Monthly Archives: February 2015

Sampson Starkweather


The hammer, the afterbirth, the anvil, the ink,
the already-not-yet, the aperture, the armchair, the pleasure
of cellar door, the chimera, the never, the more,
the bullet, the born, the there, the uncle,
the surrogate, the peninsula, the risen,
the drown, the jig-saw, the Jew, the glass,
the ceasefire, the phonograph, the smoke.

Immutable, external, hungry,
lithographed, indexed, widowed, thirtytwoed,
tumescent, deracinated, alive.
Snowing, burning, ballooning,
pelting, sapling, fasting, inoculating,
lying, weeping, a tiger, snowing, snowing.

Almost, right here, beyond,
perhaps, during, to the left of, so much, after,
distant, always, this one, almost, never, too much.

The succulent, the air, the quickening,
the kiss, the august,
the rebuff, the rope, the cruelty, the spittle,
the punchline, the rags, the reckoning,
the 1-wing, the awl, the would-be breasts,
the water, the lessness, . . . . . . . . . . the wait.

Check him out.



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Someone agrees with me on composition and the introduction to literature, Dieu merci

Q. Do you have comments on the idea that “literature is not for everybody, and should only be taught in literature classes” — ?

A. That idea makes me mad. I could point to cognitive theory, which makes the argument that literature is an important way we develop our ability to empathize with people who are not like us. I could point to the fact that “literature” in the sense of “storytelling” has been a part of every major culture, even non-literate ones, and every single student in our classes needs to learn how to understand what other people are doing when they are telling stories (and to identify it when it happens) because it is embedded in our advertising, our politics, our leisure activities, and yes–our art.

Literature should no more be limited to “literature classes” than math should be limited to “math classes.” We use math to understand physics, chemistry, sociology, psychology, and yes, even occasionally literature. The case of literature is the same (Flatland is a good example).

A. The Research Compliance Committee has determined that literature is too dangerous for general access, and must be handled according to strict guidelines, using proper and approved reading methods. Literature courses focusing on such methods are the most responsible way to expose students to working with literature, but other courses may be approved on a case-by-case basis by the Committee.


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Peruvian Psychedelic Rock

“Telegraph Avenue was named after the street one of the band members stayed at in San Francisco during the summer of ’69.” He must mean Berkeley.

Read the article and listen to the songs.



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Alexander von Humboldt

It is true: my great-great grandfather studied with Alexander von Humboldt. He was born in 1816 or 1817, making him a close contemporary of Karl Marx. We know that he and Marx corresponded later, as the letters have been conserved, but it occurs to me that they may have met first as students.

Humboldt was born in 1769 and was thus an 18th century person; people he met include but are of course hardly limited to Thomas Jefferson. Berlin in Humboldt’s time was a provincial town a quarter the size of Paris, and he never liked it. It is said that he was gay; look as well at this charming biography.

My ancestor remained in touch with Humboldt as well as Marx after finishing his studies and returning to Russia. He published on several topics, including the emancipation of people and second language pedagogy, in German.


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Postscript on “positive psychology”

The discussion started on Facebook and continued here. My postscript is that this is the currently official psychology for the masses. (I am told it is elitist to say one does not have a lumpen-mind, and I know there are many professors and intellectuals who do have lumpen-minds, but I do not.)

In the 1990s one was exhorted to be depressed, recognize one’s depression, and so on, and I think this was because people could more easily afford that then and because drugs were being marketed. Now people cannot afford that and the drugs have been exposed as less than perfect.

We adults are to be “positive” and the students are to be “resilient.” I am not surprised, for instance, that the resiliency campaign was announced by Counseling and Testing at the same time as a sexual assault policy had to be created.

Connecting these two things, I infer that if it will now be possible for students to file and win on sexual assault, we need to be ready to insist they be “resilient.” And if they claim greater harm than we can repair, we can say they were not “resilient” enough or have not worked hard enough on their “resilience.”

That is just a hypothetical example. More broadly: now that decisions have been made which do make the future look grim — rising seas, drought — there is nothing left but to “be positive.”


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The MLA, and a diagnosis, and some fascinating questions

The theme of the 2016 MLA convention is Literature and Its Publics: Past, Present, and Future.

In the meantime, I am told there are two types of academic worker: intellectual knowledge workers and educational service workers. This is my problem: I am supposed to be the former, but pressed to be the latter. It is all well and good to say teaching and research go together. They do: for my McNair student, for instance. But when there are these two tiers of workers, and when the structure of the industrial complex is such that they pull against one another, and when one is both at once, one has a fraught situation to say the least.

In other news, my Russian family appears to have arrived in the United States in exactly 1865. Our ancestor was born in 1816 or 1817, and was living in Michigan at the time of the 1870 census. My great-grandfather was born in 1855, in St. Petersburg like his father the head immigrant, and studied at the University of Chicago; his wife, my great-grandmother, was Helen Beecher (yes, of those Beechers). My grandfather was born in Cook County, Illinois.

There are two points of interest on this today. One is these books: is the author our man (who did have a German PhD and corresponded with Marx, and was an intellectual)? Was it he who also knew Humboldt? (Why is my German not better, so I could find out more easily what his ideas were?) The other point is that there is a record I found and then lost, of a daughter born in St. Petersburg in the 1850s, after my great-grandfather, but baptized in Germany. That means that the sentence to Siberia and the flight toward Switzerland must have started then; I must write my cousin.

Family stories say that it was under Nicholas I that we were persecuted, and this is surely true, but it has to have been from Alexander II’s Russia that we flew.



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On being “positive”

I made a few comments elsewhere, that these are nice instructions for living but are not psychology. I wanted to say more, but it would not have been polite, as it was on the author’s sister’s Facebook page and she is a colleague. The author holds a chair and is famous and powerful, but his work is superficial.

For instance, the fourth chapter of his book emphasizes that your mental health will improve if you can see your own faults. People do not do this, says the author. They do dishonest things and try to get away with them, and they blame others for their problems. I, on the other hand, find that only immature people behave this way.

I also find that when one is dealing with immature people, or abusive people or criminals for that matter, especially if they have legal or institutional power over you or seek to harm you, seeing your own faults is not to your advantage: you must insist on your rights. They will only take your balanced view as a sign of weakness.

I find it disturbing that major figures in psychology make pronouncements like this, and I think it is the height of condescension to assume the kind of unconsciousness and immaturity on the part of the audience that the author does. Yet many admire this kind of dictum. Does it really seem so wise to them … how is it that they, adults, are surprised to hear they might have any faults at all?

Also problematic is this author’s love of the cognitive-behavioral hypothesis. You are to recognize an irrational thought you have, and replace it with a rational one.

However, if you are in an irrational state it is hard to see this, and replacing an irrational thought with a rational one is not an easy procedure. In fact it is virtually impossible to do without analysis. You can exercise self-discipline and control behavior at a superficial level, for a limited amount of time, yes — but you will not solve your problem.

I am in fact not sure the author has ever met anyone committed to their irrationality. If he had, he would know that they will defend this, and that suggestions of more rational ways of looking at things will increase and not decrease their frenzy.

It is true that that some of the people who are most severely self-critical are also the most defensive and entitled. This can be seen a a cognitive distortion, but it has to do with egotism and rigidity and is not a mere error in logic. This condition requires a far deeper kind of treatment than our author is willing to countenance.

I really do not know what to say about all of these books. It is as though they had been written by and for people from another planet. I was born happy. I lived by the sea and was not baptized, so I never joined the circle of guilt and sin that seems to circumscribe the lives of so many. (My guilt complex comes from somewhere else, as we know, and it is not this religion and perfectionism based one most people appear to have.)

It seems to me that much of the “positive psychology” (see also discussions of “resilience”) that is touted now is:

(a) a reaction to the kind of faux analysis I once underwent, where one was asked to be unnecessarily negative;
(b) a throwing-in of the towel: people have given up on the treatment of mental illness but are not admitting this, but rather saying they have discovered it can be cured with vitamins;
(c) a cultural manifestation: have Americans, or “Westerners,” really never received basic instructions for living?

What do you think?

There is more I disagree with. For instance, that on my deathbed I will wish I had spent more time with family and less time at the office. I have always been encouraged to work less. There is so much I wanted to do, that I have not done, because I have tried to obey the kind of heartfelt instructions the author, who has allowed himself to achieve at high levels, purveys.

That is to say, I have sacrificed a great deal for the sake of some of the tiresome, mainstream ideas this author repeats. For me to be happier I need to work more, and think more deeply. I am glad I have the longevity genes I need to make up for the time I lost trying to fit in with the life strategies of people who do not have a life’s work or major projects they really love.

The fifth chapter of the Happiness book seems the most interesting. It appears to recognize that material conditions do contribute to happiness, and that adversity and even trauma can lead to wisdom (or to destruction, depending).

The sixth chapter says love is companionship and not passion, a commonplace I have decided I disagree with utterly. And all of the author’s writings, like those of so many other Americans, appear to be riddled with the idea of work: you “work on” your marriage, “work on” your happiness, and so on.

I find it ironic that all these psychologists who say one should not work so hard, not dedicate oneself to a life’s work, also think that daily life, relationships, connections and pleasure must be thought of as work.

Finally, I am completely convinced that most psychological problems have to do with sociopolitical issues (e.g. heteronormativity, racism, more), material deprivation (we do not live on air), and various forms of abuse. You cannot wish these things away with positive thinking, although living as well as one can is important.

Once again I will repeat that I am not against this author’s general advice for living. I myself was raised to decide to enjoy the days. Many appear not to have been.



Filed under Banes, Bibliography