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Victory and Loss: Solnit’s Letter to My Dismal Allies on the US Left

Rebecca Solnit ends her letter, (though it was published, online, in The Guardian, on October 15, 2012, I’ve just run into it and find it – still – relevant for many reasons, which I’ll try to capture here), by saying the following :

There are really only two questions for activists: what do you want to achieve? And who do you want to be? And those two questions are deeply entwined. Every minute of every hour of every day you are making the world, just as you are making yourself, and you might as well do it with generosity and kindness and style.

That is the small ongoing victory on which great victories can be built, and you do want victories, don’t you? Make sure you’re clear on the answer to that, and think about what they would look like.

Solnit also says:

There is idealism somewhere under this pile of bile, the pernicious idealism that wants the world to be perfect and is disgruntled that it isn’t – and that it never will be. That’s why the perfect is the enemy of the good. Because, really, people, part of how we are going to thrive in this imperfect moment is through élan, esprit de corps, fierce hope and generous hearts.

Solnit is, for me anyway, trying to channel, (to some extent and falling dramatically short), Slavoj Žižek, the Slovanian Marxist philosopher, psychoanalist, and cultural critic. (To directly cite Žižek would be disastrous for her, I’m sure.)

I see Solnit’s thinking and language parallel Žižek’s in primarily two texts: Žižek‘s The Sublime Object of Ideology (1989), and the more recent, his Demanding the Impossible, a conversation edited by Yong-june Park (2013).

Let’s begin with Solnit’s assertion, There are really only two questions for activists: what do you want to achieve? And who do you want to be? And I agree with Solnit that these are deeply entwined questions.

In the first chapter of Demanding the Impossible, titled “Politics and Responsibility,” Žižek argues the following (and it’s relevant to see it entirely to note the parallel):

What is a common good today? OK, let’s say ecology.  Probably most people would agree, even though we are politically different, that we all care about the earth.  But if you look closely, you will see that there are so many ecologies on which you can have to make so many decisions.  Having said that, my position here is very crazy.  For me, politics has priority [underline for emphasis in original] over ethics.  Not in the vulgar sense that we can do whatever we want – even kill people and then subordinate ethics to politics – but in a much more radical sense that what we define as our good is not something we just discover; rather, it is that we have to take responsibility [underline for emphasis in original] for defining what is our good.

In this sense, priority and responsibility as valuable standards by which to address the questions, what do you want to achieve? And who do you want to be?, appear to respond, in one way, to what we first need to consider if we’re going to respond to Solnit’s questions appropriately.

Only Žižek might argue that Solnit is passing from one extreme into another.

What does that mean?

Every minute of every hour of every day you are making the world, just as you are making yourself, and you might as well do it with generosity and kindness and style, says Solnit.  This is a compulsion, Žižek says, for a sort of partial harmony (Demanding the Impossible); it is defining the world we live in by contrast when, what we need to answer Solnit’s questions is, first, another set of relevant – perhaps the most relevant – questions:  How do we imagine individual freedom?  And how do we imagine the common good?  

Listen to Žižek and  you see where Solnit stops short in her analysis:

The first thing I would like to do is show how absurd it is to urge that we have two extremes and need to find the balance.  These two extremes already flow into each other.  That is why “synthesis” does not affirm the identity of extremes, but on the contrary, affirms their differences as such. So the synthesis delivers difference from the “compulsion to identify.”  In other words, the immediate passage of an extreme into its opposite is precisely an index of our submission to the compulsion to identify.

It is precisely this bind that compels us to re-examine Solnit’s proposition –  generosity and kindness and style as a solution – and turn it back on itself.  Generosity and kindness and style suggest that we live in a world that’s the polar opposite – not generous, unkind and cruel, without style.  Of course, these negatives do come with style – maybe a style that’s harsh, brash and vulgar, but style nevertheless.  This reality – or truth – puts those on the political Left, which Solnit is addressing, already on the defensive, evident in the reactions Solnit is criticizing; likewise, since those on the political Right don’t see themselves as cruel, unkind and styleless, we are once again in the place Solnit wishes we were not.

What’s the problem, here?

For starters, though Solnit feigns taking responsibility, which she does not allude to not at all, and certainly not on Žižek’s terms, we are left moving far afield from the critical questions – How do we imagine individual freedom?  And how do we imagine the common good? – and back into a political tug of war.

The irony – or the joke – is that this is how Solnit sees us moving towards a sustainable, compassionate, perhaps egalitarian and healthy and certainly more balanced world. Somehow generosity and kindness and style will begin to take us there.  Perhaps. Yet, I see Solnit’s call as Žižek does: an unsustainable attempt to move towards the measure of balance because, as Žižek argues, the very measure of what is extreme has changed.  So for me this is the true revolution.  It is that totality changed; the very measure of the extremes changed.  For Solnit extremes are not going away, so we have to learn how to negotiate with each other – generosity and kindness and style.  The world we have will remain.

Will we then have a world within a world? One generous, kind and stylish, moving a particular agenda, the other unkind, boorish and vicious, moving their agenda crudely.

It is here, in Žižek’s thinking, that we are closest to what Solnit is trying to get at when she admonishes – well – the admonishments she, and others on the political left, receive when privileging a good while the same person – Obama = Obamacare + drones – is also responsible for a bad, or even evil, as in the killing of innocent children while also protecting others.

Does the common good, always already arrive to us with good and evil?  Is this how we achieve stability, today, or how we define it? Is this who we are?

Historically, we live in a time that, when we talk about stability, says Žižek, it means the stability of dynamic development.  It is totally a different logic of stability from that of pre-modern times.  

Listen: stability is the stability of instability.  Say it again.

The lesson of politics, says Žižek, is that you cannot distinguish between means and ends (goals).

This is how we land on Solnit’s notions of idealism, which, she says, is the pernicious idealism that wants the world to be perfect and is disgruntled that it isn’t – and that it never will be.  Solnit is closest to Žižek when he describes the source of totalitarian: The greatest mass murders and holocausts have always been perpetrated in the name of man as harmonious being, of a New Man without antagonistic tension (The Sublime Object of Ideology).

Think la Reconquista and the expulsion of the Moors and and the Fall of Granada in 1492 – begin there.  Then in the same year, Columbus, instead of reaching Japan as he had intended, discovers a New World.  And work your way through history and note how the ideology of a New Man without antagonistic tension wanders through as a harmonious being in a wave of mass murders and holocausts.

The only way this can happen, always, over and over, is if the first condition of ideology is met: individuals partaking in it are not aware of its proper logic, says Žižek.  If we come to ‘know too much,’ to pierce the true functioning of social reality, this reality would dissolve itself.

This is why the emperor never has any clothes, as Solnit posits.  He is always already naked – only we don’t know it.

It’s best to go further and bring it to a close listening to Žižek, fully:

This is probably the fundamental dimension of ‘ideology’: ideology is not simply a ‘false consciousness’, an illusory representation of reality, it is rather this reality itself which is already to be conceived as ‘ideological’ – ‘ideological’ is a social reality whose very existence implies the non-knowledge of its participants as to its essence – that is, the social effectivity, the very reproduction of which implies that the individuals ‘do not know what they are doing’. ‘Ideological is not the ‘false consciousness’ of a (social) being but this being itself in so far as it is supported by ‘false consciousness’.  Thus we have finally reached the dimension of the symptom, because one of its possible definitions would also be ‘a formation whose very consistency implies a certain non-knowledge on the part of the subject’: the subject can ‘enjoy his symptom’ only in so far as its logic escapes him – the measure of the success of its interpretation is precisely its dissolution.

And here we are, inside this ‘ideological bubble’:

  • Solnit points to the non-knowledge of the left
  • Generally speaking, in Solnit’s words, none of us know what we are doing – not the left, not the right, not anyone
  • Yet we are involved in doing, what Solnit suggests is the making of the world
  • This is the false consciousness supporting us, what we are doing without knowing, always
  • We are, in the West, especially in the US, most of us, involved in the greatest perversity of all: we are enjoying ourselves, even as murderers and holocausts abound

The solutions are, perhaps beginning with Solnit, as here, but then moving to the more critical: How do we imagine individual freedom?  And how do we imagine the common good? And doing so with responsibility.  It’s the only way out of the bind of trying to create a balance among contrasts, a shallow exercise that leads us back into the bind we’re in.   It’s not about victories, as Solnit says; it’s about knowing and understanding where difference are – and they’re always a moving target.

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My Final Post on Getting Lost: Lost in the Funhouse…

Our students thrash about because we do; students are terribly confused because we are; we are all a danger to ourselves. And, as far as I am concerned – in one humble opinion – we dutifully adhere to the most medieval institution, the University, without realizing that, before our eyes, it has metamorphosed into an exotic multinational business like any other – and students are our last concern. 

Read more here…

Imagining Amsterdam

Transparency: The following is from a novella I’ve written (now editing), Imagining Amsterdam.  The story takes place in the future – 2025.  I’m publishing the first few pages because it fits Rebecca Sonit’s A Guide to Being Lost – you’ll see why.

*******************

IMAGINING AMSTERDAM

“And in the pursuit of his love the custom of mankind allows him to do many strange things, which philosophy would bitterly censure if they were done from any motive of interest, or wish for office or power.”                                                                       

Plato, Symposium, c. 385-380

 

“Why should a set of people have been put in motion, on such a scale and with such an air of being equipped for a profitable journey, only to break down without an accident, to stretch themselves in the wayside dust without a reason?”

                                                                         Henry James, The Wings of the Dove, 1902

“People look to the future and expect that the forces of the present will unfold in a coherent and predictable way, but any examination of the past reveals that the circuitous routes of change are unimaginably strange.”

Rebecca Solnit, A Guide to Getting Lost, 2005

–If I think back, I’d say that some of our most moving times together were when you thought you were about to leave behind something of yourself, he said over the phone.  And … I don’t know, maybe sometimes you couldn’t.  I don’t know.  Or wouldn’t.  You’d hold on.  Tight.  You’d hold on tight.  To everything you could.  Until you couldn’t.

I don’t know why I reached out to him after so many years.  But I did.  And here we were.

— There’s something of that now, I’m guessing, he continued in a soft tone.  He paused, and waited.

— I’m sorry, I said, unsure of what else to say in the awkward distance I felt between us when I heard his familiar voice and it all came back to me again.  I took too long, I said.   I’m sorry, truly.  I am.  Too much time has passed.  I know it has.  I let it happen.  Not you.   Totally irrational, I know that too.  It was me.  It’s me.  My fault.  I feel terrible.   Do you forgive me?

He chuckled.

— All I have to do is shut my eyes and I see you, he said.  I’ve been watching you from afar.

I smiled.  Instantaneously.

— You didn’t think I would? he asked rhetorically.  You probably knew I would.  How could I not?  I always wanted to follow you.  To run away and follow you.

— And?

— I would have loved to follow you to New York and see what you were up to.  Such a change for you, not going home and all.  So far away, you know.  So far.  And you struggled and came through.  The complete you.

— You mean the completion of who you thought I was.

— Something like that.  The complete you, I like to think.  All of you because I knew I didn’t see everything and I wanted to.  The real you, you know?  All of it, scars and all.  I remember your scars.  I can see them clearly, the parallel lines on the inside of your leg by your knee.  They’re as clear as your name.  Like a signature.  A scar, a blemish, something that distinguishes a person becomes so much how you experience a person – you and the person.  The scar becomes an intimacy, draws you in like.  It has a history.  Yours and then someone else’s, I think.  And at a certain point, in the here and there, in memory’s shadows, you’re not sure whether it’s the scar or the blemish or the person or all of it that you love.  The one and the other become one thing in your mind and that unique mark you just can’t do without is suddenly yours too.  You even long for it.   That scar.

It was night.  I held my lights low against the luminescence stitched across the city and my reflection on my picture window talked back to me: head tilted to one side and rocking back-and-forth cradled in his voice, my arms crossed just above my waist as if I held a child.   He filled the room.  It was like it used to be.

I know he felt my hesitation.

— I wondered about you, I said softly, like a single syllable, a moan.  I thought a lot about you.  I did.  I wanted to reach out – many times.  I’d be grocery shopping, you know – I could be anywhere; on a date – and suddenly there you’d be, out of nowhere, something you said to me – in your voice, your tone. Something I’d forgotten.  I could totally see you.  It’s good when that happens.  I don’t know.  Just good.  Good all over.  I’ve always felt like … That you were looking out.  There with me, you know.  You were there.  I liked that.  I liked knowing that you were watching out for me.  I wish I could really explain what that feels like.  I’m not doing a very good job right now.

I went on and again told him that I was sorry for taking so long to see how he was, how he was doing since he’d meant so much to me, all those hours working with me – years actually, from twenty ten to twenty twelve.   Advising me, mentoring me, putting up with my pouting, my tears, my wild rants.  Holding me up.  My self-involved irrationalities.   Until one day something happened and we found ourselves somewhere else, a new place, inhabiting new spaces.  Or the same places differently.   It was near the end, almost to the end of my university life, the last year.  We were in a very different space.  I didn’t say a thing though, totally unsure of myself.  Either did he – he knew better.   He could see the long now and took care of me.

–What happens? What happens to people? I asked him, wanting to really ask him, what happened to us? since there was a time when I spoke to him almost every day just about.  Emails, texts, voice – Can I see you? I use to say.  I never asked about him.   Never.  Hi, when can I come and see you?  That was enough.  That was it.

— You have a life.  Mine is quite different. That’s all.  We’ve always been separated by a swath of time.

I’d forgotten what it was like, his ability to see through me, instantly.

I was staring into my tarnished memory of us, looking for answers, looking to see why him, why is he still here, here with me?

— You know, I’d say that we met because there is such a difference in our ages.  Maybe without that difference, who knows, maybe we wouldn’t have met, he said.

— But we did and here we are …

— Again.

— Again.  Here we are again, I said and my voice trailed off and I changed the subject.   I wasn’t ready to get into an examination of our relationship, especially since so much time had passed.  I turned it over in my mind many times – and maybe that’s why I never reached out.  I didn’t want to get to the questions.  Yet here we were.  As he said, again – a musical phrase that never goes away.

— Boston said you’re on an extended leave.  What are you doing?  Are you gone for good?

He took a deep breath that filled the silence.

— I’ve stepped away from the hallowed ivy – and come to realize that the ivy has tentacles that reach far inside a person.  It’s ironic.  And maybe tragic.  A little tragic, anyway.  That’s what I’m here to find out.  I’m taking a step back to find out who I am once and for all.

— What are you saying?

— Just getting some distance.  That’s all.  Trying to gain some, you know.  I need perspective.  I’m trying to get it somehow – before I become more irrelevant then I already am.

— In Amsterdam.  Talking about some change.  Okay.  Fine.  But I wouldn’t call you irrelevant.

— We won’t be able to meet for lunch.  That’s true. Yeah.  You can’t simply walk across campus to my office, shut the door and spend a few hours. Impossible this time around, he said and laughed.

— That’s not what I’m saying.  Is that how you saw it?  A cliché, that’s what it was?  You?  What am I then?

— It’s a joke.  I’m just joking.   Common on.  Can’t you take a joke after all this time?

— It’s not a joking thing.

— Well then, maybe I am a cliché – and it is too late.   Maybe that’s the joke – and it’s on me.  Wait.  Wait a minute, he said and paused.  I – ambeing – tested.  Aren’t I?  Yes.  You’re testing me.  I think yes.  Is that why you called?  Wanna see if I’m still here for you.  Talk about clichés.  That’s why you called. You’re not sure where we are. Me.  Where I am.  Must be serious.  And there’s a change – something’s coming.  Some change. Something’s in the air and you reached out.  That’s it.  It is.  Isn’t it?  Maybe something already happened.  Something big.  Love shattered?  A disappointment.  There’s been a disappointment, yes – and you can’t write it off as all good, like you used to say.  It’s got to be big.  Yes, something’s happened.  What?  Tell me.  What do you need?  This is how it always goes for us, right?  Doesn’t it?

— Okay.  Okay.  It’s on me.  I know.  It’s on me.  I’ll take the chance.  I’ll leap.  That’s what you want.  I hear you.  I’ll take responsibility.  But you can’t say you’re a cliché.   I won’t accept that.  You’re not a cliché.  You’re not.  Far from it.  Don’t be ridiculous. You mean a lot to me – to a lot of people, I said to him.

Then I hesitated, unsure whether to say what I wanted to say, why I called him, after all.  There was a long silence – and I just said it:  I need you.   As soon as I said it I regretted it but I kept on.  I was already in. I was in the moment I got his number from Boston.  I was in when I called him.  Shit, I’d been in for awhile.  

I breathed deeply a couple of times, and nervously just put it out there quickly: Are you busy?  Can I see you?  I asked and dropped my head, letting its weight dangle it there over my chest as if I’d given out.  I shut my eyes and waited.  I waited for the cold, sharp blade to drop on my neck.

My anxiety thickened – and he let it.

—  Are you ignoring me?

He didn’t respond.  I inhaled, not wanting to look up, even though we weren’t visible to each other – I shut off the broadcast just as I called him and I leaned on my picture window, full of anxiety, and whispered facetime off  because I didn’t want him to see me like that.   He’d sense my despair.  That’s what he’s really good at sniffing out.  Despair.  We met at precisely the moment I was falling and spinning out between reason and chaos – and I didn’t know which was which.    I sat hunched over in his seminar on punishment, my thick, black uncombed hair around my face covering my eyes.  I was disconsolate.  Didn’t know where I was and what I was doing.  More importantly, I didn’t know what I was going to do with myself – and I didn’t know who to turn to.  You might say that this is expected of any second year university student, particularly if she is surrounded by classic “A” personality types with their lives totally visible in front of them.  Mine was not.  I was lost.  I can’t even tell you why I took his class – maybe it was the rumor mill we students create and someone told me, oh yeah, take him, he’s interesting.  And I did, not knowing what else to take.   I just didn’t care.  I hardly looked at him when he lectured.  And he pointed to me one day at the end of class and said, softly, simply, See me. Just like that.  See me.  That was that.  It began then, the spring of my sophomore year.  See me.  I saw him alright.

I circled my Tribeca studio.

— Are you busy? I asked again.  Can I see you?  What else do you want me to say?  Can I see you?  That’s what I want.  I want to see you.

A hard rain began knocking against my window.

— Why are you not responding?  Why are you doing this?   I need to see you.  Okay?  I need to.  I need … What more do you want?  You know my history.  Why are you doing this?  I can’t make it up to you, all of it.  All this time.  Okay?  What else can I say?  I can’t – but I want to see you still.  I’ve never known you to be cruel like this.  What?

— No.  Don’t do that.  It’s not what you’re thinking.  Please, he said, jumping in almost out of breath.  I’m sorry, he said.  I’m not testing you.  I would never do that.  You know that.  I don’t want anything from you.  I’m sorry.  It’s just that when you asked me whether I was busy you put me instantly back in my office and there you were standing in my doorway – sweating, out of breath, smiling, like when you went for runs, your hair in a pony tail over your left shoulder and you’d stroke it and fix it compulsively.   You asked me whether I was busy and could we talk.  That’s all.  That’s all it was.  I was there.  Inside that.  It just came over me like that, all of a sudden.  I was lost in it.  And I hesitated.  I’m sorry.  There was nothing I could do.  I hadn’t thought about anything like that in years – and it took me.  Completely.  I’m sorry.

— What do you think?

— I think that it may go like this.  Things fluttering back and forth and that we have no words for.  We’ll have to adjust, I guess.  That’s all.

I saw him reclining in his leather chair, his feet on a large oak desk, Walter Pater or Henry James opened on his lap.  He was graying, rounding.  And he’d give me a big smile, sit up and nod to the black rocker, a crimson H engraved on the top rail, in front of his desk and say shut the door.

When the curtain came down on my Boston days and side-by-side with sixteen hundred undergrads walked into the wide, foreboding world we all feared – reality we called it in the sanctity of our luxurious schoolyard – I knew I’d had something special, something different that nobody else had experienced.  His careful eye on me.

Maybe that’s why I called him again, to learn what it was that I felt, why I couldn’t shed it after all this time, that feeling that something happened to me.  Maybe I wanted it again.  I missed the light tap on the shoulder, a constancy that one day appeared, and stayed.  Until I learned to predict it.  Until I learned to see myself as he saw me.  Until I could no longer feel obstacles between us, no challenges – only a genuine sense of freedom.  Freedom.  Just freedom.  I longed for that feeling, the ease, the smoothness to be.   I didn’t have it when I called.  I’d lost it somehow – at some point.

— It would be easier if I saw you, I said.  I think, anyway, it would be easier. I want to see you.

— Come.  Come then.

I thought that seeing him would be simpler – a ride up to Boston.  But nothing about us was simple, ever.  Addicts of complexity, that’s what we seemed to be.  I am, anyway, I think.

— Come, he repeated.  Come.  See what I’m doing.  We’ll talk.  See what you’re doing.   We’ll talk about writing like we used to.  We’ll read something together.  Remember that?  Take as long as you need, he said.   But come.

— To see why it is that after all this time – how long has it been?

— Eight.  Eight or ten years, something like that.

— Why now, after eight years – let’s say that – I call, and want to see you?

— That’ll be part of it, I’m sure.  If you want.  Sure.  It’s something.  Something is there, yes.

— And why, after all this time, it’s you I’m looking for? Again.

— My sentiments exactly.  I can tell you that.  So come.  Stay.  Let’s see.  Come before it’s too late.

Ever since, I’ve not stopped imagining Amsterdam.

*********************

Abandon

She places her chin on my desk. She leans over, arms on her thighs and rests her chin on my desk.

— Professor, I don’t know. I … I don’t feel anything. I … I’m indifferent. I don’t feel anything. I don’t. I just don’t feel anything.

She walks into my office with a big smile. She wares a white wool turtleneck and her silky black hair, parted off-center on her left, falls around her face and over her shoulders like a frame calling attention to her lively eyes – and her smile.

— I miss being here, she says when she walks in. It’s a free place, she says and sits in a chair opposite my desk.

Then nodding to the Green Mountains always in my office window, she says, There are the mountains that will be here when you’re not. And giggles because she’s referring to an email she sent earlier wondering what would happen if one day she came to my office and I’m no longer there – after all, I’m an “old professor,” as she likes to remind me.

–I’m like the mountains, I said to her once. I’m always here, I said trying to convince her that I’d be here for her when she needed me.

She knows better. I’m not like the mountains. One day I won’t be around anymore. So how far does one go knowing that a relationship is terminal?

For her, it takes time to go from the self-restrained person that first walks into my office to the person with her chin on my desk confessing that she’s indifferent. Layers have to be peeled before going there. It will take some time for me to learn of her sense of indifference; it will take time for her to let it out.

That’s why I keep a box of Kleenex on my desk.

–I’m never going to use those, she says looking askance at the box. No. Never, shaking her head – No – and grinning and two small creases, like commas, on either side of her lips appear and turn up.

We’d been through a lesson on Vietnamese. She told me that she never curses in Vietnamese – and doesn’t say I love you. It’s because, unlike English, Vietnamese is physical, I’m told. Words appear more significant to her in Vietnamese; she feels them. She curses in English because she’s not physically connected to the language; she can throw around love and my friend this and my friend that just as any American does. Not in Vietnamese. In Vietnamese she’s been taught how to speak properly, especially since she’s a young woman. Certain things are just not said in Vietnamese, she tells me.

I ask her to teach me a curse in Vietnamese. She can’t. Won’t. I plead. Insist. No way. Can’t. Impossible. Can’t go there.

Instead she reaches for her phone and scrolls and reads me a poem, Đây thôn Vĩ Dạ, by Hàn Mặc Tử’, a famous Vietnamese poet that tragically died much too young, stricken by leprosy.

–Here’s what Vietnamese is like, she says, and reads. When she ends, she leans back in her chair and smiles at me, darts her eyes. It’s beautiful, she says. And explains the poem in a sentence or two – as if she’s applying a fine scalpel.

Vietnamese is soft, gentle. I can see how it comes from the body; her physical presence changes. It fills and speaks.

Then we listen – and watch – a Vietnamese woman recite the poem on YouTube.

–It will sound different, she tells me. It’s in the dialect of the poet. It’s different from mine.

I never knew this, the varieties of Vietnamese. Why would I? Vietnam has always been one dimensional for me.

The fall of Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City)

The fall of Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City)

The Gulf of Tonkin Incident (1964), My Lai (1968), Nixon and Cambodia (1969) – and my registration for the draft. The fall of Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), the capital city of South Vietnam, April 1975. Apocalypse Now (1979) – and consequently, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. Oliver NorthPlatoon (1986), Born on the Fourth of July (1989), Heaven and Earth (1993). And The Quiet American (2002), with the incredible Do Thi Hai Yen playing Phuong.

–Did you read the book? I ask. It’s by Graham Greene.

–No, she says. Then in a kind of excitement, as if discovering something, Everyone wants to possess Phuong, she says. She’s so beautiful. She’s everyone’s fantasy. Each man’s.

–A nation’s, I say.

Vietnam was an American fantasy – as it was a French one. And this young, sensitive student, for this “old professor,” is two Vietnams: the one she didn’t know but sensed as she was raised in a post-war Vietnam; the other is new, vibrant, slouching towards modernity.

Ruins become the unconscious of a city, its memory, unknown, darkness, lost lands, and in this truly bring it to life. With ruins a city springs free of its plans into something as intricate as life, something that can be explored but perhaps not mapped.

This one young woman sitting in my office is a Vietnam, I realize, that, as Rebecca Solnit says in her “Abandon” chapter, cannot not be mapped (A Field Guide to Getting Lost); her eyes, her smile, her wit – all invite exploration. She is tomorrow, not today. In her somehow are the ruins – what has given way since 1975 and re-surfaced in new formations in her sophisticated ways of examining my office, her world, the life she’s had, even though she’s so young, but 19. She seems older, traveled beyond her years. She dissolves into something more remote then now, past it; she points to something yet out of reach for us, something she’ll see and live. And I will not because I’m not like the Green Mountains outside my window.

“Beauty is often spoken of as though it only stirs lust or admiration,” says Solnit, “but the most beautiful people are so in a way that makes them look like destiny or fate or meaning, the heroes of a remarkable story.”

This is who she is, this young woman – beautiful like this. Fate and meaning. Something remarkable she yet quite doesn’t understand and is terribly frightening. We’re invested in the plight of humanity and “exceptional beauty and charm,” as is hers, “are among those gifts given by the sinister fairy at the christening,” says Solnit. Humor and irony – and darkness. The child, at christening, never knows and spends the rest of her life trying to know – sometimes in fear.

–I don’t want you to think, professor, that I’m like this person who writes constantly. I don’t. I don’t even like writing, she informs me. I don’t feel anything, professor. Nothing like that.

This is the same person that, early on, told me that she loves language; she loves looking up words in the OED (Oxford English Dictionary); she loves rich, figurative uses of language. The same person that keeps beautiful poems in her phone.

This is the same person that, in a piece titled The Necessity of a Heart, writes:

Now and then I saw my mother’s gleaming dark brown eyes fading. Her eye color is that of tamarind candies and papaya seeds. I soon learned that tears could wash away one’s eye color the way they did my mother’s. So I never cried for long. I loved my eye color – the color of tamarind candies and papaya seeds.
This is a story of the various ways my eyes change color.

This is the same girl that feels indifferent – yet feels deeply, in a way that is beyond her yet. This is the same girl that has a ruthless imagination that she unleashes routinely in phrases that reach for the heart, always.

Adventures enthralled every piece of me. At ten years old I read the story of Helen Keller whose saying I remember by heart ever since: “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.” At twelve years old I was determined that I would either grow up to be a reckless adventurer or I was already dead at birth.

I remind her of this other girl that visits my office and I suggest to her that her talents are way out ahead of her maturity – for now. I tell her that she’s not indifferent – the opposite: she feels deeply and emphatically and can then turn these complex feelings into images we can recognize as our own.

–I’m not used to this, professor, she says. No teacher has ever spoken to me like this, she says.

Her shoulders have relaxed. She’s played with her beautiful hair a few times and now she’s parted it from right to left, the opposite of how she had it so well put together when she entered my office.

–I love my parents, she says. But we never speak of love. We don’t say I love you. And you show me all this unconditional love. I don’ t know what to make of it, she says, welling up and looking over at the Kleenex.

–That’s why they’re there, I say.

–No. Never.

I reach for the Kleenex but she beats me to it.

Que voy a ser, je ne sais pas

I was first introduced to the French/Spanish singer Manu Chao in 2003. Or early 2004, I’m not sure. 2003-2005 were two years for me where time was measured more in feelings than in linear experiences. The Argentines and the Mexicans at my school decided that Indians should know what real music sounds like. So without being too offended, we gladly went along with them. And that night I heard one of Manu Chao’s most popular – and I didn’t know it yet but most profound – songs, Me Gustas Tu“. Yes, it was catchy, it had a beat, it made us 16 and 17 year olds sway to the beat of a Mediterranean reggae that hadn’t made its way over to the Indian subcontinent and felt strangely out of place on a hill in the middle of a valley under a midnight blue tent of a sky with holes pierced through by the stars. It was so out of place that it actually fit right in. And – this is the embarrassing part to admit – in my naiveté, until I actually got much better at my Spanish a few years later, I didn’t realize that his coro was Que voy hacer (what should I do). I kept hearing it as Que voy a ser (what will I be). So you see then why the chorus as per my interpretation really struck a chord with me – 
Que voy a ser / What will I be
Je ne sais pas / I don’t know
Que voy a ser / What will I be
Je ne sais plus / I don’t know anymore
Que voy a ser / What will I be
Je suis perdu / I’m lost
After I learnt the real lyrics, I decided to just go along with my interpretation because by that time, I’d been through a series of moments related to figuring out my identity, my place in this world, these cultures and I held on to these words like a security blanket. It was okay for me to not know who or what I would be, because how could I? After having begun Solnit’s book though, I found myself thinking increasingly about the last line – Je suis perdu. When I think about it as part of the song, there’s no sadness associated with the idea of being lost. The beat, the voice, the melody – they’re in complete contrast to the lyrics. I’d never heard of anyone so cheerful – for lack of a better word – singing about being lost. 
(Sidenote – it’s stuck with me so much that this bastardized phrase of mine is currently at the top of a very short list of what I’d like to get as my second tattoo.)
I talk about the song because I’m halfway through the chapter Abandon and it talks about a musician friend of Solnit’s, her journey and the various stops along the way, some of which may seem like the wanderings of a lost soul, but in reality are very much conscious choices. It’s interesting to try and really pick at the subtle differences between loss and being lost. In the way that they are used in speech and in language, loss almost ends up as something passive, something that happens to you, whereas being lost is an intentional act, a choice to loose certain elements, certain aspects of one’s life. Whether we do it consciously or subconsciously, I think we all discriminate a little bit against certain lifestyles and life choices that imply an intentional loss. 
I bring up this point to link back to the train of thought Solnit weaves through the latter half of the previous chapter, The Blue of Distance, when she talks about culture and boundaries and the repercussions of natives kidnapping many of the Puritan children and their resultant choices to stay with their captors/new communities. When I read that, i actually dug through my inbox to find an email thread dating back to August 2011 – a fervent online discussion with a few friends about reflections from working in the international development sector, and empathising with The Other, figuring out how to transition back to the world we came from. I think it was there that I first started playing with the imagery of boundaries and fences and imagined/defined borders for spaces that we inhabit, or look to enter, or have invariably found ourselves a part of without even realizing when or from where we entered. The more I think about it, the more I’ve reflected this imagery subconsciously during crucial moments in my life. I went to an international high school for two years, and remember always recollecting that experience in conversation or on paper as both a blessing and a curse – it was almost like i had been broken into a million little pieces during those two years there, and when I stopped to pick up the pieces and reassemble myself, I found that I was no longer myself but an amalgamation of everyone else around me. Pieces of them were deeply embedded in me, and have been ever since, and pieces of myself now live in other people. What did I lose/gain in the process? Can I really say that I’ve been the same person since then? What I didn’t realize is that the process of reassembling yourself and carrying on actually is almost an art. Not to sound presumptuous but many a person has broken down at the idea of losing the sense of comfort, of knowing who you are, what you think, what you want and where you’re going. Solnit rightly says that “the real difficulties, the real arts of survival seem to lie in more subtle realms. There, what’s called for is a kind of resilience of the psyche, a readiness to deal with what comes next.” I found another quote from The Pedagogy of Self, that I began reading when I was thinking about boundaries and fences and this situation of knowing the Other and consequently one’s own self better, that puts a very visual interpretation in front of me of what it is actually like to be that hybrid, that in-between who is crossing cultures, losing and finding oneself multiple times to the extent that loss and discovery are rarely distinguishable from each other….sometimes the presumed sadness of loss actually manifests itself on discovery of oneself or one’s purpose because that is where the journey supposedly ends, doesn’t it? The quote reads: 
The hard edges of the boundary between self and other become fuzzy. Where we end and the environment begins becomes a shared space. It is not so much that we become fuzzy as we become aware, through heightened self-awareness, that we already exist in a state of shared being with all of life: It’s less a change in reality than a change in perspective
I really can’t find a coherent way to end this because, as usual, I get lost in what I’m writing. But I’m leaving pondering about the curious nature of the universe, in making things make sense. With the song, with my tattoo, with these emails from two years ago and everything tying in to Solnit’s treatise on being lost. I guess that’s a commentary in itself, isn’t it? Have we ever lost something, or are we ever lost, or merely just waiting to find again?
 

Lost in the Most Unlikely of Places …

As I contemplate, as Solnit does, the pre-Socratic philosopher Meno’s notion about how I will go about finding that thing the nature of which is totally unknown to me [you]?, I realize that I’ve written quite a bit about this (and others). And I figure that it’s because of something Solnit says: “Certainly for artists of all stripes, the unknown, the idea or the form of the tale that has not yet arrived, is what must be found.”

A place where I find myself lost – along with students – is in the writing classroom. That’s right. I try and create an environment where something – preferably the self – has to be found, the nature of which is totally unknown to you. “Children seldom roam, ” says Solnit,” even in the safest places.” I find this to be the single most critical impediment to finding that thing that nature of which is totally unknown to you. Students, for the most part, have been sold programs, prescriptions, answers and ways through the confusion; and they prefer these, it seems, rather than lurking, losing themselves, having no answers. Self-reliance is alien to kids today. Solnit wonders – as I do: “…what will come of placing this generation under house arrest.”

The ways through writing students bring to the college classroom are forms of house arrest. Students fear letting go. Students don’t want to let go; they don’t want to get lost, though it’s fundamental to learning. “Lost ..was mostly a state of mind, and this applies as much to all the metaphysical and metaphorical states of being lost as to blundering around in the backcountry.” I want students – with me – to blunder about the classroom, crossing the quad, in their rooms, searching, looking and not finding yet finding. I want students to wander – but wandering is not privileged in our culture. Efficiency is. But discovery – which is what, after all, education is about – requires time; in turn, time requires that an individual gain some distance from the lived experience. As Solnit says, “Some light does not make it all the way through the atmosphere, but scatters.”

So, the place where I find myself lost – along with students – the writing classroom, is fraught with obstacles to getting lost; it comes with a history of “knowns”, of “answers” that suggest, always, that getting lost is not very effective, a waste of time, not too efficient and costly.

Funny. As I think about this getting lost, I’m also looking at a few other books – David ShieldsReality Hunger: A Manifesto, Verlyn Klinkenborg‘s Several Short Sentences About Writing, and Henry A. Giroux‘s American Education Deficit and the War on Youth.

Let’s just listen:

Shields: I know all the moments are “moments”: staged and theatrical, shaped and thematized…Randomness, openness to accident and serendipity, spontaneity; artistic risk, emotional urgency and intensity, reader/viewer participation; an overly literal tone, as if a reporter were viewing a strange culture; plasticity of form, pointillism; criticism as autobiography; self-reflexivity, self-ethnography, anthropological autobiography; a blurring (to the point of invisibility) of any distinction between fiction and nonfiction: the lure and blur of the real.

Klinkenborg: Write these things down – the contents of the noise in your head as you write.
You can’t revise or discard what you don’t consciously recognize.

These assumptions and prohibitions and obligations are the imprint of your education and the culture you live in.

Distrust them.

Giroux: There is a need to invent modes of communication that connect learning to social change and foster modes of critical agency through which people assume responsibility for each other…At a time when critical thought has been flattened, it becomes imperative to develop a discourse of critique and possibility – one that recognizes that without an informed citizenry, collective struggle, and dynamic social movements, hope for a viable democratic future will slip out of our reach.

All three writers – Shields, Klinkenborg and Giroux – are calling forth for the removal of impediments to our getting lost. Shields asks for new forms, new experiments to blur the distinctions between fiction and nonfiction – always already determined by economics, not creativity; Klinkenborg speaks about “the noise” that is formal education and how it impedes creative thinking and writing; and Giroux, not unlike the others, is asking for a more engaged critique of ourselves and others, which cannot be done without the time to get lost, to wander.

All three writers – and Solnit, too – are the reasons why I find myself lost in the writing classroom alongside my students. But, like Solnit, I’ve chosen to make this the subject of my classroom’s inquiry. I want to make sure that, as Solnit says, students realize that history – and their lives – are “made more of crossroads, branchings, and tangles than straight lines.” In-between the crossroads, the branchings, and the tangles is where we get lost – and it’s what we have to capture. And what I hope, after this first posting, others will write about.

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