A Teacher's Writes

by Geoffrey Sheehy

Category: Uncategorized

David Brooks on the theory of maximum taste

I’m talking about what you might call the “theory of maximum taste.” This theory is based on the idea that exposure to genius has the power to expand your consciousness. If you spend a lot of time with genius, your mind will end up bigger and broader than if you spend your time only with run-of-the-mill stuff.

The theory of maximum taste says that each person’s mind is defined by its upper limit—the best that it habitually consumes and is capable of consuming.

A few years ago, I was teaching students at a highly competitive college. Simultaneously, I was leading seminars for 30- and 40-somethings, many of whom had gone to that same college. I assigned the same essay to both groups, an essay on Tolstoy by the political philosopher Isaiah Berlin. The college students found it easy to read; it’s not that hard of an essay to grasp. The 30- and 40-somethings really struggled. Their reading-comprehension ability had declined in the decades since college, and so had their ability to play with ideas. The upper limit of their mind was lower than it used to be.

In college, you get assigned hard things. You’re taught to look at paintings and think about science in challenging ways. After college, most of us resolve to keep doing this kind of thing, but we’re busy and our brains are tired at the end of the day. Months and years go by. We get caught up in stuff, settle for consuming Twitter and, frankly, journalism. Our maximum taste shrinks.

David Brooks at The Atlantic

I read Infinite Jest; but maybe I should keep that to myself

Last year I didn’t read nearly as many books as usual, because over the summer and into the fall I read Infinite Jest. (Can I count that one as two books? Maybe three? Do I get separate credit for the endnotes?) Considering that I’d discussed in public my starting the book but not completing it, I’d always assumed I’d write for publication some kind of reflection on Wallace’s magnum infinitum.

But no. One of the great troubles I discovered about Infinite Jest is you can’t mention you’ve read it, let alone enjoyed it, without coming across as pretentious. While the height of pretension is still Harold Bloom (the man who edited an anthology for children called Stories and Poems for Extremely Intelligent Children of All Ages) (which I admit I own because I found it for almost free at the Tattered Cover in Denver and the collection is quite good despite Bloom’s vanity-flattering title), there is room below Bloom to still be pretentious. When half my book club drops out, when I discover old articles in The New Yorker about not reading it, when a colleague writes, “An interest in metafiction used to mean I pretended to legitimately like, understand, and enjoy Infinite Jest,” I grow gun-shy about discussing it publicly.

And yet but so, I read it. And I admit I even liked it. Not as much as lots of other books–my favorite last year was a second reading of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, which left me breathless with its beauty–but enough to have been glad I read it. I compare it to Moby Dick in that I liked it and thought it as brilliant as its proponents say it is, but that I doubt I’d ever read it a second time. 

So here I thought I’d note a few things about the book, for the good of the order and for the good of anyone who is considering reading it.

1. Wallace’s essays provide an interpretive key. 

I have read a lot of Wallace’s essays and think I found every one of them embedded in Infinite Jest. In one sense it turned my reading into a word search with essays, but more importantly, my familiarity with their ideas lent me a sense of confidence about where Wallace was heading thematically. Thus, embedded in the story as an actual character, we meet the weird hydrocephalic Wallace opens “The Nature of the Fun” with, the one he attributes to Don DeLillo: a

hideously damaged infant that follows the writer around, forever crawling after the writer (dragging itself across the floor of restaurants where the writer’s trying to eat, appearing at the foot of the bed first thing in the morning, etc.), hideously defective, hydrocephalic and noseless and flipper-armed and incontinent and retarded and dribbling cerebo-spinal fluid out of its mouth as it mewls and blurbles and cries out to the writer, wanting love, wanting the very thing its hideousness guarantees it’ll get: the writer’s complete attention.

Knowing the ideas from the essay helped me see the symbolic richness of the character in the story, one whose significance reached beyond the essay’s ideas but definitely encompassed those I’d read there.

2. Wallace is funny but it’s virtually impossible to pass along. 

There is an extended scene in Infinite Jest at the Enfield Tennis Academy where kids play a game called Eschaton. Reading it you wonder if this is what would result from combining Quidditch with Risk and AP Calculus. I slogged through pages and pages of story and end notes filled with intricate description (and mathematical formulas!), wondering why I was reading. And then it all turned about and resulted in a scene so wild and funny I cried. In my delight I tried to explain it to a friend but I failed miserably. So much of what is funny in Wallace involves build up, the set up of a world and a situation so intricate that when the joke breaks it breaks with the force of a river exploding through a dam–an erumpent, one might say. I can read lines from Harrison Scott Key to friends and they’ll laugh. If I read lines from Wallace people wonder what my problem is. Which is one more reason it feels so pointless to write about the book.

3. Wallace’s delight with language is infectious. 

This book is full of words I have never heard before or never knew how to use: strabismic (squinty), puerile (childish, silly, immature), tumid (swollen, bulging), erumpent (bursting forth through a surface). The text is not full of such words, but Wallace clearly wasn’t hesitant to use them, and in my delight at them, I am more inspired toward precision in my own word choice.

4. You call that an ending? 

So the end is not exactly a Dickens-like denouement. It’s like I was holding a handful of loose strings thinking someone might try to tie it off, and then everyone left and I was looking at the mess of tangles in my hand wondering what had just happened. But after I read a pretty good survey of the ending situation from Mike Moats my confidence was restored. I found I had tracked all the important details and was fully aware of what was going on; I just hadn’t realized I would need to project beyond the last sentence so far to discover answers to some basic questions (like how did the ending pages lead to the opening pages, since the opening takes place ahead of all the action in the story?).

5. I surely missed many things, but much of the symbolism is possible to catch. 

I teach my students when we read The Scarlet Letter that Hawthorne uses physical characteristics to cue the reader into spiritual realities, and here Wallace uses the same tool (justifying even further my assigning The Scarlet Letter–it’s still relevant!). Who is the character who is best able to resist the temptations of his favorite release? The one who can resist the cage we feel trapped inside? He’s the one with the oddly indestructible head, whose buddies used to close it in elevator doors for fun (Again–see “This is Water” for a key to access this thematic thrust). Which character is actually happy, experiencing a sense of joy at times? The one who feels no pain, who has burns on his legs, which are covered with globs of ointment, because he leaned on the oven and didn’t realize it.

I could say more, of course, but that is enough. I suspect I’ll return to the book to search out scenes and moments of poignancy and insight. Maybe I’ll reference exchanges that capture some crucial tension–there were many such moments–but I know I won’t read it all again. Who has time for such things? Who would care to listen to me share all the things I’d discover on a second reading?

Miles believed in the Cubs

I believe in the Cubs. I love the people who hate the Cubs. It makes my team feel that much more special to me. I love having faith in my team and watching every game, the good and bad all the way through. I believe in the Cubs because it’s what my grandpa believed in.

from “I believe in the Cubs

In 2010 Miles Toledo, a student of mine, wrote this piece about the Cubs and his grandpa for sophomore English. It made me cry, and I kept it, wanting to publish it in our school newspaper, the Pine Needle. Miles moved the next year–I heard back to the Chicago area, but it was at least second hand information–so I never ran it. I thought in light of last night’s amazing ball game, the time had come to publish his work. So please, take a brief moment to read an essay that captures why last night was such an amazing night for baseball and families and American traditions.

Michael Gerson sums up the politics of the middle finger

The political philosophy of the middle finger — captured by Trump in all its vulgar, taunting, divisive glory — requires an ethical leap. It assumes that practices we know are wrong in our private lives — contempt, mockery, cruelty, prejudice — are somehow justified in our political lives. It requires us to embrace views and tactics that we would never teach our children — but do, in fact, teach them through an ethically degraded politics. Imagine your teenage son (or daughter, for that matter) calling a woman a “fat pig,” “dog ” or “disgusting. ” Imagine your child labeling someone he or she knows as a “loser,” “moron” or “dummy.”
This is the evidence of poor character, in any context. For Christians, the price of entry to the Trump movement is to abandon their commitments to kindness and love of neighbor. Which would mean that their faith has no public consequence at all.

Michael Gerson at The Washington Post

Nicholas Krisof speaks with temperance about free speech and community

This is sensitivity but also intolerance, and it is disproportionately an instinct on the left.

I’m a pro-choice liberal who has been invited to infect evangelical Christian universities with progressive thoughts, and to address Catholic universities where I’ve praised condoms and birth control programs. I’m sure I discomfited many students on these conservative campuses, but it’s a tribute to them that they were willing to be challenged. In the same spirit, liberal universities should seek out pro-life social conservatives to speak.

More broadly, academia — especially the social sciences — undermines itself by a tilt to the left. We should cherish all kinds of diversity, including the presence of conservatives to infuriate us liberals and make us uncomfortable. Education is about stretching muscles, and that’s painful in the gym and in the lecture hall.

Nicholas Kristof, for the New York Times, speaking tempered words about an important subject. Talk like Kristoff’s is the kind we’d use around the dinner table to discuss these issues; too often what we read and hear are comments and angles no one would utter around a congenial table over a cup of coffee or a glass of wine.

Amen to David Stanley’s case against bicycle racing chivalry

It is time for ‘racing chivalry” to become a relic of the past. As with every sport, there is a professional code amongst bike racers. Part of that code is that you do not attack race leaders when they suffer mechanical issues; flats or bike problems. That code needs to go away.
a. Once upon a time, there were no support vehicles. In the years leading up to the 1930s, the Tour was contested by individuals. In those early years, pre-derailleur shifting, the riders had two gears. One cog was on each side of the wheel and at the base of the climbs, the riders would stop en masse and flip their wheels to their climbing gear. For many years, riders carried spare tires wrapped figure eight style over their shoulders. No spare wheels were provided by Mavic neutral support or your team cars. Neutral support didn’t begin in 1973. In those days, the idea of “All for one, and one for all” made perfect sense. With no help forthcoming, riders crossing the high-alpine goat paths that passed for roads in the post-WWII era needed the support of each other.
In 2015, rider support has become more sophisticated.
b. Once upon a time, equipment was unreliable. In the years leading up to the Merckx era, equipment was not to be trusted. Rims were wood. Tires flatted frequently. Post-war derailleur mechanisms were sketchy, and often went out of adjustment. Chains broke. When Mavic popularized the aluminum rim, early glues often came unglued from the heat generated during braking. As a consequence, the tires would peel off at speed, and riders would crash. With all of these issues, the idea that one should profit from a competitor’s mechanical issue seemed both un-sporting and unwise. Unwise, because he who would profit at another’s expense would surely be the next to suffer a mechanical.
c. Once upon a time, there was no money in cycling. Riders were called “les forçats de la route,” the convicts of the road, for a reason. They were poor. The sport made money for a few sponsors, but little was left for the racers. Today’s world-class racer is the monetary equivalent of many sporting heroes. Today’s teams are multi-million dollar investments for sponsors. The sponsors are now Fortune 500 companies. They invest in the teams because the teams generate return on investment. French business magazines estimate the value of the Tour at between 1 and 1.5 billion dollars.
With this much money at stake, let’s envision a meeting between a team and a sponsor who has not yet decided to renew a 10 million euro contract.
Oleg (the sponsor): Well, the Tour didn’t go as well as we’d hoped. We were promised a top stage finish. Our guy Vincenzo was right there. He looked great. When he attacked, I knew he’d win the stage. Talk about a great return. He’d be on the cover of L’Equipe wearing my company’s jersey! Why’d he sit up?

Sean (the team’s sporting director): Well, his big rival Chris had some problems with his chain.
Oleg: So? Sounds perfect to me.
Sean: Well, cyclists don’t like to take advantage when something like that happens.
Oleg: So, let me get this straight. I write checks for about 10 million bucks. I write a check to Vinnie for about an extra million five. And you’re telling me that because this Chris guy breaks a fifty dollar chain, we have to wait for him to fix everything up before we can race again? Are you nuts? That chain is this Chris guy’s problem. Not ours. Your problem is winning races. Oh, and you gotta another problem-finding a new sponsor. This is crazy. I’m out.
It is crazy. When Sebastian Vettel has an engine problem, does Lewis Hamilton slow down and wait? No. Formula One is a big business, a freaking huge business, and the teams hire the very best people to run their programs. 

In 2015, professional bike racing is also a freaking huge business, and it is time to start acting like one.

From David Stanley

Leon Morris describes a few of the details of Roman crucifixion

Very simply Luke tells of the crucifixion of Jesus, the supreme sacrifice for the salvation of sinners. In this form of execution a person was fastened by ropes or nails to a cross (which might be shaped like our conventional cross or like a T, an X, a Y, or even an I). Jesus’ hands were nailed (Jn. 20:25), and probably his feet also (cf. 24:39), though none of the Evangelists says so in set terms. There was a horn-like projection which the crucified straddled, which took most of the weight and stopped the flesh from tearing from the nails. The discovery of the bones of a man crucified at about the same time as Jesus raises the possibility that the legs may have been bent and twisted, then fastened to the cross by a single nail through the heels. Such a contortion of the body would have added to the agony. Crucifixion was a slow and painful death, but it is noteworthy that none of the Evangelists dwells on the torment Jesus endured. The New Testament concentrates on the significance of Jesus’ death, not on harrowing our feelings.

Morris, Leon. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries: Luke. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999. Print.