This the first academic paper I have written in some 40 years. It was a part of my first course, started in September, in the Graduate Liberal Studies program at SFU. Having passed the course, I now feel comfortable sharing it.
Needless to say, this is way out of my comfort zone, both the course and the paper; having said that, I am enjoying it immensely.
Be gentle, dear readers….
I’m concerned that as I age, I will lose my curiosity, my openness to new ideas and my willingness to try new ways of approaching life. We call it hardening of the attitudes. It seeps into our lives with the hardening of our arteries, the stiffening of our joints and our slowing response time to external stimuli.
I fight it in many positive ways; traveling to foreign countries, committing to new exercise regimes, reading different books, dining at newly-launched restaurants, viewing foreign and foreign sounding movies, the list goes on. I call them adventures.
I also avoid negative reinforcement, especially the aging male coffee clatch. They’re called ROMEOs – really old men eating out. I see them everywhere, befuddled anxious-looking men who gather at the corner cafe to read the newspapers together, express their shock and amazement at the current state of affairs in our city/province/nation/world, inevitably shining up the good-old-days, complete with our biases and privileges. It’s backward looking and hermetically sealed, dusty and dead, self fulfilling and incapable of admitting new experiences or insights.
Change is hard work, staying current, open-minded and curious.
GLS is my latest antidote – my wonder drug – for staying open to the new; meeting head-on the uncertainty, change and unfamiliarity that comes with shaking up my deeply-held beliefs and challenging my preconceived notions.
The focus on reason and passion with a curated choice of reading over the two semesters is obvious in its intent, to challenge our existing paradigms – our ways of knowing – about how we view the world.
The task is not inconsequential.
My particular paradigm (when I thought of it at all) has been to view reason and passion as a polarity; one pole is reason, the other is passion. There is a rheostat between the two poles that I move to find the appropriate balance to understand and deal with the particular circumstance. The rheostat moves back and forth on a sliding scale, a little more reason this time, a little more passion for the next, allowing me to calibrate which balance of reason and passion will meet the situation. Obviously in a business meeting, my reason index is dialled quite high; at a museum or a live play, there’s not so much reason, more passion.
The other implicit factor in the rheostat model I have constructed is that reason controls passion. Passion is to be managed – it is impulsive, it is potentially dangerous; the default setting on the rheostat is to err on the side of reason.
My paradigm is one dimensional and utilitarian. It’s a reflexive part of me; I’ve had it for a while, don’t really know its roots and have never bothered to question it, much less challenge it. It hums away in the background working its magic.
It’s early days in this program and every session is rich with surprises and insights. I am challenged; my paradigm, the model I carry around in my head, seems inadequate, not quite up to the challenge. The level of comprehension and insight demanded by our readings and discussions is upsetting, slightly confusing and challenging.
I have a growing awareness that I may have to challenge my assumptions, test my paradigm.
Somehow, I decided that Anne Carson is going to help me.
The Autobiography of Red gripped me and discombobulated me in ways that I am still sorting through. It is complicated, inflammatory and rich with ambiguity, much of which I feel I’m missing. I need more – of something, I’m not sure what. Moving my rheostat isn’t helping much.
Who is Anne Carson? I search for clues.
Anne Carson is an academic; in my world and in my unidimensional paradigm, that makes her a person grounded in reason. Yet The Autobiography of Red burns with passion.
I am more confused. How can that be? What can I learn about Anne Carson and how can it help me examine my reason/passion paradigm?
First, She’s Canadian, so we are at least grounded in some commonalities. Second, she’s a prolific writer giving me a rich motherlode of her work to study. Third, she has contributed to, and commented on, some of the material we have studied, She can stay with me in the shallow end of my new GLS literary pool. Finally, she is gifted; a 2000 MacArthur Fellow who offers an Everest of achievement for all to seek to emulate. She’s no flash in the pan, no bright-and-shiny, she’s earned her credibility.
In 2002, Anne Carson published If not Winter, a collection of the fragments of Sappho. Aha! We had read Sappho.
I’d written of my first – Aha – my teachable moment of experiencing Sappho rather than understanding her. My initial attempt to experience her poetry was to read everything in our assigned textbook, Stung with Love by Aaron Poochigian, before actually reading Sappho’s words. I was dialled in at about 90% reason on my reason/passion rheostat. I would find context and understanding through Poochigian before I read Sappho’s poems.
When I finally read Sappho’s words, I had my Aha moment. Her poetry was profoundly moving; I paused for a moment, awestruck that a fragment, a small two lines of Sappho’s brilliance, could reach across 2500 years and touch me. I realized later I had almost lost the moment – that purity of discovery – by dialling up too much reason on my analytical rheostat. My conclusion was that reason got in the way; passion was what was needed.
In contrast to Poochigian’s 50 dense pages of notes and explanatory miscellanea, Anne Carson’s introduction notes for If Not Winter are all of 5 pages long.
“I like to think that, the more I stand out of the way, the more Sappho shows through.” she comments, surely the most modest statement I have heard from such a serious academic.
Aha, I think, I’m right – read the words, let passion take over and immerse myself in the experience.
Her translation of Sappho is different from the ones I have read; comments and reviews laud her skills as a sensitive, informed and insightful translator. Obviously, it takes deep knowledge to choose the words that best illuminate Sappho’s brilliance, to let her show through. Aren’t these the skills acquired by reason, intellect and hard analytical skills? Aren’t they fundamental to Carson’s ability to share the beauty and passion of Sappho with us? Doesn’t reason therefore matter?
Eros the Bittersweet, one of Carson’s first books, published in 1986 reflects extensively on the elusive attraction of…well…attraction – Eros. It is no ordinary book; the Modern Library selected it to be one of the 100 best non-fiction books of all time.
Luckily for me, she focuses on Sappho and Plato’s Phaedrus. How convenient, another book we have covered in class, I’m still in the shallow end of my pool.
The richness of Anne Carson’s writing cannot be underestimated. It is enthralling and deeply challenging, for here is an academic who writes intelligently and sensitively about that most elusive and powerful of all emotions – love.
Reason informs passion? The most passionate and illusive of passions, love; how can that be?
Carson’s academic credentials are on full display, the breadth and depth of scholarly research allow her to explain the richness of Sappho’s poetry, the complexity of Sappho’s thinking, the wisdom of her exposition of emotion. Carson also brilliantly illustrates the contradiction between the pursuit of love, the longing, and the emptiness of the actual capture of the object of one’s desires. Bittersweet is really Sweetbitter. The triangulation of love, the lover, the beloved and some impediment between them and consummation, becomes self evident; when she explains it, it is a blinding flash of the obvious.
These complexities are not possible in my rheostat world. They should not be able to happen. I know that reason and passion can exist simultaneously, my model sees one gaining power at the expense of the other. My paradigm says reason and passion are in conflicted balance, either or, the only variable is how much of one or the other.
Can they be both simultaneous and complementary? Can there be synergy or symbiosis or catalysis?
Eros the Bittersweet is compelling proof that intellectual scholarship and academic rigor combined with emotional intuition add immeasurably to the richness of our comprehension of Sappho’s poetry.
Carson also brings her intellectual insight to bear on Plato’s discourse on Love and the challenges of the written word. She examines Phaedrus, Plato’s examination of love and his critique of writing.
This is a different challenge, for who is Plato speaking through Socrates, but a brilliant rhetorician who seeks truth through dialogue and dialectic – the ultimate test of reason? From the passion of Sappho to the logic of Plato, Carson not only transits the two but links them, a masterful job of segue and connection.
Again my polarity/rheostat paradigm seems inadequate, more or less of one or the other is too one-dimensional. Through her considerable skills of logic, reason, rigorous academic research and just-plain deep thinking Carson blends reason and passion to link, explain and expand our understanding of two brilliant pillars of the Greek literary canon. In the battle of their rhetoric over my rheostat, Carson and the Greeks are winning.
In the midst of these two works, in 1998, Anne Carson published The Autobiography of Red. This is not the kind of work I would expect from the scholarly, cerebral, intellectually rigorous academic I had imagined Anne Carson to be.
It is a wild ride, far beyond a re-imagining of a Greek mythic character. Red is a wild, imaginative fairy tale for adults; it demands full attention from the first line. It is challenging on so many levels, from Geryon, the gifted, tortured, deformed, resilient angel to Herakles, our Hercules, not exactly depicted as heroic. Her command of offbeat imagery and discordant metaphor further disorients; it is an unsettling story.
I need to make my progress report.
My thoughts after each class are unpredictable, depending on whether I emerge confused or enlightened from the evening’s discussion.
If I am confused, it seems my long-held mental model will not map the complicated landscapes of all those elevation contours we call reason and passion. I may have wandered into terra incognito; I may have been there all along and the old mapping process has been erroneous. I am lost, am I lost?
If I abandon my rheostat paradigm, I must construct a new way of looking at the world. The prospect obviously is daunting, if for no more obvious reason than that I may need to re-evaluate the last several decades of my life through this new lens. What happens when my rheostat doesn’t control passion?
Does this disconcert me? Of course.
Alternatively, if I emerge into the night with some sense that I really am getting this new world, that the doors are opening, I think more along the lines of what I need to do to make the most of the experience. After all, I signed up for this adventure to challenge myself. I should be and I am getting what I hope for – a challenge. Of course it’s going to be uncomfortable; of course I’m going to feel inadequate. Maybe the model is okay, I just need time to adjust.
I am comforted by one grounding thought. This is early days in my GLS adventure, my education in the subtleties and nuances of reason and passion. Maybe I just need to give it time.
It’s also not inconceivable that I will never ‘solve’ or resolve the tension. It’s not as if some of the best minds in the history of thought haven’t wrestled with this challenge.
There is a paradox in all this, it is complex and multi-dimensional.
Anne Carson proves by her writing and her ability to cross genres and mash-up intellect and emotion that this reason/passion thing is more messy than mechanical. Carson cuts through boundaries, not just of prose and poetry but all sorts of literary and artistic boundaries.
It’s obvious that I will learn more over the balance of this semester and the next. One thing seems clear; a one-dimensional model with a simple either/or rheostat is probably not up to the task of this adventure. It is not likely to handle the richness, the ambiguity, the nuance and the interconnectedness of the works we are studying or the complex ideas they seek to illuminate.
I can rest assured that I’ve just started on my reappraisal. I’ve done this often enough in other facets of my life to know that it is a start and most often the start is the toughest part of the adventure.
I also know that I resist; I resist new, I resist change and I resist that which makes me uncomfortable.
The prize is usually worth the effort to push through my resistance. As Pogo, the old cartoon character said; “We have seen the enemy and he is us.”