I am currently (finally?) in the last class of my Masters program at Duke University. That’s right: as of May 1, I will have completed all the coursework and will have (only) my Master’s thesis to complete for my degree.
It has been – I am not kidding — an amazing experience. No, the daily-ness of it hasn’t amazed me. It has been nothing like convenient to have, almost all the time, pressing reading and writing assignments leering over my shoulder. While other stay-at-home moms might finish their laundry folding and leaf through a magazine before bed, I’m lying awake trying to finish reading this essay by Freud or Walter Benjamin. I let all my magazine subscriptions run out Long Ago.
And the actual attending of classes—arranging with Bill the childcare, making sure I get the children where they need to go and getting to class on time and (greatest miracle) finding a parking place—has been, from time to time, an aggravation or, at the very least, Something Else to do on a weeknight.
But, really. This program has been Amazing. And I cannot tell you, here in this brief (?) posting how it has been amazing. I can only tell you that, over the last five years, it feels as though someone has peeled off the top of my head, and Made Room, changed my thinking and expanded it, and given me So Much More to think about. I am changed, and I am grateful.
The professor I have now is hands-down my favorite. I stumbled into his first course offering when I got bumped off the Internet during registration, and this was one of the most serendipitous accidents I’ve known (never judge a misfortune at first glance). He is German with a gentle accent and a really phenomenal vocabulary. In truth, I spend a significant amount of time during his class writing vocabulary words in the margins of my notes. Words like “instantiation” and “inchoate,” words that express Far More in their few syllables than I, in strings and strings of syllables, can even comprehend. And my professor’s German-to-English skills really boggle the mind. Do you know anyone—Anyone?—who can read Nietzsche in the German and translate it aloud, as he goes, into English? You know, when you are taking notes, you are not supposed to write, word for word, what the speaker is saying. But this man’s syntax, his vocabulary, border on the poetic. I do take notes word-for-word in his class, when I can. I Do. Because it’s just That Beautiful.
This is my third class with this professor, this genius. And he has, happily, agreed to work with me and serve as my advisor for my thesis project; this, because he hasn’t yet discovered my Inferior Intelligence.
All three of the courses I’ve had with him have been about modernism. With multiple references to Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Darwin, and even Wagner, we’ve plumbed the depths of modern man’s despair, of man’s decadence, of the shifting terrain of modern living in the literature of George Eliot, Goethe, and Thomas Mann.
Yes, Thomas Mann. This writer of whom I’d barely heard five years ago has been the subject of serious study for me lately. He was a stellar writer, and has taught me much about irony and philosophy even as he has laid out, again and again, plots and characters intricate, delicate and glorious. I love it.
My Masters thesis, in fact, will be on Mann and memory, memory and Mann in Mann’s tetralogy Joseph and His Brothers. I am looking forward to it.
For Wednesday’s class, I am preparing a paper on the role of memory in his Buddenbrooks. And I also have to finish reading (about 150 pages to go) Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March.
I spent much of Friday evening on research for the Buddenbrooks essay. I spent more time on it yesterday afternoon, and last night read about 60 pages of the Roth novel. I thought, after I was ready for bed, that I’d get a few more pages in.
But when it came to it, I couldn’t pick up the Roth or the Mann again. Nope. Just couldn’t do it.
Because although both of these books are brilliantly written (and who doesn’t read for the writing—really), although they flesh out some philosophical ideas and practical realities that are intriguing, they are also… well, Sad.
I realized, as I climbed into bed, that I was tired of early twentieth century Europe on the brink of World War I. I was tired of decline and mental lassitude and bourgeois misery. Yes I Was.
And what does one do in circumstances such as these? Simple. One goes home. To Annie Dillard (oh my, yes) and Pittsburgh (ah!) and Life Through Words in ways that defy words for explanation.
She knows, Annie does, what it means to be alive, and to attend to that living. One can’t live—not all the time—in pre-WWI Europe. No. It’s good, from time to time, to come Home.
In the living room the mail slot clicked open and envelopes clattered down. In the back room, where our maid, Margaret Butler, was ironing, the steam iron thumped the muffled ironing board and hissed. The walls squeaked, the pipes knocked, the screen door trembled, the furnace banged, and the radiators clanged. This was the fall the loud trucks went by. I sat mindless and eternal on the kitchen floor, stony of head and solemn, playing with my fingers. Time streamed in full flood beside me on the kitchen floor; time roared raging beside me down its swollen banks; and when I woke I was so startled I fell in.
Who could ever tire of this heart-stopping transition, of this breakthrough shift between seeing and knowing you see, between being and knowing you be? It drives you to a life of concentration, it does, a life in which effort draws you down so very deep that when you surface you twist up exhilarated with a yelp and a gasp.
-Annie Dillard, An American Childhood
Thank you again, Annie, for the rescue.