Monday, January 30, 2012

Dr. Robert Garrity: A Requiem

Tonight, I wish to pay tribute to one of my greatest teachers: Dr. Robert Garrity, Professor of English at Saint Joseph's College.  He passed away last Friday, January 27th.

Dr. Garrity was among the smartest men I have ever known.  He was a linguist of exceptional ability.  Ancient Greek, Latin, Old English, you name it and he could both read it and speak it.  Though I only had him for one class, Christian Impact On Western Civilization, he instilled in me a love of Medieval and Renaissance literature.  He was one professor who you could not get away with skipping the reading...or allow for a spelling or grammar error in a paper.  I can remember writing a piece on the play, The Madwoman of Chaillot, "Which you spelled 'Challiot'" he told me with no small amount of disdain.  My friends and I thought that we should adopt him as our grammatical "sergeant-at-arms" for our group listserve.  We could have used him in that capacity to be sure.

As typically occurs at times like these, my friends have been contributing their own memories and reminiscence.  Author Bernard Sell, a student of Dr. Garrity's classes in Latin, recalls trying to explain pop culture concepts to the professor.  "I loved how befuddled he got when you tried to clue him in on pop culture," Sell said on Facebook. "He'd try for a little bit, and then he'd give that wincing grin that said "Well, the ancient Greeks and Romans didn't bother with this, so why should I?"   My friend Armando once recalled Dr. Garrity speaking of the Library at Alexandria and the look of frustrated agony on the man's face as he lamented what knowledge was lost when the library met its end.  That's the kind of scholar that he was.  Me?  I remember him doing readings from the Bible at Easter Vigil mass.  He usually read from the Book of Exodus, letting loose with those vocal pipes he had honed after years of theater.  "Pharaoh's chariots and charioteers..."  Shook the whole church.  I also will remember him as a teacher who first sparked me to think about what motivated a writer and why a writer makes the choices that she/he does.  Certainly wish I could have taken his course on History of the English Language.

I know there are people who might read this who think this guy sounds lame.  We didn't think that.  We thought he was cool.  Supercool.  In our goofier moments, we imagined him hanging out with the likes of Guns N' Roses.  Academic rock star meets heavy metal rock stars.  Or serving as a tactical officer on the bridge of the Enterprise.  Oh and their linguist, too.  Bernard toyed with the notion of strapping a keg of beer to his back and showing up at Garrity's door.  "Dr. G," Bernard would say.  "Let's toke this f**ker."  Like I said, goofy.  But it is testimony to how highly we thought of him.

I have heard that the best way to keep alive someone who has passed on is to value and perpetuate what they cared about.  That's what I intend to do.  Oftentimes I've joked that my friends and I, especially Bernard, would all make good monks.  We'd live the monastic lifestyle, secluded and serving as custodians of uncared for literature, keeping it safe through these new Dark Ages until another Renaissance can come along.

Oh and one other thing.  If there is anyone out there who is still myopic enough, still jaded enough, still ignorant enough to believe that teachers can no longer have an impact on a student's life...well, this post is your answer.

Rest easy, scholar.  Your job is done.
Resquiescat in pacem.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Socrates is a punk!

A bit of levity for you this evening.

I came across this story of a conversation overheard between two undergrads reading Plato's The Phaedrus for a class in Rhetoric:

STUDENT #1: What?  Socrates is a punk!

STUDENT #2: What do you mean?

STUDENT #1: He shows up late and then starts asking a lot of questions.  Socrates is a punk!

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Why write novels?

I know.  I KNOW it’s been a long time since I have posted anything to this blog.  Regrettably, life…and other blogs…get in the way.

But if rhetoric and composition theory have been bumped, it is only from my to-do list and not my head or my heart.  As I allow that bit of maudlin expression to marinate, I’ll explain what prompted my return to this long-suffering blog of mine.

It was an article in The New York Times by Garth Risk Hallberg.  It asks the literary question, “Why Write Novels At All?”     Why write novels in an age where entertainment is derived more and more from alternative, more visually stimulating media?  After a lengthy and in my opinion, rambling introduction, the writer asserts that the aforementioned question now replaces “How Should Novels Be?”
Again we come back to one of my favorite facets of composition theory: exigency.  Philosophically, I become the equivalent of a five year-old, constantly asking "why why why?'  Why write?  There must be a compelling force for writers to sit down and hammer out a novel, even in this day and age where reading has been supplanted by any number of other new medias.  As Bawarshi defines it: “Exigencies compel us to respond and/or act.”

Hallberg traces the origins of the question back to sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of “cultural capital.”  This was the idea that choices in the consumption of art forms such as books are indicative of one’s social or intellectual status.  The more complicated and difficult to access a work is, the more it sets the consumer apart from the herd.  Readers with well-worn tomes of Shakespeare’s complete works belong on a platform elevated well above those who select Stieg Larsson.  Again we see that old chestnut of axiological issues, “literary” versus “genre” fiction.  I could easily get swept up in debating the idea that no one agency of authority may define “good” writing.  I enjoy that as much as the next scholar of English but fortunately Hallberg moves us past that notion in his article.

Instead, he focuses on the rationale given by writers such as Franzen and Wallace.  In particular is a citation from Franzen's wryly titled essay, "Why Bother?": “Simply to be recognized for what I was, simply not to be misunderstood: these had revealed themselves, suddenly, as reasons to write.”  To know we're not alone.  It's as good a supposition as any, I guess, but still it's a bit glib.  I cannot say it is without it's truth or merit.
In my own research into rhetoric and composition theory, one of my favorite concepts has become that of Jacques Derrida's "ever-expanding archives."  No text exists within a vacuum and every text eventually points to many many others.  A work of fiction, a poem, even a blog post such as this one could not exist without 2000 years or so of previous texts.  Could we view, perhaps, the need to feel "not alone" in our experiences as text making contact with other texts?  Our own experiences affirmed by reading another's...who in turn was affirmed by the texts that he/she read?  Reading such writing, in this case a novel, allows one to educe the connection between themselves, the writer, and all those who came before he/she.  One might even extend this thought further and link it to Kenneth Bruffee's idea of social or collaborative learning.  This the epistemological theory that much like texts, humans do not exist independent of one another and that all learning takes place through social interaction.  "No man is an island," if you will.  This would seem to disqualify any literary works tending towards pure solipsism.

The answers to the title question are as many as there are fiction writers.  If pressed, I would offer this as my own reason for being a novelist:

As Michael Chabon wrote in his introduction to the edition of Best American Short Stories that he edited, "entertainment" is a primary cause.  We writers feel that there are stories and narratives within us and we will just not be complete until we have released them into written form.  On some level, we wish to entertain.  However, as Chabon points out, "entertainment" has pejorative, almost sleazy connotation to it in the academy.  "Entertainment" means gaudy glitz, spandex, explosions, and so on and so forth.  Yet how many works of fiction in the "canon" were written with the initial intent to entertain?  More than many realize.
Second of all, I see myself as attempting to cobble together some sense of order from life.  I can process and plan to deal with things that just make no bloody sense to me or are otherwise too painful to deal with head-on.  Instead, fiction allows for an alternative, a safe format and arena in which to process these complications.  If I am lucky and have exercised "good" writing, then perhaps my readers will identify with these same socio-psychological struggles via the novel's unique ability to accommodate a character's internalization on the page.  This, I believe, does dovetail in greater and lesser respects with the aforementioned causal notion of "knowing we are not alone."
In tandem with that, I believe that many writers are aware of "the social and political consequences of acts of literacy" as David Wallace says, changing "not just what they know but who they are."  Literature harbors the ability to transform the writer, the reader, and thereby the world.

Whether or not people will continue to read is another matter entirely.