Unreal Nature

July 28, 2013

Just to Hear a Little Music

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:49 am

…  this was a saving experience and a sacred and solitary refuge from a milieu not notable for eloquence or subtlety …

This is from The Oak in the Acorn: On Remembrance of Things Past and on Teaching Proust, Who Will Never Learn by Howard Nemerov (1987). Starting in the Preface:

These lectures were given before my class in The Modern Novel at Brandeis University in the winter and spring of 1968. Their being written out in more or less full was owing in the first place to fear. Bennington College had accustomed me for nearly two decades to classes of not more than twenty pupils, often fewer than that, who could be talked with instead of at, and here at Brandeis I now was to face an audience of over a hundred; plainly a situation where works, more than grace, were to be relied on.

… I first read [Proust’s] immense novel not at Harvard as might have been expected, but under the less likely auspices of the Royal Canadian Air Force, at Nr. 2 Service Flying Training School in Uplands outside of Ottawa, where I was being taught to fly an aircraft oddly named the Harvard II (the reader of Proust learns to delight in connections, however trivial).

… Three pieces of good fortune helped me here. First, four years of college had taught me to read. Second, my beautiful boozy Aunt Ruth had given me Proust’s book in English for a graduation present. And third, I was assigned an upper bunk just under one of perhaps only half a dozen ceiling lights. Had I been put in a lower bunk, I couldn’t possibly have read for two or three hours a night without ruining the eyesight indispensable for flying, and my life twenty and forty years later on would have been other than it has been, and poorer.

So after a day of the military life and the life of learning to fly which made things much more bearable than the military life alone would have been, I retired most every evening to Combray, Balbec, Paris, to the continuing company of such persons as Swann, Odette, M. de Charlus, Saint-Loup, and most of all Marcel, to a whole other world built of the enchantments of language, a world which in this world would have been, even supposing it ever to have existed outside Proust’s imagination and now mine, as inaccessible as the Grail Castle, or Kafka’s. Quite apart from its power over my later life, this was a saving experience and a sacred and solitary refuge from a milieu not notable for eloquence or subtlety, a milieu linguistically so barren that one would now and then show up for Church Parade on a Sunday, just to hear a little music, a little speech not limited to (though not always other in intention than) shit and fuck you. It seemed then, and seems now, a way of redeeming the time. But it did not occur to me for a long time, for many years indeed, that there was a curious coincidence in a boy (for I wasn’t much more) lying in bed reading a book about a boy lying in bed. …

In the chapter (class) that follows, Nemerov is orienting his students (describing the book and giving advice on how best to approach his reading assignments); as well as introducing himself. In the text, he uses a numbered list. I join him in number 5:

… I do not like to lecture, and most of the time do it badly; but there seems now to be no other way. And I confess to you, while feeling some helpless gratitude for your kindness in turning out in such numbers to hear me do what I do badly, that I’ve never cared much for the idea of being a popular teacher, especially without being a good one; it gives a man more to live up to than he can possibly do, and makes for nervousness.

Note on nervousness, and the classical Freudian interpretation of it as the speaker’s own hostility projected upon his audience. Would say about this that I am not conscious of feeling this hostility toward my students, save as the unintentional occasions of my having to do a lot of work and hence a damn nuisance; but that’s the way with the Freudian psychology, it’s got you coming and going. If I don’t feel the hostility, that means merely that it is as they say latent. One learns to live, said Merleau-Ponty, with this merciless interpretation.

… [now in the conclusion of this chapter] At a faculty meeting in this room, one faction interpreted the rules to mean that a bill could not be voted upon at its first reading; another faction as stubbornly contended that a bill not voted on could not be held to have had a first reading. So it is, in a way, with the reading of Proust. Your first reading of so vast a book should properly, perhaps, go by like a dream, the dream of another life running for three months parallel with your own. It may be only at a second, later reading that you begin to make actual for yourself the instructions of this other life in their application to your own.

-Julie

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