an article on architecture and literature that I want to discuss.
So I've been considering the connection of architecture and literature for the past two years or so, and I have to say that I love this idea. Taking a plot and trying to plot a building that represents it is a brilliant idea. But I have to say I'm a little disappointed with the architecture that these people came up with. They're very intelligent and modern, don't get me wrong, but they just don't feel exciting or real to me. I have a very difficult time imagining people doing activities, or living, or working, or breathing in any of these buildings. See the piece below for an example.
Joseph Ponce, writing on Raymond Carver, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” Credit: The Paris Review
I think what I have in mind is something like the final sequence of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, as Indy reads his father's notes and dodges traps based on his allegorical interpretation of a Medieval Literature Professor's cryptic notations on something or other. You know, like this:
I don't want to make the claim that the fine folks in the Architecture and Literature Class at Columbia should try and make their work more crowd-pleasing or anything. I'm not even saying their work isn't fun. I had fun looking at them and thinking about how they represent works of literature. I guess I just feel like they miss out on a little oomph. They don't feel like they're actually building something for entertainment or function. I guess what I'm saying is that the pieces look like great models or plans, but I don't know if I would ever visit the places they are. Contrast that with the Frank Lloyd Wright living room or the Gubbio Studiolo at the Metropolitan Museum of Art* (those example are old, but there are plenty of more recent examples too!). Those places are fun to walk through. I want to sit down in them. I probably would have, in fact, if they didn't put a railing so I couldn't.
But maybe that's the difference between a plan or a plot and a room or a book. Maybe some of these things will come out great in a way I could never have predicted. I hope they all get constructed so I can find out.
*[I didn't look it up, but these were perennial exhibits when I used to walk over to the Met every other weekend. I hope they're still there!]
Eventually I'll post some live pictures of my beautiful surroundings. Maybe tomorrow. But the business is too overwhelming and the weather is too good to pass up and take pictures. I'm not from here and even I know that sunny days are rare. You can't really capture a sunny day (or trade it in for something else).
As for the business end of things, I'm not talking about the work I'm doing. That's great. I'm talking about the habits of everyday life. It's been a difficult process getting settled. I still don't have a phone of my own and I only now have a bank account. Razor blades and shaving cream are in a different store than my food, and the gym tried to deny me membership for paying in cash. The bank account and phone in particular are an inverted Kafka-esque nightmare. Supposedly I can buy a pay-as-you-go phone somewhere, but they never seem to have them where I want them or where I am, at least not at a reasonable price. I can order one online and that seems simple enough, but when I try and make the order happen I need a bank account. When I try and get a bank account, I need proof of residency. Proofs of residency include utility bills or require a phone number. So that means to get a phone I need to pay utilities to get a bank account.
Happily, I found the student union bank will take care of me, but even they require me to wait two days in order to get a basic account. Then I need to wait three months to get a full "real-person" account. This isn't bureaucracy. Bureaucracy is the sort of monster that draws everything into it. It pulls you down into hell. I feel like this is quite different. I'm on the outside of a wall trying to get inside so I can enjoy the basic comforts of the modern world.
I'm sure it will all resolve as I persevere. But it makes me feel the fact of my migrant legal status, that I'm an immigrant, or a wanderer. It's confusing and painful and slow and repetitive and confusing again. And it's almost worse when someone condescendingly explains to me how everything works, as if I should have just known what was going on all along. It's not that people here are unfriendly. Quite the opposite. It's just that, like myself and everyone I've ever met, there are holes in perception that make sense to them and not to me. For young Americans these things are taken care of in study abroad, I imagine, but for an old man like me I'm more or less left to my own devices.
And my devices are often faulty. This kind of learning is like muscle memory. I'm glad I have a nice place to live while I sort it all out. Many immigrants and citizens don't. And that's an appropriate thought for my first rainy night in Ireland.
Today is Labor Day in the United States, a monument to a mighty tide of socialism from a bygone era. It is somehow appropriate then, though I'm not exactly sure how, that I begin my labors today. A meeting in the morning and a meeting in the afternoon, sandwiched between administrative duties like finding out how to get in buildings, which buildings I want to get in, where these buildings are, and how to send and receive emails. Having taken care of these things, I also began in earnest to write and revise.
Write and revise.
Write and revise.
The first version of my last entry was a mess because of jet lag and emotion and lack of editing. Blog posts aren't meant to be polished essays, prepared over years, but I think a good balance means writing in an explosion in the morning and then polishing it up at night before bed.
Write and revise is a phrase I will repeat often, because it is the description of a good chunk of the rest of my career if I am to achieve any degree of success in academia. But the real fun part is the sharing and discussion that happens.
Today I met several of my colleagues, whose work and wisdom will hopefully appear in many more of my updates. I am a newly minted Ph.D., and though I do not feel inferior or ignorant in comparison to them, I am cautious about a lack of experience--both in general and in the United Kingdom's university setting. That being said, I've already received an article relating to my research from one colleague, and it can be found here
. The author links architecture, specifically urban planning, to the rise of Cartesian philosophy, using examples drawn from Descartes' life. I think the general trend is correct. Rene is a part of a broader movement that wasn't simply a break from the past, and his philosophy reflects a push to fit imaginative systems into the landscape. Our philosopher pal also incorporated elements of architecture into his geometric reasoning.
One key observation the author makes but doesn't make enough of in my opinion is the way that "I think therefore I am" requires a basis of doubt. Descartes seems to proceed to certainty from that doubt, which is certainly possible, but only by dwelling in doubt can Descartes achieve his design of a rational philosophy. Plans, I think, are a narrative and imagistic representational tool that require doubt, that require multiplicity. I'm fastening on that doubt and seeing what happens. Maybe it sticks around in ways DeCI look forward to working through this thought as soon as I can to see how convincing it is.
I wake up in an unfamiliar unfamiliar unfamiliar unfamiliar with a light sweat that suggests I had on too much blanket. I am awakened, in confusion, by the peals of bells from an unseen cathedral. Do they play bells for 15 minutes at 2 o'clock I begin to wonder? Wireless internet, I have, and it gives me an ominous or auspicious reading. First, cryptic hints in a facebook feed from literary fans. Then, a clear news item. Seamus Heaney has passed away.
A big deal and I haven't even set foot on Queen's University yet. If this post feels tentative it's because I feel tentative. If I'm honest, I feel like a dilettante about Heaney. I've read his Beowulf translations and some of his short poem collections (that means I've read them once or twice, which isn't really reading when it comes to poetry for me). And even though I've read his criticism I don't feel I know him. But despite the fact that I'm no poet (I'm not even a poetry critic really), this moment strikes me as strangely poetic. I'm not trying to put my amateur steps on the level of a nobel laureate. I don't have the talent or wisdom that Heaney did. But this island is supposedly half of my distant ancestral home. And he registered its conflicts and flows well, by most opinions. As I come home, he both leaves and becomes a more permanent part of Ireland. I feel small. I know there will be many events this year now. Queen's has a Heaney Center, after all.
I remember now riding into Belfast I passed a long wake walking and driving in the opposite direction. Those sorts of coincidences are strange and spooky. Looking back over Heaney's work, I was struck by a quote from one of his interviews:
As you end your twelfth year at Harvard, what are your impressions of American students?
When I came here first I was very aware of their eagerness to be in contact with the professor. At home in Ireland, there's a habit of avoidance, an ironical attitude towards the authority figure. Here, there's a readiness to approach and a desire to take advantage of everything the professor has to offer. That unnerved me a bit at the start, but now I respect it. Also, the self-esteem of American students tends to be higher. They come to college with positive beliefs in their abilities, whatever they are. The Paris Review, "The Art of Poetry No. 75"
I don't have much to say about the passing of a poet. He could say anything I would better in his own words. Even if I had the skill, I am too tired and too out-of-place to try and place someone else in their rightful context. But I think that even in his death, the poet gives me a way in to a new place with his language.
On the flight over to Belfast I read Edmund Spenser, perhaps the first English literary personage to discuss an Irish race (whatever he meant by that) at great length. I didn't re-read his pamphlet "A View of the Present State of Ireland"
on the plane, but I can remember its strange and disturbing text well. And in comparing the two figures I find odd similarities between Spenser's violent text and Heaney's thoughts. Spenser never mentions Americans, especially not the eternally-youthful, post-Emersonian go-hards that made my generation--the generation that Heaney eventually calls respectable. But the approaches and the generalizations that both Spenser in his "View of the Present State of Ireland" make about the Irish almost shockingly similar. Both Spenser and Heaney make the Irish ironical, two-faced with authority. But the two poets approach this attitude with different perspectives. Spenser is an outsider and can't seem to forget that fact throughout his generally bleak presentation of a foreign and Celtic people. Heaney meanwhile calls the Irish "at home."
I want to say using this contrast, in my hesitating and bumbling foreign way, that embedded in Heaney's seemingly positive view of the people "at home" across the sea is something strange. I see in Heaney's anthropology of Americans and the Irish a relativity of home. A more complex invitation to think of the Fatherland as something defined among and between terms like American and Irish. Though the words are very real to me, another reality floats behind them. What this means is that the Irish aren't just one way and the Americans another. As Heaney says, though off-put, learns to respect difference and even connect the two differing approaches to authority. Our language, maybe all language, has generalizations and stereotypes, while even seemingly benign categorical
arbitrations can build seemingly insurmountable separations between groups, individuals, and parts of ourselves. So what do we have?Heaney's seemingly easy and unguarded thoughts suggest the ways that individuals can put categories into conversation leads to visions of something beyond. For who is more Irish by Heaney's terms, than the average American on St. Patrick's day who transforms Irish irony into something plastic and eternal? And who was more American than my nameless, homeless, and poor ancestors? In their sincere and unironic flight they managed to sneak onto a different continent from the island of Ireland and make themselves otherwise than they were by taking full advantage of United States "authority," just like the students in Heaney's Harvard classes? As I follow Heaney's words to my home and his home, Irish and American find themselves in each other despite the difference offered by contrasting the two. In this strange mix, Heaney's words about the people "at home," find their inverse in Spenser's old and seemingly brutal text on early modern Ireland that also contains a deep and abiding love for the irony of the Irish.
These ideas are too big and abstract to talk any more about. Because really, they're not abstract. The strangeness of national categories reflect me in my dislocation and confusion. Due to a coincidence of a death, this introduction to my next year offers a shocked and brief reflection on the complexity of a tiny piece of a poet. In ringing bells and a wake heading in another direction I see the sad passing of a voice during a happy meeting to a new place. And after working it out a bit, that seems like a good way to meet a new place. I have the inverse. I feel a pleasure tinged with the melancholy of loss for my estranged home. I couldn't help my reaction-- I reached out and said goodbye to someone who wrote words I knew and hello to Big Ideas and transformations. Maybe I did it because I'm American. But I think what I've mostly revealed to myself is that I'm drawn to categories even though I see their failure. And in that way, this is the work of a person in a new place. On reflecting on an arrival and a passing away I stoke my simple and small hope to reach out back home while also settling into a new space. I hope I can begin this year's journey by being worthy of the poetry I left behind and that has been left behind for me where I arrive.