Podcast: From Billiards to Bach

Peter Kalkavage on The Virtual Memories Show

Virtual Memories: Peter Kalkavage – From Billiards to Bach

“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.”

hegelshrunkHow 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. . . .'”

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

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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.

Unrequired Reading: 2008 Year-End Edition

A little while ago, my RSS reader went kablooey and zapped a bunch of posts and articles that I was saving for a year-end Unrequired Reading entry, like the one I put up last year. I realized that I could only remember two of them, and took that as a sign.

I first read The Architecture of Self-Measurement on BLDG BLOG in a Philadelphia hotel room in March. I was haunted by the initial image chosen by blogger Geoff Manaugh:


(From the Coasts of Britain series (2006), by Jacob Carter)

The post begins by exploring how we use books as touchstones, occasioned by Mr. Manaugh’s eighth reading of a certain novel (he reveals it in the post’s comments section, if you’re curious). He writes:

It occurred to me, then, that everyone should pick a book — a novel, a work of theory, poetry, biography, whatever — and re-read it every few years, but they should do this for the rest of their lives. It becomes an indirect kind of literary self-measurement: understanding where you are in life based upon how you react to a certain text.

It’s not a groundbreaking idea, of course. This morning, a commenter asked, “I wonder what yr take is on The Great Gatsby the second time through.” It’s actually my sixth time through (at least).

I don’t consider Gatsby to be my favorite novel, but it’s certainly one to which I return every few years in order to measure myself, along with Homer, Tropic of Cancer, Arcadia, Eddie Campbell’s Alec comics, and someday-I-hope, Proust and Montaigne.

(This time around, at the age of 37, I found myself thinking that the gap between Daisy & Gatsby’s reunion should have been longer than 5 years. At first, I felt that half a decade is hardly enough time to build such wealth, but then I concluded that it simply wasn’t enough time for Gatsby to be obsessed with her. I felt as if his passion should have taken 10 years or more to bloom and rot. I’m not sure what that impression says about me. Probably that I’d have been boring as crap in the Jazz Age.)

Mr. Manaugh, apropos of the subject of his blog, turns the issue of touchstones to architecture. Are there buildings or places we can visit and revisit to measure who we are? He asks:

Is there a way to time ourselves across whole lifetimes through buildings? Is that what religious pilgrimages have always been about? And is that what architecture critics should be forced to do?

Or is this nothing but distracting nostalgia?

Could you somehow test yourself against the built environment, regularly, over the course of a lifetime, and do so deliberately, with purpose, the way people once wrote philosophy or read poems or traveled the world?

I grew up and live in a place that’s sort of nowhere — a ruralish bedroom community in suburban NJ — and my geographic/spatial touchstones tend be retail: malls, diners, video arcades, movie theaters, comic shops. It sounds banal, but those shopping landscapes are part of the map of my life. I’ve gone on to visit wonderful places and see beautiful architecture and gorgeous terrain, but there’s always going to be a piece of me that is driving endlessly along Rt. 23, Rt. 4, Rt. 17, Rt. 208, etc. (but not in a Camaro).

Unlike Mr. Manaugh’s architecture of self-measurement, so many of my places are built for impermanence. New highways shift traffic away from a mall, so it converts into a supermarket and offices; a new movie theater necessitates closing down the one where I saw Star Wars in 1977; an onerous lease leaves a Lord & Taylor in the middle of a decrepit shell; the bowling alley is torn down for a Bed, Bath & Beyond and a Borders; and somehow, Taco Maker survives, between the old Bandwagon/Cloth World and Wayne Hills Mall.

Still, it’s a fascinating idea that Mr. Manaugh proposes, and I found his post and its comments fascinating. I hope you do, too.

* * *

This brings me to the other post that I held on to for a while. It’s much more recent, published around Labor Day, but it helped crystallize something I wanted to write about almost all year: the reverse touchstone.

Last February, I returned to two other works of art and discovered that my appreciation for both of them had changed 180 degrees. One of these was a novel that I’d read and loved back in college: A Fan’s Notes, by Frederick Exley. I didn’t know what to expect when I reread this semiautobiographical tale of an alcoholic who measured himself in terms of the American ideal of fame (and in particular Giants running back Frank Gifford). I’m pretty sure I didn’t expect to find it quite so immature in its indictment of middle-class life, its facile use of impotence-as-metaphor, or its self-pity. But there it was. I read page after page wondering what it was that I once found so engaging and illuminating. The early sections still contained some electricity, but as the narrator went on, his worldview became increasingly pathetic.

As opposed to The Dude.

The other touchstone was The Big Lebowski. The Coen Bros. made my favorite movie, Miller’s Crossing, so they have a lot of credit in the Bank of Gil Roth (does that qualify me for TARP funding?). That said, I hated Lebowski when I first saw it shortly after it came out on video (1999). For years, my friends tried to convince me that I just wasn’t getting it and needed to give the movie another chance. On my flight to Belfast last February, I did just that.

Now I think Jeff Bridges’ performance as The Dude is one of the most remarkable I’ve ever seen, John Goodman is absolutely hysterical, and the Coens were utter geniuses to make this movie. I’m only troubled by one thing:

I don’t get what I didn’t get.

Why did I not think this was a terrific movie the first time I saw it? Was it because I had yet to visit southern California? Because I had never smoked weed? Was my sense of humor utterly stunted? Was I having a bad day when I first saw it? Was I expecting more of a coherent plot from the guys who made Barton Fink?

I’ve thought about this all year, and I still don’t know. This passage from The Decade of the Dude keeps me from feeling too bad about it:

Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert’s argument over the movie perfectly encapsulated the debate. Ebert: “Few movies could equal [Fargo], and this one doesn’t — though it is weirdly engaging.” Siskel was much harsher. “I just think that the humor is uninspired,” he said. “Isn’t kidnapping for ransom a tired plot these days? Kingpin was a much funnier movie set in the world of bowling. The Jeff Bridges character wasn’t worth my time. There’s no heart to him. The Big Lebowski? A big disappointment.”

[. . .] The rise of The Big Lebowski from bomb to late-blooming cult sensation was gradual. Many of its biggest fans had the same initial reaction as Gene Siskel. “I was indifferent to it [at first],” says Lebowski Fest co-founder Will Russell, 32, who runs a T-shirt shop in Louisville. “It’s very convoluted. I think everyone comes to it the same way they come to any other movie — expecting the plot to carry the [film]. What you find is that the plot is ultimately unsatisfying. [The plot] is just the framework they used to build these great characters and this amazing experience.” Russell says he’s watched Lebowski more than 100 times: “It’s just two hours of bliss.”

I’ve seen it 4 or 5 times since February, and remain utterly in awe of this movie. I still don’t plan on revisiting Intolerable Cruelty, but I’m glad to find out that touchstones work both ways.

I hope you all had a wonderful 2008, dear readers, and that you keep learning from your touchstones and yourselves.