2007 Opening Convocation Address

Arnold Weinstein: “Reading Proust, Tracking Bears, at Brown”

September 5, 2007  |  Media Contact: Deborah Baum |  401-863-2476
Arnold Weinstein, the Edna and Richard Salomon Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature at Brown University, delivered the Opening Convocation Address at the start of Brown University’s 244th academic year. He spoke at noon Wednesday, Sept.5, 2007, on The College Green. The text of that address follows here.
Let me begin by thanking President Simmons for inviting me to give the Convocation Address this year. It is a signal honor, and it comes at a signal time in my career, since this is my 40th year of teaching at Brown University. I sometimes think I was born on the doorsteps of this institution. These last two sentences say something about the work of Time, and I suspect a number of you will have figured out that my crazy title - Reading Proust, Tracking Bears, at Brown - may contain some cryptic references to the passing of time.Certainly the first-year students should suspect as much, given that all of you have had the pleasure of tackling Alain de Botton's fine book, How Proust Can Change Your Life, as a kind of pre-arrival reading assignment. Given the rich intellectual diversity of this institution, with its dizzying array of fields and disciplines and departments and centers, there is something heartening in the fact that a big chunk of you have in common this rather strange little book that elects one of the more forbidding, even esoteric writers of the 20th century, in order to show just how pragmatic, useful and applicable this odd fellow, Marcel Proust, and his gargantuan novel - it takes two hands to carry the three thick Random House volumes of Remembrance of Things Past - may turn out to be. I hope Proust does change your life; he certainly changed mine. By dint of rereading and teaching him over the years, I have come to the slightly disturbing conviction that he is permanently lodged inside my brain, slyly governing my thoughts, influencing what I'd prefer to think of as my own personal vision. After all, books are stunningly mobile affairs, despite their apparent material density: you buy them, you put them in your bookcase, you count their pages, you underline them, you can even weigh them: but all this is perhaps a mirage, since the very act of reading is an act of profound displacement and boundary-smashing, charting the central voyage that takes place incessantly at this institution: the flowing of information and insights from the most diverse sources - books, but also films and paintings and music and web sites and diagrams and laboratory findings - into YOUR mind, to take up residence there. How can we be surprised that this might change your life? It would be surprising if it didn't.The most famous scene in Proust's long novel - known and recognized by many educated people who've never read Proust at all - lovingly describes a banal domestic event that would slip under the radar screen of most serious writers: namely, the eating of a little piece of pastry, called in French a madeleine, dipped by the tired, depressed middle-aged narrator into a cup of tea. Then comes the magic. The protagonist - let's call him Marcel - experiences a giddy, inebriating sensation of something lodged deep within him now rising to the surface. Giddy and inebriating because the sheer pleasure of this sensation makes him feel immortal, indeed ecstatic in a way he never has been before. What rises out of the depths - out of his depths - is no less than his idyllic childhood past, spent in a town called Combray. We will later learn that this past was not all that idyllic after all, but the unique miraculous redemptive character of such retrieval will stand as something almost holy in nature and value. All brought on by a tea-soaked pastry. Combray arising out of a teacup.I invoke this famous literary passage because I feel that it is peculiarly apt for Convocation, for opening the academic year at Brown University. All of you standing here - not merely the first year students, but the other undergraduates, and indeed the graduate students in the Arts and Sciences and in Medicine, all of you who are about to undertake a year of study at this institution - are on the threshold of a set of experiences that will live in you forever. The courses you take, the friends you make, that special voyage of new knowledge and new vistas traveling into you as you go out towards them, all this is going to be there for the duration. It will become a part of the living sediment in your brain and heart and memory. And I venture to say that you will repeatedly experience the labor and the pleasure, later in life, of retrieving just these memories, of recapturing, perhaps re-becoming, later in life, the person you are today. Now, the modern university, even including Brown, is an imperfect place, and there are numerous critics out there who can list chapter and verse as to what should be changed or outright abolished. But the human testimony of those who have passed through these gates and completed their years of study at such institutions is remarkably positive, as former students reflect on these matters later in life. And how could it not be? For you are reflecting on a situation that has considerable seductive power, as well as extraordinary freedom. The freedom to learn, to think, to develop and reject and challenge and redevelop ideas, to become more than you were when you arrived. Need I add: the memory that you will later have of this place - one year out, five years out, forty years out - will also be a memory of your own youthful past, of exactly the shimmering living potential that is arrayed on this Green today.I have always been a little surprised that the University did not distribute madeleines during the Reunions that cap each year's activities, Reunions when you will return to remember these days, to repossess them in whatever way you can. We can scarcely be surprised that so many people in this country look back to their college years as what was special, perhaps even best in their lives. That may be especially true of Brown, for this has always seemed to me a happier place than its immediate competitors. Of course there is a large dose of nostalgia, and probably a certain amount of amnesia that goes into this. That makes it no less real.Since many of you are on the threshold of this experience, rather than on its far side, let me leave the future and return to the present, return to what I called the central activity of this place, Reading, which I have characterized as a voyage. Consider what a person reading looks like: body still, seemingly utterly immobile, except for some involuntary blinking of one's eyes. Not much of a photo-op, no tourist office is likely to pick up on this spectacle, but it is a spectacle nonetheless, however unexotic and unpicturesque it may seem, because that reading person is ELSEWHERE, negotiating something cognitively - and perhaps emotionally and morally as well - that is stored in that book, waiting to exit from those covers into your mind, a bit like a genie in a bottle, a bit like Combray in a teacup. You may think this a romantic picture of what reading entails, but, to convince you of its practicality and seriousness, I'd like now to abandon Proust and to track bears. In doing so, let me salute the great stone Brown Bear perched on the side of this Green: he's seen legions of you come and go over the years; you might want to find out what he knows.But my ultimate sights are on another Bear, the one who is the title character in William Faulkner's great story, "The Bear," which depicts a kind of ritual hunting experience in Mississippi, whereby a group of men - women need not apply - annually set out for the great Wilderness in pursuit of the totemic animal, called Old Ben. The story was published in 1942. I have never been on a bear hunt, and I am fairly certain that the great majority of you haven't either, and that you probably wouldn't go tomorrow either, even if asked. Of course, Faulkner had never heard the phrase, "animal rights," but I think he would have had little difficulty grasping its meaning, since the protagonist of the story, the young boy Ike McCaslin, who wants nothing more than to be allowed one day, when he has come of age, to accompany these men as they hunt Old Ben: Ike has been taught by his native American mentor, Sam Fathers, that hunters must love and be worthy of the blood they spill. One senses easily enough that this Bear who seems to be immortal - each year the hunters try to get him, each year they fail - has something spiritual and noble about him.Faulkner's novel - "The Bear" is but one of the stories in the larger collection, Go Down Moses - recounts Ike McCaslin's education as a hunter. He learns to make his way ever more fully in the uncharted Wilderness. He learns to do so, even without the help of those implements of culture which are his trumps, so at a crucial moment, he discards his gun and his watch and his compass: precisely his tools of orientation and power. But I want most to say that Ike learns to READ the Wilderness. In particular, he learns to recognize the various tracks of the deer and the bears in the forest, most notably Ben's unique peculiar tracks, indeed Ben's print left on the forest floor.Half of the stories in this collection focus on Black people, not whites. Ike McCaslin's counterpart is a black man named Lucas Beauchamp who is a sharecropper farming the land held by the white, held in fact by the relatives of Ike McCaslin. These stories about Black people also revolve, oddly enough, around hunting, and it is not always very pretty. We see, well before Ike's birth, Ike's father and uncle hunting for the black servant Turl who has gotten loose, in order to see the black woman he loves, who is a slave at another plantation. We learn later, with some shock and queasiness, that Turl is the half-brother of those who are tracking him. We also see the exit of Lucas's wife Molly, who flees her sometimes manic husband, and we see the men of the text pursue the escaping Molly. They see her prints, they track her, they find her. At still another point in the story, Molly asks the white man to help her in getting a divorce from her sometimes manic husband: as Lucas puts it: "she wants a voce." She wants a voce. How much Latin do you need to hear the word voice in this phrase? We gradually come to realize that Faulkner's text is not just about hunting bears, it is also about the fault lines of the South itself, and he can be quite severe, by calling it the curse of the South. What is that curse: the ownership of people - slavery - and the ownership of land - property.The most audacious scene in "The Bear" consists of Ike McCaslin reading. He is not in the Wilderness this time, but is instead in the Commissary with his older cousin, Cass, and what he is reading are the old yellowed pages of the family ledgers, the old accounts left by his father and uncle and even his grandfather, the original Patriarch, Carothers McCaslin, the man who bought the slaves and founded the farm. I call this scene audacious because Faulkner actually puts those ledgers into his text: indented, italicized, filled with misspellings and abbreviations, garbled, really quite cryptic and difficult to process. Most readers go right past this material; Faulkner is hard enough with his regular prose, much less these strange markings inserted in the text. But Ike and Cass decipher this record, and it does in fact tell a story: the father and uncle have noted the behavior of the Patriarch: his trip to New Orleans in 1807 to buy a female slave Eunice, whom he later marries to his own manservant, Thucydus in 1809. Then comes the surprise: Eunice drowns herself in the creek on Christmas day 1832, noted at that time. The two men cannot fathom it. Six months later, in June 1833, they are still puzzled, repeatedly expressing astonishment that a Black slavewoman would drown herself. "Who ever heard of that?" they claim to one another. But the indented, italicized, cryptic notations continue, and we learn of a daughter named Tomasina born of Thucydus and Eunice in 1810, but dying in childbed in June 1833. I wonder if you can tell how stupendous these dates are. Let me help you out: Carothers McCaslin buys Eunice in 1807, and when he impregnates her 2 years later, he marries her off to his manservant, Thucydus. Eunice drowns herself in the creek on Christmas day 1832. And we can see why: in June of 1833, Tomasina dies in childbed. What Ike and Cass understand is that Carothers McCaslin impregnated Eunice, sold her off to Thucydus, and then 23 years impregnated his own daughter, Tomasina; when the mother Eunice learned of her daughter's pregancy by her own father, she commits suicide.That is the bristling but gruesome story that is encrypted in the ledgers that the boys read in the commisary. It is a story of abuse, of male abuse, of sexual abuse and of racial abuse. Faulkner places this story-within-a-story in plain view, if we're prepared to do the labor required to decode it. The most despoiled of all, in this scheme, were the Black slave women. They had no voice. "She wants a voce." Eunice's suicide is dreadfully coherent. It is, in its way, a judgment of the antebellum South, and that is precisely how Ike McCaslin reads it: he decides to renounce his patrimony, to renounce the farm, the property that seems so blood-drenched to him. I want you to see this scene: 2 boys reading an old yellowed script. This is the script of the South, and Faulkner wants us to understand that coming-of-age means: learning to read the Book of your culture. What else is Confirmation or Bar Mitzvah, if not a ceremony where the young demonstrate their adulthood by showing that they can read the Script, whether it be Christian Bible or the Torah. Learning to read means: transforming those cryptic markers on a page (that we call ‘print') into resonant meaning, translating signs into significance. It can change your life.Tracking bears. Ike McCaslin grows up by becoming a reader of bear prints and also a reader of print on a page; he arrives at an understanding of his culture. Think of a language that you cannot read: Chinese, Japanese, Arabic; now visualize it, and ask yourself if this does not resemble bear prints, cryptic scratches or markings on a page. It only stops being that when you've become a reader. And far back in our memories, beyond recall, beyond even Combray, was a time when English was exactly that for most of us: bear tracks, markings we did not understand. The project of education is little more than learning to translate such markings into their fuller - sometimes unbearably fuller - dimensions, to see that the page reaches very far indeed. On this day when we celebrate the opening of the university, I wish you happy reading, happy hunting. Thank you.