In Academe’s Groves

July 1, 2014

Bored-people-007-300x180

The Gray Notebook, by Josep Pla, from a long entry about his days as a university student in Barcelona:

22 March – High Culture

…Syllogisms poured forth.  One pupil piped up confidently:  “Trees breathe through their leaves.”

Sr. Daurella replied gruffly, in his baritone bass pitch:  “The pear tree is a tree.”

And the pupil completed the round enthusiastically:  “Therefore the pear tree breathes through its leaves.”

We were all so pleased as punch we would readily have gone on for another hour or so.  It literally was a land of make-believe.

…How can you refute something you don’t understand or grasp?  It made no difference.  Every year the same episode was rehearsed, an episode I experienced and witnessed repeatedly, and if one ever describes it to anyone not deformed by our official seats of learning, they burst their sides in laughter because it reveals such stupidity – it is the legendary anecdote about Professor Arana.

“Sr. So-and-so,” said the professor in his mellifluous Spanish.  “Today we are doing Kant’s theory (or Rousseau’s).  Tell me about Kant’s theory.  What do you know about Kant’s theory?”

The student stood up, opened the syllabus, shifted his body slightly so his ear was better positioned to hear his prompter on the next-door bench, wet his lips, scratched the nape of his neck, and came out with drivel.  The prompter that day, for whatever reason, was a dreadful prompter.  He was a failure as a prompter.  A tense silence reigned in the lecture theatre.  In the meantime, Sr. Arana glanced at his student register through the gold-rimmed spectacles on the end of his nose.  Finally, the wet fish of a student – to describe him accurately-confessed.

“I didn’t find time to study,” he said, looking distressed, oppressed, and completely at a loss.

“So, Sr. So-and-so,” the professor replied, not at all sourly, smoothing his moustache, as if he were commenting on the weather, “you don’t know Kant’s theory.  But I expect you know how to refute it.  Now, be so good as to refute Kant’s theory.”

As the prompters were a waste of time, sometimes a holy spirit arose from the most unlikely corner of the lecture theater to help the person questioned to survive.  The student heard various noises behind him, (what was known as “rhubarb-rhubarb”) and began to stammer.  Sr. Arana immediately struck the pose of a man who is completely entranced.  He wiped his chin as if he were stroking a goat’s nipple.  The rhubarb-rhubarb made sense and the student bore up.  The professor listened with growing admiration.  The amazing scene always ended with a professorial comment.

“You didn’t know the theory but you did manage to refute it.  That is quite an achievement.”

I don’t think high culture has ever scaled such heights as those exemplified by these absolutely authentic scenes.

Advertisements

One can get used to anything.

September 20, 2010

Several years ago, I began reading Casanova’s memoirs.  I managed to scrounge the entire six-volume set in paperback, and now I dip into it, in no particular order, whenever I find myself without something to read.   He writes about his affairs, of course, as well as his duels, gambling, legal affairs, illnesses, travelling, and a million other things, and what keeps me reading is that he is a fabulous storyteller.

I happen to be reading about his imprisonment in the prisons of Venice, known as The Leads, because of the material used to roof them.  He was denounced, more or less anonymously, for having prohibited books in his rooms, books about magic, astrology, and other blasphemous subjects.  Somebody was settling a score. 

The conditions of his incarceration are awful – the stifling heat, the fleas, the lack of books, paper and pens, poor food, poor light, and the occassional roomate thrown in, some of whose company is worse than solitary confinement.  He contrives to dig a hole in the floor through which to escape, but just before the breakout day, he is moved to another cell, a palace compared to the rat hole he is in. 

He did get out eventually, and wrote a pamphlet about it that became fantastically popular, burnishing his reputation as an adventurer.  Others had escaped, but none had written about it!  Casanova was a multi-talented fellow, and rather philosophical.  His memoirs are sprinkled with observations on the nature of man and fate – at one particularly dark moment in his story he remarks, “one can get used to anything.” 

The image above is the Bridge of Sighs, which leads from the interrogation quarters of the Doge’s Palace to the state prisons.  It’s quite famous, and despite its criminal associations, architects have imitated it, or claimed to, quite a bit.  This bridge in Oxford is called the Bridge of Signs, but it looks more like the Venetian Rialto. 

 

At least this old bridge in NYC with the same name connects to a prison, known as The Tombs.  The other two are simply skybridges, that you see here and there around the city.  Shall we imagine that the desparate sighs of imprisoned white-collar workers can be faintly heard?

  


Let’s be passionate

October 26, 2009

passionate-about-your-work

I hear a lot about passion these days.  People ask one another, what’s his/her passion?  People want to be passionate about their work.  What if you are only “passionate” about screwing off?  I have a lingering suspicion that all this stuff about “finding your passion” is yet another attempt by the IWM (International Work Machine) to co-opt our energies into meeting its needs.  Work, work work …it’s what you LOVE!


Work Ethic

July 28, 2009

hamster_wheel

A fable from Zamyatin’s We:

Record Thirty-four:

Keywords:  The Released, A Sunny Night, Radio Valkyrie

The Three Released – a story that every schoolchild knows.  It’s a story about three ciphers who, for the sake of experiment, were released from work for a month:  to do what they wanted to do and go where they wanted to go.*  These unlucky types loitered around the place they usually worked and peeped inside with hungry eyes.  They stood in plazas for hours at a time; they performed the very movements that were appointed to that hour of the day as needed by their organism: they sawed and planed the air, they rattled invisible hammers, thumping on invisible blocks.  And, finally, on the tenth day, they couldn’t bear it anymore:  linking arms, they walked into the water and to the sound the March, they plunged deeper and deeper, until the water ended their torment…

* This was long ago, back in the third century after the Table.


la vie quotidienne…

January 24, 2009

Does anybody really understand this book?

pris1

I am fascinated by commuting, at least by mine.  Of course, in my thoughts always is that other commute, endlessly replayed in my inner television mind…

The view of the World Trade Center site that is glimpsed from the PATH train as it pulls into the WTC station is rapidly being obscured by construction.  I have caught it just in time!

Open use of a video camera is liable to lead to a delayed commute because of questioning by wary police officers, thus my inexpert clandestine camera work.


Protestant slave ethic

September 2, 2008

In celebration of Labor Day, I must call to your attention this earlier post on the subject of toil.  And this snippet from a Labor Day commentary in the NYTimes is enlightening also (my emphasis):

But what’s different from Weber’s era is that it is now the rich who are the most stressed out and the most likely to be working the most …higher-income folks work more hours than lower-wage earners do.

This is a stunning moment in economic history: At one time we worked hard so that someday we (or our children) wouldn’t have to. Today, the more we earn, the more we work, since the opportunity cost of not working is all the greater (and since the higher we go, the more relatively deprived we feel).

In other words, when we get a raise, instead of using that hard-won money to buy “the good life,” we feel even more pressure to work since the shadow costs of not working are all the greater.

I’m a bit dubious about the assertion that lower income people are not working more to keep afloat, but the point this commentary makes is interesting.  Yes, the International Work Machine keeps the hamsters running on those wheels!  Does it all come from a lack of confidence about what is “the good life?”  Back to those philosophy books!

Do not work harder than required to work,
Young men should sit around and drink all day;
Laze, laze, ignore the pressure not to shirk.


Halt, Dynamos!

April 4, 2008

A Dynamo

Do not work harder than required to work,
Young men should sit around and drink all day;
Laze, laze, ignore the pressure not to shirk.

Though poor men may apply to be a clerk,
Because their jobs are not exciting they
Do not work harder than required to work.

Rich men, who sell and buy, eat at Le Circque,
And take their “business trips” to Saint-Tropez,
Laze, laze, ignore the pressure not to shirk.

Old men around retirement age who lurk
At desks and hope no tasks will come their way
Do not work harder than required to work.

Smart men, in school, who learn with blinding smirk
That coasting through a class still earns an A,
Laze, laze, ignore the pressure not to shirk.

Don’t visit every world like Captain Kirk;
Picard knows that the bridge is where to stay.
Do not work harder than required to work.
Laze, laze, ignore the pressure not to shirk.

From Holy Tango of Literature, by Francis Heaney, one of the funniest books I have read in a long time. The author takes the names of great figures in English literature, makes anagrams of their names ( “holy tango” is an anagram of “anthology”) and provides hilarious pastiches of their work. Halt Dynamos is an anagram, if you didn’t guess, of Dylan Thomas, and this is a spoof of one of his best known poems, “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night.