05/24/24

Poker Chip

I’ve been off Facebook for almost a month. At the end of the fourth week, I should give myself a poker chip. Escape has never worked before; I ordinarily return after a week. But Facebook does such a poor job of meeting my intellectual and emotional needs these days that it has been really easy this time. It believes I love cute animals, aviation, and the New York subway system, and feeds me a relentless diet of them, interspersed with many, many advertisements; there are almost no posts from friends. It’s reminiscent of old-time UHF television stations, with the ads for the Pocket Fisherman, Magic Chef, and Ginsu Knife. You forget that you’re supposed to be watching the late, late movie, a B-movie with inexpensive rights and low production values.

What am I going to do with my spare time? Work, write, and read. Most of the jobs for people of my dubious and deracinated status are for AI training — in other words, training my replacement. I’m no Madame de Sévigné, but I have several long-lapsed correspondences. At the same time, I have shelves full of books I have never gotten around to reading. I am going to put them off to revisit Metaphysics Γ. Then, I will walk to a bookcase, close my eyes, stick out my finger, and pick a book.

Even if I nap, I will still be better off than on Facebook.

05/7/24

Boo-hoo, Starbucks!

Poor Starbucks!

They missed their earnings call, boo-hoo. Moreover, they are blaming it on the Chinese. (You can’t make this stuff up!)

I think that Starbucks has owed its success to its pretense that people were drinking coffee when they were actually drinking 30 ounces of condensed sugar syrup. People like sugar syrup more than coffee. Nonetheless, Starbucks is trying to deliver the alleged coffee in ever more perverse ways — adding olive oil? — and failing. They could always try keeping their menu the same for a year at the same prices.

My wife goes to Starbucks for a $5 “trenta” iced tea when I can make her 30 ounces for 70¢ – with much better quality tea. The reason she goes there is the kids. They know her and love her. They tell her about their lives. They know what she orders depending on the kind of day it is. So, customer service wins the day. The difficulty is that Howard Schultz has designed the business so that there is 99% barista turnover every year. Soon, my wife has to make new Starbucks friends who are much like the old Starbucks friends but younger.

This reminds me of the novel “Never Let Me Go” by Ishiguro, where clones are raised so their organs can be transplanted into the original children. Clones come and disappear based on how many organs they have left. The Starbucks kids are giving away their youth and attention for minimum wage. It’s not such a great bargain for the kids, who gradually find out the realities of their situation over the course of their employment.

I should add that Howard Schultz is terrified of the prospect of a barista union. He and Jeff Bezos are trying to eliminate unions altogether by asking the courts to make the NLRB disappear. So, union deterrents are built into the job itself, like mandatory anti-union lectures and scheduling design that ensures that the workers are compartmentalized and can’t be visited by union representatives. (If you know a barista, and they don’t have a shift that day, ask another employee when the barista will be back. You will not get a straight answer.) My wife made a bûche de Noël last year for the Starbucks crew, and she didn’t know whether they liked it. Because of the scheduling permutations, only 2-3 baristas knew the cake existed on any given day By the end, the ganache must have tasted like modeling clay. She was thanked a week later when the rota had cycled around. I think she will make seven small cakes this year, one for each crew.

05/2/24

Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean

In Mark Charedoff’s “Goodbye, Columbia,” he constructs a fantasy in which colleges — ten small and poor enough to be bullied by donors but with respectable names — would be transformed to inculcate right-wing Jewish donors’ political and moral beliefs. It’s a version of Plato’s state in which the philosopher-kings (donors) rule over the “producers” (students) with the aid of the Guardians (faculty). Producers come in, Guardians transform them (via the philosopher-king’s playbook), and graduate them out to impose this arrangement on the rest of the world. Nobody mentions that this arrangement is entirely predicated on a Noble Lie which slots everyone into their social roles and justifies doing so. (If you remember the hypnoaedic recordings respectively played to the sleeping Alphas, Betas, and Gammas in Huxley’s Brave New World, you’ve got the picture.)

The “Noble Liars…” Let’s just say that they are bog-standard AIPAC donors who want all the usual things. They want to eliminate DEI programs and “Critical Legal Studies” and design a curriculum similar to the “Great Books” program, but not containing material to be found in “left-wing” political thought, e.g., Fanon. They speak in the name of “freedom” and “excellence” but in the service of ideological reproduction. You don’t need Plato, weak liberal arts institutions, or that much money. What you really want is someplace like Liberty University or Patrick Henry University, which you can create de novo as institutions “safe for Jews.” Of course, there are many types of Jews, and it remains to be seen what sort would consider applying. My guess is that they want the secular ones who would otherwise go to Ivies, not actual believers. It’s a “intellectual liberty”/”physical safety” tradeoff of the Ben Franklin kind, and those who choose “safety” will find it comes with an entire Hermès store of baggage.

01/20/24

Our Glorious Future, or When Will We Ever Learn?

Polling shows that 30% of both major U.S. political parties believe that members of the other party are “less than human” and not possessed of human morality.

This belief is the precondition for full-on genocide, as in so many countries before us from whom we will probably never learn.

I had a statistic on the number of people convinced that complete liquidation of the other party was required for America to recoup its glory, goodness, and standing as a unipolar hegemony, but I can’t find it now. I will edit this post if/when I find it.

[The closest I have come so far is this recent Reuters/Ipsos poll, which shows that 12-15% of both parties think political violence is acceptable to achieve political goals:

https://www.ipsos.com/sites/default/files/ct/news/documents/2023-12/Reuters%20Ipsos%20Large%20Sample%20Survey%20%236%20Topline%2012%2013%202023.pdf

This is still not wholesale liquidation, though. I saw but cannot yet document that some Americans think liquidation of the Other Side is necessary for a good political/social outcome and the number is significant enough to worry about.]

Two sides, the same.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/science/2024/01/20/polarization-science-evolution-psychology/
https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2022/08/09/as-partisan-hostility-grows-signs-of-frustration-with-the-two-party-system/

More hopefully:

https://carnegieendowment.org/2023/09/05/polarization-democracy-and-political-violence-in-united-states-what-research-says-pub-90457

Most hopeful — perhaps in an ostrich-y way — is this article from the National Academy of Sciences saying that conclusions about partisan violence are the fault of poorly defined survey questions that result in unfair characterization of the respondents’ views as extremist.

https://www.pnas.org/doi/10.1073/pnas.2116870119

01/5/24

Alex Gelley, z”l

Alex died yesterday at the age of 90 following a long decline. He was one of the professors who recruited me to UCI. He was intensely curious and relentless in inquiry, risking but avoiding pedantry.

As I left the academic world, he suggested that I become a Privatdozent, and so I became, well before the advent of “alt. ac.” We were periodic guests of the Gelleys, and he always had some insight worth hearing as we gathered around his dining room or kitchen table.

He was one of the faculty who split the Comparative Literature department from the English department. Faculty meetings, as I understand, improved on both sides of the split. I hear as I write this the range of his voice making a distinction or observation.

Who among us did not take Walter Benjamin as a touchstone? There was enough in him for everyone, and plenty for Alex. His final book was on Benjamin, deliberate and without headiness or messianism of the kind to which his students came.

He occasionally hit a strange note. He did not understand why my wife belonged in graduate school or how she could have  earned her Ph.D., and said so on several public occasions, including the celebration of her receiving her doctorate. In the end, he was a theorist and she was an empiricist, and the two minds could not appreciate each other.

Aside from his family, there was the old humanities crew, from my era and before. My cohort was the last where a graduate student had a 2/3 chance of getting a job at the annual MLA meeting. Now, they have a 1/10 chance for a job, and end up as adjuncts or in other toil “to bring forth sustenance from the earth.” Alex did not really understand what had happened, and perhaps it is better that he didn’t. He was from a time when a department chair could call up another department chair, talk favorably about a graduate student, and the student would be hired.

Perhaps in the seventh sphere, he will be able to see this crumbling little planet for what it is. Perhaps he will meet Walter Benjamin and ask after the mysterious suitcase Benjamin lost at Port-Bou. He may find that many academics have come there and edited the contents already, as the Nach-Nachlass. But as befits Alex, he will be given a chance. 

12/19/23

Erravi

If errare humanum est, then I must be human. A few weeks ago I was pulling together a public lecture out of class notes and scattered photocopies, thinking mostly about how to translate a marvelous descriptive passage about dragging boats upstream and through brush in eighth-century Hunan, and credited the poem to the wrong guy. It was by Shen Quanqi 沈全期 (656-729), not Song Zhiwen 宋之問 (656-710), as I realized today when I looked the poem up again in a proper book. I hope nobody else is misled by my goof. I rather doubt anybody will notice. The poem is “Traveling from Changle Commandery Upstream to White Peak, Then Descending to Chenzhou” 自昌樂郡泝流至白石嶺下行入郴州 and reads in part:

茲山界夷夏,天險橫寥廓。

太史漏登探,文命限開鑿。

北流自南瀉,羣峯迴眾壑。

馳波如電騰,激石似雷落。

崖留盤古樹,澗蓄神農藥。。。。

匍匐緣修坂,穹窿曳長索。

礙林阻往來,遇堰每前卻。

救艱不遑飯,畢昏無暇泊。

濯溪寧足懼,磴道誰云惡。

我行山水間,湍險皆不若。

安能獨見聞,書此貽京洛。

This mountain lies on the border of China and alien parts,

Steep as the sky and boundless in its breadth.  

The Grand Historian missed it in his survey of the realm.

The Great Yu neglected to pierce it in his labors.

A current from the north trickles out at the south,

Crowded peaks yield to huddled ravines.

Speeding waves leap up like lightning-flashes,

Crashing stones land like thunderclaps. 

On the banks subsist trees of Pan Gu’s age,

In the cracks grow herbs for Shen Nong’s use….

Dangling creepers border the smooth slope,

The vault of heaven is hung with long ropes.

Blocking thickets impede all movement:

Encountering a weir, each struggles forward.

Our difficulty is such that no time is left to eat,

Till day’s end brings darkness no leisure to moor the boats.

Poling through the rapids is cause enough for fear,

Stone stairways no reason for displeasure.

We travel between mountain and water, 

The rapids perilous like nothing seen before. 

How can all this be left up to seeing and hearing?

I write it down for conveyance to the capital.

12/5/23

Chapter and Universe

If I were to tell you that Western civilization was transmitted straight down from Greece and Rome to Victorian and Edwardian Britain, you might think I was pushing an impossibly old-fashioned line (and you might have plenty of choice epithets for it). It’s not the kind of thing that people would say out loud, outside of certain very reactionary milieux. But people go on writing books as if such were, in fact, the unquestionable pattern of history. The other day I learned about a book– quite possibly a good book, on its own terms and given its limited perspective– about the history of the chapter as textual and cognitive unit. After pointing out another scholar’s docta ignorantia about the origin of page numbers, today let me introduce Nicholas Dames, The Chapter. Take a look at the table of contents. One would never know from it that chapter divisions are found in Chinese books from a very early date (or why). Doesn’t the Chinese chapter have a history worth telling that is also part of the history of humanity?

Not only the Chinese chapter, of course– but it puzzles me that smart people can fall over themselves praising a book that didn’t ask some obvious questions — questions that were off the narrow and obligatory track that runs from Homer to Joyce.

11/29/23

The Educated people are coming, there goes the Neighborhood

A recent survey tells us that in California, “white families drift away from public schools as more Asian students enroll in them — and fears over academic competition, rather than outright racism, may play the biggest role in driving the departures.” More detail: “With each arrival of an Asian American student in a high-income suburban district, .6 white students left … After adjusting their observations for moving patterns … the effect was even greater, such that each Asian student was associated with the departure of 1.5 white students.”

The article is careful to wash the white families clean of any anti-Asian prejudice. According to survey data, they do not feel repulsion or distrust toward Asians. They just don’t want their kids to be outclassed by them! That in itself is a bit racist, as if seeing members of a group not your own do better in school were some kind of injustice. The unwillingness to compete means an unwillingness to give up one’s unearned benefits. It may not be the kind of racism that Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) upheld as legal but it’s still apartheid, the refusal to be together with certain types of people– the sort of thing that inspired the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882).

And the notion of education that formats the whole thought process here, a notion seemingly shared by the fleeing families, the journalist, and the specialists being interviewed, is that the goal for which you send your kids to a certain district is to have them score a high class ranking and get into “good” colleges. To that way of thinking, the best investment in education would be to move to a district where the kids are not more capable than your own kids, but where the schooling is not catastrophically terrible or encased in physical danger. You could even forego the teaching and the homework and just generate a class ranking based on the number of bedrooms and bathrooms in the student’s house; that would save a bunch of teacher salaries and get right to the point.

Another case, I’d say, of the structural craziness of American society. In most parts of the world, if you learn that a certain school or district is where the smart kids are to be found, you do your best to get close to them. It’s worth it even if you end up being the poorest and strangest-looking family in the neighborhood. We educate each other. An education is not a commodity that you own or carry around on your keychain, it’s something we create in common. And being challenged is the central experience in that joint creation. Diamonds sharpen diamonds. If you spend your time with dullards you will lose your own edge. Just ask Mencius’s mother, whose readiness to move house for her little boy Ke’s sake is legendary.

People who move to get away from people belonging to a group deemed to be smart and hard-working aren’t just racists (whatever they may say on surveys), but self-designated mediocrities. Can a state or two be designated Non-Compete Zones for their peace of mind? And some Potemkin Harvards built on a vacant lot to make them happy?

I guess that is what politics in Florida and Texas are really about these days.


Some notes to avoid confusion.

I don’t think of Asians as a “race,” that is, as a bunch of people sharing some genetic material that automatically gives them some characteristics. Rather, in my view they are people who share some historical experiences that may suggest their adopting certain behaviors. One of those experiences, for Asian folks who show up in the United States, is being categorized as “Asian” and having certain capacities or tendencies attributed to them. Whether or not you actually exhibit the corresponding behaviors, the fact of attribution has its quantum of influence. I’ve known Asian high-schoolers, gifted for language and literary interpretation, turned away from AP programs in literature because, of course, the high school counselors looked at an Asian face and thought “computer science.”

Oh, is that a soapbox? For me? Thank you. Well, ok. Fellow White Folks from Suburbia! I speak as a former one of you who discovered that hanging out with Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese and other Asian people* was not a mode of self-punishment, but the path to some of the most rewarding experiences of my life, a path I never tire of! I think you would do well to imagine learning as a genuinely lifelong activity (I learned stuff from my students in Tuesday’s class, and am grateful), not a thing you do just to get that admissions letter that will allow you to coast for the rest of your days. You may think cosmopolitanism is a boring ideal suited to the kind of kids who join the Model U.N., but it is actually a moral task that is never defined and never completed. So get your heads out of the bucket and start looking around.

Let’s think about education not as a pie that is finite and has to be fought over, but as a chorus that gets louder and richer with more voices. My desideratum is for there to be enough different and equally honorable paths for all talents to flourish, during the time we have left on this planet’s damaged surface. It would be helpful if the Ivy League were not the reward of study (because, in actuality, I’ve been there, it’s not); it would be even more helpful if the good things that the Ivy League confers upon its students and graduates were more widely distributed; even better would be an idea of education that starts early and isn’t based on a ranking but on an agenda to discover and elevate abilities. Folks from Asia also have access to a cultural memory of an examination system that ruthlessly pruned the nation’s intellectual flowering trees for short-term rewards and long-term stultification. Let’s remember that too when we ask what education is for.

*(obviously not a comprehensive listing)

11/14/23

Paul in Haiti, Haiti in Paul

I first met Paul at Duke in 1979. We were both undergrads of a somewhat nerdy cast, and therefore odd ducks in a school where sports and fraternities set the tone. I was fresh from a high school year abroad in France and had been reading all the structuralist anthropology and linguistics I could get my hands on—Lévi-Strauss, Benveniste, Jakobson, Barthes, Kristeva, and also Foucault, Althusser, Deleuze, and Derrida. Paul knew this stuff too, but he wasn’t as impressed by the elegant ballet of signifiers as I was. 

Our teacher Weston LaBarre was an eclectic structuralist, adept at handling networks of meaning and also warmly curious about the lives of the people he studied. Through Weston, Paul got to know the ethno-psychiatrist Georges Devereux, a builder of theories with an astonishing range of on-the-ground experience, having lived and worked as a therapist among Native Americans and mountain peoples of Southeast Asia, as well as practicing and teaching in US hospitals. Devereux’s work made a deep impression on us because of its respect for the dynamic of transference and counter-transference—in other words, the ways that the person being observed influences the observer, and the observer influences the observed. 

At that moment in his life I think Paul was expecting to train as a psychiatrist and work with indigenous populations somewhere in the world. But Devereux was too ill and frail to take Paul on as a student. That turned out to be a providential dead end. For another part of Paul’s omnivorous reading in French anthropology had led him to Haiti. In ethnopsychiatry there was the great book on Haitian vaudou by Alfred Métraux. Métraux had been close to Parisian surrealists I was reading: André Breton, Michel Leiris, Léopold Sédar Senghor. And from that group it was a short step for me, under Paul’s tutelage, to begin reading Haitian authors like Jean Price-Mars, Jacques Roumain, Jacques-Stéphen Alexis, René Depestre, Jean Métellus, René Bélance, just to cite those who wrote in French. He met Depestre, Bélance, and Métellus and interviewed them for a book we were going to write together, Three Haitian Poets, Selected Translations and an Introduction. That book never happened as such, for reasons having to do with the timidity of American publishers and our being total unknowns, but parts of it eventually leaked into print.

Paul went to Haiti after graduating from college. The year was 1982-1983, coincidentally the year that a mysterious and fatal auto-immune syndrome began to be reported among gay men, blood transfusion recipients, and Haitians (a collection of categories that was random but somehow not random, if you thought less about causality than about stigma). There he came straight up against the limits of what was known (charitably) as charitable healthcare in a profoundly impoverished country: patients were turned away from the hospital’s door for no reason but lack of funds, and other patients were given useless diagnoses—prescribed treatments they could never access. Tracy Kidder has written memorably about one night of desperate frustration in a hospital that was poorly set up to do its job. So Haiti announced to Paul, in the starkest possible terms, what the problem was. It was what he would later call “medical nihilism.”

And Haiti also brought Paul the vision of a solution. When I went to visit Paul in the spring of 1983, he had just moved from a room in Port-au-Prince to the town of Mirebalais, where he was living with the Lafontant family. Father Fritz Lafontant incarnated the “preferential option for the poor.” Père Fritz and his wife, Yolande, whom we called Mamito, chose to live among the squatters in the mountain village of Cange, people who were badly-off even by Haitian standards. He leveraged ecclesiastical connections with the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina to bring doctors and dentists in for short clinical visits. Built like a football tackle, a theologian of great insight, Father Fritz saw no reason central Haiti should not have its own well-equipped, well-staffed, and free hospital, ringed round with outreach services and social benefits. Nobody in Cange or Mirebalais disagreed or called him unrealistic, at least not in my hearing. His utter conviction inspired and guided Zanmi Lasante, the original core of Partners In Health. HIV, hurricanes, earthquakes, coups, murders, kidnappings, and other heartbreaks—nothing could divert the ékip solid of Zanmi Lasante from their path.             

The successive challenges and, let’s put aside modesty, victories of PIH, which I trust will go on until there is no more need for them, all grew out of that encounter. Paul’s passion for Haiti was infectious and his engagement was total. I don’t know what would have happened if Paul had gone somewhere else after college. By now it is impossible to imagine Paul without Haiti or, I think, Haiti without Paul.

(Read at the 2023 Paul Farmer Symposium on Global Health, Harvard Medical School.)

11/12/23

Voltaire, inventor of the middle ages

It’s obvious that Dante and Chaucer didn’t think of themselves as living in the Middle Ages. They looked back at history and saw the creation of a great empire that then decayed and was replaced by what they would have thought of as modern times. The creation of a bookend at the right-hand end of those times was the work of mostly French antiquarians of the 17th century (Du Cange, Mabillon) but publicized most successfully by Voltaire, whose popularity inserted the term “middle ages” into our common consciousness.

L’histoire de l’empire romain est ce qui mérite le plus notre attention, parce que les Romains ont été nos maitres & nos législateurs. Leurs loix sont encore en vigueur dans la plûpart de nos provinces: leur langue se parle encore, & longtems après leur chûte, elle a été la seule langue dans laquelle on rédigeât les actes publics en Italie, en Allemagne, en Espagne, en France, en Angleterre, en Pologne.

Au démembrement de l’empire romain en Occident, commence un nouvel ordre de choses, & c’est ce qu’on appelle l’histoire du moyen âge; histoire barbare de peuples barbares, qui devenus chrétiens, n’en deviennent pas meilleurs.

Pendant que l’Europe est ainsi boulversée on voit paroître au vii. siecle les Arabes, jusque-là renfermés dans leurs deserts. Ils étendent leur puissance & leur domination dans la haute Asie, dans l’Afrique, & envahissent l’Espagne; les Turcs leur succedent, & établissent le siége de leur empire à Constantinople, au milieu du xv. siecle.

C’est sur la fin de ce siecle qu’un nouveau monde est découvert; & bientôt après la politique de l’Europe & les arts prennent une forme nouvelle. 

Voltaire, article “Histoire” in Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire raisonné des Arts et Métiers… (1765), preceded by many other instances in his corpus of writing

To put it another way, the Middle Ages– a term that many like to bemoan as Eurocentric– stands for the period when Western Europe was generally out of things and unimportant. The action was elsewhere. Voltaire’s bare historical narration might serve as a prompt to dissuade Europeans from their “main character syndrome.”

11/12/23

Remember the Gruffalo!

I was on a flight yesterday and a mother across the aisle from me was distracting her child with that excellent illustrated book, The Gruffalo. And as one does, I thought back to the Stratagems of the Warring States, another good book for distracting children (and adults).

荊宣王問群臣曰:「吾聞北方之畏昭奚恤也,果誠何如?」群臣莫對。江一對曰:「虎求百 獸而食之,得狐。狐曰:『子無敢食我也。天帝使我長百獸,今子食我,是逆天帝命也。子 以我為不信,吾為子先行,子隨我後,觀百獸之見我而敢不走乎?』虎以為然,故遂與之 行。獸見之皆走。虎不知獸畏己而走也,以為畏狐也。今王之地方五千里,帶甲百萬,而 專屬之昭奚恤;故北方之畏奚恤也,其實畏王之甲兵也,猶百獸之畏虎也。」

《戰國策 · 楚一》

Xuan, king of Jing, said to his ministers: “I’ve heard that the Northerners fear my minister Zhao Xixie. Can this be true?” All were silent. Only Jiang Yi replied: “A tiger went out in search of animals to eat. He caught a fox, and the fox said, ‘Don’t even think about eating me! The Emperor of Heaven has named me chief of all the animals, so if you eat me, you will be violating the orders of the Emperor of Heaven. In case you don’t believe me, just walk behind me and watch to see if the other animals don’t flee at my approach. ‘ The tiger agreed and followed the fox, who started walking. And sure enough, all the other animals fled before him. The tiger didn’t understand that the fleeing animals were afraid of himself, he thought they were fleeing on account of the fox. Your majesty’s domain is five thousand miles square, with a million troops, and Zhao Xixie is its commander-in-chief; it is not Zhao Xixie that those Northerners fear, but your Majesty’s men in arms, just as the animals feared the tiger.”

Zhanguo ce, Chu, book 1

11/11/23

Doing (and) Time

Set the Wayback Machine to the year 1100. The poet Su Dongpo, passing by the Jinshan Monastery in what is now Zhenjiang, in Jiangsu Province, sits for his portrait, or maybe encounters a previous likeness of himself hanging on the temple wall. It’s painted by Li Longmian 李龍眠, a painter known for his ability to catch the spirit and movement of his subjects with a few outlined traces. After examining the portrait, Su picks up a brush and inscribes it with a few lines of verse. His handwriting is famous throughout the empire, as is his mercurial, humorous, bon vivant, caustic personality. A little self-portrait in words begins to unfold on the margins of the painted image:

心似已灰之木,身如不繫之舟。問汝平生功業,黃州、惠州、儋州。
A mind like wood already turned to ash, a body like an unmoored boat.
If anyone asks you, what have you achieved in this life? “Huangzhou, Huizhou, Danzhou.”

If the painted image, now lost, is the text, this little poem is the commentary. The first two lines tell us what we can’t directly see from looking, but can only surmise: what’s the inside story, what’s it like to be Su Dongpo? He tells us with two quotations from the magnificent, fanciful, joking-serious Daoist collection of parables known as the Zhuangzi: he has put aside all hope and desire, even the hope of self-improvement, and is like dead wood and ashes. “What is this? Can the body really be transformed into the likeness of dry wood, and can the mind really become as if dead ashes?” says a startled observer of deep meditation in that work.  何居乎?形固可使如槁木,而心固可使如死灰乎?Another dialogue in the same book includes the retort, “Those who are without ability have nothing to seek; they eat their fill and roam far and wide… Floating like an unmoored boat, they are empty and masterless.” 無能者無所求,飽食而敖遊,汎若不繫之舟,虛而敖遊者也. So in the first two lines, Su Dongpo is filling in whatever of his personality the painter had missed. He tells us that he is resigned but not disappointed, a lucid dreamer without aims, someone with no worldly ambition, both cast-off and free. These much-loved passages from Zhuangzi are exactly the right ones for expressing, with some modesty, the reclusive ideal as it must have appeared to thousands of retired scholars and officials. Then Su shifts to an external perspective in the third line, imagining that he is being asked by a stranger or a judging authority how to sum up his lifetime accomplishments. The answer comes in three place names: Huangzhou, Huizhou, Danzhou.            

Su Dongpo was poet, calligrapher, painter, essayist, historian, but for most of his maturity he was gainfully employed as an official, and in that capacity he had more than the usual allowance of upsets. He could be sharp-tongued and impatient, and he was allied with one policy faction that was often aggressively suppressed by a rival faction. Because of his allegiances, he was demoted and banished from the capital on three main occasions, first to Huangzhou in present-day Hubei, then to Huizhou near Guangzhou, and finally to the remote island of Hainan, where he fully expected to fall victim to the tropical diseases that were endemic there. Fifteen or so years in all, out of his seventy-three years of life. A map of the Northern Song state’s territory gives us a graphic means of assessing Su Shi’s progress in offending his enemies: he was first exiled to a small town in the middle of the country, perhaps as a warning, on the next occasion to the very edge of the empire, a place that denizens of the capital would have considered uncouth and barbarous, and when that warning was insufficient he was sent to an island where the Chinese language was practically unknown, the risk of malaria was high, vermin were apt to eat one’s books during the endless rainy season, and the inhabitants were in the habit of slaughtering great numbers of cattle to propitiate the gods every time sickness or poverty threatened. Indeed, on this map drawn to illustrate the history of the Song Dynasty, Hainan Island is not even visible—although the source is of course nowhere near contemporary, we can take the absence of Hainan from it as an indirect witness to how eager the Wang Anshi faction was to remove Su Shi from every means of recovering his prior status and power. How easy to forget Hainan, and how desirable to forget Su Shi. By naming his three places of exile as his greatest achievements, Su Shi seems to be offering a bitter assessment of his years in government, as if to say, that’s what it all came to. Or—and this is not the exclusive “or,” rather the “or” that means “you have this choice as well”—he is permitting himself to glory in the extremity of his punishments. As if to say: you asked for my CV, here it is: Leavenworth, Sing Sing, Alcatraz. I am the guy they had to send all the way to Hainan: deal with it. When everyone aspires to a CV that reads, instead, “Harvard, Yale, Cornell,” you have to be pretty bold to reference the most exclusive penitentiaries. And that is particularly the case when you are by profession and identity usually classed in the company of people who can look back with pride on a set of life stages labeled with glorious and prestigious names. In truth, Su could have named the high points of his career instead. But he didn’t. And it is clear from the metrics that the quatrain was intended from the start to lead to that itinerary of hellholes. Six-syllable verse is not that common in Chinese poetry. Five-syllable or seven-syllable lines give a sharp caesura after the second or third syllable, imparting shape and tension to the verse. Six syllables sound flat, centerless, and prosy. But if what you really want to say consists of three two-syllable place names, there’s no other way. 

10/22/23

The Red and the Blue

I was listening to a talk (a brilliant talk, by the way) by an anthropologist who was describing how men and women of different ages and statuses move in and across inhabited spaces (houses, porches, and courtyards) in a particular society of the Arabian Peninsula that both values hospitality to strangers and observes a high degree of gender segregation. These two cultural values collide in many everyday situations where unfamiliar men occupy public areas of the houses and women skitter about on more or less sheltered paths, participating in the life of the household but avoiding prolonged or direct social contact with the male visitors. In the sketches the anthropologist showed in her slides, the assembly of men on the public-facing porch was represented by a clump of red shapes, and the paths taken by the women between the protected areas, steering clear of main entrances and public spaces, were sketched in pale blue.

Like us all, anthropologists live in the universe of signs, so while listening to the talk I couldn’t help asking myself, “Why red and blue? Why did she choose red for male and blue for female?”

The choice made sense in terms of the differences written into that society’s norms of decorum. Grown men were expected to be gregarious and to have an outside social life. Senior women might attend gatherings on the porch but often took a functional hospitality-providing role. Junior women had their own gatherings in secluded areas where no men were present, and though they might greet a male visitor, they disappeared as soon as possible.

So red, as a hot color, went with dominance and attention-claiming, and blue, as a cool color, went with recessive and attention-avoiding behaviors. The coding was intuitive enough. But what if the colors were reversed? Might the suggestion then be that the women’s paths were somehow risky, like a stone patio a barefoot person would cross quickly on a hot day, and the men’s occupation of the central area was calm and self-assured? Worth a try.

I then went woolgathering (during one of those long expository questions academic audience members like to ask) and thought of our shorthand division into “red” and “blue” states, with some “purple” ones hesitating on the line. I seem to remember that the association red = Republican and blue = Democratic goes back to the 1968 election broadcasts, the first to be widely viewed in color, and that the choice of color polarities was supposedly an arbitrary choice that has stayed with us (classic path-dependency).

But surely it wasn’t really arbitrary. Put yourself in the designers’ shoes. If the choice had been made to paint Democratic states in red, that would have implied a partisan view on the part of the network: red as in Red China, Red Communism, the red flag, red-diaper babies and all the things that red-blooded (oops) Americans were supposed to be against. Thus the correlation of Democrats with blue must have been a forced choice, an avoidance of possibly libelous connotations. Not “blue” so much as “not-red.”

Someone coming onto the scene today and looking at the red/blue political map might give it a different interpretation, according to which Republicans are the hot, angry, energetic ones eager to tear things up, pack heat, use immigrants, minorities and liberals for target practice, and bomb the hell out of any podunk stan that dares to disagree with America; and the Democrats are the cool-headed ones trying to preserve what’s left of the status quo, the rule of law, diplomacy, civil rights, equality, and progress in the acceptance of difference. Redskins vs. blue bloods: a different story from 1968’s pattern but equally motivated by affect and association.

That reading of red/blue has the unfortunate effect of making the Republicans the exciting ones, the impatient ones, the explosive forces of change, and the Democrats the recalcitrant élite. And thus of miming Republican propaganda. It’s not so, of course: where it’s not just destructive and lawless, Republican policy is entirely aimed at keeping money and power in the same hands as in previous decades and creating more punitive means of enforcement of the standards of an imaginary “normal America.” (The brew is served at full strength in the Supreme Court.)

An America, that is, where the Red Clump lolls on the porch and the rest of us skitter in the shadows, trying not to be seen.

10/20/23

Another Way the devaluation of words facilitates the devaluation of human lives

People write “By Any Means Necessary” on their signboards and social posts more or less as they might use italics, exclamation points or emoji. They don’t seem to be noticing that by using the phrase, they are endorsing the destruction of a potentially infinite number of human lives. It would be nicer, I think, if you would provide floor and ceiling values for the number of beheaded babies you consider a tolerable contribution to the realization of your political ideal.

08/24/23

Manifesting Translation

So now the PEN society (of which I’ve been a member for many years) has issued a Manifesto on Translation. Well, why not? Translation matters; it’s literary activity; it requires expenditure of energy and brainpower; it changes minds and modifies worlds. So it deserves attention. 

But a manifesto? I confess that I don’t much like the manifesto genre. I used to parody it back in college, mainly to sneer at its pretentiousness. For manifestos hector and tell you what to do; they speak for a collectivity; they condemn rivals; the right side of history is their happy place. With none of that can I be comfortable, even when the points a manifesto makes, taken one by one, are points I would endorse. A la rigueur, a Dadaist screed might be acceptable to my jumpy stomach.

Wanting to assemble a set of responses to the PEN Translation Manifesto for a journal, a couple of bright young things wrote to solicit a manuscript from me. I sent something outlining a particular position on translating and translation ethics that happens to be mine (a wholly empirical, quasi-autobiographical bit of writing). They replied at first with a commented version that raised “issues” about almost every sentence. I rewrote with a narrower focus. Here’s the second version.


Amicus Curiae, or the Niche Translator

HS, University of ***

I should begin by saying that I am not a full-time or professional translator, so the “Translation Manifesto” does not quite speak for me; conversely, readers of the “Manifesto” may find my experience irrelevant or trivial. I have translated when the spirit has moved me, out of admiration, and not for pay. In most cases my translations have emerged from friendships. That fact influences how I understand translation. For friendship is a singular, accidental thing, resistant to explanation. It comes down to chance, affinity, mood, and other indefinables. “Parce que c’était lui, parce que c’était moi,” as Montaigne put it (“because it was he, because it was me”). So too with translating. Unlike diplomatic, political, or business alliances, a friendship, or the quasi-friendship I am calling the translatorship, is not circumscribed by definite goals. Moreover, it is individual, not categorical. I have participated in translation projects that took a category and a goal—for example, retrieving pre-1911 Chinese women poets from oblivion—as their starting point, but for my translations to be at all convincing, the original had to have something that spoke to me. 

The overlap between friendship and translating might be characterized with Seneca’s phrase “alter ego”: in translating you speak for another and as another. An ethical ideal, I would say, regulates both kinds of relation. Friendships (I am going to make some normative assertions here) are freely consented, not commanded. They require commitment. The person you are proposing to befriend or translate is another self with autonomous interests and will inevitably tax your patience as disagreements and personality differences emerge. At some point you may have to explain yourself to others (“How could you possibly have that person as a friend?”; “What made you choose to translate that author?”). In looking back over my translatorships, I would say that the “alter ego” status is not one that was given in advance, but one that I grew into or took on progressively as the work went forward. Friendships are consolidated by doing things together. It’s admittedly a strange thing to say that a sixteenth-century Chinese poet and I were “doing things together,” but in some sense we were.  

The analogy with friendship helps me clarify how I approach translating, but I can also imagine situations where competent and ethical translators would translate texts with which they feel completely at odds. Is hate-translating a counterexample to my analogy? Not necessarily; in such a case the translator is acting as friend and advocate for a forum, serving that forum best by translating as accurately as possible the hated content. The collectivity of people who are opposed to anti-immigrant bias, for example, will be well served by knowing exactly what politicians and ideologues say in this or that language to stoke up anger against foreigners. A translator can’t be blamed for making that information available. 

Continuing, however, to explore translation’s overlaps with friendship, I observe that “friends possess things in common” (Plato, Phaedrus 279c). I don’t charge friends to eat at my table, and I consider it good fortune to have something to share. Friendship operates in a gift economy, not an economy of exchange. The “Manifesto” calls on us “to be transparent about rates and terms, to not undercut colleagues in the field, and to engage in open conversations about unpaid work. … Translators of literary or other humanistic texts based at universities must be cognizant of the effects of their university employment on independent translators’ livelihoods.” Well then, for the sake of transparency and “open conversations” let me put it on the record that as a senior academic at a prominent US university, I can translate without concern for payment or promotion. Some would call that privilege. I won’t shrink from the word. By producing English versions of Chinese philosophy, Haitian poetry, or Sicilian drama, I’m not undercutting other professional translators who would need to be paid to do the same; it’s rather the case that if I don’t do it out of the resources of my privilege, the job may not get done at all. My Haitian poetry translations had to wait thirty years—until I had stored up a lot of titles and prestige—before a publisher would consider them. Getting Li Zhi, Jean Métellus, or Tino Caspanello published in English was worth doing, even if it involved less than perfectly egalitarian methods and netted negligible rewards for author or translator. I would go so far as to say that translators like me use private means to produce a public good.

Few publishers are committed to literary translation. Much of it must then be produced in something like a gift economy, with overt or tacit subventions. (My drug of choice is poetry, a commodity for which marketability and quality observe a generally inverse correlation.) That the profit-oriented business model skews the supply of translations is obvious, but I can well conceive that the accumulation of pet projects and labors of love would distort it too. What is the best way to build a lively, diverse, surprising culture of translation into English? Can we translators create a demand for our work, and thus be perceived as a source of market value? Now and again a small publisher of literary translation issues a book (better yet, the first book in a series) that is taken up by one of the behemoths of publishing and becomes a hot property, perhaps even the symbol of a trend (Nordic crime fiction, for example). The small publisher and, one hopes, the translator both benefit; the big publisher benefits much more; the English-language readership wins as well. But these are exceptional cases. In many other language-domains it is taken for granted that works in translation interest a broad public and are therefore valuable. 

The “Manifesto” acknowledges the complexity of the translation market by issuing a stream of critiques, recommendations, and demands that touch on different points of the production chain—so many directives and so many points that one can’t help wondering if they are all compatible with one another or with the conditions of their possible realization. The “Manifesto” calls on publishers and institutions to honor their “responsibilities.” There’s ethical language again—in a legal, political or contractual idiom. But in an economy or ecosystem with many independently moving parts, it’s hard to say where responsibility resides. Say the onus of the recommendations is to fall on editors: they do have the power to approve projects and sign contracts. But they are nervous polar bears on melting ice floes, just like authors and translators. For-profit and academic publishers alike occupy niches in a tremendously concentrated ownership environment in which choices made by the biggest participants dictate the conditions of the smaller ones’ survival, and book publishing must vie with omnipresent digital content that is, if not acquired for nothing, often given away for nothing in pursuit of audience share. The above are durable, structural obstacles in the way of building a culture of translation in the English-speaking world. What leverage can be wielded by translators trying to make a living in that environment? The “PEN Translation Manifesto” is one attempt to use reputation and codes of behavior to even out the unequal rewards doled out to translators who translate from different languages, from different backgrounds, in different genres. If publishers pay attention, wonderful; but I suspect they will continue on their preset path, departing from it only to avoid financial loss, boycotting and scandal. 

In the United States, the non-profit sector of universities and foundations may be badgered into providing greater support for translation. Relying on the public sector is probably unwise at a cultural moment that has seen so many laws passed against education and reading (I see you, Florida, Tennessee, Texas, and the rest). The time may be past when we could assume that all members of a free society were “friends,” insofar as they agreed to coexist and support one another’s right to the pursuit of happiness. Indeed, even the foundations and universities have shown themselves weak in the face of illiberal outcry. A polarized society makes everyone in it more ignorant and less curious. Literary translators have the thankless task of resisting the pressure of commercial balance-sheets, which is bad enough, but not nearly as harmful for culture as the pressure of ideological balance-sheets, where scoring points and neutralizing imaginary opponents is the order of the day. The governor of Florida is aware of Judy Blume and Mickey Mouse; just imagine what will happen when he learns of Constantin Cavafy, Clarice Lispector, and Wang Anyi. 

The “Translation Manifesto” strengthens my admiration for those translators who are carrying out a struggle on economic, political and cultural planes, all the while holding themselves to the standards of their art. I can only hope that the efforts of people like me, insulated to some extent from the indifference of the market and the hostility of the mob, will be seen as supportive and not “undercutting.” 


After receiving the above, the Bright Young Things responded: “We’ve looked over the revised draft carefully and after a lot of thought and consideration, we have decided not to move ahead with production on this piece. We feel that it still has some significant structural issues and resolving them would stretch our team’s capacity and make it impossible to meet our production deadline at the end of this week. Not to mention, that it would demand more of your time.”

Okay. “Significant structural issues” means, I suppose, that I spoke individually, and that I wasn’t an individual they were interested in hearing from. (They have got the bureaucratic tone down to a T, though.) No big deal. You can’t please everybody.


Some more reflections now about translation’s place within anglophone culture, with ref to PEN’s storied history.

One of the most significant moves of the PEN “2023 Manifesto on Literary Translation” is to posit translators as authors. Not as monadic, solitary geniuses (that sort of claim never really applied to “sole” authors anyway), but as authors of “a set of interpretive relations with an existing text.” Those intertextual relations stretch out into another domain of relations, that which connects with publics. From their position between a text and its publics, translators open some kinds of connection and foreclose others. I agree, of course, with this understanding of translation.

To illustrate the point, let me turn back to the author of the first PEN translation manifesto, Robert Payne in 1963. Payne’s name will be familiar to members of my tribe—devotees of Chinese poetry—for The White Pony, an anthology he edited in 1947. In that book’s introduction Payne laid out the case for the value of Chinese poetry to English-language readers as it could best be stated in the immediate postwar period. 

We may regret that Chinese poetry is eternally changing, but like the Chinese earth itself, we know that it is eternally the same…. There are times when China cannot be understood—there are permanent barriers that cannot be forced—but there are other times when a line of poetry, a single stroke of a brush on a sheet of silk, or perhaps some song sung by a girl in a rice field will tell us more than we have ever learned from books…. Chinese poetry does not change with the times…. Here is poetry, clear, concise, etched sharply on the clear minds of the people and written in those characters that more than any alphabet conspire to make the word read the same as the thing seen, the emotion experienced, the thought made luminous. … We who are constantly changing, at the mercy of every influx of scientific ideas, may do well to ponder sometimes the poetry of these people who are as unchanging as the stars.[1]

Encountering this, I cannot help recoiling: is this not the purest expression of “the tendency to essentialize cultures and languages,” the very “cultural erasure and the fetishization of difference” that the 2023 Manifesto denounces (and justly so)? But I am also reluctant to set my foot on the trunk of the defeated dragon of essentialism, partly because I cannot be sure it is dead, partly because the awareness of the translator (or editor) as weaver of relations with a public makes me ask: what exactly was the most effective way, in 1947, to secure a wide English-language readership for a complex, demanding artform from long ago and far away? Adopting the verbal tics of what would later be called “Orientalism,” not to bury China but to praise it, was the strategy that occurred to Payne, who nonetheless, as a personal matter, clearly wanted the best for Chinese poets and their translators. It is not enough to say that Payne was wrong or tainted by colonial thinking. He was doing what translators do– making connections– though not as we would do it, as he was doing it in a world that is no longer our own. With this example in mind I hesitate to fall in with the peremptory tone characteristic of manifestos, including PEN’s 2023 one. 

The problem of knowing who is on the right side of history arises here and there when the Manifesto rises from economics to morality. The Manifesto’s authors protest “tokenization” and judge that “the tendency to mask inequities via gestures such as awarding prizes and raising awareness about underrepresented authors is endemic to the publishing industry”; but without a generally received criterion of sincerity or mercenariness, or better yet concrete instances submitted to debate, these are vague directives to be applied in keeping with a criterion of “if you know, you know.” If we are going to accuse whole professions of complicity with evil (“There has yet to be a full reckoning with the role played by translators—including literary translators—in genocide, colonization, and enslavement, all of which continue to influence how the field operates today”), let’s see some specifics, both of what should be done and what should never be done again.[2]

The Manifesto is right to recognize translators as authors. But what that means is, as always, subject to conditions. It is as if a voice had said, “Partake of this theory, and ye shall be as authors.” To be an author in the twenty-first century is not what it was in the era of the author as hero, nor again what it was in that of the death of the author. Ours is the era of the flattening of the author into sociological categories. Publishers expect me to be interested in a poet or novelist because of his, her, or their race, nationality, or other status. Henceforth, translators will undergo the same labeling. But I’m not sure the art of translation gains much from being made relative to the identity of the translator. Translation seems to me to have to do with connections rather than identities, with others rather than selves. I would find it dreadfully patronizing to see my work announced as that of “a white male American translator of Chinese poetry,” though if you care about labeling me you are free to look up my picture and demographics. In this regard I try to do unto others as I would have them do unto me, ignoring the labels in favor of the actual work. And if I may use one of the Manifesto’s concerns to critique another concern, essentializing the translator’s group identity is not much different from essentializing the cultural provenance of the text being translated— it is once more a case of “the fetishization of difference” executing “cultural erasure.” I would rather have readers stress the translator’s agency—the power to imagine, decide, and do.


[1] Robert Payne, “Introduction,” in Robert Payne, ed., The White Pony: An Anthology of Chinese Poetry from the Earliest Times to the Present Day, Newly Translated (New York: John Day, 1947), xii, xv, xxv, xxvi.

[2] For a study of specific cases in this area, see Tiphaine Samoyault, Traduction et violence (Paris: Seuil, 2020). 

07/15/23

Lawful as Eating

“What is it that I do when I decide a case? To what sources of information do I appeal for guidance? In what proportions do I permit them to contribute to the result? If a precedent is applicable, when do I refuse to follow it? If no precedent is applicable, how do I reach the rule that will make a precedent for the future? If I am seeking logical consistency, the symmetry of the legal structure, how far shall I seek it? At what point shall the quest be halted by some discrepant custom, by some consideration of the social welfare by my own or the common standards of justice and morals?”

So Judge (later Justice) Benjamin Cardozo in The Nature of the Judicial Process (1921). Now let’s see, which factors did Cardozo not enumerate as legitimate means of “halting the quest”?

Fishing trips? College tuition? Real estate transfers?

Don’t tell me the Robber Barons of the gilded age were such shrinking violets. Possibly judges had some self-respect in those far-off times.

(thanks to Bruce Brooks for the quotation)

07/7/23

Printculture lives!

It was unintentional. An attempt to update the WordPress software that keeps this site running somehow quit halfway, leaving the database hanging and me unable to get in through the back door. I flustered and growled around for a couple of months, and then found a sympathetic developer, Tin, who in about ten minutes had removed the bad bits of code and got us up and running. So I apologize, if anybody was paying attention, for the lapse in service. Onward.

05/1/23

Mistaken Identity, 2

From the Intrigues of the Warring States.

溫人之周,周不納。「客即?」對曰:「主人也。」問其巷而不知也,使因囚之。君使人問之曰:「子非周人,而自謂非客何也?」對曰:「臣少而誦《詩》,《詩》曰:『普天之下,莫非王土;率土之濱,莫非王臣。』今周君天下,則我天子之臣,而又為客哉?故曰主人。」君乃使吏出之。

A man from the state of Wen traveled to the state of Zhou, but the Zhou would not admit him. “Do you come as a foreign visitor?” He answered: “No, as a resident.” When asked for his address he could not provide any, so they imprisoned him. The ruler sent officials to question him. They said: “You’re not from Zhou, so why did you deny you were a foreigner?” He answered, “As a boy I learned to recite from the Book of Odes, where it is written: ‘Under the wide heaven / No land but is the king’s land; / To the edges of the earth, / No man but is the king’s subject.’ Today the Zhou rule over the world*, so of course I am a subject of the Son of Heaven, and you want to treat me like a foreigner? That’s why I said I was a resident.” The ruler told his officials to let him go free.

* This was of course very far from being the case at the time of the incident, but an residue of long-outdated Zhou royal entitlements.

04/8/23

Mistaken Identity (One of a Series)

One of the books lying around the house I grew up in was Lin Yutang’s My Country and My People (1936). I remember, from the time that I was small enough to be wondering about such hazy questions as whether it was better to be an optimist or a pessimist, the impression passages like this one made on me:

Taoism, in theory and practice, means a certain roguish nonchalance, a confounded and devastating skepticism, a mocking laughter at the futility of all human interference and the failure of all human institutions, laws, government and marriage, and a certain disbelief in idealism, not so much because of lack of energy as because of a lack of faith. It is a philosophy which counteracts the positivism of Confucius, and serves as a safety-valve for the imperfections of a Confucian society. For the Confucian outlook on life is positive, while the Taoistic outlook is negative, and out of the alchemy of these two strange elements emerges that immortal thing we call Chinese character. Hence all Chinese are Confucianists when successful, and Taoists when they are failures. … Taoism and Confucianism are the negative and positive poles of Chinese thought which make life possible in China.

It sounded like perpetual motion (an engineering puzzle somebody had put in my head): a way to draw energy from the unpredictability of success and failure and keep things cycling round.

So far we have been dealing with three of the worst characteristics that paralyze the Chinese people for organized action. These characteristics are seen to spring from a general view of life as shrewd as it is mellow, distinguished by a certain tolerant nonchalance. It is evident that such a view of life is not without its virtues, and they are the virtues of an old people, not ambitious nor keen to sit on the top of the world, but a people whose eyes have seen much of life, who are prepared to accept life for what it is worth, but who insist nevertheless that life shall be lived decently and happily within one’s lot. … They are tremendously interested in this commonplace world, and they have an indomitable patience, an indefatigable industry, a sense of duty, a level-headed common sense, cheerfulness, humor, tolerance, pacifism, and that unequalled genius for finding happiness in hard environments which we call contentment–qualities that make this commonplace life enjoyable to them.

I probably missed the point, for Lin was engaging in a description of “the character of the Chinese,” and I read him as proposing a solution to the problem of how to live. I concluded that I wanted to live among people like that.

Years later, having absorbed and forgotten Lin Yutang, I was reading and reciting Parker Huang’s Twenty Lectures on Chinese Culture, written as a second-year language textbook for Yale. In one chapter Huang mentioned the existence of dozens of ethnic minorities in China, each of them having its own language and culture. But the biggest nationality, he said, was the Han, who were 一個愛和平,講禮貌,能吃苦的民族 (“a peace-loving people, sticklers for politeness, who can endure a lot”) — never mind what this implies about the other 民族. The bell of reading reminiscence rang and I said to myself again that these were definitely my people.

As on the day when I read an article about feminism and realized that everything it said was self-evident to me, I was already on the team mentally but no membership card ever arrived in the mail.

03/25/23

Help Wanted

The Problem. The Humanities are, by many accounts, in trouble. The newspaper of record and the glossy magazines tell us of collapsing enrollments in languages, literature, and the arts (a collapse abetted by a steady stream of articles in those same publications predicting unemployability for humanities majors). Book-banning bills pack the agenda of state legislatures (a backward compliment to the power of literature to change minds). Underfunded, reduced to a service role in many college curricula, uncertain whether the present generation of scholars will have successors, humanities faculty talk about survival rather than flourishing. And yet the need for citizens who can follow complex chains of thought, contextualize claims to truth and reject appealing falsehoods, draw valid analogies from history and discern fact from opinion, has never been greater. These capacities are of course not exclusive to humanists or humanities majors, but building them in doctors, scientists, economists, engineers, and lawyers, as well as in poets and anthropologists, is one of the core missions of the humanities. It is always salutary for professionals to ask themselves, “What problem are we supposed to solve?” No one expects the humanities to resolve by themselves the erosion of democracy, the persistence of inequalities, or the threat of climate disaster, but without a public discourse informed by broad and deep knowledge of history and culture, our ability to choose the right remedies is impaired. Thus to the “crisis of the humanities” corresponds a need to rescue the humanities from the narrow definition of academic fields that identifies “the humanities” with the number of humanities majors, departments, or faculty lines. 

            The Way Forward. The Dean of Humanities must of course manage departments and faculty and serve the needs of students, but the urgent task is to engage the Division with a sense of this larger mission. The Dean must rebut charges that the Humanities are a frivolous waste of time, an amusement for the élite, a museum of oppressive traditions, a badge of “cultural capital,” or a propaganda brigade. Humanities faculty transmit expertise and knowledge, they generate new methods and hypotheses, as specialists in this or that area but with the ultimate aim of making society* better aware of itself and more thoughtful in the exercise of its powers. At a university like ours, with its worldwide reputation and network of alumni, the Dean of Humanities can and must be more than a caretaker. The job is to exercise intellectual leadership, nourish creativity, distinguish innovation from the already-said-and-found-wanting. The Dean cannot possess all the knowledge held by the faculty and students in the Humanities, but the Dean must be curious about it and convey that curiosity to a wider audience. A big part of the difference the University of *** makes in the world, in fact, rests on the Dean of Humanities. 


  • Human society, I would have said, if that didn’t sound grandiose. But something bigger than “American society” for sure.