Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Where the author of Ocean and Camille Paglia find themselves to be odd bedfellows, united in the belief that Americans need more angst to write well

Much can be said about Paglia’s appearance at Borders tonight. Much. I took notes, if only to document this point of much-ness. [For cool photos and a more thorough analysis than you’re going to find here, check out Althouse.]

But I knew instantly which statement of hers would compel me to write an Ocean post, the minute she spit out the words (and if you ever heard her talk you would understand the appropriateness of my word choice here), for the woman doesn’t really talk: she throws sentences out in a cascade of fire and ice so that you’re at once entertained, enthralled, repelled – depending on your own personal inclination.

Here’s how it went. We were at the Q/A phase of the evening. Someone asked what she thought of the multitude of creative writing programs out there.
Her words (on this one point), crudely paraphrased by me: Can you make good art in the school context? Shouldn’t it come out of life itself?

And as she was about to say the above, I wanted to raise my hand and ask this of the questioner: Can you make good art in the school context? Shouldn’t it come out of life itself?

Before I could applaud wildly her insistence that one must live the adventurous life to be able to write the next great American novel, she moved on to an elaboration of this theme:

The trouble is that middle-class white America has never had anything happen to them and so really, it has nothing to write about.

And as she was saying this, I was thinking of all the Europeans (Poles especially) who fully believe that the trouble is that middle-class white America has never had anything happen to them and so really, it has nothing to write about.

We then witnessed Paglia stage an expressive portrayal (all gestures and sentences quickly delivered, darting at you from the podium) of where American novels have been forced to tread: forty years of writing about pills and suicide and mental breakdown and stepfathers making passes at stepchildren and divorce and AIDS and cancer and chemotherapy and prozac! Personal dramas detailed in horribly graphic ways until you cannot stand it anymore! [Not that some of these may not deserve the high drama status. Her point: an encounter with personal drama of this nature does not in and of itself spur great text.]

Of course, I can be guilty of this as well: guilty of exploiting (in my writing here, for instance) the internal sagas until I make myself retch. I am so adept at picking up the malaise of the moment, the personal tragedy du jour from my immediate environment!

But it’s short-lived. I am a product of a thousand + years of Polish history, where I am on safe ground again. There, I have enough tragedy and drama to help elevate my own angst to such levels that I need not ever fear drowning in an American white middle-class un-cataclysmic environment ever again.

The tough part

...of being a law prof is the grading of exams and finishing the last class of the Spring Semester, knowing that you will never see some of the faces again – some of them who have followed you from First Year Torts, through Second Year Family Law and now finally to Third Year Comparative Family Law. It’s 5:30, time to pack up and move on. God, I hope they do well and stay happy in their career choices.

A European Identity

It’s emerging quietly, slowly but steadily: a sense among those in Europe of being European rather than remaining tied to any one nation. (The IHT describes this phenomenon here.)

And I agree. It’s not that taking on this identity requires shedding layers of, say, Polishness. Rather, over time, you find yourself incorporating a growing number of habits and inclinations whose source lies outside the borders of your own country.

In recent years I have oftentimes referred to myself as being European and only after saying it would I catch myself and add quickly – I’m actually Polish.

Is the EU at the root of this shift? Some say indeed, it is. With the loosening of trade, travel, work and study between nations, multiculturalism is now a requirement of professional -- and personal -- success. Rather than homogenizing the continent, the EU has created an expectation of feeling at ease with a diverse set of behaviors that are multinational in nature (not the least of which is the expectation of familiarity with at least 3 European languages).

There are two forces at work here, I think: the adherence to values that are thought of as essentially European at the moment. The IHT article lists these as a belief in social democracy, in quality of life issues (as opposed to an unwavering commitment to a strong work ethic), in a rejection of armed conflict as a means toward achieving political objectives.

But separately, there is the shaking up of a cocktail of behaviors that have the markings of the French, the Polish, the Italian, and incorporating them into your own routines. And perhaps in the process, there will be a Darwinian selection of the most servicible, delicious habits, so that the true European will find herself grabbing a café and a croissant on the way to work, reading the novel on the subway, pausing for a 90 minute lunch with a friend (I suppose a brat and beer would be favored by some), ending with a spot of tea at 5 and sitting down to an al fresco dinner at 10 pm. Wait a minute, is my idea of Europeanness mostly centered around food?? Chacune ses gouts.