Sunday, January 4, 2009

New Semester / New Hair / New Year

Some things I've been thinking about, mainly while driving back and forth from KC to Vermillion: I'm teaching a graduate seminar on literary Romanticism this spring and am polishing up on European romanticism, something that I've always been sort of fuzzy on. Maybe because I never read Jerome McGann, whose work in the 1980s seems to have prompted some much-needed (if unsuccessful) attempts to define generic boundaries. I am looking forward to teaching the course but am also wary of the way sometimes topics like romanticism can melt into an undifferentiated mass of repetitive questions. More angles can mean greater nuance, but the multiple perspectives can also lead to fatally nebulous "thing" of study. Anyway, that has been my experience in some courses. I don't want to end up with students coyly asking if there is any thing other than romanticism? I hate that. Yet, at this point, I am the one asking exactly such a question. The individual and the all?--romantic. The primitive and the oversoul? The revolutionary, cosmopolitan liberationist; the pastoral and localized; the mad, isolationist? all romantic. Celebration of Hellenism?--part of romanticism. Contemporary Greece? Italy? Turkey? India?--absolutely romantic. The Gothic? romantic. The literature of sensibility? much of it romantic. The course is more specifically on American romanticism which complicates things further, since American romanticism, as I understand it, flowered ten to 20 years after the European movement, in 1840s and 50s but also includes writers who were already publishing at the end of the eighteenth century. "American-Renaissance" writers--Hawthorne, Emerson, Thoreau--are usually considered part of the romantic movement in American literature, but Charles Brockden Brown makes an appearance as well. Cooper--yes. Irving of the Sleepy Hollow tales? yes. Philip Freneau and John Trumbull are surely romantic nationalists, while William Cullen Bryant is of course described as a romantic in the Wordsworthian sense. But so, too, we might call Walt Whitman, and many would consider Emily Dickinson part of the same tradition albeit for different reasons. Owen Wister? Helen Hunt Jackson? Sure. These are hugely different writers, with different styles, subject emphases, formal repetoires. Romanticism can name a tradition of novel writing that overlaps with both the romances of the Revolutionary years, Hawthorne's novels, and the sentimental fictions of mid-century; it can name the poetry of the conservative fireside poets as well as the some of the reform-minded poetry of the abolitionists as well as the more esoteric verses of the Transcendentalists. People often describe regionalist, reunion novels written after the American Civil War as romantic. Despite the trend toward transatlanticism and perspectives and writers outside the canon, I'd really like to concentrate on the nature writings of Emerson and Thoreau, mainly because I am drawn, have always been drawn, to them. Plus, this may be the last serious literature course I ever teach, and I'd like to be concentrating on what I love, uses of the language that made scholarship in literature an attractive idea to begin with. I've just started reading Stanley Cavell's book on Walden. I'm only a few pages into the introduction; already, though, I have hopes that Cavell's reception of Thoreau is similar to my own. For me, there are intensely powerful moments in Thoreau that have to do with a crescendoeing of words, sounds, and ideas, the kind of thing one finds in the very best poetry, anywhere and always. Most of the famous passages from Walden produce this sense of gathering power, and no matter how one takes Thoreau's meanings, most people recognize where the beauty is, where the weight lies--even when answers to the questions of how and why and even what prove elusive. Thoreau bears reading over and over again because the weight cannot be accounted for. Maybe this is a way of saying that the power of Walden cannot be taken out of Walden but must be sought there, in the words, as in in the woods themselves, over and over, "right fronting and face to face to a fact.

Got my hair cut today. I've been going to the same hair stylist and "spa" for about a year. They have massages and other things that I guess qualify them for spa status. Hot stones and foot-waxing? The stylists are Aveda trained, which, to me, means they massage their clients' heads with oil when they first arrive and then massage their hands while the hair conditions. It's not a big deal, but the head and hand massages are nice. Because the place is about pampering and relaxation, signs request that customers turn off cell phones when they enter. Today, the woman in the chair next to mine had her kids with her, little girls who looked to be about eight and five. Thankfully, the woman's hair was just about done, but nevertheless, the entire time I was away from the station having my own hair washed and conditioned and my head and hands rubbed, the two children were jumping around, sitting and then standing in my chair, staring at the mom, at me, at the receptionist in front. I watched them from beneath my cool, moistened eye cloth during the hand massage, just waiting for one of them to bump into and knock over my tote bag which held my lap top. The older one knew I was staring at her; I willed her to approach so I could growl without anyone else hearing. None of this was remotely relaxing. Children are inherently un-relaxing, and any place with "spa" attached to the name and with any intimation of pampering should be understood--however ironically--to be childfree.

My husband and I spent NYE with some friends from Russia, biologists who are in the US working as researchers for science faculty at the same university where I teach literature. They have two young daughters, and the woman's mother is also here living with them. In Russia, people celebrate the New Year for ten days, much of it spent drinking and eating with friends. Since Christmas plays a fairly minor role in Russia (the Communists were enthusiastic about neither the birth of Jesus or the coming of Santa Claus), New Years acts as a catch-all. When my husband was a boy, his parents, both machinists in a factory in Penza, would, like the other workers receive gifts distributed at their place of work for each of their children. This seems sparse and impersonal next to my childhood memories, my grandma's livingroom floor, two-feet-deep in papered and beribboned boxes, evidence of selections made for each, from each, over the year past. I am taken aback by some things Oleg tells me. He remembers standing in line for bread as a child. I have seen and stayed in the two-room apartment where he and his mother, father, and brother lived for his first 18 years and where his mother still lives. Oleg's Ukrainian grandfather slept over an indoor, woodburning stove. But then, at other times, he'll tell me that he had a Moody Blues album when he was a teenager and he read The Scarlet Letter in school. And I've seen photos of him in a late-70s-era silk shirt with a pointy collar and feathered hair. Anyway, our New Year's Eve, like most gatherings with Russians, took place around a table. Americans stand up, walk around, lurk together in corners, break up into groups. Most Russian gatherings in my experience happen around a table, with people sitting and facing one another. The drinking and eating began at 9:30 with five different salads, including the requisite Olivier salad, which, as I am told, someone is supposed to pass out into before the night ends. Alas, no one did so, although Boris modeled what such an incident might look like (see picture). We ate cured salmon, caviar, sliced salami and sausage, prosciutto, brown bread, vodka, wine. At 10:30, out comes a pork shoulder, roasted with garlic and prunes, and potatoes and sweet potatoes. Everything was lovely. As usual, the discussion was about 70-30 English-Russian, so I enjoyed myself but didn't have to listen to all of the US-bashing. I'm not likely to win any medals for hyper-nationalism, but I get frustrated with the endless kvetching. Especially when it is too free-ranging. We were a mixed group--one American, one Russian, one Uzbekistani, one Tartarean, two mixed Tartarean-and something else. We were two children and six adults: four Muslims, one Eastern Orthodox Christian, and me (a skeptic, lost lamb, and sometimes a Jew-wannabe ). We did not argue about religion and very little about politics, except when I tried to persuade the nine-year-old daughter that the song "I Kissed a Girl" and the concept therein expressed need not be rejected with so much ugly scorn, out of hand, by someone as young as she is. This was an argument the Tartarean, Muslim grandmother was thankfully unable to understand, since she speaks no English. My orthodox husband was surprisingly supportive of my efforts.

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