Day 215: together in electric dreams

Sometimes I feel that my younger child came into being ex nihilo. She seemed to spring into the world fully formed, kicking and squirming, her face in a perpetual half-scowl half-smirk. I don’t have this sensation so much with the older child, with whom I feel a strong temperamental affinity: we are both quiet and studious; we both love reading and cooking and making intricate things with our hands.

But then there are those moments when I see clearly that the younger is indeed, for better and worse, my daughter. One of those moments was while reading this passage from the second-grade report card she brought home in mid-June:

“ … she can sometimes get lost in her daydream (or drawing) and not complete some assignments. This has been particularly true with math. [She] is a very confident and capable reader and she has many good writing skills, so her daydreaming has not had too much of an impact in those areas …”

A confident reader myself, I feel certain that almost identical passages featured in my report cards throughout my school years. I was—am still—a dreamy sort, liable to walk into traffic or miss my stop on the bus because I’m lost in wandering thoughts.

The same week that the report cards came home the second-graders had their spring performance, at which they sang, among other songs, “Dream a Little Dream of Me.” It wasn’t a song I’d ever given much thought to (although its history is quite interesting), but hearing it sung by a stage full of kids to an audience of parents was enough to nudge me into the awareness that, hitherto, I’d thought of it as a song sung by one lover to another: “Stars fading but I linger on dear / Still craving your kiss.”

A bunch of eight-year olds singing about “craving your kiss” was incongruous in the same way that, in the American version of The Office (which I’d never seen before this year but which the kids and I have been watching together for the past few months), it’s incongruous hearing Jan lustily (in all senses) sing Son of a Preacher Man to her newborn.

But the second-grade rendition of “Dream a Little Dream” was jarring also because it was apt, making me note how fine the line is between love songs and lullabies.

“Say nighty-night and kiss me

Just hold me tight and tell me you’ll miss me

While I’m alone and blue as can be

Dream a little dream of me.”

At eight years old, my daughter has only recently started regularly sleeping through the night in her own bed. Although I realize this disclosure may horrify some, I myself slept in my parents’ bed till I was ten or eleven so it seems pretty normal to me. And although I’m glad for both of our sakes that she’s now (mostly) sleeping in her own bed, I also do miss her—maybe because otherwise I sleep alone. I miss the creaturely comfort of her small warm body, having her within arm’s reach so I can stroke her hair when she whimpers in the night during a bad dream.

Although usually the younger appears utterly mortified during school performances, she actually seemed to enjoy singing this particular song and I would overhear her—still overhear her, sometimes—softly singing it to herself. She even deigned to teach it to me; and when she forgot some of the words and I searched for the lyrics, we ended up listening to multiple different versions one night before bed, agreeing emphatically that we liked The Mamas and the Papas’ version the best. (The younger deemed both the Ella Fitzgerald / Louis Armstrong version and the Doris Day version “a bit too jazzy”; and, honestly, I think she’s right.)

Later that night I idly started looking up other songs with the word “dream” in the title, which turned up a treasure-trove of forgotten songs. And so I started making a playlist of songs about dreams. My only criterion was that I liked the song and I had to know it already; there wasn’t any special reason for this latter stipulation except my own whim; but now, as I revisit the decision, I wonder if it was because the fancy struck me that songs, like dreams, are portals though which we revisit certain times and places—and maybe I wanted to use the playlist for that purpose. A lot of the songs I included are either about being a teenager or are songs I first encountered as a teenager, so that they prompt a kind of wistful transportation.

The list grew gradually.

It begins with The Monkees’ “Daydream Believer” followed by the Mamas & the Papas’ version of “Dream A Little Dream of Me.”  These two seemed a natural pair because they both begin with mumbly spoken introductions.

Now when I listen to the playlist I often skip past “Daydream Believer,” to which I’m only moderately attached—although I do enjoy gustily bellowing “Cheer up sleepy Jean!” along with Davy Jones, and I have fond memories of watching Monkees reruns on TV throughout the ‘80s. But I never skip Cass Elliot singing “Dream a Little Dream.” I was walking listening to it the other day trying to think how to describe her voice—trying to think of a word that would capture its unadorned quality that brings out something true and melancholy in the song that was always there but that I couldn’t hear before. The word I finally settled on was “limpid”: Cass Elliot’s voice is limpid like clear seawater through which ordinary pebbles become variegated, luminous.

#3 on the playlist is Eleni Mandell’s “Like Dreamers Do,” which is from her children’s album, “Let’s Fly a Kite,” but which, like “Dream a Little Dream” one can imagine being sung to either child or lover. It’s a jaunty, hummable tune; I’ve caught the elder singing it to himself more than once. At #4 is Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams,” over which I hesitated; but once it was there, I couldn’t get rid of it. The song is insistent, almost irritatingly mesmeric, a quality that echoes the lyrics (“Now here I go again, I see the crystal visions / I keep my visions to myself …”).

Songs 5, 6, and 7, I think of as a Katy Perry sandwich (strawberry ice-cream sandwiched between two meringue cookies, in case you’re wondering). Perry’s “Teenage Dream” nestles between two fifties pop confections, Bobby Darin’s “Dream Lover” and The Everly Brothers “All I Have to Do is Dream.” Perry’s directness (“you really turn me on”) and concreteness (“put your hands on me in my skintight jeans”) nicely cuts the chaste sweetness of the crooners’ teenage dreams.

Song #8 is the first on this list that I remember distinctly from childhood: “These Dreams” by Heart, first released in 1986, when I was 11, but not, Wikipedia tells me, a big hit in the U.K. until it was rereleased two years later. Either way, I heard it at an impressionable age; the song instantly conjures romantic tresses and gauzy chiffon and soft focus lenses; if the song were a color, it would be dusky rose, with shimmery flecks.

At #9, Mandell makes another appearance, here in a quite different mood in “Just a Dream.” The images in this song feel dream like; woozy, surreal, fragmented.

At #10 is perhaps the song that transports me most powerfully: “Together in Electric Dreams” by Phil Oakey (not Oakley) and Georgio Moroder. I love this song so much. Phil Oakey was the lead singer in “The Human League,” and “Together In Electric Dreams” (which was a hit in the U.K. in 1984, when I was 10) shares the synth-pop style of their 1981 hit, “Don’t You Want Me.” But it’s strange; while “Don’t You Want Me” is explicitly plaintive and “Electric Dreams” ostensibly joyful, it’s the latter that I find deeply sad: perhaps it’s the speaker’s utter resignation to the idea that he will never see his beloved again. The speaker in “Don’t You Want Me” is still in the throes of loss with all of the bargaining and anger and desperation that such loss entails; the second speaker has just given up.

The song is conjoined, in my mind, to a set of images, which, until recently, I assumed were from its accompanying video. The scene I see in my mind’s eye is from a movie. A young woman and man sit in the back of a taxi, which is driving through the city at night. They love each other. But they don’t speak or touch; they just smile at each other and then look away. The woman has short dark cropped hair, the man’s face is indistinct. Then the image cuts to green numbers scrolling on a black screen, the ‘80s visual shorthand for computing-is-happening.

The strange thing about these visuals is that “Together In Electric Dreams” is from the soundtrack to a movie; but it’s not a movie I’ve ever seen and the characters (Virginia Madsen is the female lead) look nothing like the characters who appear in my head as the song plays. (The movie itself looks bananas—like an ‘80s Her.) I seem to have grafted the song onto a set of images from some other ‘80s movie.

#11 is Taylor Swift’s “Wildest Dreams.” I don’t especially like either the images or the tune to this song; but I do like the song’s mood, which, like Mandell’s “Just a Dream,” is noirish, sultry and defiant. And I really like how in the video a giraffe keeps photo-bombing Swift.

Song #12 came to while I was watching “You’ve Got Mail” on the flight to the U.K. (a movie that strikes me, in 2019, as about how writing technologies mediate relationships every bit as much as Richardson or Laclos’s epistolary novels. “You’ve Got Mail” is particular to a historical moment in which there was email but not yet smartphones.) The movie’s soundtrack features a lot of songs about dreams; but it was only The Cranberries’ banshee-wail of a song “Dreams,” released the year my Dad died, that found its way onto the playlist.

At #13, we have The Mamas & The Papas again, with “California Dreamin.’” You know how, with some songs, there are, like, seven perfect seconds and then you listen to the rest of the song just so you can go back and play it again and re-experience that moment? In “California Dreamin’” those seven seconds are between the fifty and fifty-seven second mark, when Denny Doherty’s voice breaks as he sings that he got down on his knees and pretended to pray as the others echo him in chorus. (Not related to this playlist but I was just listening to Soul II Soul’s “Back to Life” (do Americans even know this song??)—which I probably hadn’t thought about since 1989—after hearing it sampled on Little Mix’s “Bounce Back,” and the magical seconds on that track come early: from fourteen to twenty four, I’d say. I probably listened to this song 10 times yesterday just to experience those ten seconds when the beat kicks in. But I digress).

#14. Eurythmics, “Sweet Dreams.” I added this song almost reflexively but I always forget how good it is until I hear it again.

#15. Crowded House, “Don’t Dream It’s Over.” I also genuinely love the Miley Cyrus / Ariana Grande version.

#16. ABBA, “I Have a Dream.” The younger and I are Mamma Mia! fans and also Ghostbusters fans. I mention this because, whenever I hear this song now, I picture Amanda Seyfried staring out at the water; but also, when Anni-Frid sings, “I’ll cross the stream,” I reflexively whisper under my breath, “don’t cross the streams. It would be bad.”

#17. Fiona Apple, “Sleep to Dream.” This song transports me back to the attic bedroom of the Somerville house I shared with Louisa and Gina during grad school. I listened to “Tidal” a lot in that room.

#18. Roy Orbison, “All I Can Do (is Dream You).” “You’ve Got Mail” put Roy Orbison on my mind; the soundtrack features his lovely version of the 1944 song “Dream.” There are a lot of songs about dreaming in the Orbison catalog. Maybe that’s why I loved him so much when I was in my teens (which was, to be clear, in the late ‘80s, not in the ‘60s when Orbison had the majority of his hits). Orbison enjoyed a second flush of success in the late ‘80s after David Lynch memorably featured his 1963 song “In Dreams” in Blue Velvet (1986) and Orbison released his final album, Mystery Girl, with which I was obsessed.

Most of Orbison’s songs about dreams (most of his songs, period) are plaintive and yearning. But for the playlist’s final song I chose one that is uncharacteristically upbeat. A bit like “Together In Electric Dreams,” I love the contrast in this song between its catchiness—here not synthpop but rockabilly with a “hey baby” chorus and na-na-na background vocals—and the melancholic lyrics. Also: this video of Orbison performing it live is amazing. Check out K.D. Lang singing backup!

***

One night, soon after I had finished making the final playlist, I had an intense dream. This was now several weeks ago, but the dream was unusually vivid, and I can still summon the images. I was with the elder in a vast warehouse, which was the setting for a scavenger hunt. We were a team but decided to split up so as to more efficiently search for clues. I went down a metal staircase and was milling around, along with many other clue-seekers, on the ground floor. Then, suddenly, I saw a door ajar under the staircase I’d just descended. My heart beat faster; I somehow knew that I’d spotted a room that no one else had yet seen. I walked towards it and as I got closer saw a sign that said “Fire Door” on the door. I tentatively poked my head in. It was a kind of a broom closet with whitewashed walls, cluttered with cleaning supplies, small and claustrophobic. On the opposite side of the room there was a clothesline and pegged to it was a scrap of paper. I knew right away it was the clue I was looking for.

The door had been propped ajar but when I popped my head in I had dislodged whatever had been holding it open and it now took all of my strength to hold the door open. I knew that if I let go of the door it would lock automatically, leaving me either stuck inside or outside. So, using my foot as a doorstop I stretched, reaching my arm as far as I could to try to unpin the clue from the clothes line. But I couldn’t reach it. I stopped and looked back through the crack in the door. I didn’t know where the elder was and I felt panicked. I wanted to get the clue but if I stretched far enough to reach it I’d have to let go of the door and I’d be locked in and unable to find him. But if I left the room letting the door close behind me the clue would be lost forever. I stood there, my foot in the door, reaching towards the clothes line, while also looking back through the open into the warehouse, scanning the space for Max, who was nowhere to be seen. I felt stretched to my limit and I knew I couldn’t hold the door much longer. Then I woke up.

***

I played this playlist a lot in the car during the weeks I was driving the kids to and from their respective camps. They both seemed to like it. One night the elder even casually asked if I’d share the playlist with him on Spotify.

“Sure,” I said, trying to act cool.

The next morning I asked him if he’d listened to it.

“Oh yeah,” he said, “but only a few songs. Then I fell asleep.”

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Day 214: bag inventory

It’s much easier traveling with the kids now that they are older and more self-sufficient. But sometimes they look more self-sufficient from the outside than they look from the inside. As a case study, on our flight back from London to the U.K., I took an inventory of the contents of the backpack that the younger (aged 8) packed herself for both the outgoing and return trips.

This bag was supposed to contain everything she might need on the trip.

Before we left LA, I inspected the bag, added clothing (which was entirely lacking with the exception of a pair of fingerless gloves) and strongly recommended that she remove a number of items because the backpack was extremely heavy.

She refused and I relented as long as she agreed to carry the bag herself. Perhaps needless to say, she complained a lot en route about the bag’s heaviness (“why did you put in so many clothes, Mom???”) and on the way back I just packed her clothes and most of her books in my own bag and left her to her own devices, my rule being that anything she had amassed while on our travels she had to carry herself. The contents, then, of her backpack on the return journey was as follows:

  • Black fingerless gloves, 1 pair
    • I’m definitely gonna want these in England”
  • Post-it note pads x 2
  • Pencil case containing pencils and eraser
  • Mini stamp set
  • Spiderman magazine
    • Purchased at local newsagent, Highgate
  • Water pistol
    • Came free with Spiderman magazine; was main incentive for purchase of Spiderman magazine
  • Rocks, assorted
    • Amassed at various locales including the Isle of Iona in Scotland and Waterlow Park in Highgate
  • Highland cow stuffed animal
    • Purchased indulgently for her by her mother who did not realize at the time that said cow made loud mooing sound when squeezed
  • Pencil case knitted during trip by her grandmother containing pencil sharpener, pencils, pen
  • Small plastic wallet won in treasure hunt on Isle of Iona
  • Tub of miniature Scottish medieval knights
    • Purchased at Edinburgh castle. Probably the best purchase of the trip. What’s not to love about a tub of Scottish knights?
  • Rubber Tyrannosaurus head
    • Purchased reluctantly by her mother at National Museum of Scotland gift shop. I was churlish about buying it, not because it was just another piece of tat that we didn’t need (which it was) but because it “didn’t seem very Scottish”
  • Copy of Sideways Stories from Wayside School
    • I would have been happy if this book had gone missing during the trip
  • Memory card game
    • I am really good at this game. So good that after a while everyone in the family refused to play it any more. Fun fact: in the U.K. we call this game Pelmanism
  • Crayons
  • Red notebook filled with drawings
  • Bouncy Rubber egg purchased at Camera Obscura gift shop in Edinburgh
    • I won’t lie, there’s something really satisfying about this object. I wouldn’t mind having one myself.

 

 

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Day 213: a lovely surprise!

Yesterday we arrived home from a day out at the beach to find this sitting on the doormat:

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I was immediately suspicious.

“It probably contains a bomb,” I muttered.

On the other hand, it was my birthday recently … so maybe it contained a lovely surprise!

Gingerly, we removed the lid.

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The contents included: the entangled, dried up, roots and remains of a dead plant; a polaroid of a kitten; a small gauzy, golden bag filled with coins; what looked like a doll’s pair of underwear; and a tiny Hello Kitty figurine.

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Reader, it was terrifying.

“Either a child made this,” I declared, “or else …” I didn’t finish the sentence, but the words going through my mind were stalker; psychopath; serial killer; ghost??? Doll come to life????

A few minutes later, I glanced out the kitchen window and spotted the younger—who was not in my charge that day—on the grassy verge outside my apartment. She and her friend seemed to be settling down for a picnic.

I went out and was greeted with peals of giggles. After establishing that they were there with permission, I went back in, grabbed the box and marched back out.

“Did you two leave this on the doormat?” I demanded.

More peals of giggles.

“But what does it … mean???” I asked, as if there could possibly be a reasonable answer to that question.

The younger shrugged, giggling. “It was just a prank, Mom!”

I shook my head and walked inside, muttering under my breath, leaving them giggling gleefully at how thoroughly they had unsettled me.

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Day 212: such devices

The younger is taking a bath while I am brushing my teeth.

“Mom … are we bringing …” she pauses.

I spit into the basin, wipe my mouth and then meet her gaze, raising my eyebrows.

“Are we bringing … ?” I repeat.

She takes a deep breath and raises herself up from under the bubbles majestically. I brace myself.

“Are we bringing the iPad to England?” she asks cautiously.

“Oh …. yeah,” I reply, relieved, and start washing my face.

She doesn’t look satisfied.

“Are we bringing it …” She pauses again.

“Are we bringing it for the purpose of … electronic devices?”

I laugh as I rinse my face. “Umm, yeah, what other purpose would we bring it for? To lean on?”

She makes a face at me from the bath.

“For the purpose of starting conversations about ….”

She starts giggling and adopts a mock-lecturing tone, “… about how, in the eighteenth century, people didn’t have such devices …”

“Oh, come on!” I interject, giggling too, well aware that I am the object of the mockery here.

“And so,” she continues, barely able to speak through her giggles, “they would just have to play in … in the … stables … with … with an old burlap sack.”

We are now both laughing hysterically.

“And … and a potato,” she adds.

I can barely speak because I’m laughing so hard. “A potato!” I squeak out weakly.

When I’ve slightly recovered I add, “and what was the other thing? An old burlap sack? How do you even know the word ‘burlap’”?

She rolls her eyes. “Um, we use burlap sacks for projects? Burlap sacks are common, Mom.”

“Oh … OK,” I murmur meekly.

I hold a towel out for her.

“So …. anyway, the answer to your question is, yes we are bringing the iPad to England. For the purpose of electronic devices.”

I enfold her in the towel, snug, as the saying goes, as an eighteenth-century potato in a burlap sack.

 

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Day 211: Onegin, off again

Recently on Twitter someone posed the question, “why did you pick the 18th century to study?” and I replied, “The 18th century picked me, probably because I’m so constitutionally delicate.”

I was being half silly, half serious (which is my constitution in a nutshell: half silly; half serious; delicate all over).

One reason why I instinctively deflect such questions is that although I can tell a story about why I picked the eighteenth century, such stories feel similar to those we tell about falling in love; retrospectively, it’s pleasing to cast the experience as a coup de foudre but in reality it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly where, when, how, or why something shifted. Here, I find a rare moment of accord with Fitzwilliam Darcy, who says, when Lizzy presses him to account for what precipitated his fall, “I cannot fix on the hour, or the spot, or the look, or the words, which laid the foundation. It is too long ago. I was in the middle before I knew that I had begun” (Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, Volume III, Chapter XVIII).

Another reason why it wasn’t facetious to say that the eighteenth century picked me because I’m constitutionally delicate is that I really am constitutionally delicate! Just a couple of weeks ago I became faint and was given smelling salts—which I didn’t realize were even a thing any more. (They smell awful. I could feel them in my nostrils for days.) When I’m feeling troubled, I cry a lot. The other day I couldn’t stop weeping and wondered: was I drawn to eighteenth-century novels because I’m constitutionally delicate? Or have I become constitutionally delicate because of all the eighteenth-century novels? N.B. Weeping and wondering is, according to Hester Piozzi, precisely the response that eighteenth-century novels induce. [1]

Even before that especially weepy day, I had already become preoccupied by the question of the causal relationship between reading eighteenth-century novels and one’s constitution because of Eugene Onegin. Pushkin’s novel is not an eighteenth-century novel—it was published in serial form between 1825 and 1832—but its lovely, bookish heroine, Tatiana, is an avid reader of eighteenth-century fiction:

“From early youth she read romances,

And novels set her art aglow;

She loved the fictions and the fancies

Of Richardson and of Rousseau.” (Chapter 2, Canto 29) [2]

It seems fair to say that the ideas about love that Tatiana gleans from eighteenth-century novels prime her to fall in love with the caddish Eugene, whom, as Pushkin’s narrator can’t help pointing out, is “ … none the less / No Grandison in Russian dress” (Chapter 3, Canto 10).

Pushkin makes this observation more in sorrow than in scorn. One thing I love about Pushkin’s treatment of Tatiana is that he doesn’t patronize or castigate her as a naïve reader. On the contrary, he evokes how reading allows her to discover her own feelings.

I have always experienced both reading and writing in this way: as experiences that allow me to discover what I think and feel.

A brief digression: I was recently on a committee that had to assess a revision to the university’s writing program, one that placed more emphasis upon writing as a mode of thinking. As the only literature person on the committee I was asked to comment on the proposal; but all I had to say was that it seemed strange to me that writing hadn’t been taught this way before. I know that not everyone experiences writing like this. But I tend to be baffled when people describe doing research or having ideas and then writing. For me, thinking and writing are not usually distinct, sequential activities, but rather intervolved within each other; I write to discover what I think.

Likewise, Tatiana discovers her feelings and fantasies through reading novels.

“She wanders with her borrowed lovers

Through silent woods and so discovers

Her secret passions, and her dreams.” (Chapter 3, Canto 10)

***

My students and I read Eugene Onegin this quarter on the heels of Pride and Prejudice. Reading the two novels in that order was poignant and illuminating. Eugene Onegin reads like a darker, Russian, Pride and Prejudice. Structurally, the narratives parallel each other. In both, a world-weary young stranger turns up in the countryside, where he immediately alienates everyone with his brusque manners.

In both, the young stranger has an amiable friend. In Onegin, this amiable friend is Lensky, who is basically Bingley if he had taken a gap year in Göttingen. Bingley-Werther takes a shine to a local girl, Olga, who is characterized by the narrator as a generically attractive young woman—i.e., a Jane (or a Betty, as we’d say, if we were talking about Emma). “Glance in any novel,” Pushkin’s narrator advises us, if we wish to know more about her appearance. He adds, “I liked it once no less than you, / But round it boredom seems to hover” (Chapter 2, Canto 23).

Bingley-Werther, keen to introduce Eugene to Olga, invites him to join them at her family’s house one evening. Of course Eugene is like, kill me now, I can’t even with these provincial get-togethers; but he goes along for Bingley-Werther’s sake. At this gathering Eugene and Tatiana, Olga’s older sister, first lay eyes on each other, and, although they don’t exchange a word, each makes a striking impression upon the other.

Tatiana and Lizzy are not the same, temperamentally. Tatiana is dreamy and pensive where Lizzy is playful and wry. (Tatiana is basically a Goth; she dislikes smiling, small-talk, and playing games. She likes gory stories, sentimental novels, and star-gazing.) But Lizzy and Tatiana are both highly intelligent young women who feel keenly constrained by the parameters of the worlds they inhabit—parameters made stark by the limited orbits their respective mothers inhabit.

Both Lizzy and Tatiana are intrigued by the brooding stranger in their midst. But where Lizzy recoils from Darcy, Tatiana falls for Eugene, who is also attracted to her; but for him it’s a passing fancy. For her it’s a life-changing event.

It’s at this juncture in each narrative that the parallels and contrasts between the two novels emerge most strongly. Tatiana has learned from eighteenth-century fiction that she should be open with her feelings and that she should express them in epistolary form. And so she writes boldly to Eugene declaring her love:

“I’m writing you this declaration—

What more can I in candour say?

It may be now your inclination

To scorn me and to turn away;

But if my hapless situation

Evokes some pity for my woe,

You won’t abandon me, I know.” (Chapter 3, Tatiana’s letter to Onegin).

Both Tatiana and Lizzy defy their society’s expectations of how women should behave towards men in order to attract them. As Lizzy observes, her open contempt for Darcy departs from the “civility … deference,” and “officious attention” to which he is accustomed (Volume III, Chapter XVIII). Likewise, Tatiana’s warmth and openness departs from the strategic coldness and reserve—the “inaccessibly serene” air—affected by the society belles with whom Pushkin declares Eugene has become bored (Chapter 1, Canto 42). Lizzy supposes that it is her departure from the norm that attracts Darcy: “I roused, and interested you, because I was so unlike them” (Volume III, Chapter XVIII). By making Eugene’s propensity for boredom his main character trait, Pushkin primes us to expect that Tatiana’s ingenuousness may move him as Lizzy’s irreverence moves Darcy.

But where Lizzy gains from resisting a prevailing ethos of servility, an ethos that results in Darcy “thoroughly despis[ing]” the women “who so assiduously court” him, Tatiana loses by resisting a prevailing ethos of studied indifference (Volume III, Chapter XVIII). In fact, the same economy of desire seems to operate within both novels: both men are only attracted to women who seem immune to their charms. Although Eugene thinks he’s tired of the performance of inaccessible serenity, it turns out to be the only thing that actually moves him.

Accordingly, both to Tatiana’s dismay and to ours, her letter inspires in Eugene, not a declaration of desire but rather a speech that is rightly described as a “sermon,” and which is, as one of my students observed, essentially a long-winded version of, “it’s not you, it’s me.” Eugene insists, in this speech, that he’d just make her unhappy if they were a couple; he then consoles (“consoles”) her by informing her that she’s young and predicting that she’ll get over him soon and fall in love again. He closes by recommending she exercise a bit more restraint in the future when expressing her feelings.

Oof.

He’s just awful: cold; condescending; self-righteous, unkind. One could be generous and argue that he is purposefully unkind in a misguided attempt to shift Tatiana’s feelings. But he honestly seems so caught up in his own performance of piety that I doubt her feelings even cross his mind.

Nobody in my class, including me, had read the novel before. Especially coming on the heels of Pride and Prejudice, this turn of events was especially wrenching. After our first class on Eugene Onegin, when it still seemed like things might work out for Eugene and Tatiana, I’d asked the class how Tatiana struck them. One student observed that she seemed like Elizabeth Bennet in her intelligence and discomfort with the strictures governing women’s conduct. We’d already established that cool, detached Eugene was not terribly sympathetic—but then neither was Darcy! Everyone was primed to see our girl Tatiana ruffle his composure. I’d read ahead and knew what was coming but I couldn’t bear to tell them.

The next class, after everyone had read the chapter in which Eugene rejects Tatiana, the change of atmosphere in the room was palpable. There was something about the quotidian nature of Eugene’s bad behavior that seemed to gut us all—but especially the women in the class. The ordinariness of his shortcomings made them all the more believable. He’s not abusive; he’s sanctimonious. He’s not sadistic; he’s thoughtless. He’s not intentionally mean; he’s self-absorbed. He’s not a villain; he’s just really disappointing.

“All I can say,” commented one student, shaking her head, “is that men have not changed.”

There were general murmurs of assent. I felt slightly bad for the two men in the room, who stayed quiet. [3]

I put it to the class that what made Eugene so disappointing as a person was also what made Eugene Onegin so satisfying as a novel. Like Darcy, Eugene comes across initially as arrogant and condescending. But where Pride and Prejudice makes Lizzy turn out to have been blind to Darcy’s hidden depths, Eugene turns out not to have any hidden depths. He seems shallow from the beginning. And what Tatiana discovers when she looks more closely is that he actually is shallow.

There’s something, I maintain, satisfying about this as a reader.

In both novels, the hero’s character reveals itself more candidly in his own writing and in his empty house than in face-to-face encounters. In both novels, reading the hero’s own words and touring his vacant mansion are transformative experiences for the heroine.

After Eugene leaves the countryside, Tatiana, on impulse, “requests permission / To see the vacant house alone / And read the books he’d called his own” (Chapter 7, Canto 20).

She discovers that his tastes run to

“The bard of Juan and the Giaour,

And some few novels done with power,

In which our age is well displayed

And modern man himself portrayed.” (Chapter 7, Canto 22)

I mean, I love Byron too. But a guy who mostly has Byron—and novels lionizing “modern man”—on his bookshelf? If that’s not a red flag, I don’t know what is. What is telling, moreover, is not only Eugene’s selection of books but also the markings he has made upon them: those places where he has literally impressed himself onto the page:

“Some pages still preserved the traces

Where fingernails had sharply pressed;

The girl’s attentive eye embraces

These lines more quickly than the rest.

And Tanya sees with trepidation

The kind of thought or observation

To which Eugene paid special heed,

Or where he’d tacitly agreed.

And in the margins she inspected

His pencil marks with special care;

And on those pages everywhere

She found Onegin’s soul reflected—

In crosses or a jotted note,

Or in the question mark he wrote.” (Chapter 7, Canto 23)

It’s inspired on Pushkin’s part to have the bookish Tatiana discover Eugene’s character by reading his marginalia. According to Nabokov’s commentary, Pushkin “toyed … with the idea of having Tatiana discover Onegin’s St. Petersburg diary,” before opting instead to have her divine his character from his marginalia. [4]

In a further stroke of genius, Pushkin does not provide any examples of the marginalia that enables Tatiana to see Onegin for what he is: an empty poser. What he shows us instead is her dismayed reaction to what she discovers:

“What was he then? An imitation?

An empty phantom or a joke,

A Muscovite in Harold’s cloak … ?” (Chapter 7, Canto 24)

What. on earth. did Eugene. write. in those margins? [5]

 As one of my students observed, chuckling and shaking her head, “I’d really like to see what he wrote that made her change her mind!”

To be clear, after reading this marginalia, Tatiana reluctantly agrees to go to Moscow, where her mother deems her marriage prospects will be brighter. And, indeed, shortly after she is married off to a wealthy old and seemingly harmless but also possibly armless General.

In other words, reading this marginalia has consequences. [6]

So tantalizing is Pushkin’s withholding of what it is exactly about Eugene’s marginalia that so disillusions Tatiana that I must forgive Nabokov for speculating, in his commentary, about which passages from Byron’s Giaour and Don Juan Onegin might have marked. This, to be clear, is based on no evidence in the text at all[7]

The mood in the class lifted after we discussed the scene in which Tatiana reads Onegin’s marginalia. Why? Perhaps because we felt a little protective of Tatiana earlier, in Chapter 3, Cantos 11-12, when the narrator intimates that the sentimental novels Tatiana adores aren’t fashionable any more and that tastes have moved on to darker, more Byronic fare—the type of stuff that Eugene favors. Even as the narrator sympathizes with Tatiana it’s clear that Eugene would regard himself as having more sophisticated taste than she does.

It is therefore extremely satisfying to have Tatiana discover in this scene that Eugene is a terrible reader. What’s also so economic about this episode is that, at the same time as it reveals Eugene’s character to Tatiana, it also deepens the reader’s sense of Tatiana’s character, supporting Pushkin’s initial characterization of her as intelligent and discerning.

So often, narratives tell us that a heroine is sharp-witted and discerning but then what they show us is her misjudging a man who initially seems pretty mediocre but who turns out to be super underneath. It feels like a form of gaslighting.

I had already confessed to my students that I’d had a lot, like, a lot of trouble adjusting to the idea that Darcy was actually worthy of Lizzy when I first read Pride and Prejudice. More recently, as I now told them, I’d had much the same problem re-watching the Harry Potter films with my kids.

“ … It’s just really upsetting to me because Hermione is so smart and …”

I didn’t need to continue.

One of my students just said “Ron” and shook her head.

***

Eugene Onegin concludes with a peripeteia or reversal: when their paths cross again after many years, Eugene is immediately drawn to Tatiana, who is now married to her wealthy general and exudes an “inaccessibly serene” aura. Eugene writes to her; she ignores him. He declares his love in person; she rebuffs him. The reversal, however, is not as complete as this account makes it sound. Tatiana, as she freely admits to him, still loves Eugene. Reading his marginalia causes her to perceive his shortcomings, but not to fall out of love with him, because her falling in love was not based in the first place on an estimation of his goodness.

When is it ever? As Lizzy observes to Darcy, “to be sure, you knew no actual good of me—but nobody thinks of that when they fall in love” (Volume III, Chapter XVIII). Moreover, although Eugene, at the end, is in love with Tatiana, it’s not clear that this change of heart results from any growth on his part. What has changed is structural: she is no longer accessible to him and so now he desires her. In this respect, their characters seem unchanged even as their positions have shifted.

Eugene Onegin shows us what we know is true about desire but don’t want to believe: that it’s almost always asynchronous; that no-one ever got anywhere trying to talk someone else out of their feelings; and that sometimes it’s just too late.

Pushkin portrait

Cover illustration: detail from “Aleksandr Sergevich Pushkin with his wife, Natalya Goncharova, at the Court Ball,” 1937, by Nikolai Pavlovich Ulyanov. Pushkin Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia.

My students seemed to find the end of the novel at once disappointing and cathartic. I asked them what they took from the novel’s conclusion. Someone said something about toxic masculinity. Someone else said that they admired how composed Tatiana is—how perfectly indifferent she is to Eugene when she encounters him in public at the end. I agreed. I’d like to be able to channel her composure. Tatiana is an inspiring example to all of us who are delicately constituted—whether by nature or literary influence—because her example suggests that, with practice, even the most tender hearted among us can perfect the art of affecting indifference.

 

Notes

[1] “Richardson, Rousseau, and Sterne meantime, to whose powers of piercing, or soothing, or tearing the human heart, all imitation of manners becomes secondary—even adventure and combination of STORY superfluous—will continue to be wondered and wept over while language lives to record the names of Clarissa, Julie, and Le Fevre.” (Hester Lynch Piozzi. British Synonymy; or, an attempt at regulating the choice of words in familiar conversation. 1794, p. 446).

[2] Unless otherwise noted, all quotations from Eugene Onegin are from James E. Falen’s translation (Oxford, 2009).

[3] But only slightly bad.

[4] Aleksandr Pushkin, Eugene Onegin: A Novel in Verse. Translated by Vladimir Nabokov. 2 vols. Volume II: Commentary and Index. (Princeton, Princeton University Press, Bollingen Paperback Edition Series LXXII, 1990), Part 2, 104.

[5] I would like to try to recreate Eugene’s marginalia. I imagine there’s a lot of “Christ symbol” and !!! and ??? and “note to self: remember not to leave shoes out when hiding in married woman’s bedroom.” If anyone wants to collaborate on this please get in touch ASAP.

[6] In one of Nabokov’s very best notes (which I imagine him composing with his head cocked just so, as if trying to make out if he hears a Sternian resonance or if it’s just his imagination), he observes, of Tatiana’s statement to Onegin that her husband was “maimed in battle”:

maimed

[7] See, for example, Nabokov’s note to Chapter 7, Canto 22, which identifies the 1820 French translation of The Giaour by Chastopalli as that which would have been “known to Pushkin and Onegin,” and goes on to quote a particular passage that “Onegin might have marked.” He goes on to suggest, “Tatiana (in June, 1821) might have found the following passage [from Chastopalli’s 1820 translation of Don Juan] marked by Onegin” (Nabokov, Commentary, Part 2, 94).

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Day 210: Nothing you ever wanted to know about Alfred Hitchcock and weren’t afraid to ask anyone

For the second-grade end-of-year event, the kids choose a historical figure, dress up as them, and perform a little monologue in their persona. The younger has chosen to appear in the person of Alfred Hitchcock.

This morning, the kids and I were sitting around the breakfast table.

“Have you started writing what you’re going to say when you’re Alfred Hitchcock?” I asked the younger.

She looked sheepish. “Yeah, I’ve started …” she said slowly.

“Cool! Let’s hear what you’ve got so far!” I said.

The younger demurred. “I don’t have a lot of facts yet,” she explained. “Some of them I’m just guessing from looking at the book,” she went on, referring to the book, Who Was Alfred Hitchcock? that had inspired her choice.

“That’s OK! “I said encouragingly, “Let’s just hear the beginning. “

“OK,” she said, taking a deep breath.

“My name is Alfred Hitchcock,” she began, strongly, “and … and I had my kidney removed.”

She paused.

The elder and I waited expectantly.

The younger shrugged her shoulders.

“Is that it?” I asked carefully.

“Well, I’ve only just started,” she reiterated.

“Right,” I said. “Is that true?” I asked. “Did he have his kidney removed?”

“Well, he definitely had something removed,” she declared authoritatively.

“That may well be true,” I said.

“It’s maybe not,” the elder ventured tentatively, making eye contact with me and severely straining my ability to keep a straight face, “it’s maybe not the most relevant fact to his life?”

The younger shook her head at us witheringly.

“I told you that I’ve ONLY JUST STARTED,” she said, icily.

As you can see below, she now has a full draft. Shared with the author’s permission.

hitchcock

 

 

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Day 209: Mom, can I ask you something?

A small sampling of questions put to me by the younger, aged 8 years and 4 months, in the last 24 hours. With answers below for the curious.

Questions

  1. Why do you start to talk all British when you talk to another British person?
  2. You know that kind of movie in which the bad guy becomes something like a grocery store manager or a librarian at the end?
  3. Would you rather have all the money in the world but you can only spend it on what you need or a hundred dollars that you can spend on what you want?
  4. Is it true that if you bathed in pickle juice your skin would become all warty and bumpy?
  5. Have you ever broken anything?
  6. Do you think that an ant’s brain is microscopic?
  7. Did you know that sand is just tiny rocks?
  8. Why is the sky blue?
  9. Have you ever been to Starbucks?
  10. What’s your favorite number?
  11. Would you rather bathe in a tub full of squishies or a tub full of water that smells like your favorite food?
  12. Can I tell you a story?
  13. Can I tell you the worst idea ever had?
  14. Did you know that Tom Cruise has a middle tooth?
  15. Who do you think is the best Ron, Ron in Parks and Rec or Ron in Harry Potter?
  16. Which is your favorite squishie?
  17. Were you alive in 1967?
  18. What’s your favorite kind of film, films with magic or films without magic?
  19. Would Max be grounded if he doused me in boiling water?
  20. Which character from Harry Potter do you think I am most like?

Answers

  1. I don’t really know! But I know I do it! I suppose hearing them I naturally fall back into British ways of saying things? It’s sort of contagious?
  2. No, I can’t say that I do.
  3. Hmm, I think all the money in the world and everything I need. I feel like I could figure out a way to get some stuff I want too …
  4. Umm. I’m not sure? Did someone tell you that? No? I mean, I don’t think you would become warty … if there was a lot of vinegar in it maybe it might sting though?
  5. Like what? A vase? A promise? Oh! Well, I fractured my elbow once. That doesn’t count? Then, no.
  6. I would say probably … yes. Because an ant is already very small. And their brains are probably quite small. So, yes, I would say microscopic.
  7. Well [pedantically], I would say tiny shells? Actually, I just looked it up and her answer seems more accurate than mine.
  8. Oh man. I know I know this. But I just can’t remember. Is it something to do with why the ocean is also blue? No, that’s not right. I can’t remember. We’ll have to look it up when we get home. We forget to look it up. If you can be bothered, you could read this for the answer.
  9. Yes. Many times. She seems quite surprised by this answer.
  10. 27. Well, 27 used to be my favorite number because I used to think that would be the perfect age. But it was just, you know, fine. What’s yours? Why 4? Huh, a “warm feel,” that’s interesting. Because I’m 44 so then maybe my age is the perfect age because it’s extra warm!
  11. Squishies. I don’t want to bathe in a bath that smells of food. No, not even my favorite food.
  12. Yes. I cannot remember the story but it involved strange, hybrid pets.
  13. Yes. I cannot remember the idea, but it was something she saw on YouTube.
  14. I didn’t know and no, I don’t need to verify it. She insists we verify this.
  15. Ooh, that’s a really good question. I ponder this one seriously. I mean, I think I’ve got to say Ron from Parks and Rec because, as you know, I think Ron from Harry Potter is kind of meh and certainly he is nowhere near good enough for Hermione, and my irritation at that makes it difficult for me to feel kindly towards him, although I suppose that’s not really his fault. She counters that Ron “lives in the world of magic,” “has a really nice Mom,” and lives in a “really cool house.” I counter back that these are not really essential aspects of Ron-ness and that Ron-from-Parks-and-Rec has more skills because he can make stuff out of wood. I’m approaching this question in terms of a who-would-you-want-to-have-with-you-during-the-zombie-apocalypse type question.But I would rather live in Ron-from-Harry-Potter’s world,” she says. OK, well that’s a totally different question, I would rather live in Ron-from-Harry-Potter’s world too. I mean, sure! I get to be married to Hermione, so I’ve somehow managed to snag someone who is totally out of my league; and also my best friend killed Voldemort which was really the only bad thing about living in the magic world; what’s not to like?
  16. Definitely the hybrid raspberry-sheep.
  17. No. No!
  18. Films with magic.
  19. He would be more than grounded.
  20. Hagrid.

 

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Day 208: the continuation of love

“Grief is the continuation of love.”

(Robert C. Solomon, In Defense of Sentimentality, 2004, p.90)

A couple of sessions ago, Dr. F asked me if I felt angry with my father when he died. After thinking it over I said no, that while I was angry more generally, I didn’t feel anger directed specifically at him.

But later I remembered that, yes, I had actually felt angry about something quite specific; and I had also felt—still feel—embarrassed by this anger; perhaps that’s why I didn’t think of it or didn’t mention it when she asked, because it felt too trivial.

When my mother told me on the phone that my father was dead, the thought that shuddered through my mind like an electric shock was “but he promised me that he wouldn’t die.”

This promise—to perhaps state the obvious—was one he made to me when I was a young child. As a child, I worried a lot about my parents dying—not that they would die in an accident or something; simply the prospect that I would one day have to live in the world without them caused me immense distress. I remember crying in bed and being unable to go to sleep because the idea was so awful to me.

I’m probably conflating a lot of different memories here—but what I have experienced as a distinct memory for a long time is this: I am in bed and both of my parents are in the room near my bed. I am younger than eleven because I’m in the bedroom I shared with my brother until that age. I am crying and begging them to promise me they won’t die. My Mum promises me that she won’t die until she is a “very very old woman,” which doesn’t make me feel better at all. My Dad promises me he won’t die and, while my Mum makes disapproving noises at his making such a promise, I immediately feel better, like a weight has been lifted.

Obviously, even if I believed him at the time, I understood as I grew older that this was not a promise he could keep. And it didn’t bother me; I understood it as something he’d told me at the time to comfort me and make me feel safe, knowing that I wasn’t yet able or ready to live with the truth.

It was therefore surprising to me to find how violently this sense of the promise having being broken coursed through me at the moment I learned of my Dad’s death.

***

I’ve been reading a book by the late philosopher, Peter Goldie, called The Mess Inside (OUP, 2012), which is about the importance of narrative to the way we experience emotions. One of his insights is that, when we reflect upon past experiences, we often inhabit a point-of-view that Goldie views as the “psychological correlate” of free indirect style. What he means by this is that, when we reflect on the past, we encounter “an unelectable ironic gap (epistemic, evaluative, and emotional) between internal and external perspective”; and that when we inhabit this point of view, it performs the same function of free indirect style: that is, “simultaneously closing the ironic gap and drawing attention to its distance” (43, 48).

I’ve been rereading Pride and Prejudice this week for my class on the novel with Goldie’s observations in mind. Austen is famous for her use of free indirect style; but what I now notice is that she also puts her characters in situations where they inhabit the point of view that Goldie suggests is the psychological correlate of free indirect style. So, for example, the following sentence describing Lizzy reflecting on Wickham’s past behavior is not in free indirect style, but it expresses the point of view that concerns Goldie:

“She was now struck with the impropriety of such communications to a stranger, and wondered it had escaped her before.”

Or consider another example, which is both in free indirect style and represents its psychological correlate in such a way that proliferates the number of viewpoints that the sentence brings together: the free indirect style merges narrator and Lizzy, and the retrospective point of view merges present Lizzy with past Lizzy. Again, here, Lizzy is reflecting on Wickham:

“How differently did every thing now appear in which he was concerned!”

Goldie focuses on grief as a case study of this way of narratively thinking about the past. As he observes, in grief, “you remember the last time you saw the person you loved, not knowing, as you do now, that it was to be the last time. And this irony, through the psychological correlate of free indirect style, will infect the way you remember it” (65).

Goldie describes here exactly how I think about lying with my head on my Dad’s knee while he stroked my hair, the night before he died. He died when I had just turned eighteen, at a time when our relationship was combative. Our conversations always turned into arguments in those days. But his stroking my hair and back, as he always had, still soothed me. That memory took on an aching poignancy after his sudden death because of not knowing at the time, but knowing ever after, that it was the last time.

Another insight Goldie makes about grief is that it does not endure but, rather, perdures. Things that perdure tend to be processes as opposed to states. To say that a process perdures is to say that “its identity is not determined at every moment of its existing” (61). This is very abstract; a helpful example of a thing that perdures that Goldie takes from the philosophers Thomas Hofweber and David Velleman, is the process of writing a check. Here are Hofweber and Velleman:

“A process of writing a cheque is a temporally extended process, with temporal parts consisting in the laying down of each successive drop of ink. What there is of this process at a particular moment – the laying down of a particular drop – is not sufficient to determine that a cheque is being written, and so it is not sufficient to determine which particular process is taking place. That particular drop of ink could have been deposited at that moment, just as it actually was, without other drops’ being deposited at other moments in such a way as to constitute the same process. Not only, then, is the process not present in its temporal entirety within the confines of the moment: it is not fully determined by the events of the moment to be the process that it is.” [1]

Goldie’s point, in bringing the concept of perduring to grief, is that grief, like writing a check, is a process with many features, “none of which is essential at any given particular time” (62). This observation might seem obvious or banal but I think it’s actually profound. It is its perduring quality that makes grief so particular, and so painful. Goldie quotes a passage from C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed (1961), a passage that captures the way that grief’s capacity to subside for a while is part of its agony:

“It’s not true that I’m always thinking of H. Work and conversation make that impossible. But the times when I’m not are perhaps my worst. For then, though I have forgotten the reason, there is spread over everything a vague sense of wrongness, of something amiss. Like in those dreams where nothing terrible occurs—nothing that would sound even remarkable if you told it at breakfast-time—but the atmosphere, the taste, of the whole thing is deadly. So with this. I see the rowan berries reddening and don’t know for a moment why they, of all things, should be depressing. I hear a clock strike and some quality it always had before has gone out of the sound. What’s wrong with the world to make it so flat, shabby, worn-out looking? Then I remember.”

I remember, after my Dad died, the feeling of awakening, day after day, from the oblivion of sleep into the memory of loss. Every night I would forget, and every morning I would remember.

This is part of grief’s cruelty; if it was enduring rather than perduring, perhaps you could get used to it. But there’s no getting used to it nor getting over it either, not so long as you love the person you have lost; for grief, as Robert Solomon writes, is the continuation of love. As Goldie cites Wittgenstein,“‘grief’ describes a pattern which recurs, with different variations, in the weave of our life” (from the Philosophical Investigations, cited in Goldie, 62).

Like writing a check, grief perdures. The analogy only goes so far. Unlike writing a check, there’s no being done with grief. It’s a check you’re forever writing that never gets deposited. It’s a check that, like a reckless promise, can’t be cashed.

 

Notes

[1] The Philosophical Quarterly, Volume 61, Issue 242, January 2011, Pages 37–57, p.50.

 

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Day 207: breaking news: it’s a ducking rabbit

Scene: Friday morning, 7:30 am, at the breakfast table.

ME: OK, you guys remember that I have this conference today and tomorrow?

ELDER: Yes. Are you giving a talk today?

ME: It’s tomorrow. Wanna hear my title?

ELDER: Sure.

ME: It’s called “How to Do Things with Ducks and Rabbits.”

YOUNGER: [scrunching up her face] That reminds me of that book which has the picture that kind of looks like a duck and kind of looks like a rabbit.

duckrabbitbook

ME: Yes! The talk is actually about that picture so it’s good that the title makes you think of that—of the duck that looks like a rabbit.

YOUNGER: Well … it’s actually a rabbit that looks like a duck.

ME: [laughing] is it?

YOUNGER: [not laughing]: Yes.

ME: [somewhat condescendingly] Well, I think the point is that you can see it both ways.

YOUNGER: [adamant]: No, if you look at the picture you’ll see that I’m right.

I Google the picture–the one from Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, because that’s the version I’m discussing in my talk–on my phone and we all peer at it.

another wittgenstein duck-rabbit

YOUNGER: [triumphantly] Yeah, it’s definitely a rabbit that looks like a duck.

ELDER: No, it’s a duck that looks like a rabbit—because I saw the duck before I saw the rabbit.

ME: Yeah, I think I agree with him—the duck seems more obvious. But the fact that we all see different things is the point!

YOUNGER: [Exasperated by our slowness.] No, look, do you see this [pointing to the indentation that makes the rabbit’s mouth]? Why would the duck have this thing on the back of his head? There’s no reason for it. So it’s a rabbit that looks like a duck!

ME: Huh ….

***

The more I thought about it, the more I thought she was right. Especially in Wittgenstein’s minimalist rendition of the duck-rabbit, every mark matters. A mark that isn’t doing double duty in contributing to the identity of both duck and rabbit inevitably tips the duck-rabbit more to one side of its identity than the other: in this case, towards the rabbit’s side.

As my friend Elaine recently observed, “the duck-rabbit has to do with a deficit of representation. The deficit allows it to remain ambiguous (if Wittgenstein had draw whiskers and a carrot, it couldn’t be a duck).”

He didn’t draw whiskers and a carrot, of course. But he did draw that tiny gesture of a mouth–and it’s a mark that, in enhancing the rabbitness of the rabbit slightly diminishes the duckness of the duck. Or, perhaps the mark makes us want to create a narrative about the duck; like, he’s a duck who got into an accident and has a scar on the back of his head–but you should see the other duck!

I know that Wittgenstein didn’t originate the duck-rabbit illusion but I found myself wondering how he first imagined the duck-rabbit—that is, how he first drew it.

Reader, you know what happened next. I fell down into a deep, deep duck-rabbit hole trying to find the original manuscript. I discovered that the duck-rabbit first appeared in Wittgenstein’s manuscript notes, later published as “Remarks on the Philosophy of Psychology,” which are considered as preparatory studies for Part II of the Philosophical Investigations. Although Wittgenstein produced typescripts based on those manuscripts, and those typescripts are reproduced in the Collected Works, the typescripts didn’t include the original drawings. Anyway, I was desperate to see the duck-rabbit in its natural habitat, as it were, on the lined, scrawled upon note-book page.

Reader, I found it (them?)! Thanks to an absolutely amazing resource, http://www.wittgensteinsource.org, where you can freely access Wittgenstein primary sources, including manuscript facsimiles and typescripts. [1] And there he is, situated in a nice little clearing of blank page, leaving room for him to quack or … make whatever noise it is that rabbits make, in either direction.

Original duckrabbit

But here’s the thing (and I’ll wonder if you agree with me). This duck-rabbit is even more rabbity than the one in the Philosophical Investigations! I can barely even make myself see this one as a duck! The mouth is much more pronounced—this poor duck has suffered some even more terrible injury resulting in a cleft skull. (There’s got to be a story there.) It almost seems implausible for Wittgenstein to claim, as he does in the manuscript version, that this drawing is, indeed, ambiguous.

I think there are two lessons that we can conclude from this here philosophical investigation.

1. It’s a good thing that Wittgenstein improved his drawing of the duck-rabbit, or else his philosophical reputation might have been very different.

2: The younger is right: it’s a motherducking rabbit. Case closed.

 

Notes

[1] See the notebook page here: http://www.wittgensteinsource.org/box_view_url_shortener?u=dr

 

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Day 206: flapjack

I bit my lip, squared my shoulders, and walked into class, smiling as best as I could. I stood at the podium and started to unpack my stuff. One student wanted to make an announcement about the Writing Center, and as she spoke to the class I set up my PowerPoint presentation on Pride and Prejudice. Then she sat down and the class looked at me expectantly.

“I ….” I hesitated. I tried again. “I … I’ve been having kind of a hard time and so ….” I could feel my face crumpling but I was determined to press on “… and so I decided to bake something … because … because I like baking … and I thought you might like these …. they’re called flapjacks. They’re not pancakes,” I added hastily, “what you call flapjacks—they’re like oatmeal cookies … and they’re really good.

A sound emanated from the assembled students, something half way between a sigh and an awww, and I busied myself getting out the two big tupperwares and passing them around.

I spoke about the Regency against the pleasant background noise of munching and rustling wax paper.

After a while I even felt like eating a flapjack.

It lifted my spirits to find that my students could successfully pick out which parts of a passage from Pride and Prejudice were in free indirect discourse. It cheered me to discover that they could articulate that what makes Elizabeth Bennet feel “relatable” to them is how she finds ways to express resistance and creativity in a world that is so restrictive and codified.

At the end of class the students filed out shyly, thanking me for the cookies. “I’m glad you liked them!” I said, and I walked out of class feeling better than when I walked in.

As I walked to the parking lot I heard myself being hailed, “Sarah!” and pivoted. It was one of my students. She was running and breathing heavily. “First, sorry for calling you Sarah,” she panted.

I laughed.

She bent over, winded, “Oof, I’ve been trying to catch up with you,” she exclaimed.

I wondered what was so urgent.

She caught her breath.

“You mentioned that you were having a hard time and … and it just made me want to tell you,” she paused, panting again, “sorry, I’m still out of breath, and this is also just off the top of my head … It made me want to tell you that I really value everything you put into this class. It’s meant so much to me to be able to work with you. And … I don’t know if this helps to hear this, but I just wanted you to know how much you’re appreciated. Not just by me. All of us in the class—we all love you.”

I have got to figure out a way to stop from crying whenever people are kind to me.

I told her how much it meant to me that she would say that, more than I could say, and especially, I added, because I knew that she had experienced a bereavement, the death of a close friend, the previous quarter, and so she knew keenly what it is like to struggle to keep going when you’re in distress.

“And …” she added, a little sheepishly, “sorry for making you emotional.”

I laughed through my tears, “Oh, that’s OK,” I said, “I’m emotional every other minute at the moment.”

“Can I give you a hug?” she asked.

I accepted it gratefully.

What kindness. What tremendous kindness. I know I’ve been extremely Eeyorish in recent days but … I do also know how lucky I am. I won the bloody lottery in almost every aspect of life. I forget that sometimes, but I remembered it yesterday.

Oh, and here’s the recipe for the flapjack. You should make it.

From the Islington Cookbook

Flapjack

4 oz brown sugar
4 oz butter
4 oz rolled oats
4 oz flour
2 Tbsp golden syrup (or honey)
optional: 1/2 tsp vanilla
optional: pinch of salt

Melt butter; add brown sugar and mix. Add everything else. If you’re using golden syrup, I’d strongly recommend licking the spoon. Spread on a baking tray and bake at 375 F for 10-20 minutes, until lightly browned. It will firm up as it cools. Slice and eat—or give away, if you’re feeling extremely generous. Don’t feel bad if you can’t muster the willpower.

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