Janis L. Pallister
"There is something noble about a philosopher's quixotic assumption that he or she is the person to protect others from despair; or, indeed, that others require protection from despair. But Murdoch's sense of her mission is noble, and in an era when some of our most articulate spokesmen routinely denigrate their own efforts it is good to be told, I think plausibly, that literature provides a very real education in how to picture and comprehend the human situation, and that for both the collective and individual salvation of the race, art is more important than anything else, and literature most important of all." -- [Joyce Carol Oates]
Upon Receiving the Doctor of Letters Honoris Causa from BGSU
19 March 2002
Janis L. Pallister Ph.D. U. of Minn. '64
A prefatory remark regarding the length of the speech to come:
I recall how recently Janet Reno passed out 45 minutes into her speech; therefore I plan to make this considerably shorter!!!! But please indulge me while I share with you a few of my crosses, as well as my compulsions and commitments.
I am deeply flattered to have had this honor conferred upon me. And I do feel that one of my life's greatest ambitions is now fulfilled, for, as many of you know, for many years I have longed to be a double-doctor. Like the edgy stallion hankers for hay. Ita est. This is as good as a cup of Dancing Goats coffee. And now not only has this dream come to pass, but I am getting to have as many degrees as Sam Bolotin.
On 12 Dec. 2001 Pres. Sidney Ribeau wrote to me:
"BGSU recognizes you for your exemplary career as a distinguished teacher, translator, research consultant, literary and film critic and as a reviewer."
Well, I am reminded of LaRochefoucauld's famous maxime, which claims that no matter how much good one says of us, we learn nothing new from it. (And incidentally, I hope my work has mostly been timely and useful, because, otherwise, as one of James Alan McPherson's characters says [in "The Story of Scar"], "It don't make no difference how well you fox-trot, if everybody else is dancing the two-step.")
Yet, I think I need to set the record straight. As a teacher, I may have had some success; I boast a star or two. But I am convinced that here one only shows the way...it is the student's choice to take it up or drop it. Though humor has its place, I have never sought to be gimmicky, nor to be a clown in the classroom, since I believe that learning is painful, not fun, and that the pleasure comes from the knowing not the learning.
I have attempted to show my students the importance as well as the dangers of travel (Montaigne would recommend it; Pascal would warn us about meandering and evasion), but I will not go into that here.
Teaching in general and the teaching of literature in particular is subtle and dangerous. Literature can provide a forum par excellence for critical thinking but --- as critical thinking itself implies -- ought not to be made the vector of values good and bad nor should its study be turned on the creation of so-called principled persons (whatever that means). That is to say, Islamic terrorists are "principled" persons after all... It's just that their principles and "ours" are not compatible. And as depicted in Le Grand Blanc de Lambarene [d. Bassek ba Kobhio, 1995, 93 mins.] , to many of the people of Cameroon Albert Schweitzer was not the great doctor and musician we picture, but the very incarnation of arrogance and racism. In all, I believe that students must never be used as the recipients of the professor's credo or pettisms; nor should the classroom serve as the professor's soapbox or emotional whetting stone.
Let me say too that in teaching literature, one must be careful not to extrapolate: it is neither the political, nor the philosophical nor the aesthetic content alone that makes the piece what it is. Put another way a great book is not a great idea, and vice versa. Indeed, I have always urged upon my charges the notion that style is everything. [For example: the line from the great nonagenarian poet laureate Sidney Kunitz -- "Live in the layers, / not on the litter," 1 --- has philosophical, social, political and aesthetic purport. Thus it must be taken in a totality, which is its style: it is not just the what but the how -- here the great alliterative and imagistic beauty of the dactylic lines. Therefore one should never say a poem is "about" something; nor that the poet is "trying to say" such and so.]
Returning to teaching, I believe also that the most important attributes of the good teacher are to know the subject thoroughly, to prepare meticulously and to avoid sarcasm. I have been told that Real teachers have been timed gulping down lunch in 2 minutes 18 seconds. Master teachers can eat faster than that. I have also been told that Real teachers hear the heartbeats of crisis; always have time to listen; know they teach students, not subjects. And they are absolutely non expendable.
Again, as a translator I may have had some successes: surely I have published many, many translations of poems from several languages, and even won an important award for my translations of African poets. Of course, you all know the famous claim: that a translator is a traitor. And do believe it to be so, for there you all sit, most of you believing that Cinderella had a glass slipper, because an anonymous medieval translator took the word for fur (vair) to be the word for glass (verre). And so I would imagine I have been guilty of something similar, if closely scrutinized.
As a reviewer, I have sought to give service: This is a job that requires honesty, integrity, humanity. Perhaps at times I have been too severe, or not severe enough. Much hangs in the balance: sometimes a promotion, sometimes tenure. Seldom can redemption come from devastating reviews. But of course the book being reviewed must meet muster.
I have devoted much of my time and energy to the task of a literary critic, or scholar, mentioned by Pres. Ribeau. This has taken me into many countries and many literatures. And as a scholar I like to devote my energies to sweeping out the stables: that is why I take to task those who stand before learned groups discoursing on the Immaculate Conception when they really are talking about Virgin Birth. And keep myself busy addressing other assorted confusions. For example, I have convinced people to write period quote and comma quote, and not quote period and quote comma, and I've also succeeded in persuading people that there's no accent aigue (or acute accent) on carpe, as in the expression carpe diem. Not to mention informing those who are not in touch with their inner handyman that the word is pernickety and not persnickety. I work hard, too, at getting people to stop pronouncing the c on blanc, and to say bouillabehsse and not bouillabayze. And incidentally I have had to dispute with since departed professors in psychology concerning the very nature of bouillabaisse: they believed that to make this peasant fish stew one must follow a set recipe: I guess they were gastronomy's fundamentalist cooks... kitchen nazis, or more kindly, the Julia Childs of French cuisine on the BG campus, as it were.
I am irritated too by the use of the subjective case after prepositions (e.g. Tillybelle gave it to Mergatoid and I), and I am also baffled by the spelling theatre.... theatre but not lettre... though sometimes one does see centre instead of center. Special reformations such as preventative annoy me. And I certainly don't understand the phrase "your most local station" at all. I also abhor the regional use of anymore to replace nowadays.
Finally, as for trying to get people to distinguish between lie and lay, my friends tell me I ought to give up on it, and I am definitely considering doing so. Especially since I just recently received a directive from Toledo Hospital which on the same page to me to lay down and to lie down.
In the long run, doing literary research is, as most of you know, most arduous: as Alphonse Beauregard, a Québécois poet, put it, we are often moving tons of earth to find one grain of gold.
Film has, as Pres. Ribeau mentions, been an important part of my intellectual and emotional life. In some ways I believe one picture is worth a thousand words -- as several of you have heard me say before. Unless, of course, those words be found as enduring essence -- i.e., as poetry. Film must play a role in everyone's life (for we all have a bit of the voyeur in us; and many of us are frequently fulfilled vicariously through a flick). If we were to relate cinema to the issue of teaching I would cite as unforgettable not the 1941 film Cheers for Miss Bishop (Martha Scott; d. Tay Garnett), but the great 1930 classic The Blue Angel (d. Josef von Sternberg) in which the professor, played by Emil Jannings, after spending a night with naughty Lola (played by Marlene Dietrich) arises, grabs for his clothes and eyeglasses, and cries out desperately, "Ich muss an die Schule!" His conflicting sense of responsibility in the face of his humiliation and moral decay is heart wrenching. Of course, he loses his job. Aside from these cursory observations, the matter of cinema in my life is so complex as to be most difficult to comment upon, so I will leave it there.
Still , I think of myself primarily as a poet. It is on this tree that I would hang: for holy language is my mother and my father; my cross, my challenge, my aspiration, my obsession and my passion. I embrace the cause and study of language, I mean of languages: And I would add -- not meaning to offend anyone -- that in a post-Sept. 11 world one linguist is worth a hundred linguisticians (or specialists of linguistics). It is indeed passing strange and somewhat unsettling that no person in the CIA speaks the two most important languages of Afghanistan (Pashtu and Dari). And noteworthy that its new leader Hamid Karzai speaks 7 languages.
Linguists then have their place in the political scheme; but so do poets. The great champion of negritude and of francophonie, poet, scholar of classical languages and former president of Senegal, Léopold Sédar Senghor, 2 who died just this past Dec. (20 Dec. 2001), believed that poets, because they are visionaries, are qualified to lead the destiny of peoples in periods of change ... when the movement of History is so rapid that one can accompany it only by preceding it. He knew also that the objective of a president is not so much to accomplish miracles as to avoid catastrophes; my translation).
But more abstractly, for poetry as the ultimate art -- [whose source is in language] -- , and for poetry alone do I live -- Erato or Polhymnia -- erotic, epic, or lyric. Poetry and poetry alone do I love - I mean outside of people. Poetry overrides all other forms of artistic expression: clearly, this can be argued elsewhere and more at length. Nonetheless, I will say briefly here that it is the mobile art par excellence, outside the confines of space, often beyond the meanings of the words , though these meanings remain as the dark undertow of the song. It cannot be hung on the wall to be admired; one does not find resonances of it on playing cards and coasters; a demanding experience, it cannot serve as a tuneful backdrop to dramatic movie scenes or cookie baking. It is an art that, like music, probes and formalizes by sound and meticulous structure events and feelings, and by fallout their significance. (For Claude Lévi-Strauss poetry is what is lost in translation. That's why for Robert Pinsky poetry is essentially a technology of sounds.) But, unlike music, poetry demands undivided attention, requires no accouterments, and at times contains [and dispatches] cognitive content absent from any other art.
Therefore, poetry I will pursue. So beware then, my friends, and oh my foes, that I should start to sing. (Cave canem, in other words -- to evoke that phrase with its double meaning.) And what can I do with this talent, if talent there is, at this point in my life, at this point in American -- even human --history?
The great Jewish poet, Nobel laureate Nelly Sachs, wrote threnodies to the holocaust victims. In some uncanny way she transfigured that darkness. "O the chimneys" she exclaimed. And the blood boils as one visualizes through her powerful lines the smoke and ashes of those victims rising into the sky. We are not surprised, for in Bertolt Brecht we read:
In the dark times, will there be singing?
Yes, there will be singing....
About the dark times.
Can I do like Nelly Sachs?? " O the towers, " I will say...." O the towers bringing on a vision of death's blackest hours. Have we the power to prevail; or will we merely cower?
And the poem is only beginning to be born; it is at present in the cocoon stage, it is in the womb of sorrow and meditation, striving to become.
But as I see it now it will involve the issue of love. Love, only love (but not the limited stale notion of love as restricted to couples) love, only love -- overarching love -- can conquer the evil that has been visited upon us.
Let me flow back to the source of this contention.
In my own dread night, when I was, as we say in French, à l' article de la mort (i.e., at death's door), I learned of love spelled in multiple syllables -- the letter writers, the supporters, the defenders, the physicians and surgeons, the nurses, the technicians, the therapists, the visitors, the friends, the family, the co-sufferers, the priests and the pastor...
Now (since Dec. 10, 2001) -- like Rimbaud in Africa -- I am "somebody else." The point is, however, I don't know how this rescue can have been done, except through love - not always of me, but of something more abstract and enduring.
Above all, it seems to me that love (more than vengeance), love of justice, love of freedom, love of democracy, that is, love of humanity,* [ (LOVES THAT HELPED TO MAKE OF WHITMAN THE GREATEST OF AMERICAN POETS AND INDEED ONE OF THE WORLD'S GREATEST)] will lead us out of our present conflicts, to peace and harmony. 3 Jean-Charles Harvey -- another Québécois poet -- published a poem in 1929 called "Hélène au XXVe siècle" (or "Helen in the 25th century"), in which he predicted that there would be one final, cataclysmic conflict that would shake the world before the final triumph of peace, guaranteed by the organic fusion of all peoples, of all races. 4
Ojalá! Then we will hold a permanent terrestrial agape, beside cool cobalt waters. And all will have surrendered to the principle that every life on earth is part of one continuous and fragile entity that must be cared for. Well, all.. probably not those of us here today but then we as a species. Then we will have reached the common center where all creatures converge, where all needs are gratified, and all pain is mollified.
So, finally, I will give you the thrill of hearing a new and original love poem, as I cite Alice B. Fogel's "Beholden."
Still I am not sure which is most vivid-
the love now risen from its previous absence,
or the future loss it rides like a shadow,
the eye's after-image of a bright light gone.
In any case, with its harrowing blades,
this fertile line of love already
draws through me a beautiful symmetry:
The invisible, downward reaching of dark and buried roots,
and the opening, airing branches that they mimic.
Always, love is something coming to an end,
something that could die before its time;
and so you live in it, a world, a frame
the borders that define. You memorize it,
day by day, like the lines of the earth's face
mapped and changing, mapped again and again
changing, over the centuries, the impossible
becoming true before you. And like that,
you look for the shapes of things now being
that once were not: no matter
how you hold a day, it sets into the year,
buried, lost. In memory its sheen
is another branch. We see that coming.
It is precisely that passage, that change, that tunneling
through the soil of time -- that dread --
that makes love what it is: So rich, so far
beside itself with beauty, beholden to it,
because it can never be held.
It's just that love is the highest point, the lightning rod
that draws to it the crooked path of sorrow --
which it waits for, depends upon, uses in advance,
not the way that we use air -- of necessity, or life --
but, instead, the way that birds use air:
For balance, unbalancing, uplift. 5
Stanley Kunitz. The Collected Poems. W. W. Norton. © 2000 Stanley Kunitz All rights reserved. ISBN: 0-393-05030-0 . Internet http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/19250
Si Hampaté Bâ avait raison en disant "en Afrique, chaque vieillard qui meurt est une bibliothèque qui brûle"; c'est une monumentale bibliothèque qui s'est consumée avec le décès de Léopold Sédar Senghor en décembre 2001. Plusieurs sites nous retracent son ¦uvre littéraire, son engagement pour la négritude et son parcours politique. On peut entendre sa voix sur le site de Radio-France et accéder à des dossiers le concernant sur des sites français ou africain." (Jacques DHaussy, in France-Amérique [20 Dec. 2001 - 4 Jan. 2002: 12]
Not of course that we will tolerate aggression... tolerance of aggression is evil in itself; it is, moreover, gendered and ugly. We bear in mind that use of the rod -- or the law -- is part of loving: spare the rod and spoil the child; or.... thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Let me add that askesis too will be very much in order. (Just in case you have forgotten, these are exercises bent on physical, moral and spiritual perfection.)
Copyright © Alice B. Fogel from I LOVE THIS DARK WORLD, by Alice B. Fogel, Zoland Books, 1996.
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