Reading the Dead

For some reason, out of the hundreds of times that I’ve heard the phrase “dead white men” in the context of the problematic amount of space they take up in the canon and in in public consciousness, it struck me differently when I heard it today. Of what use, I’m wondering now, is the word “dead” in there?

I can get behind the spirit of the challenge. Let’s read women! Let’s read people of color! Your reading project is yours alone, and after all, we each only get so much reading time on this earth. Still, I cannot imagine a world in which I could bring myself to read the living instead of the dead.

My dissertation advisor recently reminded me that “tradition” and “metaphor,” from Latin and from Greek respectively, have the same literal sense, a carrying-over. “Tradition” comes to mean a carrying over of the things of our ancestors to the younger generations, whereas “metaphor” is used to describe the carrying-over, or transference, of meaning from one idea to another. But even in these conventional uses, surely there is still a relationship between the concepts: on what can our metaphors subsist without the tradition? How quickly would our living art pale and wither without its inheritances from the art of the dead?

Of course, I would say this; my work focuses almost entirely on the dead, and one of my most pressing research questions is about the terms of ethical engagement between the reader and the long-dead creators of texts. And of course I see, from a practical point of view, why the word gets lumped in with “white men”: of the texts published and preserved and made available from earlier eras in western literature (not to even begin to touch on the complex cultural history of translation), a disproportionate number were authored by white men.

At the same time, the word implies a hope that lives in those who deploy it: that this will no longer be the case in the texts currently being produced by the living, that a new era is upon us, and from now on, the canon will look different. It’s a lot of hope to place on our canon, the canon of those living now, and it is, by now, a hope that has been shared by many who are no longer with us, who have joined the dead. So are they no longer part of our project? Won’t we count them among our number?

I believe in keeping company with the dead, and will continue to do so, not apologetically or as a concession, but as a point of primary interest and ethical concern for the living.


The graveyard in Grafton, Vermont

The graveyard in Grafton, Vermont

for the solstice

Persephone books is reading my mind this week. In Monday’s Persephone Post, with a Jane Peterson painting that speaks to me of warm-on-a-cold-day, they reference the joy known universally to reading women of “Boxing Day when they might be allowed a few hours on the sofa with a Good Book.” It’s St. Stephen’s Day to me, Mr. Wenceslas’s big day, but there was resonance here of a conversation I had only recently:

“What would you like to do on St. Stephen’s day?”
“Well, read, obviously, but I don’t know what else... don’t we sometimes bake?”

To complicate the dichotomy that the ladies at Persephone set up, between holiday preparations and quiet time to read, I have also often enjoyed baking on St. Stephen’s Day, but specifically because the pressure is off, and it feels like the first day when it is possible to bake on my own terms again (clean kitchen, music at whim, no time obligations whatsoever). But first and foremost, the 26th is a day for reading: everyone needs some quiet that day, all of the expectations of constant socializing must be dropped, and hopefully, one has at least one new book that's been tugging at one from the edge of all the socializing. So, perhaps a good day to bake something yeasty, and fill the long proofing periods with reading.

Still, before we get there, the solstice this week is the first of my December holiday trinity: this is the quiet one, spent in exactly my own way, sparkling between cool air and warm light, and hopefully out-of-doors and champagne and eating meat again for the first time in Advent (though I had some early solstice celebrations away from home this year with family—I, like many of my contemporaries, believe myself an inventor of flexibility in ritual).

The solstice has been special to me for a number of years, and it’s delightful to see it coming forward in collective attention recently thanks to the astrological renaissance underway on the internet and in millennial havens nowadays. My social circles include representatives of both sides of the polarization that astrology brings out, a conflict that’s amusing if you keep in mind how recently (half a millennium or so ago) there was no line as such between astrology and astronomy. For this, I see the rationalists and the astrologues as the conflict of the schism: the skeksis and the mystics of the world I inhabit. I have a guess, however, at which side would be happier to hear me describe the conflict as illusory.

Still, I feel that any version of modernity currently practiced will not prevent any of us from appreciating the turning of the year, the hope for the returning of the sun. In my life, too, this December moment is a symbolic one: the promise that eventually, later on in January, I will start to get some sunlight back in the morning, the only time I really care about it. Many people I know are delighted to start gaining light in the afternoon, since, I suppose, they find it gloomy rather than magical to leave work in the dark. For me, it’s still another month to wait for relief, but the solstice encourages: brighter times ahead.

Extracurricular reading

Given that it's crunch time, I really shouldn't have any time to read things that are not strictly "for" my dissertation. But given that reading is a compulsive behavior for me, reading off-topic is the only way to relax my brain - I tell myself it's a kind of recovery, or stretching. 

Anyway, things collide interestingly for me sometimes. Also, I hate/love the look of writing bleeding through paper.