Patrick Modiano, a French author, was this morning named winner of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature “for the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the occupation." A biography released by the Swedish Academy said of his work: "Modiano’s works center on topics such as memory, oblivion, identity and guilt. The city of Paris is often present in the text and can almost be considered a creative participant in the works. Rather often his tales are built on an autobiographical foundation, or on events that took place during the German occupation."
Among his works that have been published in English translation are two that were released by university presses,Dora Bruder (University of California Press) and Out of the Dark (University of Nebraska Press).
On Sunday, October 5, Mumia Abu-Jamal, African-American public intellectual and death row survivor, delivered a commencement address to graduates of Goddard College's low residency bachelor's program. The students chose their speaker and the speech was pre-recorded, given that Abu-Jamal is serving a sentence of life without parole in Pennsylvania. Following announcement of the speaker choice, Goddard endured a barrage of scornful press reports, hate-laced phone messages, and social media backlash. Pennsylvania Republican Senator Pat Toomey pressured the college to rescind its invitation, with police and corrections officials issuing similar calls.
As a Goddard faculty member and longtime social justice activist, I've been much distressed by the high volume of shrill, one-dimensional press coverage. You would never know that "convicted cop killer" Abu-Jamal (in Fox News parlance) was found by Amnesty International to have been deprived of a fair trial, nor that he and an impressive group of supporters here and abroad credibly claim he was framed. Nor could you grasp why Goddard would let its graduates pick their speaker and stand firm as the controversy severely taxed the small Vermont college's resources -- or why so many faculty and staff see upholding our association with Abu-Jamal (who received his own Goddard B.A. in 1996) as not just "the right thing to do," but an affirmation of everything we've long been about.
A transcript of the commencement speech may be found here, and a recording appears at the bottom of this essay.
Not that you would really expect any of this context to be clarified by soundbite journalism and Facebook flame wars. Abu-Jamal represents a tradition of uncompromising progressive activism within grassroots African-American communities, a political lineage relentlessly marginalized in the current political environment. Meanwhile, Goddard's own roots in a radical educational philosophy that values critical dialogue and social engagement don't make sense to a public encouraged to see higher education as job market training, worthwhile only when "learning" can be quantified and monetized.
Yet, in a wonderful irony, the obfuscating public uproar has sparked a rich internal conversation among Goddard's faculty, staff, students, and alumni. Does our penal system deserve the label "prison-industrial complex"? If so, why? Do recent protests in Ferguson, Missouri illuminate historical dynamics between police and low-income communities of color on levels relevant to what happened when Officer Faulkner was killed in Philadelphia in 1981 (the crime for which Abu-Jamal was convicted)? Apart from the specifics of this case, what are the implications of the fact that the name Mumia Abu-Jamal still sparks outrage in people who would never blink at academic honors for men like William Burroughs and Louis Althusser, both of whom killed their wives?
How can we uncover and name the often hidden ways in which race and class assumptions are buried within these reactions? Most challenging of all, how might we as faculty and students in a small, nontraditional liberal arts college begin to address our own participation and complicity in the oppressive aspects of the larger education system?
Goddard alumnus Kevin Price, who works on Abu-Jamal's defense, has written eloquently of how his own enrollment at Goddard was partly inspired by his contact with the man. He concludes that despite many "wonderful symbolic reasons to support Mumia as a commencement speaker, Mumia is not a symbol. He is a man who was wrongfully held in solitary confinement on death row for nearly 30 years and is now being wrongfully held in general population with no legal possibility for parole.... He is a man with a brilliant mind and an unstoppable pen.... With so much at stake it only seems right that we listen."
The example of this student's educational journey bears out the observation of Dr. Herukhuti, Goddard Faculty Council chair, that it is our educational philosophy rather than the political content of our academic program that makes Goddard a radical college: "We have created a space for people, like Mumia and our thousands of students and alumni/ae around the world, who have tremendous obstacles to their educational ambitions to unshackle their dreams and achieve their goals. We have created an incubator for thinkers, artists, healers, activists and writers who have decided not to allow their brilliance to be diminished nor snuffed out behind the walls of any form of prison — real or metaphoric."
How I wish that Goddard could "publish" our internal dialogue, thereby usefully complicating the seductively simplistic mainstream media account. What a teachable moment that would be!
Jan Clausen is a poet whose most recent book is Veiled Spill: A Sequence (GenPop Books, 2014). She teaches in the Goddard College M.F.A. in Writing Program. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.
In today's Academic Minute, Ying Xu, a computational biologist at the University of Georgia, discusses hypoxia, an affliction thought to be related to the development of cancer. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.
In recent years we’ve had quite a few books on the negative emotions – disgust, malice, humiliation, shame – from scholars in the humanities. In addition, Oxford University Press published its series of little books on the Seven Deadly Sins. Apparently envy is the most interesting vice, to judge by the sales ranks on Amazon, followed by anger -- with lust straggling in third place. (A poor showing, given its considerable claims on human attention.)
The audience for monographs putting unpleasant or painful feelings into cultural and historical context probably doesn’t overlap very much with the far larger pop-psychology readership. But their interests do converge on at least one point. Negative affects do have some benefits, but most of us try to avoid them, or minimize them, both in ourselves and others, and to disguise them when necessary; or, failing that, to do damage control. And because the urge to limit them is so strong, so is the need to comprehend where the feelings come from and how they operate.
Arguably the poets, historians, and philosophers have produced richer understandings of negative emotions, in all their messiness. As for what the likes of Dr. Phil bring to the table, I have no opinion – though obviously they’re the ones leaving it with the biggest bags of money.
But the avoidance / interest dynamic really goes AWOL with the topic Chris Walsh explores in Cowardice: A Brief History (Princeton University Press). The Library of Congress catalog has a subject heading called “Cowardice — history,” with Walsh’s book being the sole entry. That’s a clerical error: Marquette University Press published Lesley J. Gordon’s “I Never Was a Coward”: Questions of Bravery in a Civil War Regiment in 2005. It is 43 pages long, making Walsh the preeminent scholar in the field by a sizable margin. (He is also associate director of the College of Arts and Sciences Writing Program at Boston University.)
“[P]ondering cowardice,” he writes “illuminates (from underneath, as it were) our moral world. What we think about cowardice reveals a great deal about our conceptions of human nature and responsibility, about what we think an individual person can and should have to endure, and how much one owes to others, to community and cause.”
But apart from a typically thought-provoking paper by William Ian Miller a few years ago, cowardice has gone largely unpondered. Plato brought it up while on route to discussing courage. Aristotle stressed the symmetry between cowardice (too much fear, too little confidence) and rashness (too much confidence, too little fear) and went on to observe that rash men tended to be cowards hiding behind bluster.
That insight has survived the test of time, though it’s one of the few analyses of cowardice that Walsh can draw on. But in the historical and literary record it is always much more concrete. (In that regard it’s worth noting that the LOC catalog lists 44 novels about cowardice, as against just two nonfiction works.)
Until sometime in the 19th century, cowardice seems to have been equated simply and directly with fear. It was the immoral and unmanly lack of yearning for the chance at slaughter and glory. The author refers to the American Civil War as a possible turning point, or at least the beginning of a change, in the United States. By the Second World War, the U.S. Army gave new soldiers a pamphlet stating, up front, YOU’LL BE SCARED and even acknowledging their anxiety that they might prove cowards once in battle.
Courage was not an absence of fear but the ability to act in spite of it. This represented a significant change in attitude, and it had the advantage of being sane. But it did not get around a fundamental issue that Walsh shows coming up repeatedly, and one well-depicted in James Jones’s novel The Thin Red Line:
“[S]omewhere in the back of each soldier’s mind, like a fingernail picking uncontrollably at a scabby sore, was the small voice saying: but is it worth it? Is it really worth it to die, to be dead, just to prove to everybody you’re not a coward?”
The answer that the narrator of Louis-Fernand Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night about the First World War (“I wasn’t very bright myself, but at least I had sense enough to opt for cowardice once and for all”) sounds a lot like Mark Twain’s considered opinion in the matter: “The human race is a race of cowards, and I am not only marching in that procession but carrying a banner.”
Both were satirists, but there may be more to the convergence of sentiment than that. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, war became mechanized and total, with poison gas and machine guns (just a taste of improvements to come) and whole populations mobilized by propaganda and thrown onto the battlefield. The moral defect of the coward was sometimes less than obvious, especially with some hindsight.
In Twain’s case, the remark about fundamental human cowardice wasn’t an excuse for his own military record, which was not glorious. (He numbered himself among the thousands who "entered the war, got just a taste of it, and then stepped out again permanently.") Walsh provides a crucial bit of context by quoting Twain’s comment that “man’s commonest weakness, his aversion to being unpleasantly conspicuous, pointed at, shunned” is better understood as moral cowardice, “the supreme make-up of 9,999 men in the 10,000.”
I’ve indicated a few of Walsh’s themes here, and neglected a few. (The yellow cover, for example, being a reminder of his pages on the link between cowardice and that color.) Someone might well write an essay about how overwhelmingly androcentric the discussion tends to be, except insofar as a male labeled as a coward is called womanly. This is strange. When the time comes for battle, a man can try to flee, but I’ve never heard of anyone escaping childbirth that way. And the relationship between moral cowardice (or courage) and the military sort seems complex enough for another book.
Three researchers were this morning named winners of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry “for the development of super-resolved fluorescence microscopy." The winners are: Eric Betzig of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Stefan W. Helll of the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry and the German Cancer Research Center, and William E. Moerner of Stanford University.
In today's Academic Minute, Kristin Malecki, an assistant professor of population health sciences at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, discusses her research on the lack of green space awareness. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.