Wait, Can You Translate That For Me?

Tonight I had a chance to hear a lecture by Julia Kristeva, feminist, linguist, psychoanalyst, novelist, and general philosophical giant. I would say that she inflected my thinking during my brief forays into literary theory, but that would be to insinuate that I actually understood her writing enough to have an opinion. She was always one of those thinkers that I hoped to immerse myself in and understand – someday. This was my chance to do it, even though I had not picked up one of her books in years. Guess what? There is nothing like an hour of listening to incredibly long sentences uttered in a French-Bulgarian accent to make you feel like you an intellectual midget.

Most of the time I watched my brain flutter around, picking up a few sentences from the lecture and then despairing because I seem to have the attention span of a gnat. This woman was throwing around allusions to Kant and Heidegger and I was realizing that I could not focus on her brilliance for longer than 30 seconds at a time.

What has happened to my mind? Was I ever focused and attentive enough to be up to the task of fully comprehending a discussion of the existence of a unified European culture? Do I blame the Internet for shattering my consciousness into a morass of disconnected ideas, juiced up on sound bites and video clips, “cheat sheets” rather than newspaper articles?

I listened to Kristeva speak in a hall full of undergraduates. Some of them nodded as she mentioned the dead white guys they had probably just read for their survey courses. Some disrupted the ten people in their row to leave halfway through. As Kristeva talked of quadrilingual Europeans I wondered how many twenty year olds in that room could really read, never mind write, a poem in another language. I know that I certainly could not, and I wonder what the American intellectual climate will look like when people of my generation and those who follow us take up the intellectual reigns. Will we be able to truly bear witness to other cultures in the world or will we just teach our kids about this amazing global society that is almost completely navigable in English?

As our European counterparts begin to divide themselves into so many pieces that they are conversant in four languages, we seem to be slicing up our attention spans so that we can monitor four different windows at once. Is this just a different kind of schizophrenia? Is the Continental model focused on a valid multiplicity of identity while we are just swimming around in countless pools of English speaking triviality?

Perhaps I am being too hard on our country because it is so easy to be a critic of the world that nurtures me and just as easy to romanticize other parts of the world because, hey, I don’t speak the language!

It seems that at the very moment that the earth is becoming small enough to fit in the palm of one’s hand, it is growing stunningly out of reach. There is so much information in the world to absorb, we cannot possibly take in even the tiniest fraction. How can we figure out what to focus upon and how do we train our brains to be receptive enough for all that knowledge to matter?

Maybe I am mourning a hyper-intellectualism that we will not even miss. Perhaps we are moving to a more democratic discourse that does not demand a working knowledge of semiotics to gain entry. Is it possible I am just panicking because we are entering a new age when the academic signposts are changing and we all must get used to redefining nature and origins of wisdom?

The Responsibility of the Dreamer

In dreams begin responsibilities

W.B. Yeats

When I first savored this line in college, I was too high on the poetry and dreaming to realize it was a simple phrase that ends with thud of adult responsibilities. By graduate school, Yeats was as much vocation as avocation, and I was so chilled by watching literature become a responsibility that I left the path of academia before I had really begun. Once I was marooned in the “real world” and trying to forget about poets and their dancing words, I eventually realized I was ducking both dreams and responsibilities. Now that I am carving out a new space for myself and trying to balance the poetic and the pragmatic, I am figuring out the relationship that Yeats described.

I have surprised myself over the last few days with my entries that call for a focus on individual choice and change even at a moment when we are all captivated by events on the national stage will shape our lives. “Responsibility” has not come up in my writing yet, but I think it is inevitable when we think about finding hope and renewal within ourselves rather than relying purely on the inspirational tones of a man at a podium.

America is the perfect example of a dream that became a most certain reality. It has not been sustained by idealists alone, but by people willing to bear the burden of its reality. It hasn’t just been perpetuated by the politicians who believe that they follow in the footsteps of the framers of the Constitution either. If we want to take part in this dream of America, if we want to resuscitate this once mighty icon and save it from its nightmarish state, then we all must take part in weaving the visions of what we want this country to be and then tend those visions as they become reality.

Dedicating oneself to birthing any creative impulse, be it a work of art, a piece of writing, service to another person, or the invention of a country quickly divests the dreamer from her airy throne. There is criticism and exhaustion and fear and doubt to contend with at every turn. In the end, finding yourself in charge of your own brilliant fantasy made sweet flesh must be worth sacrificing the freedom of being devoted to nothing in particular.

He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven

Had I the heaven’s embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

William Butler Yeats

Belief in the Nation, Belief in the Individual

“When we are no longer able to change a situation – we are challenged to change ourselves.” – Victor Frankl

I was introduced to Victor Frankl today in an article by Russell Bishop in The Huffington Post that discussed coping with the possibility that the “the other side” may win next week. Bishop was not picking sides – a rare enough feat these days – because he was crediting both parties with the passion and emotional investment that have made this such singular campaign.

No matter who wins, the world will not end and the country will not become unrecognizable (at least not right away). Sure, so many of us talk about moving to Canada if this one (as opposed to “that one”) wins, but we are the same people who threatened to do that back in 2004 and stayed on to realize that as much as we may differ with the guy in the oval office, our lives still looked pretty similar even if the news looked more and more grim.

Am I hiding my head in the consumerism-soaked, triviality-obsessed culture that watched American Idol as two wars dragged on? Am I too much a part of the nation that watched An Inconvenient Truth, wept, ranted… and then went to the air conditioned big box store to buy a couple of new light bulbs?

Must I believe that everything is going to be alright, regardless of who we elect, not because I truly believe that American is indestructible and her best days are ahead of her, but because believing anything else is just too damn terrifying?

Or is there actually hope to be harvested in this turbulent time regardless of who gets the top job? For all that we must be aware of the world around us and vote and care for the poor and question industrial pollution, what if all of our rhetoric is true and widespread change truly does begin at the individual level? What if we really are the change we have been waiting for and as amazing as it is to have an incredible leader sounding the charge, we actually have the power to make those changes ourselves?

Frankl’s work was indelibly marked by his three years in a Nazi concentration camp. For all that is at stake in this election, we are still going to wake up with a democratically elected leader (I know that the electoral college problematizes that statement, but bear with me) and we still have one of the best opportunities in the world to have a government we can be proud of. If Frankl could endure the greatest cruelties that one group of human beings have inflicted upon another in modern memory and emerge with this steadfast belief in the potential of the individual, why can’t we?

We have watched people from all segments of society rally around a candidate who we hope enacts the kind of change that he so eloquently describes. It is human nature to desire such figures with shoulders so broad and voices so powerful that they can bear the burdens of our dreams and sing the songs of our longed for freedoms. I can only wish that we can elect a hero and then awaken with a president who will recede to the edges of our vision so that we can recognize all of the potential that sleeps within each one of us.

I do not mean to introduce any defeatist notions into our push toward next Tuesday. I am confident that hope and reason will win out over fear and duplicity. Nor do I wish to tarnish the greatness of a candidate that I truly believe in. It is just that in the pursuit of being more accountable to the path of wisdom, I need to begin to allow myself to believe that we can walk in our own sense of greatness and then watch the ripples shape the rest of this world.

Dreaming the Present Moment

I spent a few quiet moments during the boisterous Thanksgiving holiday reading David Abram’s Spell of the Sensuous by my parents’ fireplace, completely captivated by his description of the Aboriginal people’s concept of Dreamtime. The landscape is fully mapped by the trail of the ancestors, each hill and valley associated with Kangaroo Dreaming Man, or Tortoise Woman, or one of the many other animal spirit beings that are thought to have preceded the natives of Australia. Individuals come to be connected with an ancestor and they learn the stories and songs associated with the “songline” of that being. The songline is one of many trails that cross the country, taking a route through areas most rich in resources. It seems that the ancestors marked the paths that could sustain the people in times of scarcity as these trails would lead the singers of the songline to ample food, water, and shelter.

How interesting that I read part of this chapter on a bus full of college students all plugged into more electronic equipment per square foot than the average Best Buy. No one spoke as screens flickered in nearly every seat and we crawled through towns that couldn’t imagine scarcity. Now I write this back in the mountains of New York, thinking about a book I read not far from the waters of Cape Cod. I have traveled much in the last few days, but I never gave the act of moving across the land a thought (beyond taking a bus instead of renting a car). What is it to move not because the journey was informed by traditions deeper than memory, but simply because of the cut of the highways and a holiday dictated by calendar and national decree? (It is not as if we were all hiking home because the full moon indicated it was time for the harvest, after all.)

One of Abram’s central theses is that the alphabet, written language, made it possible for humans to essentially live without concern for the natural world that sustained and informed all aspects of our own ancestors’ experience. Certainly the excess of food on a Thanksgiving table produced in countless forgotten corners of the planet and the massive migration of Americans in their quest to be reunited for family and football is a time in which we generally forget our allegiance to the planet as we contemplate traffic, getting along with relatives, and the shopping season ahead.

But then again, in its own way Thanksgiving itself is a tradition deeper than memory since we celebrate it not because of a children’s tale of Pilgrims and Indians sharing a meal in some remote context, but because the ancestors who inform us of who we know ourselves to be have taught us to feast together at the end of each November. It may be an event less than four hundred years in the making and it may not tell an origin tale that is quite as fundamental as Adam and Eve, but it comes close. In reading Abram’s book I have worried over what we may have lost in the translation of capturing life on a page (or a screen). The indigenous societies he describes all sound idyllic and all of their myths sound pure. But perhaps their stories that we now idealize made some of the tellers cringe because they knew survival of their world came at the cost of other races and species, just as the story of this country often makes me shudder even as I recognize its inherent beauty and revel in its bounty. Perhaps after much happiness enjoyed with my family marking a day that forms the national consciousness, I am able to see beyond the romance of times irretrievably lost to the demons of progress and understand the joy there is to be gained in living right now.