Episode 130 – The Cult of Experience and the Tyranny of Relevance

Virtual Memories Show #130:
Elizabeth Samet –
The Cult of Experience and the Tyranny of Relevance

“How do you learn things? How do you acquire the patience to admit when you don’t know things? I think those are really important things for an Army officer to know.”

41X6zxtIM4L._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_Elizabeth D. Samet has been a professor of English at West Point since 1997. We talk about the tension between education and training at the military academy, the importance of books to soldiers and officers serving overseas, learning West Point’s unique argot, preparing her students to be unprepared, trying (and failing) to convince Robert Fagles that Hector is the moral center of the Iliad, why she doesn’t teach Henry V to plebes, how not to get caught up in the tyranny of relevance, why she balked at learning the fine art of parachuting, and more! Give it a listen!

“The question I’m endlessly fascinated with is, what do we call war and what do we call peace and can we draw these nice distinctions? It seems to me right now that we can’t.”

NOTE: The opinions Elizabeth Samet expresses in this interview are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of West Point, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense.

We also talk about teaching students who are both future Army officers and 18-year-old kids, how West Point and the student body changed after 9/11, her new anthology (Leadership) and her first two books (Soldier’s Heart and No Man’s Land), her house-on-fire list of books to save, her quarrel with Plato, and her adoration of Simeon’s Maigret novels. Bonus: I tell a long, awful and emotional story from last weekend (it starts around the 75:00 mark, so feel free to stop long before that).

“I have this idea about Plato: no one loves Plato who does not already think himself a guardian.”

We talk about a lot of of books in this episode. Here’s a list of ’em (Note: if I ever go to a Patreon crowdfunding model for the show, this is the first thing that goes subscriber-only):

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Enjoy the conversation! Then check out the archives for more great episodes! You might like:

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About our Guest

Samet_0044F PUB-Bachrach©Elizabeth D. Samet is the author of No Man’s Land: Preparing for War and Peace in Post-9/11 America (FSG). Her first book, Soldier’s Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point (Picador), won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Current Interest and was named one of the 100 Notable Books of the Year by The New York Times. Samet’s work has appeared in various publications, including the The New York Times, The New Republic, and Bloomberg View. She is also the editor of Leadership: Essential Writings by Our Greatest Thinkers, which is out this month from Norton. Samet won the 2012 Hiett Prize in the Humanities and is also the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship. She is a professor of English at West Point.

Credits: This episode’s music is On, Brave Old Army Team by West Point Marching Band. The conversation was recorded at Prof. Samet’s apartment 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. Formal photo of Prof. Samet by Bachrach; bookshelf photo of Prof. Samet by me.

Episode 115 – Idlers and Belgians

Virtual Memories Show:
Edward Mendelson – Idlers and Belgians

“I have a private test for whether I’m an individual person or whether I’m part of the culture: I go to the supermarket and I look at the supermarket weeklies, and if I recognize the names, then I’m not a person, I’m a product of collective culture.”

moral-agents200Professor Edward Mendelson joins the show to talk about his new book, Moral Agents: Eight Twentieth-Century American Writers (New York Review Books), which profiles Lionel Triling, Dwight Macdonald, Alfred Kazin, William Maxwell, Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, WH Auden, Frank O’Hara. We discuss the role of individuals in mass culture, the intellectual’s temptation to be a leader, the outdated figure of the Beloved Professor, Orwell’s misinterpretation of Auden, the writer he was terrified to meet, the failures of identity politics, the purpose of Columbia University’s Core Curriculum, his lack of nostalgia for the era of public intellectuals, the way certain books need a year off from teaching in order to recharge, and more. Give it a listen!

“All these writers were tempted by the way they were taken seriously.”

We also talk about why he hates one of my favorite novels, why he agrees with my take on Achilles’ uncanniness in the Iliad, why professors think students are getting dumber year after year, how the economic collapse of the ’70s led to improved colleges across the country, why he thinks Stoner is a study in self-pity, and more! Go listen!

Edward Mendelson on the Virtual Memories Show

Enjoy the conversation! Then check out the archives for more great episodes! You might like:

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About our Guest

At Columbia since 1981, Professor Edward Mendelson has also taught at Yale and Harvard. A recipient of American Council of Learned Societies, NEH, and Guggenheim fellowships, he is chiefly interested in 19th-and 20th-century literature, formal and social aspects of poetry and narrative, and biographical criticism. He is Auden’s literary executor; his book Later Auden (1999) is a sequel to his Early Auden (1981). His book, The Things That Matter: What Seven Classic Novels Have to Say About the Stages of Life, was published by Pantheon in 2006. His new book is Moral Agents: Eight Twentieth-Century American Writers, from New York Review Books. He has edited a volume of essays on Thomas Pynchon and, with Michael Seidel, Homer to Brecht: The European Epic & Dramatic Traditions. He has prepared editions of novels by Hardy, Bennett, Meredith, Wells, and Trollope, the first five volumes of a complete edition of Auden, and selections of Auden’s poems and prose. His essays and reviews have appeared in the New York Review of Books, London Review of Books, TLS, the New York Times Book Review, and many other journals and collections, and he wrote an introduction for a new edition of Gravity’s Rainbow. He has also written about computers, music, and the visual arts. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and was the first Isabel Dalhousie Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Edinburgh.

Credits: This episode’s music is Homesickness by Tsegue-Maryam Guebrou. The conversation was recorded at Mr. Mendelson’s office 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. Mendelson by me.

Podcast: Slipping the Noose of the Topical

Phillip Lopate on The Virtual Memories Show (2/2)

Virtual Memories – season 3 episode 20 –
Slipping the Noose of the Topical

“When you start out writing, you think, ‘Maybe I’ll become one of the great writers, like Dostoevsky or Goethe, Tolstoy.’ Then you quickly realize that that’s never going to happen. But I’ve been writing now for close to 50 years, and I’ve never really had writer’s block. I think success has been esteem in this particular world of the essay and nonfiction. When I go to conferences for the Association of Writing Programs, I’m treated like a demigod. But when I’m in the real world, I’m anonymous.”

Phillip Lopate, the finest personal essayist of our time, joins us to talk about finding his voice, the difference between memoir and essay, teaching students to use the self to fetch the world, why blogs remind him of Sei Shonagon’s pillow books, what’s too personal for a personal essay, and more!

“I had learned from the great essayists — Montaigne and Hazlitt and Lamb — that it wasn’t so much the subject matter as it was the voice and the display of consciousness that was intriguing. If you liked the essayist, you would read anything that they wrote.”

We discuss his five-decade-plus-long career (spanning 20 books and collections, including 2013’s Portrait Inside My Head and To Show and to Tell), the author who started him on his path, his balance between writing fiction and essays, how readers read and misread his work, his methods for fusing the personal and the critical, why students should read some of his essays before taking his classes, whether he considered going Hollywood, why and how he assembled The Art of the Personal Essay anthology, and who his favorite New York Met is. (I was surprised by his answer to that last one.)

“An editor once told me, ‘Phillip, your idea of a perfect assignment is one where you never have to leave the house.'”

Phillip Lopate on The Virtual Memories Show (1/2)

Enjoy the conversation! Then check out the archives for more great episodes!

Related conversations:

Follow The Virtual Memories Show on iTunes, Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and RSS!

About our Guest

Phillip Lopate is the author of numerous collections of personal and critical essays, including Bachelorhood, Notes on Sontag, Portrait of My Body, Against Joie de Vivre, and Waterfront: A Journey Around Manhattan,, as well as several novels and novellas, and three poetry collections, and has edited several anthologies, including The Art of the Personal Essay and Writing New York. His essays, fiction, poetry, film and architectural criticism have appeared in The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Essays, several Pushcart Prize annuals, The Paris Review, Harper’s, Vogue, Esquire, Film Comment, Threepenny Review, Double Take, New York Times, Harvard Educational Review, Preservation, Cite, 7 Days, Metropolis, Conde Nast Traveler, and many other periodicals and anthologies. He is the director of the nonfiction graduate program at Columbia University, where he also teaches writing. His two most recent books are the personal essay collection Portrait Inside My Head and To Show and to Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction.

Credits: This episode’s music is Sometimes The Truth Is All You Get by The Low and Sweet Orchestra. The conversation was recorded at Mr. Lopate’s home in Brooklyn on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 mics feeding into a Zoom H4n recorder. The intro and outro were recorded in my home office on a Blue Yeti USB microphone. File-splitting is done on a Mac Mini using Audacity. All editing and processing was done in Garage Band. Top photo by me. Bottom photo by Cheryl Cipriani.

What It Is: 11/2/09

What I’m reading: The Book of Basketball, by Bill Simmons, When The Shooting Stops . . . The Cutting Begins: A Film Editor’s Story, by Ralph Rosenblum, and that bio of Timoleon in Plutarch that I read a few months ago. I’m still thinking about the weird modernness of T’s story. As far as the hoops book goes, here’s economist, professor and blogger Tyler Cowen on it:

Could this be the best 736 pp. book on the diversity of human talent ever written?  It starts slow but eventually picks up steam.  It’s also devastatingly funny.  That said, if you don’t know a lot about the NBA, it is incomprehensible.  (I could not, for instance, understand the section of Dolph Schayes because that was not the NBA I know.)  In the historical pantheon, he picks David Thompson, Bernard King, and Allen Iverson as underrated.  The 1986 Boston Celtics are the best team ever, he argues.  And so on.  I found this more riveting than almost anything else I read and yes I think it is very much a work of social science, albeit in hermetic form.

What I’m listening to: Just been shuffling around in iTunes. But the battery on my iPod (I only use it in the car or on plane-flights) is dying, so I’ve ordered a battery replacement kit and will soon attempt a feat that ifixit.com classifies as “very difficult.” Fun!

What I’m watching: Yankees playoff games, although not to the end, since they’re past my bedtime.

What I’m drinking: Blue Moon Belgian White ale.

What Rufus is up to: Celebrating Halloween in style and going on his first greyhound-hike in weeks and weeks.

Where I’m going: Los Angeles next Sunday, for the annual AAPS meeting.

What I’m happy about: No one seems to have paid attention to the Oct. 30 “receipt of final materials at the printer” notice on our production schedules, giving me an extra day or two to wrap up the Nov/Dec issue.

What I’m sad about: Not getting to see Pee-wee Herman’s stage show when I’m in LA next week, as it’s been postponed until January. I’m likely going to a Clippers game to make up for it, but somehow that seems like adding insult to injury. Grr.

What I’m worried about: Burnett in game 5.

What I’m pondering: Participating in National Novel Writing Month!

What It Is: 6/29/09

What I’m reading: Plutarch’s life of Aemilius Paulus, and a little of The Hunter, a Richard Stark (Donald Westlake) book. But I’m in the home-stretch for my Top Companies ish, so I’ve just been reading a lot of SEC filings, analyst reports and various pharma-bloggers.

What I’m listening to: A whole ton of Michael Jackson music.

What I’m watching: A whole ton of Michael Jackson videos. And the Yankees beating up the Mets.

What I’m drinking: Blue Point Blueberry Ale.

What Rufus is up to: Going on his first greyhound hike in about 8 weeks and having a great time catching up with his pals.

Where I’m going: On a weeklong vacation (to nowhere) once this issue is done.

What I’m happy about: The Top Companies issue is just about done. It’s gonna be a hard couple of days to finish it, but I can visualize the end of it.

What I’m sad about: That Dad’s gout has stuck around, making his life pretty miserable.

What I’m worried about: Getting in trouble because I failed to mail back my jury duty notice. See, I misread the form and thought I was only supposed to mail it in if I was trying to get a deferral. Oops. On the upside, my juror number is above the cut-off point, so I won’t have to go serve on Tuesday.

What I’m pondering: Whether Ron Rosenbaum knows anyone under the age of 40.

What It Is: 6/15/09

What I’m reading: Finished Tatsumi’s Good-Bye collection, and holy crap did he turn dark in 1971-2! Also, started Plutarch’s life of Timoleon.

What I’m listening to: My iTunes library, on shuffle. I’ve been working at home a lot (keeping an eye on Rufus), so I haven’t been driving much. Hence, not much music.

What I’m watching: Adam’s Rib, Solaris (Soderbergh, not Tarkovsky), and Hellboy II: The Golden Army.

What I’m drinking: Miller’s & Q Tonic, and Bardolino Chiaretto 2007 rosé.

What Rufus is up to: Recovering faster than we could’ve hoped, and back to his full (1- to 1.5-mile) walks! If he gets his endurance up by next weekend, we’ll take him out for a Sunday grey-hike!

Where I’m going: Nowhere. It’s a thrilling life, I tellsya.

What I’m happy about: That my wife, half-watching this trailer on Robert Wilonsky’s Ultimate Trailer Show (which really should have its own website), perked up after a few seconds and said, “Oh, it’s the other guy from that Peter Riegert movie!” Which would be Local Hero. Which would be yet another reason why I love her so.

Also, we took one look at this movie —

— and she said, “It’s your boyfriend, Sam Rockwell!” Oh, and she took care of Rufus for a few hours on Saturday while I went out, ran some errands, and had a little time alone.

What I’m sad about: That Timoleon had to let his friends kill his brother Timophanes. (Seriously: Plutarch’s story of his life is just amazing, especially when he gets to the segment about Dionysus the younger’s post-tyrant life in Corinth.)

What I’m worried about: That I’ll go ever stir-crazier, working at home.

What I’m pondering: Whether Mickael Pietrus is lying about being French and is actually from Rapa Nui.

We dance on the strings of powers we cannot perceive

On Monday, I mentioned a passage that intrigued me in Plutarch’s life of Coriolanus. I find the Lives in general pretty entertaining (which is why I’m still reading them: duh) and informative (because I know almost zero about Roman history, while my knowledge of Greek history is awfully spotty). In addition the “historical facts” of his biographies (depending on what you think of his accuracy), Plutarch also has some awesome digressions about history, character, and, in this case, the role of the gods and free will in Homer’s poetry.

Discussing how Coriolanus’ mom and wife got it into their heads to gather the women of Rome and implore the general directly to spare the city that ostracized him, Plutarch ascribes a sort of divine inspiration, which leads to the passage that I mentioned:

[A]t last a thing happened not unlike what we so often find represented — without, however, being accepted as true by people in general — in Homer. On some great and unusual occasion we find him say, “But him the blue-eyed goddess did inspire;” and elsewhere, “But some immortal turned my mind away, / To think what others of the deed would say;” and again, “Were’t his own thought or were’t a god’s command?”

People are apt, in such passages, to censure and disregard the poet, as if, by the introduction of mere impossibilities and idle fictions, he were denying the action of a man’s own deliberate though and free choice; which is not, in the least, the case in Homer’s representation, where the ordinary, probably, and habitual conclusions that common reason leads to are continually ascribed to our own direct agency. He certainly says frequently enough, “But I consulted with my own great soul;” or, as in another passage, “He spoke. Achilles, with quick pain possessed, / Resolved two purposes in his strong breast;” and in a third, “—Yet never to her wishes won / The just mind of the brave Bellerophon.”

But where the act is something out of the way and extraordinary, and seems in a manner to demand some impulse of divine possession and sudden inspiration to account for it, here he does introduce divine agency, not to destroy, but to prompt the human will; not to create in us another agency, but offering images to stimulate our own; images that in no sort or kind make our action involuntary, but give occasion rather to spontaneous action, aided and sustained by feelings of confidence and hope. For either we must totally dismiss and exclude divine influences from every kind of causality and origination in what we do, or else what other way can we conceive in which divine aid and cooperation can act? Certainly we cannot suppose that the divine beings actually and literally turn our bodies and direct our hands and our feet this way and that, to do what is right: it is obvious that they must actuate the practical and elective element of our nature, by certain initial occasions, by images presented to the imagination, and thoughts suggested to the mind, such either as to excite it to, or avert and withhold it from, any particular course.

I still have problems with understanding the instances in Homer where the gods take physical roles in the action (especially in the Iliad), but I thought this was a pretty graceful effort at reconciling the role of gods in free will.

As a bonus, it ties back to the previous post I wrote about Plutarch’s life of Pericles. Here, he explains that the role of his Lives is to inspire virtue by recounting the virtues:

[V]irtue, by the bare statement of its actions, can so affect men’s minds as to create at once both admiration of the things done and desire to imitate the doers of them. The goods of fortune we would possess and would enjoy; those of virtue we long to practice and exercise; we are content to receive the former from others, the latter we wish others to experience from us.

It sounds to me like he’s saying that the gods are responsible for inspiring our extraordinary actions through their images, but also that the Lives can help inspire the mundane (earthly) virtues. Let me know if it sounds like that to you, esp. if you’ve read more of the Lives and can clue me in on some of the meta of what Plutarch’s doing.

What It Is: 5/25/09

What I’m reading: Plutarch’s Lives of Pericles and Fabius. I had a devil of a time getting into the Pericles section. It’s possible I was more distracted than usual, but the prose seemed utterly unwieldy and drowsiness-inducing. Which bums me out, because I expected that sketch to be one of the greats. Still, he kept me going with the life of Fabius Maximus and the comparison of the two.

What I’m listening to: Good News for People Who Like Bad News, by Modest Mouse.

What I’m watching: Burn After Reading, Doc Hollywood, Helvetica, and Local Hero (which really should get remastered/reissued on DVD). We moved my 24″ iMac downstairs (along with our guest bed), so it’s just been selective DVD viewing down in our rec room / library.

What I’m drinking: River Horse lager, picked up on a whim at Whole Foods.

What Rufus is up to: Recovering from surgery to repair the damage inflicted by a neighbor’s Akita, which took 2 chunks out of Ru’s right rear leg. He’s spending most of his days & nights in his crate. It’s a good thing he spent the first 2 years or so of his life crated, otherwise he might really object to being there. As is, he gets antsy if he doesn’t have access to it (when we get back inside after a bathroom break and I have to change the dressing over his wounds).

Where I’m going: Nowhere. I had to cancel my participation in an overnight PR junket in NYC this week, because of my poor boy’s condition.

What I’m happy about: Barring complications (read: infection), Rufus has a good chance of being “back to normal” in about 6 weeks. Oh, and my pals Ian & Jess are visiting next weekend! And the day before Rufus was attacked, I had a great visit with my grad school pals Joy & Miguel and their kids, who live about 15 minutes away from the hotel I was staying in in downtown Atlanta. Also, I’m happy that I went out with some client-pals on Wednesday to a Braves game. They knew all about my troubles/stresses with Rufus and were hoping to take my mind off things. Go look at some pictures.

What I’m sad about: All the anxiety and stress about Ru, as well as my assumption that “none of this would have happened if I’d been here.” I got over that self-centered guilt soon after getting home from BIO on Thursday night, faced with the immediacy of Ru’s situation (and not mine). And I’m sad that I missed the fancy dinner I was going to have in Atlanta, because I got the news about Rufus about 2 hours earlier. My coworkers and work-pals enjoyed themselves, so that’s good.

What I’m worried about: That the Animal Control dept. will fail to do its duty regarding the offending Akita, which attacked another dog 3 weeks earlier.

What I’m pondering: How to TASE a dog without risking “back-zap.” Just in case.

Art, virtue, and dogs in sailor suits

Nine biographies into his work, Plutarch explains what he’s up to! See, each of the Plutarch so far has essentially dived into the biography itself. But with Pericles’ section, Plutarch instead begins by, um, decrying people who love their pets too much:

Caesar once, seeing some wealthy strangers at Rome, carrying up and down with them in their arms and bosoms young puppy-dogs and monkeys, embracing and making much of them, took occasion not unnaturally to ask whether the women in their country were not used to bear children; by that prince-like reprimand gravely reflecting upon persons who spend and lavish upon brute beasts that affection and kindness which nature has implanted in us to be bestowed on those of our own kind.

Sure, I was a little insulted by this. It’s not like I dress Rufus up in a little sailor suit, but he does make a wonderful substitute kid for us, and he’s already lived up to his old man’s dream of being a professional athlete! Still, I get what Caesar was complaining about, even though he had to pass his power on to his nephew, rather than a son.

Anyway, Plutarch’s point is that our enjoyment of the sensual world is a betrayal of our natural spirit of inquiry, just as fawning over pets is a betrayal of our parental impulses. He goes on to contend that art — whether it be dyeing, perfuming, music, poetry or sculpture (note that art carried a stronger connotation of artifice than art nowadays does) — doesn’t enrich the soul —

He who busies himself in mean occupations [the aforementioned arts] produces in the very pains he takes about things of little or no use an evidence against himself of his negligence and indisposition to what is really good. Nor did any generous and ingenuous young man at the sight of the statue of Jupiter at Pisa ever desire to be a Phidias or on seeing that of Juno at Argos long to be a Polycletus or feel induced by his pleasure in their poems to wish to be an Anacreon or Philetas or Archilochus. For it does not necessarily follow that if a piece of work please for its gracefulness therefore he that wrought it deserves our admiration.

— the way reflecting on virtue does. Hence, writing these paired biographies of noble lives!

[V]irtue, by the bare statement of its actions, can so affect men’s minds as to create at once both admiration of the things done and desire to imitate the doers of them. The goods of fortune we would possess and would enjoy; those of virtue we long to practice and exercise; we are content to receive the former from others, the latter we wish others to experience from us.

Because I’m all about The Why (and secondarily about The Process), I’m glad Plutarch explored his rationale in this passage, even if my depiction of it makes the Lives sound boring or moralistic. They’re not, and I’m awfully glad I’ve made the time to read them.

On to Pericles and Fabius Maximus!

What It Is: 4/27/09

What I’m reading: Plutarch’s Lives (Numa Pompilius, Solon, Poplicola and about half of Themistocles), Push Man and Other Stories, by Yoshihiro Tatsumi, Clyde Fans, Bk. 1, by Seth. Oh, and that new ish of Fantastic Man.

What I’m listening to: Not a lot. I watched The Wire on my Pod during both flights last week, and my two days back in the office were so hectic that I didn’t put any music on.

What I’m watching: The first season of The Wire again, Slumdog Millionaire, which must be Danny Boyle’s most sentimental movie, and Behavioral Problems the new Ron White standup show.

What I’m drinking: I had 2 beers in Vegas, and 1 G&T since returning.

What Rufus is up to: Not being happy with the sudden near-90 temps that we got this weekend. And giving free rides to the ticks of NJ.

Where I’m going: Nowhere this week, but I’ll probably take a day off and do all sorts of errands.

What I’m happy about: I went to a minor-league baseball game on my last night in Vegas, and had a fun time (pix and story to follow). And I’ll get to meet both Tatsumi and Seth (I hope) during my Toronto visit in two weeks.

What I’m sad about: Bea Arthur’s death, I guess. (Thanks, Tom!) UPDATE: a great tribute to Bea from the Fugly Girls!

What I’m worried about: Global pandemic.

What I’m pondering: How you tell if the raider is cheating.

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