Commentaries - November 2007

it's all relative, indeed

Here is Vardi Kahana's 1992 photograph of her aunts, all Holocaust survivors.

Nextbook reports on a new exhibit of Kahana's photographs of her family: "As an art student in Israel in the late 1970s, Vardi Kahana started taking pictures of her mother, a refugee who had been interned at Auschwitz. Two of her brothers and her parents died there. The Holocaust also claimed the lives of Kahana's paternal grandparents and three of her father’s siblings. The survivors from these two families dispersed to Israel, the United States, and other parts of Europe, where they begat new generations whose members hold a range of political and religious beliefs."

Now a portrait photographer, Kahana has traveled the world documenting this clan. The resulting exhibition, "One Family," is on view at the Andrea Meislin Gallery in New York City through December 21.

Kahana writes: "The Holocaust was not present in my life or my home. But when I grew up and began writing books, and these books were translated into different languages, I started traveling to different places as a result. And each time I visit Germany I am asked once again how it feels to look at my book in the German language. 'It feels fine,' I answer. 'It is my way of announcing to you that we are alive.'”

where are you now, Bill Ringler?

In the The Chronicle of Higher Education for November 9, there's an article about young academics who feel like frauds. Here's the link to John Gravois's piece. When this phenomenon was seriously studied, it was found that about 70 percent of people from all walks of life — men and women — have felt like impostors for at least some part of their careers.

There's even a web site for the syndrome.

I really don't like being grumpy about human psychology, but it occurs to me first that some of these young academics are (merely) feeling panic about not having as much knowledge about their fields of expertise as they feel they need to have. In other words, they are imposters, in a sense. Or: they're in a profession where one doesn't really know enough until one has been thinking, teaching, writing and studying for a decade or more. Or: one will never know enough. (And yet they must publish, so almost by definition what they write will be based on significantly incomplete knowledge. It all makes sense. In fact, too much sense.)

Years ago I met Bill Ringler. William A. Ringler, Jr. I was a young scholar feeling rather imposterish, research modern poetry in the manuscript archive of the Huntington Library. I and about thirty other scholars did nothing each day but go to the oasis-like Huntington in San Marino, California, enter the quiet, air-conditioned archives room, read rare books and manuscripts. I was rushing to get out my "tenure book." The Huntington did then, and proabably still does, have a noontime ritual. The manuscripts room closes down entirely for an hour. Everyone has to leave. The idea was to encourage the scholars to walk together across the botanical gardens to a little cafe just past the Shakespeare garden. This is all before the public was permitted to enter the gardens at 1 PM, so we had the place utterly to ourselves. So we did this: we walked to the cafe, where I had lunch at tables with scholars of Renaissance literature, California railroad historians, people examining the 1,200 negatives made by the woman photographer Frances B. Johnston, etc.

Once I met Bill Ringler, then more than 80 years old, I always made a dash to Bill's table. Bill was the world's foremost bibliographer-scholar of 16th-century English lyrics. By the time I met him he knew most of them by heart. Really. He had not been a hugely productive scholar--in, I mean, terms of the number of books and articles he'd published. But everyone knew that he knew more about his subject than anyone else. People used to come to the Huntington to be near Bill--never mind the rare books. He was a rare book.

He had taught at the University of Chicago for decades, and now he "retired to the Huntington." Lived in Pasadena or somewhere and walked to the library every day and studied. Preparing himself to compile the once-in-a-generation tome.

I once asked him, in effect, why he had taken so long to put this book together. It seemed that he'd been the expert in 16th-century English lyric for at least several decades already. His answer was "I don't know enough about it yet, but I will soon." And then: "Some of these things take thirty or forty years to master. If you have that kind of time, then taking that long is appropriate to the task. The best scholars are sometimes people in their 80s."

I'm not of course recommending that any of these nervous young academics wait decades before feeling they know their subject matter well enough to feel they can write definitively about it. I'm just reacting to the sad but also obvious or truistic news of the imposter complex. Bill Ringler had one, big time, but it put him at peace, and made him want to get up in the morning at an age when many folks, having been driven by nervousness all their professional lives, now drool and putter around the roses.

Bill puttered around the roses, as did I in those blissful weeks in Research Heaven, but only for that one enforced hour each day. Then: back to the work.

Celan set to music

John Zorn approached Dan Kaufman to write something for his Tzadik label, the two quickly discovered their shared admiration for the work of Romanian Jewish poet Paul Celan. The result is Force of Light, Kaufman's eight-song homage to the remarkable, troubled poet.

Nextbook has covered this story and provides a link to the music. MORE...

Celan: "I have tried to write poetry in order to acquire a perspective of reality for myself."

You were my death:
you I could hold
when all fell away from me.

"One speaks in vain of justice as long as the largest battleship has not been smashed to pieces on a drowned man's brow."

new writing modes derive from duress

Pretty much as soon as html had been perfected I was teaching it to my students - or, rather, making them go out and learn it. This was to enable them to create web projects based on the course materials and as an aid to discussion and disagreement. One of the students who resisted all this mightily was Amanda Hirsch. Now Amanda, DC-based, is a web consultant! She's one of those very creative people who went into tech. She blogs in order to help "inspir[e] creative living in DC" and indeed the blog is titled Creative DC. She read "Patchen, can't type, turns to picture-poems" and wrote her own blog entry: "Picture Poems, and How Learning HTML Under Duress Helped Me Lead a More Creative Life, or, Thank You, Al Filreis." I'm flattered by the compliments here, thrilled to have been Amanda's teacher, but most of all intrigued by the way she's brought together Patchen's physical duress, which drove him to a new form of writing, and her own real (though not physical, of course) "duress" in the seminar where I tossed the students in the cold dark web ocean, from which she emerged with a way of being creative in the then-newest mode. One move away from the mechanics of writing, another further into it, but both were or are fresh and both enable the visual. So: concrete. Here's Amanda's entry, and here's an excerpt:

Incidentally, Al is the reason I learned HTML, despite ardent protestations at the time. I was in his Literature of Community class, and our final assignment was to create a website reflecting our definition of community. "But we don't know HTML!," half of us protested. This was in '97. "Figure it out," he told us.