The Turtle, and the name of Feminism

So, I’m sitting there reading this fall Elena Ferrante against my better judgment since I should be doing other things, and finding that in every memory the narrator recounts, I have a parallel memory, one that I haven’t thought of in a while, one that if I have thought of, I’ve put back. All these memories have somehow remained piecemeal, and one (I) has (have) been pleased (occasion occurring) to find it’s not central to the story of self; that it never had that much effect, or that my official story continues on without these troubling outlying subplots.

But the way E. tells her narrator’s story reminds me of all the damn pieces of stories, carefully kept as fragments, that have a larger life in the very quality of the memory. Reading her story, one is reminded of the viscosity of this so-thought fragment; it is not some silly visual flash but a full several hours of viscerally passing time.

When you put it like that, it’s maybe probably important. It’s just that one had put it aside, taking a lower standard for what constitutes memory. But these rather different memories splay out over time, they have a life and a narrative in themselves that earlier & later memories find it harder to possess; one finds one has lowered one’s standard for what constitutes past itself.


And so, reading, I found myself of a sudden thinking back to the last time I really felt strongly about this particular word (do I want to say it?), the word (in ’96) one used, that was foreign at the time, and no one said this (in Louisiana), it was foreign and alarming in the way that is not even a big deal given how trivial it is (now, outside, even when one is back in the same land), considering how far away it used to be from anything else:

For E., there are jargon-words she doesn’t say, but I am pleased to connect and deepen the jargon to her story, having heard her nonchalantly toss the circumstances into the narrative: what I knew before, barely, as: Italian, radical, feminist these are the names in volatility– The remoteness, initially, of her own story to what a few women were talking about more (more), that she saw from the fringes, what she ended writing about but then even her father-in-law (book 2) is singing silly rhymes about like it’s a made-for-tv movie, well all that was helpful. It was a thing people were saying. it was good to read.

For myself, merely, “feminism,” in all its jargon, in the heavy symbolism of the word, which at the time (in ’96) (in Louisiana) bore religious (anti-religious) weight, which now (rejecting much) one somehow wishes to reject (jargon is not right as such, have come to believe) and yet for the pity of it all even this act (of proposed rejection) (which I have still not officially said) involves somehow me in over my head (language speaks nevertheless).

In it now (I’m in for it now) (yeah I gave up and started a class on this very name it’s sinister), I’m starting to recall to see what my small town students see, what I saw then, instead of the shibboleth of the wealthy, the way to make sure we’re all friends here, the way to pass heedless through the gates in the satisfaction of mindless predication,

am recalling again something different about this name; from the zero sum game of the present in which intellectual propriety obliges me to reject it now (it still feels dangerous but right to do so), which I would have certainly (?) rejected in sum (in life), if not for:


three dudes

the strange tall inexplicable economics teacher who had been at Harvard (? ? but how did he get here, to this lonely-ass town, no one knew, it was definitely sinister) who lost the respect of the class early, but in the course of international politics indulged in chess metaphors. there was a moment where I let the class down, by nevertheless somehow accidentally siding with the man, in which I helped out and engaged in this chess metaphor about international politics, it was both interesting/a way to stave off boredom and a kindness at once. no one really knew his story. but he launched into teaching this class at a small school in a small town, he had to have had a story, he left after a year. but

there was this one point where (among the radical subjects haphazardly introduced) something was said, I responded beyond the normal

the (unconsciously perhaps brokenly) fey one, the one who was doing just a few increments better than me in grades (he and erin doing better, the latter my friend in the sense of the one person who I would talk to in class but we negotiated how I was not going to do so outside of it much at length), who at the decisive moment (and how did it even come up, in response to what?) said women are for <making?> babies <pretty much that’s it> definitely it was babies that was the straight pin of the very short two (one?) sentences. he said something like women are for babies that’s what they’ve got ha. as you all know ha the memory of the language is hard to pin, not used then to seeing the good of the habit that you have to work right then to sew down the string of words exactly as they came or else you might lose it forever. but women are for making babies. this is a paraphrase.

the rage from this there was this first moment of that strange initial acceptance of the wrong as such that flickers for a second, then (first as pure doubt, then building) strong sense that it had wait to be wrong, then gathering conviction & so strength of the wrongness, enough to reply strongly enough, that he pedaled back on quick enough disclaiming any merit to this argument, intent, meaning; the deepening suspicion with which I took it, and then;


then, and who knows if it was the next hour or the next week or what, I think maybe (probably?) it was the next hour, I sat more upright than usual in math class (though indeed it was math class that inspired posture ???) and I felt I was burning the earth, that the earth burned around me. I ‘m staring down the earth, sitting straighter, reading, writing, and thinking never—

the backstory is, this math professor, he had a short neck but the impression then and confirmed by now is, he must have taught college at some point, he was the one who told us to read the first chapter of trig like a novel, that was insight and benefice at once, just head on through, only at the end do you get (and this I add from experience) what to ask about what you didn’t see in the middle. I thought of him as an aged turtle.

but, he,
alone, I think
among the many teachers who had to witness this and figure out how the hell to respond,
put up with me “reading in class” in these largely wasted years:
no bones about it, I just flat out read a book
straight up on the desk, didn’t have to pretend
definitely I sat straight up, gave the book the angle up, the better to see
I made A’s on the damn tests and so; I
didn’t turn in my homework,
he let me do this,
he even ( I think?

at the time he was a benevolent but deeply stupid turtle.

so there I sat, in “advanced math,”
in the stupid class that erin and david (so I do remember his name after all)
didn’t have to take, because they had been to the better schools with quicker classes and were a year ahead of me in math,
which (I think) became two (years?), before we were done.

anyway, I’m sitting up straight in class,
I’ve forgotten the awkwardness of the economics guy with his chess metaphors equal part kindness which I didn’t recognize as such
but remembering the pleasantness of chess in a foreign place,
if not also the phrasing, really, of what david said, except for the word babies
and his desire to beat me without—well without much, but
with what was obviously a trump card,
he knew he wouldn’t miss or fail
that his audience would be on his side,
and sure enough, he got the laugh.

this is burning away: what consumes me
with my book (but I’m beyond my book right then, though I’m still liking to hold it up the better to stare out)
is that never, never
never never
will I ever let
(and here I can’t remember the words)
nature consume me,
no one will ever tell me,
sit in the kitchen, eat in the kitchen (langston talking here)
I refuse to be <determined> by that
(determination is such a silly word that I did not even know at the time)
I refuse
I will not
will not
there will be of this I the not
of (of what is not even conscious of itself in any definite sense) there will nevertheless be the not
(and this not I think was somehow all-not  and now wondering if this was my first proper all)
that what is true is not, of the
the free in the sense of not, that there are things other than—that this won’t it is not

(my carefully later-learned greek vocabulary hesitates over my precise phrasing here,
I think I did it better than this; it’s only the jargon of the last decades now that intervenes with something other than the purity of the insight)

mainly I remember the burning
and the posture
and the book
and the conviction, the word never, the word no
and the all-encompassing (flaming)
sense of insistent (flaming) freedom:
freedom in what I later saw as kin, reading of the greek freedom (such a very few cities that said it, and not even greek ones particularly) in the face of the Persians: burn me down, burn me up,
you’re never going to get me,
being free means dying a free man, and not a slave:
you die if you have to ,
but no one is going to get you,
not if you understand
that death is all it takes.


there were three men
(there were many more involved in this posturing moment, but one can only bring so many piecemeal to the table)
but it’s three I see now:

and at the time, the one I saw the least was the turtle.
rage for the most trivial one, stupid benevolence for the awkward chess other,
what a waste.

but the damn turtle: he let me sit there, he let me read, everyone else made me pretend that I was doing work in their stupid class, sitting there empty-handed in increasingly burning boredom, or just hiding the stupid book under the desk when I could, or if not this (having been found out again) then reading on top of the desk in February what had exhausted itself in September, the textbook again.

in second-tier math class however nothing was said about the book on the table: freedom was there, discovered in transgression, secured by mutual if astonished respect.

(once I remember he greeted me after graduation with some benevolence in the hall (elena f., this memory was completely buried until the moment of you!)

other (male) teachers praised
other (female) teachers recommended (with caveats)
other (lady) teachers let me hide,
bless them, in the labyrinth of the library, as far in the tangle as the tangle allowed.

this dude let me read,
no fucking subterfuge,
the hour was my own, given and earned by shameless facility, without shame or payback, no fealty required.

that’s where I first read A Room of One’s Own,
after all I had the leisure
and thought,

and that’s the last time the word feminism made any sense to me.

Herodotus Bringing It All Back Home

You know, I just had a thought that gave me a lot of pleasure: not this fall, but next fall, it’ll be ten years since I first read Herodotus. Ten years! Since reading Herodotus! Since getting to know that peculiarly idiosyncratic, lovable, spoudaios man. Maybe getting older is worth it; a decade of knowing Herodotus. Surely not being 19, or 21, or 24, or even 25 anymore is worth that.

Herodotus, the Naked Man Edition

This is my first copy. Bought seconds after Beth snatched up the last non-naked-man edition. I now own four versions:this one, the brokenness of which the picture doesn’t, of course, do justice to; the same translation in hard back sans naked man, bought used from Olsson’s downtown; the Landmark version (which you can see the edge of in the picture, on the left) which I just received from Gill and Ian for my January birthday–you know, I’m beyond excited about the maps, but the translation isn’t as good as Grene’s; and a well beloved audio version, with some random old translation and a equally random crackly old man reading it. (This last claims H. named each of his nine books after the nine Muses, which I still don’t know is true or not.)

I finished my paper on Aquinas and the passions today–it turns out that pleasure is the closest passion, ontologically speaking, to a habit, as it’s an energeia of its own, but whatever– and I couldn’t think of anything better to do to calm down and celebrate than to walk five blocks to Dr. Granville’s, a mussels-fries-and-Belgian beer place on H St., pictured above. (It’s the one with the tallest spire.)

Then, drinking, I had my thought, but then I had to think about why it was so peculiarly pleasing. It’ll also be, for instance, ten years since reading the Republic, the Iliad and the Odyssey; the anniversary of the plays will come a little earlier, since I read them the summer before school began. I had read, basically, genre novels, novels, and plays, and the Apology, and I knew I might do better reading similar things before than anything else. (I also read Middlemarch that summer, and understood not perhaps a word of it.)

As much as everything was profound, affecting, life-turning, life-messing-up that I read that year, back in 1999, why is it a decade of Herodotus that gives so much simple, easy, calming pleasure? Consider this: my dad and I share two beloved writers in common: Bob Dylan and Plato. Really, that’s us. Oedipus and his dad both get pretty angry at dishonor pretty quickly; me and my dad, we listen to Blood on the Tracks and dream about the Soul, and all the images one might well make about it. We like thinking ironic poetry and poetical ironic philosophy. So it’s not as though Herodotus were me, were simply a part of my soul. I don’t think I read him easily. Yet there was something striking about him: his voice was a voice I knew I could hear, in its characteristic self, more easily than other voices through the muddle of translation; he was a Character, like an Oxford don or something, a weirdo, but one you could love for the right reasons.

I even wrote my Freshman essay on the man. (It was not well received.) The title of my document in the computer, though not the official title of the essay, was the same as this post, a Bob Dylan album title. Herodotus does bring it all back home; tonight, I read how when the Persian fleet was wrecked, one man became rich from simply picking up gold cups from the shore, although he later came to grief from other reasons. I also read, that with the 5,283, 220 troops of Xerxes, there were numbered-less numbers of women, eunuchs, baggage animals, and dogs. And that, of these many ten thousands of men, for handsomeness and size there was none worthier than Xerxes to hold that power.

The New yorker notes H. was right about the etruscans.

(I like that one woman, third from the right. She knows what she’s doing.)

I guess it was at least obvious to me that Herodotus was telling important stories, stories like people I knew from the South told, and that it was vital to tell them, and that the telling brought it home to you–even if I didn’t know what any of them meant. Miss Brann used to ask me, I guess in seminar, and in my paper proposal, and also in my oral on the paper, whether there was some underlying unity, some reason why one story came willy-nilly after the next–or none, she said, at all. I guess, I imagine she was wondering whether he was another Plato, or Aristophanes, a poet with a clear, even harsh eye towards the ultimate meaning of his text. I think I can now say, his eye isn’t harsh; he has so many reservations about what real poetic unity would look like–think of his criticisms and re-tellings of Homer, for instance–and he wants to tell you what’s true about broken truth, about anecdotal truth. He’s not bringing it back home in a fully conscious, pointed, sharp, wordy way, but he does have a profound poetic sense of what stories are important and which aren’t, and as a serious reader, it’s your own human job, he thinks, to figure out why. Ms. B. pointed out my essay was really about what an anecdote is: now I know that’s not bad.

I have a year and four months before the ten years is up. When I finish reading, really reading, Books 7, 8, and 9, I’ll have read it all. And that will be something. Something better than me reading some book and instantly having a theory about it.

Again–ten years is a long time. But it is a light burden when I think of my long story of getting to know Herodotus–even a burden I would gladly make heavier, with further age to come.