The Natural

I loved golf since I was 14-15-16, and managed to get to about a 10 handicap.  At a certain point in college it occurred to me that if I didn’t take school more seriously, I might end up living under a bridge!  I sold my clubs (Pings) and my guitar (Rickenbacker 360 in sunburst).  Ended up with a Ph.D. and a calling, which is all well and good.  Fast forward twenty-odd years and here I am asking the really big question:  What about golf?  The love is there, the passion, but the years have changed what I can do.  It’s like starting all over again.  That’s hard.  But a few weeks ago a brought my daughter, Julia, to the course and lo and behold, world, we have a natural on our hands.  Incredible eye-hand coordination, balance, feel.  And just the right mental make-up to handle the ups and downs of the world’s most difficult game (after chess).  I envy that she gets to start at the very beginning.  Here she is sinking putts from three feet–like the artist she is.2016-05-25 09.46.55


Seven weeks of travel with two nights in my own bed.  Two trips to Europe broken up by a pair of seminars back to back in DC.  The cities I have seen!  Dublin, Berlin, Lodz (Poland), Warsaw, Budapest, Bratislava, Vienna (Austria), Prague, Rome, Florence, Chianti, Siena, Posillipo (Italy), Cuma (Italy), and, from the airport, Chicago, Barcelona and London.  Two fascinating conferences where I connected with my past (semiotics) and my future (Vergil).  In Lodz, Jason Matzke (PHIL, UMW) and I gave an account of Stanley Cavell’s theory of the sign derived from his autobiography, Little Did I Know (2010).  In Cuma, I talked about the unlikely disavowal of philosophy (deduction, analogy) for religious modes of thinking (epiphany, faith) in Vergil’s first Eclogue.  But amidst all this professional activity there was a constant hum of Europe in all its diversity, sophistication, multilingual panache.  And being able to share Eastern Europe with a dear colleague, Jason, and Italy with my wife and one of our children, Luke, made it so special.  Here is Luke looking out from Vergil’s favorite spot in the Bay of Naples area, Posillipo, where we rented a villa.  In the distance is the island of Capri where the emperor Tiberius hid from the world and ruled it in idyllic, sybaritic repose.   2015-06-23 18.47.44

Sententiae Piscatoriae (Fish’s Aphorisms)

After finishing How To Write a Sentence, I had the pleasure of rereading several essays from his earlier collections.  I started excerpting anything that had occasioned marginalia and soon found myself with several pages of notes.  So I’ll economize:

From “Milton, Thou Shouldst Be Living at This Hour,” There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech, pp. 271-272:

“In my early years of teaching, I gave the same exam no matter what the course or its subject matter.  I asked my students to relate two quotations.  The first was by J. Robert Oppenheimer:   ‘Style … is the deference that action pays to uncertainty.’  What that means, I take it, is that in a world where certain grounds for action are unavailable, one avoids the Scylla of prideful self-assertion and the Charybdis of paralysis by stepping out provisionally, with a sense of limitation, with a sense of style.  That much said, the other quotation needs no gloss, and neither does it need, at least for this audience, an introduction:  ‘Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.’  I wanted my students to see that while the moral life cannot be anchored in a perspicuous and uncontroversial rule, golden or otherwise, we must nevertheless respond to its pressures; and indeed it is only because the moral life rests on a base of nothing more than its own interpretations that it can have a content; for were there  clearly marked path that assured the safety of pilgrims and wanderers, we would have no decisions to make, nothing to hazard, nothing to wager.  The uncertainty of which Oppenheimer and Saint Paul speak is not a defect of our situation but the very ground and possibility of meaningful action.”

Fish is capable of a lot of different notes–masterful thinker about what it means to read (“In short, the notion of illocutionary style makes no sense except as the result of mistaking an analytic account of the speech act for a genetic one.  Whatever style is (an issue I will not engage), it varies independently of illocutionary force,” from “How to Do Things with Austin and Searle,” Is There A Text in this Class?) and provocateur (“Academics like to eat shit, and in a pinch they don’t care whose,” from “The Unbearable Ugliness of Volvos,” Doing What Comes Naturally).  But this pose–and that’s no insult because there are no alternatives to posing–is especially attractive to the reader of Fish, who is in all probability an academic himself or herself, because Fish spends no small amount of time knocking down walls erected to support, and exclude, visitors to the ivory tower.  His deconstructive turn became infamous, and those within the academy vilified while not being able to quite dismiss him.

So an excerpt like the paragraph above was a salutary reminder to his audience that Fish is a humanist, and I think I mean that exactly as he taught us the concept in his seminar now twenty years ago.  I am paraphrasing, but Fish observed that humanism is the very attractive idea that a set of texts (could be essays, poems, art–anything really) can deliver you to salvation, or something very like it.  (Sometimes that transformation will involve the loss of everything you know:  see Self-consuming Artifacts.)  How does this paragraph work?  To isolate but a few elements:

  • an appeal to authorities from very different ends of the spectrum, the leader of the group of architects who engineered the atomic bomb and the advocate for a faith struggling to assert and separate itself from the religious sensibilities of his time
  • which authorities seem to converge at a certain point, a point where the true ground for human action begins and ends.  Surprisingly, to some, that ground is not power or greed, which in other places Fish stands accused of supporting.  The English critic, Terry Eagleton, for example, was rumored to have refused to walk through the carpeted offices of Duke’s Department of English of which Fish was at the time chair because of Fish’s louche and exorbitant taste, and leadership.
  • it shows Fish as an academic leader, not a controversial theoretician so much as a familiar, and brilliant, version of a type we know so well:  the professor of literature.  And I have known and studied with some greats, but certainly none better than him.  And here we get to take his final exam, and he even gives us the answers …
  • And amidst the ancient and the modern, science and religion, the alpha and omega, Fish quietly replaces “the ground” for “the moral life” with “uncertainty.”  The ground beneath is air.  And it’s wonderful.  Or it calls for wonder, at any rate.  That ground could be blown out from under us by an atom bomb or we might willingly abandon it for a place in heaven.

I could go on.  But I am grateful that I made an opportunity to read and reread Stanley Fish, a careful and deliberate master of the art of the sentence.



This weekend, in spite of looming deadlines, I picked up Stanley Fish’s recent book, How to Write a Sentence:  And How to Read One (Harper Collins 2010).  Nearly finished it–but I savor the really good books, delaying the bittersweet gratification of completion because I know I will miss the company of the author.  That says a lot about the author–that she or he is a good companion–and it says something about me–that I prefer an author to be a good companion rather than someone I would rather avoid.

I had the privilege of taking a few classes with Stanley Fish in the Roaring ’90’s, the last hurrah of literary theory in the American Academy, in my view, before its confinement to a few shelves in the Barnes & Noble.  As an ABD graduate student in Classical Studies, I was free, if not universally encouraged, to take courses in other disciplines.  I studied semiotics with the Slavic linguist, Edna Andrews; I read the American philosopher Stanley Cavell with Toril Moi; but the classes that probably affected me most were Stanley Fish’s seminars on “Rhetoric, Law, and Power” and (less so–because I don’t have time during my prelim phase to complete it) another on “Milton.”  I have had the honor of studying with genuinely inspiring faculty both as an undergraduate (Bill Kemp and Bob Boughner leap to mind) and as a graduate student (my debts to Gregson Davis would require many more notes), but Stanley Fish cut quite a figure at Duke–as he would anywhere.  Inimitable–though David Lodge does a credible job in Nice Work.

I had read several of Fish’s books in graduate school–most were collections of published essays, but others were conceived and executed as wholes.  I regard Fish as one of the great writers in English–a great prose stylist and to no one was Buffon‘s adage more apropos than it was to Stanley Fish:  le style est l’homme.  But even that does insufficient justice to Fish, because his style is polyvalent:  he occupies multiple registers within the same essay, propelling himself along in a mixed, middle style before rounding into a full Ciceronian periods, then pulling himself short with aphorisms.  Parallelisms of diction, structure, clauses all conspire to present a master of form.  That his “content” can be, and was for many, jarring is almost a distraction, but jarring you was really the point.  You need to be shook free from the path you (mindlessly?) followed and pulled along a better, and with conscious irony–given Fish’s acclaimed status as one of the “deconstructionists”–an unabashedly ‘truer’ path.

In How to Write a Sentence Fish gives you the answer key to his prose style, and style being the man, to himself.  Though I expect Fish to one day author a memoir, to a literary critic I don’t think one could improve upon a thorough exegesis of the sentences that have mattered most to her or him.  Writing, and reading, are intensely personal processes.  And maybe the best thing you can say about any book is that, having read it, I now see the world better, and with fresh eyes thanks to my old companion still leading me along the path.

In my next post:  a collection of my favorite Fish (Fisian? Piscatory?) sentences.


To quote another Emerson, “Experience”:

‘I take this evanescence and lubricity of all objects, which lets them slip through our fingers then when we clutch hardest, to be the most unhandsome part of our condition.’

Nearly a quarter of a year has passed since Claudia Emerson passed.  I knew her.  Others knew her better.  I was new faculty, and I think that colored my thinking a bit.  I feel honored that I got to know her, to the extent I knew her, BP, that is, Before the Pulitzer.  Things changed afterward, I think, but more our perception of her than Claudia.  It’s not that she was aloof.  She was in Combs, then William Street, then GW, then Richmond; I was in Trinkle.  Our paths only crossed because we had friends in common and Fredericksburg is a small town.  After the Pulitzer, I think I was conscious that Claudia probably received more attention–wanted and not–and I guess I did not want to be seen by her as a person who wanted to benefit from her publicity.  So we remained acquaintances.

I think the first time I met Claudia and her husband, Kent, was the summer of 2000 by the steps of the downtown library in Fredericksburg.  The library put on–as they still do in summer–evening concerts, and I had come with my family to sit on the steps and eat a picnic dinner. It was very warm–a true Virginia summer.  Having grown up here, I had pretty positive associations with the clammy heat, the way some mid-westerners feel about the cold–it’s a crucible.  After a few pleasantries, I remember she asked what I was doing this summer.  To me, looking at my two children, I said that, naturally, I was teaching for extra income.  “What about you?”  “Well, I’m a poet and the only time I can get anything done is in the summer.”  She followed that with a wry, “After all, I can’t really call myself a poet unless I write something.”  We talked about what she was working on, some poems that would become Pinion, but as I recall she was already thinking about what would become Late Wife.  What I won’t forget about that for me iconic memory was the smallness of her, her casual hands, and the certainty of her pose when we first approached, propped up as she was on a bicycle stand.  Maybe she wore a white shirt, blue shorts, leather sandals–could that be it?  And that heat was leavened by her smile and a look taking us in.  Put her beside the post-Pulitzer Claudia I would see in the Faculty Dining Room or on campus, radiant with well-coiffed hair, smart suits, but I think also always a bit uncomfortable with the show of it.  All the same, nothing could mask the warmth of her smile or dampen her laugh when she heard something clever and she returned to the fullness of that summer bloom.


Bully Pulpit

Here’s a place to draw together a few ideas for general consideration.  Football is a dangerous game.  Obviously.  And probably unconscionably so.  I never gave my eldest son permission to play organized football because I had played for many years myself––from junior high through high school.  Plenty of good memories––I am thankful I can still remember them––but as I got away from playing I had a growing and intuitive awareness that pounding your head into a brick wall is not a good idea.  And undoubtedly will come with deleterious effects.  Now it’s documented, but it didn’t need to be for me to come to that conclusion.

And yet I am still a fan of the sport.  As though I cannot help myself.  I read about my favorite team, download a podcast, occasionally stream some sports radio when out and about on errands.  I am not above it.  That doesn’t make me feel super proud.  It’s a guilty pleasure.

So, yesterday I’m listening to the radio and lo comes the announcement that a few players chose to retire––some would say “prematurely”––from football rather than run the risk of permanent brain damage.  And rather than respect the decision, two of the three radio personalities chose to mock it.  One minimized the significance of the decision––”not meaningful at all.”  The other equated the decision to play football to the work of a soldier or police officer or firefighter.  Seriously.  As if the work of people doing the most dangerous and necessary work for the safety of a community or country were comparable to entertainment.  Am I wrong in believing that if we thought we would lose 1/3 of our army, police, or firefighting force in the course of normal duty, we would be apoplectic?  And yet by their own admission, one in three football players will suffer lingering effects of brain trauma.  And not to save anyone’s life or property but to entertain me.  It puts football squarely in the camp of cockfighting or dogfighting or gladiatorial matches (with I’m guessing higher casualty rates than actual gladiatorial matches).  My god, one of the guys starting talking about how much the equipment has improved in 2015––as though any equipment could prevent a brain from sloshing back and forth inside the skull when it’s struck.

So today the guilty pleasure is just guilty.

Tunnel Vision

I like writing.  Or maybe I like having written.  Let me explain:  I just submitted a draft of a book chapter that, God willing, will be published in a very good press.  It was an all-consuming task for several months.  The last week was nearly non-stop research and writing for seven days straight.  It felt biblical, transformational.  And yet I could recognize parts of myself changing–becoming more logical, distant, less sensitive to my reactions to people, less a part of this world.  And now that I’m three days away from submitting it, I feel warmer, more connected to my surroundings.  I crave vigorous athletic activity.  And love and affection.  Medievals scholastics called it the vita contemplativa and its thrills are undeniable and real.  But there is something lost or marginalized, too.  It’s a sacrifice of self and others.  Life is full of choices.  I guess my hope is that it always feels like a hard choice.


Might could well be an oversimplification, but there are worse things than oversimplifications, but what I took away from our readings this week is that burying your head in the sand won’t change the fact that there is a very messy online world seeking to reflect, and alter, the organization of the rest of the world, and the online world is populated by all manner of folk–human and not, benevolent and not, indifferent and not.  So it’s worth the time and effort to establish a version of yourself and your professional life to place “out there.”  And to nurture it.  Like a garden.  For as long as you can.  And as more people choose to connect and more institutions entrust important parts of their operations to this bottleneck, the more important it is that clever people become invested in guiding “it.”

La città eterna

Rome.  I studied in Rome in the fall of 1992 at the Centro Intercollegio dei Studi Classici (referred to lovingly as just the “centro”).  It was my first trip to Europe, and I had decided to make an adventure of it:  I’d fly into Paris and journey my way south with a Eurail pass.  With stops in Lyon, then Nice, and Marseilles (twice), I eventually found an overnight train set to arrive in Rome in early September, just in time for the fall semester.  This would have been manageable, EXCEPT that not only had I never been abroad before, but few or none in our circle had either.  So there was no one to stop me, or my mother–with all the good intentions in the world–from packing every. Single. Item. Recommended. By the study abroad program.  I mean, I brought an iron.  Had to weigh 150 lbs, easily.  So imagine, if you will, me burdened with a backpack, a carry-on bag, and wheeling the weight of a grown man along the medieval streets of Paris to a tricked out aubèrge reeking of marijauna, where the madâme awoke you each morning with café, croissants, and 120 decibels of Jimi Hendrix.  Welcome to Europe.

(to be cont.)