Wednesday, February 1, 2017

My Year in Books: 2016

The New Year, whether we are looking at the Gregorian or the Lunar calendar, is well under way. Time, the very attar of the rose, is running out. If I don't write my reflection on last year's reading soon, nay now, then you, my readers will just give up on this blog and find something else to read. Well, probably not since my only reader is me, this solitary self. But, hey, I should try to be consistent  anyways right?

So, every year I have a theme. 2016 was Chinese and Asian literature. I had a sizable list of books I wanted to tackle, but I must admit that I barely scratched the surface. Especially near the end of the year where I all but gave up on my list. Nonetheless, I did start off the year well enough and did read some very memorable and important books. 

I read close to half of the 5 volume Richard Hawkes translation of Hong Luo Meng (Dream of the Red Chamber; the Story of the Stone). As much as I liked it I was happy to leave off where I did. It was enjoyable, but the episodic nature of the book gave little narrative compulsion to see my way through. Likewise, I only made it through 100 pages of Murasaki’s Tale of Genji. I listened to two very good audiobooks on Asian history—The Fall and Rise of China by Richard Baum and Understanding Japan: A Cultural History by Mark Ravina. Richard Baum's audiobook was particularly eye-opening. He had many first hand experiences of the closing years of the cultural revolution and the transition to the opening up of China. I also began a R. Taggart Murphy’s very interesting history Japan and the Shackles of the Past. Taggart's approach to Japan should set a standard for all books of its kind. He is, first of all, passionate about his subject and writes so that one can come to share in his passion. Secondly, he gives a very useful bibliography of great books on Japan. I've been rather discouraged by the meager bibliographies of many of my books on China. I refuse to believe that there are not many great and passionate books on China. I'm simply not finding them. After these I have browsed through a few other books on Chiense history, philosophy, poetry, and religion (mostly Buddhism). I skimmed several of David Hinton's books, including Hunger Mountain and his translation of the Chinese classics. Needless to say I only touched the surface of this vast topic. One of my favorite books on China though was, oddly enough, written by a Westerner—Krasznahorkai’s Destruction and Sorrow Beneath the Heavens. The book is a memoir of his travels through China. I read this in conjunction with The Melancholy of Resistance. Both books share a common concern with entropy. In some ways the pathos is even higher in Destruction due to the brilliant way in which Krasznahorkai juxtaposes the longevity of Chinese culture which has maintained its cultural identity for five thousand years, but which is now, with the onslaught of the modern technological and capitalistic world finally coming to an end. This tension between hope in China’s ability to withstand these modern forces of entropy and his relentless questioning with whether his suspicions are true and Chinese culture is dead is what propels the book.

Another element in my reading plan each year has been to reread a few favorite books. The book I was most excited to reread was Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain and it did not disappoint. If anything the book actually improved upon rereading. There were many passages that vividly struck me, but perhaps the most memorable was this:

"Two hundred years ago," Settembrini said, "you had a poet in your own country, a fine old confabulator, who set great store by beautiful handwriting, because he said it leads to a beautiful style. He should have taken that one step further and said that beautiful style leads to beautiful actions." Writing beautifully was almost synonymous with thinking beautifully, and from there it was not far to acting beautifully. All moral conduct and all moral perfection emanated from the spirit of literature, from the spirit of human dignity, which simultaneously was also the spirit of humanity and of politics. Yes, they were all one and the same force, one and the same idea, and could be summarized in a single word. And what was that word? Well, it consisted of familiar syllables, but the cousins had probably never truly grasped their meaning and majesty. And that word was--civilization! And as Settembrini released the word from his lips, he thrust his small yellow right hand into the air, as if proposing a toast. 

...Hans Castorp listened to Herr Settembrini. With the best of intentions he tested the man's views on reason, the world republic, and beautiful style--and was prepared to be influenced by them. And each time he found it more permissible afterwards to let his thoughts and dreams run free in another direction, in the opposite direction. To put our suspicions and true understanding of the matter into words--he had probably listened to Herr Settembrini for one purpose only: to be given carte blanche by his conscious, a license it had been unwilling to grant him at first. And what or who stood on the opposing side of patriotism, the dignity of man, and beautiful literature--the side towards which Hans Castorp believed he should direct his thoughts and deeds? There stood... Clavdia Chauchat--listless, worm-eaten, Kirghiz-eyed; and whenever Hans Castorp thought of her (although thought is an all too inhibited word for describing how he inwardly turned toward her), it seemed to him that he was sitting again in that boat on the lake in Holstein and gazing with dazzled and bewildered eyes out of glassy daylight across to the eastern sky and the moonlit night draped in a web of mist.”

The entire book was entirely memorable. Most vivid on rereading were Han's reading of the physiology of the body, a very Blakean chapter, his vision in the snow storm, and of course, the marvelous appearance Mynheer Peeperkorn! I also began rereading Wuthering Heights, which I had to put down. I found the novel too dark, the drama too real, to push my way through. Rossetti’s description of the book seems very apt, “The action takes place in hell, although it seems the people and places have English names there.”

No doubt there were other books I read last year and so I will have to update this list as I remember them. For this year I’ve decided to catch up on some random books that I’ve been meaning to read for awhile. They are mostly Science Fiction, although there are a few others that have creeped in. I’ve already read Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea and am nearly finished with Charles Williams The Greater Trumps. I’ve begun reading Louis Trondheim’s brilliant Donjon books, which are by far the books I’m most in love and obsessed with right now.

So, here is my list:

Winter Quarter
Murdoch, The Sea, the Sea
Williams, The Greater Trumps
Park, A Princess of Roumania (v.1)
PKD, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldrich
Elizarov, The Librarian

Middlemarch: Prelude; Books 1-2

Spring Quarter
Park, A Princess of Roumania (v.2)
Zelazny, Lord of Light
Abaitua, The Destructives
Disch, The Businessman
Acher, My Mother: Demonology

Middlemarch: Books 3-4

Summer Quarter
Park, A Princess of Roumania (v.3)
Garner, Red Shift
Swanwich, Bones of the Earth

Middlemarch: Books 5-6

Autumn Quarter
Park, A Princess of Roumania (v.4)
Park, All Those Vanished Engines
Hoban, Riddley Walker
Yourcenar, The Abyss

Middlemarch: Books 7-8; Finale

In addition to the novels above I hope to continue working on my larger projects. I have several intersecting interests: the works of Hans Blumenberg; studies on metaphor (Lakoff, Langer, etc); studies on complexity; studies on unity; and studies on Utopia. I had at first considered dedicating this year to Blumenberg, but I think that is too heavy for me just yet. Rather, I may start working with some books on Utopia and see how they branch out into other areas. Later projects I would like to start on include a renewed study of Romanticism; a deep dive into Finnegans Wake, and a deep dive into Shakespeare

But I’m quite sure I will focus on Utopia this year. Current books on my Utopia reading list include:

·      Bloch, Ernst. The Principle of Hope Vol. 1-3 (Studies in Contemporary German Social Thought), MIT Press, 1995.
·      Gray, John. Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008.
·      Jameson, Fredric. Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions. London & New York: Verso. 2005.
·      —. An American Utopia: Dual Power and the Universal Army. Ed. Slavoj Žižek. London and New York: Verso. 2016.
·      Marin, Louis. Utopics (Contemporary Studies in Philosophy and the Human Sciences),Humanity Books,1984.
·      Sargent, Lyman Tower. Utopianism: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford: Oxford University Press 2010.
·      Stites, Richard. Revolutionary Dreams: Utopian Vision and Experimental Life in the Russian Revolution. Oxford University Press, 1991.

·      Young, George. The Russian Cosmists: The Esoteric Futurism of Nikolai Fedorov and His Followers. Oxford University Press, 2012.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Iris Murdoch's The Sea, The Sea (Part 2--Review)

I finished reading The Sea, The Sea last night. My first observation is that Murdoch deliberately avoids isolating a center or central theme for the book. The character James does become a focal point near the end, but in such an exaggerated way that we almost question his centrality. James is portrayed as being beyond saintly and is almost a transcendent magical being, like the Buddha's that line his London apartment. He is a sharp contrast to his cousin Charles. Charles is very much of this world. Is it safe to say that James is the character in this novel who most approaches Murdoch's Platonic ideal of "the Good?"

What is Murdoch's Platonism? At the risk of oversimplifying Plato, in trying to understand Murdoch's philosophy it may be best to start with Plato's allegory of the cave. Plato compared our earthly existence to a person living in a cave. There is a transcendent reality outside the cave, but we can only perceive this reality obliquely. The transcendent reality shines its light inside the cave. This light casts shadows against the cave's wall of the outside reality. All we know of reality then is composed of those shadows. Murdoch's theater group, lead by Charles, live entirely in this world of shadows. James has discovered the means by which to separate himself from this world and so perceive the eternal world beyond.

What is the "transcendent reality?" Well, Plato called it the world of ideal forms. Every worldly object for Plato had an ideal form. We all know what a dog is because despite the diversity of dogs in our minds we have a vision of a perfect dog that represents all others. This is an ideal form.

Murdoch's novels, for all of their narrative excitement, are rooted in some very difficult philosophical arguments. One position Murdoch holds is that the idea of love is not adequately addressed in most of contemporary philosophy. Her work then seeks to address this omission. I remember once describing to a friend a Thomas Hardy novel I was reading. My friend responded, I thought you read only serious books, when did you start reading romance novels? Well, of course, Thomas Hardy is a serious author and romance is actually a serious subject, if done right.

Historical Romanticism (capital R) came shortly after the two great democratic revolutions in America and France. Romanticism is therefore historically intertwined with the history of democracy. One central concern of Romanticism was to explore our desires and see if they could not be brought into harmony with the betterment of society. Rousseau famously believed all human desires were good and that it was society that corrupted them. This tension though between desire and society was at the core of Romantic argument.

One thing this novel does is to illustrate how a person such as Charles can so deceive himself that he is almost incapable of seeing the good. The novel is rich in the various ways in which Charles deceives himself, to the point that the book is almost a lexicon of self-deception. One purpose of the Pre-History is to give Charles a fair chance to present himself as fully and accurately as he can. This sets the stage for the unmasking that will occur in the History section. Charles is not a deceiving character, he wishes to be honest, however self-deceived he may be. He believes himself to be egotistical and at times dictatorial, but is personally convinced that, at heart, he is generous and humane. One example is how throughout the novel Charles continuously reflects on his depictions of other characters, usually feeling that he has not presented them as fully or as accurately as he would like. His desire to see the world truthfully and honestly is what made him the famous director that he was. Yet, nonetheless, even a well intentioned and driven man such as himself is capable of extreme self-deception.

Another theme is the futility of trying to escape the world. Charles runs away to his seaside home, expecting to leave behind his theater world entirely, but of course, he lasts little more than a few weeks before he is once again engaged in it. Charles never escapes the world. Late in the novel he refers to himself as being impotent, to have lost his sex drive. This is as close as he gets to removing himself from the world. He does not take himself out, but is rather taken out.

There is much that could be said about the novel, but I am tempted to digress from a direct confrontation and instead travel further along Bloom's direction of reading Murdoch's novels as romances. In romances characters represent not real people but states of mind. What states of mind do the characters in The Sea, The Sea represent? Let's look at some of the key figures:
  • Charles Arrowy: the elderly, self-deceived, ego-maniac. He is Prospero, orchestrating his closest friends like players on a stage.
  • James: the mystical, saint figure.
  • Hartley (Mary Finch): the idealized object of love.
  • Lizzie and George: Servants and slaves to Charles.
  • Perry and Rosina: Violent lovers; extreme versions of Charles.
  • Charles's father, Clement, and Titus: absent figures

Bloom has generated his own patterning of romances in a schema that he borrowed from Freud and then applied to Blake, Shelley, Yeats, and later David Lindsay. In the Freudian pattern the states of being are Narcissistic Libido, Achieved Ego, Id, Super-Ego, and Imago.

Freud                Narcissistic Libido            Id                           Super-Ego                Achieved-Ego                  Imago
Blake                Orc                                    Tharmas                 Urizen                      Los                                   Emanation
Shelley             Prometheus Bound            Demogorgon         Jupiter                      Prometheus Unbound       Asia
Yeats                Mask                                  Body of Fate         Will                          Creative Mind                   Daimon
Lindsay            Maskul                               Krag (Surtur)        Crystal-Man             Nightspore                       ...

Murdoch          Charles and Friends          Sea Monster           The House               James                                Hartley

Freud's unconscious is usually depicted as an iceberg. The ego is the visible tip of the iceberg. The ego is how we view ourselves. I've listed Charles and his entire circle of theater friends under narcissistic libido because I see all of them as being stuck in variations of the ego cycle. They are all tied to the vicious wheel of desire (something Blake very powerfully depicted in his poem The Mental Traveler). The Romantics extended desire to apply to political aspirations, such as a desire for freedom. Blake divided the psyche into what he called his "Giant Forms." Freud's narcissistic libido is roughly equivalent with Blake's Orc. A revolutionary figure, Orc is someone who wishes to change the world through force. Likewise, Shelley's Prometheus wished to forcefully overthrow Jupiter. Blake has a phrase that is equally applicable to Shelley, "All Orcs age into Urizen." That is, all would be revolutionaries turn into the tyrants that had sought to overthrow.

For Freud the id composed our most basic drives and desires. Bloom argued that all the Romantics were united in their shared striving for unity with their id. Perhaps the figure that most clearly represents the id is Blake's Tharmas. As Bloom says, "Tharmas being the Zoa or Giant Form in Blake's mythology who was the unfilled human potential for realizing instinctual desires, and so was the regent of Innocence. Tharmas is a shepherd-figure."

In all of these patterns the ego as narcissistic libido is forced to mediate between id and super-ego. The imago is a vision of ideal love for the ego. The work of the Romantics and Freud was to show how one can cease this endless see-saw between the id and super-ego and achieved a renewed innocence as one had in childhood where one's desires were good and pure. Except this is not the naive innocence of a child, but a knowing innocence.

I hope to write one more post on The Sea, The Sea after I have further thought out how and to what degree Murdoch's characters fit into a Romantic or Freudian map of the unconscious. On a closing note, I should add that Murdoch herself was critical of Romanticism. In fact, she hoped that her work would function as a kind of antidote to Romanticism. As she said:

"Through literature we can rediscover a sense of the density of our lives. Literature can arm us against consolation and fantasy and can help us recover from the ailments of Romanticism. If it can be said to have a task, that surely is its task. But if it is to perform it, prose must recover its former glory, eloquence and discourse must return."

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Iris Murdoch's The Sea, The Sea (Part 1--Introduction)

I started reading Iris Murdoch's, The Sea, the Sea yesterday. I'm about 50 pages in and so have nearly finished the first section, "Pre-history." This is the third Iris Murdoch book I've read. My first encounter with her was when I borrowed The Black Prince from a friend while serving as a volunteer in the Peace Corps. I had just heard of Murdoch after having read about her in Harold Bloom's book Genius. She was one of the 100 figures Bloom chose to represent literary genius. Bloom's description of her as a romance writer in the mode of Spenser's Faerie Queene and the High Romantic poems captivated me and made me very eager to pick her up. While in the Peace Corps good books were somewhat hard to come by. All of us were constantly sharing and exchanging books. The friend I borrowed The Black Prince from had just finished it and found it somewhat disappointing. He felt the combination of narrative and philosophical asides were jarring and preferred authors who showed their point rather than explained it. He said Kafka's short story, The Hunger Artist, was a perfect example of how to show it and not tell it. He had also just read Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim which he loved and felt to be another exemplary case of showing it.

I loved it though. The first books I had been truly obsessed by had been philosophical novels though, Dostoyevsky's novels and Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain foremost amongst them. Many scenes from The Black Prince have stayed in my memory. The protagonist himself is memorable as as the perfectionist author who, if memory serves me correctly, only finished one novel and has been laboring for years to complete a second. His friend and rival is a successful author who has consistently publish well-received books. I have always been of the opinion that great artists are always outsiders and generally unpopular with rare exceptions like Shakespeare, Byron, Austen, and Dickens. My Peace Corps friend pointed out the irony in Murdoch herself being a prolific author of popular books. The protagonist also has an aversion to music. There is a vivid scene of him running from the theater, tormented by what sounded to him like screeching and screaming. This is, oddly enough, repeated in The Sea, the Sea, when Charles Arrowby confesses to hating the sound of the human voice. And then there is his infatuation with his rival's teenage daughter, whom he imagines as a kind of surrogate for Hamlet.

I didn’t read another Murdoch novel until at least 6 years later. I had met a doctor who was passionate about her. Out of the blue he approached me while at a Christmas party and said, “You have to watch this video.” I was surprised to see it was Iris Murdoch being interviewed on the BBC. It was an old video, I think from the 70s, but still popular. If you search for Iris Murdoch on Google it is one of the first videos to come up. Murdoch was discussing her role as a professional philosopher and novelist and what she saw as the relation between philosophy and art. The doctor friend and I talked a bit about what we each knew of Iris Murdoch. I confessed to having only read one novel and decided it was high time to start another. 

Shortly after I picked up The Good Apprentice. Like The Black Prince, my second Murdoch book did not fail to disappoint. It was immediately gripping and sustained its intensity throughout. The image of the two brothers, both struggling to attain goodness--one through sin and the other through discipline--has stayed with me. I remember the household of the brothers' father as seeming something out of the Faery Queene. The father, I cannot remember his name now, was a great artist, reveered by the women of the house (his wife and daughters?). The women had an orderly way of keeping everything together, leaving items at the bottom of the stairs and only bring them up when they were already heading that way. I remember the mother discussing the father's art phases, especially his heroic phase. The whole seen was very magical and supports Bloom's argument that Murdoch is more of a fantasist than the realist she claimed to be. Lastly, I seem to remember a character having a nightmare that was very vivid to me. Somewhere in the middle of the novel. I should look up the scene, as it has left a deep impact on me. 

So, what do I make of this third book? So far it is very intriguing. Murdoch has done a wonderful job of patterning images of the sea. The environment is very vivid and varied enough to easily sustain my interest.  Charles as a Shakespeare's Prospero retiring to his craggy cliffside home. He expresses an interest in permanence, but I think it is fair to question his sincerity. He seems thoroughly content to live a life "writ on water." His mistress, Lizzie is in part the kind of directness and permanence that his nature is both drawn to and also repelled by. 

I am thoroughly enjoying the book. Iris Murdoch is the kind of author I would like to be. I enjoy an author who deals so directly and clearly with ideas. There is both narrative drama as well as rich complexity of thought. I will admit that I do feel aware of the effort involved in her creation. It does not distract me from appreciating the book though. With an ambition as large as hers it is forgivable to fall short of perfection. When I say I am aware of her effort, what I mean is that in striving for a Shakespearean resonance she is almost doomed to fail. There are also allusions to Wordsworth and a general atmosphere of Romanticism in the opening. These are all very general reflections and I will be sure to be more systematic in my next post. I'll conclude with Bloom's reading of Murdoch as a writer of romance:

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

On the road to find out

November 1, 2016
Los Angeles, CA

I have been considering a biographical essay on “what I believe” for awhile. Ironically, I’ve only chosen to write about it now that I’ve mostly lost interest on the subject. Why talk about belief specifically? Why not faith, or religion, or spirituality? A better word would have been “gnosis” or “knowledge” but I decided to avoid extremes and go for the modest, middle of the road, concept of belief. But even now, as I settle on this term, I feel myself being pulled this way and that and am sure I will have traversed many areas before reaching my conclusion.
            So, where to begin my  spiritual biography? I was raised in a Protestant home by relatively religious parents. Both my parents were from not particularly devout Catholic families. My mother rebelled against her upbringing and converted to Protestantism believing it was the more Biblical faith. That phrase, “Biblical Christianity” was something I took as a given growing up and which I find much more problematical now. But, that is a whole different issue. All of us kids were fairly involved in the church growing up. My most spiritual memories are connected to reading the Bible and singing hymns and praise and worship songs. I remember specifically being drawn to the incantatory power of the Bible. At the same time, I was always interested in writing and drawing. I loved drawing and imagining stories. I also liked designing my own role playing games, which I would force my brother to play. Later, while a freshman in high school, I wrote a 200-page fantasy novel. And the year after that, I became addicted to Japanese comics and animation. So, I had these two seemingly contradictory identities—my involvement in the church and my interest in art. There were practical questions I considered, such as, whether I should go to an art school or a local Christian school, but, more pressingly was the whole question of what to value. I felt aware of the division and knew that eventuality I would have to declare my loyalties, one way or the other.
The summer after graduating I went to a Christian retreat called “The Summit” that was designed to prepare high school graduates for the secular issues they would face in college. Although I had been to many retreats in the past, Summit felt different. For one thing, it wasn’t merely a passionate exhortation to be “on fire for God” but was designed to prepare Christians entering college to combat any anti-Christian ideology they encountered there. This gave it, in contrast with other Christian events of this sort, a uniquely intellectual atmosphere. We learned about evolution, Marxism, the basics of logic and philosophy, and Postmodernism amongst other things. The attractiveness of these ideas remained despite the intended purpose of teaching them for the sole purpose of enabling us to better refute them. I learned that I had a deep craving for knowledge that, for whatever reasons, had not been fulfilled in high school. These lectures opened up new and fascinating worlds for me, worlds I had only been dimly familiar with up until then. More than that, I now felt compelled to take a firm stand, although I did not yet know on what.
            One immediate change that occurred after this trip was that I threw away my entire collection of movies, comic books, and video games so as to devote myself more sincerely to God. I later spoke with my brother, who also attended this conference, and who spoke of it as a turning point for him as well. Unlike my brother, I was grateful for the new intellectual passion the event gave me, however unintentionally, while he felt betrayed for having been given a false view of ideas he later came to empathize with. I should mention, we went to this event with two other brothers, one of whom became extremely rigid and aggressive in his faith. But, more on him later. For now, I just want to say that I came to define myself in opposition to this other brother. If he was to be rigid and dogmatic I would be open and endlessly inquiring.
After giving up videogames I found that I had a lot of free time on my hands. I always loved art and I now felt that I needed to take my passion more seriously so I decided to learn what I could about classical culture. I started paying more attention to great works of art, classical music, and literature. It so happened that my mom and aunt were reading Les Misérables around this time. It looked interesting so I picked it up. It may have taken me 6 months for me to read, but I was nonetheless very engaged the whole time. The early scene where the priest’s saves the wayward Jean val Jean with that beautiful act of generosity and humanity, has remained a touchstone for me to this day. I began hunting around for other books that would consume my imagination as that one had. I had heard of The Catcher in the Rye and The Lord of the Flies. Their mere titles intrigued me. I stated asking anyone I knew who may know something about books. Although I hit a dry spell, I had now realized the kind of books I wanted to read. Things that were dark and transgressive, but that ultimately struck me as profoundly humane. I was listening to a lot of classical music at this time as well. I hunted around for live performances to see with what remained of that summer and found one in the twin cities of southern Illinois, Champaign-Urbana. There I attended a performance of Bach’s St. Mathew’s Passion. Later I realized there was a great orchestra in my own backyard and so signed up for a year of concerts at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra with a guy that remains my closest friend.
I did not begin college immediately. I worked a construction job and took community college courses first. It was in an English class I took in community college where I was given my first poetry anthology. Our teacher was clearing out her office and let us students take whatever books we wanted. I greedily swiped up the anthology. A second important event occurred in that same English class. We were given a writing assignment that led me to the local library and in turn to the great Yale literary critic, Harold Bloom. I faintly remember the assignment being something about finding a work of criticism, although I don’t remember writing anything about Bloom at the time. How I would love to read that paper now. The book was, of course, Bloom’s The Western Canon. Like most people, I kept coming back to Bloom for that list in the back of the book. I’d go to the library, scan the list and slowly work my way through it. Title after title. I would end up buying several of Bloom’s other books first, before I ever got around to buying and reading the Western Canon.
In the Autumn of 1998 I went to the Christian college, William Tyndale. There I decided to major in English literature, which I did for my first two years. I remember being very excited to take a philosophy and psychology course my first semester. The psychology course ended up being fairly soft and not impacting, but the philosophy course, like the English course earlier, proved pivotal, if only because it introduced me to my next obsession, Dostoyevsky and Russian literature. We read the famous “Grand Inquisitor” chapter from The Brothers Karamazov. A few years later I would start up a Russian literature club with two other friends. We got stuck on Dostoyevsky though and spent the year just reading his four great novels. Later, I met the friend who I went to Summit with, and saw he was reading Dostoyevksy’s Notes from Underground, which he was rather turned off by. His disinterest in the book only further confirmed its greatness to me and I eagerly and greedily picked it up the next day.  I also took several English literature classes those first two years covering many of the greatest works of world literature. I also continued to read a lot on my own. Notable readings included Don Quixote, Paradise Lost and Tolstoy’s Hadji Murad.
It was at this time that I realized how difficult writing was for me. Writing would remain an anxious undertaking for all of my undergraduate, and graduate school days as well. I write like I draw. I begin very sloppily and painfully. The words come out awkward and ill-formed. Then begins a process of endless revision where I occasionally catch glimpses of the imagined form.
These first two years I was also visiting a lot of churches and continued questioning my faith. I wavered between trying to rationalize Christianity and desiring to have some kind of religious, quasi-charismatic, experience. I felt there was too much that I could not rationalize and I also knew that I lacked the deep emotional and spiritual conviction of the charismatic believers. I knew that I did not like the idea of believing that the whole world needed or should be converted. I desired diversity. I enjoyed living in a world with disparate views. It seemed like a kind of hell to have a world full of single minded people. What I could believe in was the aesthetic power of reading literature.
My junior year I transferred briefly to Eastern Michigan University. I had become unhappy with the English department, which I felt was too small and not very challenging. I signed up for several classes at EMU and then, my first week, the whole school went on strike. This ended up being a very fortuitous turn of events. I had already learned that many credits would not transfer from Tyndale and, feeling like I might be delayed a semester as well, I decided this was all too much and so went back to Tyndale. I’m not sure how it happened but I ended up in a conversation with the head of the Middle Eastern Studies Department, Dr. Judith Mendelssohn Rood. I told her my situation and she quickly recruited me into Middle Eastern Studies program. All the magic and challenge that was missing from the English department was found in abundance in her courses. Although she, by and large, led the whole department on her own, the classes were still very rich and individual. For example, our class on Middle Eastern Literature met at a local Lebanese restaurant, and our class on Jewish, Christian, Muslim relations met at the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington. I was amazed at Judy’s endless energy and enthusiasm. I felt like I finally found the intellectual environment I had been searching for.
During this time, I continued to read Bloom and visit different churches. I remember distinctly that by my senior year I was convinced that I was no longer a Christian. I wrote a paper for my class on World Religions where I expressed this. The professor tried to give me a D for the course, surely on the grounds that it was “un-Christian” although I was able to negotiate him into a low B. That last year was chaotic at Tyndale. With Judy gone, most of the excitement of school for me was gone as well. I trudged through, doing a lot of reading on my own. I started reading more poetry, I read more of the modernists including Yeats and Joyce, but also other figures like T.S. Eliot who I now feel ambivalent about. I read Bloom’s book, Omens of Millenium, which I sometimes consider, along with Agon, to be my favorite book by him (I would not read Agon until I returned from the Peace Corps three years later).
As I approached graduation I didn’t know what I wanted to do. After high school I had flirted with being a missionary. As graduation approached I considered the army or the navy. I thought that at least these options could give me the chance to focus on languages and so perhaps eventually lead to an academic career. I ended up choosing the Peace Corps and going to Uzbekistan.
I already feel like this biography is getting a bit long so I’m going to rush through and bring it to a close. The most important intellectual development to occur during my time in the Peace Corps was my introduction to the Romantics. I had brought two Bloom books, The Visionary Company and Bloom’s commentary on The Complete Poetry of William Blake. Along with these I had an anthology of English literature that included the first three cantos of The Faerie Queene, Paradise Lost, and most of the major High Romantic British poems. I also brought a lot of Shakespeare and would later come across some Emerson, Whitman, and Nietzsche. Finishing the Peace Corps in 2005 I returned to graduate school. After receiving my MA in English Literature I moved to Boston and eventually ended up getting married, having a daughter, and becoming an English teacher.
I want to stop there and reflect on the evolution of my thinking over the years and so, hopefully, come round to the purpose of this essay—my feelings about belief, faith, religion, spirituality, gnosis. The best thing I did in those early years was read widely, and memorize poems. I expanded my horizon immensely and continue to do so. For many years I primarily shared the interests of Bloom, especially his gnostic and apocalyptic tendencies. The first poet I latched onto, oddly enough, was T.S. Eliot. Modernism in general was very appealing to me. I liked the density of the images. The juxtaposition of ancient and modern. The sense it gave me was that in linking modernity with the past it was in some way giving a full picture of life, a glimpse of the whole. Joyce, more than anyone else, epitomized this method for me. This was my earliest vision of what literature could be. It inspired a passion that has continued to evolve until today.

I was always fascinated with the idea of the epic and the promise that one could somehow capture the fullness of reality. It did not matter whether this was possible or not (of course it’s not). But the promise of it, the drive towards it, remains endlessly fascinating and moving for me. There is a line from the famous Renaissance author, Sir Thomas Browne, “Methinks there be not miracles in religion enough to merit an active faith.” This Faustian craving for more knowledge is what has inspired and driven me more than any other. But it is not merely an endless parade of facts, it is the belief that one shapes a vision of the world out of this knowledge that has most inspired me. This drive to both expand one’s view of the world, but in so doing consolidate and bring together one’s knowledge so that one forms an image of the world. It is what Shelley meant when he referred to poetry as being both the center and the circumference of knowledge. That is my understanding of the work of poetry. That is my belief.