Do you feel real?

19 08 2016

I am not a successful academic.

I’m a pretty good teacher, but I’ve neither attended a conference nor submitted any papers for publication in over a decade. And yes, while I’m working on this ideologies project (which means I may end up submitting paper proposals to a conference or two), I’d have to say that I have not done the work of a good scholar.

I don’t like admitting it, but there it is.

Which is my way of wandering into this New Yorker profile of Martha Nussbaum. Nussbaum is, of course, a successful—a very successful—academic. She has, per that profile,

published twenty-four books and five hundred and nine papers and received fifty-seven honorary degrees. In 2014, she became the second woman to give the John Locke Lectures, at Oxford, the most eminent lecture series in philosophy. Last year, she received the Inamori Ethics Prize, an award for ethical leaders who improve the condition of mankind. A few weeks ago, she won five hundred thousand dollars as the recipient of the Kyoto Prize, the most prestigious award offered in fields not eligible for a Nobel, joining a small group of philosophers that includes Karl Popper and Jürgen Habermas.

Very, very successful.

Now, it’s true that I don’t like all of her books, but I have a number of them on my bookshelf and have used her work in my classroom. I’d guess that not only does she work harder than me, but that she’s also smarter than me and that if I ever got into an argument with her I’d almost certainly lose.

So, I’m not competing with her because I can’t compete with her: she’s way out of my league.

That said (you knew there’d be a “that said”, or maybe a “but still”), reading that profile made me uneasy: Is she for real?

~~~

“To be a good human being,” she has said, “is to have a kind of openness to the world, the ability to trust uncertain things beyond your own control that can lead you to be shattered.”

This makes a great deal of sense, and Nussbaum certainly does seem open to the world.

Her work includes lovely descriptions of the physical realities of being a person, of having a body “soft and porous, receptive of fluid and sticky, womanlike in its oozy sliminess.” She believes that dread of these phenomena creates a threat to civic life. “What I am calling for,” she writes, is “a society of citizens who admit that they are needy and vulnerable.”

But, as Rachel Aviv observes,

In Nussbaum’s case, I wondered if she approaches her theme of vulnerability with such success because she peers at it from afar, as if it were unfamiliar and exotic. [. . .]

. . . when I first proposed the idea of a Profile . .  [s]he responded skeptically, writing in an e-mail that she’d had a long, varied career, adding, “I’d really like to feel that you had considered various aspects of it and that we had a plan that had a focus.” She typically responded within an hour of my sending an e-mail. “Do you feel that you have such a plan?” she asked me. “I’d like to hear the pros and cons in your view of different emphases.” She wasn’t sure how I could encompass her œuvre, since it covered so many subjects: . . . “The challenge for you would be to give readers a road map through the work that would be illuminating rather than confusing,” she wrote, adding, “It will all fall to bits without a plan.”

I understand that one may seek to control as much as possible about one’s own life in recognition that there’s so much that can’t be controlled, but there’s appears to be little that Nussbaum accepts as out of one’s control.

That philosophers write one prescription and follow another is so common as to be axiomatic. But I find it jarring that a scholar of humanity who, remarking on operatic role she’s rehearsing, says “I feel that this character is basically saying, ‘Life is treating me badly, so I’m going to give up,’ ” she told me. “And I find that totally unintelligible.”

Oh my Hera, Martha, so many of us give up so often, how can you talk of a “society of citizens who admit” being shattered, needy, and vulnerable when you can’t see that humans who are shattered sometimes give up?

As Aviv notes, Nussbaum does give emotions pride of place in her philosophy, as a kind of ur-cognition. And there’s something to that, to the breakdown of the affect-vs-intellect duality. But in assigning emotions a cognitive role, she overlooks that emotions have their own role, as emotions.

This is tough for me, not least because I once aspired to the kind of Stoicism that Nussbaum seems to have achieved (and which may be yet another reason I respond so strongly to her). Yet I’ve spent too many years twisting and then untwisting myself not to see that feelings are more than just thoughts untamed, always to be subordinated to reason. I have difficulty with this still, but I can at least acknowledge that sometimes, sometimes, it is not the worst thing to feel, first.

Nussbaum allows the feeling, but only properly tamed. She feels through her thoughts, which is an accomplishment. And a loss.

~~~

There’s a great deal more in the profile—the discussion of her colonoscopy, her willingness to strip in front of others, her use of Botox and plastic surgery, and more—which, as someone who’d rather not appear in my skivvies in front of colleagues, older or younger (and would prefer they keep their clothes on, as well), only heightened my unease.

But then, on submitting that feeling to reason, I admit that it doesn’t make sense to feel embarrassed on behalf of someone who is matter-of-fact in dealing with her facts of life. And it allowed me to see Nussbaum, in all her determined discipline, as, well, a bit odd.

And thus, all the more real for her oddness.





Friday poem (Sunday): The Nude Swim

14 03 2010

Odd how people become friends.

The first cause is proximity: We’re seated next to each other in a first grade class, have lockers across the hall in high school, settle in the same dorms, go out drinking after the first grad seminar.

And work. We meet at work.

But I didn’t become friends with everyone from school or in college or grad school, didn’t want to hang out with everyone I ever met at the paper or food service or the restaurant or co-op or bookstore. Only some people were interested in me; I was only interested in some of them.

I have good friends in New York, which is one of reasons I like New York.  That I lacked such friends was among the reasons I couldn’t take Boston, that I left good friends was among the reasons I so fiercely miss(ed) Montreal.

And among my friends, here, is Cte. She is a singular personality, who draws clear lines around people: in or out. I’m glad I’m in, because she’s smart and witty and always willing to argue (and as little likely to concede as I am), and who holds on to those inside as strongly as she pushes off those on the outs.

Need I say that she rejects sentimentality and that her heart, while large, does not easily warm? Or that she fends off any kind of direct affection—she will let you buy her a drink—especially the physical kind?

In that, she reminds me of me, or at least, how I used to be. I’m less likely to sprout spikes at the intrusion of a hand on my shoulder, but there was a time when I would literally spin away from any human contact.

No, I was never physically or sexually abused: this was not PTSD. Nope, it was something much simpler, a way to control what I couldn’t understand, and thus couldn’t let any one else access.

I was afraid all the time. Afraid of myself, my volatility, my desire and contempt for comfort, afraid of what others could do to and for me. I was drowning and refusing to be saved, hating myself for wanting to be saved.

I took it out on my body. I didn’t hate my body, but it was just one more thing I didn’t understand. I wanted to live in my head—my mind, I thought, was strong—because everything else about me was beyond me, and because beyond me, weak. I thought if I could just deny enough of myself, I could eventually bring it under control.

The key was control. I couldn’t control my emotions, so I sought to deny them. And because those emotions could be sparked—I still don’t understand why this happens—by the touch of another, I sought to deny myself all touch.

No one who knows me today would call me touchy-feely, but I am much more free with a hug, a kiss, an arm around the shoulder. To be honest, at some point I had to force myself not to flinch, because such obvious unease only drew attention to that unease, and question-mark looks I’d rather not answer; the point, still, was (and occasionally is) to manage myself, to manage how others see me.

Yet I have also become more comfortable with touch. I am conscious of it, always, and far more at ease giving than receiving, but it is a relief, truly, when with people I know and trust, when with my friends, to not have to police every goddamned move.

So I wonder about Cte. I don’t know enough about her—surprise! she’s not one to go on about her life before, well, now—to know why she behaves this way, or that it is in any way a problem for her. She could simply believe that, for her, such physical interactions are unnecessary. She might get enough from the people around her just by having us be around her.

I admire her strength. And I hope that’s what it is.

This is all a very long intro to a not terribly long poem.

Anne Sexton was, famously, the best friend of Maxine Kumin, but it is not for the theme of friendship that I chose her tonight. No, it is for her extravagance, her unwillingness to shut herself off from herself.

(Given her emotional instability and suicide, perhaps it could be argued that a bit more willingness to turn away would have kept her alive. Or perhaps it would have led her to kill herself much sooner than she did. I don’t know, and it doesn’t much matter now anyway.)

Sexton wrote songs to her breasts and her uterus and about masturbation, so if I really wanted to push myself beyond my own boundaries—if I am less stiff than I used to be, I am still easily mortified by myself—I’d print one of those.

But this is the one that moved me, a poem about nakedness and ease, about the unexpected ways others may see us, and about the unexpected ways such sight can still us.

The Nude Swim

On the southwest side of Capri
we found a little unknown grotto
where no people were and we
entered it completely
and let our bodies lose all
their loneliness.

All the fish in us
had escaped for a minute.
The real fish did not mind.
We did not disturb their personal life.
We calmly trailed over them
and under them, shedding
air bubbles, little white
balloons that drifted up
into the sun by the boat
where the Italian boatman slept
with his hat over his face.

Water so clear you could
read a book through it.
Water so buoyant you could
float on your elbow.
I lay on it as on a divan.
I lay on it just like
Matisse’s Red Odalisque.
Water was my strange flower.
One must picture a woman
without a toga or a scarf
on a couch as deep as a tomb.

The walls of that grotto
were everycolor blue and
you said, “Look! Your eyes
are skycolor. Look! Your eyes
are skycolor.” And my eyes
shut down as if they were
suddenly ashamed.





I want your sex

4 10 2008

I found (via Feministing) this mutual interview between Gloria Steinem and Suheir Hammad, and homed in on this comment by Hammad:

. . . [I]n the nineties you had the sense that you could sleep with anyone you wanted, and we thought we knew enough about safe sex. And there wasn’t any reference to the emotional reality of sharing yourself with people you didn’t trust. Some of my friends are able to make the distinction between love and sex.

I used to say, semi-seriously, that a woman should sleep with someone earlier rather than later, to find out if he (or she) were worth the emotional investment. So when I read this I thought, Yeah, I remember thinking that.

Now, I was never much of a slut. (Was that because I practiced self-control—or because I lacked opportunities?) Regardless, I was impatient with the notion that sex had to mean anything other than pleasure. Sure it could be about getting closer to your partner, deepening intimacy, blah blah, but hey, couldn’t it also just be about a fun toss?

I really wanted to believe that. I liked the idea that sex was simply another form of bodily pleasure, akin to the pleasures of a good run or workout or dancing or any other physically happy endeavor. There was no reason to make it more than it is.

Except I never believed myself. Sex was—is—different. Why? Why the hell is sex different? Is it about the vulnerability, that one is, literally, naked before another person?* Why is physical nakedness more meaningful than emotional nakedness?

(*Nothing against threesomes or more. I’m just trying to capture something about the act the way most of us do it most of the time.)

Ah. Maybe it’s not. Maybe that’s where I got tripped up: I wanted it to be different from emotional vulnerability (with which I have my difficulties), so tried to strip (sorry!) sex down to its bare (okay, that one I did on purpose) essentials.

No more snarkiness. What I mean is, I wanted to be able to have sex without having to worry about any emotional entanglements. I didn’t want it to mean anything, wasn’t sure I wanted the other person to mean anything to me, wasn’t sure I wanted to mean anything to the other person.

Still, this hardly explains why sex matters, or even, really, that it matters. Maybe it really is about the emotional component, and the difficulty of separating the emotional from the sexual. In other words, I was right, in a way, before: sex is just sex, and the issue is with its shotgun rider, emotion.

Hmpf. This post is all over the place. If anyone is reading this, can you PLEASE chime it to say if sex matters or not, and why?