I want to use poetry in a very wide sense
These photos are poetic as well as factual
What do they speak or bespeak?
The book that contains these depression era WPA pictures is called: Let us now praise famous men
What do we feel here?
What is the quality of life?
What virtues or vices speak?
Do we feel pity, admiration?
Are these lives base or noble?
Do they bespeak the dignity of labor or the shame of political/social neglect?
I recommend an inquiring generosity that flows into praise.
It’s unlikely that we’d get negative with these pictures, but we could:
Is the photographer a snoop, a voyeur?
Are these folk being set up for condescending exploitation?
Are they just stupid trying to make a go of it in the dust bowl?
Are we stupid to look?
What’s new?! — “The poor are always with us.”
My worry is that when we teach we can fall prey to the “gotcha” mentality, or an
“Only the facts, Mame” mentality
You may like or dislike this novel, Moby Dick, but it’s “really”
Just white privilege
Just a mirror of imperialism
Product of apocalyptic hysteria
We’re afraid of the opposite “Wow!” mentality for fear that after the “wow”, what do you say?
But there’s plenty to say.
We don’t read novels or look at art just for pleasure.
Why not praise Moby Dick for
Admiration for “cannibal” cultures
Critique of violence and hatred
Critique of Quaker hypocrisy
Embrace of the wonder of motherhood and birthing
The over-all hope of rebirth and salvation through story-telling?
There’s a danger of emphasizing mainly facts, explanations, and ‘quiz-knowledge’
Take the High school emphasis in reading Emily Dickinson:
“Look for rhyme scheme, alliteration, metaphor, simile”
“Look for the meaning of a poem as a whole”
“Do biographical research”
This suppresses the ring, the lilt, life, of
“Wild nights, wild nights”; “A funeral in my brain”
“I’m nobody, who are you?”; “Hope is a bird with feathers”
I’d push literature and philosophy and religion closer to
dance, theater, music, visual arts, and movies
where “live-bodily performance” is essential.
Parts of history, philosophy, sociology, and physics are obviously not
this. But then, if you aim philosophy at social justice,
or aim history at exposing evil,
or refuse to do research into better weapons,
or aim psychology at caring for souls,
then you come close to “live-bodily-performance” in your efforts. You try to evoke what it’s like to sit in poverty before a camera, or to balance in a boat pulled by a whale.
More examples of “gotcha” academic moments — real quotes:
“I aim to expose the cracks in the granite of genius”
“We don’t want to hear about King’s ‘I’ve got a dream’ – but about
his ‘clay feet, his plagiarism and affairs’
The humanities is where we can find individuals and communities sorting out
Violence, pity, condescension,
Piety, hatred, tenderness, love of all sorts,
Death, suffering, tragedy, exaltation,
Joy, bitterness, age, sex, innocence, blame
Silliness, wit, burial, resurrection,
The display and reenactment of all these (and more)
— all this will be conducted “free-lance,” apart from false academic disciplinary rigor or esoteric expertise (Warning: Don’t tell the funding czars! Careful at job interviews. Reveal this AFTER you have tenure.)
The humanities exist for richness, fullness of life,
not for a better job or for security
or for “pleasure” [shame on Stanley Fish — and many others — for saying this]
or for sociability (shame on Rorty for saying poetry is good for making an impression at parties).
Our vocation, quite simply, is to be
Curators of the soul,
it’s memories, animations, actions, passions, histories, and hopes —
(and only secondarily, to be aware of the blindness and narrowness and evil that stand in our way)
These notes were background at an invited talk given to graduate students and faculty at Columbia University Teacher’s College, March 2016.