Monday, June 25, 2018

Classy

I'm a week away from a California stopover on my way to China where, at last, I'll be teaching! (I wasn't able to teach during my year in Shanghai, beyond a few guest lectures in others' classes.) The plan for the Beijing course, you'll be relieved to learn, is complete. I've decided to end with a 1984 novel by Muriel Spark, The Only Question, whose protagonist Harvey Gotham is obsessed with the Book of Job - as, it seems, was Dame Muriel. Harvey, we read, not only argued the problem of suffering, he suffered the problem of argument. And that is incurable. With often comic consequences, Harvey brings questions of the meaning of the Book of Job in to every conversation. And yet, like Job himself, his "suffering the problem of argument" is ultimately cured. Whether the Chinese students are by that time glad to have spent an intensive four weeks exploring Joban resonances in anglophone literature or not, Spark seems a suitably summery way to end.

But I'm thinking also about other classes, those which will start not many weeks after my return from China. One is a new thing, a pilot "sophomore tutorial," inspired by the "Buddhism and Liberal Arts" advising tutorials I've twice run but now with a particular focus on sophomore issues - and a broader Fragestellung than Buddhism. Its title: "Lives of Contemplation." We'll get to Buddhism eventually but I think I want to start with the sabbath, and how better to reflect on that than with Abraham Joshua Heschel? I'm not sure if I've ever read Heschel's The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man (1951) before, but reading it now I'm all tingly with delight. What glorious writing, and what profundity, often with the figure-ground inversions of the stories of the great rabbis. Look how he inverts our deluded sense that time is evanescent while the world of space offers permanence:

Looking out the window of a swiftly moving railroad car, we have the impression that the landscape is moving while we ourselves are sitting still. Similarly, when gazing at reality when our souls are carried away by spatial things, time appears to be in constant motion. However, when we learn to understand that it is the spatial things that are constantly running out, we realize that time is that which never expires, that it is the world of space which is rolling through the infinite expanse of time. (97)

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