Friday, December 25, 2009

Life is Tenuous

Several weeks premature, I was, nine days later, still only 5 lb 1/2 oz, as my young mother's careful accounting showed. Then there was a jump of 1 1/2 oz, and by the 31st I was approaching 6 pounds.

I just found this scrap of almost translucent paper, folded and faded, proof of the tenuousness of early life, and proof that however complicated life grows, including relationships with parents and children, there's a physical, historical family base that undergirds and/or undermines it all.

Sixty years later, I'm trying to stay under 200 pounds, happy with each oz that slips away, still relying on family, still struggling with family, still grateful for family.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Serbo-Croat Novelist Dies

Milorad Pavic, Unorthodox Novelist, Dies at 80

Published: December 19, 2009

Milorad Pavic, an internationally prominent Serbian writer whose novels upended the traditional relationship between reader and text, taking the form of dictionaries, crossword puzzles and much else, died on Nov. 30 in Belgrade. He was 80.

Ivo Eterovic/Alfred A. Knopf

Milorad Pavic

Mr. Pavic’s narratives do away with the forced-march, page-after-page strategy to which most readers are accustomed. They are profuse with self-reference, unreliable narration, authorial asides and “Rashomon”-like shifts in point of view. Stories nest within stories like the pieces of a Russian doll.


It's surprising, and always a bit odd, where the years take you. A sabbatical year to work on a book about Freemasonry and the German Novel led me to the German university town of Tübingen, where I met Zarko Radakovic, who became a novelist and translator. The friendship blossomed into joint projects and finally into a couple of books. I have even taught interdisciplinary classes on the crisis in the former Yugoslavia, drawing on things I learned from Zarko and experienced during our travels.

Zarko's work is not adequately described as "postmodern," but it shares some of the traits of recent philosophical movements, including a distrust of straightforward narrative. And now I read that Zarko's fellow countryman Milorad Pavic has died, a novelist who also experimented with literary form.

Just this summer, accompanying Lyn to her family gathering in Breckenridge, Colorado, I found a used-book store and bought a copy of Pavic's "Dictionary of the Khazars: A lexicon novel." I already had a copy of the novel, translated by Christina Pribicevic-Zoric, but it was the "male" version of the novel. This one was the female version.

A couple of months after buying the book, I wrote to Ms. Pribicevic-Zoric and asked if she would translate Zarko's half of our book "Vampires / A Reasonable Dictionary." She declined, but suggested Alice Copple-Tosic, who has now translated the "Vampires" half of our book into English.

And now Milorad Pavic has died. And I've got a manuscript full of diversions, feints, questions, and a basic anti-narrativity for which I'm dying to find a publisher. We'll die ourselves, soon enough. Our words, our sentences, our collaborations ought to find a more permanent place between book covers.

Zarko's opening, along with mine:


One summer at the end of the 20th century, a man in his forties accompanied by a ten-year younger female traveling companion spends a short vacation in the south of a neighboring country. They sleep in a different place every night. They walk through the landscape, wander through city streets, leisurely sit in the gardens of empty houses. They have long meals in half-empty restaurants… One night in a hotel on the seashore, after a late television broadcast of the film Fog, the man calls a friend in his homeland. During the brief conversation, he finds out that seven years after their divorce, his ex-wife has been put into a mental institution…During the night the man talks to his mother on the phone and finds out that another friend has tried to commit suicide and is currently “in a serious state,” “lying” “in a hospital”…On the way home the man runs over a cat and then loses control of the car. When it happens he is listening to Bill Frisell on the radio…Once he gets home the man experiences numerous changes… He “hooks up” with a much younger woman who tries to bite his neck during sex, after which he turns rough…He attends the meetings of a “secret organization”…He does not sleep at night…Walking through town he breaks the window of an apartment where the light is turned on… He decides to change his place of residence... One night he goes to the movies and sees Vampires. It strikes him that this is one of the most important events in his life, which is already quite shaken up. That same evening he makes an important acquaintance; there are exciting adventures; long hours of talking, arguing and fistfights…Absorbed in images from daydreams… Battling with insects… Attacking a gas station … Nocturnal noises in the hotel… Orgies…Pallor… Bleeding gums…The man calls his mother and tells her he is going back to his hometown… After a raid in a restaurant in the center of town, he injects himself with a medicinal serum… He spends some time in a village where ­­­­a pig is slaughtered at a celebration, he comes up against considerable changes… He meets enemies… He meets friends… Long conversations… A battle for details.

................ and mine:

Let this story begin, perhaps, in 1998 in Belgrade among the well-kept ruins of the Kalemegdan fortress that overlooks the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers. A barrel-chested man walks along a path with his two little girls. They lag behind. He shouts at them. They catch up. They turn aside to play among wildflowers. He threatens them. The girls join him momentarily, then disappear among the tall flowers. He roars a command. They return. The youngest girl begins to cry. The older girl takes her hand. The big man steps off the path and rips a bunch of wildflowers from the high grass. He hands them to the crying girl. She stops crying. He shouts again. They walk away, all three of them, holding mismatched hands.

Or let the story begin just after the turn of the century with the younger brother of my friend Christian Gellinek’s grandfather. Otto Gellinek was an Austrian officer, Christian says, a ladies man -- he died of syphilis – and a fencing instructor who liked to show off by walking on his hands. In 1907, disguised as a painter, Gellinek traveled in Bosnia-Herzegovina to sketch fortifications and make notes for a possible war. In 1908, despite Gellinek’s report arguing against a formal annexation, the Austrians invaded the country. Catholic Croats welcomed the invaders, but Muslims and Orthodox Serbs opposed them bitterly. The battle lasted three months and cost the Austrian Army 5,198 casualties. More importantly, it aroused virulent anti-Austrian sentiment among Serbs, manifest most pointedly in the person of the 19-year-old nationalist who assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo to set off the First World War.

Translating Peter Handke’s A Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia from German into English, I called my old friend and long-time collaborator Žarko Radaković to ask about the phrase: “Do we need a new Gavrilo Princip?”

What kind of principle is this? I asked. Is it a term from business management?

Gavrilo Princip? Žarko laughed. He was the young assassin.

It’s not easy to begin a new story about the old land of the southern Slavs (Yugo = south). After all, what do I know? A foreigner in the country for a few days. A self-styled translator with no command of this language. A potential verbal assassin.

. . . in Shefko’s translation the old man’s words seemed suspicious, smelled of politics and seditious intent. . . . Shefko, who was obviously putting the worst possible construction on the old man’s exalted phrases and who loved to stick his nose into everything and carry tales even when there was nothing in them, and was ever ready to give or to confirm an evil report. (Ivo Andrić, The Bridge Over the Drina)

Caveat lector.


someone ought to want to read this book; and if that's true, someone ought to publish it.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009


Not long after reading the news of Claude Levy-Strauss' death yesterday, I came to a passage in Ryszard Kapusciniski's book "The Soccer War" that reminded me of how ideas coincide (for me, not in a Jungian sense, but rather in that sense that grows out of lots and lots of reading coupled with coincidence):

"In Lagos, when I was ill, I read through Tristes Tropiques. Claude Levi-Srauss has been staying in the Brazilian jungles, carrying out ethnographic research among the Indian tribes. He is running into difficulties and resistance from the Indians; he is discouraged and exhausted.

Above all, he asks himself questions. Why has he come here? With what hopes or what objectives? Is this a normal occupation like any other profession, the only difference being that the office of laboratory is separated from the practitioner's home by a distance of several thousand kilometres? Or does it result from a more radical choice, which implies that the anthropologist is calling into question the system in which he was born and brought up? It was now nearly five years since I had left France and interrupted my university career. . . . . By whom or by what had I been impelled to disrupt the normal course of my existence? . . . Did my decision express a deep-seated incompatibility with my social setting so that, whatever happened, I would inevitably live in a state of ever greater estrangement from it? Through a remarkable paradox, my life of adventure, instead of opening up a new world to me, had the effect rather of bringing me back to the old one, and the world I had been looking for disintegrated in my grasp. . . . Travelling through regions upon which few eyes had gazed, sharing the existence of communities whose poverty was the price -- paid in the first instance by them -- for my being able to go back thousands of years in time, I was no longer fully aware of either world. What came to me were fleeting visions of the french countryside I had cut myself off from, or snatches of music and poetry which were the most conventional expressions of a culture which I must convince myself I had renounced, if I were not to belie the direction I had given to my life.

Kapuscinski writes about his own depression, about depression that befalls him in the tropics: "the depression torments you and you try to free yourself of it. But the requisite strength is not born in a moment. It takes time to accumulate it in sufficient quantity to overcome the depression. You drink beer and wait for that blessed moment. . . . Describe other behaviour from periods of depression. Physiological changes in chronic states: the slumber of cortical cells, the numbness in the fingertips, the loss of sensitivity to colours and the general dulling of vision, the transient loss of hearing. There would be a lot to say."

And, as I experience every year at about this time of severely shortened days, depression isn't only a tropical event. I fight it with exercise and diet and light and, of course I drink beer and wait for that blessed moment. And I'm tormented by the culture I left behind even as I came back, and I'm haunted by the PBS interviewer who asked me about academic freedom at BYU and commented: "Princeton, Vanderbilt, BYU, UVSC -- I've never seen an academic career in such precipitous decline!" And I answered then, and I answer now in the midst of my doubts and sorrows: "Yes, and every step was carefully chosen."

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Tragic Intensity of Europe

What's it like to be a Foreigner? This question was first raised forcefully in my mind by a film I saw in Germany with my friend Zarko Radakovic. It is called "The Foreigner" and was directed by Amos Poe. I've been thinking about it ever since.

One product of that thinking appeared in November of 2008 as Vampiri / Razumni recnik (Vampires / A Reasonable Dictionary), published in Serbian in Belgrade. The first half is Zarko's, the second mine. We write each in his own language. We converse in German. Zarko grew up in Communist Yugoslavia, I in the Mormon West. We were born to be foreigners in each other's world. My name "Scott" even means "vermin" in his language.

And yet, Zarko and I have been friends for almost thirty years. The friendship has made me into a different person than I would have been otherwise. It has changed me, piece by piece, thought by thought, atom by atom, experience by experience, and so have the years.

The photos at the end of our second book contrast starkly with the photos from our first book: Repetions: Travels into the Landscape of a Novel(ist), published in Belgrade in 1994.

And those photos were preceded by an earlier one, taken by Zarko's wife Zorica in their apartment in Tuebingen. We're reading identical copies of Peter Handke's novel Repetition, which was the catalyst for our journey into the novel's landscape -- what is now Slovenia, but at that time still part of Yugoslavia.

Things change, and in those changes we make our lives.

About the time our second book appeared, Zarko also edited a remarkable text in Germany, an edition of Schreibheft: Zeitschrift fuer Literature, a German literary magazine. Along with Austrian writer Peter Handke, Zarko produced a volume of literature from Serbia, translated into German and titled “The Tragic Intensity of Europe.”

This morning I reread some of the stories, several of the essays. I don't read Serbian, so this volume is a precious window into Zarko's world, into the intellectual and artistic universe made up of writers he knows whose world has so radically changed over a decade and a half -- the time between our books, our photos.

Zarko's essay “View from Zemun”
 begins with these lines:

Three decades have passed since I left the Balkans. The place from which I emigrated at the end of the Seventies was called Yugoslavia. Tito was still in power.

Settled in Germany, I immediately began to preserve my Yugoslavian past: driven by “homesickness” and by the almost animal need to return repeatedly – but never for long.

            If I had worries of any kind in the first years of emigration, they usually had to do with the uncertain success of a sports team. Never could I have imagined the destruction that would begin in the early Nineties, for I grew up with the good-natured ignorance that assumed that this country would never fall apart.

Zarko's essay is about the Serbian writer Igor Marojevic, a younger writer who fled the chaos of civil war to live in Barcelona, but returned to Serbia after four years. “Why didn’t you stay in Barcelona?” Zarko asks him. “I was afraid I would forget the language, he said – an answer only a writer can give.”

            Those are the words that remain from the conversation with Igo Marojevic in a dark Belgrade café, smoking cigarettes, drinking black coffee, visualizing with no illusions; in a café with a view in the direction of the Danube and Zemun, the place where Marojevic has lived since returning from emigration, the place I have left, because I remain an emigrant.

Because, Zarko might as well have said, because I have forgotten my language. Because I am not a writer. 

Although that is implied, with all its tragic implications, it's not true. Zarko lives in his language, the language that used to be Serbo-Croatian and that has become Serbian. He writes in it, book after book: Pogled, Knifer, Emigracija, Tuebingen, Ponavljanje, and Vampiri. He translates into it: a dozen important and sometimes big books by Peter Handke. 

And he returns to his country often, although he doesn't stay long. His last visit, with his partner Anne, he explained in a postcard, was for the sake of "Sophie." He meant, of course, his grandaughter. And he meant, I'm certain, for the sake of wisdom, of language, of self.

The Schreibheft issue contains any number of tragically intense stories, stories of emigrants become foreigners. One, by Dragan Aleksic, will have to stand for the rest:

The Heart Full of Rain

When I was a young man, I wrote a book whose hero says at one point: I want to go anywhere, I want to be silent, I don't want anyone to know anything about me. There, far away, I will cry and have only a single wish: to return. 

Twenty years later, at a mature age, as an emigrant to America, driven to windy Ohio, I listen in the evenings to my small sons who, before falling asleep, cry for our old house and our city. Later, sleeping, they smile and speak -- in English.

I am silent, with no connection to my fate.

I feel nothing.

I grieve for no thing.

I call nothing into memory.

I am not like the hero of my first novel.

I do not cry.

I do not want to return.

. . . But my heart is full of rain.

(2007, English translation mine, from the German of Mirjana and Klaus Wittmann)  

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Equinoctial Thoughts

It's a little over a week till the autumnal equinox, but the sun is now rising in the notch to the south of the mountain to the east of us, having climbed, since June 21, up and over the mountain from the notch on its northern end, and with the storm blowing in today, the sky is dark and the windchimes busy.

Yesterday, cleaning up a pit I had lined with douglas fir posts left over from building our house, I decided to stand them in a line marking the summer solstice. If you look along the posts in this photo, you can locate the spot on Lake Mountain where the sun quits moving north, stands still for an instant (sol-stice), and then moves south for the winter.

Why does that matter to me? I suppose it matters for the same reason it mattered to everyone who has marked the solstice, whether through standing stones, marks inside rock formations, or whatever means. We are affected by movements of the sun. Short days mean, for me, a return to more depressive moods. I compensate for that, at best, with thoughts of backcountry skiing.

The wind will blow my posts over, balanced on their ends as they are, the seasons will progress as they always have, and I, now in my 60th year, will follow the seasons as long as I can and then follow the posts.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Following up, Comparing dinners

Our dinner tonight was from the Bombay House, leftovers from Friday's party for Integrated Studies faculty and staff. This guy was browsing on oak leaves at the same time. I would have invited him in to sample the IPA I was quaffing, but thought that the invitation might spoil the moment.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Fawning around

Woke up this morning to see quick movements outside. Fawns chasing one another through the oakbrush, bounding, darting, whirling around their more serious mothers. Four does, six fawns. Two fawns left their playmates and headed (literally) into their mother, butting her udder for some liquid breakfast. One of their little friends, whose mother was, perhaps, on a quicker weaning program, nosed around the activity, hoping for a sip too, but of course the doe would have none of that. She started to lead the whole bunch across the street into a denser stand of brush, but was turned back by a woman walking her little black dog and grey goat. (I'm not making this up.) At that point I got this photo (click for a larger view):

A few minutes later, on the other side of the house, Lyn pointed out this buck, browsing through the meadow.

[enhanced just hours later by Don LaVange, using whatever magic he uses]

And finally, on the lower deck, we found proof of the desirability of our full, bushy sweet basil, its leaves almost ready for a fine weekend pesto, but now making at least one of those fawns or does or bucks happy this fine morning.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Fugue + State: Brian Evenson

There are musical fugues and psychological fugues. Brian Evenson's polyphonic new book of psychological short stories, Fugue State, adds the literary fugue to the list.

The psychological fugue state is characterized by a loss of identity, by a wandering away from who one was into another, amnesic state. The musical fugue states a theme and then revoices it contrapuntally. Evenson's stories take the psychological meaning ("I had, Bentham claimed, fallen into a sort of fugue state, in which the world moved past me more and more rapidly, a kind of blur englobing me at every instant. And yet he had never, so he confided to Arnaud, felt either disoriented or confused. Yes, admittedly, during this period he had no clear idea of his own name. . . ." -- from the title story), and over the course of nineteen variations play with and examine the theme in various voices, voices disjunct from themselves as early as the first sentence of the story:

"Years later, she was still calling her sister, trying to understand what exactly had happened."

"For some days now, I have felt myself to be pursued by my second ex-wife."

"There came a certain point, in his speech, in his confrontation with others, in his smattering with the world, that Hecker realized something was wrong"

"I have been ordered to write an honest accounting of how I became a Midwestern Jesus and the subsequent disastrous events thereby accruing, events for which, I am willing to admit, I am at least partly to blame."

"In the end, suffering and not knowing what else to do, I left her abruptly and without warning, taking only the clothes on my back."

"I'd read once, in what book I no longer recall, a phrase that for no apparent reason came to haunt me."

"In retrospect, it was easy for her to see it had been a mistake to have sex with a mime."

"Clearly the method of elucidation I employed in my report did not satisfy the administration, and thus I am at a loss as to know how to proceed."

"Late in the year, during a trip to the Tyrol, the sky so gray throughout the day that he felt himself to be living in a perpetual twilight, Bauer lost confidence in his ability to work with plaster."

"It was a freak accident, a wire snapping off the load and whipping back to slash across his face, breaking his nose, tearing open both his eyes."

"On the night of 12 October, I was compelled for reasons I still find quite difficult to explain to kill one Alfons Kuylers, esteemed dealer in imported goods of a specialty nature, my mentor, my master in the art of philosophical paradox, my tutor in all things theological."

"Toward evening, well before Traub expected it, came a notable transformation in the face."

Traub and Bauer are characters in a similar story. Several of the stories are set in post-apocalyptic times. The loss of language or family or resemblance ("He no longer resembled me") is common to all the stories. In short, voices reporting from fugue states make up a literary fugue the likes of which I have never read or heard.

Art by Zak Sally, including an illustration for each story and a full graphic "illustration"/depiction/visual thinking of the story "Dread," add another eyevoice to the polyphony.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Conundrum, Quandary, and Paradox

This week Lyn and I were in Breckenridge, Colorado for a reunion of her family. One day several of us climbed Quandary Peak, 14,265 feet and just across the Blue River from where we were staying. As my photo shows, we weren't the only ones on the peak that day.

The outing reminded me of a climb my son Ben reported a couple of years ago, another Colorado mountain with a philosophical name: Conundrum Peak. When I looked it up on the internet, I found the following photo and description:

Located near Aspen, CO, USA, Conundrum Peak reaches 14,060 feet, however, it is not an "official" CO 14ers since it does not rise the magic 300 feet above the connecting saddle with Castle. Subpeak or not, it is a worthwhile climb in its own right and can easily be done together with Castle Peak.

I figured that I might now have bragging rights. 

More importantly, Ben's climb of Conundrum led to an exchange of emails between us that we called "The Father/Son Conundrum." Perhaps we can initiate a second volume now, something like "Qualifying Our Quandaries," to be followed by a third volume, also named after a Colorado place: "The Purpose of Paradox."

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Progress on the Barbed-Wire Article

The University of Wyoming has a collection of materials from late-nineteenth century advertising of the new invention that so changed the American West. Two of my favorites, found yesterday, are these cards from Jacob Haish. The first promises that Haish's wire will protect even the forbidden fruit of Eden (the fruit of the tree, the young girl, the exotic animals?).

The second features a well-dressed woman on the back of Haish's "cock of the rock" racing wire and stretchers to the farmer.

Finally, proof of the need for barbed wire, given the railroads now criss-crossing the West. The Wyoming Stockmens Association kept a big book in which it listed each cow killed by a train, several dozen every month. Barbed-wire fences were the answer.

Although not the perfect answer according to this account in the 1882 Daily News of Denver:

There is work for the Humane Society among farmers and other people building long fences and using “barbed wire.” In fact, it would be a noble work if the society could prevail upon the Legislature to pass a law prohibiting the erection of “barbed wire” fences. In this part of the country, and doubtless in other farming districts, a large majority of the fences around farms, pastures, etc., are built of “barbed wire,” which is strong, twisted wire, with sharp-pointed teeth or barbs wove in the wire three or four inches apart. Scarcely a day passes but one can hear of the death or fatal injury of a cow, calf, horse or colt which has run into the fence (which cannot be seen far away), and so cuts its head and body as to result seriously and often fatally, and it is not seldom that valuable blooded stock is caught in the barbs of these terrible fences and cut literally to pieces.  The foregoing is brought out by a sickening sight that met the eyes of passengers on the accommodation train between Collins and Loveland, yesterday morning.  A herd of milk cows was feeding along the line of the railroad track, and as the train came rolling along a number of the cows started to cross the track.  The engineer blew his whistle loud and shrill, and the frightened cows began to run in every direction.  One unfortunate ran headlong into a wire fence near the track and jumped head and fore legs through the fence and there hung on the sharp barbs, and as the rear car passed by the passengers saw the brute hanging there on the sharp barbs kicking and bellowing, the piercing instruments sawing and cutting into her body deeper and deeper as she struggled for liberty.  If the man who built the fence had a heart, not as hard as stone, and could have seen that terrible butchering, he would have solemnly sworn never again to build a barbed wire fence.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Barbed Wire Road Trip

Lyn and I have been working on our joint project, an interdisciplinary look at barbed wire in three contemporary literary works and at the nineteenth- and twentieth-century origins for the literary usage. She's mostly the expert on historical research, and I'm mostly responsible for the literary aspects. But it took both of us to drive through west-central Utah and east-central Nevada the last couple of days in search of images and ideas for the paper.

Near Oak City, Utah, just east of Delta, we found the "Fool Creek Flat" sign, welded together out of steel pipe, steel chain, cut steel plate, and steel barbed wire. It rises up next to the barbed-wire fence that is ubiquitous in the west, and that, in this case, has gathered a second rank of defense -- a knee-high layer of thorny tumbleweed (my legs will bear the scratches for the next week).

The sign signifies, at least as we read it, a Western cowboy toughness that tends to the scratchy.

If you're going to graze cattle and horses over wide swatches of ground, there's no real option but barbed wire. And if you're going to have roads through the country, the Nevada Department of Transportation will have to line them with barbed wire.

One of the benefits of research that requires traveling is that there are unexpected sights. After a long, wet, cool spring, the high mountain valleys east of Ely, Nevada, are brilliant with yellow composites and blue lupine and larkspur tucked in and around the sagebrush.

It's not easy to keep a wire fence taut, but you can tighten it by inserting a lever between two strands of the wire and twisting. A steel come-along helps with the dangly gate.

A barbed wire fence can also function as a gallery, as it does here at "Major's Place" on Highway 6 between Ely and Great Basin National Park. The fence flaunts a row of deer and pronghorn antlers, with the bighorn sheep skull in the center. Although we're trying to make sense of the disturbing practice of displaying killed coyotes on fences, this array at Major's Place seems at least partially an aesthetic exercise, and not just a statement of violent power.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Peter Handke's Best Book?

Welches empfinden Sie als das beste Buch von Handke? Okay, blöde Frage. Die besten drei!
Which book do you think is Handke's best? Okay, stupid question. The best three!

This challenge is from the Peter Handke translator and psychoanalyst Michael Roloff, sent to several of us who like to converse about the work of the Austrian author whose novel title (in Roloff's translation) is the title of my blog.

Michael suggested we think about the best book of the various periods and genres.
The German literary critic and blogger Lothar Struck wrote that he thinks the recent Moravian Night is one of the best books, if not the best book. "Almost any other writer would receive the Nobel Prize for that book alone."  

Michael responded to that assessment: "Wonderful, of course, I shall read it at least three times before writing on it. The bastard has become better and better and deeper and deeper." 

I've hesitated to join the conversation, and only this morning realized why. I've got a complicated and sometimes troubled and always thankful and deeply personal and often quirky relationship with these books. I don't know if I can do this. But I'd like to find a way.

So my divisions and choices and equivocations are as follows:

1. The group that Suhrkamp Verlag published in paperback. I love to see the colors and uniform size on my shelf: See a photo of some of them above. I've arranged my books in various ways over the years, but keep coming back to color and size and publisher as a reasonable and aesthetic way to make words and things correspond. My favorite of this rainbow of books may be The Goalie's Anxiety. When Joseph Bloch finds that his map doesn't exactly correspond to the landscape, he and I breath deep sighs of relief. The authorities may not be able to find us after all.

2. The essays and play about the former Yugoslavia have shaped me and my thinking, have measured and cut and sanded my thoughts after providing possible blueprints. They affect me so much, in part, because I worked (am working) hard to translate them, and translation is, perhaps, the most intensive kind of reading. Because people comment on these Yugoslavia books, especially, without having read them, they have been controversial. Language is critical as we move toward or away from war. That's Peter's point. Journalists and politicians and commentators don't like to be reminded that they are sloppy with language. So they attack the messenger. And finally, these books remind me of the trip my friend Zarko and I took with Peter along the Drina River. It was one of the defining weeks of my life. 

3. The big novels, written after criticism that Peter couldn't write big novels. Peter showed me a letter from Robert Straus, the American publisher, to Siegfried Unseld, Peter's German publisher, that opened with the sentence: "We've got a big problem. His name is Peter Handke." Straus' problem, of course, was that Peter had started to write a new kind of novel. And it wasn't selling. Selling lots of copies isn't one of my criteria, however, and each of these novels has given me hours of sanity and careful form and slow perception in a precipitous and unperceptive world. For my favorite of these, see my final entry.

4. Translations. Peter has made a lot of literature accessible to German readers through his translations from Greek, French, English, and Slovenian. Although I can read the English, I love his translation of Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale. I told Peter that I laughed when I came to the scene where Autolycus was selling ballads and found that one of them was Dylan's "Stuck in Mobile singing the Memphis blues." Yes, he said, I allowed myself that. Peter's little German/Croatian dictionary (he had added "Serbian" to the title so it accurately reflected the dual nature of the language) was well worn. I'd love to see the shelf of his dictionaries. Perhaps they would be my favorites of all his works.

5. Although I can't read them, Zarko Radakovic's translations of Peter's work have to fit in here somewhere. I first heard of Peter Handke in conversation with Zarko in Tuebingen, Germany. Zarko is an active and even bold translator. He sees his work with Peter's works as part of his larger creative project, which includes performance art, jazz criticism, novels, creative biography (Julija Knifer), and thematic editing. For instance, at the back of his translation of Peter's Kindergeschichte, Zarko presents a separate section featuring texts and works of art about childhood by the likes of Michael Hamburger, Braco Dimitrijevic, Ilma Rakusa, Tomaz Salamun, David Albahari, Martin Kippenberger, and yours truly. From Peter Handke's German to Serbo-Croatian. From Peter Handke's childhood to our own experiences. A fine textual textile.

6. This interweaving of texts makes it productively difficult to decide where to quit expanding the discussion of which of Peter's books have influenced me the most. Zarko's and my books: the first following a character from Peter's Repetition into Slovenia, and the second an account of our trip with Peter up the Drina River in the former Yugoslavia, would never have been written if we hadn't been reading Peter Handke.

7. Peter has written a lot of notes in the notebooks he carries everywhere with him, words and drawings to help him remember what he has seen. He also has reviewed the work of other writers, teaching me in the process that while it makes good sense to write about how a work works on the reviewer, its never even interesting to pronounce judgments on works of art.

8. And there are Peter's plays and poetry. Although it's not in this photo, but rather in the rainbow one, I'll choose the early Kaspar as especially important for me, a riff on Herder's claim that we don't speak language but that it speaks us. Kaspar, by the way, was wonderfully translated by Michael. The much later play, Voyage by Dugout, whose premiere I saw in Vienna, left me, as I stumbled out of the theater, with a fierce resolve to return often to Peter's work as a powerful antidote to what ails me (and the worlds I live in).

9. Peter wrote a children's book, which I include here as an excuse to reproduce my friend Thomas Deichmann's photo of Peter and his daughter Leocadie.

10. And finally, because I don't know which of Peter's works is the best, because I can't know, because I'm not smart enough to figure that out, I have to say that the book I like the best is the one I've worked hardest on, the one I've spent the most time with, the one that bears my marks, the one that I've written about critically ("Postmetaphysical Metaphysics") and personally (Zarko's and my Repetitions) -- Peter's novel Die Wiederholung / Repetition.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

barbed wire

Not much difference, we're finding out as we work on our "barbed and dangerous" article, between what we do with animals and with the human animal, although the human picture, of Bosnians in Trnopolje, is problematic, as my friend Thomas Deichmann has pointed out, because it's the ITN crew that is in the area enclosed by barbed wire, and the emaciated men have been called up to the fence for the TV footage. But that's another story.

Coyote near Lipan, Texas, Photo by Ken Kuhl

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Tenure and Academic Freedom

One of the comments on my post about ending the university as we know it, written by an old friend who is an academic librarian in South Carolina, brushes past my glib assumption that ending tenure is a silly idea and argues that tenure isn't necessary, that it lulls professors into early retirement, that a competitive market would be more productive, and that "historically it's done a lousy job of protecting radically outspoken critics from within the academy."

If we're talking about really radical critics (most recently, for instance, Ward Churchill at the University of Colorado), I guess I would agree. But that's not the end of the story. The fact that BYU, my former employer, did not fire me over the 11 years during which I was a more and more outspoken critic, I attribute entirely to the fact that I had tenure. And in my work with the American Association of University Professor over two decades, most of it having to do with challenging administrative decisions that failed to provide due process or to share governance with faculty members, having tenure always put us on more firm footing vis a vis the administrator, serving as a lever in our negotiations, reminding the "administration" that their position at a university is only one of several, and certainly not the most important or essential one.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

End the University as We Know It?

Mark Taylor's recent essay in the New York Times raises a dizzying and sometimes ditzy (abolish  tenure as well as specialized dissertations???) set of issues. At one point he suggests turning disciplinary graduate and undergraduate programs into interdisciplinary groups:

The division-of-labor model of separate departments is obsolete and must be replaced with a curriculum structured like a web or complex adaptive network. Responsible teaching and scholarship must become cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural.

Just a few weeks ago, I attended a meeting of political scientists who had gathered to discuss why international relations theory had never considered the role of religion in society. Given the state of the world today, this is a significant oversight. There can be no adequate understanding of the most important issues we face when disciplines are cloistered from one another and operate on their own premises.

It would be far more effective to bring together people working on questions of religion, politics, history, economics, anthropology, sociology, literature, art, religion and philosophy to engage in comparative analysis of common problems. As the curriculum is restructured, fields of inquiry and methods of investigation will be transformed.

2. Abolish permanent departments, even for undergraduate education, and create problem-focused programs. These constantly evolving programs would have sunset clauses, and every seven years each one should be evaluated and either abolished, continued or significantly changed. It is possible to imagine a broad range of topics around which such zones of inquiry could be organized: Mind, Body, Law, Information, Networks, Language, Space, Time, Media, Money, Life and Water.

Consider, for example, a Water program. In the coming decades, water will become a more pressing problem than oil, and the quantity, quality and distribution of water will pose significant scientific, technological and ecological difficulties as well as serious political and economic challenges. These vexing practical problems cannot be adequately addressed without also considering important philosophical, religious and ethical issues. After all, beliefs shape practices as much as practices shape beliefs.

A Water program would bring together people in the humanities, arts, social and natural sciences with representatives from professional schools like medicine, law, business, engineering, social work, theology and architecture. Through the intersection of multiple perspectives and approaches, new theoretical insights will develop and unexpected practical solutions will emerge.

So far so good. Project-driven collaborative work makes good sense from the undergraduate classroom to the interdisciplinary evaluations that go on each morning in the local hospital. We named our Integrated Studies journal "Intersections" with precisely this in mind: multiple perspectives and approaches converge to create unexpected solutions.

What Mr. Taylor forgets is that perspectives and approaches come from disciplinary training. For his Water project, as he notes, he'll need trained hydrologists, legal experts, political scientists, and so on. Where will these people come from if the Department of Earth Studies and the law school have been abolished?

In our Program in Integrated Studies, we struggle with this conundrum every day. As our senior theses demonstrate again and again (at least the best of them), coming at a single problem from the perspectives of two different disciplines proves very fruitful. But our worst theses also prove that coming at a single problem without good tools learned in disparate disciplines is an exercise in futility.