Day 192: on feeling stuck

I sat in my office last Tuesday looking out the window and feeling stuck. I was reading an article about the field known as medical or health humanities. The article portrayed the humanities as an expiring body in need of saving but also as an inoculation against “the influence of medicine.” The humanities, the article argued, needed medicine to save it from itself; in its new, invigorated form, it could then be made useful as a prophylactic to vaccinate subjects with judicious doses of “empathy” and “critical thinking” that would serve to “inoculate students against the influence of medicine.” [1]

The author’s vision is of an instrumentalized humanities writ large. But the question of what “outcomes” can be derived from humanistic learning is one I’d encountered earlier in the week in less grandiose terms—specifically, in a proposal that faculty develop “curriculum maps” showing the learning objectives and outcomes produced by particular courses.

Examples of such maps show a grid in which a class is analyzed according to whether particular “learning outcomes,” (like “critical thinking”) are “introduced,” “developed,” or “mastered.” You can learn more about these tools here.

I understand how such maps might be useful in giving a bird’s eye view of what a course is about. For example, one of the courses I regularly teach, “Literature in English 1700-1850,” could be mapped as “introducing” “outcomes” ranging from skills like “close reading” to particular bodies of knowledge pertaining to literary history, genre, modes and techniques. (I confess I rather like the idea of having one “outcome” for that class simply being: zeugma: mastered, bitch).

I would be less sure of how to map the class I’m teaching next quarter on attachment and detachment. Maybe, yes, it could be said to “introduce” attachment theory, and perhaps to “develop” students’ acquaintance with the novel form. But what would “mastery” look like?

In the presentation I saw about curriculum maps, the examples shown were all maps created for fake classes. The one that was clearly meant as a proxy for a literature course was one about “epistolary romance”; it received “D”s across the board for “Developing” particular outcomes (knowledge in field, writing effectively, etc.), and I thought, “yeah, developed sounds about right.” Because what would it mean to have mastered “epistolary romance”? What kind of evidence would you need to prove your mastery? An annotated copy of Clarissa? Written proof that you had successfully seduced your correspondent? Tear-stained pages? Has Valmont, in Laclos’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses mastered epistolary romance? Hasn’t it, arguably, mastered him?

I found myself asking myself these questions as I imagined what it would mean to assess my class next quarter on attachment via the rubric of “mastery.” This will be a class in which I expect the students not only to read works that theorize and dramatize attachment but also to experience and reflect upon their own experiences of aesthetic attachment.

Isn’t attachment something like the opposite of mastery? To be attached, after all, is to find oneself bound to an object, sometimes against one’s preference. As Elizabeth Bennet exclaims in Pride and Prejudice, upon her friend Charlotte predicting that she will find Mr. Darcy to be very agreeable, “Heaven forbid! That would be the greatest misfortune of all! To find a man agreeable whom one is determined to hate!”

***

I had turned my office chair that afternoon so that I faced the window, because otherwise the sun’s glare made my laptop screen too difficult to see. Facing the window, my gaze shifted between screen and window. The view from my second-floor office window is of course familiar to me, but I saw it differently that afternoon. My south facing window looks out onto a pedestrian bridge that joins my building to the physics and astronomy building across the road. A set of glass double doors connects the bridge on the physics and astronomy side; on our side, the bridge appears to terminate below the window of the office two down from mine. The bridge is not accessible from either end. Trust me, I’ve tried, over the years. I call it the “bridge to nowhere” in my head but that’s not exactly right. It’s a bridge between the humanities building and the physics and astronomy building; it’s just not a bridge that you can access from either end. Is a bridge that cannot be accessed still a bridge, I wondered, idly?

bridge to nowhere

A view of the bridge

For some reason, that afternoon, the sight of this inaccessible bridge, so near and yet so far, started to piss me off. I felt gaslighted. An entity shouldn’t look like a bridge and act like a bridge if it isn’t, in fact, a bridge. I tried, fruitlessly, once again, to see if I could access it from a nearby balcony. I asked around in the department office. Did anyone know why it wasn’t accessible? Someone mentioned a rumor that it had been closed off after someone had jumped off it a long time ago. Myself, I’d considered how it might be accessed in the past for the opposite reason: as a means of evading death. (Such things tend to cross your mind once you’ve experienced an active shooter campus lockdown.)

The reason, I think, that the bridge irked me that day, and irks me still, is because its inaccessibility creates a kind of ontological confusion. A locked door is still a door. A dirty window is still a window. But a bridge that doesn’t afford passage has reneged, it seems to me, on one of the essential conditions of bridgeness.

What if there were a way to redefine the space, somehow, so that it was not a non-functional bridge but a functional something else …. or a space in which its non-functionality could be a feature rather than a bug? What if the space were reconfigured so that its most important axis was not horizontal but vertical? What if it were filled with earth and plants, no longer a bridge but a hanging garden, tendrils falling down in a curtain through which pedestrians below would pass, ensnared by succulents, caught up in trailing honeysuckle?

I’ve become taken with this idea recently: not the idea of literally making the bridge to nowhere into a hanging garden, but the idea more generally of how and when passages become enclosures or enclosures passages. The forms of the vignette and the arabesque interest me because they share a quality of movement without progress. Like hanging gardens, vignettes and arabesques encroach into surrounding spaces but not in service of any particular end. A vignette, so named because it is “A running or trailing ornament or design in imitation of the branches, leaves, or tendrils of the vine,” is any embellishment, illustration, or picture uninclosed in a border, or having the edges shading off into the surrounding paper …” (OED).

Hogarth's shop card

Hogarth’s shop card!

Arabesque is a close cousin, a decorative pattern characterized by flowing, interlacing lines “typically of branches, leaves, and flowers” (OED).

anonymous Italian

anonymous, Italian, 18th century

In lieu of a straight line from A to B, an arabesque or vignette is all forking paths and detours with no discernible end. Such a form, William Hogarth suggests, is most engaging to the eye, if it “hath every turn in it that lines are capable of moving into, and at the same time no way applied, nor of any manner of use” (The Analysis of Beauty, 1753, my emphasis).

When I fantasize about making the bridge to nowhere into a hanging garden, I think that Hogarth is onto something: that is, I imagine the appeal of the hanging garden would reside in the play of its lines, not in its instrumentality.

And yet.

If you’re me, to imagine those hanging tendrils is also to imagine eagerly scaling them, as if they were Rapunzel’s locks; or swinging vine to vine, like Tarzan. As much as I chafe at the word instrumentality it’s also hard for me to let go of the desire to vault myself from A to B … of the desire to get. across. the bloody. bridge. To admit this feels like a failure of imagination on my part, a kind of constitutional basicness, a primitive need for sequence, plot, telos.

***

So maybe the curriculums maps are right after all. Maybe the desire for passage, the desire to get somewhere is too strong for us—or at least for me—to imagine mapping learning experiences other than in terms of where they can take us; that is, in terms of their application. But does that mean “mastery” is really the only valid metric? Aren’t encounters with aesthetic objects useful precisely because they acquaint us with mastery’s limits, with how, in the desire to know an object fully, to discern all its contours, what we run up against are not its edges but the limits of our own reach?

If I were devising a curriculum map, I’d expand the range of possible learning outcomes a given course could be expected to produce. I’d be happy to keep the first three stages: Introduced; Developed; Mastered. But then, a twist! After “Mastered” would come the following: Discomfited; Perplexed; Thwarted; Undone; Stuck and Boggled and Knowing Not Which Way To Turn. [2]

In the meantime, I’m still feeling stuck. And I’m still plotting how to get onto that bridge.

 

Notes

[1] (Craig M. Klugman, “How Health Humanities Will Save the Life of the Humanities,” Journal of Medical Humanities 38(4): 419-430, 425, 420)

[2] Cf. John Locke’s remarks on understanding in his Miscellaneous Papers, 1677: “our understanding sticks and boggles and knows not which way to turn.” (From Lord Peter King, The Life of John Locke: With Extracts from his Correspondence, Journals, and Common-place Books, 322).

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Day 142: Till some blind hand Shall brush my wing

“One world exists where a man follows the road scorned in the other by his copy.”

This is a quote from Auguste Blanqui’s treatise on the multiplicity of worlds, L’éternité par les astres (1872). Catherine Gallagher cited it at the close of a talk about counterfactual narratives that she gave this weekend at a conference I helped organize; something about the line made tears well up in my eyes.

As Gallagher observed in her talk, Gottfried Leibniz is the father of counterfactual thinking. Leibniz’s theology holds that, selecting from an infinite array of possible worlds, God chose to bring our world into existence because he deemed it the best of all possible worlds. For Leibniz, thinking about how the world might have been is a way to appreciate how much worse things might otherwise have been. (“You think our world is bad? Wait till you see these others!”). While Leibniz insists that overall all other possible worlds are inferior to ours, he acknowledges that a given individual may well fare better in many of these other worlds.

Leibniz’s Theodicy (1710) ends, strangely and compellingly, with a fable that speaks to this poignant incommensurability between divine and individual interests. The fable focuses upon Sextus Tarquinius, the infamous prince whose rape of Lucretia was said to precipitate the founding of the Roman republic. Leibniz tells the parable in order to try to explain why, although God permitted the rape of Lucretia to occur, God is not responsible for Sextus’s sin. According to Leibniz, God judged that it was worth sacrificing Lucretia’s life and happiness because of the greater good that would spring from Sextus’s crime. For Leibniz we have no choice but to endorse this decision as the right decision, because God’s goodness compelled him to create the best of all possible worlds; and therefore a world in which Lucretia was spared would have necessarily been a “worse” world.

What does “the best of all possible worlds” mean here? In another context (The Discourse on Metaphysics, 1686) Leibniz writes that a perfect world is “the simplest in hypotheses and the richest in phenomena,” and Leibniz scholars tend toward thinking that Leibniz imagines God to judge “bestness” by this or another metaphysical criterion rather than appealing to a more utilitarian criterion like “a world in which the most people are happy.” Leibniz admits, then, that God permits evil in the world; these individual instances of evil, Leibniz argues, are a necessary consequence of God fulfilling his duty to create the best of all possible worlds. In other words, God permits the rape of Lucretia because that instance of evil is necessary to creating the best of all possible worlds that subsequently emerges.

It’s difficult not to feel like Leibniz’s God is kind of an asshole. Not a Milton’s God kind of an asshole, who is assholey in a Bluebeardy kind of way (“don’t go into that closet to which I am giving you this key … you did? [Sigh] Now I have to kill you”) but a libertinish Valmonty asshole who plays life like a long game of chess, mowing down pawns without compunction.

The point of Leibniz’s fable about Sextus is to show that God does not bear responsibility for an individual’s choices. The fable begins with a scene, set in our world, in which we see Sextus seek out Jupiter at the temple of Dodona in Greece. Sextus has already heard of his fate from Apollo and he’s not happy about it, so he complains to Jupiter and asks for a new fate. Jupiter says he will give Sextus a new fate if he agrees to surrender his claim to the Roman throne. Sextus refuses and storms out of the temple, abandoning himself to his fate. In the rest of the fable, we are shown an array of other possible worlds “wherein shall be found, not absolutely the same Sextus as you have seen [in this world] (that is not possible, he carries with him always that which he shall be) but several Sextuses resembling him, possessing all that you know already of the true Sextus, but not all that is already in him imperceptibly, nor in consequence all that shall yet happen to him. You will find in one world a very happy and noble Sextus, in another a Sextus content with a mediocre state, a Sextus, indeed, of every kind and endless diversity of forms.”

After surveying all of these worlds, finally we arrive back in this world, where we re-witness Sextus storm out of the temple of Dodona in a fury and return to Rome where he rapes Lucretia and is subsequently driven out, bringing down the monarchy. Pallas (Jupiter’s daughter, who has been conducting our tour) then comments: “You see that my father did not make Sextus wicked; he was so from all eternity, he was so always and freely. My father only granted him the existence which his wisdom could not refuse to the world where he is included: he made him pass from the region of the possible to that of the actual beings.”

Whenever I read this story I get stuck pondering the same question: which properties are essential to Sextus’s character and which are not? From what I can tell, Leibniz’s position is that there are certain essential properties a given individual has (like being human); and there are also contingent properties, like being the kind of human who chooses to rape Lucretia. Those latter contingent qualities are essential qualities of the Sextus of our world, but not of the Sextuses in other worlds. But then what does it mean to say that Sextus was wicked from all eternity? I suppose it means that Sextus in our world always freely chooses to rape Lucretia, despite having abundant other opportunities. Yet at the same time there’s something deterministic about Leibniz’s understanding about a person’s identity in a particular world; Pallas says, recall, that a given, world-specific Sextus “carries with him always that which he shall be,” suggesting in some way that character is destiny.

I write at a moment when those other worlds feel closer than usual, as do the other characters I might be in them, the other plots I might live out. In another world I’d still be a duck-rabbit of course (Leibniz insists that species is an essential property), but perhaps there’s one world where I’m more steadfast, and another where I’m more impulsive, and yet another, most desirable of all, where I’m more decisive. There might even be one where I return my library books. The specters of the different choices I might have made, that I could make yet, haunt those I’ve already made and those that still lie before me.

Making lists of pros and cons, hypothesizing and conjecturing possible outcomes, feels like such a Leibniz’s-assholey-God thing to do, detached from the tangible sufferings of those, like Lucretia, who may be the collateral damage of my lofty choices. In Leibniz’s fable, all the various worlds that God has at his disposal are like macrocosmic lists of pros and cons; specifically, all of the worlds are represented as books in a divine library. God likes to come in sometimes and browse these other worlds in order to “enjoy the pleasure of recapitulating things and of renewing his own choice, which cannot fail to please him.” As the verbs “enjoy” and “please” suggest, this is not the tortuous exercise in second-guessing oneself it would be for a mere mortal. Being all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good has its perks.

***

Due to a recent flare up of an allergy to something (mornings, I suspect) as well as a general propensity for weepiness, I seem to need tissues near to hand at all moments. Since, obviously, I am perennially out of tissues, I’ve taken to depositing rolls of loo paper on all available surfaces around the house. The other day a little fly was trying to get into my apricot jam while I was eating breakfast and I brushed it away and then unthinkingly picked up the roll of loo paper on the table and crushed the fly with it; that is, I stamped the roll of paper on top of the fly, as if I were crushing it with a mug. When I picked up the roll of loo paper and turned it over, there was the fly’s body, perfectly flattened against the plys of paper. It looked a bit like the flowers I used to press inside books when I was a girl. For some reason, I didn’t scrape the fly off; I didn’t want to touch it, so I just left it there. Now every time I reach for the roll, I see the fly’s dead body and think about how carelessly I slaughtered it. It’s a strange little momento mori. I see it and I think of Lucretia and all the other lives, big and small, that were not scorned in some other world.

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