Sarah Manguos on writing from what is small, cheap, and false

We’ve been reading Isaiah Berlin’s Two Concepts of Liberty (pdf) in our class on justice. Our focus is on the first bits–the ideas about noninterference and coercion. This time reading it, I found myself much more interested in the second half material on self-mastery than I have ever been. Berlin and Aristotle have proved to be a fairly potent combination in playing about my mind throughout this week.

Philosophy in the latter part of the 20th century makes mastering the self more difficult because it becomes less clear, at a metaphysical level, what the self is, and it has gotten rather complicated, and mastering it even more so, but let’s just go with the idea that there is a self and you have some ability to discipline it for now. (There is less evidence of this in my case than I care to discuss, but…moving on.)

These ideas were floating around in my head this morning as I read this lovely essay from Sarah Manguso in the New York Times on writers and envy:

In 1818, Keats wrote to his publisher, “I would sooner fail than not be among the greatest.” His poem “Endymion” had recently been savaged by critics, one of whom called it “imperturbable driveling idiocy.” Keats’s terminal tuberculosis didn’t take full hold for at least another year, but Byron wryly remarked that Keats was ultimately “snuff’d out” by a bad review. But Keats also wrote, to another of his publishers, “If Poetry comes not as naturally as the Leaves to a tree it had better not come at all.” As leaves to a tree. A tree does not leaf out of envy of other trees. It leafs out all by itself, within a system of life and light, matter and time. Writing out of envy will not produce a tree in bloom. It will produce an expression of envy, and envy’s voice is ugly, small, cheap and false.

So inspiring. Write on, friends, from life and light, matter and time. Stretch your branches into the sun.

Governance post: Flint & Virginia Tech, A story of a mom, science, and governmental successes among the government failures

Mark Edwards, the scientist who worked on exposing the problems in Flint, MI, was one of my colleagues at Virginia Tech. He seems to be committed to the radical idea that people’s drinking water shouldn’t make them sick.

This piece in Washington Post is one of those “hero’s journey” journalistic accounts that drive me a little bit crazy, but hey. Edwards deserves it. The nice part of the story comes in here:

And then his phone rang in April 2015. It was a woman named Leeanne Walters, a Flint, Mich., stay-at-home mother who was getting nowhere convincing state and local officials that there was something seriously wrong with the orange-tinted water coming out of her tap. Her family’s hair was thinning. Her son’s skin was red and irritated. They told her the water was perfectly safe. And even months later, when it had been determined there were high traces of lead in her water, the officials shrugged it off as an isolated problem.

Desperately, she called Edwards, whom she had read about online. Over the phone, he walked her through how to take her own water samples. The next day she sent them FedEx to Edwards to test. It was the worst lead levels he had ever seen.

“When we saw that my heart skipped a couple of beats,” he said. “The last thing I needed in my life was another confrontation with government agencies. But it was us or nobody.”

First, yay Ms. Walters. Citizen-led science is never not awesome.

Second, though the story highlights lousy behavior and governmental failures on the part of regulatory agencies, included the CDC, which really can’t be doing that. CDC is an agency where nothing less than 100 percent effort towards transparency and accountability is acceptable. Heads need to roll.

But although much of media wants to trumpet just the government failures, ahem. Mark Edwards was educated, his entire life, at state schools–SUNY Buffalo and the University Washington. He’s spent his career fighting for clean water from a *tenured*–not contingent–position at *state* school. He received grant money, though not enough, from the National Science Foundation–a *federal* source of grant funding that some of our friends in Congress buuuuuuuuuurn to cut because it’s just a waste. He disseminated his findings via an internet that the government helped research, develop, and build.

My point is not just to fling more confetti on Professor Edwards, but to point us back to a rather old-fashioned idea: that there is good government and there is bad government, and that good government is possible, and it is often all around us, invisible, and it is sometimes the only thing that is capable of standing up when government itself fails.

Aristotle on Hippodamus, dandy and poseur

Hippodamus has a proposed Constitution. Aristotle doesn’t think much of it; he also does not seem to think much of Hippodamus, granted the description:

Hippodamus son of Euryphon, a Milesian (who invented the division of cities into blocks and cut up Piraeus, and who also became somewhat eccentric in his general mode of life owing to a desire for distinction, so that some people thought that he lived too fussily, with a quantity of hair and expensive ornaments, and also a quantity of cheap yet warm clothes not only in winter but also in the summer periods, and who wished to be a man of learning in natural science generally), was the first man not engaged in politics who attempted to speak on the subject of the best form of constitution.

(Rackham translation)

in the Greek:

Ἱππόδαμος δὲ Εὐρυφῶντος Μιλήσιος ὃς καὶ τὴν τῶν πόλεων διαίρεσιν εὗρε καὶ τὸν Πειραιᾶ κατέτεμεν, γενόμενος καὶ περὶ τὸν ἄλλον βίον περιττότερος διὰ φιλοτιμίαν οὕτως ὥστε δοκεῖν ἐνίοις ζῆν περιεργότερον τριχῶν τε πλήθει καὶ κόσμῳ πολυτελεῖ, ἔτι δὲ ἐσθῆτος εὐτελοῦς μὲν ἀλεεινῆς δέ, οὐκ ἐν τῷ χειμῶνι μόνον ἀλλὰ καὶ περὶ τοὺς θερινοὺς χρόνους, λόγιος δὲ καὶ περὶ τὴν ὅλην φύσιν εἶναι βουλόμενοσ’ πρῶτος τῶν μὴ πολιτευομένων ἐνεχείρησέ τι περὶ πολιτείας εἰπεῖν τῆς ἀρίστης.

Oh, those urban design hipsters never change–all black clothing and Dieter glasses, all dandied up. In Athens, long hair on a man was an affectation. Rackham simply translates κόσμῳ as “a quantity of hair”; Jewett translates it as “flowing hair”; here I think Jewett has the more apt wording, as Liddell suggests “hair hanging down the back.” Not, perhaps, an entirely fair comment on Aristotle’s part; some Greek men did wear their hair long as a matter of common fashion–I think Spartans did, and Hippodamus is not an Athenian, as Aristotle points out right away. Perhaps Milesians, too, wore their hair long, and Hippodamus did so because he was used to it. Perhaps; but Aristotle was a foreigner in Athens, too (he was from Stagira) so perhaps what we are seeing is Aristotle’s comment on a fellow metic’s unwillingness (or inability) to integrate. Either way, it seems clear, through his careful description of the accessories worn over cheap but warm clothing that Aristotle thinks this Hippodamus a bit of a poseur.

This hinting that Hippodamus is a dilettante becomes more obvious when Aristotle notes that Hippodamus attempted to speak about the best form of a constitution even though he was μὴ πολιτευομένων–not a politician. Unfortunately, as we know, there probably isn’t any more political act than dividing up land, so Aristotle probably should have been a little more inclusive in what he considered τῶν πολιτευομένων. All that said, Aristotle also seems right in the next paragraphs: although we don’t get a full recounting of Hippodamus’ argument, Aristotle’s critique makes Hippodamus’ social prescriptions seem pretty ghastly, all the same.

So I ran a workshop on dismissing and undermining in the classroom

In general, it was well-received.

And my senior male colleagues held it together just fine until I suggested that male senior faculty should not order junior female faculty to take dictation.

Then they lost their shit, to put it mildly. The room just went nuts. “Soooooo is ok if a senior female faculty orders a MALE junior faculty to do so? Huhh???? huh? What about that? Huh?”

I find this funny. It’s like the very last privilege to be wrung from our mighty hands is the ability to haze junior faculty! Why, without that, LIFE WILL HAVE NO MEANING. And men won’t be able to indulge their Don Draper fantasies.

Really, truly, you will not die if you have to take your own notes. I am positive.

Geez, people.

A drenched bird, writing: Edmund White in the Paris Review

I’m in such a bad mood over both David Bowie and Alan Rickman that I can’t even. And I’ve gone and confused myself in Chapter Three, when just yesterday I was boasting to wonderful former student (now wonderful professor, Stephanie Frank) that I though I had a hold on it.

Blargh.

I’m pretty set on trying to write a little each day this semester, but I am so dysfunctional and out of it when I am really, really working on new work that I am not a particularly good teacher, friend, or wife while I do it. As a result, this comment from Edmund White during his lovely Paris Review interview always makes me feel a little better.

I wish I were more at home with writing. I can go a year or two or three without picking up my pen and I’m perfectly content. The minute I have to write I become neurotic and grouchy and ill; I become like a little wet, drenched bird, and I put a blanket over my shoulders and I try to write and I hate myself and I hate what I’m writing. Writing depends upon a fairly quiet life, whereas I am a sociable person. I think every writer goes back and forth on this question; it’s a constant struggle to find the right balance between solitude and society and I don’t think anyone ever does. I find it reassuring to read the complaints of Chekhov: “My country house is full of people, they never leave me alone; if only they would go away I could be a good writer.” He’s writing this close to the end of his life.

Comrades.