“If virtue can be taught, it’s only by learning to ask the types of questions that make you a thoughtful person.”
My two-year term at St. John’s College’s Graduate Institute was the most important part of my life. During my recent trip back to Annapolis, I sat down with outgoing president Christopher Nelson to talk about lessons learned during his 26-year tenure, the books that guided him to the college, the ones he returns to, and the ones that gave him the most trouble as an undergrad, what he’ll miss and what he hopes to do next, his key advice for his successor, and more! Give it a listen!
“Running an institution and reading a budget were second nature to me. . . . Being able to participate in the life of the college so I could make good and deep judgements about what’s important around here; that was going to come from spending time in the classroom and with the faculty.”
We also talk about the unique situation of being the only president in the college’s 300+ years who is also an alumnus, why math and philosophy are for the young, while big novels are for middle age, how he grew into The Aeneid, the use of literature in understanding Japanese morality, why he returns to Middlemarch every few years, what he’d add to the St. John’s curriculum (even if he can’t bring himself to drop something to make room for it), and a lot more! Give it a listen! (and become a supporter via Patreon or Paypal so you can check out the big list of all the books we talked about this episode!)
“The commodification of higher education — like the monetization of every good in life — is deeply disturbing. It’s certainly something that’s always been in America. You read de Tocqueville and you see that it’s part of the American spirit to do that.”
About our Guest
Christopher B. Nelson has been president of St. John’s College in Annapolis, MD, since June 1991. He is an alumnus of St. John’s (B.A. 1970) and a graduate of the University of Utah College of Law (J.D. 1973), where he founded and directed the university’s student legal services program. He practiced law in Chicago for 18 years and was chairman of his law firm when he left the practice to take his current position at St. John’s College. Christopher Nelson is a national spokesperson for the liberal arts, participating actively in the national conversation about higher education. Frequently a panelist and speaker on state, regional, and national programs, he has addressed issues of institutional autonomy in the face of government regulatory intrusion and changes proposed in the accrediting system. His current focus is making clear the value of liberal education – in providing excellent grounding for career and professional development and, most importantly, for an open-minded pursuit of lifelong learning.
Credits: This episode’s music is Nothing’s Gonna Bring Me Down by David Baerwald, used with permission of the artist. The conversation was recorded at the office of Christopher Nelson at the Annapolis campus of St. John’s College on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 Microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder. I recorded the intro and outro on a Blue enCORE 200 Microphone feeding into a Mackie Onyx Blackjack 2×2 USB Recording Interface. Processing was done in Audacity and Logic Pro. B/w photo of President Nelson by me. Photo of Annapolis campus by me.
“As a translator, your initial feeling is, ‘I want to inhabit this text.’ There’s a primary identification, a mirror effect, where you see your own creative possibilities reflected there, and want to realize them through this text.”
The 7th annual Festival Neue Literatur is Feb. 25-28, 2016 in New York, and this podcast is a Media Partner, so let’s talk to the event’s curator! Translator and Guggenheim fellow Ross Benjamin joins the show to talk about putting together “Seriously Funny,” this year’s FNL theme, and coordinating the 6 German language authors and 2 Americans who will be the featured guests. We talk about humor, German stereotypes, and the difference between reading a language and being able to speak it. Along the way, we get into the styles that different translators have, the challenges and joys of translating Kafka’s diaries, the pros and cons of translating living authors and dead ones, and the angst of trying to give meaning to a single word. Give it a listen, and get over to Festival Neue Literatur from February 25-28, 2016 in New York!
“In the early diaries, you can feel Kafka groping for a voice and a style.”
We also get into Ross’ history as a translator, what he’s learned about his mother tongue in the process, what other language he’d love to learn, the deep responsibility that comes from bringing a text into English, and more! Go listen.
“Most authors don’t mind answering ceaseless questions about their own work. It’s not just ego or vanity, I think it’s fascinating for them because authors don’t necessarily think consciously about all these aspects of their work.”
Also, if you want to find out who Ross is reading nowadays and get a list of the books we talked about in this episode, join our Patreon and become a monthly contributor to The Virtual Memories Show! At the end of February, the new episode of our patron-only podcast, Fear of a Square Planet, will go up with a bonus segment about who Ross is reading and why.
About our Guest
Ross Benjamin is a translator of German-language literature and a writer living in Nyack, NY. His translations include Friedrich Hölderlin’s Hyperion, Kevin Vennemann’s Close to Jedenew, Joseph Roth’s Job, and Clemens J. Setz’s Indigo. He is currently at work on a translation of Franz Kafka’s complete Diaries, to be published by Liveright/Norton. He is a 2015 Guggenheim Fellow. He was awarded the 2010 Helen and Kurt Wolff Translator’s Prize for his rendering of Michael Maar’s Speak, Nabokov, a 2012 National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship to translate Clemens J. Setz’s The Frequencies, and a commendation from the judges of the 2012 Schlegel-Tieck Prize for his translation of Thomas Pletzinger’s Funeral for a Dog. His literary criticism has appeared in The Times Literary Supplement, Bookforum, The Nation, and other publications. He was a 2003–2004 Fulbright Scholar in Berlin and is a graduate of Vassar College.
Credits: This episode’s music is Nothing’s Gonna Bring Me Down by David Baerwald, used with permission of the artist. The conversation was recorded in a conference room in Nyack, NY on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder. I recorded the intro and outro on a Blue Yeti USB Microphone. Processing was done in Audacity and Logic Pro. Photo of Mr. Benjamin by me.
“No one can be deeply affected by this course of study and not want to go beyond it. It gets you excited about ideas, questions and authors. To read one author is to lead you to another.”
How does a man go from being a ne’er-do-well in a Pennsylvania mining town to a tutor at St. John’s College? Peter Kalkavage joins the show to talk about his path to that Great Books institution, what he’s learned going into his 38th year as a tutor, how he fell in love with the college’s music program, what his study of Hegel taught him, what he’d add to the St. John’s curriculum, and more! (Also: Iliad or Odyssey, which offsets the question of “Luther or Calvin?”)
“In my time here, the one change that has irked me the most has been the shift from Luther to Calvin in the sophomore seminar. There were understandable problems with Luther . . . on the other hand, he deals in a blunt and powerful way with questions of freedom, secular authority, and faith-vs.-works. Calvin seems too relentlessly negative and too obsessed with the question of predestination.”
We also discuss his upbringing, The Big Lebowski, the teacher who got him to turn himself around, his favorite area to teach, how Dante taught him the possibilities of poetry, the question of whether we’re ever mature enough to read the curriculum, and the recent move to rebrand St. John’s College.
“We have to be very careful not to present ourselves in what we think might be an attractive way which misrepresents what we most have to offer our students, the country and the world: our curriculum. That’s the most important thing. Not our location, not our extracurricular activities, but the program. ‘The following teachers are returning to St. John’s next year. . . .'”
About our Guest
Peter Kalkavage has been a tutor at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Md., since 1977. He is director of the St. John’s Chorus. Dr. Kalkavage is the author of The Logic of Desire: An Introduction to Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, and has produced translations of Plato’s Timaeus and Statesman for Focus Philosophical Library. He is also author of two texts that have been used in the St. John’s music program, On the Measurement of Tones and Elements: A Workbook for Freshman Music.
Credits: This episode’s music is the opening credits to Miller’s Crossing by Carter Burwell. The conversation was recorded in Peter Kalkavage’s office during the St. John’s College 2014 Piraeus seminar on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H4n recorder. The intro and outro were recorded on Blue Yeti USB Microphone. Processing was done in Audacity and Garage Band. Photo of Peter Kalkavage by me.
Apparently, there’s a kerfluffle going on about whether Martin Heidegger’s philosophy should be shelved alongside Nazi history books and Mein Kampf. See, Heidegger was an ardent member of the Nazi party, and the argument is that his philosophy is NaziÃ¯sh, too, and Nazis are bad so his books shouldn’t be available without a warning label! Or something.
Tim Black at Spiked! does a great job of exploding that argument in this article, showing how the philosophy has no fascistic trend in it at all, and in fact lends itself more to left-wing, anti-modern thought. In my experience, Heidegger’s pretty difficult to explain in layman’s terms, but Black does an admirable job of portraying both Heidegger’s philosophy and the impact it had on 20th century thinkers.
What is “my experience,” you ask? Well, despite having virtually no background in philosophy, I studied Heidegger’s main book, Being And Time, for a semester at my wacky hippie-trippy progressive college. Our professor, Tsenay Serequeberhan (now at Morgan State), was late to class every single time, leading us to rename the course to Being On Time.
Given Heidegger’s dense prose (translated from German, the densest language known to man), my aforementioned inexperience, and our professor’s Eritrean accent, I did not have an easy time of things in that class. Still, Tsenay did his best to convey something of Heidegger’s philosophy to a novice like me. (He also told us at the outset that he didn’t want to discuss Heidegger’s role in the Nazi party, especially since Being and Time was published long before Hitler’s rise, and should stand on its own.)
In one of the more concrete (albeit limited) examples, Tsenay addressed Heidegger’s contention that animals do not have emotions. “Here, I disagree with him,” he said. “You see, I believe animals have strong emotions. However, Heidegger is right to say that animals are not people, not da-sein; that is because they do not possess anxiety, the awareness of being-toward-death.
“When I was a Ph.D. student at Boston College, I had a little cat in my apartment. Every morning when I headed out to class, he would follow me out the door and down the street for a while. But every Tuesday, the garbage men would be outside with their bigbig trucks! And my cat would hear them and runbackinside as fast as she could.
“So, you see, when she runs from the garbage men, here the cat is demonstrating fear. But she is not evincing anxiety. If she were, then she would be sitting up every Monday night, worrying about the garbage men!”
For the rest of the session, I envisioned a housecat chewing away on its claws all night. I was not exactly living up to my utmost potentiality for being.
Just kidding: see, utmost potentiality for being is actually Heidegger-code for death! Now you’ve learned something! So go read Tim Black’s article already!
(Bonus Tsenay anecdote! He and I talked about Israel’s airlift of Jews out of Eritrea following the civil war there. I marveled over the concept of taking all the seats out of a 747 and jamming as many people as possible in per flight. He said, “They don’t understand, the Israelis. Eritrea is not Europe. In Africa, we do not have a revolution and then decide to kill all the Jews.” He had a way with words.)