Sunday, July 22, 2007

Diario: Winding up teaching in Santiago, Chile and coming home to DC

My finance seminar at the University of Chile law school wound up on Friday night, and it was time to get started home. It would have been perfect to stay the weekend and ski, if only I were a skier. But I also have a full writing schedule awaiting me at home, things that need to get completed at least in draft before classes begin again in August, so it is time to get back to DC. Saturday was a beautiful morning in Santiago - blue skies and not the smog that had been hanging over the city, as is only too normal in the winter. Then it started to pour rain. It rained hard and cold all afternoon. Finally, in the late afternoon it all cleared up, gloriously, with fresh snow very low on the hills and a beautiful sunset. (And if I hadn't managed to bust my camera, I would have pics to post.)

I try not to get too crazy doing tourist purchases - we have just been in London and Paris, with a certain amount of discretionary spending by my wife at Agnes B and Claudia Pierlot (?). Anyway, here in Chile I have limited things to some lapislazuli earrings and chains for wife and daughter. And I found some posters this morning at the Information Center that Jean-Marie might want to use in her classroom - tourist posters of Patagonia.

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Jean-Marie asked me to be on the lookout for the tourist posters. Thinking it over, though, sitting in the Havana coffeeshop - open wi-fi - on Avenida Providencia, if I were decorating her classroom in an all boys school, St Alban's, I would skip the tourist posters and instead go after moderately sexy advertising posters with girls not-quite-decently-dressed saying important things in Spanish. It's probably a fine line between being sexy enough to make foreign language interesting and romantic, and merely distracting. I myself think it better to err on the side of sexy distraction - but then, unlike my wife, I don't have to teach the past subjunctive to hormonally-charged adolescent males.

On the subject of gender and foreign language study, I saw several large college semester abroad-study Spanish groups in Santiago in the past couple of days. I'm not sure I would pick Santiago as a place to learn Spanish, for the same reason I would not pick Sevilla - Santiago is a lovely city, and very safe as Latin American capitals go, with very, very wonderful people. On the other hand, Chileans, like Andalucians, speak very rapidly and swallow not just terminal syllables, but whole paragraphs. My students were very nice about carefully pronouncing things when speaking with me, but I was amazed at how difficult it was for me to understand people on the street and in shops - same problem as I had in Sevilla - enough to make me doubt that I understood the language, until we went to Madrid and it was a completely different story. Anyway - I noticed that the college semester abroad programs seemed to run about 75-80% women. Very few men. Why is that? Jean-Marie and I have repeatedly noticed this in Europe, too. As Jean-Marie said back then, she more or less expected this in France, because judging by Renee's schools, French is regarded as the language for girls who have trust funds and plan to study art history. But we don't see the guys in these programs anywhere we go. Where are the guys?

***

Next door to my hotel in Santiago is a very fine bookshop, La feria del libro chileno, I think it is called. Harry Potter? Well, this and seemingly every other bookshop in Santiago has Harry Potter in the window - stacks and stacks of them - in English, all 800 pages of it, I might add. It's a testament to reading power in a foreign language here in Chile. At several of the bookstores today there are Harry Potter look-alikes, with cape and glasses and wands. Very cool. I thought of this on seeing Instapundit's posts about reviews of Harry Potter. But I'm not one of the Harry Potter fans, alas; I've thought the whole thing derivative in extreme from the beginning, and a not very interesting pastiche. Fantasy writers often seem to think it enough to be able to invent a complete alternative world; there is more to literature than that, no es asi?

This morning I walked up to the Pablo Neruda house museum over near Bellavista here in Santiago. I have mixed views on Neruda. I have always loved the 20 poemas de amor. But I've never taken the political poetry seriously - even when I was genuinely on the left, I never took political poetry seriously. I tried, heaven knows, with Brecht and lots of others, but I guess I'm a rationalist in politics - in the sense of thinking it really must be about arguments, rationality and experience, not appeals to emotions.

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I know this runs contrary to my general idolizing of Rene Char on this blog - Jean-Marie and Renee gave me a framed poster of Char from the Bibliotheque National exhibition in Paris on the centenary of Char's birth this summer, and seeing the exhibition was one of the high points of the June trip to Europe. (Am I possibly the only person in the whole US with a framed portrait of Rene Char on the wall? And possibly one of the very few even in France?) But for all that, in fact I don't take Char's concrete politics - as a communist or as anything else - politics as policy, as policies - very seriously when expressed in his poetry. A certain sensibility, yes; but an argument - the kinds of propositional arguments that, say, Brecht seemed to think were implicit in his poetry as well as plays - no. I have always been acutely aware, on the contrary, even back in the day when I was still over on the left, even as a teenager, of something that Stendhal said about romantic love in his eponymous essay On Love - the way in which it could sweep you along through the power of emotion alone into thinking you had discovered great sublime truths and that those emotions translated to true propositions. However, he added drily, one could achieve exactly the same effect, the same feeling of transcendental certainty, for pretty much any cause - merely by listening to great Italian opera or stirring martial music. And anyway, for all my deep and abiding respect and love of Char's wartime writings, he is something of a romantic about war.

That leaves the rest of Neruda's work - the stuff that is neither the romantic love poetry nor the agit-prop. It has powerful images, absolutely. I am rather less certain I find that those works hang together to create a whole thing and not merely a collection of images. Borges (according to that new memoir by his friend, reviewed in the TLS a couple of weeks ago, here, it is an open link, hooray!) rather cattily thought that one might easily delete whole sections of Neruda's works and Neruda himself would not notice that the sections were missing. That's mean but something about it seems right.

It may also be that I am put off by the effort, by Neruda himself and by his memorialists, to present the Heroic Man of Letters and Literature. This was the stance of all of them, Neruda, Char, Camus, Cendrars, pretty much everyone, the women included, writing was power and power was masculine (yet not, never Stendhal, strikingly). The period when literature was more self-consciously masculine, all those photos of Writers Writing, a distinctly masculine projection of power which has, however, largely come to an end. Meanwhile I, and quite possibly you, dear reader, have shifted in our sense of the power of literature along with the age and demoted it. I, like those of our age (and I don't mean this ironically) believe less in the redemptive power of literature than the redemptive power of economics and social science. I don't believe in the latter, economics and social science, very much, true - but, look, would I really consider John Updike's novel Terrorist: A Novel, to be very helpful in understanding, well, you know, terrorism? Of course not. Of course, the response might be, naturally not, but that is merely because Updike is out of his depth here. What about, instead, a novel about the rise of a jihadist and jihadist sensibility in, say, Hamburg or London by someone closer to the community, wouldn't that be better, and indeed better than what the also socially remote social scientists have to say about jihad, if the purpose is to understand its sensibility?

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I used to think so, yet increasingly have doubts. Not because I think the social scientists necessarily have much to offer, but because I have grave doubts about what is to be learned from literature about society and even sensibility beyond the writer him- or herself. But the shift away from the heroic writer to the eminently practical social scientist can also be understand in a much longer intellectual historical context, and it is surely a large part of my unease. It is, in this sense, the shift from the heroic virtues chronicled by Walter Scott to the bourgeois and commercial, distinctly unheroic, virtues of, say, the Scottish enlightenment - the time of Adam Smith, David Hume, Adam Ferguson, pragmatists all (see the marvelous essay on this very subject by Marvin B. Becker, The Emergence of Civil Society in the Eighteenth Century: A privileged moment in the history of England, Scotland, and France (Indiana UP 1994).) It is the very long term cultural and social shift although, I suppose one might argue, as the faddish newspaper discussion of the so-called "New Victorians" and "YAWNS" suggests, it has a current cognate: the rising generation, by contrast to its baby boomer predecessors, today starts from and doesn't merely finish with distinctly pragmatic, not heroic, values. Still - rewinding to Neruda - I have an abiding fondness for the 20 poemas, and an abiding nostalgia for a song version of Poema XX sung by the Peruvian Tania Libertad, a 78 single from the 1970s whose flip side was the also very lovely Cancion para una sola voz, a piece which I have gradually learned to play on cello.

(That's what I thought in the Havana cafe on Avenida La Providencia in Santiago, after leaving the Neruda museum. I've now boarded the plane back to the US, where I have papers to grade, things to write, and my wife and daughter to see.)

(PS. I'm home. And exhausted. It's a long plane ride.)

(PPS. This was my imitation of a Spectator-style "Diary" column. Hmm.)

1 comment:

Tom said...

I suggest you read Harry Potter 7, especially the "Magic is Might" chapter, to get a good idea about terrorism.

A couple of later chapters also speak of what people will do when they fear for the lives of their loved ones.
(I'm new here, hope to come back)