Archive for the ‘Teaching Company’ Category

Sarah Vowell, author of, among others, Assasination Vacation and The Partly-Cloudy Patriot, both funny and thought-provoking looks at history and politics, once said, “I think about the Civil War every day.” I often think about her thinking about the Civil War when I contemplate my own fascination with the subject, and what better time to have such thoughts than during the sesquicentennial years of those epic events (the most recent being the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address,” originally delivered on November 19, 1863).

I think my favorite book about the Civil War(along with McPherson’s epic “Battle Cry of Freedom”) has to be “Confederates in the Attic,” by Tony Horwitz. The intrepid author explores the new South in search of the old – and his findings are instructive, amusing, at times horrifying, but always engaging. He marches with Civil War re-enactors, bushwhacks through snake-infested undergrowth in search of forgotten monuments, dares small-town biker bars to interview locals, and attends Sons of Confederate Veteran’s meetings, along with traipsing through battlefields from Manassas to the Wilderness. It is a great read.

Currently, I am listening to an excellent Teaching Company Course entitled “The American Civil War,” taught by Professor Gary Gallagher of the University of Virginia. I admit, I thought I had very little of substance (there is always more detail to absorb) to learn on the topic, but very quickly learned otherwise. The approach takes one from the intensely battle-focused approach of McPherson to a more comprehensive overview of the context of the war. Despite this, I was still surprised to find a mere 30 minutes devoted to Gettysburg, but Gallagher makes the point that, at the time, Gettysburg was not perceived with anything like the importance we assign to it today. Still, I have an urge to re-read The Killer Angels (another favorite Civil war book).


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After listening to the Teaching Company course on the History of Hitler’s Empire, I felt somewhat enlightened on how the Nazis came to power, even somewhat on why.  I understood as well the reasoning behind Hitler’s seemingly incomprehensible attack on the Soviet Union (hadn’t he heard of Napoleon?).  Since he was ideologically driven, he was obsesssed with crushing the s0-called Judeo-Bolshevik conspiracy. With Britain weakened after Dunkirk and America not yet in the war, he turned his attention East, which was his main goal anyway. His racial theories caused him to denigrate the “mongrel” Russians and have the confidence that his army could be in Moscow before winter struck (rather than diminish German moral about the effectiveness of the “lightning war,” or blitzkrieg, he issued only summer uniforms to the troops entering Russia).  Interestingly, if he had been less ideological, he might have won many Russians, fed up with Stalin’s ruthless tyranny, to join his forces. Instead, he managed to unite the Russians against the German advance.  In City of Thieves, a novel by David Benioff, we learn what the Russian resistance meant. “You have never been so hungry; you have never been so cold” begins this compelling, breathtaking novel.  I was in an agony of suspense as the mismatched protagonists are sent on an absurd errand by a corrupt Soviet Colonel.  Tragedy and comedy intermingle to devasting effect.  I have read many “quest” novels, most in the science fiction or fantasy genre, where on one level you know that the good guys are going to win, no matter how many giant spiders are on the move.  This had the elements of a fantasy novel, backed by the horror of the truth.  As Stalin abandoned Leningrad, thousands died of starvation, tainting the waters of the Neva with the stench of death.  There were cannibals.  On the other side were the Einsatzgroupen, the Nazi death squads.  This is no fantasy novel.

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The particular hell-on-earth that was Nazi Germany is the topic of a book by Hans Fallada, called Every Man Dies Alone, written in 1947, but only recently translated and available in English. Coincidentally, I also just saw the Tarrantino film, Inglorious Basterds, which  takes a look at the same period in a radically different way, part Hogan’s Heroes, part bloody horror movie. One interesting overlap was Fallada’s episode about an actor who became Goebbel’s pet for awhile; in the movie, Goebbels the film buff takes over a theater in Paris to show a Nazi propaganda film- leading to the bizarre, revenge-fantasy climax of the movie. It was interesting to read in the book about the ordinary Germans who supported Hitler in 1932, lost a son in the war, and came to despise the regime and its policies.  Based on an actual working-class couple who developed their own brave and pathetic anit-Nazi propaganda scheme – depositing laboriously produced hand-written postcards around Berlin in the hopes of tapping into a groundswell of rebellion- the book depicts the suffocating oppression and atmosphere of fear and mistrust, and the sense that only the worst of humanity could survive and thrive, like cockroaches after a nuclear holocaust.  (Nearly every one of the postcards was promptly turned into the authorities.)  The very ordinariness of the heroic couple, the inner journey of the official assigned to their case, the ebb and flow of the fortunes of those living in a nightmarish world build to an agonizing climax. The book is slow to get going, and at times awkwardly written (or translated), but the end is gripping and suspenseful.  Currently, I’m listening to a Teaching Company Course on Hitler’s Empire.  I am just getting to the part in 1932 when Hitler wins the election, and I think of Fallada’s couple, saying of Hitler: “He sure pulled our chestnuts out of the fire in 1933.”  The book includes an appendix with pictures of the actual couple and the chillingly efficient Nazi documentation of their case.  In addition, there is a fascinating biography of the author, as the New York Times book review describes him: “a troubled man in troubled times.”

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TC – Poetry

I’ve embarked on a new Teaching Company Course How to read and Understand Poetry, taught by William Spiegelman  It is lovely to listen to and think about poems while commuting to work, facing another day of drudgery.  As Goethe said, “One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture,  and if it were possible, to speak a few reasonable words.” 

Professor Spiegelman has a good speaking manner, which a teacher ought to have if he or she can possibly manage it.  He is not quite so puckish and funny as McWhorter, but so far anyway he sticks to the topic and does not intrude upon it.  More to the point, I was immediately struck by his assertion that poems are not about ideas.  He tells a story of the painter, Degas, mentioning to his friend, the poet Mallarme, that he would like to write poems as he had so many ideas.  Mallarme replied, “My dear Degas, poems are not made of ideas, but words.”  A simple, even obvious, statement, but one that bears thinking about, for it is the choice and setting and arrangement of words that makes a poem what it is more than what the poet is trying to say, which according to Spiegelman, can be boiled down to half-a-dozen or so main ideas – love, death, living, etc.

His first poems are a pair by Wordsworth, the much-loved “I wandered lonely as a Cloud” which he amplifies with some biographical details about Wordsworth and then “The Reaper”which I had never read.  It would be helpful to read each poem first (which he suggests), because unlike the first poem which I know well, my unfamiliarity with the second made it somewhat hard to follow.  The poems themselves are not included in the bibliography so it will take some effort to hunt them up.  He then did Yeats’ “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” which I know by heart and spoke beautifully of the restful, dreamy rhythms of the poem.  He mentions that Yeats had been reading Thoreau and was influenced by him in writing this poem but adds that his seeker after simplicity is far from being practical, his vision is idealized, not pragmatic.  He states the longing of the poet to get away from the modern world, but I think he misses something of central importance.  The twice-stated, “I will arise and go now”, seems too forceful for the rest of the poem and you get the feeling that he is not actually going to fulfill this ambition, that he is lying on a couch, inert, and will not summon the will to do what Thoreau did, that he will after all stay “on the pavements” grey.  The next poem is by another favorite of mine, Edna St Vincent Millay.  As Spiegelman notes, she is not so well-regarded these days, but I have loved her since junior high, reading “we were very tired, we were very merry, we went back and forth all night on a ferry.”  I love many of her poems, but do not remember this one, “The Buck in the Snow.”  The language and imagery are stunning.  It’s a fine example of her genius and from a simple snowy scene with deer in flight reaches to the very “strangeness” of life and death.

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I just finished Classical Mythology taught by Elizabeth Vandiver. You really can’t go wrong with Greek and Roman myths and it was fun to revisit old familiar stories and learn  new interpretations of some of them.  Her discussion of Ovid was particularly interesting to me after reading Jane Alison’s fictionalized account of the exiled poet.  I also liked how she talked about modern placement of the urge to mythologize into the future with Science Fiction.  But her chapter on the “Terrible House of Atreus” and her reading of the Oresteia by Aeschylus really resonated for a few reasons.  Through Rufus Fears’ course Books that Have Made History, Books that can Change your Life (still my favorite), I read the Iliad, so had already had an introduction to the House of Atreus and the bloody deeds of Agamemnon.  Professor Fears also devotes some time to the Greek tragedies, but to me they were his weakest chapters.  I couldn’t really figure out why one would want to read or watch the bloody drama of intergenerational slaying.  Professor Vandiver gave a broader context to the House of Atreus, going back to the first evil deed committed by Tantalos and showing how the curses on the family just multiplied through the generations with parents slaying children and vice versa.  The playwright’s intention, as explained by Vandiver, was to show how the personal vengeance method of dispensing justice breaks down when the parties are of the same family.  Each person had an absolute duty to commit an action (Orestes had to avenge the death of his father) as well as an absolute duty not to commit that action (he also was not allowed to harm his mother).  Fears also brought up the irreconcilable nature of these forces but Vandiver takes it a step further when she shows how the trial of Orestes introduces a new, sustainable form of justice – a court of law with judgment by peers.  She is also great when discussing the story of Oedipus.

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Which Iliad redux

I finally finished my Teaching Company course which was great! Like all the best courses, it seemed to move the walls of the mind, to rearrange the furniture.  I’m still trying to absorb and process it all.  The problem with TC is the lack of a forum to discuss the ideas; however, I’ll write more about the course later.  In my earlier post “Which Iliad” I wondered why Prof. Fears did not give a preferred translation.  In the last booklet accompanying the set, however, there is a detailed bibliography.  He lists the Lattimore translation with the following recommendation:  “This has rightly been called ‘the finest translation of Homer ever made into the English language.'” So, there you have it.

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I am really struggling to understand The Iliad, or piece together the bits I have gleaned into something comprehensive.  What I got out of it was that Homer was trying to point the way to wisdom, to help mortals understand a tiny bit of the ways of the gods—or at least to realize how subjective and narrow is the mortal viewpoint.  Each one operates from his or her own frame of reference, subject to the vagaries of emotion or circumstance (often created by the gods who infuse weary warriors with new energy and passion for war or incite others to foolish actions).  Homer seems to be trying to help mortals achieve some detachment from these forces, a way to rise above the moment.  But it would be a mere parable if not for the sweeping language, the actual viewpoint from Olympus that we are privileged to share, and conversely, the close-up view of the action on the ground, and, most important,  the agonizing, incremental gains in wisdom made by Achilles – it is a painful process and one of necessary suffering. 

To help with my struggle for comprehension,  I dug out the old New Yorker article by David Denby (9/6/93), which recounts his experience of returning to Columbia 30 years after attending the University to take a required course in Literature in which they read The Iliad (the Lattimore translation).  Denby focuses on Achilles, who “dominates the poem, even as he withdraws;” whose “moody self-preoccupation” fascinates.  Denby, a film critic, draws a parallel with “Marlon Brando’s glamorously sullen performances in his youth.”  He also points out that while Achilles may seem like a spoiled baby to us, Homer provides “a noble, rather than an ethical, concept of life.  You are not good or bad.  You are strong or weak, beautiful or ugly, conquering or vanquished, favored by the gods, or cursed.” All the battles, descriptions and seemingly minor characters serve to illustrate the heroic code, that, according to Denby’s professor, is violated by Achilles (by sulking in his tent, I guess).  

Denby finds the crux of the poem in Book IX, when emissaries come to Achilles’ tents to beg that he return to the fight.  His honor should be satisfied, given the fact that he is offered many rewards, including the girl that was taken from him in the beginning, all of which should end the matter; however, Achilles refuses the offer, refuses to be satisfied. According to Denby, his answer (lines 312-27, 405-09) is that of a man struggling to say what has never been said, or even imagined, within the confines of the warrior’s code.  In Denby’s words: 

The hero turns out to be a hero after all.  Achilles’ rage, which had seemed almost infantile….has had the remarkable effect of stunning this haughty young man into a new conception of war.  Suddenly he is groping toward a an idea of honor that doesn’t depend on the bartering of women and goods or on the opinion that men have of one another’s prowess (Fears stated that honor is not only what you think of yourself, but also what others think of you – your reputation). “We are all held in a single honour, the brave with the weaklings.  A man dies still if he has done nothing, as one who has done much.”  For the greatest warrior in the world (one who has already turned down the promise of a long, peaceful life in exchange for honor and glory), that is a devastating admission…Achilles has jumped forward to a private, or even spiritual sense of worth.”   

This takes the mere learning of moderation, as pointed out by Prof. Fears, a step forward, or else it is simply fleshing out what Fears was saying, for if Achilles is violating the heroic code, even speaking against it, as above, and thinking that all life, not just that of his friend (this is before the death of Patroclos), is precious, “that nothing is won for me…in forever setting my life on the hazard of battle” ….”not worth the value of my life are all the possesions they fable were won for Ilion….Of possessions cattle and fat sheep are things to be had for the lifting, and tripods can be won, and the tawny high heads of horses, but a man’s life cannot come back again, it cannot be lifted nor captured again by force, once it has crossed the teeth’s barrier.”  (The teeth’s barrier! Think of it, the last breath being gasped out….that is how the immediate and precise the language is, like a punch in the stomach).  So, Achilles has learned that there are things more precious than honor, which opens up a whole line of thinking that could have been dangerous and self-destructive; in fact, he decides to go back on his bargain with his mother and return home and live a long life!  But his anger at the death of Patroclus pulls him away from this tentative path and back to that of the avenging warrior, and so his death and glory are assured.  

Denby states that Achilles has made an attempt toward a modern consciousness, which for the modern reader had been missing from the poem, but while his revolt fails, the “questions he raised, about war and death, remain unanswered, because they cannot be answered.  The Iliad, for all its vaunting glory, remains in tension with itself, questioning, and even subverting, its own ethos..” 

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