Sharing reading across generations

I recently had an enlightening day reading with middle schoolers. It was definitely more fun than when I had to be in middle school myself. I had volunteered for an intergenerational reading group, part of Project Read. This meant that adults in the area would read the same texts and do the same homework as the students. We would then meet with them in small groups during regular class hours to discuss the reading.

On this particular day, we had all read Shirley Jackson’s story, The Lottery. This classic of secondary school has long provided fodder for discussion, confusion, and in some cases distress. I know at least one person my age who says that she’s still disturbed by it. It’s interesting to read the reactions of readers as shown in their letters to the New Yorker, where it was first published in 1948.

There were four class periods with small reading groups, then whole-class discussion, so I was able to hear a variety of responses and share my own:
  • Many students were excited to discover the similarity of the story to that of The Hunger Games novel/film, and even more to learn that others had made the same discovery.
  • I was surprised to hear one boy say that the story must have been set very long ago, because “the heads of household were all men.” Another added that “the men did all the talking and mostly talked about the women, rather than letting them talk.” I don’t believe that middle school boys from my time would have said the same.
  • One student said that the stoning in the story was wrong “because there were only 300 people in the village.” (One death would make a big difference.) We then talked about whether stoning someone to death was ever justifiable.
  • A big question concerned why people in the story, especially Mr. Warner, didn’t want to change. Several students agreed that the people who resisted ending the practice of stoning were similar “to the people who resist allowing fast food restaurants into Brewster. People are afraid of new things.” I didn’t do a poll, but I imagine a sharp generation divide on the fast food issue, with the older ones opposed. The students were right: The older folks don’t want change. Nevertheless, I was uncomfortable equating stoning people to death with opposing fast food.
  • A volunteer adult added, “sometimes you’ve been doing something your whole life and it’s hard to admit that you were wrong.” I doubt that the 13 year-olds have that same feeling about doing something their whole life.
  • I was dismayed to hear two girls in separate groups describe incidents in which boys had thrown (multiple) stones at them.
  • Another student said that Tessie Hutchinson was stoned because she was engaging in protest. The usual reading is that her cry that the stoning was unfair was disingenuous since she never said anything until after she’d been selected. But in the context of Ferguson events I can now understand the interpretation the student made.
  • My best contribution was to bring up Martin Niemöller’s famous First they came… statement. This much-quoted passage reads all the more powerful for me knowing Niemöller’s own earlier national conservative views and anti-semitism. And it makes his analogy to Tessie Hutchinson more telling. The statement is quoted in a book that the students will be reading later in the year in their Holocaust unit.

Like any good learning experience, this one was shared broadly. The teachers, volunteers, and middle school students had to cross some boundaries, but all learned something about the story and about each other. A quote on the classroom wall seemed especially a propos for this intergenerational encounter:

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” –Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad

Lee M. Hollander

Icelanders

Icelanders

I thought about Lee Hollander while returning to the US via Reykjavik.

Professor Hollander lived across the street from the house that three law students and I rented for a year while attending the University of Texas in Austin. He was 88 years old then, but still very fit and active. He would walk to campus every day, a distance of a mile and a half, when many younger residences insisted on driving.

He received many honors for his translations and studies of Scandinavian literature, including being made Knight of the Order of the Icelandic Falcon. One book I treasure is his translation of the the Poetic Edda, a collection of Old Norse poems, which were preserved in the Icelandic 13 C manuscript Codex Regius.

The Poetic Edda

The Poetic Edda

Hollander lost his academic job during WWI because he was a German teacher. In 1920, after the war, he came to the University of Texas, and contributed there for the rest of his life.

Hollander was forced to retire officially because of old age during the year that I was born, but he continued his research and teaching of Germanic studies, publishing many works on Old Norse and translations of sagas. His work continued until after I had received my PhD and left the University.

He died on his way home from the campus on October 19, 1972.

A diet of worms

It’s fun to visit the famous sites when traveling, even if only to see all the diverse people coming to see those same sites. But What I tend to remember and value most are the unplanned, mundane, and more local adventures.

On Friday in Bucharest, there was one such involving worms. I was speaking at the aptly named “Friday meeting” at the university. The topic of planning in teaching (exploring the important sites?) came up and I had to share a story that Jack Easley, a math and science educator, had told.

Discovering worms

Discovering worms

Jack had been working in a second grade class, guiding a six week long unit on weather. Pupils learned about clouds, precipitation, storms, weather measurement, agriculture, and other such important topics, taught, I’m sure in a creative and engaging way. On the last day, it was raining outside until just before the class ended. Jack knew that there might be a rainbow. Viewing that could be an exciting culmination for the unit.

He took the class outside, preparing to discuss the visible light spectrum, refraction, moisture in aris, and others such topics. But the pupils weren’t interested. While Jack was looking up, they were looking down at the closer and and more ordinary. He was a latter day Thales at risk of falling into a well while gazing at the stars. The children’s observations  of the worms led them to ask, “Why do worms come out of the ground after a rain?”

Soil, plants, worms

Soil, plants, worms

Jack started to answer, then realized that he didn’t really know. So he asked the students to write down their question for scientists at the university. It turned out they had many ideas, but didn’t really know, either. A few days later a long article came out in the New York Times, saying that this was an important question for science and for agriculture, but the answer wasn’t simple. Even today, there is a lot to say about why earthworms surface after rain?. Jack saw that the pupils became most excited about their own question, which in turn was more like the science that scientists do.

Catalina Ulrich, a professor at the University of Bucharest, and my host, appeared to be quite excited by this little story. She pulled out her smartphone to show photos (shown here). Just the day before she had been observing in a crèche (preschool), where the children had been fighting over a bike. But then, one of them discovered a worm. Like Jack’s students, these even younger ones saw that soil and worms were more interesting and more attractive than whatever else they had been doing, and than many people might think.

Doreeen Cronin Diary of a WormThat evening, we had dinner at the home of Claudia Șerbănuță. I needed a toilet break, and as is my habit, couldn’t avoid looking at the reading material there. Right on top was Doreeen Cronin’s Diary of a Worm.

The book describes the world from a worm’s point of view. For example, in the beginning, it tells you the three rules about worms that you must never forget. The third rule is “Never bother Daddy when he’s eating the newspaper.” When I came out, I asked Claudia’s children about the book. Could they tell me the three things we must always remember?

They grew quite excited and shouted out the third rule in unison. When I asked about the others they weren’t so sure. The other two have something to do with how worms live, the making of soil, the interdependence of life, or global food supply. I couldn’t remember them either.

Héloïse and Abélard

Tutoring

Tutoring

In 1971, I was fortunate to see an excellent play at Wyndham’s Theatre in London. It was Abelard and Heloise, by Ronald Millar. Keith Mitchell and Diana Rigg(!) had the title roles. The play was moving and the acting was superb. I can still visualize scenes, not so much from the stage setting, which was fine, but because the story caught my imagination.

Under the pretext of study we spent our hours in the happiness of love, and learning held out to us the secret opportunities that our passion craved. Our speech was more of love than of the books which lay open before us; our kisses far outnumbered our reasoned words. –Abélard

Père Lachaise Cemetery from apartment

Père Lachaise Cemetery from apartment

Over the years I would read whatever I could find by or about Héloïse d’Argenteuil and Peter Abélard, including biographies, fictionalized accounts, children’s stories, poetry, song, and of course the letters themselves. I saw several movie versions, some better than others. I began to learn how the story had inspired copies, re-mediations, satires, and endless allusions in a wide variety of artforms.

Héloïse had seen this coming, with her own perceptive reflections on pictures, letters, talk, and physical presence. For example,

If a picture, which is but a mute representation of an object, can give such pleasure, what cannot letters inspire? They have souls; they can speak; they have in them all that force which expresses the transports of the heart; they have all the fire of our passions, they can raise them as much as if the persons themselves were present; they have all the tenderness and the delicacy of speech, and sometimes even a boldness of expression beyond it. –Héloïse

My obsession with the topic became worse in 2004, when we lived not far from Notre-Dame de Paris, where Abélard had studied and taught. I found an English translation of Régine Pernoud’s book in a used book store. Pernoud lists Héloïse first, which makes sense. Abélard was a great orator and writer, one we might revere even more if most of his works hadn’t been destroyed for his heresies. Yet, Héloïse (a great scholar herself) is the one who makes their story come alive, whether you interpret it as a love story, a theological debate, an example of 12th C patriarchy, or an invention of later writers.  His letters are fascinating to read, but hers leap to the heights of the written art, even in translation from the original Latin.

Monument to Ablard & Héloïse

Monument to Ablard & Héloïse

One thing that comes through in every retelling is the tragedy of it all. There is of course the castration and the subsequent separation of Héloïse and Abélard. But there is also the tangible agony of struggles between possibility and reality, spirituality and desire, trust and betrayal. Their love always entailed suffering with happy moments that became recollections before they were fully realized. Even their son Astrolabe appears as a shadow of a world they imagined, but never had.

Later, when their connection was only through letters, Héloïse seeks a way to share the loss, to find meaning in the emptiness:

Let me have a faithful account of all that concerns you; I would know everything, be it ever so unfortunate. Perhaps by mingling my sighs with yours I may make your sufferings less, for it is said that all sorrows divided are made lighter. –Héloïse

You can read one version of this in Alexander Pope’s poem, Eloisa to Abelard. Eloisa is in anguish over her powerful feelings for Abélard, especially as manifested in her dreams:

Black Melancholy sits, and round her throws
A death-like silence, and a dread repose:
Her gloomy presence saddens all the scene,
Shades ev’ry flow’r, and darkens ev’ry green,
Deepens the murmur of the falling floods,
And breathes a browner horror on the woods.

She realizes that Abélard, now as a eunuch who is free from the “contagion of carnal impurity” cannot return her feelings even if he wants to. And so she begs, not for forgiveness, but for forgetfulness.

How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot!
The world forgetting, by the world forgot.
Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!
Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resign’d;

Today, one can walk near Père Lachaise cemetery on rue Pierre-Bayle. Bayle was a 17C philosopher. Where Abélard committed the heresy of seeing reason as a path to faith, Bayle advocated a separation between the spheres of faith and reason. He wrote about Héloïse and Abélard in his Historical and Critical Dictionary, a forerunner of the encyclopedias. One can also walk on the rue du Repos, which, were it not for the cemetery wall, would lead directly to where they lie in “repose” at their monument.

Cynics will point out that the monument was placed there in 1817 simply as a marketing ploy to convince Parisians to be buried among the famous; that the bones of the famous lovers are probably at the Oratory of the Paraclete, or the church of Nogent-sur-Seine, or most likely, just lost; that their love, if it existed at all, was no more than an expression of medieval structures of religious oppression, patriarchy, abuse of position, class, and power; and that the famous letters themselves were a literary concoction made long after the actual events.

Héloïse d'Argenteuil

Héloïse d’Argenteuil

Abélard would disdain these worldly concerns, and urge the cynics, along with Héloïse to

Strive now to unite in yourself all the virtues of these different examples. Have the purity of virgins, the austerity of anchorites, the zeal of pastors and bishops, and the constancy of martyrs.

But Héloïse would know that “the truth is more important than the facts.” She’d recognize that the Père Lachaise monument shows their eternal love, which endured politics, religion, castration, and even Abélard’s pomposity and coldness. She’d also see that just like Keats’s youth, they can never touch, so encased in granite, their suffering also endures forever.

References

The Icon Walk

Merchant's Arch, Temple Bar

Merchant’s Arch, Temple Bar

Temple Bar is an area with narrow, cobbled streets on the south bank of the Liffey in central Dublin. It’s famous the world over for its lively nightlife, but that’s not high on my list of reasons to visit it. There are better places in Dublin to experience Irish food and music, ones where you’re more likely to encounter people who actually live in Ireland. However, the area does offer much that’s special, such as the Irish Film Institute.

One that we just discovered is The Icon Walk, a project of The Icon Factory. It’s located just off Fleet Street, along Aston Place, Bedford Lane, and Price’s Lane. Local artists have transformed the lanes into an open air gallery of Irish culture. It’s recently been awarded approval as a UNESCO City of Literature site.

Someone described the Walk as a twenty minute activity, but it deserves more than that. There’s a great collection of photographs, drawings, paintings accompanying sayings of famous writers and artists, descriptions of moments in the history of sports, movies, fashion, and more.

Arriving at the Playwrights section, we read,

Around 1610, Shakespeare wrote the “The Tempest” and retired to Stratford on Avon where he died in 1613. Queen Elizabeth I having completed the conquest of Ireland was dead. The last of the great leaders, O’Neill and O’Donnell were gone to Spain and Ulster planted with Crown subjects.

Between 1613 and the War Of independence in 1922, which won back self rule for most of Ireland, no play of real merit was written in the English language by anyone other than by an Irish-born writer.

The selected icons–Samuel Beckett, Brendan Behan, Sean O’Casey, George Bernard Shaw, John Millington Synge, and Oscar Wilde–won’t be enough to convince everyone of that claim, but their collective oeuvre is amazing.

Along the walk, you can see many great images produced by a wide variety of artists. A few of those are on the website, but the majority are visible only on the walk itself. They’re best seen that way, in any case, in the context of the other artworks and Temple Bar itself.

One of the best parts for me was the individual quotes, both from writer’s works and from their lives. For example, we read,

Beckett went on to live with an older woman who was not exactly a barrel of laughs. She took the phonecall that informed them of Samuel’s Nobel Prize. “This is a disaster, our lives are ruined” she responded.

In the eighties, Beckett was invited to Germany to direct “Waiting For Godot”. When presented with the script which he had not read in many years he exclaimed; “This thing needs a good edit”.

John Hume, third from left

John Hume, third from left

(Again, however, most of these texts exist only on the walls. I hope there will be an exhibition book at some point.)

One thing I learned was that in 2010 John Hume was chosen in an RTÉ survey as Ireland’s Greatest. He was also the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize (1998), the Gandhi Peace Prize, and the Martin Luther King award. He had modeled his own work for equality in citizenship on that of Gandhi and King. Unfortunately, his peaceful work was disrupted by violence and the “troubles” began. Hume became a leading figure in the civil rights movement in the late 1960s. Through speeches, marches, hunger strikes, dialogues, and long-term negotiations, Hume was behind many of the developments and agreements toward peace in Ireland, and later for European unity.

You can get a sense of the walk from the video below (only part of which is in English):

Las Misiones Pedagógicas

burros

Traveling libraries

As we’re about to set off on a trip both to explore and to discuss progressive education, I’m thinking about the example of the Misiones Pedagógicas in Spain in the early 1930’s.

My colleague, Iván M. Jorrín Abellán, just sent a link to a digital copy of the 1934 report: Patronato de Misiones Pedagógicas : septiembre de 1931-diciembre de 1933, in the collection of the Bibliotecas de Castilla y León. It tells the story of the Misiones  through text, photos, and a map. Even if your Spanish is as poor as mine you can enjoy the many photos and get enough of the text to appreciate the project.

Some of the photos of uplifted, smiling faces are a bit much for today’s cynical eyes. Still, it’s hard to deny that something important was happening for both the villagers and the missionaries.

el-teatro

Watching theater

The Misiones Pedagógicas were a project of cultural solidarity sponsored by the government of the Second Spanish Republic, created in 1931 and dismantled by Franco at the end of the civil war. Led by Manuel Bartolomé Cossio, the Misiones included over five hundred volunteers from diverse backgrounds: teachers, artists, students, and intellectuals. A former educational missionary, Carmen Caamaño, said in an interview in 2007:

We were so far removed from their world that it was as if we came from another galaxy, from places that they could not even imagine existed, not to mention how we dressed or what we ate, or how we talked. We were different. –quoted in Roith (2011)

phonograph

Listening to music, outdoors

The Misiones eventually reached about 7,000 towns and villages. They established 5,522 libraries comprising more than 600,000 books. There were hundreds of performances of theatre and choir and exhibitions of painting through the traveling village museum.

We are a traveling school that wants to go from town to town. But a school where there are no books of registry, where you do not learn in tears, where there will be no one on his knees as formerly. Because the government of the Republic sent to us, we have been told we come first and foremost to the villages, the poorest, the most hidden and abandoned, and we come to show you something, something you do not know for always being so alone and so far from where others learn, and because no one has yet come to show it to you, but we come also, and first, to have fun. –Manuel Bartolomé Cossio, December 1931

There’s an excellent documentary on the Misiones, with English subtitles. It conveys simultaneously the grand vision and the naïveté, the successes and the failures. As Caamaño says, “something unbelievable arrived” [but] “it lasted for such a short time.”

Watching a film

Watching a film

In her study of Spanish visual culture from 1929 to 1939, Jordana Mendelson (2005) examines documentary films and other re-mediations of materials from the Misiones experience. Her archival research offers a fascinating contemporary perspective on the cultural politics of that turbulent decade, including the intersections between avant-garde artists and government institutions, rural and urban, fine art and mass culture, politics and art.

I’m struck by several thoughts as I view the documentation on the Misiones. Today’s Spain is more literate, more urban, more “modern”. But although the economic stresses are different, they have not disappeared.  There are still challenges, in some ways greater, for achieving economic and educational justice.

Iván and other educators are asking how the spirit of the Misiones might influence community-based pedagogy in current times. Their experiences have lessons for those outside of Spain as well.

References

Mendelson, Jordana (2005). Documenting Spain: Artists, exhibition culture, and the modern nation, 1929–1939. State College: Penn State University Press.

Roith, Christian (2011).High culture for the underprivileged: The educational missions in the Spanish Second Republic 1931 – 1936. In Claudia Gerdenitsch & Johanna Hopfner,  (eds.), Erziehung und bildung in ländlichen regionen–Rural education (pp. 179-200). Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang.

Hoffmann’s feverish dreams

E. T. A. Hoffmann

E. T. A. Hoffmann

One doesn’t just read, but rather descends, into the tales of Hoffmann. Sir Walter Scott must have agreed when he judged that Hoffmann didn’t need literary criticism as much as he needed medical assistance:

It is impossible to subject tales of this nature [referring to “The Sand-man”] to criticism. They are not the visions of a poetical mind; they are scarcely even the seeming authenticity which the hallucinations of lunacy convey to the patient; they are the feverish dreams of a light-headed patient.

Lunatic he may be, but somehow Hoffmann manages to convey essential truths through his grotesque tales and drawings.

The Nutcracker

The Nutcracker

In conventional stories, a character has an identity that we learn about as events unfold. Often that identity develops or evolves, but generally, we at least know whom we’re talking about. Supernatural elements, if they appear, may be hard to explain, but we can usually distinguish them from the ordinary. There’s typically some sort of resolution, which gives us a semblance of coherence.

Hoffmann is quite different. Writing two centuries before post-modernism, Hoffmann turns the rules inside out. Neither we as readers, nor the characters, nor, as I suspect, Hoffmann himself, always know whether a given event is real or imagined. Is it an hallucination, a metaphor, a dream, or a supernatural occurrence? Is the kobold we encounter an independent entity, or simply a buried aspect of some character’s personality? Is this one a person, or a doll that the character assumes is alive? Is some occurrence the dream of a character, of Hoffmann, or one that we forgot that we’d been having and now can’t eliminate from our thoughts?

The Tales of Hoffmann

Spalanzani & Coppélius in “Tales of Hoffmann”

Combining rich, believable realism with extravagant fantasy, Hoffmann gets the reader to probe deep into the story, whatever the reader imagines that to be. He challenges Aristotle’s Poetics by offering only the beginning and the middle, but not the end, or resolution: He shows us that it’s a disservice to a good story to bring it to an end; the reader should be allowed to carry it onward.

In one of his best stories, The Golden Flower Pot, We struggle along with Anselmus to make sense of a world that doesn’t make much sense. The Archivarius tells him,

the gold-green snakes, which you saw in the elder-bush, Herr Anselmus, were simply my three daughters; and that you have fallen over head and ears in love with the blue eyes of Serpentina the youngest, is now clear enough.

The elder-bush, then a snake, now becomes the love of his dreams:

The Student Anselmus felt as if he now merely heard in plain words something he had long dreamed of, and though he fancied he observed that elder-bush, wall and sward, and all objects about him were beginning slowly to whirl around, he took heart, and was ready to speak; but the Archivarius prevented him; for sharply pulling the glove from his left hand, and holding the stone of a ring, glittering in strange sparkles and flames before the Student’s eyes, he said: “Look here, Herr Anselmus; what you see may do you good.”

It’s painfully obvious what Anselmus should not do, yet, he does. We as readers follow obediently and disastrously, learning along the way the preposterousness and the tragedy of romanticism from one its major initiators.

The Doll (DIe Puppe)

The Doll (DIe Puppe)

Thanks to these features, Hoffmann’s stories invite a variety of interpretations on multiple levels. The nutcracker may be Napoleon and the seven-headed mouse king, his seven cabinet members. But they may also be Hoffmann’s critique of romanticism, or a manifestation of buried aspects of the personalities of Clara and Fritz. Or, maybe they’re just idle fantasies, and Hoffmann has seduced the reader into unveiling his own psychic disturbances.

Ernst Theodore Wihelm Hoffmann is best known by his pen name, E. T. A. Hoffmann (Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann). But if my experience and that of a few friends is any guide, he’s not known well known by any name today, at least in the US beyond scholars of German romanticism, and certainly not anywhere near what his contributions deserve.

Some people are familiar with Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann, an opera based on Hoffmann’s short stories with him as the main protagonist, or with the Powell and Pressburger film. Fewer still know that Tchaikovsky’s ballet The Nutcracker was inspired by Hoffmann’s “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.” That may be due to the fact that the sweet Christmas performances of the ballet lack the disturbing edge that Hoffmann works into all of his stories.

Kapellmeister Kreisler

Kapellmeister Kreisler

But I didn’t know that Hoffmann’s stories inspired many other famous works of music and film (e.g., Alfred Hitchcock, Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander); that his writings were a major influence on Edgar Allen Poe, Nikolai Gogol, Charles Dickens, Charles Baudelaire, George MacDonald, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Franz Kafka, Jorge Luis Borges, Robertson Davies, Alexandre Dumas, père, and even Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung; that he wrote the first (Western) detective story, a novella (Mademoiselle de Scudéri); that his stories are the basis for much of modern gothic, ghost, sci-fi, and other genres; that he was arguably the first romantic composer in music, inspiring Robert Schumann and others; that his music and literary criticism were major influences on romanticism; or that he was an accomplished sketch artist, political satirist, and philosopher.

Worth getting to know. Just be careful about those dreams.

References

Hoffmann, E. T. A. (1967). The best tales of Hoffmann (edited with an Introduction by E. F. Bleiler). New York: Dover.

Scott, Sir Walter (1827). On the supernatural in fictitious composition. The Foreign Quarterly Review, I(1), 60-98.