Report from Wolfstock (Stony Brook Homecoming)

Umm, where were we?

OK, so I wander into the Stony Brook University bookstore to buy a Stony Brook cap to go with my Taylor Reveley William & Mary T-shirt (since one must be true to one’s school). And of course it’s a Barnes & Noble. And I’m browsing for the cheapest possible cap, since after today it’s going into a pile of caps about two stories high. And the manager decides to do a little hand-selling, and she turns out to be one of the friendlier and chattier people I’ve ever met.

So I say to her, I see you’re a manager at a Barnes & Noble college bookstore. I have a question for you

And so I tell my shaggy dog story about my endless futile quest to get your W&M bookstore to take that phony Jefferson quote down off the wall. That story is beginning to grow to Alice’s Restaurant proportions.

Turns out she’s actually been in your bookstore. Bottom line, she has promised to assist me in my mission, starting with a phone call to the W&M bookstore manager.

There’s always a way if you want it enough.

I got to Stony Brook about 11 a.m., unhooked my bike from the car rack and started riding. It was one of those stunningly gorgeous days that make any campus look incredible, the kind of day that would make some Supermax prisons look good. Just magnificent.

I took a map with me, determined to ride some of the backstreets I hardly ever visited in the ten years I was out there. The “Three Villages,” Stony Brook, Setauket, Old Field, are really New England-class beautiful. But I hardly remembered most of those streets — and it’s not because they’ve changed. While the main drag is certainly more developed, the “North of 25A” backstreets haven’t changed a bit in 40 years. “North of 25A” always meant “more money,” and when you have “more money,” you can keep things that way.

I can’t get over just how different places feel when you’re on a bike — how much more personal and intimate. (If a place isn’t better on a bike — if you’re experiencing it with the same stress and disconnection as you would in a car — that’s a sign you’re probably somewhere awful. Myrtle Beach comes to mind.)

Ten years I was out there, and with a few scarce exceptions stayed on the main roads. I didn’t have a car or bike with me, but still. Take it from me: you need to figure out where the beautiful and interesting places are within several miles of Williamsburg, and go see them before you’re gone.

In your copious spare time.

“Wolfstock” is Homecoming (complete with the election of a king and queen who wander around looking royal, and are then formally introduced at halftime). The place is chock full of what certainly looks like school spirit.

For one thing, everyone’s wearing red, the official colors mandated awhile back when Stony Brook’s marketing consultants renamed its teams the “Seawolves.” (To promote this, they handed out thousands of T-shirts asking, What’s a Seawolf? And some folks recalled the Jack London novel The Sea-Wolf, wherein the title character is some sort of sociopathic sea captain.)

Maybe you can sense that, as someone who became sentient in the ’60s and came of age in the ’70s, school spirit is a strange and uncomfortable notion to me. Especially when it involves getting excited about your college sports teams. When I was here, we took great pride in not doing any of that. We saw it as a distraction from anything that could conceivably matter; somewhere between an absurdity and another “opiate of the masses.”

If we were a bit less light-hearted than the sun-drenched freaks of UC Santa Cruz, we shared a bit of the same worldview that led them to name their teams the Banana Slugs. (A name that thankfully persists to this day <grin>.)

But there it is. Stony Brook now has a brand-spanking, almost-new football stadium. It’s nice enough I can imagine the visiting team being jealous. ($27 million ought to solve that problem.)

Stony Brook’s stadium drives my friend David out of his cotton picking mind. (Granted, he is easily outraged). David particularly hates the idea that it’s named after State Senator Kenneth LaValle. David claims — I’ve not checked this — that there’s a New York state law banning the naming of public buildings after living individuals.

Mr. LaValle is not merely alive: he continues to shape the university’s budget as head of the New York State Senate’s Higher Education Committee, just as he has since 1979.

Say what you want about Stony Brook, someone there knows whom to appreciate.

But I don’t know about that law. There’s also an Asian Arts Center here named after Charles B. Wang, the entrepreneur who spent the ’90s building Computer Associates into one of the world’s largest software firms — until, as BusinessWeek put it, “the company imploded amid Justice Dept. charges that its executives had violated accounting and securities laws. Eight of them went to jail.”

Wang himself wasn’t prosecuted, and walked away with more than enough cash to donate $40 million dollars for the Wang Center (with plenty left over to buy the New York Islanders hockey team, which he is now selling.)

Maybe the law only prohibits naming buildings after living people who don’t personally pay for them? I will have to look this up.

The Wang Center is actually a great building, packed with exquisite Asian art and containing a pretty decent Asian restaurant. I was there for the pre-Wolfstock lecture. The speaker was Howard Schneider, who used to edit Newsday back when it was winning Pulitzers right and left. His topic: “How can you tell if you’re getting the truth from the news media?” I figured I already knew what he was going to say (don’t assume every web site is accurate, check Snopes, etc.) but I really got a lot out of the talk. You’d have enjoyed it.

Schneider runs Stony Brook’s undergraduate journalism program now. He said one way it’s different is it also tries to teach nonjournalism people how to be good news consumers. I was wishing cousin Joyce could enroll.

He told one reporter story I especially wanted to share with you. During Hurricane Katrina, one of New Orleans’ best reporters interviewed two policemen guarding a huge freezer in the New Orleans Convention Center. They told him the freezer contains massive numbers of bodies of people who’d been killed by criminals during the chaos following the hurricane. Here’s the story the guy wrote.

That story went viral, since it fit so neatly with lots of folks’ preconceptions about New Orleans. But it turned out nobody was in the freezer, and the vast majority of the stories about deadly criminal violence in flooded New Orleans later proved false.

The reporter described it as the biggest mistake of his career. He went back afterwards and re-interviewed everyone he’d spoken with as he wrote that story. Turned out the two cops had gotten the information from some random guys on a food line at the local Harrah’s Casino. Nobody had opened the freezer to look — not the cops, not the reporter.

Schneider’s moral: Open the freezer. I liked that and thought it was a great lesson to share. It’s kind of a version of Ronald Reagan’s old line, Trust but verify.

After the talk, Wolfstock officially began: what they call “Long Island’s Biggest Barbecue.” Which meant, of course, trying to find something vegetarian to eat. Potato salad, macaroni and cheese, baked beans, lettuce, tomato, pickles, and OK, portabello mushroom on hamburger bun.

Outside, massive tailgating. And when you went inside the stadium, the walls were covered with hand-painted bedsheets from all the clubs and organizations and fraternities out supporting the Seawolves. Especially frats. More Greek letters there than in Homer’s Iliad. It’s the very antithesis of everything I’d imagined Stony Brook would ever become.

But life’s funny that way, huh? Another thing Schneider talked about: for all the talk about media bias, we news consumers need to look in the mirror and recognize our own biases. Implicit association tests and so forth. Keeping an open mind — and how the research indicates that’s even harder for educated and informed people than for everyone else. True that.

So… as for this “school spirit” stuff, I’m looking around and people are clearly into this. There are local businesses advertising and hanging out on campus who’d probably never be here if it weren’t for the sports. Outside Long Island, plenty of people never heard of Stony Brook until Joe Nathan became a big-time major league closer and the Stony Brook Seawolves made it to the NCAA College Baseball World Series.

So… as much as I can’t stand big-time college sports (and I really can’t stand the institution)… sitting in this nearly packed stadium full of people wearing red, I get why college presidents keep buying into that package. And we did have great seats, right behind the Tribe bench. (Your town-mate carries a mean clipboard.)

Clearly, at the moment, American society has no surplus of people jumping at the chance to identify with large institutions or join in shared purpose. Even if the shared purpose is hollering at a football game. It’s better than bowling alone.

Oh, and by the way, congratulations. You guys won in OT.


wolfstock 2014

AWFUL picture, but it’s good for me to work on my vanity.


Part II of II: Why I was fascinated by that reading you hated

I think it’s fair to say you were bitching and moaning to me a few days ago about this reading (on the history of how the West has studied Islam and understood the Islamic world).

You found it emphatically boring. I disagreed with you: I told you I found it fascinating. I thought it would be an interesting experiment to describe why I found it so valuable.

That’s not something people usually do. They’re either interested in something or they aren’t, and they leave it at that. But don’t you think that’s kind of unsatisfactory? I do, anyhow.

First, a couple of points.

#1. I’m NOT writing about whether you should drop your class. There might be other reasons you should, or shouldn’t.

#2. When we discussed this, you said I might find this more interesting because I already know something about the subject. That is certainly at least partly true (I’ll make some of those connections later). But I gotta tell you, that’s a weaker argument than you usually make. I’m no expert in either Islam or Islamic Studies, but how do you think I learned whatever limited stuff I do know about them? By starting with knowing almost nothing, of course! <grin>

But then, you don’t know almost nothing.

You know the West’s relationship to the Islamic world is hugely important, complex, and difficult.

You know some people think there’s a historic “clash of civilizations” underway.

You know a thing or two about the Crusades. You know where you were on 9/11.

You know many of things Americans say about Islam and the Islamic world are probably oversimplified, if not flat-out wrong. (If for no other reason than most of the things most humans say about EVERYTHING are probably oversimplified or flat-out wrong.)

You know when people start studying cultures very different from their own, they’re exceptionally vulnerable to misunderstanding and “assuming the worst.” Especially when the differences involve God and religion.

And you know that what people think doesn’t stay in the classroom: it shapes policy, leads to war or peace, sends innocent people to their deaths or permits them to survive.

So, understanding how we have tried to learn about Islam throughout the past 1,000 years would seem to be useful. Especially if you’re thinking about studying the subject yourself. It might help you avoid some of your predecessors’ mistakes!

Now, let’s turn to the piece itself.

The authors begin with the deep, pre-Islamic past, in which western knowledge of the Arab peoples is often limited to myth and theology.

I personally find this interesting because I know these early, extremely tenuous understandings can echo down through the millennia. For example, German nationalists (including the Nazis) drew much of their understanding of “Aryan-ness” from a single small book, Germania, written in the Year 98 by Tacitus, who had never traveled there or met any of the tribesmen he was writing about.

The first ideas that people get about each other (or themselves) have a nasty tendency to stick.

Next, your authors point to the Old Testament origin story claiming that the Arabs (like the Jews) are descended from Abraham. However, the Arabs are said to be descended through Hagar, the concubine he ultimately sent into the desert after God finally gave him a son through his own elderly wife, Sarah.

I do not know the full cultural and anthropological implications of such a story of half-brothers and expulsions, a family’s favored and disfavored… but I bet it matters, don’t you? Since this is a survey article, it only scratches the surface… but it’s one place where I think the authors point you in a really interesting direction for exploration.

Next, they turn to the Middle Ages. And here, I confess, we’re getting into some areas I have studied a bit. They discuss Christians and Jews living under Islamic rule (e.g., Nestorians, Monophysites, and Orthodox Christians; Samaritan, Karaite, and Rabbanite Jews) who were in some senses protected (dhimmī).

Like most of your fellow Americans, you might not yet know the Koran specifically declares Jews, Christians, and a mysterious group called “Sabians” to be “People of the Book.” Maybe you do know that. In any case, these groups were permitted to continue their worship within certain limits, and worthy of at least some protection (albeit not legal equality). This is one thing I was hoping you might get to explore this semester. Regardless, it may lead to some useful reflection on the differences between what a holy book says and what its adherents do.

Your authors then contrast the experiences of Christians living under Islam (many of whom would have been considered heretics in, say, France, but were comparatively comfortable under Islamic rule) vs. Christians living elsewhere (who “experienced Islam more as an alien “other,” a non-Christian enemy to be converted or defeated”).

Hence, the Crusades — a set of events I know is of some interest to you.

In their section Crusades and Cluniac Scholarship, 1100–1500, your authors discuss how the monk Peter the Venerable led the first “serious systematic study of Islam.” This happened at roughly the same time as the first European universities were being founded; a renaissance of knowledge was underway across Europe. Suddenly, actual Islamic documents were being translated. Notwithstanding the monk’s goal of Christian triumph, you even see some attempts at academic objectivity.

I personally find this a seminal moment in history. (You could learn a lot about it from Prof. Daileader!)

I am even more interested in what comes next, partly because it’s about my own ancestry.

Your authors write about the amazing world of medieval Spain, where Christians, Muslims, and Jews coexisted in fascinatingly complex and subtle ways. At some times, in some places, those interactions were quite positive and respectful — proving this can be done. (A useful insight, IMHO!)

Spain is the shifting interface between the Muslim and Western world throughout the Middle Ages, running right up to Ferdinand, Isabella, and Columbus. It’s where many of the ancient Greek and Roman texts that Muslims had preserved came back into the western world, helping to trigger the Renaissance.

It’s also where westerners relearned ancient Greek math (e.g., Euclid), and discovered the many new advances created by Muslim mathematicans (e.g., “al-gebra”). The term “algorithm” comes from the Latin “dixit Algorismi” (“so says Al-Khwarizmi”) in honor of yet another legendary Muslim mathematician — the same guy who kinda talked the west into finally replacing Roman numerals with the Hindu system (Zero through 9).

(Thank the Muslims for the fact that you’ll never have to do your taxes in Roman numerals.)

I think I’d be fascinated by that place and time even if my own family didn’t come from there.

Your authors next turn to the era of the Reformation, discussing the evolution of the differing relationships between Christians and Muslims both inside and outside the Islamic world.

Isn’t it interesting that Martin Luther himself authorized the publication of the Koran in Basel, claiming that reading it was the best possible argument against Islam? But, as your authors wryly observe, “The view that a rational reading of Muslim texts would evoke self-evident indictments against the Muslim faith did not contribute to a disinterested European tradition of scholarship in Islam.” That seems a fair assessment! <grin>

Meanwhile, Luther’s Protestant contemporary Melanchthon, like many medieval Catholics before him, tends to “see Islam as a heresy—as Christianity gone astray, rather than as a distinct religion in its own right.” This is an interesting observation. If you study religion much, you’ll see that the west has always tends to define religion entirely in its own (Judeo-Christian) terms.

That’s why, to this day, we tend to talk about “Islamic fundamentalists.” Despite the fact that in many ways they’re quite different from the Bible Belt Christians who first adopted the term “fundamentalist” (in response to a specific set of essays on Christian theology published between 1910 and 1917 in Los Angeles and distributed free nationwide through the generous contributions of two U.S. oil company executives.)

Your authors next move to globalization (Discovery and Enlightenment, 1650–1900), noting that world trade gave Christians and Muslims more reasons and opportunities to connect, and observing that Christian and Muslim states would sometimes ally against shared adversaries. (Reminding us that sometimes wars claimed to be about religion are also — occasionally even primarily — about other things.)

They also allude to growing western interest in the life of Muhammad himself. I was hoping to learn more from your course about this, but here’s my very limited understanding: This can be an explosive subject given that non-Muslim academics often wish to interpret the Koran in terms of early influences on Muhammad’s life (e.g., interactions he might’ve had with groups of Jews, possibly shaping Muslim law and theology)… whereas believers consider Muhammad solely God’s messenger, and the words of the Koran to be God’s words, pure and simple, influenced by no human activity.

If you stay in your class, I hope to learn more about this from you. If you don’t, I’ll research it more on my own. Either way, I think it’s pretty important.

Now, we come to Orientalism, the Twentieth Century and Beyond. I know your prof wanted you to focus especially on this section. Your authors do a nice job of explaining what was important about Orientalism — and mention that, with its fading, fewer westerners are trained to really translate, interpret, and engage with many important older Islamic documents. (Don’t you think it’s interesting when knowledge recedes? Dark Ages happen; it’s interesting to contemplate how they happen.)

Your authors then introduce Edward Said and his immensely influential (and hugely controversial) critique, Orientalism. This book may have done more to shape western academic worldviews about the study of Arabs and Islam than anything else in the past half-century except 9/11. It was a centerpiece of the late 20th century move towards multiculturalism and post-modernism (and perhaps political correctness) in the academy.

Whatever you think of Said (and he was a formidable intellect) it’s pretty important to know about him. Even if you ultimately disagree with him, he raises important questions about how we approach the history of the “other,” what we know about foreign cultures, why we think we know it, which questions we choose to study, and which we choose to ignore.

Finally, your authors discuss the post-World War II growth of “area studies” focused more heavily on contemporary political and social developments in the Muslim world. Here again, there’s some really interesting stuff going on just under the surface.

Your authors allude cryptically to the claimed linkages between Area Studies and western imperialism. Some have been known to go further. As Wikipedia put it:

Many… alleged that because area studies were connected to the Cold War agendas of the CIA, the FBI, and other intelligence and military agencies, participating in such programs was tantamount to serving as an agent of the state.

And plenty of people involved in Middle Eastern area studies have indeed joined the State Department, CIA, et al. I can envision reasons why all this recent history would be of personal interest to you.

So, was this worth reading? For me, very much so. (I’m tempted to ask why you felt otherwise, but I’m not sure that’s a productive question!) There are lots of ways to learn about this material — they don’t all have to involve sitting in this class at this time. But IMHO the stuff in this reading was damned important.

Do I feel that way because I know something? I guess… but so do you. And couldn’t the same thing be said about almost anything you’ll ever learn? You start by connecting it to something you already know, even if it ain’t much. And then you discover exciting ways to take it in entirely new directions.

Which takes me back to where I started in my first post. To the Coates line that moved me so much:

That feeling—the not knowing, the longing for knowing, and the eventual answer—is love and youth to me.

Part I of II: Learning to learn — from expected and unexpected places

I hope you loved that new Ta-Nehisi Coates piece as much as I did. It contains some passages that are about as beautifully written as any I’ve ever read:

That feeling—the not knowing, the longing for knowing, and the eventual answer—is love and youth to me…

You know that feeling you get when you read something that is so totally true for yourself?

Coates spent his summer in an immersion French class at Middlebury College in Vermont. Struggling to learn, because real learning is so hard:

…I was ignorant. I felt as if someone had carried me off at night, taken me out to sea, and set me adrift in a life-raft. And the night was beautiful because it held all the things I would never know, and in that I saw my doom—the time when I could learn no more.

Morning, noon, and evening, I sat on the terrace listening to the young master’s students talk. They would recount their days, share their jokes, or pass on their complaints. They came from everywhere—San Francisco, Atlanta, Seattle, Boulder, Hackensack, Philadelphia, Kiev. And they loved all the things I so wanted to love, but had not made time to love—Baudelaire, Balzac, Rimbaud. I would listen and feel the night folding around me, and the ice-water of youth surging through me.

A fellow student encourages Coates with a classic French quote. He understands each individual word, but still cannot fathom what she is trying to tell him:

…I asked her to spell the quote out for me. I wrote the phrase down. I did not understand. The other young lady explained the function of the pronouns in the sentence. Suddenly I understood—and not just the meaning of the phrase. I understood something about the function of language, why being able to diagram sentences was important, why understanding partitives and collective nouns was important.

In my long voyage through this sea of language, that was my first sighting of land…

You and I were just talking about how I couldn’t tell you what a hanging participle was, even though I’m a professional writer. So I’m struck by how Coates now understands (on some deep intuitive level perhaps he cannot even communicate) why it matters. Maybe I’m a little jealous.

I admire Coates most for his radical openness to learning and being taught. To finding important knowledge and wisdom in unexpected places. To what he calls “the long process of understanding.”

I love that. Especially because, lately, I’ve been discovering wisdom (or at least opportunities for productive reflection) in both expected and unexpected places.

Let me start with an expected place. Right now, I’m re-studying Othello.

You probably know the plot outline. Othello — almost certainly a black man, probably born a Muslim — is now the respected leader of the Venetian Christian military forces. He and the white Desdemona, daughter of a Venetian senator, fall passionately in love, and elope. Comes Iago, Othello’s ensign, who arrives at a hatred of Othello so deep that he determines to destroy the man.

And so he does, through a brilliantly crafted series of lies that dissolves this self-assured general into utter incoherence, convinces Othello his wife is unfaithful, and drives Othello to murder her.

Iago has committed a monstrous evil, but why? Iago gives us one superficial reason after another; they all seem mere rationalizations. When Othello finally understands what Iago has done to him, he begs for a reason. Iago responds:

Demand me nothing. What you know, you know.
From this time forth I never will speak word.

Iago is unforgettable because of — in Samuel Coleridge’s famous phrase — his “motiveless malignity.”* Evil for no reason.

Iago has sometimes been read as a traditionalist conservative challenge to liberals and other enlightenment types like myself.

People like me have tended to believe that there’s always a cause for evil; that people can generally be reasoned out of evil behavior; or that their self-interests can be creatively shaped to nudge them in better directions); or, failing this, that working hard to understand the causes of evil can help us deter it, even if we can’t always prevent it.

In contrast, traditionalist conservatives have sometimes tended to see “finding causes” as a waste of time, or worse: as a justification for evil. To them, evil is simply evil, and exists everywhere (perhaps, in the Christian view, due to original sin). It must always be defeated by overwhelming force. (I haven’t read Cormac McCarthy, so I could be wrong, but perhaps this is the evil he writes about; his Blood Meridian, in particular, has often been compared to Othello.)

Needless to say, I’ve represented each side without shades of gray, reflecting public discourse more than the quieter, more thoughtful discussion one hopes is going on elsewhere. In particular, I suspect many liberals like myself have been somewhat chastened by the last couple of decades. But I suspect you’ll find at least a kernel of truth in the way I’ve presented these competing worldviews. There’s certainly nothing original about what I’ve just said.

Still, it seems that history justifies the conclusion that what we view as evil can sometimes be deterred or deferred by rational action; and sometimes if you defer certain actors long enough, they fade away. Furthermore, it seems indisputable that simply attacking “evil” with “hard power” can sometimes have catastrophically counterproductive consequences. (See Bush: Iraq.)

So Othello finally brings me to the question that seems worth asking:

How can you tell which kind of evil you are confronting?

Now I have a question I can work on in my copious spare time!

I hope you’ll agree that it’s no shock to find opportunities for productive reflection in Shakespeare. But how do you keep yourself open to valuable ideas where they seem least likely to appear?

Let me give you an example. Amanda Hess at Slate linked to this short essay by R.R. Reno at First Things, an extremely traditionalist conservative publication.

First Things often publishes very challenging material, but on first glance, this essay doesn’t seem challenging at all.

Reno is trying to help his readers understand why single professional women won’t vote Republican, and to come up with a strategy for bringing them to their senses. He begins by conjuring up one of these women, and (as commenters observe) you wonder if he’s ever met one:

Thus we have the seemingly odd political instincts of a single, 35-year-old McKinsey consultant living in suburban Chicago who thinks of herself as vulnerable and votes for enhanced social programs designed to protect against the dangers and uncertainties of life. Why would a woman whose 401K already exceeds $1,000,000 and who owns a condo worth almost as much be so concerned to expand public support for in-home care of the elderly? It’s because she’s not married and feels as though she’s going to have to take on all the responsibilities of life on her own—a prospect that is indeed daunting…

…[she] feels “judged” when I oppose gay marriage, because she intuitively senses that being pro-traditional marriage involves asserting male-female marriage as the norm—and therefore that her life isn’t on the right path. She resents this implication. Her problem, however, is that (statistically speaking) she wants to get married and feels vulnerable because she isn’t and vulnerable because she’s not confident she can…

Among the many things that never occur to Mr. Reno: Perhaps she votes for in-home care for the elderly because she cares about the less fortunate? Who the hell knows? Maybe at one point in her distant past she came across Christ’s Sermon on the Mount?

The argument continues in a vein that strikes me as, at best, tendentious, and, well, just profoundly ignorant. Then, all of a sudden, Mr. Reno writes:

Some counsel side-stepping the moral issues. I don’t think this will work, because the deeper dynamic of modern liberalism is toward the public provision of meaning and security for atomized individuals otherwise vulnerable and uncertain about life.

Put simply, you can’t have limited government without a cultural politics that reinforces traditional modes of authority that can’t be reduced to social programs and government bureaucracies.

Holy cow. While I probably disagree with Mr. Reno about nearly everything, I think this is a deep truth. It connects directly to a common debate surrounding the size and role of government. Opponents of libertarianism, like myself, demand to know when and where a truly libertarian society has ever worked. When we hear “libertarianism,” we think: Somalia. Proponents of libertarianism sometimes point to an earlier America: through the 19th century and perhaps up to World War I.

But Reno captures something important. That was a society deeply rooted in shared Protestant religion. People may have had greater economic freedom (not least, the freedom to starve). However, they were hemmed in by deep cultural norms, the judgments of those around them, and the demands of a fairly tough minded God. Those cultural and religious norms did indeed provide meaning. They did support at least some forms of decent behavior (though the owners of slaves and sweatshops seemed perfectly immune).

These norms are now absent; I would go so far to say that they are even effectively absent among many of the people who defend them most loudly. At this late date, can one truly go backwards and recreate the sources of authority and shared meaning Mr. Reno admires, even if one wanted to?

Or must we struggle forward and look for new sources of authority, which will have to be based in the community and likely impinge on Mr. Reno’s sacred property rights? In either case, we human beings need to craft some form of authority and shared meaning. The question seems to be: How can we do this in ways that give us their benefits without more harshness and arbitrariness than is absolutely necessary?

This may well prove impossible. And it may prove equally impossible to do what Reno wants. What then? I fear your generation may find out.

So, like a bolt from the blue, an essay that I first saw as utterly worthless has connected me to the central question of modernity — and one that you and I have already talked about at length. Whither shared meaning and purpose when you don’t buy the sacred books you’ve been handed?

You see what I’m trying to do here. I’m trying to convince you to look harder for interesting and important ideas when you think you’re reading something “boring” or “useless.”

In Part II, I am going to, I fear, drive that point home with a sledgehammer. I’m going to take on the reading you just told me you hated so much.


*There are other interpretations of Othello, and while I’ve represented Coleridge as he is most commonly understood and discussed, he too seems to have seen the play slightly differently.