Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Remembering Peter Euben

Being hooded by Peter, May 2010

“Hello, this is Peter Euben from Duke University.” I can still recall the Bronx accent, the calm delivery, the unhesitating friendliness. I was sitting in my cubicle at Cadwalader, Wickersham, and Taft on Maiden Lane a few blocks from Wall Street. Peter sat, I imagine, in the Perkins Library Building office on Duke’s campus, where he often held long office hours amid piles of books and papers towering towards the third floor eves. A narrow leaded window overlooked the Chapel green and its patinaed statue of James B. Duke.

In that first conversation, which took place before I ever met Peter, I experienced his interest in others as well as his strategic modesty. Despite my having so clearly advertised myself as a Straussian with Continental interests – those were the days! – Peter inquired about my thesis, listened to my interpretation of Plato’s theory of education, asked the appropriate questions. When the dialogue lulled, Peter offered his intervention: “I don’t normally do this,” he said, “but I think you’d be interested in my most recent book, Platonic Noise. It’s something we might talk about.” I thanked him and bade farewell until we’d see each other again when I visited Durham in a few weeks. And like a diligent student I did check out the book. I’ll never forget it.

I had no library privileges, but I managed to persuade the guard at Columbia’s Butler Library that I was a prospective applicant. He let me pass after signing the register and I followed signs to the open stacks that filled the columnar citadel at the library’s heart. Peter’s book, a quick catalog search revealed, rested among the PAs of ancient literature and interpretation. It had chapters on Arendt and Sophocles, the Stoics and the Honeymooners, and Plato’s Phaedo. These came interspersed with ruminations on Jorge Luis Borges and Philip Roth, interlineated with reflections on cosmopolitanism and the politics of mourning. The digital Table of Contents hastened my exploration of the thing itself among the miles of books.

I found the dustjacketless hardcover where it belonged and repaired to a scuffed wooden desk near the book’s location. It wasn’t thick and each chapter had an unexpected epigraph – not some gnomic phrase from Aristotle in the original Greek but recent writers and even phrases from contemporary popular culture. I laughed aloud when I read the epigraph to Chapter 7, which quoted Jack Nicholson in the film Prizzi’s Honor: “If he’s so fucking smart how come he’s so fucking dead?” Now I can hear Peter repeat the line to himself and chuckle with pleasure.

Reading Peter’s chapter on Don DeLillo’s White Noise and Plato’s Phaedo, I knew in my gut that I had to study with him. A discussant of my work years later commented that she knew I was “a Peter student” because of the energy evident in my writing. Peter created this energy in the chapter and everywhere in his work through the tensional relationships he crafted: Aristophanes and the Simpsons, Foucault and Greek theater, Plato and DeLillo. The juxtaposition was his key move, and he used this to dramatic and galvanizing effect like a poet uses line breaks. In the titular chapter to Platonic Noise, this juxtaposition also took the form of the theoretical and the practical. After an introductory few paragraphs relating the chapter to the foregoing ones, Peter suddenly took a different tack. He wrote:

To study the interrelationship of politics, political theory, and mortality is daunting in the extreme. This is due not only to the stature of those who have engaged, if not anguished over, the subject, or to the fact that one can trace the beginnings of “Western” literature and philosophy to Achilles and Socrates. It is due to the simple fact that I am a man in the last years of his life. Whatever the academic conventions that govern my story, the stakes in it are not only academic. Perhaps they never are.

The stakes were never only academic for Peter. Rereading this now as I often have over the past fourteen years, chills ripple up from my stomach. Peter never ceased to think and to write from the life in which he found himself. He bequethed to me not only a pursuit of the productive – or what he would call the “generative” – tension but also a sense that we theorize for life. Or, as was said in his beloved Hellenic antiquity, that to philosophize is to learn how to die.

When drafting my own work, I often reach for Platonic Noise to remind myself of how Peter sustained his tensional inquiries. His transitions among chapters, sections, paragraphs, and even sentences have breathtaking and borderline hubristic gaps. Here juxtaposition was also at work. What does Peter mean by this allusion to Dostoyevsky’s The Grand Inquisitor? Peter Burian, who taught Greek drama at Duke, once asked me when we were discussing Peter’s chapter on “Antigone and the Languages of Politics.” I had no idea. That text was as deeply interwoven in Peter’s soul as the Torah in a Rabbi’s. Peter’s writing could elicit your wonder as well as your frustration and incomprehension. Each could be the starting point of new lines of thought and reflection.

Once I arrived at Duke, I experienced this thinking most often while sitting around Peter’s dining room table at his house on Westchester Road. (“Westchester!? Can you believe that?” Peter would laugh. “They must not know who I am.”) Peter would lubricate the conversation with his wicked sour apple martinis and we would tuck into Bernard Williams or Foucault’s late lectures or Wendy Brown’s essays on history. This was less seminar than symposium, a chance for us to celebrate even while we argued, to take pleasure in these diverse and curious voices assembled simply for the sake of thinking. When evenings wound down, Peter always reminded us of our good fortune. We had something he had only known twice before in his 70 years, Peter would say – once at Berkeley as a graduate student and then later at Santa Cruz with Jack Schaar and Hannah Pitkin and others. Perhaps these evenings were recreations of nights in the Santa Cruz mountains or the bars of Berkeley, yet Peter never seemed nostalgic. He exuded and exemplified the taste into which he would initiate so many of us – the sweetness of good talk, its comraderie and friendly competition, and, yes, joyful inebriation too.

When I took my first long term academic job at Deep Springs College, Peter could not have been happier. On the phone again, he rhapsodized about Jack Schaar’s experiences there – but then he warned me. “You’re going to be in Dyer, Nevada, Joel. Dyer – that doesn’t sound good!” Always the student of the Greeks, Peter had an ear for speaking names. I assured him that Dyer was simply the closest post office box, that the college was across the state line in California. He was not convinced. Is it that much better if you’re neighbors with a place called Dyer?

Ten years ago I supervised an independent study at Carleton on Greek Tragedy and Politics. My student, Dan Schillinger (who is now a political theorist himself), and I would often walk over to the dining hall after our late morning conversations to continue over lunch. One time, lined up in the subterranean entrance to the cafeteria, I mentioned something that Peter had once observed about a particular moment in the play we were discussing. I think it was Euripides’ Trojan Women, a play to which Peter introduced me and which has long featured in my thinking about many of his most important themes of loss, war, ethics, and political hope. Dan exclaimed with youthful ardor and admiring jealousy: “It must have been amazing to work with Professor Euben. I can only imagine!” It was – and it takes imagination now to realize that my being Peter’s student has now concluded by one measure. Yet in truth, I’ll never lose Peter’s imprint. So long as I seek tensional energy, so long as I study the Greeks (and battle with what Peter gleefully called “polis envy”), so long as I practice the art of generative juxtaposition in the pursuit of more vital political life, I think Peter will be with me. He’ll be pushing for more complexity, more texture, and more movement, indefatigable as he leans across the table. “I have 17 questions,” Peter might say when we began a meeting to discuss the latest chapter of my dissertation. He’s given me far more than 17.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Teaching Writing at Bryn Mawr

A dozen or so students and a professor sit in a circle at individual desks, talking about how to write well. One student offers her ideas on writing introductions; another student across from her expands on the point, drawing on advice she received in AP English. The professor sits back in her seat, nodding affirmation. She scans the sleepy faces around her. When the discussion lulls, the professor leans forward to reiterate and reframe what’s been said, reinforcing her favored approach to that devilish problem for all writing: where to begin.

So goes the typical scene of instruction, especially writing instruction. It happens in small-ish seminars where content, for once in the college curriculum, is subordinated to skills. Usually, these seminars feature a good bit of discussion. Writing instruction also forms part of the initiation of students into college: first years learn to write and seniors are expected to execute these lessons. Or at least this is the implicit principle underlying the college requirements.

I begin with a different image. Two students sit on a bench, leaning towards each other as they face away from the camera. Their topic is not self-evident, although you can imagine a sheaf of white papers on each of their laps; their heads are slightly angled down. They are alone but for the grassy lawn and arcade with Gothic pointed arches of an idealized North American college campus encircling them. No scene of instruction appears – and no instructor. We see them through the lens of an inset window latticed with burnished iron bars. Rough stone walls frame the pair.

Teaching writing these past ten years, I’ve come to shift my picture of how writing can be taught. Yes, I still lecture about gerunds and dangling modifiers. But I also emphasize even more the idea of studentship, of becoming your own best teacher. The scene in this photograph captures an image of students learning to teach themselves by practicing how to teach one another. This begins, for me, with learning to read their own work aloud.

To read your own work aloud often feels frightening. Not only do you have to listen to your voice; the effect is doubled by the content’s being your own words as well. Yet just as actors practice expressions and movements before a mirror, writers need to practice listening to their language. I find it impossible to require students to read alone to themselves in their dorm rooms or library carrels. But I can have them read to one another and to me. We can learn how to be our own mirrors by playing the mirror for one another.

When a student reads an essay aloud to me during a conference, I first ask: What did you hear? That is, did you notice anything when you read that aloud? They always do. Clunky sentences, overused words, errors large and miniscule: compositions often predominates in the first round of reflection. These are correctible failings. But then I ask again: What else? On second look, the deeper structures emerge: I think I didn’t really arrive at my point until the end. Or: It’s not clear where my ideas begin to pull away from those we’ve been discussing in class already. Now we have something to talk about. Even more so, now the student has already started down the path of rewriting, which, as I say on the first day of our course until the last, is the essential activity of writing itself.

Writing is revision, I often say. Revision means seeing again, looking again. Reading aloud allows students to do this aurally, not merely to see on the page what they think is there but to hear what is actually there. Seeing what you’re writing is looking at a photograph; reading it aloud is exploring the landscape by foot. And the latter allows for marvelous discoveries you simply wouldn’t encounter in the former.

When I pair students to read one another’s work, this “peer review,” as people often call it, actually involves peer listening and self reading. The peer learns to ask the first all important questions before the dialogue takes off. What did you hear? And: What else? This can be the groundwork upon which new practices of writing and reading arise. This allows students to practice their own studentship, to become teachers of writing by learning not just to read and to write but to listen and to revise.

When I learned to play French horn, one new and significant part of my training focused on intonation. Unlike a piano, where striking a key results in the intended note’s sounding, the French horn only has four keys and eight different combinations thereof. This means you must control the pitch with other factors as well as the key: airflow, tongue position, and embouchure, among them. To know how these need to be deployed, you must know the pitch; you need an idea – a musical idea, not an image – in mind when you summon all of the micro adjustments to produce the intended sound. Few of these choices appear to the viewer. You must learn them through listening. And this listening takes enormous practice and especially practice listening.

At first my teacher sat beside me. That’s not quite right, he’d say, and raise his horn to play the correct pitch. Later, I bought an electronic tuner that could give me more precision. The pitch could be correct but out of tune; on my tuner I could watch the pitch bend up or down, sharp or flat, depending on slight changes to my tongue, air, embouchure, or hand. I passed many hours simply holding pitches steady, learning to hear when they were true.

But tuning and pitch are also relative. Although the orchestras with which I played would tune to A440, we didn’t always hold this pitch. In chamber groups, moreover, I would need to adjust on the fly to any number of variations. My teacher couldn’t pick up his horn to correct me nor could I flip on my tuner. I had to learn to listen for myself. I had to become my own best teacher.

Writers have a similar charge, I think. The audience will always vary, much like the tuning of amateur musical ensembles. I can’t instruct my students on every given occasion. Nor can they revert to Strunk and White to solve anything but the most picayune problems. Listening to themselves begins the conversation about their writing, and this listening is what I hope all of them learned through practice, reflection, and repeated practice in my writing seminar.