Figure 1. photograph from 1906 earthquake in San Francisco, California
I like to think the earth moves beneath my feet, in symbolic fashion, but this morning, at approximately 4:30 a.m., I and my neighbors found ourselves standing outside watching the foundations of our houses tremble and having one of those "is the world ending now?" moments. As it turns out, the world wasn't ending, but something interesting had occurred--namely, an earthquake in southern Illinois, 120 miles away, measuring 5.2 on the Richter scale, and then while I was composing this blog post [not kidding--seriously not kidding], we had another quake measuring 4.5, also in southern Illinois, near the border with Indiana. My house started shaking again and while I'd like to claim that I had a kind of blase--oh, just another earthquake again--kind of reaction, I must admit it's not really fun and it's too early to use the earthquake as an excuse to start drinking, although there is a lovely bottle of Sancerre cooling in the fridge, but no, it really is too early. Of course, one feels the need to immediately do some research and I am not happy to report that I have discovered this morning that I live over one of the mother of all fault lines: the New Madrid Seismic Zone, which caused one the largest series of historical earthquakes [or "seismic bursts"] in 1811 and 1812, one of which even caused the Mississippi River, temporarily, to flow backwards. It was ten times larger, in terms of geographical effects and damage, than the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. The theory goes that the New Madrid fault exists because about hundreds of gadjillion [I mean, million] years ago, the North American continent tried to rip itself apart at this very place [where I live!], creating a rift in the earth's crust. The resulting depression allowed the Gulf of Mexico to extend hundreds of miles northward into what is now southern Illinois, and as the sea receded, the Mississippi and Ohio rivers formed. In my research, I also discovered that the U.S. Geological Survey considers the area where I live to be at considerable risk in the near future for a "significant" seismological event. Well, we've been talking here, thanks to Kofi's stimulating post, about the relationship between certain geographies and culture, and let's just say that, this morning, I didn't care about the relationship at all. Geography--and more pointedly, nature--trumps culture every time. Well, at least for ten or so minutes, twice, this morning, in this neck of the world.
Despite the somewhat unsettling events of the morning [pun fully intended], I also wanted to share with everyone here a short paper I gave recently on a colloquium panel devoted to the images of professors in literature and film. My friend and colleague Valerie Vogrin [who is a fiction writer] came up with the idea of doing this panel for a colloquium we have here at Southern Illinois every spring in which our faculty and graduate students interrogate together some broad theme [such as Empire, Masculinity, Religion, and Environment, to cite themes from previous years], and this year it was "the University." Valerie was going to concentrate on the image of the creative writing professor in three novels: Richard Russo's Straight Man, Michael Chabon's Wonder Boys, and Francine Prose's The Blue Angel, and she confessed to me before the panel how dismayed she was at the repetition of certain tired cliches, especially as regards the midlife crises of such characters--which crises, predictably, take on certain shapes and, for the almost-always male leads in such novels, always involve some trope of impotence, both sexual and creative. To which Valerie's response during the panel was, "what else you got?" She remarked, especially, on the ways in which these novels, although they take up the character of the professor [in both senses of the term "character"], they rarely show the professor at work, doing what professors do most of the time: writing, mentoring students, etc. What would it mean, we wondered, to really show the professor at work, and would anyone ever care? Further, if a certain portrayal of humanities professors--as morally bankrupt and always "stupid" as regards matters of "the real world"--is so popular, why is it so popular? What does that reveal about the ways in which the academic enterprises of the humanities are generally regarded, and what does it also mean when these so-called academic "satires" are written by those who can be said to be "on the inside"?
Another of our colleagues was going to focus on the intersection between speech and writing in Willa Cather's novel The Professor's House, and it was fascinating, but what really stuck with me afterward was the absolute sadness of the novel, especially in its delineation of the professor Godfrey St. Peter's long-repressed love for a former student and almost-son-in-law Tom Outland [who is killed in World War I] and the ways in which those repressed feelings lead him to, in a sense, abdicate his life. Another of our colleagues used the panel as an occasion to vent his very deep animosities and bitternesses over the profession of English studies as a whole [in its post-"culture wars" incarnations] through a reading of the oeuvre of James Hynes, who wrote The Lecturer's Tale, and whose novels some of you may know can pretty much be summed up as "vicarious [and not artfully rendered] revenge" against postmodernism and its professorial ilk. My colleague's paper on Hynes's work was, at turns, laugh out loud funny, hair-raising, and then . . . just so hateful you didn't want to look anyone in the audience in the eye, especially our students who, unfortunately, had to hear one of their professors compare an English department to hell.
Needless to say, the "images" of professors offered in these papers--especially of the literature or writing professor--was grim, and what seemed to be emerging in all of them was the idea [that I very much wanted to argue against] that the life of the mind is somehow divorced or estranged from the body [leading the body, in some instances, to rebel in spectacularly inappropriate ways or to simply resign itself to a non-bodily life], and that the intellectual life is one without feeling [or with feelings that are preposterously and narcissistically outsized or misplaced or misguided] and perhaps without ethics, and even further, that somehow the life of the scholar is not really a life at all but some sort of pretension to one. And if you want a "text" that brings the literary scholar and the creative writer together and highlights all of these themes, while also adding the idea of the existential uselessness and inherent self-destruction of the academic and literary artist, go no further than Tamara Jenkins's recent film The Savages. I am also reminded, when reflecting upon this subject, of Michael Haneke's most recent film [before the just-released Funny Games], Cache, the main character of which is George, a Parisian literary critic [who stars in a television show on books] whose emotional repression [he has no idea his wife, played by Juliette Binoche, is cheating on him with a best friend] is a thinly-disguised metaphor for his repression of his relationship, as a bourgeois [western] French intellectual, to a particular historical event in his past: "la nuite noir"--the night of October 17 1961, when hundreds of Algerian demonstrators in Paris were beaten and killed by the police. Although only a child when this happened, the event is intimately related to him through a childhood friend, Majid, whose Algerian parents were farmhands on his family's country estate and who were killed on that night in October. Because our main character, when he was a child, insisted to his parents that they not adopt the son of their former servants [partly out of a selfishness to not share his parents' affections], Majid is sent to an orphanage where, it is implied, he suffered terribly, and he later cuts his throat in front of George, whose reaction is to simply go home, take a sleeping pill, draw his bedroom curtains, and go to sleep. Roll credits. The amnesia and emotional deep-freeze of the bourgeois intellectual, which everyone already agrees is somehow a truth-based stereotype, becomes the perfect structure of character for France's willed amnesia of its violent relationship to Algeria.
I had decided, in my paper, to focus on Woody Allen's film Another Woman, starring Gena Rowlands as a professor of philosophy who, having just turned fifty, is undergoing a sort of mid-life crisis, but one that takes a very quiet series of subterranean "turns" [as opposed to leading to a series of all-too-public escapades of bad behavior as is the typical case in the academic satire--Woody Allen's film is, it must be said, not at all a satire but a drama that takes itself, perhaps too seriously]. Upon re-viewing a film that I had seen many years ago and only vaguely remembered [and which I had chosen because I thought we needed at least one representation of a woman professor to explore], I was dismayed at where it turned out Allen was heading: right back to the idea that the life of the mind requires a forsaking of the body, as well as of art [and by implication, beauty] and other persons, but there were some interesting moments in the film that I thought could lead us in more positive directions regarding the value of the life dedicated to thought, and I share with you here my remarks [through which you will understand why this blog post's title invokes Rilke's poem, "The Archaic Torso of Apollo"]:
You Must Change Your Life: Woody Allen's Another Woman
EDIT 4/19: For those who may be interested, I also append here my colleague Valerie Vogrin's Colloquium essay:
"A Sub-Sub-Genre: The Creative Writing Professor as Protagonist"