Saturday, May 23, 2015

Sontag, Freud, Said

[Dear Readers--This is a draft of an afterword to a chapter in my book on Susan Sontag that may or may not appear in the final version.  The chapter concerns Sontag's early relationship in her writing to the work of Sigmund Freud, and takes up as a contrast the work of Edward Said and one of his last public addresses, delivered at the London museum for Freud. Let me know your thoughts!]

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                As an afterword to this discussion of Sontag’s relationship to Freud and his thought, I wanted to reflect for a moment on a more productive usage of Freudian theory than Sontag offers.  Sontag is right to reject the simplifying of Freud’s ideas and their appropriation by the status quo.  Further, Sontag’s own rejection of Freud is wrapped up with her turning away from married life and the work (or even co-work) she did with ex-husband Philip Rieff (in his book Freud: The Mind of a Moralist), which did in essence reduce art to manifest and latent content, with the ability of the critic/analyst being to uncover the latent content at the expense of that on the surface and her experience of the work of art in all of its complexity.  Edward Said in his brief, late lecture Freud and the Non-European (2002) maps a more productive and continuing engagement with Freud’s ideas.  Following on the chapter in his early book Beginnings: Intention and Method (1985) that explicates Freud’s writerly method in Interpretation of Dreams, and his Modern Language Association presidential address “Humanism and Heroism” (published in PMLA in May 2000), Said has provided another path for the use of Freud in these later ages. 
            In Freud and the Non-European, Said turns to Freud’s last book Moses and Monotheism as a model for the kinds of analysis of fractured identity that has become pivotal in twenty-first century life and nationhood.  Freud’s work in general and his last work in particular become, in Said’s phrasing, “an overturner and a re-mapper of accepted or settled geographies and genealogies.”[1]  Freud’s methods and texts become a way of (re)mapping the boundaries between selves and histories; Said reflects that Freud
lends himself especially to rereading in different contexts [as all great literature does], since his work is all about how life history offers itself by recollection, research and reflection to endless structuring and restructuring, in both the individual and the collective sense.[2]
Said’s concern, as an Palestinian exile, centers on Freud's reading of his Jewish identity, which since Freud's death has become monolithic and exclusionary toward the Other in powerful and violent ways.  Freud’s Moses and Monotheism, because it sees the roots of Judaism and monotheism in Moses’s identity as a Egyptian before he becomes the leader of the Israeli contingent out of Egyptian slavery, locates the Other (in this case, the Egyptian and the origins of monotheism in relation to the worship of Aton, the sun god, under the ruler of Amenhotep IV) at the heart of the Jewish identity.  Thus Freud’s fracturing of identity in his model of psychoanalysis and his suggestion that nationalist identity is also inherently fractured and made other than itself from its very origins provide a model for accepting the other rather than rejecting it with violence. 
Said maps how this understanding of identity can actually lead to peace and peaceful coexistence between radically different individuals, groups, and nations.  Although many want to belong to identifiable and definable groups, or (in Said’s terms) want “desperately” to run in “nationalist or religious herds,” the cost of this kind of group-thinking and belonging often leads to violence toward and annihilation of the Other and a non-recognition that the Other is a part of the self.[3]  Freud provides us with another model, an “exemplification” in the work itself “of the insight that even for the most definable, the most identifiable, the most stubborn communal identity…there are inherent limits that prevent it from being fully incorporated into one, and truly one, Identity” that would subject all others to it.[4]  In this Freudian model, the narrative of history can be seen in all of its complexity, “being always that which comes after and, all too often, either overrides or represses the flaw” inherent in any seemingly unitary notion of identity.[5]  Freud in Said’s view allows us to “speak to other besieged identities”; for
identity cannot be thought or worked through itself alone; it cannot constitute or even imagine itself without that radical originary break or flaw which will not be repressed, because Moses was Egyptian, and therefore always outside the identity inside which so many have stood, and suffered—and later, perhaps, even triumphed.[6]
                Said presents a model for reading Freud that has some of the same liberatory effects that Sontag found in rejecting Freud to embrace the (surface of the) artwork itself.  He presents his readers with a model of identity via Freud’s late work that allows the Other to be recognized even in the most unitary nationalist and religious traditions, because the Other is always there anyway, within and without.  Divorced from Sontag’s own early Freud scholarship and not tangled in Rieff’s sympathetic and discerning apologetics for much of Freud’s thought on literature, art, and culture, at least in Rieff's earliest books, Said’s own consideration in Freud and the Non-European would have engaged Sontag’s own deeply held desires for a model of psychoanalysis that provides complexity and an open-ended, engaged, immersive thought for society in the twenty-first century.

[1] Edward Said, Freud and the Non-European (London: Verso, 2002), 27.
[2] Said, Freud and the Non-European, 27.
[3] Said, Freud and the Non-European, 53.
[4] Said, Freud and the Non-European, 53-54.
[5] Said, Freud and the Non-European, 54-55.
[6] Said, Freud and the Non-European, 54. 

Friday, May 22, 2015


Dear Readers!

My personal trainer yesterday challenged me to get out of my head and live more in my heart than I have, especially in the gym and during the workout.  I have been trying to think this through--or, more appropriately, feel this through.  I know I have a tendency, as many academics do, to overthink and sometimes approach things perhaps too intellectually; it is why we are fit for the jobs we do. (Actually, I am not so sure that it is possible to overthink, especially in our society where so much thinking doesn't occur, but he may have a point, at least as far as my workouts go.)

Frankly, gyms are hard places for many of us to "tune in" to our heart, soul, or spirit.  One of the reasons I like yoga (even though I do not get to formal yoga sessions as much as I would like) is because the music and the poses help me to tune in and listen closely.  Gyms in general are so loud--in fact, so loud that even if I wanted to listen to classical or ambient music during my workout as a way of tuning in, the blaring thump-thump-thump of the bass in the sound system drowns it out.  Our gym is better than some, but there are still far too many speakers set far too loudly.  I suffer from hyper-vigilance, a condition I cannot cure, which means that the noise probably gets to me more than some, but I believe this may be the case for many more than those who are as vocal as I am about it.

Additionally, I do not do repetitions or counting multiple sets of large numbers well.  This comes from being bored very easily, and having adjusted my life pretty well in these forty-six years not to be bored.  I naturally tune out when I am doing something repetitive, tuning in to my thoughts, which are normally more interesting then the activity, and then I lose count!  My wife has taught me a trick of counting in sets of ten, which seems to be working better--at least I do not find myself losing count as often.

All of this being said, I have to return to the central thought here, which is living less in my head and more in my heart in general (and in the workouts in particular).  What I discovered as I reflected on this throughout yesterday and yesterday evening was a kind of chiaroscuro in the soul that I had not quite owned yet.  Yes, I have been through years of counseling and dealt bravely and courageously with a lot of very difficult issues, coming to a place of happiness and contentment with much about myself, although this does not mean that I am not driven always to be better.  However, I must admit even though I do not like this fact that there is still much anger in my heart, even though I am in general a grateful and upbeat person (which is not an act).  I am angry about broad issues--for instance, income inequality.  Growing up in Appalachia in a poor coal mining region, I saw much poverty and struggle, even in my own family.  And the story that those who are poor do not work hard enough is just erroneous.  My blessed maternal grandmother worked for years, lived on a small income from her husband's black lung, and gave so much love to me and others, could barely keep her house warm enough in the winters.  I do not know why she had to live like that when there are others, while others in Buffalo and elsewhere that I have known can remodel their homes for tens of thousands of dollars when the home was just remodeled a few years previously and is quite luxurious as it is.

I am also angry that people are not nicer to one another and more considerate, instead of just being in it for themselves.  The anonymity of the Internet allows many people to express things that they might never say in person to another.  And the hate expressed in many posts there just makes me despair of people's hearts.  I wonder sometimes where the love has gone.

Chiaroscuro is the balance of light and dark elements in a painting.  I think this is also a good term for what I see in my own spirit these days, and which I am coming deeper to understand and perchance accept.  The light and the dark have to be a balance, I suppose; otherwise, it is all light with no shadow telling you what is light and what isn't.  By growing to accept some of this anger, and turn it into a thirst for justice perhaps, I may be able to go deeper and live more authentically in the moment as I workout, write, teach, pray, and do all that I do.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Beginner's Mind

Dear Readers:

I have been thinking a lot these days about Beginner's Mind, a Buddhist concept that has major implications for our understanding of the writing process and improving our life itself.  Natalie Goldberg in Writing Down the Bones (one of the best books about writing out there) argues that returning to "beginner's mind" is "what we must come back to every time we sit down and write." This is certainly a best and a true practice.  The blank, white page is, in essence, a nice symbol for beginner's mind.

What got me thinking again systematically about beginner's mind--beginning at the beginning--was going back through Susan Sontag's essay "Thirty Years After..." in a close reading for the introduction to my current book project on Sontag's essays.  Sontag reflects that she always likes looking forward, and never likes looking back.  (The essay was for a reissue of her collection Against Interpretation and Other Essays.) Sontag often avers that she is always at the stage of beginning and that that place is the most exciting.  For me, that has been true over and over again.

If I had to define beginner's mind, I would say it is beginning where you are, in the moment and place and time where you find yourself, and with the tools readily at-hand, and knowing that you and that moment are sufficient to gain and do what you need.  It means recognizing what you know and what you don't know, and being excited to find out more.

One of my best examples of beginner's mind happened when I was an undergraduate at Marietta College.  One of the most monumental decisions that I made as an undergraduate (even though I did not recognize it at the time) was signing up for a history class on a subject I knew nothing about.  I liked the professor, Dr. William Hartel, who was my adviser, and I have often had the attitude that if I know nothing about a topic, then I have everything yet to learn, and that to me is exciting!  The course was on the French Revolution; when I signed up for the junior-level history course (I was a first-semester sophomore), I could not even tell the dates of the event(s).  My interest in this period and, in particular, what came before the historic events of 1789 in Europe have become a guiding interest of my research and teaching in academics, as my areas of specialty are English and European literature from about 1660 to roughly 1840.  That is perhaps my prime example of beginner's mind.

Beginner's mind also means the habit of returning to the beginning time and again.  I must confess, I tend to hate repetition, whether in teaching or exercise.  I have to stop and take a breath every time I go to the gym and do the same warm-up exercises that my trainer has prescribed.  I have to make a conscious decision to do it rather than run out the door (it's own form of exercise, I suppose).  It is the same with eating healthy, especially when it is perfectly good leftovers (that, by the way, is a battle I do not often win; I almost always opt to go out rather than face leftovers).  Yet each time has to be a new beginning--no regrets for the last meal or last workout, forging ahead from the start once again.

I often ask myself as I write both what I know and what I don't  know.  Sometimes, in fact, when I am writing, I am cowed by all that I don't know, and this can cause me to stop and stall.  When that happens, I return to beginner's mind, affirming what I know and what I know I don't, but can find out. The most exciting part of writing is the findings and indeed epiphanies one has in the process of writing itself.  If you always know where you are going, then getting there becomes less fun!

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Remembering Aunt Myrt

[In honour of Mother's Day, I wanted to share this tribute to one of my mothers, my great-aunt Myrtle Elizabeth Layton.  Myrt was there for me from my birth until her death in 1993 at the age of 90; her memory to this day nurtures and sustains me.  This posting is a revision of an exercise begun from Natalie Goldberg's book on memoir writing mentioned in my very first post.  Cheers!]

I remember Aunt Myrt’s mole on her chin—it was big but not obtrusive; if anything, it added to her charm, making her look like a welcoming peasant mother of the sort you would love and who would serve you cookies and conversation (which she often did in abundance!).  

I remember so well her beautiful spirit and her kindness—she was the one who shared my grief over my grandmother’s death most profoundly.  It was she with my maternal grandmother and father who had the task of raising me from around four months old when my mother left.  Before I was in kindergarten, she was the one I spent mornings with so that my grandmother, Mom Pete (as she was called by many, although her name was Helen) could do her housework and have quiet time (not that I was ever that noisy or much trouble, as Aunt Myrt used to like to tell me).  When I went to first grade, I was right around the corner from her house and I and my cousin Eric Scripp (who was in sixth grade) would go to her house for lunch.  

Aunt Myrt's was always a soft place for me to land.  She and my grandmother were very close; two sisters born just over a year apart (Myrt was older, from March 16th, 1903 to Helen's August 10th, 1904) who cared mutually for each other's children and grandchildren, and helped each other through the various sots and thralls of life, including the depression and lengthy widowhoods after long and happy marriages.  (I asked Aunt Myrt once why she did not date after her husband Jake died; she said that she had happily dealt with having a man around for years, and now didn't need the bother.)  My Dad says that, amazingly, he never remembers them disagreeing or arguing about anything.

When my grandmother first had her debilitating stroke (I was ten at the time; 1978), Myrt tried to stay with us and take care of her, even though she was older and not in perfect shape herself.  It was too much; Dad and her daughters told her that they would have to get help in for Mom Pete, but that she would be welcome to be there as much as she wanted to keep her sister company and help in things within her ken, like cooking (she was a great cook).  I think hardly a day passed that she wasn't either there or calling on the phone and talking to her sister.  She was so very faithful!

I remember her strength, which often came out in the guise of stubbornness, as well—when she was sick with a cold in her late eighties (after boasting for years that she never got a cold), she refused to eat because her daughter Louise was, as she said, “too fussy.”  Louise called me, I came down, and Louise went back over to house to have a rest herself.  As Louise walked across the street to her own home (Myrt at this point lived in a trailer across from her daughter, moving from a two-story house when her hip got too bad for her to manage the stairs), Aunt Myrt followed her with her eyes out the front window, then immediately went into her kitchen and fixed herself something to eat (fried potatoes and onions, I believe, which was her favorite back then); then, she took the nap that Louise had wanted her to take. I am thankful that Aunt Myrt never found out that I was in cahoots with Louise and Marian (another daughter who lived nearby) to get Aunt Myrt to eat and to rest, or I would have had an earful!

Myrt met my wife twice--once when a group of us came home from college to the town carnival and she was sitting outside on her porch behind the bandstand to listen to and enjoy the live country music and visit with all the people who walked by going back to their cars.  The other time was just in her home with Dad, Angie and me.  She liked Angie a lot, and actually thought we had already married, and was pleased.  More importantly, she told me that my grandmother would have approved of Angie; of that she would know better than anyone.  Myrt always promised that she would dance at my wedding, and somehow on our date in heaven, I think she was (probably a polka, as that was her favorite dance and one that she taught me as a teenager).  

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Starting Here

Welcome, readers!

There is something to be said for the practice of blogging as a means of keeping the writing juice flowing.  I am a new blogger though not a new writer.  I have published one book (Understanding May Sarton) and several articles and poems.  Sarton is a model for me as a writer and even as a blogger; her journals are like blog posts and I wonder if she had lived into the age of blogging if she would have gone in that direction as well.  It would be fascinating to see her writing in this format!  (If you have never read Sarton, start with any of her journals; my starting place was Recovering but I would recommend any of them, especially Journal of a Solitude).

I am also interested strongly in religion and spirituality.  I am a liberal Anglican/Episcopalian--not liberal theologically (mostly) but politically, which grows out of my commitments to my faith which includes pacifism and social justice.  My faith makes a Christian socialist at heart, though I would characterize my socialism as neither of the Marxist nor Maoist varieties (although I have learned much from studying Marx).  I rather think I am a kind of agrarian socialist as the Levellers or Diggers were in Seventeenth-Century England.  As the title of my blog suggests, I am very interested in the contemplative life, and find much in ancient and medieval Christianity (and some more recent writers like Thomas Merton) that supports that life.  I have also learned a lot from Buddhism, particularly Zen, although I do not share many of their beliefs.  Finally, I am an associate professor of English, which is one of my motivations for starting this blog as a practice place for other writing I wish to do.

A few summers ago (actually 2009) I started doing writing exercises from Natalie Goldberg's Old Friend from Faraway in the process of beginning to think about a memoir.  I wrote many many pages and I will share some of these in revised form as well.  Please offer feedback and thought; no name calling please.  I like friendly, heart-felt, and intellectual discussions, something we do not see much in the public or internet sphere these days. (I have been recently called names and threatened on facebook by complete strangers and some former friends.)

One of the things I am thinking about these days is the differences between Modernism and Postmodernism, particularly in the works of Susan Sontag (I am writing a book on Sontag).  She does not like the term postmodern and considers it a mere outgrowth of the earlier form.  I have been reading A Postmodern Reader, an older book on these issues from SUNY press in the 1990s, and it is interesting to me that many claim certain essays of Sontag's and thus Sontag herself for definitions of postmodernism; something I think she herself would not have liked.  (The essays they tend to claim for postmodernism are her early essays on Camp and other new sensibilities; by the 1980s, when postmodernism seems to be on its way to being fully conceptualized, she is already writing her tributes as in Under the Sign of Saturn of her models--all male--from the past.)  If there are any avid Sontag readers out there, what do you think of connecting her with postmodernism?

Well, I think that is all I will write in the blog for today.  See you soon!