Class 1

Dear All:

I thought it would make sense for us to try to do brief summaries of each of our seminar discussions. These are a discipline. So I cannot guarantee that Jeff and I will be able to maintain the practice into wilds of April, but here goes…

The first session had an organizational dimension, and we spent some time on that getting-to-know-each-other stuff. But we ended up using the whole period, even though there was no assigned reading. How did that happen?

Well, we ended up spending quite a bit of time doing some “exercises in style” with history in a way that I thought was very interesting indeed. We began by going over a set of Queneau’s remarkable versions of the same little enigmatic anecdote – and we thought with Jeff about “style” as an analytic. We then undertook the first of two “finger exercises” in historical style: the prompt was to take the anecdote at the center of Exercises in Style and to write it as “History.” We gave ourselves 12 minutes.

If any of you were up for having bits of what you did posted here (either with your initials or anonymously – [as you like]) please send them along.

But until I have your actual jewels here to tip in, I will be relegated to the heresy of paraphrase.

I think the basic thing to say is that it was surprising in a very pleasing way to listen as a diverse range of historical voices, techniques, and burlesques surfaced. Some of you elected to focus on the historian’s preoccupation with source material – either by making the elements of Queneau’s story into sources, or by conceiving the sources out of which the anecdote might have been recovered. Others (including myself) opted to pastiche the scene setting and contextualizing reflexes of the narrative historian. Dolven himself, if I’m not mistaken, folded the question back onto the problem of literary history itself, giving us the historical origin of the anecdote as the origin of Exercises of Style itself.

Or perhaps that was one of you who did that, and Dolven did something else. I forget.

At any rate, the only way I will remember is if you send me some bits of this material. I confess I am sorely tempted, later, after the semester to see if any of you would be up for polishing versions of these – since I can imagine a little group of exercises in historical styles made from Exercises in Style being a fetching little work of belles-lettres.

Then we turned to some “proper history.” Jeff and I handed around two short excerpts from two very different historians. Here they are:

On the calends of January, at break of day, the new consuls, Mamertinus and Nevitta, hastened to the palace to salute the emperor. As soon as he was informed of their approach, he leaped from his throne, eagerly advanced to meet them, and compelled the blushing magistrates to receive the demonstrations of his affected humility. From the palace they proceeded to the senate. The emperor, on foot, marched before their litters; and the gazing multitude admired the image of ancient times, or secretly blamed a conduct, which, in their eyes, degraded the majesty of the purple. But the behavior of Julian was uniformly supported. During the games of the Circus, he had, imprudently or designedly, performed the manumission of a slave in the presence of the consul. The moment he was reminded that he had trespassed on the jurisdiction of another magistrate, he condemned himself to pay a fine of ten pounds of gold; and embraced this public occasion of declaring to the world, that he was subject, like the rest of his fellow-citizens, to the laws, and even to the forms, of the republic.

Gibbon, Decline and Fall (on the emperor Julian)

Ras Bupe Karudi set his passport ablaze. As a Rastafarian, the passport of a nation-state in Babylon was merely a document that allowed him to travel. It had never symbolized freedom or belonging. Now that he was home, in Africa, this incendiary act celebrated his literal departure from Babylon—for good. His use of fire to mark the end of his trod through the wilderness was not a random choice. It connected him to the age-old propensity of Rastafarians to use the image of a raging fire as a symbol of their denunciation of the Western world. When Rastafari emerged in the early 1930s, Jamaica was a British colony. In 1956, one colonial governor saw the movement as “some kind of distorted negro nationalism.” Another governor saw the Rastafarian “cult” as consisting of “some of the riffraff of the country” who were “mentally imbalanced.” Their “madness,” which was also deemed criminal, was their understanding of European slavery as the genesis of an institutionalized and systemic system of oppression that had targeted Africans. Rastafarians deduced that this system was governed by “a doctrine of Afrikan inferiority and European supremacy.” Throughout the years, the defining characteristic of “Babylon” was its tendency to constantly promote “a completely negative conception” of black people, as well as “misguided and slanderous myths in order to discredit” African heritage. Rastafarians saw Babylon’s construction of African inferiority as dialectically related to the construction of European superiority. The “long-standing myth” of European “invincibility” was based on Europe’s “conceited vanity.” 4 Far from mad, Rastafarians unveiled the insanity of the colonial project’s invention of Africa and Africans to serve its own purposes.

Monique Bedasse, Jah Kingdom (2017)

And then Jeff and I put up on the board a set of 5 modes or styles. I don’t remember all of them. (Do any of you?) But the list included dream, tragedy, and free verse. While we would have liked to have had time to do this exercise a few times, we were by this point creeping close to 4:20pm, so we only rolled it once: we all picked one of the two historical passages and one of the modal prompts, and the task was to re-create the chosen passage under the auspices of the chosen style.

Once again, a number of these were downright glee-making for me, so I would again be very happy if you still had any of this on hand and wanted to pass it along.

We didn’t have much time to analyze/discuss what it was like to do this exercise, or even engage the problem of exactly what sort of exercise this is. But I do think that it unfolded within the framework of an earlier discussion (in the course of our respective introductions) about the place of imitation and pastiche in intellectual life. Both Jeff and I in our different ways are committed to the idea that there are things to be learned in this kind of work: Jeff talked a little bit about the place of such imitative exercises in the history of renaissance pedagogy, and within the larger framework of mimesis and understanding; I talked about my longstanding preoccupation with “protean” forms of knowledge (or, perhaps to put it better, with the “epistemology of Proteus” – he who knew something through the morphic dimensions of metamorphosis). All of this was discussed in the context of a broad evocation of some of our hopes for the class as a whole.

A very good start, I thought – and looking forward to what we do together this semester.