Friday, November 23, 2007

Retro-Journal: The Palpably Weirder 90s Begin


Living as the one third-year student amidst a nice bunch of freshmen in early 1990, I felt fairly at home in the role of pseudo-old-man. One freshman, Naomi Camilleri, introduced me to Flaming Carrot comics, leading me to trend weird-ward in my comics reading after the preceding decade and a half of sticking almost exclusively to Marvel and DC. Another of the freshmen lost his shoe at a They Might Be Giants concert at the Living Room, which a substantial portion of my acquaintances attended (bumping into people at a TMBG concert was more good practice for becoming a New Yorker later). Oddly, given the light-hearted nature of the band, the entire crowd was pogoing and slam-dancing, with nary a spot of the small concert space beyond the mosh pit, to the clear surprise and alarm of the band.

I was on the fringes of a few overlapping, mostly media-oriented cliques (writers, editors, English majors, political people), in a pattern that looks not so different from my adult life, in retrospect — and in some ways similarly myopic, I suppose, given the way both Brown and New York divide into insular subcultures. Lorrie Giventer, who had dated the Brown Spectator founder Dan Greenberg, knew the Brown Daily Herald’s Alison Barth, who in turn knew grumpy but oddly entertaining leftist Nancy Tewksbury, who in turn knew more-noxious characters like Andrew Rubin, an irrational leftist writer who condemned me in print as a fascist (and a “performing seal” of a writer), and so on. The gist of the fascist charge was that libertarianism, by reducing the government to minimal nightwatchman-state functions (just making sure people don’t assault, rob, or defraud each other and otherwise leaving them alone) was in effect creating a “police state” (which is a bit like saying that if you consider murder a stunt, then a stuntman is a de facto assassin).

One of the campus’s tiny handful of conservatives, Jerry Mayer, sprang to my defense in print, noting that fascism in fact arose, like Rubin’s views, from socialism, not from the right and certainly not from free-market ideology (but I’ll write far more about that overlooked historical fact in my Book Selection of the Month entry late next month, on Jonah Goldberg’s magnum opus, Liberal Fascism).

One important crossroads for many of the campus figures I knew was the three-semester course on modern European intellectual history (from the Enlightenment to the late twentieth century) taught by Prof. Mary Gluck. In that class, I saw punk Ed Batista — who would often wax poetic about the sense of community one found in a mosh pit or caution me not to sound so harsh in my political judgments as to make leftist women cry. What an amazingly different story that class seemed to tell — suddenly more postmodernist than socialist (like a great many of the hastily-rewritten course descriptions in the course catalogue that year) — now that we all knew the happy ending of the story, all knew that (just months earlier) it had concluded with the ’89 collapse of Communism, rather than the dictatorship of the proletariat, as the apparent “end of history.” Another student in the class, Erich Horn, was an Objectivist and drew from the class the lesson that if Brown continued to think in an unrepentant collectivist fashion, the campus was marching “lock-step straight to Hell.”

One year earlier, the capitalist/communist stalemate had seemed as permanent as the eternal war at the heart of Manicheanism — but by spring 1990, as my journal noted, the only country in Central Europe that was still officially Communist was Albania (a fact soon to be mocked on the Simpsons episode in which their young Albanian exchange student proves to be a spy out to photograph the workings of Mr. Burns’ power plant).

Yet not everyone was eager to throw Marxism on the ash heap of history. “Do I detect sarcasm? Are you saying this is bunk?” said Peter, an effete, nerdy grad student in Prof. Spilka’s lit class after he heard my reaction to reading Marxist theorist Lukacs, one of several latter-day Marxist thinkers studied in the class. “Why would people go to work each morning if not to fit into the dominant ideology?” Peter asked in one class, causing even the thoroughly left-wing Prof. Spilka to impatiently mutter, “There is the matter of a paycheck.” In mere months, the left had gone from being the vanguard to being also-rans.


It was a fun, optimistic time to be alive. Still, I half-jokingly wrote a “Nostalgic for the 80s” column that very year. (And I still am, of course. That decade laid the groundwork for the freedom and prosperity we’ve come to take for granted since, though you won’t hear the decade described that way in most glossy magazines or on sitcoms.) That year, I also wrote a lengthy “Capitalist Manifesto” for the Spectator under the editorial gaze of a brilliant freshman who’d already taken control of the Spectator, Jacob Levy.

Other segments of the political spectrum were already regrouping, though. Earth Day 1990, which to the untrained eye might appear essentially identical to all the Earth Days that have followed, was in fact a nearly unprecedented eruption of twentieth-anniversary eco-fervor (the original Earth Day having taken place in 1970 and been largely forgotten about for the next two decades), seemingly intended to help the left gloss over the massive wound it had just suffered with the collapse of Communism — by changing the subject. I recall a nice leftist guy named Sasha (who let me read his entire Love & Rockets collection) saying around that time that he and many others had suddenly realized that capitalism would, as he put it, end to the sound not of marching proletarian boots but of falling trees. MTV then began its familiar pattern of making recycling somehow seem like a deeply rebellious yet virtuous act. Formerly rule-breaking performers like Johnny Rotten and the B-52s now churned out educational-sounding songs about omnipresent pollution.

Still, whatever their philosophical differences, most people seemed to recognize that with the Cold War over, it was a very nice time to be on the planet, whether its ecosystem was fragile or not. Not everyone was happy, though:

•My depressive friend Dan Shuster, the one who’d shown me how to slide across the cafeteria floor on banana peels a year earlier, shot himself. Our friend Marc Steiner, spending a year away in Pomona, was greatly saddened to hear about it but in a way unsurprised — it in some way affirmed his decision to get away from Brown after the sophomore year he and I had spent rooming together and feeling trapped, as he put it, between frat parties on one side and protests on the other. I blamed Dan’s what-difference-does-anything-really-make Zen relativism for his despair in my speech at his memorial service. Afterwards, Dean Blumstein, who attended, chuckled good-naturedly over the fact that I had earlier criticized her in one of my columns in the Herald (alluded to in a prior Retro-Journal entry), and she ended up driving several of us back from the memorial service in a crowded car.

•An editor from the Herald who interviewed me about my negative view of deconstructionism turned out to be having a nervous breakdown and obsessing over that philosophy. The article containing the interview with me never appeared.

•A friend of mine who’d gone from sweater-wearing Christian to black-clad Objectivist atheist over the summer after freshman year was now severely depressed and took a semester off. (While perhaps, like half the people on campus, eccentric, she had always seemed reasonable to me: libertarian, Smiths fan, comedy writer — what’s not to like? — though she smoked, something I regarded as irrational even back then, long before working for a public health organization, but which some of my most sophisticated college acquaintances almost seemed to admire — and something my high school pal Chuck, when I spoke to him about it once, said no students at his college, CalTech, did, rational risk-calculators that they were.)

•Ken Dornstein, with whom I’d written for a dying comedy mag called Philtrum Press freshman year (along with improv comic Steve Melcher and others), seemed a bit lost (deliberately taking — even inventing — non-paying odd jobs in a vague effort to help humanity), as his brother’s death at the hands of Libyan terrorists over Lockerbie, Scotland continued to haunt him, and he’d later write a book about it. He would also go on to do some stand-up comedy, get a philosophy degree, live near California’s Muscle Beach, and become a de facto detective for insurance companies (writing a funny book about that, which was harshly reviewed, in a bizarrely humorless fashion, by Brown polisci prof Ross Cheit in the alumni magazine, Cheit mainly condemning the book for failing to take seriously the plight of poverty-stricken people who are driven to commit insurance fraud, as if that would be any fun).

I too had by now become a philosophy major (doubling in English), one of only a tiny handful of students in the class of ’91 who were — and it was the (now deceased) philosophy professor Roderick Chisholm, brilliant though he was (an acolyte of the great Bertrand Russell), who helped confirm my decision not to pursue the discipline into grad school, with his weary, meticulous analyses of issues that struck me as comically irrelevant, such as whether the statement “Fido is a dog” means that Fido belongs to the set of things which are dogs or that Fido possesses caninity (a discussion that led me to walk out of class and then run from the philosophy building — though I would still go on to write a lengthy paper for the class on the question of whether the statement “The fusebox is on fire,” when uttered in regard to what is in fact an electrical meter, is a false statement or merely a case of misnaming, also arguably a question that doesn’t matter). Dornstein once referred to Chisholm, with a touch of sadness, as “the Willy Loman of philosophy.”

Given the ambient emotional instability among some of my acquaintances, it seemed a fitting semester to be watching the unsettling David Lynch series Twin Peaks with gatherings of people like Jerry Mayer and fellow Bulletineer Margot Weiss. No more Cold War meant having the time to focus on subtler problems, like nightmares about dancing dwarfs.


Of course, it was also the beginning of a somewhat petty, self-absorbed period for our culture. That was the semester Sandra Bernhard came to speak to Brown and, as I wrote in the campus magazine Issues, attracted a “meta-audience” that relentlessly asked her non-funny questions about whether she was living up to her responsibility (as they saw it) to promote lesbianism, disco, even punk, and various other subcultures they cared about, while she was trying to make jokes. The audience came to talk about itself, and the whole thing struck me as very New York. I decided never to live in that city.

There was no getting away from people who were one step removed from celebrity at Brown, though. The whole place was crawling with the children of celebs — such as Kara Dukakis (whose wardrobe I inadvertently insulted in one column while trying to make a subtler point about the rich and famous striving to look like hippies at Brown), a Brando child, the motorcycling daughter of Ringo Starr, the drug-buying daughter of Jane Fonda, and RFK’s daughter Rory (who I hope didn’t notice the joke bit I wrote in the Bulletin about Duran Duran assassinating RFK — you forget that living history is around you sometimes). Harvard and Yale seemed to house tomorrow’s leaders while Brown housed the children of yesterday’s leaders. And there were those who were not yet celebrities but soon would be: Bulletineers Chris Nugent and Dave Whitney, like me, were at the farewell concert of Lisa Loeb (Class of ’90) and her then-partner, Liz. (Perhaps WBRU DJ and future MTV fixture Karyn Bryant was there as well.)

That semester, Dave (a DJ and later general manager) also let me into WBRU to tape a whole bunch of stuff from their vinyl collection onto a mix tape, something that seems laughably technologically-archaic now but was an awful lot more fun than downloading files. Fittingly, given that retrograde sentiment, I think Emerson, Lake, and Palmer’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” was one of the things I taped that day (part of a collection of about 150 mostly-alternative-rock, heavily 80s/90s mix tapes I have, with an accompanying index in tiny handwriting dating back to 1982, that will somehow never be topped for me, sentimentally, by an iPod of any imaginable storage capacity in the decades left to me in this world, I suspect).

I did not seek glamour: I’d spend the summer of 1990 with my down-to-earth parents back in Norwich, CT — and with their rapidly-growing, shaggy dog Uber, who was proving to have the most upbeat and friendly personality I’d seen in a living thing and was developing adorable habits like tottering on her hind legs and leaning her front paws against my parents in order to dance with them if they slow-danced in the kitchen, as they sometimes do.

As a thrilling side trip, I’d attend a libertarian seminar in Maryland that summer conducted by the invaluable Institute for Humane Studies (a hot topic among libertarians then was the schism among Ayn Rand followers that had led to one prominent Randian, David Kelley, being “excommunicated” by the West Coast Rand establishment and starting his own East Coast splinter group, the kind of thing that seemed apocalyptically important in a relaxed decade with neither a Cold War nor a War on Terror). Immersion in this somewhat obscure political movement may have seemed odd, but note that it was quite mainstream compared to some of the oddities to be found back at Brown, such as a friend of Chris Nugent’s who was an aristocratic, authoritarian conservative Republican who dressed like a tie-dyed hippie and loved marijuana but vehemently opposed the idea of legalizing it, saying the masses, unlike him, could not handle it (which may not be such an incoherent or unpopular position, I suppose).

Looking back, though, it was Bulletineer Scott Nybakken who most accurately foresaw that the pleasant, optimistic mental-recess-period that was the 90s would not last. As he graduated in the spring of 1990 (without leaving Providence for another year, since he had a job with an early computer animation company called COSA, later absorbed by Lucasfilm), he wrote a farewell message in the Film Bulletin in which he said he had just one word to say to Francis Fukuyama, the conservative writer who had just declared the end of the Cold War to be “the end of history,” and the word Scott conveyed, in all capitals without further explanation, was: ISLAM.


Jacob T. Levy said...

Huh– I didn’t know that you knew Naomi, who was my fellow BRU news intern from September ’89 onward. Any idea where she is these days?

(“Brilliant” is high praise, of course, but I can’t help feeling a lot less *interesting* than the other characters.)

Todd Seavey said...

Naomi, as of a few years ago, was living in upstate New York and dating Joe Quesada — but not _the_ Joe Quesada.

Todd Seavey said...

Oh, I should add Naomi’s done photography, Web design, filmmaking, language-translation software, songwriting, and graphic design over the past decade and a half, with the Web and graphic design stuff being, I believe, the main money-makers.

Todd Seavey said...

To the possible disappointment of some readers, I had to correct a phrase in the last sentence of the Dean Blumstein paragraph above upon more carefully checking my notes.

Laura said...

During Spring 1990, I was abroad in Scotland (where, as you pointed out in the “farewell Laura” Film Bulletin, kilt-licking was still illegal). You wrote me many excellent letters, and here are two particularly prescient passages:

From March 5, 1990: “Make a note to watch Matt ‘Life in Hell’ Groenig’s [sic] Fox TV cartoon “The Simpsons” on Sunday nights when you get back. It’s mercilessly satirical…. Of course, it might run out of steam by the second season, but give it a scope.”

And from May 10, 1990: “I find it difficult to take academia seriously and increasingly feel, Slaughterhouse Five-style, that life is currently an odd, amusing flashback to my college years…. In the real present, I’m about thirty and am either an employed-but-struggling writer or a street-bum, but still happy.”

jenny said...

my, my, my. i had such a crush on ed batista my freshman year.

the memories you bring back. while i wasn’t one of those who asked sandra bernhard relentless non-funny questions, i was the one whose derisive snort at her butchering of the pronunciation of “antonia” caused her to stop and get all kinds of huffy-defensive about liking willa cather’s books. hey, i liked willa cather too, but the stress is on the i, not the o.

Jacob T. Levy said...

Hm. Always hated that book, but I don’t think that mispronunciation would trigger my snob reaction– it would probably mean that the person had read the book without marching orders from a teacher, and I don’t recall anyplace *in the book* where the pronunciation’s made clear.

jenny said...

of course it wouldn’t trigger your snob reaction, silly. it isn’t your first name. :-)

Todd Seavey said...

By the way, I don’t think anyone will be greatly surprised to hear that Andrew N. Rubin, the idiot noted above who called me a fascist, is now an assistant professor of English at Georgetown who studied under, co-wrote with, and wrote glowingly about Israel-hating polemicist Edward Said, when he wasn’t doing things like writing _Counterpunch_ articles asking whether the CIA is assassinating Iraq’s intellectuals.

Assistant professors of English are always the best sources on that sort of thing.

Jacob T. Levy said...

it isn’t your first name. :-)

D’oh! Of course. Even though I know what A. stands for, I didn’t think of it in this context…

Mike May said...

Naomi Camilleri’s contribution to my life was that she deflowered me. My contribution to hers was giving her Bob Burden’s Flaming Carrot comics. For all these years I always just assumed she was humoring me when I would prattle on about things of a dork nature. So discovering that she had gone on to broaden your comic reading experiences was rather heartening. I will find growing older that much easier now.

Todd Seavey said...

Mike! Well, it sounds like Naomi’s gift to you was arguably larger than your gift to her — but on the other hand, your gift was passed on to me, like the passing of a flaming, carrot-shaped torch, so it’s a gift that keeps on giving.

Indeed, when I later praised _Flaming Carrot_’s use of phrases such as “dreadnought of chicanery,” Holly Caldwell said of the comic (and me) “No wonder you talk the way you do,” as though _Flaming Carrot_ had created me — which, as you know, is not so unlike FC’s own origin, since he was supposedly driven mad by reading thousands of comics in one sitting. I can’t say FC created me, but it has shaped me — and made me stronger.

Ed Batista said...

Hi, Todd. Outstanding walk down Memory Lane, ca. 1988-90. I’m thrilled I rated a mention (and even more so to learn in the comments that I was crush-worthy. Thank you, jenny!) I don’t recall specific conversations about mosh pits and leftist women’s tears, but that sounds like me.

I appreciate your take on Brown’s bullshit–the inane politics, the petty campus squabbles, the C-list celebs–but at the same time I felt incredibly privileged to be there. I started out at Duke and left after a very up-and-down (to put it charitably) freshman year. I wanted to be an artist, and I began dating a girl (my wife!) who was starting at Dartmouth, so I made my way to the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. I finally grew up there, and I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything, but after two years I decided I was ready to return to college.

My 20-year-old self somehow determined that *only* Brown would do, so Brown was the only school to which I applied. It was basically Brown or the Army. When Brown accepted me, I felt I’d been given a second chance at adulthood, and I made the most of it. My two years there were so fulfilling that it was easy to overlook the bullshit (see above) and simply be grateful for the chance to stretch my mind while surrounded by so many smart and fascinating people.

Today I can’t imagine spending that time anywhere else, and I’m still grateful for the experience. And knowing you was one of the highlights. I think the pleasure you took in outraging the easily outraged got you in more trouble than it was worth, but your intellectual courage made a deep impression on me, and I think of you as one of the most principled people I’ve ever known. And I still have a few Film Bulletins stashed in a box somewhere.

I hope all’s well.


Todd Seavey said...

Thanks so much, Ed. As you may have noticed from my December blog entries about Jonah Goldberg’s book, people still get angry at me sometimes — but the blogging is made worth it by people like you (and Jenny and Jacob and Mike above, not to mention Jerry Mayer and others on other entries weighing in, sometimes after many years). My longtime plan, to your initial horror but eventual acceptance, I trust, is to write a book on _Conservatism for Punks_, which will be more bridge than battle, I hope.

Ed Batista said...

No horror at all, actually. Eighteen years in San Francisco–49 Square Miles Surrounded by Reality!–have caused me to see myself as a conservative and libertarian-friendly, if not card-carrying. (Just last night I learned that on Feb. 5th my local ballot will include a “Proposition C” which asks “Shall it be City policy that the City should explore and facilitate the acquisition of Alcatraz Island from the United States Government to transform it into a Global Peace Center?” Sigh.)

Of course, the illusion of my “conservatism” is shattered when I visit the Heartland and talk to actual red-blooded Conservatives, but it’s fun to play one at home.

I look forward to reading C4Punks in the not-too-distant future. (Hey, that domain’s available.)

Naomi said...

Since I have been a topic of discussion here (and a rather revelatory one at that, thanks Mike!), I figured I would throw in my two pennies. This was one of the more interesting references to me that I found while egotistically googling my name, which I sadly do about every five years (come on, you do too, admit it). So, thanks Todd, for the Flaming Carrot credit, and an opener too! I’m so pleased to know that my passing of that torch was an influential and shaping act in your life… still have those old copies on my shelves, and I can confirm that they did indeed come from Mike May, best thing that he ever gave me (that was for outing my sexual history, mike… and why am I not surprised to see your name on this blog?). Oh, and thanks for keeping track of my resume, very decent and attentive of you, Todd. Hi Jacob! OK, now that salutations and thank yous are taken care of, here’s my contribution to your memoir of that odd moment in time at Brown, and a memory that I cherish.

Do you remember The Waistcoat of Skin??? For the benefit of your readers I will elaborate. Todd and I both managed, amazingly, to write our way into a small, rather exclusive creative writing seminar fall semester of ‘89 (my first at Brown). This was how I got to know the odd loner junior who lived across the hall from me in my freshman dorm (that would be Todd). As one who became disenchanted rather quickly with all the self-absorbed intellectual and artistic snobbery and bullshit that I encountered at every turn at Brown, I found myself an easy ally in Todd, who shared my bewilderment at the cast of characters and the stories that they produced in that seminar, and I thoroughly enjoyed exchanging impressions with him every week on the latest reading material we had received to critique. Critique! What horror! If you have seen Todd Solondz’s Storytelling (damn, he already made a film about it!), you will have some idea of what a nightmare and joke a creative writing seminar can be, everyone going around in a circle and giving their invaluable opinion of what someone in the class has created, whether it is warranted or not. Pretty much all the stories we read were crap (and I willlingly include my own here), and all the opinions we heard were crap, but there was one story that stood out, well, two, actually, and if you will humor me and read on, you’ll see why.

I think we were eighteen, maybe twenty total in the class, and we sat around one large table in a small classroom. But one guy in the class (unlike Todd, I don’t remember anyone’s names, which is probably best) sat apart from the rest of us, every class, even if there was room at the table, he sat in a seat against a far wall. He never said a word, never offered an opinion on any of the stories, he hardly looked like he was even listening. This was highly unusual behavior at Brown, particularly in a small upper class seminar. So, when the time finally came to read a story by him, Todd and I were naturally very curious. His story was titled “The Waistcoat of Skin,” and it was about a man (or a woman, my memory sucks) who stumbles into some odd shop in some odd town in his travels, and finds some magnetically attractive vest (aka waistcoat…) hanging there, and, at the ominously eager urging of the shopkeeper, decides to try on the incredibly soft, supple, inviting piece of clothing… which then proceeds to devour him, merging him into the presumably many many others that have tried on the fatal waistcoat before him. Of course the shopkeeper then hangs the carnivorous waistcoat back up for the next unsuspecting customer to be ensnared by.

This was the most refreshing, delightful, zany, humorous (though I’m not sure it was meant to be) piece we had read, and, in true form, the author had absolutely nothing to say for himself. Of course no-one else in the class liked it, besides Todd and myself, and if memory serves, I think I avoided sitting across from you Todd so as not to ..CONT..

Naomi said...

..CONT..giggle through the entire 2 hours or whatever, though I’m sure I cracked a few times.

But that guy, whoever he is, wherever he is, was not the true hero of the class. Todd was. When it came time for him to hand in a story towards the end of the semester, we had read a good number already, including a piece written by the grad student teacher of the seminar that was published in the literary journal (the name of which I of course cannot recall… Todd? Jacob?), which was some indecipherable nonsense in all italics (these are my hands, these are my feet, these are my shoes, these are my socks… and so on) alternating with some odd conversations in plain text that went nowhere. Confirmed my suspicion that the teacher was no authority on creative writing, at least not the kind that I was interested in. So Todd’s “story” was a mix of highlights of all the semester’s “best” pieces, with obvious references to their style and plot (there was also something about RFK and Marilyn Monroe in there, I think, unless that was in a different story you wrote), and the best was, about the middle of the story, it even broke into italics: these are my hands, these are my feet, this is my shirt, this is my toothbrush (ok, I don’t remember exactly what he wrote, but you get the idea). I already knew from the Film Bulletin that Todd had iron-clad balls, but this was beyond anything I could have hoped for. As you can probably imagine, the class was not very happy, I don’t really remember the responses to the piece, I think I was too busy trying to contain my mirth. But I do remember that the teacher was NOT impressed. I was.

I guess this was more than two pennies worth of contribution to your nostalgic look at that year, Todd, but I just couldn’t resist. I know that sharing that class with you was a highlight for me during that year (hell, during my four years at Brown), and brings a smile to my face to this day.

Todd Seavey said...

I had completely forgotten about that! Who knows what else I’ve let slip away? Thanks for the reminder — and long is fine, especially when you say nice things about me.

Naomi said...

Well it’s all true, though I’m not sure what it says about either of us when cynicism and outright mockery become heroics.

A couple of other things you mentioned that resonated:

1) Your fleeing from the inane philosophy class, yet writing a paper on it. I had the same reaction in some required semiotics classes for my comp lit major. Maybe it makes me a philistine, but I couldn’t stand analyzing poetry or film as a “container”, etc. I did learn the jargon well enough to get through the courses and write numerous papers about the stuff, but quickly forgot it afterwards, as well as any desire to continue in academia.

2) What was up with the mosh pit at the They Might Be Giants concerts??? I got some guy’s boot in my face at one of them, and consequently my glasses smashed, without which I couldn’t see two feet in front of me. I was very disoriented about music and humans for quite awhile after that.

Thanks for the fun entry, I enjoyed it.

Todd Seavey said...

Three more things I should add:

1. She may seem cute and harmless now, but I have it on good authority that Lisa Loeb snottily asked fellow Brown student Reid Mihalko, now a sensitive organizer of Cuddle Parties, what he as a football player could really have to add to their shared art class discussions — but we’ve all grown up a lot since then.

2. I should say that while I fled that one day of the philosophy class, Chisholm really was a giant of the field and I’m honored to have learned from him — an acolyte of Bertrand Russell, who was in turn the godson, bizarrely enough, of ur-libertarian John Stuart Mill.

3. If anyone reading this wants to read _another_ intersection of the Retro-Journal with a They Might Be Giants concert, one is recounted in my most recent entry, as I write this, at this URL:

Jacob T. Levy said...

Naomi, what a great story!

From time to time I regret not having taken more college English classes or comp lit classes, because I feel so woefully underread. I took one class on American literature for the sole purpose of being made to read Moby Dick; why didn’t I do more of that kind of thing? (I’m trying to make it a habit to read at least one major classic I hadn’t read before per year– but life’s not long enough to ever catch up.) But then I remember all the tales form my friends who actually took such classes at Brown, and think that I was better served taking poli sci.

I wonder how much course-selection affected Todd’s and my divergent attitudes toward the place?

I do remember the existence of the literary journal. But I’ve been on college campuses for almost 20 years straight now. There’s always a literary journal; and they’re indistinguishable from one another. I think as a self-defense mechanism my brain can’t remember the names of any of them– even the one that’s still piled up in my building today.

Oddly, the daily newspapers are much less interchangeable. And of course so are the humor publications; I’ve never seen anything at all like the Film Bulletin…

Todd Seavey said...

I was consciously motivated in part by a desire to make up for Brown’s lack of a Great Books emphasis to seek out courses, both for my English major and my Philosophy major, that included such works, and when that didn’t quite do it, I added Gluck’s three-part course on European Intellectual History, which was where I read Hegel, Marx, Darwin, and other biggies.

I still haven’t been voracious enough that I’d ever claim to be “well-read,” though, and I think one of my weak areas is Continental fiction — you know, all those guys with names like Flaubert and Hodelet and Baubaubuie and so forth.

And though I’ve read some of the major Greek suspects, I sometimes feel like I must’ve missed something, since I am not moved to memorize or quote them as often as T.S. Eliot or William F. Buckley types do. I am struck mute on the topic, like…Erebeusus…weeping over Phelynobone…and an…urn…or something.

Naomi said...

Point taken about your Philosophy professor, Todd. You were lucky. At the risk of sounding ungrateful or bitter (I did actually learn a lot at Brown, but much of it wasn’t in the classroom, sadly), I have to say that overall I was not that impressed with my professors, the majority of whom were so ego-driven that even if they offered a few great works in their classes, it was usually as a vehicle to force down your throat some work of their own (what an easy way to boost book sales!) in what often seemed like a very transparent prioritizing of career and reputation over actually doing their job: educating students. But I am sure this is in no way unique to Brown, it was just a bit disappointing to me, as I had arrived there with very high expectations.

That said, I did have a few very good professors, and I did manage to read some Great books, despite the teachers’ best attempts to mangle them (Ulysses comes to mind in a required comp lit literary theory course). Like Jacob, even though it wasn’t for my major, I took a Tolstoy class, where I managed to cross War and Peace off my list, as well as Anna Karenina (which I have reread many times since and still remains a favorite), and his shorter works. But most of the biggies or classics that I have read have been on my own as well, Brown just wasn’t the place to acquire that kind of an education.

I too just cannot remember quotes from books, even from the Kurt Vonnegut I’ve been addicted to for the last 6 months, and which are infinitely quotable. But isn’t this kind of quoting really just party tricks, meant to impress or perhaps intimidate others? In any case, I am generally far less impressed with whether someone can accurately quote someone else, than I am with whether they can come up with an original statement of some relevance and truth. (that’s my excuse!)

Jacob T. Levy said...

… whereas I was an remain pretty pleased with Brown teaching– even moreso after seeing more colleges. I had one terrible prof– I knew he was going to be terrible, but really wanted to take a class in the subject matter. And then I never did that again. I had one with whom I really didn’t click in a seminar, and the class made me cranky all the time. But I had five great classroom teachers– only one of whom assigned his own work, but then, if you’re Gordon Wood and you’re teaching American Revolution, you really *need* to assign your own work– from three of whom I took more than one class, plus a mediocre teacher who was a wonderful intellectual and I loved the class even though he wasn’t a very good lecturer. That all adds up to most of my poli sci and history courses, which were most of my courses.

Good college teaching is *hard*, but I got enough of it at Brown to feel inspired to want to do it myself– albeit teaching a lot more Great Books than I got in most Brown classes.