“Lots of good stuff here, but it’s a jumble. You’re much too flip, too quick. Your high intelligence isn’t being patient enough and the consequence is you’re not developing, only extending it. Time to grip a subject with your teeth until you’ve shaken the dumbness out of it. Same for the prose. You haven’t worked nearly hard enough on it.”
This was the marking note at the bottom of a paper for Richard Stern’s class called “Approaching Modernity.” I had no idea what he was talking about. It has taken me decades to grow into understanding, but it was worth the thirty year struggle, not that I’m smarter at seventy than I was at forty, but now at least maybe I see what the issues are.
First, clarity of understanding. What IS modernity? How does one “approach” it? Maybe the post-modern movement -- so sharp toothed and willing to shake a subject as though it were a sofa pillow -- has helped with this one.
Fourth, I was a flim-flam artist. My undergrad education was in acting, so I sometimes tried to outwit profs by using terms and strategies from that realm. With Stern, no matter where I went, he’d already been there and knew the context.
None of this was discouraging. I should have changed my major, but I was enrolled on ministry scholarships and that task was equally challenging, though not unrelated. The overlap between writing and theology was in the concepts, because good writing has to be rooted in clarity. But secular writing includes human consciousness (here’s where the modernity comes in) which challenges classical reason and theology, not necessarily a welcome enterprise even in the Unitarian Universalist seminary of my legal enrollment.
My Stern class notes include the following bits, aphorisms mostly unsourced. I hope they are worth pondering.
“Don’t give a person the knowledge of himself like a hard blow to his head but slowly let him come to his own knowledge according to his capacity to bear it.” (“Bear” is clearly written -- the word is not “hear.”)
“Allow the sensations to speak for themselves.”
“It is characteristic of Americans to constantly modify their statements.”
“Pound’s theme is that everything is connected.”
“One has a secret self, an ‘other’ self, as a way of escaping an intolerable tight spot.”
“A novel forces one to a kind of justice that is not demanded by poetry.”
“Pound takes a Renaissance approach: by WORK on manuscript fragments one opens them up and makes them new.”
“The conditions of beauty: rant, war and destruction broken through by the individual.”
“The unity imposed by the psychological and organic arch of one personality.”
“Impossibility of capturing and penetrating reality but the obligation to make the attempt.”
“Armature becomes the lifeline of the sculptor.”
“The sense that the answer to the mysteries lies right within the mundane facts: the key, the lock, the table.” (Joyce)
“A book written to include its own origins.” (Joyce’s “Ulysses.”)
“Whether or not to get involved: witness, voyeur, or participant?”
“Slow estrangement of a man bewitched by art.” (Flaubert)
“The absurd is the hatchet that opens up the closed doors.” (Kierkegaard)
“Reality favors SMALL symmetries.” (Borges)
Stern to Pound: “How are you?”
Pound to Stern: “Senile.”
“The good writer produces a hunger only he can satisfy.” (Stern)
I’ll posit that before modernity the central mission of a writer was to achieve “high standards” of thought and writing. Modernity shifted the focus to human consciousness, but Stern/Pound insisted that there was still a deep pattern that ought to be found. Post-modern came along and said, “Oh, sure, a deep pattern that YOU see! Because it serves YOUR needs to be in charge, empowered!” They examined the fragments and found fingerprints everywhere -- humans, sure, but not who they claimed to be. There were structuralists, and then the post-structuralists. (I write this in a flip, bloggy way -- consciously. Or maybe I’m just covering my butt.)
The present literary movement is commodification: what sells, what the big-shots respect, one’s self-promotion, one’s Amazon rank. Stern’s obits -- as were the reviews of his books -- are full of name-dropping and the lament that Stern never was “popular,” as though being a best-seller were an indicator of quality. They love his rueful quip: “I was a has-been before I’d been a been.”
Blogging is an enterprise that doesn’t really encourage the values of reflective patience,
clarity, careful grammatical sentence rhetoric -- it’s a hotbed of flim-flam and flip. That’s why I like it and Stern despised it. But it is my personal desire to please Stern that makes me take the next step: gathering my blog hipshots into manuscripts for revision, revision, revision. There were few-to-no personal computers in 1980 when I took Stern’s classes. No one has remarked much on the new ease of working on structural, rhetorical, sentence grammar. Stern used to emphasize the necessity of generating raw material to work on, but then to revise, revise, revise. The third step is knowing when to stop. Some fast hot writing should stay ragged and passionate.
As Pound said, “Everything is connected.” Everything unfolds out of what went before. Stern always taught irony: that every optimism should contain the seeds of its defeat and every pessimism should include a dawning light. I’m wondering what David Brooks is going to say now about his old professor, who blog-beat him severely for being nice about Sarah Palin. tfteacher.edublogs.org/2008/10/03/richard-stern-rips-pbs-a-new-one/
Brooks might be pleased to know about me catching Stern out. The latter had blogged that these Middle Eastern wars must not amount to much since he didn’t know anyone whose sons were fighting, the way everyone knew about such young men during WWII or even Korea and Vietnam. So I sent him a description of the photo displays in every Montana small town grocery and bank, praising the double-dozen local athletes now in the military. I told how the bodies came home at the head of a long solemn parade of newly clean pickup trucks.
He could have just zapped my email. But at once he saw that he had missed the fact that his friends were elite people who could exclude their children from danger. He had been assuming that his experience was typical when he knew very well it was not. As a writer of novels, he was forced to justice. But he sweetened my criticism of him with a bit of praise for me, just as he had with the dead-on criticism of my unformed writing quoted at the top of this blog. Teacher habit.
Stern claimed he was a teacher because he didn’t make enough money by writing to raise his four children. That was a disguise. His beloved “modernity” is already centuries old. The famous old men he met as peers for meals and talk are dead or dying. Stern’s students are just hitting their stride. He loved teaching because he was curious about us and where we might go. His wasn’t a reputation based on the past, but one aimed at the future where all is potential and can’t be labeled this or that. I’m hoping we are writing for justice and transformation.
A memory. By accident I was breakfasting with a book at a local cafe when Stern came to meet his soon-to-be second wife, the poet Alane Rollings, at a nearby booth. They were plainly delighted to see each other. I overheard him ask, sincerely wanting to know, “Did you sleep well last night?” Just a little human fragment, private but universal. Sleep well, Professor Stern.