Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Old Friends, Old Profession, Old Home, Old Religion -- New Insight

Fuhrman Hall
Vanderbilt University was my academic home for most of the 1980's. It was a wonderful place for a new Ph.D. in German, an intellectual environment that stimulated and challenged and supported.

It was (and is) also a supremely beautiful campus. Fuhrman Hall, picture to the left, was home to philosophy, Germanic and Slavic Languages, and other languages. My office, shared with colleague and friend Thom Heine, was stunning with its brick walls and high windows.

When I left there, just months after having been awarded tenure, I explained to the curious Dean of Arts and Sciences that I missed the scent of sage and that I was looking forward to the chance to teach at BYU, the university that educated my fellow Mormons.

Since then, there has been a lot of water under the bridge.

Last week I returned to Vanderbilt for the first time in over twenty years. The occasion was an international symposium on the work of Heinrich von Kleist, 200 years after his death. My paper, "Erection as Self-Assertion in Kleist's 'Die Marquise von O...'" will be a chapter in my book "On Standing" someday.

The paper went well. The conference featured about 40 Kleist scholars from Germany, Belgium, Spain, Japan, Canada, and from US universities from Berkeley to Princeton. There was, of course, tedium and pedantry and narcissism (we are German scholars, after all). And there was plenty of brilliance and good humor and insight (we are German scholars, after all).

Repeatedly I was asked why I left Vanderbilt. The only two people who really understood my answer were John Lyon, a Germanist at the University of Pittsburg, and James Rasmussen, a Comparatist out of Indiana. They're both Mormons and thus understood the BYU choice. The fact that I'm no longer a member of the LDS church, that I drank coffee by the bucketful (remember the tedium and pedantry?), that, in short, lots of water has gone under the bridge in the past 20 years, set up possible tensions but didn't seem to interfere, finally, with my conversations with John and James.

I'm still Mormon, for better and worse, even after leaving the faith.

I'm also a Germanist, for better and worse, even after having left the discipline for the most part to take the job in Integrated Studies at UVU.

Things change. Things stay the same.

The trajectory from that tight scholarly focus (which culminated with the publication of my book on Freemasonry and the German novel in 1991) to the travel writing with my friend Zarko Radakovic (the two books published in Belgrade) and to work with my friend Alex Caldiero and to my ongoing work on "Immortal For Quite Some Time" has been carefully chosen, as I explained to the PBS Ethics and Religion producer who pointed out that the moves from Princeton to Vanderbilt to BYU to UVU showed an academic career in precipitous decline.
David Lowe

Some of those choices were catalyzed by Thom Heine, a fellow Germanist out of the University of Virginia. Thom was and is a brilliant teacher of German. He's also a wonderful playwrite, full of good humor and profound insight. As he balanced his job with his creative work I too found myself broadening my fields of interest.

Returning to Nashville, the two persons I wanted to see were Thom and another friend, Evan Richards, a fine poet. Although I failed to find Evan, I did squeeze out an evening to see Thom and his wife Chris. Over good food and wine we settled effortlessly back into conversation. Unknown to us as we talked, our former colleague in Russian, David Lowe, was breathing his last breaths. For days and weeks and months on end, I sat with David in a room dedicated to 4 computers (before we all had computers of our own). David was translating what became four volumes of Dostoevsky's letters ("he's just run up another big gambling debt," David would exclaim, "and he's writing again to get some help") and I was finishing the Freemasonry book. David was also a lover of and expert on opera. And he was gay, the first openly gay person with whom I was well acquainted other than my brother John. David ate carrots by the handful, hour after hour, having heard that they strengthened the immune system.

I dedicated my Kleist paper to a third person I would have wanted to see, Hans Schulz, who died of cancer over a decade ago. As Hans died, we exchanged letters. This excerpt from one of his reveals a lot about us both:

"It’s been more than six weeks since I got your letter. I am only now coming out of the kind of hermetic self-referentiality which the news of my palpable finality engendered.. . . Your letter has a tone which expresses a lot about a flux of beliefs and the sense of loss that comes with it. Difficult for me to empathize because that is a whole field of beliefs I never entered and have always looked at as an indoor Hollywood landscape. But my own situation seems to subject a lot of things to revision too; in both cases, yours and mine, I think the results will be positive; in any case, staying in certain belief structures as if they were a nature-given exoskeleton has got to be boring in the long run."

That's it exactly. I left Vanderbilt because I had a clear sense (however subconscious it was) that staying in Nashville would be boring in the long run. The resultant years at BYU were never boring, composed of pleasure and aggravation in roughly equal parts; and the next decade at UVU hasn't been boring either -- with much less aggravation involved.

And then there was the sage.

Returning from Nashville to the mountains and valleys that shaped my childhood and that still thrill my soul, I realized that that scent and all it stood for, including the easing out into fields not exactly Germanic, was the scent of the life I wanted.



yes. the vanderbilt campus looks as boring and idyllic as was haverford's. i understand why you might even put up with your brethren with enough sage brush and wilderness and mountains to make up for whatever aggravation that they can introduce into one's existence.
very april showers here. michael r.


d'accord re traven, a mysterioso. and writer of the american thirties oddly enough. black mask type.

re barbed wire: "fences makes good neighbors" was not meant to hurt though?
xx m.r