Saturday, July 25, 2009


A friend once wrote me about the lists by which he plots his intellectual journeys:

I have had the opportunity to review my list - the mandatory “To Do” I always carry with me and scribble on just in case I need to remember something. Funny thing is, I rarely carry a pen or pencil and try to burn an image, task, title or song lyric into my brain by repeating it silently over and over until I sit comfortably at my desk, open my wallet and breathe a sigh knowing the item has been added. If someone were to find my list, it would make little sense, but to me it shows the results of my inner workings...all the well-oiled gears grinding together.

Reading through a collection of his earlier lists, he offered this explanation of the experience:

It was the Bildungsroman of a former self, someone who desperately wanted to be a Renaissance Man of his own making, someone no one would quite understand, but that was okay. I could feel how I felt when I wrote them: there must be something better. I kept open a few items: get back to British Columbia, take a Joyce "Ulysses" course, violin and sax lessons, attend photo and video courses in Rockland. As I crossed out, a layer was added to myself…and some sadness and unattainability faded.

I admire the economy of the record of self in this record of dreams. Whether in the planning or in the recording, the landmarks of some of my own intellectual journeys claim space that I do not have in abundance these days. In the neat stacks of books and journals near my favorite reading chair, I get reminded each day of a variety of goals that I have set for myself in recent and not so recent years. Like my friend, I have before me a Bildungsroman of goals that at different times have called me to be a particular kind of John.

For example, there is the Washington Square Press paperback that I purchased after a lecture on the Roman poet Horace and the structure of his four books of odes. I was a sophomore in college at the time, and for ninety cents I added a volume to my personal library with the complete Latin text of the odes and an English translation of each poem by British poet James Michie. Not a classics major, I have yet to reach the point of picking up the book and opening to a random page and reading the Latin originals with speed and accuracy. On the other hand, I can from time to time use my high school Latin to work through a stanza or two. I may not be equipped to teach Horace, but I enjoy the awareness that my education has provided me a way to delve into his world.

Before I ever enrolled in high school classes in New Orleans, Latin was a language that I associated with beauty and authority and holiness. It was a language by which even my parents could be a bit daunted as they knelt with my brothers and me at a Roman Catholic Mass each Sunday morning. I watched how words looked on the pages of my parents’ missals and prayer books. I learned early on that not all languages looked or sounded like English. If my parents did not understand Latin, though, they occasionally used a French from their Louisiana childhood when they wanted to say something to one another that their children should not understand. I discovered in time that that mystifying language of family secrets was also the language of Paris and Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower.

Next to the paperback Horace near my reading chair are several purchases from this past March when I shopped at Paris kiosks and browsed through Paris bookstores. When the time had come that I could choose the language that I would learn in school, I began my study of French. My undergraduate major in French acquainted me with a France that was stark and misty and sophisticated. In travelling as an adult to Paris and other sections of France, I have kept expecting the sober and beautiful pages of the French novels and plays and poems that I had read in college to provide a key to a world that at one time seemed more likely to match who I was. My knowledge of French makes it a pleasure – albeit sometimes a slow one – to hear how the world sounds in the elegant syllables of my Gallic contemporaries. Watching French films, I enjoy the spoken rhythms of people with whom I claim a common heritage.

Among the intellectual journeys on which I have embarked over the years, the different languages by which people tell their stories have exerted a steady fascination. A goal that persists in luring me is more confidence in reading German and hearing it spoken. Its earliest emotional claim on me came in the rooms of one of the first men with whom I fell in love. I remember reading the titles of the scholarly books on his shelves as I sat and listened to him summarize a particular class that he had taught that day. I took delight paging through his lecture notes and finding the precise umlauts with which he had punctuated his quotations from scholars under whom he had studied. Admiration and love seemed to go hand in hand in those days, and I thought of him often when years later I took a reading course in theological German. A hardcover anthology of German poetry is stacked next to Horace and Max Jacob in my sitting room.

During my recent weekend in New York, I took a photograph of the NYU house for students of German. There was awakened in me that day a sense of how intellectual pursuits can promise a home for those parts of ourselves that not everyone in a social circle asks about or knows how to recognize in us. The dream, though, of becoming the kind of person we think we have a chance to be can lead us all to create lists and build stacks of books, keep journals and watch French movies and sit in lamplight at home on quiet reading nights in summer.

Welcome the people who get who we are and what we are trying to be.


Ur-spo said...

The study of language is a fascinating topic for me.
I would love to take a history course on language.
I find certain languages lovely; others sound harsh.
Overall the Romance languages with their vowels sounds lovelier than the Germanic ones.

Donald said...

I think I'm ready to enjoy the punch and gallop of German!