New Year’s Resolutions.

1. Resolved: There are no holidays.

Our text this evening is “Holiday,” a short story by Katherine Anne Porter (she began writing it in the 1920’s but put it aside for decades until finally publishing it in 1960). We will follow this story closely as we gather into this uncharacteristically lengthy post the wisdom of the ages.

Yes. UD now shares with you, on this long drunken night, the truths of being, all of which are handily packed into this obscure little tale. “Holiday” is a meandering narrative, the sort of thing hyper-connected millennials have trouble reading, because in order to read “Holiday,” you have to settle into a very very slow cud-chewing state of mind, or mindfulness, or mindlessness, as if you were seated on a thin cushion in a room in which someone is taking their sweet time with a dharma talk. Porter’s stories “read as if they were composed at one sitting, and they have the spontaneity of a running stream,” writes an admirer, and indeed “Holiday” flows real and true, but you have to stay afloat, you have to keep faith with it and nothing else, or you’ll drift over to familiar dry banks.

So relax and work with me here as we start with the title. In this story, an unnamed young woman, tense and exhausted by unspecified personal problems, takes a one-month holiday to the Texas countryside, where she rents a room in the house of a large hard-working prosperous German-American farming family. She thinks it will be therapeutic to get away from herself, but – as the saying goes – wherever you go, there you are. And this is the first great truth with which the narrator begins: “[W]e do not run from the troubles and dangers which are truly ours, and it is better to learn what they are earlier than later…” Porter had a very settled sense of our entrapment, each of us, in our particular nature – the form of being which is truly ours – and she regarded a meaningful life as one in which you come to know, to face, to accept, the contours as well as the inescapability of your particular being. In an interview, she recalls a friend of hers who “was not able to take care of herself, because she was not able to face her own nature and was afraid of everything.”

So although this may sound like a counsel of despair – sink into the hopeless business of being who you hopelessly are – it’s not that at all. Once you’ve assumed the intellectual and emotional burden of your radically limited identity, once you’ve “walked the length of your mind,” as Philip Larkin put it, you are free to embark on the courageous project of – in Porter’s words – taking care of yourself.

2. Resolved: “Human life itself is almost pure chaos.”

The narrative begins and ends with a farcical wagon ride. The family member who picks the woman up at the train station to take her to the farm has brought an old rickety vehicle for the journey:

The wheels themselves spun not dully around and around in the way of common wheels, but elliptically, being loosened at the hubs, so that we proceeded with a drunken, hilarious swagger, like the rolling motion of a small boat on a choppy sea.

At the end of the story she herself ineptly drives a similarly ridiculous wagon:

We careened down the road at a grudging trot, the pony jolting like a churn, the wheels spinning elliptically in a truly broad comedy swagger.

Where are you getting in this narrative? You started on a set of vaudevillian wheels and you’re ending on the same. If you insist on the payoff of satisfyingly rounded events – resolutions, if you like – instead of the ridiculously elliptical stuff real life throws at you, you’re not going to get anywhere actual. You’ll stay on the evasive holiday everyone tries to stay on.

And Porter really pours on the chaos. The main family member with whom her unnamed heroine interacts, Ottilie, seems to suffer from severe cerebral palsy.

Her face was so bowed over it was almost hidden, and her whole body was maimed in some painful, mysterious way, probably congenital, I supposed, though she seemed wiry and tough. Her knotted hands shook continually, her wagging head kept pace with her restless elbows.

The wheels are really falling off the world of “Holiday.” Even the seemingly well-ordered routines of the family’s all-consuming maintenance of the farm – “the repose, the almost mystical inertia of their minds in the midst of [their] muscular life” – is a facade about to be torn apart by a violently destructive storm, and by the sudden death of their beloved mother.

3. Resolved: And yet, and yet.

We struggle, strangers to ourselves amid a world in turmoil. Yet (see Resolution #2) it’s only “almost” pure chaos. The wheels don’t actually fall off, and, grudgingly, they get us there. Ottilie’s physical chaos seems complete, yet she turns out to be perhaps the most ordered and essential mainstay of the family, since she is capable of cooking and serving excellent meals. She sustains them all.

Her muteness seemed nearly absolute; she had no coherent language of signs. Yet three times a day she spread that enormous table with solid food, freshly baked bread, huge platters of vegetables, immoderate roasts of meat, extravagant tarts, strudels, pies — enough for twenty people. If neighbors came in for an afternoon on some holiday, Ottilie would stumble into the big north room, the parlor, with its golden oak melodeon, a harsh-green Brussels carpet, Nottingham lace curtains, crocheted lace antimacassars on the chair backs, to serve them coffee with cream and sugar and thick slices of yellow cake.

… Her face was a brown smudge of anxiety, her eyes were wide and dazed. Her uncertain hands rattled among the pans, but nothing could make her seem real, or in any way connected with the life around her. Yet when I set my pitcher on the stove, she lifted the heavy kettle and poured the scalding water into it without spilling a drop.

Strangers to ourselves, we perceive others as equally strange. Untouchable, unreachable. Nothing can make them seem real. Yet in time the chaos that seems to reign in ourselves and others begins to hint of an underlying order. The wheels get us there; the heavy kettle gets held and the scalding water poured.

4. Resolved: Greet the world’s overtures, especially the ones that scare you, because they may reveal the truth.

Ottilie shows our heroine a photograph of herself, taken before she became misshapen.

The bit of cardboard connected her at once somehow to the world of human beings I knew; for an instant some filament lighter than cobweb spun itself out between that living center in her and in me, a filament from some center that held us all bound to our unescapable common source, so that her life and mine were kin, even a part of each other, and the painfulness and strangeness of her vanished. She knew well that she had been Ottilie, with those steady legs and watching eyes, and she was Ottilie still within herself. For a moment, being alive, she knew she suffered…

There’s a strikingly similar scene in Don DeLillo’s early novel, Great Jones Street, when a handsome, charismatic rock star who is undergoing some sort of nervous breakdown encounters a physically misshapen boy:

I must have seemed a shadow to him, thin liquid, incidental to the block of light he lived in. For the first time I began to note his embryonic beauty. The blank eyes ticked. The mouth opened slightly, closing on loomed mucus. I’d thought the fear of being peeled to this limp circumstance had caused my panic, the astonishment of blood pausing in the body. But maybe it was something else as well, the possibility that such a circumstance concludes in beauty. There was a lure to the boy, an unsettling lunar pull, and I moved my hand over the moist surface of his face. Beauty is dangerous in narrow times, a knife in the slender neck of the rational man, and only those who live between the layers of these strange days can know its name and shape. When I took my hand from his face, the head resumed its metronomic roll. I was still afraid of him, more than ever in fact, but willing now to breathe his air, to smell the bland gases coming off him, to work myself into his consciousness, whatever there was of that. It would have been better (and even cheering) to think of him as some kind of super-crustacean or diabolic boiled vegetable. But he was too human for that, adhering to me as though by suction or sticky filaments.

The truth is human, all too human, and UD figures it’s pretty clear in these sorts of encounters that what’s being met with is one’s sense of one’s own impossible twistedness, one’s own frightening unworkability. This is reality; this ain’t no holiday. Both characters are in fact drawn to these badly damaged, seemingly alien creatures, even as they’re frightened by them. They sense that here lies the felt truth of human suffering, and they won’t get anywhere with themselves until they get up close and personal with it. For this is precisely the graphic entrapment in one’s own peculiar nature Porter was talking about, and until one perceives both its reality and the possibility of somewhat transcending that reality, one’s self won’t be very workable. Recall that both the DeLillo and the Porter plots are propelled by the close-to-nervous breakdown of the main character.

5. Resolved: Anyway, most of life will remain incomprehension – of oneself and others… But! If you are willing to keep risking being ridiculous and uncomprehending (if the fool would persist in his folly…), you will experience certain incredibly important rewards. Certain meanings will begin to glimmer; other people’s humanity may cease to feel so alien and frightening to you; and out of the felt, shared, burden/joke of everyone’s suffering may come – curiously – a nourishing sense of the delight of existence itself.

The family has gone off to the mother’s funeral, leaving Ottilie, who after all is a member of the family, behind. Our heroine hears her crying and assumes she’s in despair at having been left at home.

[S]he howled with a great wrench of her body, an upward reach of the neck, without tears. At sight of me she got up and came over to me and laid her head on my breast, and her hands dangled forward a moment. Shuddering, she babbled and howled and waved her arms in a frenzy through the open window over the stripped branches of the orchard toward the lane where the [funeral] procession had straightened out into formal order.

And so our heroine decides to take the creaky old wagon that’s left in the barn, place (with great difficulty) Ottilie in it, and take her to the funeral. And this is what happens.

Ottilie, now silent, was doubled upon herself, slipping loosely on the edge of the seat. I caught hold of her stout belt with my free hand, and my fingers slipped between her clothes and bare flesh, ribbed and gaunt and dry against my knuckles. My sense of her realness, her humanity, this shattered being that was a woman, was so shocking to me that a howl as doglike and despairing as her own rose in me unuttered and died again, to be a perpetual ghost. Ottilie slanted her eyes and peered at me, and I gazed back. The knotted wrinkles of her face were grotesquely changed, she gave a choked little whimper, and suddenly she laughed out, a kind of yelp but unmistakably laughter, and clapped her hands for joy, the grinning mouth and suffering eyes turned to the sky. Her head nodded and wagged with the clownish humor of our trundling lurching progress. The feel of the hot sun on her back, the bright air, the jolly senseless staggering of the wheels, the peacock green of the heavens: something of these had reached her. She was happy and gay, and she gurgled and rocked in her seat, leaning upon me and waving loosely around her as if to show me what wonders she saw.

Drawing the pony to a standstill, I studied her face for a while and pondered my ironical mistake. There was nothing I could do for Ottilie, selfishly as I wished to ease my heart of her; she was beyond my reach as well as any other human reach, and yet, had I not come nearer to her than I had to anyone else in my attempt to deny and bridge the distance between us, or rather, her distance from me? Well, we were both equally the fools of life, equally fellow fugitives from death. We had escaped for one day more at least. We would celebrate our good luck, we would have a little stolen holiday, a breath of spring air and freedom on this lovely, festive afternoon.

Soldier of the Confederacy

Representative Corley’s wife raises the white flag.

Excellent Writing at Year’s End.

“On the Art and the Science of the Gun,” UD would title it.

It is a summation of American culture, AD 2016.

“The pharmaceutical industry realized that they can no longer directly go to doctors to get them to prescribe their pills. Various regulations were put in place to prevent them giving gifts and pens and hats and things that we do know can influence doctor prescribing. So instead they took a kind of Trojan horse approach and infiltrated regulatory agencies and academic medicine in order to convince doctors that prescribing more opioids was evidence-based medicine…”

Academic medicine: That’s where University Diaries comes in.

The family whose name emblazons med schools and med school professorships all over this country – the Sacklers – is the same family addicting America and soon the rest of the world with OxyContin. It couldn’t have done it – it can’t keep doing it – without university researchers and clinicians lying for it in exchange for money.

Now that the opioid epidemic is so deadly that politicians and journalists can’t help noticing it, we will look forward, on this blog, to publishing the names of all the professors who did their bit to make a hideous drug respectable.

For the New Year, an Old Book about a New Life.

Yesterday was the one hundredth anniversary of the publication of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

You’d think the story of Stephen Dedalus working his way clear of sexual guilt, Catholic hell, a suffocating family, and of course Ireland itself, would skew antique these days; but just as we’re all susceptible to the New Year, we’re all susceptible to the New Life. Portrait is the ultimate successful makeover.

Put aside your awareness that Stephen’s flight beyond the nets of family country and religion will, in Joyce’s next book, crash-land him back into the same hot mess; recall instead your excitement on first reading this liberation song.

A veiled sunlight lit up faintly the grey sheet of water where the river was embayed. In the distance along the course of the slow-flowing Liffey slender masts flecked the sky and, more distant still, the dim fabric of the city lay prone in haze. Like a scene on some vague arras, old as man’s weariness, the image of the seventh city of christendom was visible to him across the timeless air, no older nor more weary nor less patient of subjection than in the days of the thingmote.

Here’s Dedalus just having broken free of the church; here he euphorically strides farther and farther away from a conversation he’s just had with a priest about joining the Jesuits. Although Stephen’s terror of damnation (he has consorted with prostitutes) has propelled him into a piety so intense that he has now been invited to enter an order, the unfolding conversation about his vocation suddenly makes explicit the absurdity of trying to murder his appetite with metaphysics. “His destiny was to be elusive of social or religious orders.” It’s the artist’s silence, exile, and cunning now, all the way.

How does this newly transformed self see the false world he’s about to leave? What are his thoughts as – manically overwhelmed by his release – he rushes about putting distance between himself and the prisonhouse?

Run that paragraph by me again.

A veiled sunlight lit up faintly the grey sheet of water where the river was embayed. In the distance along the course of the slow-flowing Liffey slender masts flecked the sky and, more distant still, the dim fabric of the city lay prone in haze. Like a scene on some vague arras, old as man’s weariness, the image of the seventh city of christendom was visible to him across the timeless air, no older nor more weary nor less patient of subjection than in the days of the thingmote.

You hear the gentle lilting hyperpoetic music of the thing? He’s looking at a city he’s about to leave – the dead world of “The Dead.” This writing is valedictory, a bittersweet backward view. All is old (“veiled,” “gray,” “faint,” “slow-flowing,” “dim,” “prone,” “vague,” “old,” “weary”) and trapped (“embayed,” “patient of subjection”). The final long sentence ends with the odd obsolescence of thingmote – literally, a raised mound on which Viking settlers met to enact laws; yet a figure too for the tiny ancient vanishing thing Dublin’s about to become in the artist’s rear-view mirror. We’re told this is a modernist novel; but at the moment we’ve got a rhyme-happy Romantic poet hurrying himself up into a pose of nostalgia for beautiful delicate ruins.

A veiled sunlight lit up faintly
The grey sheet of water where
The river was embayed.


The dim fabric of the city
Lay prone in haze.

In the days of the thingmote.

The gentle gorgeous insistent quality of these long A‘s underscores the delicacy and immobility of this arrière “arras” scene that hangs in “timeless air.” (And not to belabor the beauty, but look how the dull closed-off short I is everywhere as counterpoint: lit/river/dim/fabric/city/in.) Dublin has become a portrait for the artist. It is no longer an overpowering reality that hurts him, but an aesthetic thing “subject” to his powerful eye.

“At the Brazil lecture in April, [Joseph] Pergolizzi was presented as still affiliated with Temple. Pergolizzi said he was not aware his credential with the university had lapsed, and has let Mundipharma know.”

WHOOOOOPS! Did you catch me peddling an American university affiliation while helping the Sackler family make the world safe for opioids? Now why would I do that? Why would I present myself as an American university professor – from Temple, no less, one of whose trustees just spent decades sharing with women the amazing power of drugs – when I’m not?

It turns out I don’t understand that when you no longer have an affiliation with a university you’re not affiliated with it anymore.

That’s why the Sacklers chose me to promote OxyContin to the world. I’m smart.

“Never mind the stupidity of awarding this guy a multimillion dollar contract and firing him a few months later.”

Yes, never mind.

Hush now.

Listen up: This is a university, where people are smart. What we did was smart. This is what we did.

In [Bob] Diaco’s three years as head coach, UConn’s football squad ran up an 11-26 record. This year, the team was 3-9, and on Monday, athletic director David Benedict announced that Diaco was out, effective Jan. 2.

Under his original contract, firing Diaco in early 2017 would have cost the school $800,000. But last May – after Diaco’s second season, in which the team had six wins and six losses – UConn agreed to a contract extension that increased its buyout obligation to $3.4 million.

Six/Six. 6/6.

 

Fucking Six/Six Man!

 

The board of trustees got a major boner when we did that good.  Plus we got scared!  We thought:  Now that Diaco’s so hot hundreds of other programs are gonna wanna snap him up!  Don’t let him get away!  Don’t let him get away!

 

Oh but look.  We lost the boner.  Oh no.

 

Now you have to give us the money to give the man who gave us the boner that went down.

 

Understand?

Contrails at sunset…

… seen from the NE Regional.

“You might say I’m a product of Hollywood inbreeding,” [Carrie] Fisher wrote in her memoir, Wishful Drinking. “When two celebrities mate, something like me is the result.”

RIP Carrie Fisher. Funny. Smart.

In case you’re still keeping track of whether Heidegger was REALLY TRULY SCOUT’S HONOR anti-semitic…

… or just, you know, philosophically antisemitic, we’ve got this newly released correspondence with his brother.

[T]hese personal letters … expose him as a bona fide, unrepentant anti-Semite. They also show that — in contrast to prevailing beliefs — the Freiburg professor was politically well informed, and was an early and passionate supporter of National Socialism… As the letters now show beyond doubt, this was in no way the decision of an opportunistic careerist or the oblivious aberration of a political ignorant — as has been argued for decades in the philosopher’s defense. The familiar apologetic assumption that Heidegger adhered to a private, idiosyncratic notion of National Socialism, allegedly free from any form of racism, should be laid to rest.

“While awaiting his rape trial, a [Loyola University student] played 3 years of college golf. Now, Ben Holm is headed to prison.”

Par for the course.

Nice Jesuit school too. They must be in contention with Baylor for Most Hypocritical Religious Institution in the Land.

UD took this photograph this morning…

…on the elegant streets of Cambridge.

It was as close to the bird as she could get.

She’s pretty sure it’s a hawk of some kind.

UD is spending Christmas in a mansion with whistling radiators and servant-summoning technology…

… and broad sculpted staircases with immense stained-glass windows at the landings. I glance through a window and catch the ghosts of liberals past – Arthur Schlesinger and John Kenneth Galbraith specifically – chatting on either side of the stone wall separating their big dreary Cambridge gardens.

A few yards behind these summoned luminaries looms the campus whose iconicity-to-actuality ratio UD has always found lopsided. The world dreams about Harvard, while Harvard itself stands in an almost-permanent bad weather snit, many of its major buildings brutalist and its central quads a dispiriting brickyard.

UD has always found these sorts of grandeur-to-ground-level gulfs bracing, refreshing, happy-making, as when she discovered that Phillip Larkin was a pissy old masturbator.

Hers is a common enough reaction. The most-praised portrayals of Winston Churchill show him as a shambling ass.

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

At the darkest, coldest time of the year, I am in an old house, beside an old campus, in a very old city. The operative words are dust and dusk. Weak sunlight gives out at around two o’clock by the brooding grandfather clock in the hall, and the already-drifting house settles into true REM sleep. Across from the clock, a fine empaneled library is a museum on its way to being a mausoleum. The bound words of the prolific JKG maintain, on its shelves, a stunned silence. What happened to the world?

Such is the delicacy of this preserved interior that whenever UD spills some tea or dislodges one of the ruglets on the stairs, she smiles and thinks I am UD, destroyer of worlds. But there is a praiseworthy piety – world historical, filial – that wants to keep things as they are. The servant-summoning technology still works: Press the Library or Third Hall button on the Clark and Mill Electric Co Cambridge and Boston panel, and out comes a chirp.

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

Ghosts, and catastrophes. You think less about the grandeur and more about the ground-level grief when you’re actually here: The young son whose death threw Galbraith into a tailspin. The gruesome public assassination of Benazir Bhutto, guest of honor at one of his celebrated garden parties. Galbraith’s son Peter spends his life pacing the aftermath of global atrocity.

You could say UD currently sits (she’s in the library at five AM) at the pinnacle of elitism; you could say she ain’t climbing any higher than atop this soft leather chair resting on one of the gargantuan rugs Galbraith or Galbraith junior brought back from India or Afghanistan. But it’s only the trappings. What’s been able to be held in amber. This place is the genuine Henry James (Harvard Law, 1872): The affluent society, expansive, sedate; and the cry of pain almost out of earshot.

New London Connecticut

Just now. From the train.

Late afternoon light.

Les UDs take a train to Boston today…

… for Christmas with the family. Among UD‘s many blessings is a great deal of reader email – some of it with book and cd suggestions, some of it links to the latest university absurdities. Assuming she has anything like a steady internet connection on the train, she will answer all of that on her way north.

UD has been working on a post about the Sackler family, those tireless global ambassadors for OxyContin. Why should opioid epidemics with the effect of neutron bombs visit only our cities and towns? We must gift the Chinese – already busy with their tobacco and pollution epidemics – with this most up-to-date form of the opium the Chinese of course have known from way back.

The Sacklers are of particular interest to University Diaries because they combine at the highest level UD has ever seen that whole Madoff/Yeshiva thing: A totally disreputable business model and a hoitsy-toitsy record of philanthropy to universities (in their case, medical schools). In a subsequent post, we shall examine in greater detail this whole killing them softly approach to the life of the mind and the life of the body.

Next Page »

Latest UD posts at IHE

Archives

Categories