with (I never put down a book until I am done--hate it notwithstanding), but as with everything there were those bright kernels of wisdom among the post-60s theorisms. Here's a good piece of advice:

"If you can learn writing practice well, it is a good foundation for all other writing."

But then the book is mainly and foremost about this:

"... either in New Mexico or Ohio, we are under a big sky. That big sky is wild mind. I'm going to climb up to that sky straight over our heads and put one dot on it with a Magic Marker. See that dot? That dot is what Zen calls monkey mind or what western psychology calls part of conscious mind. We give all our attention to that one dot. So when it says we can't write, that we're no good, are failures, fools for even picking up a pen, we listen to it."

All this might be true, and I know I am not making full justice by just quoting isolated passages outside of the content, but the truth of the matter is that most of the book talked about her experience with writing, not so much how to assert yourself as a writer using the advice. I did read "Writing Down the Bones," and I plan on reading more from her.... it's just confusing when I think how we worry about all these outside things, and it seems to me that some people just live "out there," somewhere where Iraq, the economy, unemployment, bad political choices by our leaders, the price of crude oil, computer viruses and bad meals do not exist. I know I envy them, and I know I am exaggerating their point, but, really, how can you achieve that level of detachment (which is essentially a Zen principle)? I am over-simplifying and generalizing, but I tend to do that a lot, and I apologize. Here's a more extreme example of what I deem problematic regarding this book. This is a "Try This" exercise, some of which appear randomly after chapters:

"Go ahead, kiss a tree. Walk right out your front door, put your arms around one that you pass every day at the curb, pucker up your lips and give it a big smacker. Close your eyes and put a chocolate kiss in your mouth (or a strawberry or an almond, for those of healthful persuasion). Feel it on your tongue and dream. Now write. Write anything you want. Kissing a tree is silly? What isn't silly? Writing is the silliest of all. If you can write out of that silliness, you'll be a long way on the path."

Again, I have nothing against these approaches, but I suspect that you have to believe in them to a certain extent... if I walked out my office, down the stairs pass all of my students, opened the door to our beautiful campus, went out there and hugged and kissed a tree... what could I say to my students? "Oh, this is about writing, really!" I can see their faces now... "Geez, I thought Prof. R was 'serious' about writing." At any rate, I think Goldberg's advice is for "some" people, not everyone. One thing that strikes me odd about the book is the constant praise of Hemingway as a writer and technician of writing. Often times, liberal minded people bash Hemingway for his macho attitude, etc. That may or may not be a lot of literary revisionism, but it was nevertheless curious to see Goldberg--an obvious liberal--praising Hemingway above other writers she could have chosen. I judge unfairly: she sorts of balances out the book by doing this.

Presently, I am reading "Writing to Heal the Soul: Transforming Grief and Loss Through Writing," by Susan Zimmerman. Why? Because I am dividing my time between classics, writing instruction books, and writing. This is a book that came out of a great deal of suffering, so it is very unlike Goldberg's "happy" thoughts. While I am half-way through it already, I can't really comment until I get past this chapter. So far so good.

About the music on the blog. If it is annoying, let me know and I'll discontinue it. Otherwise, I am planning to change the music file every week. It that plays automatically after the site loads, so if you don't want to hear it, just scroll down and hit the pause button on the player.

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