Updated: Feb 8, 2019
Autumn is in the air, as they say. The week has seen daily showers and temperatures no higher than 70. The change of season stirs that part of me drawn to poetry, art, and intellectual adventure. Maybe it is the gentle melancholy that comes with the onset of Portland drizzle and a softening of light that is not as pronounced as when I lived in the South but present nonetheless.
The course of study for the fall term is coming together. This year it is shaped by the political and cultural turmoil that is a mark of interesting times. By instinct and inclination I turn first to the past. Time has come to reread The Contours of American History (1961) by William Appleman Williams, a book that probably dates to a freshman history course in 1971 (the age of my trade paperback edition given away by the price of $2.95 printed on the cover). Our era has its unique aspects, as every era does, but it is not without historical antecedents, and I think it never hurts to be reminded of those.
Contours begins with a discourse on Lord Shaftesbury (1621–1683) and British mercantilism, which Williams explains "bore a subtle and complex relationship to the American Revolution." This leads to an examination of contentious issues that are very much with us still. Tension between individualism and the idea of corporate responsibility for the general welfare and common good goes back to the colonial era. The Elizabethan and early Stuart belief that poverty was a function of the economic system was challenged by the assertion made by certain strains of Protestantism that it is a function of sin, especially lust and laziness. Individual worldly success was defined by some as a sign of religious virtue. Expansion and empire as a source of wealth and welfare were woven into the American fabric from the beginning. Misuse of political office and position to improve personal fortune was not exactly a concept alien to the nation's founders, some of whom had firsthand experience with it. The litany sounds all too familiar.
The Kavanaugh nomination, Trump regime shenanigans, and competing theories of constitutional interpretation lead me to complement Williams with The Federalist Papers for a deep dig into the case for the American form of constitutional government.
Socialism has suddenly become fashionable. Leftists can now come out of the closet and advocate for socialist principles just as on the far right individuals so disposed now feel free to come out for racism and European (white) supremacy. I suppose there is a kind of weird symmetry to this.
My understanding of socialism is of a vague and general nature. At best I have a passing familiarity and sympathy with some of its principles. I suspect that the same is true of many of those surveyed in a recent poll whose results indicate that Democrats are more positive about socialism than capitalism. So it is time to think about socialism.
And Karl Marx. Why Marx? Because his shadow looms over it all and because my knowledge of him is also sketchy. He seems relevant what with all the blather pro and con about socialism, democratic socialism, &c.
The program for the fall is modest, selections from The Marx-Engels Reader and a biography (Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life) by historian Jonathan Sperber, whose premise is to take Marx as a figure of a past historical epoch,
the age of the French Revolution, of Hegel's philosophy, of the early years of English industrialization and the political economy stemming from it...more usefully understood as a backward-looking figure who took the circumstances of the first half of the nineteenth century and projected them into the future, than as a surefooted and foresighted interpreter of historical trends.
I find this approach to Marx congenial, a historical figure and thinker, subject for study and critique as Kant or Hegel, Rousseau or Locke or Burke, might be subjects for study and critique.
The program rounds out with ongoing study of traditions of literary criticism begun over the summer and rereading some of the English Romantic poets. I'm presently having a go at Byron with Childe Harold's Pilgrimage.
I decided to lay out a program of study for fall and spring terms last summer when I retired in hope to avoid just frittering away the time. Why this and not something else? I guess it is just who I am, what I do, what I care about. In a poem from 2005 I remembered myself as "A lonely, skinny, shy kid / Who the only thing he ever knew how to do / Was to do well in school" (Remembering Judy). There is something to that.
None of this will bring resolution for the issues of the day or the existential searching that vexes our spirits. I remain convinced though that there is something worthwhile and satisfying in study and reflection on those who have come before, giants on whose shoulders we stand, as my old philosophy professor Dr. Matsen liked to say.
Besides, I find it interesting. Sometimes I wonder if my range of interests is too broad, if I might be better served by narrowing my focus. Ah, another conundrum that may defy resolution.
No doubt distractions and diversions will come my way. Things never go according to plan. Balancing study with the writing projects can be a challenge. Tendencies to laziness and indolence get out of hand. And still time must be found for involvement in Trump resistance with the other old hotheads.
It all goes into the mix that serves to fashion a fragile sense of identity and self-worth. And as Derrida said of deconstruction, it is some sense a pleasurable experience.