Vargas Llosa and Pushkin

So we went to Mario Vargas Llosa’s event at St. Louis University today.

When I saw Vargas Llosa right in front of me I became very agitated. I tried explaining to N why I was getting so emotional.

“Imagine if that was live Pushkin sitting there!” I said. “How would you feel?”

“Pushkin already is sitting right in the middle of every Russian’s soul,” N deadpanned.

The last time I saw a queue as long as the one people formed to have their books signed by Vargas Llosa was in 1990 in St. Petersoburgh when people were lining up to buy ice-cream in the -30 C weather.

When I came up to the writer and gave him my copy of one of his books to sign, I got so nervous that I suddenly spoke to him in a strong Spanish accent.

“You are from Spain?” Vargas Llosa concluded. “I love Spain.”

I’ll post more on the actual event tomorrow.

A Breakthrough With Freshmen

So do you remember how I told you about my bored, indifferent freshmen? I tried everything to connect with them but nothing worked. Until today. I shared this story with them (only I substituted blogging with texting, for obvious reasons), and finally, almost at the end of the semester, they woke up.

I guessed they identified with the perennially texting part of me and managed to see me not as one of those obnoxious, anti-cell phone adults but as one of them. And we finally managed to share a laugh and have a lively discussion.

You just never know what’s going to help you break the ice.

Is Anything the Matter with Higher Education?

The reason why I don’t participate in the current flurry of posts that try to answer the question of “What’s the matter with higher education?” is that I don’t want to become part of the academia-bashing movement. The seemingly progressive bloggers who have jumped on the bandwagon of studiously listing all of academia’s ills don’t see that the only goal they achieve is helping the cause of those who hate the very word “education.”

As my regular readers might have noticed, I don’t enjoy wallowing in the doom-and-gloom scenarios my fellow academic so often relish. Of course, there are problems in academia, just like in any other area of life. But the idea that academia is getting worse is preposterous. The number of disabled students and students from ethnic minorities keeps growing on campuses across North America. The number of women who graduate on all levels has also exploded in the recent two decades. Professors don’t come almost exclusively from the ranks of the upper middle classes any more. When I read scholarly articles in my field, I always feel impressed by how much more rigorous the scholarship is becoming. Electronic publishing makes reading more accessible for everybody. Doing research is much simpler today when we have global communications and electronic access to archives halfway around the world.

If all of this isn’t progress, then I don’t know what is.

Yes, there is adjunctification, and it’s obviously not a positive development. But the tenured and tenure-track faculty at my college is at least 40% female. Adjuncts are also mostly women but when exactly would they have had better jobs? In the 50s and the 60s? They probably wouldn’t have any jobs at all. Of course, the situation of an adjunct is far from perfect. But it’s in any case better than the life of a miserable 50s housewife.

So I’ll be damned if I lend a helping hand to the ultra-conservative forces whose greatest dream is to rob academia of its prestige and destroy our progressive campuses. The servility of academics who fall over themselves in their hurry to dump on a great system of higher education that we have in this country and to debase themselves to serve some very dubious political goals is astounding. In this boring self-flagellation, I see nothing but the same old pseudo-liberal guilt that is now riding even higher than usual on the wave of the 99% vs 1% movement.

I say let’s stop wallowing in misery already and start concentrating on all of the amazing achievements of our academia in the recent decades. This will allow us to achieve even more, instead of promoting the misguided belief in the academia of the past that somehow managed to be so much better than the kind we have today, in spite of being all-male, all-white, and all-upper-middle-class.

Tolstoy’s Emotional Affair

I’m almost done reading Tolstoy’s recent biography, so I promise to stop bugging everybody with posts on Tolstoy. Just bear with me for a little longer, OK?

Tolstoy never cheated on his wife Sonia in the 48 years they lived together. He was deeply religious and considered marriage to be one of life’s two most important events (the second one being death, which for a Christian is not a negative thing). This is why physical infidelity was unimaginable for Tolstoy. He did, however, have an emotional affair that made his wife suffer tortures of jealousy. She referred to her husband’s spiritual paramour as “a beautiful idol” and “family-breaker.”

“Every day I wait for your letters, I see you in my dreams, I think about you in my every waking moment. What is happening to you? Did I do anything to upset you? I keep thinking about it but have no idea what it is I might have done wrong” writes 62-year-old Tolstoy to the much younger object of his affections.

“Thank you for your recent letter,” writes Tolstoy in response to a missive where nasty insinuations were made about the writer’s wife. “You probably cannot even imagine how happy it made me feel. . . I feel joyous and I love you.”

So who was this person seen by aging Tolstoy as his only true spiritual companion and who undermined the writer’s long marriage, separating him eventually from his wife of 48 years and children?

It was Vladimir Chertkov, a young, mentally disturbed officer who became Tolstoy’s most ardent follower.

In a patriarchal society, such a chasm exists between men and women that even a marriage of 30 or 40 years cannot bridge it. Tolstoy was dying for somebody to share his intellectual, emotional and spiritual life, but it never occurred to him to turn to his wife for the fulfillment of these needs. The curious thing is that the writer’s wife was a lot better suited to the role of Tolstoy’s spiritual companion than Chertkov. She was a much better writer, she understood her husband’s work in a more profound way, and she had a much more varied sphere of intellectual interests.

Yet, no true communion between men and women is possible in patriarchal societies. Homosociality is the only option for people who have emotional and spiritual needs but cannot even imagine turning to their partners in life for the fulfillment of these needs. And this is yet another tragedy of the patriarchy.

“Women who have liberated themselves from the yoke are horrible,” wrote Tolstoy. His intense spiritual loneliness in his own family and the humiliating groveling before young men who used him were the price he paid for this belief.